Is the Bible our final authority?

What is the meaning of inspiration for today? What is the normative value of Scripture?

George Reid, Th.D., is the director of the Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke's contention that in every person resides a self-directed autonomy not to be abridged except by permission of the possessor appears to have won the day. First visible politically in revolutions in North America and France, it has be come foundational to every segment of Western thought. Contemporary extremists now challenge all kinds of authority.

An interesting sidelight is this autonomy's impact on religious authority and morality. The idea that no one has a right to limit my personal desires and that my permission must be sought before any sort of limit can be set on my activities continues to bleed across into areas once thought to be the domain of God's direction. As a result, moral, behavioral, and even doctrinal beliefs now find themselves set by a polling of the community, in search of majority opinion. Molding that opinion has be come big business as smooth public relations programs ply the group in an effort to sway opinions or to generate the mood that would propel people to ward a desired end.

In such a climate it is hardly surprising that many people think of objective norms governing right and wrong as an antiquated leftover from a less enlightened era. The basic source to be consulted becomes one's inward opinion or feeling.

With these conditions prevailing, the Bible's claim to be the expressed will of God is under heavy fire, even on occasion among Adventists. We must recognize the fact that the strongest force shaping opinion, including Adventist theological opinion, comes from the surrounding social environment, some thing particularly true in industrialized countries. We can deny it, but the pastors in the field know full well its truth.

To observe this is by no means to dismiss the gravity of serious talk about authority, rather to underline the necessity of saying clearheaded things. General reassertion of a position, no matter how fervent, will not do. Adventists must undertake a reassessment of where we are and explore once more the authority of the Bible. This includes the question of whether the message presented in the Scriptures will recapture the deepest wellsprings of the Adventist spirit, and if so, just how it can come to pass. Given the historic Adventist insistence on grounding all things in God's Word, this question is of high importance. The erosion of biblical authority is so significant that it overshadows many of the issues being tossed about, and in fact contributes to the discussions of some of those issues.

Sources of authority

What are the sources of religious authority? Many suggestions are made: an inner mystical force (typical of several Eastern faiths), human perceptions (often preceded by rational analysis), a religious organization (cults with a single leader), a combination of Scripture and church tradition (Catholicism's several branches), human experience claimed to be under control of the Holy Spirit (charismatic groups), the Bible as the authoritative word of God (conservative Protestants), and various blends of these. Some, such as the Mormons, subordinate the authority of canonical Scripture to other writings. Of all these, Adventists have heretofore placed the Bible the full 66 books in commanding position. As Ellen White wrote: "God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain 'Thus saith the Lord' in its support."1

Ellen White is not denying value to other channels of learning; instead she is identifying the Scriptures as the sole final voice in matters of religious faith. That she does not intend to limit the biblical voice to religious matters alone, however, is evidenced by her repeated commendation of the Bible as a source of historical information and as an authentic record of origins.

But when we extend scriptural authority beyond purely religious lines, we render it vulnerable to historical and scientific research, and therein lies the collision point that pits honest people against one another over the nature of the Word. Further, the steady process of critical studies has turned up substantial numbers of difficulties in the biblical text. These issues impact any acceptable understanding of inspiration. Dealing with this so-called phenomenon presents a challenge to Adventists.

Theories of inspiration

Books published on revelation/ inspiration since 1975 present at least six theories of inspiration, three of which deserve brief review.

The three approaches are the (1) liberal, (2) neoorthodox, and (3) evangelical. After looking at the essential character of each view, we shall turn to look at where Adventists fit in.

Liberal. Liberal Protestantism traces its origin to the German philosopher Schleiermacher's idea that God is inwardly perceived and is variable in form. This approach can be described as a sense of dependence upon a higher power. Such a concept soon was wedded to the critical examination of the biblical books.

In essence the liberal view begins with the "phenomenon" of the Scriptures, the millions of fragmentary pieces of information, and proceeds toward formulation of an overall view of inspiration that can account for all the elements under examination. It claims a thorough faithfulness to the text itself, letting conclusions arise from the text rather than imposing them from predetermined norms.

As the work proceeds, three repeated motifs emerge: First, divine truth is not to be located in an ancient book, but is represented in the ongoing work of the Spirit in the community. This work is discerned by critical rational judgment. Its ultimate goal is not to identify objective truth, but to seek an authentic awareness of God. Second, Jesus appears as the archetype of religious in sight and excellence. Salvation becomes a matter of Jesus' teaching and pioneering a better way to understand God. The emphasis is on Jesus' humanness, above other qualities. Third, the essence of Christ is to be found in His human greatness.

From this perspective, discrepancies within the biblical text pose no special problem, for the accent falls on Christ's humanity. It is not important that Mat thew cites a quotation as coming from Jeremiah when no such passage occurs in our present text of Jeremiah (Matt. 27:9, 10). All such reports are of human origin, but what counts is that they bring the reader toward Jesus. It is in this continuous conveying to faith in Jesus that liberal theologians find inspiration.

As Paul Achtemeier puts it, inspiration occurs as an activity of the Holy Spirit where tradition, the right situation, and a respondent come together. For him the respondent is not simply the person who wrote, but every person who had been active in gathering, shepherding, preserving, modifying, and re interpreting the tradition over the years, including the final writer. For this reason inspiration is a continuing dynamic, present in all ages whenever the Scriptures are read. A great deal more could be said, but obviously much in this perspective is not compatible with Adventist thinking.

Neoorthodox. Even defenders of a liberal view of inspiration concede that its end product is amorphous and heavily subjective. In the absence of absolutes, to what does the believer key his life? The answer generally is: To that which reason decrees to be good, drawn from the total life experience.

This uncertainty led to a twentieth-century reaction, called neoorthodoxy or encounter theology, that seeks return to an increased authority in Scripture. Here we find Earth, Brunner, and Bultmann. The task: to reconcile an error-prone text with the idea of true authority. The means: to conceive of the Bible at two levels. On the lower level is the text as we find it, error-prone, in human language, steeped in the context of culture. When examined critically, we find the text to be the record of human encounter with God.

But on a higher level God functions above the limitations of human language. There He moves in an experiential range, dynamically at work in relationship with the biblical text but paradoxically floating free from it. The encounter with God is an event of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, although under the stimulus of the testimony of the biblical witnesses.

The end product: Because this approach's value lies in the floating upper level of encounter, we may ply the lower-level record with critical analysis without disturbing its function. So rev elation becomes, not transmission of objective, prepositional truth, but a subjective encounter with God, inwardly received. It is not difficult to see the influence of Schleiermacher in this system and how its ambiguity has left it unsatisfying to many.

Evangelical: Evangelicals begin with the concept that Scripture is the word of God written. The stress is heavily on its Godward side, often to a minimizing of the human element. Although the Bible itself scarcely lays out a systematic order of inspiration, it has much to say about how God committed His Word to speech and writing. Bernard Ramm develops this thesis in his Special Revelation and the Word of God (1961).

We have the familiar statements of 2 Timothy 3:15-17 ("All scripture is inspired by God," literally, God-breathed [verse 16. RSV]) and 2 Peter 1:20, 21 ("No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" [verse 21, RSV]).

Evangelicals accept the prophetic model of Scripture. In so doing, their heavy emphasis on the Bible's God-given qualities has brought with it the assertion that the original manuscripts must have been error-free. The present perplexity lies in working with copies whose original perfection has been lost because of copyists' errors, misinterpretations, and a series of other problems introduced by the transmission process. Among informed Evangelicals the effort has been to reconcile differences in the best ways possible. Some proposals exhibit considerable ingenuity, if lacking in credibility. The key word is "infallible." Again, among the better informed this does not require a mechanical dictation theory, but it has proved difficult for Evangelicals to agree exactly on what they mean by "infallible."

Most Evangelicals appeal to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. By this principle, the Reformers were appealing to the Bible as the court of final appeal. This position differs from to ay's Evangelical teachings of an error-free text in the original autographs, an idea actually developed in the post-Reformation era.

In distinguishing themselves from neoorthodox views, Evangelicals insist that although the Bible mediates encounter with God, it does far more. It transmits content in the meaning of the words themselves. The Bible presents factual, propositional, and objective truths that provide norms for faith and practice as God's revealed will, norms valid whether accepted or not, and norms that are permanent because they reveal His character both in written messages and in reports of the ministry of His Son. As the Holy Spirit was at work in transmitting to the writer, so is He active in leading the reader to respond to God's call.

Thus the Evangelical perspective views inspiration, not simply as one of the Spirit at work within the believing community, but also as an objective phenomenon. Even though expressed within the language, culture, and times of humanity, the biblical text carries transcendent values above and beyond, values designed to present God's Son as the unifying center of a collection of documents written at varied times and places. And alongside the revelation of the Son there is expression of the will of God and the way of salvation.

An Adventist response

How do Seventh-day Adventists respond to these theories of inspiration? Being far from the liberal position and almost as far from the neoorthodox perspective, Adventists also find them selves uncomfortable with Evangelical inerrancy. The idea of defending the error-free status of lost autographs rings hollow. It seems to be a form of shadowboxing. But the challenge is as serious to Adventists as to Evangelicals: how to maintain a high view of scriptural authority while, at the same time, recognizing the limitations of Scripture. Can "the Bible and the Bible only" position be defended?

Already Adventists have begun work on these problems. Several carefully reasoned articles and a number of book-length essays and collections of essays have appeared. We have Gerhard Basel's Biblical Interpretation Today (which particularly addresses methods); George Rice's Was Luke a Plagiarist?; Alden Thompson's Who's Afraid of the Old Testament God? (which has implications for hermeneutics); and other Biblical Research Institute publications, such as Biblical Hermeneutics. We should note as well the valuable publication of several Ellen White writings on the nature of the Bible and the workings of inspiration. Indeed they set us on a path that offers at least partial resolution of the tensions.

A continuing concern in the Adventist history of inspiration is the temptation to soften the firm commitment to a high view of Scripture. Without yielding to such a temptation, we may look at three options.

Adventist pioneers were well aware of the struggle, over the Bible's credibility, raging around them in the past century. Ellen White and others were alarmed by the rapid growth of skepticism and higher criticism, better known today as historical criticism.

The trend manifested itself even in the fledgling Battle Creek College and in George I. Butler's series in the Re view and Herald of 1884, in which he proposed degrees of inspiration, one of the mainstays of today's liberal view. Under this rubric, liberal scholars sorted biblical elements according to their own value judgments. Ellen White's response: "I was shown that the Lord did not inspire the articles on inspiration published in the Review, neither did He approve their endorsement before our youth in the college. Where men venture to criticize the Word of God, they venture on sacred, holy ground, and had better fear and tremble and hide their wisdom as foolishness. God sets no man to pronounce judgment on His Word, selecting some things as inspired and discrediting others as uninspired."  2

Although Butler abandoned his views, the threat remained, prompting Ellen White to continue publishing articles on the Bible's authority.

A second proposed solution was the idea of confining the Bible's authority to religious matters only. This would relieve historical and scientific statements from the limitations of inspiration. In one of her most impressive early articles, which appeared in 1876 under the benign title "Bible Biographies," Ellen White reinforced her defense of the historicity of biblical reports, at that time under challenge by Wellhausen and others. She wrote: "The lives recorded in the Bible are authentic histories of actual individuals. From Adam down through successive generations to the times of the apostles we have a plain, unvarnished account of what actually occurred and the genuine experience of real characters. . . . The scribes of God wrote as they were dictated by the Holy Spirit, having no control of the work themselves." 3 The last sentence is a remarkable assertion that troubles some. Elsewhere she also defended the Genesis reports of the seven-day Creation and the Flood as literally true.

More recently certain Adventists have maintained that historical criticism without some of its rationalistic elements can be a valid tool in the study of the Bible. This approach treats historical criticism not as an integrated method but as a pool of elements from which one can select. For example, consider the historical-grammatical method, used by Adventists. This method functions in areas also examined by historical criticism. How ever, a close examination shows that the objectives of the two systems are at cross-purposes. Recognizing the problems involved, the church's 1986 Annual Council meeting in Rio de Ja neiro approved a statement designating the historical-critical method, as classically defined, as unsuitable for use by Adventists.

While certain highly technical procedures can yield data useful for both systems, historical criticism's view of the Scriptures is radically at variance with the prophet-oriented view of Adventists, with obvious implications for an understanding of inspiration and the authority of God's Word.

Ellen White on inspiration and authority

We have already noted Ellen White's ringing endorsement of the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures not only in religious matters but in their report of events, as well. However, Ellen White is not where Evangelicals are. While affirming the Bible's authority, she recognizes in far higher profile the human element in Scriptures. Here's what she wrote:

" 'Don't you think there might have been some mistake in the copyist or in the translators?' This is all probable. . . . All the mistakes will not cause trouble to one soul, or cause any feet to stumble." 4

"The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language." 5

"There is not always perfect order or apparent unity in the Scriptures." 6

"The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect." 7

"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. . . . The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen." 8

"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." 9

How can we reconcile all these statements with the previously cited dictation statement from "Bible Biographies"? By reference to the context. There Mrs. White is addressing the idea that Bible writers were impelled to tell the whole truth about Bible characters rather than yield to the normal temptation to lionize, omitting unpleasant facts. It is in this matter that the writers were strictly guided by the Holy Spirit, not in their selection of specific words.

And what of Ellen White's confidence in the finite Scriptures? It remained untouched by skepticism. While attending the General Conference in Minneapolis in 1888, she wrote: "The Lord has preserved this Holy Book by His own miraculous power in its present shape--a chart or guidebook to the human family to show them the way to heaven." 10

Ellen White accepted the humanness of the language and the means of expression and yet retained her clear, re sounding, unshakable confidence in the authority of those same Scriptures. A few paragraphs later she continued: "I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word. I believe its utterances in an entire Bible. . . . Let not a mind or hand be engaged in criticizing the Bible." And again: "Brethren, cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost." 11

Reconciling the tensions

Given her stress on the human side of the inspired Scriptures, how could she reconcile her unshakable confidence in the authority of the Bible? She employs two basic principles.

First, accommodation. She did not expect to find God's style or majesty in a way that would require an error-free Bible. She wrote: "The truths revealed are all 'given by inspiration of God'; yet they are expressed in the words of men and are adapted to human needs. Thus it may be said of the Book of God, as it was of Christ, that 'the Word was made flesh.' " 12

And again, "The Lord speaks to human beings in imperfect speech, in order that the degenerate senses, the dull, earthly perception, of earthly beings may comprehend His words. ... He meets fallen beings where they are." 13

Second, suspension of judgment. "The entrance of sin into the world, the incarnation of Christ, regeneration, [and] the resurrection ... are mysteries too deep for the human mind. . . . But God has given us in the Scriptures sufficient evidence of their divine character, and we are not to doubt His Word because we cannot understand all the mysteries of His providence." 14

Given our limits of data and comprehension, Ellen White encourages us to hold our judgment until we have sufficient information, to operate from a premise of faith, trust, and confidence, and to allow God in His own good time by His own good means to open the doors of understanding. In the kingdom we are likely to find ourselves asking, Why was I so troubled over this? Under the explanation of the Creator Himself everything will fit the pattern of His order, plan, and Word.

1 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1950), p. 595.

2 ____, Selected Messages (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958),
book 1, p. 23.

3 ____, Testimonies for the Church (Moun
tain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 4, p. 9.

4 _____, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 16.

5 Ibid., p. 19.

6 Ibid., p. 20.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., p. 21.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p. 15.

11 Ibid., pp. 17, 18.

12 ____, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 747.

13 ____, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 22.

14 ____, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 699.

Advertisement - Ministry in Motion 300x250

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
George Reid, Th.D., is the director of the Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - NAD Stewardship (160x600)