9.5 Antithesis: A Flip-Flop On Hermenuetics

Luther 500!  A term that gets any staunch Protestant’s heart racing as he or she commemorates the half millennium since Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Gross Münster, sparking the Reformation.

The significance of that single act changed Christianity forever. One man, standing up for Truth, proclaiming it as it is presented in the Bible and the Bible alone.

How sad to see such a momentous event being reduced to a punchline for the sake of pushing an ideology that has little, or indeed no bearing on that event.  I am referring to the recent article by George Knight published by the Adventist Today website, titled 9.5 Theses[1].

In Knight’s estimation, the SDA Church is coming dangerously close to replicating the Roman Catholic Church by enforcing ecclesiastical authority on issues that he claims have no biblical foundation.  He organises his arguments into 15 points, which he forcibly manipulates into 9.5 Theses.[2]

Reading Knight’s work, one soon realises that he employs flip-flop hermeneutics, flip-flopping from one point of view to the opposite according to his preference, in both the article and the paper[3] which the article is based on.  In his article there are some serious contradictions which should be highlighted.

He starts out by establishing that Christian unity is based on Scripture (Thesis 1), and that “for Adventists the Bible is the only source for doctrine and practice” (Thesis 5).  In these two aspects, he is correct.  It is the flip-flopping I find in the rest of the article that is of concern.

In Thesis 4 Knight states that “Ordination is not a biblical topic” and he correctly points out that the word translated ordination in the King James refers to appointment or consecration. But then he contradicts himself as follows: “From the position of the Bible there is absolutely no difference between ordaining and commissioning.”  If ordination is not a biblical topic, how can ordaining and commissioning be the same thing from “the position of the Bible”?

Whether the term is translated ordination, anointing or consecration, there is a strong biblical foundation for it in Hebrews 6:2.  Granted, some aspects, privileges and authority associated with ordination cannot be directly traced to biblical roots, though the necessity for assigning them to ordination is understandable in the light of challenges faced during the early years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  The problem with Knight’s argument is his application of the hermeneutic mentioned in Thesis 6.

“On issues not definitively settled in the Bible, James White utilized the only possible way forward in unity of mission when he moved from a hermeneutic that stipulated that practices must be expressly spelled out in the Bible to a hermeneutic that held that practices were permissible if they did not contradict Scripture and were in harmony with common sense...”

James White recognised the need to establish a system where policies and procedures could provide structure and bring order to a fledgling organisation.  White believed that where Scripture does not provide detailed instruction on a matter, it was acceptable to create and implement a structure, system or process as long as it does not violate a biblical injunction. This is often referred to as the permissible principle.  Knight, a noted SDA historian, abuses this principle employed by White by removing the principle quoted from its original context and applying it in a way that was never intended.  As the saying goes, a text without a context is a pretext.

Knight is neither the first nor the only SDA theologian to make use of this so called ‘shift’ from Biblical injunction to the permissible principle.  A growing number of SDA theologians subscribe to the idea that we should utilise the permissible principle, but it is employed only after undermining or negating a clear Biblical injunction on the issue at hand, and in some cases, even going so far as to claim that that which is not expressly prohibited, is permissible. They like to claim that White shifted hermeneutics from a literalistic proof text hermeneutic to a permissible principle.  This methodology ignores the clear context of the time and the situation White wrote in and in which he applied the principle, and his obvious intent.

White, in the Review and Herald, July 21, 1859 states:

“We wish to call the attention of the brethren to the subject of holding one or more Conferences yearly in each State where needed. Our yearly meetings in this State, held at Battle Creek, for a few years past, have been most beneficial and refreshing. Then why not have a regular annual meeting in each State…?”

The intent is clear - better organising for deeper unity, unlike Knight’s intent in his 9.5 Theses. White continues:

 “We lack system. And we should not be afraid of that system which is not opposed by the Bible, and is approved by sound sense. The lack of system is felt everywhere, especially in …”

This concept was not set forth in a once-off article; on the contrary, White would on several occasions write on it.  Besides the fact that White and Joseph Bates were from the Christian Connexion, which opposed Church structure, most early Advent believers who hailed from other denominations were also naturally opposed to structure, given their past experience and the subsequent proclamation that Babylon is fallen.

Applying this principle to ordination, as Knight does, one can only be motivated by making of no effect the clear and straight teaching of Scripture on this subject.  But Knight goes even further by applying the principle, while arguing against structure and unity.  He employs it as a motivation for diversity, a context in which White never employed it.  In truth, when considering White’s original article in the Review and Herald, from which Knight extensively quotes in his paper, it is clear that Knight shuffled the content in his paper Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority to such an extent that it manifestly constitutes a new deck of cards.

The flip-flop on structure in Knight’s work is quite ironic as well.  In his paper Catholic or Adventist[5], he recognises the record in Acts 15 as “the first General Conference in session”, but 9 pages further argues against “the equally non-biblical concept of a General Conference”. Again, which is it? The eclectic agreement or opposition and the proclamation of a concept being biblical or non-biblical, depending on whether or not it suits his purposes, is telling.

The saying goes, “the devil is in the details”, and it is in the subsections of Thesis 9 that we find seriously creative smoke and mirrors employed to vilify the Church Leadership.

Knight starts out in Thesis 9 by warning that the GC leadership “is coming dangerously close to replicating the medieval church… on the basis of a non biblical issue”. The so called non-biblical issue referred to is ordination, which has earlier been shown to be biblical. Knight attempts to detail his claim in thesis 9 through the six sub-theses that follow.

In 9.1 he calls on Acts 15 and Matthew 18 to prove his point; but the Adventist Today article does not indicate to the reader how Knight uses these chapters or, more specifically, to which parts of these chapters he refers.  This is dealt with in his paper.[6]  Knight argues that the SDA Church, by not applying Acts 15:29,20 (which deals with the use of meat which is saturated with blood) as a “’universal’ ruling”[7], allows for cultural differences and should therefore also allow the unity in diversity principle in terms of ordination.  This would allow for “having freedom to follow differing paths because the Holy Spirit fell in the same way on both groups”[8].  Knight relates unrelated issues with one another.  If the Church errs on the issue of meat, what would be the logic in using the error as a principle for other issues as well?  Should error therefore be made the norm?!  Or do all of us have the freedom to do and believe as we feel led by the Spirit?

In terms of Matthew 18, Knight correctly states that “All the earthly church can do is bind or ratify God’s decision through commissioning or ordaining”.[9]  Yet, by arguing in favour of “unity in diversity”[10] (with an emphasis on diversity) which, in practice, would be mutually exclusive, one is hard-pressed to grasp how such mutual exclusivity could be heaven-sent, only to be ratified and applied on earth. 

In Thesis 9 Knight equates the SDA Church with Catholicism, because, according to thesis 9.1, the Church is not faithful to Scripture, and in thesis 9.2, Knight reiterates that the Church suppresses data and manipulates events.  This culminates in his last thesis, 9.5, where he equates the Church to the Nazis that “came” for the Jews.  He thus accuses the General Conference of coercing unions that are “out of line” with GC policy to implement a non-biblical action.

The pot seems to be calling the kettle black.  It is interesting to note that the very actions Knight accuses the General Conference leadership of, viz., not being faithful to Scripture, manipulating data and using force, he himself employs.  Knight uses creative exegesis, is selective with data and encourages revolt rather than reconciliation as a consistent interpretation of Matthew 18 would suggest.

Finally, Knight claims that the “current atmosphere of confrontation in Adventism has not been brought about by the unions, but by the General Conference leadership and its non biblical and manipulative tactics.”  By now it is clear that Knight has a problem with GC leadership, which shows in the subjectivity of his theses formulation.  There is no acknowledgement that the issue of WO has been repeatedly pressed upon the World Church by a progressive western minority. 

I recently returned from Germany where we recorded a documentary on Luther and the Reformation.  The lasting impression of that experience is how Luther’s passion for Bible truth drove him to pen the 95 Theses, a work built on a solid theological foundation.  It was merely the springboard from which God’s truth would be restored and this restoration is expected to be completed by his Remnant Church.  The naming of Knight’s article as the 9.5 Theses, which does not even have a remote resemblance to the Reformer’s work in either depth or significance, shows it for what it is: a textbook example of post-truth which calls on the reader’s emotions rather than on “Scripture [in context] and plain reason”[11].  Knight’s article is not 9.5 Theses; at best it is 9.5 Antitheses.

Consider the nature and intent of the General Conference in the following two quotes:

“But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference session, composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field, should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing, is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work” (Testimonies, vol. 9, 260, 261).
“The danger to our unity lies not primarily in who we ordain, or what credentials we issue to them. The chief danger lies in accepting the possibility of unilateral action. That has potential implications which go far beyond this immediate issue. Yet if we were to sacrifice the overarching principle of representative, collegial, consensus-based decision-making—if we were to accept that organizational units can act unilaterally—then our whole ecclesiastical polity and system of church governance would be in danger of breaking down (“A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists September 2016 p. 41).


The interdependency and unity of our Church structure on all levels is clearly depended on practice derived from a solid hermeneutical approach.  Knight’s flip-flop hermeneutics is not a rock to build on, but rather quicksand that pulls the church into theological inconsistency. 

Reinhardt Stander is a pastor in Cape Town, South Africa.


[1] Note that the article in Adventist Today also has a link to a more detailed paper by the same author which provides more details on his view.

[2] More accurately 9.55 theses, considering the creatively inconsistent numbering scheme utilized.

[3] Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority, George R. Knight.

[4] Official ordination was necessary to prevent imposters from posing as pastors of the Church.

[5] Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle

Over Authority, George R. Knight, p.4

[6] Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle

Over Authority, George R. Knight.

[7] Ibid., p. 4

[8] Ibid., p. 5

[9] Ibid., p. 6

[10] Ibid., p. 5

[11] Part of Martin Luther’s response to the Diet of Worms in 1521