Messenger of the Lord


What It Meant and What It Means

Here we are advised to study (1) what the words “meant” in 30 A.D., and (2) what we should understand them to “mean” to us today. That study must follow the rules of hermeneutics if two or more people are to agree on what a document originally “meant” and what it “means” today. 3 Further, the goal of hermeneutics is not only to understand what an author meant but to make sure that the author is not misunderstood. 4 MOL 372.4

Here are some basic rules of hermeneutics: MOL 372.5

If a document is in a foreign language, a knowledge of that language is needed, including an understanding of that language’s structure and idioms. Although especially true of the Bible with its Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek documents, understanding the idioms and peculiarities of nineteenth-century American English is helpful in understanding Ellen White. Merely a dictionary knowledge is not sufficient. MOL 372.6

The type of literary form must be recognized—whether prose or poetry, prophecy or history, allegory or parable, etc. Both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White require this awareness. MOL 372.7

The historical context, including the precise time of writing, must be understood before correct deductions can be made, especially if the document deals with ethics, interrelationships with contemporary civil powers, and prevailing thought patterns. To understand the Bible and the writings of Ellen White, students must be aware of historical context. MOL 372.8

A knowledge of the climatic and geographical factors that influenced the writer is helpful. Much of the Bible, for example, would be obscure without a knowledge of Palestinian geographical conditions and the impact of its climate. Large parts of Ellen White’s observations and counsel become more understandable when we recognize these factors. MOL 372.9

In order to think like the writer and to “hear” like his or her hearers, we today must try to “see” what they saw and “hear” what they heard. We must learn all we can about the character and personality of the author as well as the general personal interplay of the people referred to in the document being studied. MOL 373.1

Readers must discover what Bible statements meant to the prophet’s contemporaries before focusing on what they should mean today. This will protect students from “seeing” in the Bible only what they are looking for. 5 MOL 373.2

In the study of the Bible, we accept the implicit Biblical understanding that the Old and New Testaments together form a canon that contains the record of God’s unique revelation to human beings. Thus the Bible is its own best interpreter, providing a unifying theological context for understanding any particular chapter and verse. This same principle of unity and coherence will help students understand more clearly the totality of Ellen White’s thoughts. 6 MOL 373.3

The challenge to understand what the Bible means is not a modern phenomenon. Early in the New Testament the need for interpretation arose with Philip’s question to the Ethiopian: “Do you understand what you are reading?” MOL 373.4

And he (the Ethiopian) said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30, 31). The role of guide is performed best by those who faithfully follow the principles of interpretation (hermeneutics). MOL 373.5