Adventism 202, Part 7: How God Preserves His Word

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Adventism 202, Part 7: How God Preserves His Word

In our last article we covered the basic function of Biblical prophets and the Biblical tests that we can use to expose false prophets. So now that we can tell the difference between true and false prophets, we can return to our study of inspiration. What we want to do at this point as systematic Adventists (Adventists that see their faith as a systematic whole instead of just a list of doctrines), is to answer the question “What assurance do we have that the Bible is an accurate account of God’s revelations?” In other words, we have seen that human beings play an integral role in the production of the Scriptures, but we also know from personal experience and the testimony of Scripture that sinful human beings are faulty and prone to error. How then can we trust the Bible, if faulty human beings had anything to do with its creation and production?

Let’s look back at our working definition of inspiration.

Inspiration is the technical term for describing the process of how the Bible was written.

At this point we need to expand this definition.

Inspiration is the technical term for describing the process of how the Bible was written, under the supervision of the Holy Spirit.

 

The last clause is the topic of this article. How does the Holy Spirit actually supervise the prophets when they are writing Scripture?

 

Why is this Important?

The way we understand the process of revelation & inspiration is important because it serves as the foundation of our theological house.

 

Without a shared understanding of revelation and inspiration a church cannot function properly, let alone fulfill its mission to complete the Great Commission in Matthew 28. It’s hard to make good disciples (students) when we don’t agree on trustworthiness of or how to use the textbook (the Bible).

 

Related Article: How to Faithfully Interpret the Bible

 

However, on a more personal level the prophet Isaiah gives us some interesting advice. Speaking from the perspective of God, Isaiah writes:

 

These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2b)

 

Having a proper respect for the word of God, tends to attract God’s favor. But to have a proper respect for the word, requires a proper understanding and trust in how the Scriptures are inspired.

 

 

 

In the diagram above, God is attempting to communicate an idea to humanity. He first chooses a prophet and reveals divine content to the mind of the prophet. The prophet then proceeds to write down the revelation which upon completion becomes Scripture (or inspired writings). The problem is that it is unclear how the Holy Spirit is involved in inspiration, as depicted in our diagram at stage two of the process.

 

Related Article: What Does Inspired Mean?

 

So does the Holy Spirit force the hand of the prophet to make strokes on a page, that form letters, that form words, that form sentences and eventually a book is produced?

 

OR

 

Does the Holy Spirit tremble in fear, looking over the shoulder of the prophet and simply hope the frail and faulty human being gets it right?

 

As we take a deeper look at the miracle of inspiration we will see that there is good reason to believe that God’s word is trustworthy and should be taken seriously. I would again recommend Dr. Canale’s The Cognitive Principle[1] and Peter van Bemmelen’s article on Revelation and Inspiration.[2] In Canale’s work you will find a much more detailed description of the Revelation-Inspirationprocess than can be elaborated on here.

 

The Prophet Under Inspiration

To understand how God supervises the writing of Scripture we need to review a few ideas that were covered in an earlier article.

 

Scripture as a Product of Divinity

The first idea we need revew is that Scripture has a divine element; it is “breathed out by God.”

 

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

 

Whatever the nature of inspiration, we cannot discount or discard the idea that God is involved in the process of the actual writing of the text of Scripture. This is absolutely critical to understanding the trustworthiness of Scripture. In our diagram above we see that God (the Holy Spirit) is intimately involved in every step of the process of Revelation-Inspiration-Hermeneutics.

 

Related Article: Ellen White’s View of Divine Inspiration

 

Scripture as a Product of Humanity

We’ve established that inspiration definitely involves the divine, but it also involves a human being called a prophet (or apostle).

 

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)

 

This text affirms once again the divine element of Scripture and even specifically names which member of the Godhead is involved in the inspiration process, namely the Holy Spirit. However, we should not pass too quickly the references to humanity in this text. Human beings have a part to play. They are to speak and write as they are “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Prophets (human beings), are involved in the creation of Scripture. Scripture has a human element as well as a divine element.

 

Scripture as a Divine-Human Collaboration

When studying the phenomena of inspiration there is a danger in emphasizing one aspect of inspiration over and against another. When asked the question, “What happens to a prophet when he or she is in the process of writing down the revelation revealed to them?” the answers tend to skew towards one end of the spectrum or the other. Some overemphasize the human element while others tend to overemphasize the divine element.

 

Related Article: Understanding Inspiration

 

Overemphasizing the Human or Divine Elements in Scripture

In so-called liberal schools of theology, the Scripture is viewed as simply the prophets’ best thoughts about God and what he or she thinks God would say if He were to actually condescend from eternity and write a book. This theory is entirely unacceptable to most Christians and systematic Adventists as this view is not supported by the Biblical data at all. As discussed in part 3of this series, when we read Scripture we see that something much more profound is contained in the words on the page. The Scriptures have both: (1) the power to recreate us in the image of God and (2) they contain predictive elements that point to a supernatural, divine, origin.

 

Related Article: An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis

 

However, there is another extreme in the theories of inspiration that is a reaction to the liberal theory. Some people, in an attempt to uphold the divine origins and authoritative power of Scripture, view the Bible as the product of the Holy Spirit almost exclusively. They view the miracle of inspiration as an event in which the Holy Spirit possesses the prophet and essentially uses the prophet as a tool or puppet. The Spirit moves the prophet to take up the pen and trace the words and expressions, as the Spirit completely controls his cognitive and physical faculties. This theory removes the possibility of the prophet committing an error in his or her transcribing of the revelation. Though this idea is tempting to some conservative Christians and promotes a very high view of Scripture, it is unbiblical and therefore must be rejected by systematic Adventists for a host of reasons.

 

Related Article: What I Learned from Listening to the Bible

 

In this scenario, which is closely associated with so-called “verbal inspiration” or “mechanical inspiration” is eerily similar to an aspect of the New Age phenomena known as “channeling” or “automated writing.” Dictionary.com defines channeling as: “the practice of professedly entering a meditative or trancelike state in order to convey messages from a spiritual guide.” One method of how this phenomenon is exhibited is through what is called “automated writing.” In this practice, occultists enter a trance and are controlled by an outside force, which uses the human agent as a tool to write or type out messages from the spirit world. In laymen’s terms we would call this plain old demon possession (Mark 1:21-26; 5:1-10). So the question we have to ask ourselves  when it comes to verbal/mechanical inspiration, is whether God uses the same method as demons to communicate to humanity? Please note I’m not asking whether God has the ability to do something, but rather WOULD He do something. It is a question about the character of God. Does God override the free will and personality of a human being in order to communicate to the rest of us?[3] As we will come to find out, this type of action is out of the ordinary for God and should not be used as the basis of how inspiration normally works.

 

Related Article: Studying the Bible with W3s

 

These two approaches to inspiration can be placed on a spectrum. The extreme “liberal” view of inspiration is at one end of the spectrum and its extreme “conservative” counterpart is on the other. On one end the prophet is simply a puppet or a tool. On the other the prophet is just a highly imaginative and creative individual.

 

 

 

The truth about inspiration (like most things in life) is somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. Hopefully you’re more interested in the Biblical position rather than blindly following what is termed the “liberal/progressive” or “conservative” position. But if neither of the extremes we’ve looked at so far are correct, and if we are right that the Bible is ultimately a collaborative production between a perfect God and imperfect human beings, how can we trust the Bible? Is there any Biblical evidence that we can place our faith in that reveals how inspiration can overcome human weakness and inaccuracy? Let’s rephrase that to make it simpler, “What is God willing and able to do, to ensure His messages are communicated accurately?” To answer this question, let’s first take a look at what God won’t typically do in the inspiration process.

 

What God Won’t Do: The Mosaic Model for Inspiration

In part five of this series we covered different aspects of inspiration including Exodus 4, the call of Moses. In Exodus 4:10-16, God speaks to Moses through a burning bush calling him to be a prophet (spokesperson) for Him. Moses is timid and attempts to persuade God why he wouldn’t be a good candidate.

 

But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue…

 

Here we see that the human prophet is involved in the communication of divine revelations (inspiration) and that it is not a matter of channeling, else why would Moses point to his inadequacy as a public speaker.

 

…Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak

 

It may be tempting to interpret “I will be with your mouth” as some sort of dictation or mechanical control, but whatever it means, Moses certainly did not believe God would miraculously override his speech, otherwise he would not have remained afraid.

 

…But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well

 

So Moses protests the call of God again and God suggests a compromise. Moses’ brother Aaron, who “speaks well,” can be a voice for Moses. Think about that for just a moment. God suggests that Aaron can speak better than Moses. What this tells us is that, inspiration cannot be channeling and dictation. It has to be at the level of thoughts, ideas, pictures. He does not tell the prophet exactly how to communicate the revelation or else it wouldn’t matter whether Aaron speaks well or not. Let’s finish the passage.

 

You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do.He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. (Exodus 4:10-16)

 

Again if we take “put words in his mouth” literally, then the whole story doesn’t make sense. Aaron is chosen to use his gifts in public speaking to articulate the thoughts and ideas of Moses (which come from God). In other words, Aaron is going to take Moses’ broken communication and “spruce it up” into well crafted messages. This passage implies a lot of valuable information about inspiration.

  1. God does not typically dictate to prophets exactly what to say.
  2. God does not typically override the personality or style of the human prophet.
  3. The prophet is typically free to use creative expression to communicate the word of God.

However…

 

What God Will Do When Prophets Mess Up: Nathan and Balaam

Though we can see clearly how inspiration is supposed to work based on the call of Moses. There are examples in the Scriptures that demonstrate that God is not a bystander in the inspiration process. God will and does step in if needed to ensure the faithful production of the Scriptures. It is so important to God that…

  1. He is willing to correct and discipline a prophet if they make an innocent mistake (Nathan, 2 Samuel 7:1-11)
  2. He is willing to correct and discipline a prophet, if they, exercising their own freewill, intentionally try to corrupt the revelations they have been given to speak or write. (Balaam, Numbers 22-24)

 

In 2 Samuel 7:1-11, the prophet Nathan mistakenly tells David that he can build the temple, but God soon after tells Nathan that he made a mistake and needs to go back to David and tell him that he would not have the privilege of building the temple. This was an innocent mistake on Nathan’s part and thus God used gentle non-coercive means to help the prophet get back on track and deliver God’s word accurately.[4]

Related Article: The Bible and Its Context

Balaam however is a different story altogether. Without going into all the details (see Numbers 22-24), Balaam is intentionally trying to corrupt God’s revelations. Thus God is forced to use coercive measures to make Balaam speak the truth. This truly is a strange story as it is out of character for God to force His creatures, especially human beings, to do anything. But in this case, because everyone knew Balaam was a prophet of God, God was in a sense forced to use coercion to get Balaam back into line.[5]

 

How It’s Supposed to Work

We asked earlier “What is God willing and able to do to ensure His messages are communicated accurately to the world?” We see now that God is willing to do what is necessary, even to temporarily coerce a wayward prophet onto the right path. But this is not the norm. The reason for this is that God knows the future. God has the advantage of using divine foreknowledge in that He can choose individuals who will [in freedom] correctly interpret His revelations and codify them in messages that are both: (1) accurate and trustworthy descriptions of God’s thoughts, and (2) understandable to ordinary human beings. So basically, when God needs a prophet, he scans the vast sea of humanity that inhabits this planet and chooses human beings who will deliver His messages according to the two criteria above. Under normal circumstances God does not force the prophet to write or proclaim something. The Bible is a cooperative and collaborative effort between a loving God and a willing and obedient prophet.

 

Related Article: Inspiration/Revelation –What It Is and How It Works

 

But as we have seen, if a prophet willingly or ignorantly distorts God’s revelation, God will correct the prophet (Nathan) and is even willing to supernaturally intervene if necessary (Balaam).

 

The Bottom Line

When it comes to the trustworthiness of Scripture it really comes down to the fact that God has demonstrated in history that He “watches over His word.” Even a quick survey of Scripture reveals that the trustworthiness of God’s word is extremely important to Him.

  • John 10:35 – Scripture cannot be broken (i.e. proved false)
  • John 17:17 – The Words of Scripture are Truth
  • Psalm 119:160 – The sum total of Scripture is Truth
  • Matthew 24:35; Jeremiah 1:12 – The Bible is still accessible today and God preserves and “watches over” the Scriptures
  • Numbers 23:19 – God is not a man, that He should lie

 

Or as Fernando Canale simply put it, “The word of God contains no deceit.”

 

Via the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament, God’s people, including Seventh-day Adventists, have a trustworthy foundation for their faith.

Related Article: How God Speaks to Us through the Bible

Other Resources on this Topic

So far we have only covered how particular books of the Bible came into existence. But what we haven’t covered is how the Bible as a whole came to be composed of 66 books. For that discussion I would highly recommend a video featuring Dr. John Peckham. And of course, I would again recommend Fernando Canale’s The Cognitive Principle, as this article is heavily based on his work. Additional material that you may find helpful with this topic can be found in the introduction to The Great Controversyand Selected Messages vol. 1, pages 5-76 and vol. 3, pages 28-86 by Ellen White.

And with that we’re done with revelation-inspiration and we can now turn our attention to the very practical matter of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).

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

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Notes.

[1] Much of the material in this article is sourced from Fernando Canale. The Cognitive Principle of Christian Theology: A Hermeneutical Study of the Revelation and Inspiration of the Bible. Andrews University Lithotech, Berrien Springs, MI. 2010.

[2] Peter van Bemmelen. “Revelation and Inspiration” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology. Review & Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD. 2000.

[3] This is a theological question, but there is also a practical problem associated with verbal inspiration which is “what do we do with inaccuracies that appear in the Bible?” A classic example of this is the apostle Matthew’s attribution of a quote to the prophet Jeremiah when in reality it came from Zechariah. See Matthew 27:9-10; Zechariah 11:12-13. If the verbal/mechanical inspiration theory is correct, which essentially teaches that God bypassed humanity to write the Bible, we would expect the Bible to be factually perfect in every detail. So in the case with Matthew 27:9-10 we are left with a dilemma. Either: (1)there is a portion of Jeremiah that was in existence during the 1stCentury that we no longer have in our Bibles, that Matthew was quoting from, (2) the gospel of Matthew has been tampered with. Either solution seems unreasonable and needlessly complicates the situation. A much simpler solution is to understand that Matthew simply made a mistake, but it was a mistake that is so insignificant that the Holy Spirit did not feel the need to correct him, (and neither should we by the way).

[4] One could wonder how Nathan could make a mistake in telling David that he could build the temple, but we have to remember that not all of a prophet’s writings or sermons/speeches come from direct revelations from God. The experience of receiving past revelations from God reeducates the prophet to “think” like God. Thus even without a direct revelation a prophet’s words are still inspired. This is why Paul says at times that I’m going to tell you something that is not a revelation from God but I still believe I have the Spirit (i.e. I’m inspired). See 1 Corinthians 7:26-40.

[5] Balaam is an example of how prophecy should work and how it should not work.
Balaam is educated from the first two attempts and in the third attempt he does things right. By educated, I mean they begin to “think” like God about an issue. Notice in Numbers 24:1-2, that Balaam finally understands how deeply God loves Israel and he now submits and cooperates with God. Interestingly, the text then says that the Spirit came upon him in this 3rd prophecy.  In the previous two prophecies that Balaam gives, the Spirit is not mentioned as coming upon him.

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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.