Doctrine of Revelation and Inspiration

Doctrine of Revelation and Inspiration (Part 1)

THIS church has no clearly defined and developed doctrine of revelation and inspiration. We have aligned ourselves with the evangelical or traditional position. This is not to deny its adequacy. But as far as this presentation is concerned, I speak for myself with a view to interpreting what I consider to be both Biblically and doctrinally sound.

THIS church has no clearly defined and developed doctrine of revelation and inspiration. We have aligned ourselves with the evangelical or traditional position. This is not to deny its adequacy. But as far as this presentation is concerned, I speak for myself with a view to interpreting what I consider to be both Biblically and doctrinally sound.

This issue is simple: Shall the church follow God or follow men? The crucial question concerns the nature of revelation, and secondarily the meaning of inspiration. The first major question is this: Has God spoken? For if He has not, then divine truth cannot be known. We can be sure of nothing. The word revelation in both He brew and Greek means the unveiling of that which hitherto was hidden from the minds and hearts of men. It presupposes a gulf between God and man that is a result of sin. There is no way from man to God. Unless God moves toward man, he must remain in darkness. We believe that God has communicated to men both His will, purpose, and presence. The question is How does God actually reach man, communicate with him? Does He communicate through the medium of ideas and words spoken through the prophets and apostles, or does He come personally to man in an immediacy that claims to bring the believer into the very presence of the supernatural?

Two theological interpretations of the doctrine of revelation are in vogue today. The first is the traditional one that affirms that revelation is inscripturated in the Bible. The second is the existential interpretation, which emphasizes man's personal encounter with God and at the same time accepts in varying degrees the findings of higher criticism, which doubts the historicity of many of the crucial events and the authenticity of certain books of the Bible.

While there are among some professed Christians varying shades of conviction as to how far one can hold in part to both positions, the basic differences are, in my thinking, incompatible.

The Traditional or Evangelical Position

The traditional conservative position essentially is this: Revelation is the communication of God addressed to the human mind in conceptual messages and in actions that require conceptual understanding. God has so constituted us as reasonable beings, that God's method of communication must be rational and prepositional. Revelation is not a vague mysterious something and immediacy that can not be defined in terms of the mind's activity. Man's reception of that revelation is in part the rational understanding of it and obedience to it. This means that the understanding of revelation is arrived at through ideas. For the more revelation takes on the character of the facts of God in human history, the Word in concepts, doctrines, and messages to be rationally understood, the greater must be the address to the mind of men. Thus revelation provides a rational basis for faith. "Thus saith the Lord" is found in Scriptures no less than 359 times to describe the revelatory initiative of God toward man.

When one asks, How does one know what is true? the appeal can be made to this objective revelation, to this objective norm inscripturated in the Bible. Thus rev elation is given an objective stabilized form for all men in all ages. This makes the Bible the depository of revealed truth, given once and for all. It is, therefore, normative for men in all ages. Because of the separation sin has made between God and man, God chooses certain media to reach the mind of man. He speaks to and through the prophets and apostles and Bible writers in a way that He does not speak to us. These messages constitute the rational content of the revelation, identified with the words of Scripture.

Existential Interpretation

The second position on revelation is often termed existential. Here revelation occurs in a personal encounter with God. God reveals His presence to man. So when one asks how one knows what is true, the appeal is no longer to an objective rational norm, the word of God in the Bible, but to faith. God makes us to know by faith alone. The emphasis is upon immediacy with God.

According to this viewpoint, revelation takes place in man's subjective experience, not in a book. Man's response is an essential part of the revelation. An objective revelation is a misnomer. Revelation is not something confined to a deposit of truth in Scripture. The Bible is not truth in itself, that is, truth objectively. The Word of God is not a given, a rational-content, a divine message. It is always a personal, living thing. Revelation mediates God's presence, not doctrine, not verbal rational truths.

Furthermore, because man's response is necessary to the revelation, revelation is always a contemporary affair. For revelation to occur, people must feel the impact of God's presence. This means that God's Word cannot be confined to anything given in the past. Revelation as encounter is defined so as to eliminate from it a rational, dependable, normative truth con tent. "God communicates Himself, not truths, not doctrines about Himself" is the reiterated formula.

Revelation as encounter claims to attain to meaning, not simply to understand ideas. Revelation does not provide us with an inspired rational knowledge of God and His will, but effects for us communion with God. God accosts me personally. Truth is personal. It is possible to deny the historicity of certain historical events recorded in the Bible and still claim to encounter the truth they stand for. Neither logic nor language can convey the truth. They can only bear witness to some reality behind it.


In interpreting revelation as encounter, what is at stake? First is the rejection of ultimate truth historically revealed and communicated conceptually in the language of men through chosen prophets and apostles. Revelation is confused with re generation. This places all believers on the same level with the prophets. Each is equally part of the revelation.

In contrast with the above the objective nature of the evangelical position denies that revelation can be equated with the experience of conversion or any subsequent religious experience with God or with the Holy Spirit. It insists that a clear distinction be maintained between God's objective revelation and the Christian experience with God. The Bible writers were not asked to convey some immediacy they had with God, but the messages intended, not for themselves, but for other men.

The evangelical position insists that prior to all human response and experience is the revealed Word of God. Revelation stands apart from man's decision and involvement. Revealed truth in Scripture can be depended upon regardless of man's participation in it. In the Bible God addresses all men, believers and unbelievers alike. It is not because people have an encounter with God that the Word is truth. It is because they are revealed truths that they constitute the truth. Biblical revelation is not affected by any personal encounter with God. Man's encounter and experience must be tested by it.

Second, the evangelical position provides man with the only criterion whereby man can discriminate between truth and error. The nonrational or suprarational encounter does not. Belief in the resurrection of Christ arose out of the fact of the resurrection. The fact and the truth of it made the first believers Christians. Without belief in that fact they could never be Christians. The fact, the revelation, the doctrine and the personal faith are indissolubly united.

The late James A. Pike, former Episcopal bishop of California, openly stated that he had a spiritual encounter with his son, who had committed suicide. Yet at the same time he rejected the Trinity, the virgin birth, and other Biblical doctrines. The Bible furnishes no support for any view that makes revelation some super natural encounter with the spirit world or confrontation in terms of an overwhelming subjective impression. We are exhorted to test the spirits, whether they be of God or not.

And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? . . . To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa. 8:19, 20).

Third, according to the existential interpretation, since revelation takes place only in an encounter, God does not reveal doctrine. This encounter speaks much of commitment to God; but fails to spell out what that commitment means in terms of the clearly revealed will of God in law, gospel, and doctrine. The issue is whether men are willing to listen to and obey the objective truth of God's Word in Scripture or whether they seek for some vague emotional or mystical or spiritistic excitation in the subjective consciousness of man. Thus man himself becomes the measure whether revelation has taken place or not.

Spiritual darkness has covered the earth and gross darkness the people. There are in many churches skepticism and infidelity in the interpretation of the Scriptures. Many, very many, are questioning the verity and truth of the Scriptures. Human reasoning and the imaginings of the human heart are undermining the inspiration of the Word of God, and that which should be received as granted, is surrounded with a cloud of mysticism. Nothing stands out in clear and distinct lines, upon rock bottom. This is one of the marked signs of the last days.—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 15.

Any revelation defined in terms of personal encounter leaves unanswered the vital question How does one know what is true, whether this is of God or of the devil? That an inner witness of the Spirit is necessary to a genuine Christian experience is not disputed. Nevertheless, structured doctrinal teaching and catechization according to the Bible is also a protection against mere emotionalism, spiritistic en counters, and vagueness as to the meaning of truth. What Adventist theology affirms is that the revealed truths we hold become dynamic through the Holy Spirit's leading. The call to obedience and commitment to all the revealed truths and doctrines of the infallible Word must be insisted upon. What is needed today is to unmask a false doctrine of revelation that by-passes the revealed Word of God given in propositional terms. The Holy Spirit always confirms our faith in the revealed Word. The encounter with the Holy Spirit does not cancel out Bible doctrines and conceptual truths. It confirms them.

Fourth, the Biblical writers represent divine revelation as an actual speaking. Repeatedly in Scripture God speaks. The emphasis falls upon what God said as the crucial matter, the content, not on some mystical encounter with God.

The attempt to think God's thoughts after Him, to have verbal communication, is according to the Divine intention. Granted, sin impedes this attempt, but revelation addressed to the mind facilitates it. Communion with God, revelation from God, does not dissolve into a formless and unintelligible encounter. It must include an address to reason, whatever else it may entail. Revelation must not be subverted by some kind of divine-human encounter that ignores God's address to the mind of man in concepts and propositions.

Faith, is both intellectual perception and commitment to the truth of the spoken and written Word. The reality of faith must be tested in this way. Abraham acted in faith in the case of the birth of Isaac. When he acted with Hagar, he disbelieved. When Noah believed in the coming judgment of God upon the world by a flood, he built an ark. He undertook immense labor, time, and cost in the sight of an unbelieving world. He believed the revealed word spoken to him. God has spoken to and through the prophets throughout man's long history. The Bible writers did not apply their own theological concepts to the revelation. They communicated the mes sages of God to our minds in the language we know.

Time and again God charged His people with refusing to hear His voice. This implied that God's voice came to them in a form that they could know and recognize. The Word of God is never a mere incoherent sound. God makes intelligible sense to His children. Revelation is supremely intelligent. If revelation confronts man with a voice that is incoherent, a vague mysterious presence, then how are we to know what is true and what is false?

Today people are both confused and deceived as to how God communicates with men. Thousands of men and women seek some form of immediacy with the supernatural. One of the great religious problems of our day is that men refuse to be bound by the eternal truths of the revealed word of God in Scripture. They therefore attach themselves to that which is false. What God says in His Word is infinitely more important than anything man experiences. Man's thoughts, words, doctrines, truths, must always be tested by the revelation of the infallible Word. Only then can we be assured that we know the truth.

Before moving to the question of inspiration, let me say that revelation through the prophetess Ellen G. White provides the most rational basis for a sound theological structure relative to the basic truths of this church. One of the most amazing things to me is this: In all my study of the many basic religious ideas and truths, Mrs. White has pretty much included and dealt with them all in her writings. I cannot say that about any other writer I know. Her writings are one of the greatest gifts ever given to the church throughout its entire history. Her grasp and spiritual interpretation of truth, covering such an amazing area of Christian doctrine in harmony with the Scriptures, is an amazing fact.

(To be continued]

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July 1970

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