Can Prophets Make Mistakes?

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Can Prophets Make Mistakes?

In conveying His message, God uses not only human beings but also human language. And both are imperfect. How do these imperfect vehicles affect God’s perfect message?

1. An Imperfect Messenger

The fact that prophets were called “holy men of God” (2 Peter 1:21)* neither means they were sinless nor prevents us from recognizing their weaknesses as human beings. Any attempt to make the Biblical prophets “perfect” will be confronted by the Bible record itself. Think of King David. Though he was a prophet, he committed gross sins. When his relationship with God was broken by sin, God sent another prophet to correct His servant (2 Sam. 12:1-13). After David’s repentance the way of communication was once again open, and he was inspired to write the beautiful psalm of confession (Ps. 51).

We should not build our confidence in the Biblical prophets on the basis of the prophets’ perfect record. Neither should we do so with a modern prophet—the authority of the prophetic word is not based upon a perfect life or perfect behavior. Ellen White never claimed perfection or infallibility. “In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His Word is true, and in Him is no variableness, or shadow of turning” (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37). From her diaries and personal letters, we know that sometimes she was discouraged; sometimes she had disagreements with her husband; many times she had to ask forgiveness; she made mistakes.

2. A Mistaken Prophet

In the Biblical record we find instances in which a prophet had to be corrected because of preconceived ideas. The apostles first believed that only the Jews could be saved. The Holy Spirit had to correct that idea if the gospel was to be carried to all the world. A vision in Peter’s case (Acts 10, 11) and special revelations in Paul’s case (Eph. 3:3-6) enlightened the apostles and thereby the whole church.

In the Advent movement we also find instances when the prophet had to be corrected because of preconceived ideas. Our pioneers were greatly limited in their comprehension of mission by a theological error carried over from the Millerite movement—the shut door doctrine, the belief that the door of mercy was closed. Even Ellen White accepted it. In successive visions, the Spirit corrected the idea, first in her mind and then, through her, in the entire movement (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 63, 64).

The fact that the Holy Spirit corrected any mistaken doctrine related with global mission in the minds of Peter, Paul, and Ellen White gives us the assurance that the Spirit is in control of the inspired message.

In other instances a prophet had to be corrected because the counsel or suggestion was different from the Lord’s plan. Thus we find Nathan the prophet first approving David’s plan to build a house for the Lord, but the Lord corrected that idea.

We find parallels in Ellen White’s ministry. In 1902 the publishing house operated by Seventh-day Adventists in the South of the United States was struggling financially. The leaders of the church sought inspired counsel. After some consideration Ellen White endorsed the decision of the leaders to close the publishing house. But during the following night God corrected His messenger. She had to write a different message (Letter 208, 1902, in Spalding and Magan Collection, p. 282).

Again, all the New Testament writers believed Jesus’ return was near. Although we cannot follow the exact chronological manner in which the Holy Spirit dealt with this issue, we know the apostles received further information. For instance, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gave the impression that he expected to be alive for the Lord’s coming (1 Thess. 4:16, 17). However, additional information between the two letters led him to caution the church not to expect the Lord to come immediately (2 Thess. 2:1-4).

Likewise, John was convinced he was living in “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Further visions gave him the opportunity to tell the church, surely with sadness, that many things would happen—including fierce persecution—before the coming of the Lord. Undoubtedly, the book of Revelation was the answer of the Spirit to many questions arising in the mind of the beloved apostle.

All the believers in the Advent movement, the Lord’s special messenger included, shared the conviction that the Lord’s coming was near. We do not need to be embarrassed by the fact that Ellen White expressed her expectations, as did Paul, Peter, and John in Biblical times. Once again the Holy Spirit had to correct some ideas and give additional information to guide the church in the right direction.

In 1856 Ellen White was shown that some believers attending a meeting would be alive until the coming of Jesus (See Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 131, 132). In the years that followed, the Lord gave her an extended vision of the great controversy with additional information about the journey that was still ahead. It also was revealed that “we may have to remain here in this world because of insubordination many more years” (Evangelism, p. 696).

3. Imperfect Language

Seventh-day Adventists do not believe in verbal inspiration (the idea that God dictates the exact wording to the prophet). With the exception of the Ten Commandments, all the inspired writings are the result of the combined efforts of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the prophet with a vision, an impression, a counsel, or a judgment; and the prophet, who begins to look for sentences, literary figures, and expressions to convey God’s message accurately.

More on this topic: 6 Ways God Communicates through Inspired Writers

God gives the prophet freedom to select the kind of language he or she wants to use. That accounts for the different styles of the Biblical writers and explains why Ellen White describes the language used by inspired writers as “imperfect” and “human.”

Because “everything that is human is imperfect” (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 20, 21), we must accept the idea of imperfections and mistakes in both the Bible and Ellen White’s writings. This means at least two things: 1. The prophet uses his or her common, everyday language learned from childhood and improved through study, reading, and travel; there is nothing supernatural or divine in the language used. 2. The prophet can make orthographical or grammatical mistakes, as well as other kinds of language imperfections such as lapsus linguae (a slip of the tongue) or lapsus memoriae (a slip of the memory), which need to be corrected by an editor before the text is ready for publication. The editor corrects not the inspired message, but rather the noninspired language.

We find a lapsus linguae in Matthew’s Gospel, when he quotes Zechariah but mentions Jeremiah in connection with the 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 27:9, 10; Zech. 11:12, 13; Jer. 32:6-9). For a person who believes in verbal inspiration, this raises serious questions; but for those who accept that the Lord speaks to human beings in imperfect speech, this illustrates how the divine message reaches us through an imperfect language.

The following statement of Ellen White, when she quotes Paul but mentions Peter, is similar: “‘The love of Christ constraineth us,’ the apostle Peter declared. This was the motive that impelled the zealous disciple in his arduous labors in the cause of the gospel” (Review and Herald, Oct. 30, 1913; see Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 5:14). Fortunately, we have enough evidence in the Bible, as well as in the history of the Advent movement, to show us that the Holy Spirit always corrected His messengers in matters important to the church.

The Lord surprises us with His marvelous and sometimes strange ways. In communicating with His people, He has selected human beings, dedicated but faulty, using an imperfect human language, as His instruments to convey His message. We must be grateful to our heavenly Father that He did not select a “superhuman” language understood by only a few select persons, but chose to use our own imperfect, common way of seeing and understanding things.

In accepting His ways, we also must be careful not to confuse the content with the container. We must not discard the “treasure” inside just because the “vessel” is imperfect and sometimes unworthy (see Selected Messages, book 1, p. 26).

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*Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version.

Excerpted with permission from “The Dynamics of Inspiration: A Close Look at the Messages of Ellen White” on the Ellen G. White Estate website.

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Juan Carlos Viera, D.Miss., was director of the Ellen G. White Estate from 1995 to 2000.