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Finding Relevance in Ancient Writings
By Edwin Garcia

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When people ask questions of biblical or theological nature many are looking for a “Thus says the Lord” in order to have the matter settled.  “While commendable it is not always possible to provide a clear cut text that solves the issue” according to Ekkehardt Mueller, director of the Biblical Research Institute. The issue of female pastors is good example.
The Bible's ambiguity about the role of women clergy has led many lay people, pastors and scholars to draw their own conclusions about God's intentions, depending on the way readers of the Holy Scripture interpret passages.
But how can two different people read the same verse, and come to opposite conclusions about whether women should be pastors? A number of factors come into play, ranging from the version of the Bible being read, to the cultural context of the situation being described, to one's own personal biases.
Most biblical scholars, no matter which side of the issue they are on, will agree on one thing: The most appropriate way to understand nebulous passages is to apply a common set of guiding principles – a methodology known as hermeneutics – that enable readers to interpret a writing from at least 2,000 years ago in a way that can be insightful when taking a position on controversial subjects that were never clear to begin with.
A deeper problem lies when people can't find common ground on the guiding principles – such as, should the Bible be interpreted by the letter or spirit of the law.
"The toughest work ahead is wrestling with hermeneutics," said Dwight K. Nelson, senior pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University. "There are Godly men and women, deeply spiritual, deeply in love with Jesus, people who have high reverence for the Holy Scripture, who have come to different conclusions because of different hermeneutics used," he said.
"If you asked the hermeneutical question: Is there a biblical text that says women could be pastors, or is there a biblical text that says women should not be pastors? In both cases the answer is no," said Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, former director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference. "The controversy itself has to do with hermeneutics."
That's why Rodríguez and other scholars urge readers to take some factors into consideration as part of the hermeneutical process:

1) Consider the way the text is written. What insights can come from a study of the text in its original language? What do the words connote? How does the grammar frame the meaning?

2) Look at its context.  What is the theme of the passage? What comes before the text? What comes after the text? What is the main point that the author is trying to convey?  

3) Study the background of the situation being described. Who is saying what to whom under what circumstances? How does the text seek to provide an answer to the local challenges?

4) Keep in mind the entire Biblical teaching on the subject. What does the rest of the Bible have to say? How are similar challenges addressed in other situations? Is there a general principal that emerges on the subject through all of scripture?  

5) Be aware of your own assumptions. How does your culture color your view of the text? How does your upbringing and training filter the passage? What biases do you bring to the subject?
Whether to accept passages as literal is a major factor in hermeneutics, Nelson said, especially as it relates to the role of women clergy. If a text is taken literally what do you do with another text that seems to contradict the first text?
1 Timothy Chapter 3, for example, deals with the qualifications of an elder. The Bible states he should be the husband of one wife. To some readers, this means he can't be single, widowed, divorced or remarried, but to others, it means the Apostle Paul was speaking of marital fidelity. Later in the chapter, the Paul states an elder shall manage his children well. So does that mean an elder has to have children? Then, what about Jesus? He was single.
"We have to bring the right hermeneutics to the passage we are studying," Nelson said. "Is it possible that there is a guiding hermeneutic that would help pull antithetical conclusions into harmony through an overriding hermeneutic?"
That’s the hope.
"Adventists have a horns of a dilemma to choose," said scholar Ron du Preez, an author of a book on hermeneutics and an administrator in the Michigan Conference. His advice: Readers should reject interpretations from the "raucous voices of the radical right," whose preachers are well known on Adventist-oriented television programs, and "the loud voices of the liberal left," who are popular among academic circle. Instead, he said, readers should choose a position closer to the center of the warring discussion, even in hermeneutical matters.
Both sides, de Preez said, "are speaking over the scriptural center of the Adventist Church."
Will the church be able to get over the hermeneutical debate and move on to solidifying its position regarding the role of women clergy, and keeping the church unified in the process?
"I believe that God will have his way," Pastor Nelson said. "It's a very human process and that's what makes it messy – us as humans – but that's OK, we've been there before; we'll get through this."
And there's a serious motivation, he said, to get over this critical period in church history and move on: "The overriding passion is that we have 7 billion people out there – we need all hands on deck."
Darius Jankiewicz on Biblical Interpretation: