A fresh look at the dynamics of inspiration

A fresh look at the dynamics of inspiration Part 1

A holistic view of the essential aspects of authoritative prophetic material

Richard W. Coffen is vice president of editorial services at theReview and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland.

While sitting in the pastor's study of the Adventist church in Boston, Uncle Jim heard the doorbell. At the door he found a disheveled-looking man in old army fatigues.

After a few minutes of conversation, my uncle discovered that the man claimed to have heard a voice from heaven. He insisted that God had commissioned him for a life of service. "The voice from heaven," the visitor explained, "said, 'From henceforth thou shalt be called Dewdrop.'"

Uncle Jim decided that Dewdrop was no prophet.

Dewdrop, of course, is not alone. Many have claimed to have the prophetic gift and have ventured out to denounce the church or to proclaim what's about to come.

Reflecting on several such claims and trying to find where they might fit into the dynamics of revelation and inspiration, I began to think about some deeply significant issues: (1) The mental normalcy of those claiming divine revelation(s) and inspiration; 1 (2) the role played by the community of faith; (3) the approach in determining the dynamics of inspiration; (4) the quest for an appropriate analogy for divine inspiration; (5) the modeling of inspiration as found in Ellen White; (6) error in inspired writings; and (7) the various approaches to interpreting inspired writings.

1. The mental competency of inspired persons

I've seriously questioned the mental health of many of those who have claimed to have received divine information. This judgment of mine has troubled me because I grew up never questioning the sanity of Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or Ellen White. In fact, I still accept their claims to inspiration at face value. So I really cannot apriori rule out the possibility of the prophetic gift being manifested in perfectly normal people.

The April-June 1957 issue of Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases published an article titled "The Psychopathology of Religion The Seventh-day Adventist Denomination." Written by psychiatrist Helen Yarnell, the article critiqued Adventism in general and Ellen White in particular.

The author faulted Ellen White for writing "a jumbled outpouring of Biblical phrases" and for "popularizing ...doctrinal cliches.... Perhaps the almost nonsensical confusion increases the effect of the supernatural," Yarnell suggested. "My impression is that her relation to the congregation was some thing like that of an anxious, possessive, nagging mother."2

On the one hand, a quick survey of some of Ellen White's books could lead a critic to label her "an anxious, possessive, nagging mother" figure. On the other hand, a more complete over view of her entire life and ministry could lead to a different conclusion: that she was a caring wife, mother, and church member. That she cared so deeply about spiritual things that she might have slipped into what Dr. Yarnell labeled "anxious, possessive, nagging." But that's only part of the Ellen White story.

Arthur G. Daniells, her contemporary and General Conference president, knew her probably as well as anyone. On July 30,1919 he said of her: "Sister White was never a fanatic, she was never an extremist. She was a level-headed woman. She was well-balanced. I found that so during a period of 40 years of association with her."3

2. The role of the community of faith

When a tree crashes to the forest floor during a storm does it make a noise if no one is around to hear it? Although a falling tree sends out sound waves, noise is a subjective element and does not exist unless there is a nearby receptor for the sound waves. Similarly, God's Word may truly be a product of His inspiration as well as His attempt to communicate with us. But unless someone receives that Word with faith, no communication takes place. Like wise a prophet's ministry is contingent upon a community of faith who accepts the messages as divine communication. Donald G. Bloesch has observed: "The Word of God exists for us only when God is actually speaking and we are actually receiving His Word."4

Some may find it difficult to agree with the preceding paragraphs. They would stress the objective aspect of what they saw to be taking place. The point is that no matter how objective some thing might be, the subjective element must also be factored in. You may send me an e-mail something objective is transmitted but unless I turn on my computer, log in, and read your mes sage with some degree of receptivity, no communication takes place.

Similarly, regardless of how many dreams a prophet may have and irrespective of how many visions he or she might receive, the prophet has no ministry without the acknowledgment of a community of faith.

From Paul's list of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, it appears that parallel to the gift of prophecy is the gift of "discerning of spirits" (verse 10). That is why the apostle could instruct the Thessalonian believers to "quench not the spirit" (1 Thess. 5:19) and "despise not prophesyings" (verse 20).

Apparently the gift of prophecy in Thessalonica was accompanied by the gift of discernment, because Paul urged them to "prove all things" (verse 21). The verb used here means to put to the test with the purpose of finding something good to ascertain the genuineness of that which is being tested. And the Thessalonians were to put "all" (there is no noun for the word "things" here) through this rigorous evaluation. "All" in this context means all prophetic claims.

In assessing their prophetic claim ants, the Thessalonians were to "hold fast that which is good" (verse 21). Whatever failed their appraisal, they had to abstain from or avoid (verse 22).

Note the important role the community of faith plays. The community should not despise any claim of prophecy but must investigate all such claims. Those who pass the test are to be cherished; those who fail are to be avoided. When God takes the initiative to communicate to us through the prophetic gift, He also gives the gift of discerning the spirits so that the community of faith will be able to differentiate be tween the authentic and the fake.

3. Determining the dynamics of inspiration

Obviously, those in Thessalonica who were going to examine each claim to inspiration must have had some clue as to the dynamics involved when God reveals Himself and inspires an individual to record that encounter.

We learn from the New Testament that God's great "mystery of Christ" has been "revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:4, 5) and that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim. 3:16).

But 2 Timothy 3:16 poses two problems. The first is the fact that the grammatical structure Paul used in this passage is such that his words can mean "all scripture is inspired and is useful" (as in the KJV) or "all inspired scripture is useful" (as in the NEB). Assuming that the KJV rendering reflects the apostle's original intent, we're still left with the second difficulty. "All scripture is inspired" is a proposition. But is such a claim the same as the assertion that a plane triangle has three sides and all its interior angles always add up to 180 degrees?

One can experimentally prove geometrical propositions, but what about the statement that all Scripture is inspired? How does one demonstrate such a truth? It is, in fact, an assertion of a different sort. A mathematical proposition is a claim of knowledge, whereas a religious proposition is a claim of faith. The former is far easier to prove than the latter. In fact, some might understandably prefer to call the latter "opinion" rather than "knowledge."

We accept Paul's statement as a valid truth claim and accept the proposition as it is translated in the KJV. We conclude, therefore, that something supernatural has been at work, but exactly what does this "inspiration" or revelation entail? It is one thing to assert the existence of inspiration at work, but entirely another to understand the dynamics involved and authenticate the subject matter of the inspired material.

The expression translated "inspired of God" in the KJV theopneustos literally means "God breathed," but the derivation of a word does not always provide helpful information or supply us with answers to our questions. Besides this, theopneustos is used only once in the Bible. That complicates matters, because normally we would turn to other uses of the same word that might help us under stand it better. In the Hellenistic usage of the word, its recipients were considered divine tools void of their own personal initiative. But need we infer from this that the word has the same overtones of ecstatic experience when Paul used it? Maybe, but maybe not.

We have no assurance that the common Hellenistic use of theopneustos had either the same denotation or con notation as it bore when Paul used it. As a result, Eduard Schweizer has concluded that "it may be asserted that 2 Timothy 3:16 is not using a specific term from the world of enthusiasm."5 Prob ably the minimum we can infer from this metaphor is that Scripture gains its existence from God. And because the word "existence" is a synonym for "life," it is probably safe for us to conclude that God is the Creator of Scripture just as He is our Creator. In fact, the metaphor in a biblical context could remind us of Genesis 2:7, which describes how God "made man of the dust of the ground (haa'daamaah) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man (haa'aadaam) became a living soul." God's breathing vivified Adam, and we might infer that it does the same in the case of Scripture, which is described as "living and active" (Heb. 4:12, NIV).

As Bloesch suggests: "Inspiration ... means being 'dominated' by or 'filled with the Spirit of God.' It does not mean, as the ancient Greeks supposed, that our rational faculties are suspended or that our personality is negated."6

Now, we can understand the dynamics of inspiration in two ways. On the one hand, we can deduce from our presuppositions about God and His at tributes what we think would be logically coherent for us to project onto inspiration. On the other hand, we can induce from a clear example of inspiration at work that which can perhaps be predicated in the case of other similar instances.

All of us use deductive logic when we formulate syllogisms. Probably the most famous syllogism is: All humans are mortal; Socrates is human; therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Some have daisy-chained syllogisms together when they've tried to comprehend the dynamics of in inspiration, such as: The word "perfect" means being free from error;

  • God is perfect; there fore, God is free from error.
  • God, who is perfect, can create only perfect things; God created Scripture; therefore, Scripture is perfect.
  • Perfect means being free from error; Scripture is perfect; therefore, Scripture is free from error.
  • Being free from error means being inerrant; Scripture is free from error; therefore, Scripture is inerrant.

Such reasoning can often be difficult to controvert because it is logically valid. One assumption leads coherently to the next. But anyone who has worked through such processes knows that things are simply not that simple! Sometimes what we may logically expect is not true.

For example, chemists know that sodium, when dropped into water, reacts violently, sputtering across the surface of the water and shooting miniature flames as it decomposes into something highly poisonous and reactive. Chemists also know that chlorine, a yellow-green gas with a strong odor, is highly toxic. Chlorine is so potent that it bleaches clothing. We pour it into our swimming pools to kill the algae and bacteria that could contaminate the water. But combine approximately equal parts of these two poisonous chemicals, and you get table salt or sodium chloride. Without salt none of us would live. Just imagine the syllogisms you could construct to "prove" that sodium chloride is a doubly lethal compound deleterious to life and health!

All of us also use inductive reasoning, and with considerable success. Science stems from inductive reasoning. Scientists examine the phenomena about us and form conclusions called hypotheses. If these hypotheses appear to hold up under repeated experimentation, they may be called a "law."

Because no investigator or group of researchers can examine all the evidence everywhere and throughout all time, conclusions are still always more or less tentative. It is always possible, though maybe not probable, that further investigation will reveal an example that violates an observed pattern.

Often systematic theologians explicate inspiration by using deductive methods. Beginning with God's at tributes, they formulate sets of syllogisms that ultimately elucidate among other things an inerrant Scripture (as we did earlier).

More often than not, biblical theologians form their conclusions via inductive methodologies. Beginning with what is found in Scripture itself and then moving to those claiming the prophetic gift in other religions and cultures, they tend to allow considerable diversity, cultural conditioning, and even mistakes in the product of inspiration.

You and I have, however, a plus fac tor we can turn to in our inductive reasoning about inspiration. We belong to a community of faith that accepts the prophetic ministry of Ellen White.

4. Finding an appropriate analogy

Once investigators reach a conclusion about the dynamics of inspiration, they frequently look for an appropriate analogy to help illuminate important points.

Some, who by deductive reasoning have concluded that Scripture is free from all error, have pressed into service the analogy of a CEO dictating letters to a secretary. What the boss says is exactly what the stenographer types out. The secretary does not add to the letter or correct what the supervisor said, unless first obtaining clarification and authorization. Consequently, the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and overall style perfectly correspond with what was spoken into the transcription device by the chief executive officer.

When applied to Scripture, this model of inspiration leads one to maintain that the Bible is absolutely inerrant at least in its autographs. For these theologians, the assertion that "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 1:21) means the prophets wrote down precisely what they heard no more and no less. W. A. Criswell, for example, states: "Each sentence was dictated by God's Holy Spirit.... It is God's voice, not man's."7

By inductive logic others have concluded that Scripture as the written Word of God is quite parallel to the living Word of God the incarnate Jesus Christ. So the Incarnation is their analogy of choice. In much the way Jesus was both human and divine, so is the Bible.

Applied to Scripture, this model of inspiration leads one to maintain that within the very materialistic and natural aspects of Scripture (paper, ink, language, vocabulary) is enclosed a divine aspect as well. However, only the eye of faith discerns this supernatural essence.

For these investigators, the verse "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" means that the biblical authors were influenced directly by God in ways different from those you and I experience. But in sharing with the community of faith what God communicated to them, they were free to select their own vocabulary. God also left it up to them to choose a genre poetry, law, epistle, gospel, apocalyptic.

Because those who have adopted this metaphor allow so much human freedom in the dynamic of inspiration, they feel no discomfort in talking about the differences in the mental and even spiritual capacities of the biblical writers. They generally do not wince when speaking about cultural conditioning on the part of David, the Chronicler, Matthew, or Peter. Nor do those who hold to this model of inspiration recoil if some sort of inaccuracy in fact or figure can be pointed out in Scripture.

Ellen White says: "The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers....Written in different ages, by men who differed widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments, the books of the Bible present a wide contrast in style, as well as diversity in the nature of the subjects unfolded.... The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language."8

Those who argue for verbal inspiration may suggest that the Holy Spirit inspired not the writers but the books, but that's not Ellen White's stand: "The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression. . . . God, as a writer, is not represented.... God has not put Him self in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible....

"It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men.... 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.... The words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused."9

Metaphors, though not identical with the reality itself, are generally very helpful. But metaphors have a life of their own. At first they can have great power, but as time goes by they can be come trite, losing power and finally dying.

Metaphors consist of a vehicle and a tenor. The vehicle is the concrete analogy itself. For example, the incarnation of our Saviour is the vehicle. The tenor is the idea of a dual nature blending the divine and human into an integrated whole. It is conceivable that different vehicles may have nearly the same (if not identical) tenor. So it may be appropriate when a metaphor dies that is, when the vehicle loses its explanatory power to select another metaphor with a different vehicle but the same tenor.

From an inductive study of Ellen White's work and ministry and from her own statements delineating the dynamics of inspiration, many Adventists would opt for the incarnation metaphor rather than the CEO metaphor. But the incarnation metaphor is very old. Might there be another metaphor with a different vehicle but with a similar tenor? There maybe. It's a relatively new metaphor that has very ancient roots.

"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Ps. 119:105), David sang nearly three thousand years ago. His pre-scientific concept of light was surely not identical with ours. How ever, the understanding of light now current in modern physics might make a powerful metaphor for a contemporary understanding of the dynamics of inspiration.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727), famed scientist and student of Bible prophecy, became fascinated with light and color, publishing his findings in 1704. According to Newton, light consists of particles, which he called corpuscles. And New ton's research backed his findings.

Newton's contemporary, Christian Huygens (1629-1695), a Dutch mathematician and physicist, dared to differ with Newton. Huygens said that light consists of waves not particles and his research backed him up.

Years went by. Most scientists sided with Newton.

Then in the eighteenth century Thomas Young of England and Augustin Fresnel of France insisted that light was made up of waves. Their experimental results met with skepticism. Later Leon Foucault, James Clerk Max well, and Heinrich Hertz finally succeeded in convincing the scientific community that light was wavelike. One last holdout for the corpuscular theory of light remained vocal—Albert Einstein. Despite other persuasive re search during the first half of the twentieth century, Einstein seemed to establish "beyond all doubt" 10 the particle nature of light.

Then during the first half of the 1900s, Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, enunciated the principle of complementarity, which meant that Newton and Einstein were right ... as were Huygens and Fresnel. What? Bohr's principle of complementarity insisted "that the wave and particle theories of . . . light are not mutually exclusive to one another but complementary. Both concepts are necessary to provide a complete description." 11

So modern scientists speak of the "dual nature of light" or "particle/wave duality." To speak of one aspect alone is not wrong so much as it is inadequate.

You get the point, don't you? King David was smarter than he realized when he said that God's Word is a light.

Since 1930 we can appreciate even more David's use of light as a metaphor for the product of revelation and inspiration. Just as the incarnation model afforded insight into the dual nature of Scripture, now the dual nature of light more than ever drives home the lesson that one cannot do justice to the Bible by merely emphasizing either its divine side or its human origin. Both aspects must be seen as complementary.

This principle of the dual nature of inspiration—the human and the divine—helps us to better understand inspiration as found in Ellen White, errors found in inspired writings, and various approaches to understanding inspired writings. To this we shall turn in the concluding part of this article to appear in February.

1 From henceforth I shall use the term
"Inspiration" as shorthand for "revelation[s] and

2 Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases
125, no. 2 (1957): 202, 206.

3 "The Use of the Spirit of Prophecy In
Our Teaching of Bible and History," Spectrum,

4 Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation,
Inspiration, and Interpretation
Grove, III.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 52.

5 Eduard Schwiezer, Theological Dictionary
of the New Testament
, Gerhard Friedrich, ed., and
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. and trans. (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), vol. VI, 454.

6 Bloesch, 117.

7 W. A. Criswell, Why I Preach the Bible Is
Literally True
(Nashville: Broadman, 1969), 68.

8 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy
(Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1911),

9 ————, Selected Messages, (Hagerstown,
Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958,1980),

10 John Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger's
(New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 48, 49.

11 Ibid., 83.

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

Richard W. Coffen is vice president of editorial services at theReview and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland.

December 1999

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Are we afraid of the Gospel?

Do unfounded fears prevent Adventists from fully embracing God's grace?

Will Christ Return in 2000?

The Second Coming and the six-thousand-year chronology

Brush up your sermon grammar!

A lively look at the need for correct grammar in preaching

The power of the core

Viewpoint: The essentials that drive the church

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

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

Sign up

Recent issues

See All