Adventism 202, part 5: Is the Bible “Inspired” or “Inspiring”?

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Adventism 202, part 5: Is the Bible “Inspired” or “Inspiring”?

The subject of inspiration is not a simple concept to grasp (and if you encounter someone who teaches that it is simple, then you can be sure they haven’t thought about the subject very deeply). What we will cover in this article and the next can be spiritually jarring and stretch your theological muscles to the limits. Nevertheless, because of the prevalence of false ideas and the retention of unchallenged presuppositions about the subject we will need to dive into this topic a bit more deeply then we did for the phenomena we call revelation.

As a refresher, last time we looked at the big picture of how the Bible came into existence. The steps are as follows:

  • (1) God has an idea or message that He wishes to communicate to His people or the world.
  • (2) God chooses a human spokesperson, a prophet, to deliver the message to the intended audience.
  • (3) God commissions the Holy Spirit to encapsulate His message utilizing one or more of the six different packaging[1] methods described in the Bible and delivers the message to the prophet.
  • (4) The prophet receives the message and then preaches and/or codifies the message by writing it down. The written artifact becomes Scripture.

These are the basic steps of the revelation-inspiration process.

As Systematic Adventists, we have previously established that we do not view our beliefs and the doctrines of the Bible as simply a list of propositions and declarative statements, but rather they see it as a holistic system. One way to depict this is by using the structure of a house to show the interconnectedness of our beliefs. In the last article, we laid the first piece of the foundation for our systematic view of Adventism, which is a belief in the divine miracle of Revelation, that God has communicated with humanity. But now we will turn our attention to laying the second layer of our theological structure, which is the process of inspiration.

Inspiration

Previously we defined inspiration as the technical term that refers to the process of how the revelations of God are codified or written down. However, as we study the phenomena of inspiration together it will become apparent that we will not be able to tidily explain how this process actually works. What we will be able to do is identify false theories of inspiration by studying passages from Scripture that clearly debunk some commonly held beliefs about inspiration.

In other words, this article will explain more about what inspiration is not than what it actually is. We should remember that in order to lay a solid foundation for any structure we must first clear and the level ground before beginning to install our chosen building materials.

For the task before us, this is the equivalent of shelving our preconceived ideas about how the Scriptures came into being and ignoring our urges to come up with a tidy package that fails to incorporate everything we see in the text. Let the text speak for itself first and then calmly and rationally begin to put the pieces together.

Shelving Our Preconceived Ideas

Before we turn to what the Scriptures actually tell us about the process of inspiration we need to identify and shelve our presuppositions. Let’s look at a couple of popular theories or models of inspiration.

Scripture as Humanity’s Best Thoughts about God

One theory of inspiration is that the Bible is a collection of humanity’s best thoughts about God. In this theory, the Bible writers are especially sensitive individuals who experience an overwhelming sense of their deep need for a relationship with the divine.[2] They often have awe-inducing experiences that turn their thoughts and affections toward God.

During these episodes of inspiration, the prophet uses his natural, unaided, talents to construct a work of prose, a poem, or a recollection of history that reflects the image of God the prophet has in their thoughts and emotions.

What they write is the deepest expression of their wonder and awe of what they perceive of the divine. These writers are “inspired” in the same sense that you may be inspired standing at the top of Mount Everest or looking into the huge expanse of the starry night sky. It is a sense of unworthiness, smallness, and wonder that overwhelms you.

One aspect of this model is that though the prophet’s writing may be flawed and inaccurate in its description of God and His works, it is still valuable in that it is “inspiring” to its readers.

This mode of inspiration is often taught and promoted by individuals who see the Bible as wrapped in layers of cultural baggage that discerning Bible students need to unravel and peel back in order to reveal and grasp the timeless truth the Scriptures contain which is the original mental image, emotion, or sense of awe or wonder that “inspired” the original prophet to write.

The strengths of this view are its recognition of the human elements of Scripture. As we will see later, the humanity (education, talents, writing style, eloquence, culture, life experiences, etc.) of the prophet has something to contribute to the creation of the Biblical text. The weaknesses of this view are its minimization of the involvement of the divine, which consequently produces an extremely low view of Scripture.[3]

Scripture as the Dictated Words of God

In this model, the Bible is a collection of the dictated words of God. The prophet is told what to write word-for-word and he or she meticulously codifies everything they are told. In essence, the Biblical prophet is not an author but a highly skilled transcriber. His or her contributions to the Biblical text are minimal at best.

The strength of this view is its high involvement of God in the codification process, which consequently produces a very high view of Scripture. The weakness of this view is that it tends to ignore the human element of Scripture altogether. The prophet becomes nothing more than a parrot without contributing anything to the text.

In reality, this model is not a model of inspiration (even though its proponents still refer to it as inspiration); it is a reduction of the Bible into one form of revelation, specifically verbal revelation, which we discussed, in the last article.

The revelation phenomenon loses its richness and variety when coupled with this model of inspiration because all other revelations are subsumed in verbal revelation (God as Author).

With these models in mind, and hopefully shelved, we will now be able to identify five aspects of inspiration as described directly from Scripture.[4]

(1) Scripture is “Inspired”

What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired? To begin to answer that we need to go to the most well-known passages in the Bible that deal with this subject.

All Scripture is God-breathed [inspired, KJV] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV).

 

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21).

Though the Bible does not tell us exactly what the nature of inspiration is from the two passages above, it does give us some key clues:

  • 1) The Scriptures are “God-breathed”[5] and
  • 2) the prophet does not speak/write without the supervision of the Holy Spirit.

These two facts about inspiration tell us that God is involved in the writing process which helps give us confidence in the final product, the book, letter, poem, song, etc. that the prophet produces.

This is important because many Christians, as we have discussed above, believe that God was somehow absent from the process when a divine revelation was actually codified into words by the prophet. In other words, some Christians have absolute confidence that God has spoken to prophets but they are uncertain about the prophet’s abilities and whether God was involved in the actual writing process.

This idea may “help” some in their wrestling with certain passages or ideas in the Scriptures that they feel don’t reflect God’s love or character (i.e. a literal fiery hell, genocidal wars, animal sacrifice, etc.), however, this idea also undermines faith in the text.

It is too tempting to the carnal mind to simply dismiss the more unpopular portions of Scripture because they do not align with our preconceived ideas and simply chalk them up to the culture, intellectual frailties, and the sophomoric literary abilities of the human prophet. In other words,

I don’t like what this verse says so God must not have said that.

OR

It was probably a mistake for the prophet to include that in the Bible.

If you have found yourself thinking along these same lines I would point you to the wisdom of one of the early church fathers, Augustine of Hippo.

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. – Sermons[6]

If we want to construct a solid foundation based on Scripture then we must take Scripture, and that includes ALL of Scripture, very seriously as being ultimately of divine origin.

(2) It is the Prophet’s Job to Communicate the Contents of Revelation

The next aspect of inspiration that we need to establish is that it is not the sole responsibility or job of the Holy Spirit to produce Scripture. There is a human element involved in the codification of God’s revelations.

This should be obvious, but what is not so obvious is “How human is the Bible?” In other words, how much of the human prophet’s skills and experience is involved in the codifying of God’s revelations? Exodus 4:10-16 points to the level of the prophet’s involvement in the creation of Scripture.

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’ But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you.  You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.’ (Exodus 4:10-16, NIV).

There is a lot to glean from this passage.

First, this passage reaffirms what we already discovered from 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-121, specifically that God is involved in not only the revealing of divine content to the prophet but also in the communication of that content (preaching and writing) to God’s people.

But this passage also brings out another aspect of inspiration in that the prophet has a real role to play in the actual creation and delivery of the message. Notice how this passage debunks the direct dictation theory of inspiration. God does not as a norm, dictate exactly word-for-word what the prophet will say or write.

If the dictation model were correct, why would Moses have objected to God’s call for him to be His prophet? Moses is unsure of himself and declares that he is not “eloquent” or a good speaker. However, if the dictation model is correct, Moses’ objection makes no sense, because dictation and reciting do not require high levels of eloquence and skill as a rhetorician (at least not at the levels of original content creation).

 

Moses is afraid to accept God’s call for many reasons, but these reasons include what he knows about the nature of being a prophet, that as a prophet he will have to compose, construct, and deliver the actual message that Pharaoh is to hear. Furthermore, God’s ultimate solution to Moses’ reticence is for Aaron to play the role of a prophet for Moses.

 

But notice what qualifies Aaron for this position is that “he can speak well.” Again, what would this human skill and ability have to do with inspiration if the dictation model is to be accepted? The two are incompatible.

 

Whatever the exact meaning of God’s statement of putting words in Moses’ and Aaron’s mouths, it cannot mean that Moses and Aaron are essentially parrots with nothing to add in elaboration and articulation of the divine message that will ultimately be delivered.

The contents of revelation come from God, but the communication of the content is largely the responsibility of the prophet while operating under the supervision of the Holy Spirit.[7]

(3) Prophets can edit their work

This next aspect may be especially challenging to accept but again, we must be willing to allow the Scriptures to tell us how inspiration works instead of bringing our own ideas to the text and trying to shoehorn them into the confines that we deem suitable. The prophet Jeremiah gives us a unique look into the flexibility of Scripture.

And it came to pass in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, that this word came unto Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Take thee a roll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spake unto thee, from the days of Josiah, even unto this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin. Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah: and Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord, which he had spoken unto him, upon a roll of a book. (Jeremiah 36:1-4).

In Jeremiah 36:1-4 God tells Jeremiah to write a book that contains all the messages and prophecies that God has given him in the last 23 years.[8] Let that sink in for a bit. We have to assume that God is going to be involved in this codification process if at the very least to help Jeremiah to remember 23 years of divine revelations!

Also, notice that God tells Jeremiah that he [Jeremiah] should take a scroll and write “all the words that I have spoken.” Jeremiah is the one who has been called to write but take a close look at the end of the passage. We find that in actuality Baruch is the one who puts pen to paper. What this passage teaches us is that prophets don’t have to work alone; they can employ a scribe or amanuensis[9] to help them in the creation of Scripture.[10]

Feel free to peruse what happens next in Jeremiah 36 on your own, but in summary, the book ends up in the hands of Jehoiakim the king and he decides to burn the book, thus destroying the only copy of the book of Jeremiah in existence. But wait a minute! We still have the book of Jeremiah today, which preserves this story! Let’s take a look at verse 27-28, 32 of the same chapter.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, after that the king had burned the roll, and the words which Baruch wrote at the mouth of Jeremiah, saying, Take thee again another roll, and write in it all the former words that were in the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah hath burned…Then took Jeremiah another roll, and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah; who wrote therein from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the book which Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire: and there were added besides unto them many like words. (Jeremiah 36:27-28, 32).

Notice what we have here is God telling Jeremiah to create a 2nd edition of the book of Jeremiah. Also notice the last phrase in verse 32. Jeremiah didn’t try to create a verbatim copy of the book that was destroyed from memory. He created a book that contained the messages of the previous one, but he also added “many like words.” In our times, this would be called a 2nd edition or “The Book of Jeremiah version 2.0.”  What this means is that prophets have the right and prerogative to edit and update their work.[11], [12]

(4) Prophets can borrow from unbelievers/pagans

As we continue to look at different peculiarities of inspiration we may find some are more challenging than others. This next aspect of inspiration is an example. If we look at the following passages: John 1:1-18; Acts 17:23, 28; Jude 14, they all have something in common and that commonality is that they all use the words of others to convey divine revelation.

 

The Apostle John takes a pagan Greek philosophy concept “The Logos” and flips it on its head to teach a truth about Christ as the Creator. Paul quotes from a pagan poem about the god Zeus in order to teach philosophers about the true God. And Jude…well, Jude quotes from a demonstrably false book of “scripture” called the Book of Enoch in order to teach an important truth.

 

This can be challenging for us on multiple levels. For one, we must be careful not to inject our modern ideas of copyright and plagiarism into the past. Such concepts were not in existence in the ancient near east.

 

Furthermore, these texts stretch us theologically to accept the fact that the words and expressions of unbelievers (unbeknown to them) can be pregnant with truth beyond the intent of the original authors. A prophet or apostle can use this material in the creation of Scripture in order to convey the divine revelations they previously received.

 

In other words, prophets were extremely economical with their time. They did not spend time trying to reinvent the wheel and come up with unique, original prose if there was a perfectly good phrase, poem, etc. already in existence that conveyed the thought exactly as they would like to communicate it.

 

(5) Prophets borrow from each other

 

Prophets and apostles are very economical people. They tend to not reinvent the wheel if they don’t have to and will thus, not only borrow from pagans as previously discussed, but they will also borrow from each other when possible to communicate a message.

 

For example, have you noticed that 2 Peter and Jude are eerily similar, which begs the question “Who copied from who?” And then you have the synoptic gospels with many of the same stories and sayings of Jesus and told in the same way (though often in a different order). Clearly, the gospel writers copied from each other but then made their compositions their own by injecting new material from their sources or their very own eyewitness accounts in order to communicate a unique theological message.

 

Matthew emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus. We can see this because Matthew takes pains to tie Jesus genealogy back to King David and he often opts to use “the kingdom of heaven” which was a Jewish way of saying “the kingdom of God.”

 

Mark’s gospel emphasizes the sacrifice of Christ in that most of his gospel covers the last week of Christ’s life here on earth and doesn’t have much of a resurrection account in the “original” version. Luke emphasizes Christ’s miracles and his work of saving the world (including the gentiles). Each of these authors though borrowing from each other produced a unique gospel with a unique emphasis.

 

The Bottom Line

 

What we’ve covered so far is just a brief survey of some of the aspects of inspiration. I want to emphasize some because inspiration is an extremely complex topic to study. Despite the complexity of the issue, however, there is enough evidence from Scripture itself to conclude the following: the bottom line is that the Biblical view of inspiration is neither dictation nor is it simply the best (unaided) thoughts humanity has to offer about God. Both the divine and the human cooperate together to deliver a message that is ultimately of divine origin.

 

A commonly used analogy might be best at this point to describe the end product of Scripture. Many theologians have noticed a close relationship between Jesus and the Scriptures. Jesus uplifts Scripture as His word and thus Scripture is closely identified with Christ. With this being the case, some theologians have ventured to make the analogy that the nature of Jesus Christ is similar to the Bible. In orthodox Christian doctrine, Jesus is unabashedly proclaimed as being both 100% divine and yet also 100% human. He is simultaneously God and Man.

 

The analogy can be made of Scripture itself. In a similar fashion, Scripture is both divine and also human. It is simultaneously the word of God as well as written by men and women, preserving the unique personalities and literary styles of each human author. How this is possible will be covered in more detail later.

 

In the next article we will finish our overview of inspiration by attempting to answer the following questions:

 

  • 1) What are the qualifications to be a prophet and to write Scripture?
  • 2) How does the Holy Spirit supervise the work of prophets in the creation of Scripture?

Click here to read the rest of Ingram’s series on Adventism 202

______

Notes.

[1] The six packages or modes of revelation were covered in the last article and are as follows: (1) Direct Revelation, (2) Verbal Revelation, (3) Prophetic Revelation, (4) Historical Revelation, (5) Existential Revelation, and (6) Wisdom Revelation.

[2] This approach to theology comes from Frederich Schleiermacher. See Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 2 (New York: Harper One, 1985). p. 285-287.

[3] By a “low view” I mean that the text, in order to be interpreted responsibly, must be approached critically and with suspicion due to its high potential to exhibit human weaknesses, fallacies, and even manipulation.

[4] If you wish to study the following content in much more detail I would highly recommend Dr. Fernando Canale’s book The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology as it is the basis for most of the content in this article. I would also recommend picking up the Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology and reading the section on Revelation and Inspiration by Dr. Peter M. van Bemmelen.

[5] The Greek term behind the English translation of “God-breathed” or “Inspiration” is theopneustos which is a compound word that combines theos which means God and pneuma which means breath or spirit.

[6] https://relevantmagazine.com/god/15-augustine-quotes-helped-shape-modern-christian-thought

[7] How the Holy Spirit supervises the prophet will be addressed later.

[8] See Jeremiah 25:1-3.

[9] An amanuensis is the same as a scribe but in New Testament times, an amanuensis was employed to not only transcribed dictations but also had some freedom to massage the original dictation of the document by improving its style and rhetoric. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/amanuensis)

[10] This also helps us as Adventists to understand that the use of literary assistants does not negate the gift of Ellen White as a prophet and co-founder of the Adventist Church. Her use of assistants is only a problem if we hold her work to a higher standard than the Bible itself as several Bible authors used literary assistants (Jeremiah, Paul, Peter, etc.).

[11] This has huge implications for us as Adventists when it comes to the writings of Ellen White. Not only did she use literary assistants but she also created updated versions of several of her works. You can clearly see a progression of thought and development in the messages of Ellen White throughout her career as a prophet which necessitated, for example, a 2nd edition of the Great Controversy.

[12] This aspect of inspiration could possibly account for a few of the variants we find in the 5000+ manuscripts we have of Scripture in which no two manuscripts are exactly alike. This phenomenon of prophets updating their manuscripts to create 2nd versions might account for such issues as Mark’s alternate endings in his gospel though we could never be absolutely certain as to where or how these alternative endings entered the manuscript stream. Of course, the vast majority of variants are most likely due to copyist errors and overzealous scribes playing theologian as Ellen White states:

I saw that God had especially guarded the Bible, yet learned men, when the copies were few, had changed the words in some instances [introduced errors?], thinking that they were making it more plain [not intending to deceive], when they were mystifying [corrupting?] that which was plain, in causing it to lean to their established views, governed by tradition. But I saw that the word of God, as a whole, is a perfect chain, one portion of scripture explaining another. True seekers for truth need not err; for not only is the word of God plain and simple in declaring the way to life, but the Holy Spirit is given to guide in understanding the way of life revealed in his Word. (1SG 117.1).

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About the author

Ingram London

Ingram London is a PhD student studying systematic theology at Andrews University. He serves as head of content development for The Compass Magazine.