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Steps to Understanding Biblical Inspiration
Biblical inspiration! How do you define it? Christianity has never done so in any of its creeds. Maybe the subject is best left in the too-hard basket? We know that the ways of God are past the understanding of humans. God often puzzles us in the way He does His work—He appears to be too hard on Uzzah and too kind to David. No wonder He said through Isaiah, "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV).
As we consider the topic of inspiration it may be necessary to lay aside ideas we have of how we think God ought to have acted and go to the Bible to see how He did inspire the Bible. In other words, to let the Bible speak for itself on this subject. For some this may be an unsettling experience. We like to have things all neatly packaged and in order. However, we cannot always do that with God and the things of God. Take the universe for example. It is far more living and dynamic than we had ever imagined. There are galaxies that appear to dance and swap partners. Some appear to explode. Some planets have an atmosphere so thin that a cupful of air from earth could be spread over several square kilometers to give an equivalent density. There are some white dwarfs where all nuclear fuel has been burned up, where one teaspoon full of matter would weigh more than several elephants.
Why is it like this? Maybe God loves variety. Perhaps He is like my wife in her garden who knows and delights in every plant. Maybe He loves the great explosions. If nature tells us anything about God's character it tells us that He is a living, dynamic God. He loves diversity.
He is an exciting Person. Life in heaven will not be boring. We will always be learning more about God and His ways, and marveling.
Meanwhile He puzzles us. Why does He not come down and appear as He did at Mount Sinai again? Why does He not make the earth tremble and the mountains quake? Why do we not hear His voice as people did long ago? If only He would come to us and let us know He is around. It would help us to be certain He is there. It would silence the skeptics and confirm the faith of the believers.
Could it be that God gives sufficient evidence to believe; but never removes all cause for doubt? Could it be that God has so weighed the evidence that the honest in heart will know He is there; but those who do not want to believe will find hooks on which to hang their doubts? Let us face it, different people can look at the same evidence regarding Christianity and some believe while others doubt and remain sceptical.6 Both belief and disbelief alike can come about as a result of a disposition within the person. Finding God is not so much an intellectual pursuit as it is a heart experience. God says, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).7 God respects human freedom. This is in harmony with the Great Controversy theme well known and understood by Seventh-day Adventists. The light that God gives us is clear enough to guide the honest in heart; but not so blinding as to take away our power of choice.
There was a time when God did come and appear in a dramatic way—at Sinai. His voice roared, the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around the mountain. The effect upon Israel was to overwhelm them. They responded to Moses with the words, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die" (Exodus 20:19). The trouble was that their hearts were not changed. The evidence was so powerful that they responded more from fear than anything else. As a result their obedience to God did not last long. Even while Moses was on the mountain, they worshipped the golden calf.
Sufficient Evidence for Inspiration
As with the existence of God, so it is with the inspiration of the Bible. God gives sufficient evidence to believe but never removes all cause for doubt. There is strong evidence that the Bible comes from God in such things as:
Prophecy—the ability of the Bible to be able to predict events before they happen.
The unity of content of the Bible—with 40 different writers contributing over 1500 years, the harmony of content is miraculous.
The survival of the Bible—this book has been banned and burned so many times and yet it remains the best-preserved book coming to us from the ancient world.
These evidences remove some of the intellectual objections and help prepare a person to take the promises of the Bible and experience God. In the end, though, God is not a mathematical formula that can be analysed and explained. He is a person. We can take the promises of the Bible and act upon them to find God. Christianity is a love affair. When two people fall in love they spend time together and get to know each other. As they get to know each other they develop a trust, and love becomes the centre of their experience.
But the most powerful evidence that the Bible comes from God is given to us by the Holy Spirit. Paul states this point with the following words: "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory." (Ephesians 1:13-14).
With these words Paul takes us to the centre of Christian assurance. This comes from surrendering our lives and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us and give us new lives. Always we are accepted on the basis of what Christ has done for us8, never on what He has done in us through His Spirit. However, as we look away from ourselves to Christ's death on our behalf we can also find within ourselves a new creation.9 God implants new motives and desires. If we have had this experience we will know it. We will also know that God is with us and that the Bible promises do work when put to the test of experience.
So the believer can have powerful evidence that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. Yet despite all this evidence, there are things in the Bible which puzzle us. Such things as: The brutality of the Israelites towards the Canaanites. They did this at the command of God.10 And the imprecatory psalms. Some of the psalmists ask God to do terrible things to their enemies.
Many times as Christians we have to say we do not understand what is going on in certain Bible passages; however, we do not throw away our faith. We still have sufficient evidence to believe. If we need to have an answer to every question we will never have room to believe. Often we will just have to say, "Well I can't answer that question; however I still believe." This is not wrong. It is how most Christians have had to live for two thousand years. Future research may supply some answers, but people live and die not knowing all the answers; yet still believe.
God could have made the evidence for the Bible more compelling. He could have given us the Bible without any room for questioning. Instead He gave us sufficient evidence to believe without removing all cause for doubt. The honest in heart will have enough to carry their faith. The honest in heart will not let some isolated point rob them of their faith.
Understanding this is crucial when we look at inspiration and how it works. There will be times when we will simply have to admit we cannot explain a point perfectly. This will be true of both the Bible and Ellen White. It is important to realise that we do not have to have an answer to every question in order to believe.
Defining the Terms
To begin we need to define some of the terms used. People often argue over semantics without knowing that they are arguing because they have failed to define their terms sufficiently. There are four terms we need to define.
Revelation is the content of what God is revealing. Prophets at times have concepts revealed to them by God's Spirit—a revelation. The objective of God's revelation to us is that we might come to know Him and enter into a relationship with Him. This revelation can be seen as progressive. God spoke in many different ways in Old Testament times through prophets and gave His greatest revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3).
This involves the methods God uses to give the revelation, record it and preserve it for His people. For example, it may be a vision or a dream that is given orally or written out. Revelation is a vertical action while inspiration is a horizontal action. However, it is possible to have inspiration without special revelation, as seen in 1 Kings 11:41 when the writer tells us where to go for the rest of the story of Solomon—the "book of the annals of Solomon." Inspiration can be Spirit-guided research with the inspired writer guided by the Spirit in writing from their own experience, or what has been revealed to them by others. It is possible to have revelation without inspiration because what was revealed was not written down and preserved for others to benefit. An example of this is found in John 21:25 where John states that not all Jesus did and said has been written down.
When a person studies what has been recorded by a prophet, and the Holy Spirit gives understanding of what is written, this process is illumination. Few can claim that God has given them a revelation by inspiration, but we can claim that God will help us to understand what is written in the Bible by illumination. Jesus gave us the promise "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth . . ." (John 16:13).
God is the ultimate authority in all matters. He is the Creator and Sustainer of us all. As such He is able to declare to us right practice and belief. He has delegated this authority to be shared with us through the Bible. Thus we might say that the Bible carries the same authority as if God were speaking to us directly.Peter describes our four points with the following words: "Above all, you must understand [illumination] that no prophecy of the Scripture [revelation] came about by the prophet's own interpretation.
For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit [inspiration]" (2 Peter 1:20-21). Therefore, he says, the writings of the prophets are authoritative for us as Christians.
The meaning of the words "carried along" are associated with the idea of wind in the sail of a boat. As the writers of the Bible received revelations from God they were carried along by the Holy Spirit in such a manner that the ideas they wrote out were recorded in a trustworthy and reliable manner. At the same time we know that God respects human freedom. He did not obliterate the personality of the writer or take him entirely out of his cultural background. The Bible is God's Word in human language. Paul, in commenting on the light he received from God, said, "We have this treasure in jars of clay. . . ." (2 Corinthians 4:7). In other words God has chosen to give His revelations to humans who are like clay vessels. Humanity is prone to err and misunderstand; however God does not work apart from humanity.
A Mixture of the Human and the Divine
This calls for a balanced view of the inspiration of the Bible. It is God's words in human language. Just as Jesus is the Living Word of God and as such He is truly God and Man, so the Bible is the written Word of God. It is God's Word in human language. The Bible is both human and divine. Churches go wrong when they fail to maintain a balance in this subject. Some churches go too far toward the humanity side of the Bible and tend to leave God out of the picture. These are the more liberal churches. They water down the miracles of the Bible and rob the Bible of the presence of God in its authorship. Other churches go too far toward the divinity of the Bible. These are the more fundamentalist types of churches that virtually ignore some obviously human elements of the Bible.
Perhaps the most concise and balanced expression is found in Ellen White's description: "The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.
"It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God."11
There are many reasons why I accept the inspiration of Ellen White, but one powerful reason is her view on inspiration. And her ideas were not the prevailing views among her contemporaries. In reading her writings regarding her own inspiration you find a harmony with what is found in Scripture.
The Bible may be likened to an intellectual man stooping over to talk to his young son in a language his son can understand. God talks to us in our language. How else can we understand? He meets us where we are to reveal Himself to us. Another way of illustrating this point can be made by taking a torch and shining the light through a piece of blue colored glass. The light comes as pure white yet on the other side of the glass comes out with a bluish tinge. So the Bible is both human and divine.
The human side is found in the language the Bible writers use. Some writers, such as John, have very rough or elementary Greek expressions. Others, such as Paul, have more cultured expressions. Anyone who has worked with the original languages of the Bible is fully aware of the differences of style used by the writers in harmony with their cultural background.
It is obvious that God does not obliterate the human element in the giving of His messages. If He had so chosen, He could have used a twelve-year-old schoolboy to write the whole Bible. If He had, the Bible would have been distant and remote from us. Instead, as we read the Bible, the Word comes especially close to us through fellow humans. God has met us where we are. For example who cannot identify with Paul when he cries out, "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? . . . Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 7: 4, 15, 24; 8:1).
There is abundant evidence to demonstrate the presence of humanity alongside divinity in the Bible. Take, for example, Paul's forgetfulness. "I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanus; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). The strong words he uses to describe the Cretans are a good example of what Ellen White means when she says that some people, when reading the Bible, will remark that such an expression does not sound like God speaking. "Even one of their own prophets has said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply. . . ." (Titus 1:12-13).12
Because of human expressions such as these we have grounds for concluding that although God gave thoughts to the writers, they were given the freedom to express the ideas in harmony with their cultural background. Put another way, God gave ideas and made sure the revelation was recorded in a reliable manner, but the words were chosen by the writers in harmony with their culture.
6 An example of this is found in Acts 17:16-34. Paul presented the claims of Christ only to be met with cynicism from some and belief from others. [back]
7 All Bible quotations are taken from the NIV unless otherwise stated. [back]
8 Ephesians 2: 8-9 states this clearly with the following words "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast." [back]
9 2 Corinthians 5:17. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come!" [back]
10 Joshua 6:21. "They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys." [back]
11 1SM, p. 21. [back]
12 In this statement Paul is quoting from the Cretan Epimenides who wrote six centuries before Christ wrote: "The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!" See 6SDABC, p. 354. [back]