Having returned home rather late last night, I decided to get some sleep rather than write first, for though I had a lot to write about, there was little at least that was troubling about the conversation at least, so I didn’t feel the need to write to calm myself down to sleep after having made the long drive back from Estacada. Rather than talk about any of the many lengthy subjects we talked about over the course of seven hours or so of conversation before, during, and after dinner, I though it would be worthwhile to talk about a particular test that was discussed during the conversation that I thought would be rather worthwhile for us to examine. As is occasionally the case, a test like this one provides us with the means to discuss various hypothetical possibilities and conduct thought experiments that allow us to recognize our assumptions and the influence of context and tradition on our behavior.
Simple speaking, the desert island test works as follows. If you and a few other people were on a desert island and only had the Bible but had a belief that only the Bible (sola scriptura) and all of the Bible (tota scriptura) was valid for one’s doctrinal beliefs and one’s religious and moral practices, how would one believe and live? As far as tests go, this is a very simple one and has a very consistent anti-traditional bias. After all, it is history that provides with it certain traditions about how the scripture is to be (mis-)interpreted, and allows people to read over passages without thinking about what it would be like if one took them seriously, and leads people to read into passages certain interpretations that are not always valid, but are consistently done because that is the way things have always been done before. Whether or not one adopts the desert island test as a hermeneutical principle of Bible interpretation, it provides a measure of the distance between a ‘pure’ Bible interpretation and shows the effect of tradition on one’s beliefs and practices, without necessarily providing a judgment on whether those traditions are valid or not.
It is worthwhile to ponder the legitimacy of the desert island test itself. After all, the contemporary world seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Greater connectivity through social media and the power of institutions to continually project their versions of the truth via propaganda have demonstrated the immense power that can be sought for those who want to control what others think and believe, regardless of the truth of the matter. That said, there is also a great deal of resistance to institutions and a tendency for people to divide and fragment and to follow their own inner light rather than seeking to be constrained by other beliefs. And a solitary believer in a world full of isolation and mistrust might as well be on a desert island as far as it comes to his or her cohesion with those people around. So, given the tendency of people to be solitary believers, regardless of whether we like or dislike this phenomenon, it would make sense that a desert island test would actually fit the way that many people behave.
And if we look in history, we would see that the desert island test is not so different from the history of the Church of God in many areas. For example, the rise of Sabbatarian Christians in Africa that I have witnessed myself in my travels there is influenced by something like the desert island test where people took the Bible seriously and followed what it commanded without hundreds of years of (corrupt) tradition behind it, and lo and behold found themselves to be Sabbatarian believers. For another, if one has read one’s Dugger and Dodd, for many centuries the Church of God was mainly limited to remote mountain valleys in places like the Alps of Italy and Switzerland or Transylvania, and in those places the desert island rule also applies. Again, just as is the case in the contemporary period, so too in the past it was viewed as necessary for the survival of genuine biblical religion for there to be some remoteness and some distance from corrupt and authoritarian religious and civil authorities, and the result was that people sought to live according to the Bible in a state of considerable isolation. The desert island test is simply a tool for thought experiments that mimics the experience of believers in the past and present.
It is worthwhile to at least briefly discuss what it is that the desert island test actually removes from consideration. When we pursue the desert island test there are no nonbiblical creeds, no texts of apostolic fathers or pre- or post-nicene fathers, no papal bulls, no Talmud or other non-biblical Jewish traditions, and no desire either to copy or to avoid that which is judged as mainstream Christianity or Judaism. What one has is the Bible, and the Bible alone without any sort of traditional understanding of it, and one is left to interpret it in light of the whole scriptural context (with understanding of biblical Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic) with basic principles of non-contradiction to limit the flights of fancy that can be taken from pitting scripture against itself, as is the case with some. Is it enough to have the Bible and to disregard other considerations? That is a question that every reader will have to answer for themselves. For some, the idea is likely to be deeply appealing, and for others, it is likely to be horrifying in the extreme.