Biblical Inspiration


Q:  Because of the human condition, hasn’t every Bible prophet misunderstood God’s messages on some level?  Didn’t Paul say, "Presently, we see through a glass darkly....”?

A:  No, we do not believe that any Bible prophet ever distorted a message from God without being corrected or punished by God. The young prophet who disobeyed God and ate with the older prophet on the way home from Bethel is a perfect example of God protecting the integrity of His message (see I Kings 13). God prohibited the prophet from eating with the Israelites who had set up an altar at Bethel because eating with someone was an expression of acceptance and approval in the Israelite culture, and God wanted to show disapproval. Therefore, the prophet was publicly and miraculously punished so everyone could see that God had not approved of the prophet's garbling of the message.

Can you think of any prophet who misunderstood a message and twisted it as a result? Even little Samuel got his first message right even though he didn’t understand the meaning.

We are not asserting that any prophet has ever understood God perfectly, because no created being has ever understood God perfectly, but we do hold that no true prophet has ever garbled a message from God based on a misunderstanding of the message.  True prophets deliver accurate messages from God, and in the rare instances when true prophets misrepresent God in some manner, they are publicly corrected to protect the integrity of God’s communication.  For example, Abraham was corrected for his lies about Sarah being his wife, Moses was corrected for not circumcising his son, and Nathan was corrected for prematurely endorsing David’s plan to build the temple.

All true prophets have represented their messages exactly as God intended--yes, in imperfect human speech--but as God intended, nonetheless. For example, Daniel didn't understand the vision of Daniel 8 even after the angel explained it. So Daniel described the vision and recorded the angel's explanation. He didn't add his own interpretation--he simply gave the message accurately as God intended.

Paul's comment about seeing through a glass darkly isn't intended to diminish the accuracy of his revelations. He gave his message exactly as God intended. In fact, he was so sure of the gospel he had preached that he said, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). Paul certainly didn't believe he had ever misrepresented his message.

Inspiration is a special process. It isn't just run-of-the-mill communication. When a prophet communicates under inspiration, God safeguards the message. Notice in Gal. 1 how Paul even says the Galatians are to reject a contradictory gospel even if it comes from his own mouth. He is asserting that his original message was inspired and correct—that there was no misunderstanding.

Another indication of the divine interaction with true inspiration is the story of Balaam, who desperately wanted to give a false prophecy so he could claim the reward. But God, for the honor of His name, caused Balaam to speak inspired and correct words.  Balaam actually gives a prophecy of the Messiah. What I'm saying is that genuine inspiration is the highest level of communication known on earth. Inspiration doesn't answer all questions--scientific, historical, etc.--but the message comes out exactly as God intended. The misunderstandings of true prophets have no bearing on the message because God protects the integrity of the message.

Minimizing the authority of scripture is one of the most troubling problems with the modern SDA Church.  SDAs have had to de-emphasize the accuracy of all prophetic utterances to compensate for the errors of Ellen White. In fact, some liberal Adventists believe that Moses misunderstood God's instruction to wipe out the Canaanites. If Moses could misunderstand something that plain, then anything in scripture can simply be thrown out--including the sayings of Jesus, because they were written down by people who might have misunderstood....

Once one arrives at that type of theology, one can literally disregard any biblical passage with which one doesn't agree, saying, "Well, the Bible writer simply misunderstood the message." In essence, a person can become a "god" over the Bible, meaning that the human mind reigns sovereign over what to believe and what not to believe in the Bible. In my opinion, that's where Adventism is heading. The entire Bible is inspired, authoritative, and correct. It is "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV).

Q:  Isn’t all scripture subject to our interpretation, as we have no way to understand it except through our minds?

A:  Please consider II Peter 1:20-21 (NRSV): "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy never came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

Scripture is not subject to our interpretation and our desires. I'm not suggesting that we suspend the action of our intellect as we seek to understand the Word, but I am saying that our intellect must be in subjection to the Holy Spirit. We must submit to God's foolish wisdom (1 Cor. 1) when our ideas conflict with the results of clear exegesis and the promptings of God's Spirit (I Cor. 2:14).

The second point from this passage in II Peter is that prophets speak not "by human will," but "from God" as they are "moved by the Holy Spirit." To speak messages from God while under the influence of the Holy Spirit is to speak truth--not truth adulterated with human deficiencies. It is the exact representation of truth that God intends for the time and place in which it was given.

There are two components to the understanding of scripture: interpretation (exegesis) and the work of the Holy Spirit, and the latter is most important. "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:14, NIV). In this sense, scripture is not "a matter of one's own interpretation." The Holy Spirit works with our intellect (James 1:5), but spiritual discernment trumps our interpretations.

Q:  Why does our understanding of the nature of inspiration matter?

A:  There is no basis for objective Bible discussion with a person who believes that prophetic messages might not be entirely correct. There is no way that such a person could ever evaluate EGW because there is no biblical text that would have enough authority to unequivocally identify her (or anyone else) as a false prophet. And yet the Bible contains so many warnings against false prophets....

Q:  Does the fact that some prophetic writings are not preserved in scripture have any bearing on our understanding of inspiration?

A:  The basic idea behind this question is this: Is it possible that some of Ellen White’s early writings will be de-emphasized when people recognize that she grew and changed?  Let’s start with the Bible and then move to Ellen White.

The Bible refers to prophets who either never wrote anything or whose writings were lost. Paul also probably wrote at least one letter that has been lost. We don't think the process of canonization involved weeding a prophet's "inspired" writings from his "uninspired" ones. We can just see the people in Galatia saying, "Hmm, we'd like to delete a few portions...a bit too personal." The people in Corinth might have felt the same, but God was in charge of the process. We believe that God allowed the lost materials to disappear because the ideas had been covered in other prophetic writings or because the ideas weren't intended for audiences in other times and/or places.  We don't believe canonization is a process for removing incorrect prophecies. Otherwise, canonization would simply be a big cover-up, and God is supremely open. Instead, we would contend that the spiritual writings of all prophets are accurate reflections of the messages God gave, and they served the purpose for which they were intended.

Of course, the real issue for SDAs is Ellen White.  Her early writings tend to contain more questionable statements than her later, more polished writings.  However, her early writings contain by far the most frequent claims of direct revelation (“I saw”).  Yes, we agree that Ellen White's diaries, shopping lists, and personal letters should not necessarily be considered inspired--one has to evaluate each document to determine whether she believed she was writing from a visionary perspective.  But to set aside her early works due to statements that many modern Adventists question would be a travesty.  Yes, Ellen White certainly grew and changed, as liberal SDAs assert, but genuine prophets do not grow from error to truth with respect to their messages.  They may grow from error to truth in their personal opinions, but not in their visionary writings.  Their writings can reflect deeper truths as the prophet matures, but the original messages must still be truth. 

Contemporary SDAs need to step back and ask if there is enough evidence of Ellen White's genuine prophetic gift to "canonize" anything she wrote. For instance, could Joseph Smith turn into a nice little prophet if we could delete and forget certain things? Certainly, the Mormons are generally nice people with nice families. But before one follows any prophet, one must know if the prophet is true, and that determination must be made on the solid foundation of scripture.

Q:  Are there errors and contradictions in scripture, and if there are, can’t we be a little more lenient regarding Ellen White’s errors?

A:  Speaking of apparent contradictions in scripture, we've found a lot fewer once we understood the gospel and threw out Ellen White as an authority.

The Bible may contain errors of history or science, and some would argue that these are attributable to imperfect scribes, although we don't think that explanation is essential. We have always asserted that the Bible was written exactly as God intended, and we believe He safeguarded the theology. We don't have to worry about how many ladies came to the tomb of Christ on resurrection morning--it isn't essential to salvation. What we object to is the idea that prophets could misunderstand their messages, or that God would give messages that are unclear.  God’s communication has been perfect at the time of message-delivery.

With respect to Ellen White, we can’t blame transcription errors, can we?  Also, we have never criticized Ellen White for unimportant factual errors (such as listing the wrong number of sanitarium beds in a personal letter).  We object to Ellen White because of her repeated theological errors, not because of obscure factual misstatements.