The Bible: Inspiration and authority

A thought-provoking attempt to bring together the best in differing hermeneutical approaches

Tim Crosby is pastor of the Wiliowbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland.

The perennial debate of inspiration and scriptural authority is heating up once again in Adventist circles. This decade has produced two major treatments of this topic in the Adventist Church: Alden Thompson's Inspiration (Review and Herald, 1991), and Samuel Korentang-Pippim's Receiving the Word (Berean Books, 1996). I would like to examine their approaches briefly and suggest a third approach.

Both Thompson and Pippim build thought-provoking cases based on a wide range of evidence. Pippim's book is a well-footnoted, broad-ranging polemic defending a "high view" of Scripture. Thompson takes a candid look at the evidence, using an inductive, bottom-up approach. I enjoyed the biographical anecdotes of interaction with students and was impressed with Thompson's long catalog of scriptural anomalies. Thompson proposes that Scripture is more a casebook than a code book; i.e., "Do it like this," rather than "Do this." This insight, it seems to me, is both helpful and potentially dangerous if carried too far.

There is one dialogue in Thompson's book that concerns me. When asked how to interpret Paul's counsel about women in the church, Thompson replies, "Paul's counsel reflected the culture of his day, not an enduring principle.... That was Paul's logic, not necessarily God's" (98).

Cultural conditioning? I have no strong convictions either way on the question of ordination of women. My concern is by what authority do we dismiss passages of Scripture that run counter to modern cultural norms? If we accept Scripture selectively, apart from the guidance of a later inspired writer, then we must have a standard higher than the Bible by which we can judge it. Thus Scripture as it stands is no longer supreme. Instead, we may come to favor some reduced digest of Scripture that conforms to our prejudices. In some circles, for example, the "canon within the canon" tends to be Romans and Galatians and the doctrine of justification. In other circles it seems to be the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the prodigal son. In a principle-based theology, the standard may become some selected essence extracted from the culturally conditioned husks by our own supposedly infallible logic. Thus, instead of whole wheat theology, we achieve at last the pure white flour of palatable truth, which leads to spiritual malnutrition and death.

What are the limits of this methodology? What happens if we apply the casebook-or-code book approach to the Ten Commandments? In a principle-based approach, the exact day of the week in the fourth commandment may not remain important: Under this methodology we may conclude that one day in seven is enough.

Were the prophets culturally conditioned? Of course, but so are we. The difference between our bias and their bias is that they wrote under a recognized divine inspiration. Under the culturecentric assumption that our mores are superior, that "newer is truer," Scripture will always be interpreted to support whatever cause is politically correct at the moment. Only the Spirit of the ages, as mediated through Scripture, can deliver us from our "marriage" to the spirit of our own age.

This is not to say that every single command of Scripture applies to us today. Five times in the New Testament Christians are commanded without qualification to greet one another with a kiss. Since Pippim categorically rejects the cultural conditioning argument, are we to assume he does a lot of kissing?

Deductive and inductive logic

I recognize that the two preceding paragraphs stand in tension with one another. One reason is that the first one uses inductive logic, while the second one is deductive. This is part of the problem. Systematic theologians (Pippim) tend to use deductive logic, while biblical scholars (Thompson) tend to use inductive logic. To oversimplify, the systematician starts with the forest; the biblical scholar with the trees. The systematician takes the self-descriptive statements of Scripture, such as "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God," and proceeds to deduce what a book inspired by God should look like. The biblical scholar surveys the phenomenology of Scripture to find out how the Holy Spirit actually works. The systematician looks at the blueprint; the biblical scholar examines the building, delving for structural integrity. There are dangers both ways. If the biblical scholar sometimes forgets the big picture, the theologian sometimes forces the evidence into a procrustean bed (i.e., forces the facts to fit the theory). Maps of the forest are very useful, but down in the trenches of the text, the terrain doesn't always follow the map.

It is to Pippim's credit that he does address many specific problem texts, unlike some writers on the subject of inspiration. Unfortunately, not all problem passages are as pliable as the ones that Pippim selects to solve, and not all of his solutions are convincing. Both books, for example, have enlightening discussions of the problem of the large numbers of the Exodus, but each writer largely ignores the evidence for the other side. Pippim praises the Old Testament chronological system established by Edwin R. Thiele, yet more than a dozen Ellen White chronological statements covering the period of the kings are discordant with Thiele's new and better chronology.

Pippim would have us believe that prophets are exempt from even trivial mistakes, such as giving a wrong reference for a quotation from Scripture. Yet this occurs twice in the New Testament (Matt. 27:9,10; Mark 1:2) and several times in the writings of Ellen White. Pippim attempts to explain away the problem but ignores the Ellen White passages, where his explanations do not work. Simple honesty requires that we admit that a prophet can have a faulty memory, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16. The author of Hebrews twice cites a text of Scripture whose reference he cannot recall (Heb. 2:6; 4:4). Evidently God can use imperfect people which gives me hope that perhaps He can use me.

Let's put some typical deductive logic under the microscope. Consider the following syllogism:

  • God does not err.
  • The Bible is God's Word.
  • Hence the Bible is inerrant.

This seems plausible. Let's compare another syllogism:

  • God does not need to sleep.
  • Jesus is God.
  • Hence Jesus did not need to sleep.

Obviously our top-down, deductive logic has somehow led us astray, for Jesus did need sleep (Mark 4:38).

The historical-critical method

For Pippim, the problem is the historical-critical method. It seems to me that this is something of a red herring; it merely provides a convenient way of labeling those with whom we do not agree. All New Testament scholars selectively use Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, written by historical-critical scholars. It is the presuppositions, not the tools, that determine the conclusion. The historicalgrammatical method, which Pippim advocates, is essentially the historicalcritical method with conservative presuppositions. The essential processes (e.g., ascertaining the meaning of a word or phrase by finding other occurrences in contemporary literature) do not change. Thus the Rio document, "Methods of Bible Study," voted at the 1986 Annual Council, wisely urges Adventists "to avoid relying on the presuppositions and the resultant deductions associated with the historical-critical method," not the method itself.

Pippim mentions source and redaction criticism as historical-critical processes to be avoided. Source criticism is an investigation into the author's sources, and redaction criticism seeks to find out how the author edited those sources. These techniques are highly speculative unless the actual sources are extant. If the sources are available, the techniques do have some value.

For example, Raymond Dillard's introduction to Chronicles in the conservative NIV Study Bible points out that the Chronicler omitted from his narrative virtually all of the embarrassing episodes found in his major source (Samuel/Kings), thus turning David and Solomon into idealized kings. The troubles and sins of David and Solomon are all removed for the incident of the census, where the instigator is changed from God to Satan. This simple statement of fact is a redaction-critical conclusion (theological value: Think of this as an example of how God sees us after we are forgiven).

Example two: Anyone who spends ten minutes perusing a synopsis of the Gospels can see that each of the Gospel writers edited (redacted) the words of Jesus in different ways.

Example three: Robert Olson, conservative Adventist scholar and former director of the White Estate, authored an outstanding shelf document (which the Review and Herald Publishing Association hopes to publish in an upcoming volume) in which he lays the basis for a source-critical and redaction-critical approach to the book The Desire of Ages. This document is an education in how inspiration works, as it catalogs Ellen White's written requests to her assistants for various sources as she wrote, etc.

This suggests an antidote to any overly rigid theory of inspiration. We have a contemporary model, a modern prophet whose writings and whose sources are still extant today. No one familiar with recent scholarship regarding Ellen White would claim the sort of prophetic impeccability that Pippim claims for inspired writers.

And just here is my main objection to Pippim's system. It is a bridge too far. The recent history of the church is littered with the debris of well-known individuals who started from just such an ultraconservative position and then stumbled over the difficulties they found in the inspired writings that weren't supposed to be there. It is as dangerous to claim too much for the Bible as to claim too little. The shibboleth of absolute inerrancy cannot be maintained and will ultimately result in disillusionment.

Since I am uncomfortable with aspects of both Thompson's and Pippim's positions, permit me to suggest a third alternative.

Another approach

There are two very different ways of understanding a person. One approach is the analytical, anatomical approach of the physician. Another quite different approach is that of the affectionate friend. Likewise, there is more than one legitimate way to approach Scripture: the critical analysis of the scholar is as valid as the reverential synthesis of the witness.

The two approaches yield rather different insights. A simple reading of my love letters to my wife would reveal more about my character than a chemical analysis, though the chemical analysis might be of some value if the authenticity of the letter were in question.

The mysteries of love, like the mysteries of inspiration, resist analysis; yet on one level, romantic love does involve a chemical reaction in the brain a chemical also found in chocolate. Of course, love is more than just a chemical in the brain. Likewise, Scripture is more than ancient literature: it is the Word of God. Scripture as God's Word, like God's Word Incarnate, is not partly divine and partly human; it is wholly divine and wholly human. This is crucial. The following thought experiment may help to clarify some of the implications of this.

Suppose a modern surgeon were to operate on the body of Jesus. Would this surgeon have to invent new and special surgical tools and techniques to use on the body of Jesus because of His divinity? Of course not. He would simply use the best surgical tools available.

Would the surgeon ever come to a point, as he cut ever deeper, where he would exclaim, "Why, this is God!"? Of course not. Jesus was wholly human. His body contained the same organs as ours, composed of the same elements found in dirt. The idea that we peel back the layers of the onion until we arrive at the essence is largely a myth. The essence lies, not on a sublevel, but on a metalevel.

Would such exploratory surgery enable us to truly understand Jesus? Of course not. It might shed light on His medical condition but not on His personality or the mystery of His divinity. We do not access the spiritual on the merely anatomical level.

Likewise, on the purely grammatical level of Scripture, we do not access the supernatural. Spelling, for example, is not revealed (the word Jerusalem is spelled one way in John and another in Revelation). When subjected to various types of literary analysis, the Bible yields results that do not differ greatly from that of other contemporary literature (conventional literary forms, use of sources, stylistic variety, etc.), just as the rainbow, when analyzed by the physicist, turns out to be mundane physics. But this is only true on a mechanical level. On a higher level the rainbow has special meaning (Gen. 9:12-16).

Likewise, on the message level, the Bible has an effect on readers that is quite different from all other literature, for it has been invested with the power of God. It changes lives, breaks hearts, and mends people. We have empirical evidence of the truth of its claims.

Jesus is God in spite of the fact that He was made like us in every respect (Heb. 2:17, RSV). While on earth He surrendered His divine attributes, such as omnipresence and even omniscience (Matt. 24:36; Mark 5:30), so that He had to learn through suffering (Heb. 5:8) and shared common human frailties such as hunger, fatigue, elimination, weakness (2 Cor. 13:4) and mortality. Likewise, the Bible is God's Word in spite of its "weaknesses." We have this treasure in jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). We know in part, and we prophesy in part (1 Cor. 13:9). When God inspired imperfect men to write, He placed His blessing on their labors, imparted information where necessary, and infused what they wrote with His power. Scripture is the classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Dissecting and analyzing the parts is an interesting diversion, but trusting in the whole---treating the text as it stands as God's message to us---brings life.

The Bible—the final authority

In politics, nobody argues that the Constitution is perfect; nevertheless, it is the final word. The Bible should hold an even higher place in the church than the Constitution holds in the life of a country. It would be a tragedy if we were to ascribe even less authority to the Scriptures than Americans do to a purely human document. The Bible must be the final authority for Christian belief and practice. If there are lower-level anomalies, they should never be used as an excuse to disregard scriptural commands.

In seeking to understand the ways of God, the scientific analysis of Scripture is just as legitimate as the scientific study of nature. Nevertheless, this is not our mission. God has called us primarily to proclaim the word, not to analyze or defend it. When proclaimed with authority, it is self-authenticating and life-changing. Sometimes our theology needs tweaking, so biblical scholarship is just as necessary as automechanics. But it would be a crucial mistake to stop driving our cars and spend all our time analyzing them. Cars are for going, not knowing. The church needs a few theo-mechanics who enjoy a bit of exegetical grease under the nails, but it needs more drivers if it hopes to get where it wants to go.

In conclusion, we can have both the candor of Thompson and the militant faith of Pippim. We can recognize the imperfections of the earthen vessels in which we have this perfect treasure yet retain a deep reverence for the plenary authority of Scripture as the power of God unto salvation, a double-edged sword that "penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit" (Heb 4:12). Let's spend less time inspecting the blade and more time fighting and I don't mean infighting. We do not judge Scripture; Scripture judges us. God's blessing rests on the one "that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isa. 66:2, RSV). And as long as we submit with reverent humility to God's Word, even where it pinches, we cannot fail.

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Tim Crosby is pastor of the Wiliowbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland.

May 1998

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