Understanding Inspiration

Understanding Inspiration: The symphonic and wholistic nature of Scripture

A comprehensive view of the relationship of inspiration to the Bible's authority

Alberto Timm, Ph.D., is director of the Ellen G. White Research Center and professor of church history and historical theology at Brazil Adventist College.

As the earth moves toward its end, God has, among other things, called  the Seventh-day Adventist Church to reinstate and magnify the ascendant authority of His Word. 1

Unfortunately, the fulfillment of this mission has been impeded as certain conciliatory approaches and attitudes to Scripture have been embraced. Aspects of our denominational identity are being challenged by both external and internal voices.

Although Seventh-day Adventists have written extensively during the last 150 years on the question of inspiration, the task is not complete. We have not only to state clearly our confidence in the Bible as the Word of God but also to respond effectively and fairly to challenges that tend to undermine faith.2 While dealing with many issues related to this subject, we should never forget (1) the symphonic nature of inspiration, (2) the wholistic scope of inspiration, and (3) the respectful approach essential as we approach the inspired writings. These three components should function as guidelines to any study related to the nature and authority of the Bible.

The symphonic nature of inspiration

Many controversies over inspiration occur because of a tendency to regard inspired writings as the product of a specific "monophonic" theory of inspiration that disregards the contributions of all other inspiration theories. This approach has fostered a classical polarization under the labels of verbal inspiration on one side and thought inspiration on the other.3

To overcome the limitations of such an approach, some have proposed a more "symphonic," multi-perspective view of inspiration.4 One of the earliest such proposals was the controversial theory of "degrees" of inspiration, promoted in the 1880s by Uriah Smith and George I. Butler.5 Assuming that divine inspiration varies according to the original sources of the information to be transmitted, Smith argued in a letter to D. M. Canright that the writings of Ellen White comprise both the truly inspired "visions" and the noninspired "testimonies."6 The following year Butler, in a ten-part series in the Adventist Review, argued that the whole content of the Bible could be classified under five different "degrees" of inspiration and authority, ranging from that which was inspired in the highest degree down to that which he "could hardly call inspired."7 In spite of being accepted by many church members, these notions were strongly rejected by Ellen White (1889)8 and by others such as the author of an 1893 senior Sabbath School lesson.9

Uriah Smith attempted to harmonize the theories of verbal and thought inspiration by suggesting that, if the words of Scripture were "spoken directly by the Lord," then "the words are inspired." If the words did not come directly from the Lord, then "the words may not be inspired" but only "the ideas, the facts, the truth, which those words convey." 10 I have not been able to locate any specific reaction to this proposal.

New attempts to break away from a "monophonic" view of inspiration were not made until the 1980s and 90s, when George Rice, Alden Thompson, and Juan Carlos Viera projected different "models" of inspiration. Focusing more on the gathering of prophetic in formation than on its transmission process, Rice suggested two models of inspiration: (1) the prophetic model of divine revelation (visions and dreams) and (2) the Lukan model of human re search (reading and interviews) that accounts for the nonprophetic sections.11

Alden Thompson proposed a more innovative model. Departing from some of what was traditional to Adventist thinking, Thompson suggested a more person-oriented inspiration or "incarnational model" that could reconcile a broader spectrum of the human and cultural influences he detects in Scripture. 12

In 1996, Juan Carlos Viera, director of the Ellen G. White Estate, suggested six models of inspiration: (1) the visionary model, in which God speaks "through prophetic visions and dreams"; (2) the witness model, in which God inspires "the prophet to give his or her own account of things seen and heard"; (3) the historian model, in which the message does "not come through visions and dreams, but through research"; (4) the counselor model, in which "the prophet acts as an adviser to God's people"; (5) the epistolary model, in which "the prophet writes greetings, names, circumstances or even common things that do not re quire a special revelation"; and (6) the literary model, in which "the Holy Spirit inspires the prophet to express his or her intimate feelings and emotions through the means of poetry and prose, as in the psalms." 13

These "models" reflect the increasing Adventist tendency to define inspiration as a multiperspective process that argues for divine assistance not only in the transmission of the prophetic truths but also in the gathering of the information. From the gathering-of-accurate information perspective, one can talk genuinely about the existence of distinctive "models" of revelation-inspiration. But within the information-trustworthy-transmission realm, the discussion is restricted to the divine-human interaction in the actual wording of the Scriptures. Ellen White explains this interaction: "Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation." 14

From this we might infer that although God spoke through the prophets "in many and various ways" (Heb. 1:1, RSV), the Holy Spirit guided the whole process of both gathering and transmitting information. Furthermore, while the wording of some portions of the inspired writings was divinely provided, the words of other parts were chosen by the prophets themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But this concept should never be used as an endorsement for the theory of "degrees" of inspiration or as an excuse to disregard some portions of Scripture as less important than others (see Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

The wholistic scope of inspiration

Although Adventists have traditionally emphasized the trustworthiness of different areas of knowledge covered in the inspired writings, attempts have been made to limit this trustworthiness to matters of salvation. In 1884, George Butler suggested different levels of trust worthiness within Scripture, depending on its various "degrees" of inspiration.

For him Scriptures "are authoritative in proportion to the degrees of inspiration" 15 and are perfect only as they are necessary for achieving the purpose for which they were given—"to make [us] wise unto salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15). 16

The most influential statement to ward a trustworthiness-limited-to salvation concept has been W. C. White's 1911 assertion that Ellen White "never claimed to be authority on history." 17 The following year he explained more clearly that "mother never wished our brethren to treat them [her writings] as an authority regarding the details of history or historical dates." 18

The concept that the inspired writings cannot be regarded as authoritative in matters other than salvation has been echoed by several other Adventist authors. For instance, at the 1919 Bible conference in Washington, D.C., General Conference President Arthur G. Daniells stated that Ellen White "never claimed to be an authority on history" or "a dogmatic teacher on theology" and that she never regarded her "historical quotations" as infallible. 19

Despite the strong reactions against these words at that time,20 and the fact that this view was not exposed in the Adventist literature at least for the next three decades,21 the controversy was not over. Disagreements on the range of trustworthiness of the inspired writings have actually increased since the early seventies.22

Crucial in this discussion is the interrelationship between the content of the inspired writings and their ultimate purpose. There is no doubt that salvation is the major purpose of Scripture (John 5:39). But the real question is: Can we isolate some chronological, historical, and scientific portions of Scripture from its overall salvific purpose? If we were to develop a soteriological inspiration canon within the general biblical canon, would such an approach not break the unity of God's Word?

The Bible claims for itself that it is wholistic in nature, forming an indivisible unity (Matt. 4:4; Rev. 22:18,19) and pointing to salvation as its objective (John 20:31; 1 Cor. 10:11). Further more, Scripture portrays "salvation" as a broad historical reality, related to all other biblical themes. And it is precisely this overall thematic interrelationship that makes it almost impossible for someone to speak of the Bible in dichotomous terms as being reliable in some topics and not in others.

Because the primary purpose of the Bible is to build up faith for salvation (John 20:31), its historical, biographical, and scientific sections often provide only the specific information needed to achieve this goal (John 20:30; 21:25). In spite of its selectiveness in some areas of human knowledge, it does not mean that the Scriptures are untrustworthy in those areas. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16) and our understanding of inspiration should always uphold this wholistic, all-encompassing scope. According to Ellen White, it is only in the inspired Word we find "an authentic account of the origin of nations," "a history of our race unsullied by human pride or prejudice,"23 and an "unerring standard" by which "men's ideas of science" should be tested.24

A respectful approach to the inspired writings

Closely related to the discussions about theories of inspiration and the thematic range of trustworthiness is the controversial issue of the existence or nonexistence of factual errors in inspired writings. In other words, did the Holy Spirit allow factual errors to creep into the inspired writings or not? If He did, to what extent?

Adventists have been historically reluctant to speak about the existence of factual errors in the inspired writings. When the General Conference appointed a committee in 1883 to make a grammatical revision of Ellen White's Testimonies for the Church, the motion did not mention any factual error in its content. Only grammatical "imperfections" were to be corrected, without changing the thought "in any measure."25 But later, in the context of the 1911 revision of The Great Controversy, minor errors were recognized.26 So, at the 1919 Bible conference, Daniells ex pressed publicly that both the Bible and Ellen White's writings contained several factual discrepancies.27

However, during the next three decades (1920-1950), Adventist authors continued to deny the existence of factual errors in inspired writings. Al though some discussions took place in the sixties, around 1970 the issue was again debated. As a result, Adventist theologians today are divided between (1) those who believe that the Holy Spirit did not allow any factual error to creep into inspired writings; (2) those who argue that the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit permitted only mi nor, insignificant discrepancies to slip into those writings, and (3) those who speak freely about factual errors in the inspired writings, without ever mentioning any controlling influence of the Holy Spirit.

Without a Holy-Spirit-intervention theory, the last view fails to grasp what the prophets, who personally experienced such intervention, have to say about this matter. For instance, Nathan's advice to King David about the building of the temple does not only mention that Nathan gave wrong advice to the king but also that the Lord corrected that mistake (see 2 Sam. 7:1-16). Ellen White recognized the Holy Spirit's controlling influence when she declared that He "guided the mind" of the prophets "in the selection of what to speak and what to write."28 Speaking of her own experience, she added that "in giving the message, with my pen and in speaking before large congregations," "it is not I who controls my words and actions" but "the Spirit of God."29 This being the case, we cannot regard any "nonintervention" theory as a valid hypothesis to be considered within an Adventist discussion of inspiration.

But even accepting God's overall controlling intervention in the prophet's transmission of truth, to what extent does that intervention prevent error? Some authors believe that the alleged factual errors are mere copyist problems; others argue that there is no other way to solve some difficulties other than admitting that they are actually mistakes. For example, in a 1966 lecture, Arthur L. White, then secretary of the White Estate, declared that "the prophet's inspired message could em body an inaccuracy in a minor detail not consequential to the basic concept or on a minor point in the field of common knowledge, the accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men."30

In 1981 and 1982, Roger W. Coon, then associate secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate, proposed an "intervention" theory that provided room for "inconsequential errors of minor, insignificant detail" in the inspired writings. He explained that "if in his humanity a prophet of God errs, and the nature of that error is sufficiently serious to materially affect (a) the direction of God's church, (b) the eternal destiny of one person, or (c) the purity of doctrine, then (and only then) the Holy Spirit immediately moves the prophet to correct the error, so that no permanent damage is done."31

More recently (1996), Juan Carlos Viera, director of the White Estate, added that "the prophet can make orthographical 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)," but the Holy Spirit "is in control of the inspired message" and "always corrected His messengers in matters important to the church."32

Yet the discussion between the nonfactual- errors-at-all concept and the only-a-few-insignificant-mistakes view is not now, nor in all probability will it ever be, fully solved. We feel very uneasy if we cannot understand and explain everything, including the mysterious nature of the Scriptures. Ellen White says, "Some passages of Scripture will never be perfectly comprehended until in the future life Christ shall explain them. There are mysteries to be unraveled, statements that human minds cannot harmonize. And the enemy will seek to arouse argument upon these points, which might better remain undiscussed."33

Further, if we accept the sola Scriptura principle, we should also take into more serious consideration the respectful way in which all true prophets dealt with the writings of other prophets. None of the New Testament prophets pointed out factual errors in the Old Testament, nor did Ellen White in regard to the Bible.

But this prophetic example of respectfulness to the whole body of inspired writings should not be used to foster any theory of Calvinistic inerrancy. Neither should we ever make our own faith or the faith of others dependent on such ultimately inconsequential matters. While not closing our eyes to the real difficulties within the prophetic writings, we should develop a more respectful approach to those writings that allows us to emphasize (1) more of the content of the divine mes sages than their human containers and (2) more the core of those messages than their side issues,34 in such a way that "the foundational elements remain foundational, and the peripheric ones remain as peripheric."35

The center of our faith should rest in that which is core to the inspired revelation, rather than needing reinforcement from explanations of that which is in itself indeed peripheral.

1 See Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Nampa,
Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1950), 593-602.

2 See Alberto R. Timm, "History of Inspiration in
the Seventh-day Adventist Church (1844-1994)."
Unpublished paper; ————, "History of Inspiration in the
Adventist Church (1844-1915)," Journal of the Adventist
Theological Society
5 (hereafter JATS) (Spring 1994): I8O-
195; ————, "Verbal Inspiration Versus Mental
Inspiration: A Historical Review of Adventist Trends from
1919 to 1997." Unpublished paper, Ellen G. White Estate,

3 See Timm, "Verbal Inspiration Versus Mental

4 See Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The
Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology
(Grand Rap
ids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1987).

5 Timm, "History of Inspiration in the Adventist
Church (1844-1915)," JATS5 (Spring 1994): 184-186.

6 Uriah Smith to D. M. Canright, March 22, 1883,
Advent Source Collection, Adventist Heritage Center,
Andrews University.

7 George I. Butler, "Inspiration," Advent Review and
Sabbath Herald (hereafter RH), January 8, 1884, 24;
January 15, 1884,41; January 22,1884,57,58; January 29,1884,
73, 74; February 5, 1884, 89, 90; April 15, 1884^249,250;
April 22, 1884/265-267; May 6, 1884, 296, 297; May 27,
1884, 344-346; June 3, 1884, 361,362.

8 E. G. White, Selected Messages, (Hagerstown, Md.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 1:23.

9 Sabbath School Lessons for Senior Classes, no. 98
(First Quarter, 1893): 9.

10 Smith, "Which Are Revealed, Words or Ideas?"
Advent Review (March 13, 1888): 168, 169.

11 George E. Rice, Luke, A Plagiarist? (Nampa, Idaho:
Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1983).

l2 Alden Thompson, Inspiration-Hard Questions,
Honest Answers
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1991).

13 Juan Carlos Viera, "The Dynamics of Inspiration,"
 Advent Review (May 30, 1996): 22-28.

14 E. G. White, Selected Messages, 1:37.

15 Butler, "Inspiration," Advent Review (January 8,
1884): 24.

16 ————, "Inspiration," Advent Review (May 27,
1884): 344.

17 W. C. White, "Great Controversy—New Edition.
A statement by Elder W. C. White, made before the General
Conference Council, October 30,1911 "Ellen G. White
Estate; published in Appendix A of E. G. White's Selected
, 3:437.

18  W. C. White to W. W. Eastman, November 4,1912,
Ellen G. White Estate; published without the indefinite
article "an" in the Appendix B of E. G. White's Selected
, 3:446.

19 A. G. Daniells, "The Use of the Spirit of Prophecy
in Our Teaching of Bible and History," Spectrum 10
(May 1979): 34, 38.

20 See F. M. Wilcox, C. E. Taylor, and C. L. Benson in
"Inspiration of the Spirit of Prophecy as Related to the
Inspiration of the Bible," Spectrum 10 (May 1979): 44-57.

21 See Timm, "History of Inspiration," 30-47.

22 See ibid., 57-97; _____, "Verbal Inspiration
Versus Mental Inspiration," 8-14; Samuel Koranteng-
Pipim, Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the
Bible Impact Our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle
Springs, Mich.: Berean Books, 1996); George R. Knight,
Reading Ellen White: How to Understand and Apply Her
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1997), 105-118; Charles Scriven, "Embracing the Spirit,"
Spectrum 26 (September 1997): 28-37; Samuel Koranteng-
Pipim," In the Spirit of Truth: Pipim Responds," Spectrum
26 (September 1997): 38-44; George R. Knight's and
George W. Reid's book reviews of Pipim's Receiving the
Word, in Ministry (December 1997): 30, 31; Steve Dailey,
David Larson, Kenneth Noel, and Alden Thompson, in
"Responding to Pipim and Scriven," Spectrum 26 (Janu
ary 1998): 50-54.

23 White, Education (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press®
Pub. Assn., 1952), 173.

24 ————, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa,
Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1904), 8:325; Counsels to
Parents, Teachers, and Students
, 52; Patriarchs and Prophets,
596; Signs of the Times, March 13, 1884.

25  General Conference Proceedings," Advent Review
(November 27,1883): 741,742. See also Jerry A. Moon,
W. C. White and Ellen G. White: The Relationship Between
the Prophet and Her Son
, Andrews University Seminary
Doctoral Dissertation Series (Berrien Springs, Mich.:
Andrews University Press, 1993) 19:122-129.

26 See Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), 6:302-337.

27 See the statements of A. G. Daniells in "Use of
the Spirit of Prophecy in Our Teaching of Bible and History"
and "Inspiration of the Spirit of Prophecy as Related
to the Inspiration of the Bible."

28 White, Selected Messages, 1:26.

29 Ibid., 39.

30  See Arthur L. White, The Ellen G. White Writings
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1973),

31 Roger W. Coon, "Inspiration/Revelation: What It
Is and How It Works—Part II," Journal of Adventist Education
(December 1981-January 1982): 18, 19.

32 Viera, 27, 28.

33 White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md.: Review
and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 312.

34 Timm, "Ellen G. White: Side Issues or Central
Message?" JATS 7 (Autumn 1996): 168-179.

35 ————, "A Sindrome da Gangorra," Revista
(Brazil) (March 1998), 38.

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Alberto Timm, Ph.D., is director of the Ellen G. White Research Center and professor of church history and historical theology at Brazil Adventist College.

August 1999

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