"Thy Word is a light unto my feet" (part 2)

Viewpoint: Further thoughts on the nature of revelation and inspiration.

Richard W. Coffen is assistant to the president, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland.

In part 1 (December 1999) of this two-part series, we considered four of the seven significant issues underlying an understanding of the dynamics of inspiration and revelation: (1) The mental normalcy of those claiming divine revelation and inspiration; (2) the role played by the community of faith; (3) the approach in determining the dynamics of inspiration; and (4) the quest for an appropriate analogy for divine inspiration. This concluding part will deal with the remaining three: (5) the modeling of inspiration as found in Ellen White; (6) the amount of error permissible in inspired writings; and (7) the various approaches to interpreting inspired writings.

5. Ellen White's modeling of inspiration

Earlier, we suggested that there were two ways of ascertaining the nature or dynamics of inspiration the deductive and inductive methods. We Adventists see in Ellen White a laboratory in which to investigate inductively the dynamics of inspiration. From her own testimony we accept the fact that Ellen G. White relied heavily upon God as she wrote her messages. "I am just as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in relating or writing a vision, as in having the vision."1 That's clear testimony to the divine aspect of the divine/human duality of inspiration.

But there is more. For our research base we have nearly every thing she ever wrote letters, diaries, articles, books. Additionally, we can observe the various stages of preparation rough drafts, edited copies, and published work. Which, then, was the "authentic" inspired wording? And does it matter?

About her writing, Mrs. White said: "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."2 That's a clear testimony to the human side of the divine/human duality of inspiration.

What we find in this corpus of inspired writings has prevented Adventists from officially going the way of so many fundamentalist denominations subscribing to a dictation model of inspiration, which by its nature must claim an inerrant Scripture.

6. Dealing with error in inspired writings

Some elements in the writings of Ellen White evidencing the human side of inspiration involve literary and/or stylistic infelicities. Here are a few examples.

Problems of Form. Testimonies for the Church was revised from 1882 through 1885. Spelling was modified: "eye-salve" became "eyesalve." Capitalization was changed: "he," when referring to God, became "He" and "Enemy," when referring to Satan. Diction was improved: the advice that mothers are to "learn" their children was replaced with to "teach" them. Gram war was corrected: "little things ... concerns you" became "little things ... concern you." Awkward syntax was smoothed: "Jesus has purchased for us redemption" was edited to "Jesus has purchased redemption for us."3

Mrs. White herself admitted: "I cannot prepare my own writings for the press.... I am not a grammarian."4

Problems of Content. A little over a decade ago Adventist scholars pointed out historical errors in the writings, particularly in The Great Controversy, despite the earlier revisions.

Historical documents clearly show that the Waldenses did not exist for a thousand years as Ellen White asserted.5 They flourished from 1170 and ceased to exist in 1532, when they merged with another Christian group. Furthermore, contrary to her claim, there is no historical record of Waldensian Sabbath keeping;6 in their own documents they clearly refer to worshiping on Sunday.

In some instances we find chronological glitches in her accounts. In an article in the Review and Herald, she quoted Isaiah 53:1 and 44:18, commenting that "Christ quoted a prophecy which more than a thou sand years before had predicted" how people would respond to Him.7 This makes Isaiah a contemporary of David and Solomon. Yet chronological studies show that Isaiah received his call in 740 B.C. toward the end of King Uzziah's reign.8

In a daily devotional, she wrote: "Fifteen hundred years before [Christ was born] Abraham saw [Jesus'] day and was glad."9 Did Abraham really live at the same time Moses did? It is likely that Abram received his call not 1,500 years before Christ but more than 1,800 years earlier.10

Sometimes we may discover a problem in Mrs. White's interpretation of a biblical passage. For example, in Patriarchs and Prophets11 and The Great Controversy12 she understands the word after in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 to refer to timing "Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan." According to these two books, this verse means that Jesus will return subsequent to the time in which Satan works with great power. This may well be the case in the last days, but that is not what Paul intended. The term he used was not a preposition of time but a preposition indicating mode. The idea is that someone would arrive whose modus operandi would be consistent with that of Satan. So the individual who was coming was not Christ but an impostor.

Readers sometimes find a few cases of scientific error in Mrs. White's books. For instance, her explanation of the origin of volcanoes the burning of underground coal and oil mixed with lime and water13 seems flawed.

There are also indications of theological lapses in her writings. On May 27, 1856, while attending an important conference in Battle Creek, Michigan, Ellen White received a vision of comfort and exhortation. Among other things, she reported: "I was shown the company present at the Conference. Said the angel: 'Some food for worms, some subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus."'14

The vision and her report of it reflect a theology of an imminent Second Advent. However, only part of the threefold eschatological prediction came to pass all (not some) became food for worms. The seven last plagues and the Second Coming are yet to come.

Ellen White gave practical advice to those reading her counsels. "Regarding the testimonies, nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered."15

Additionally, from our reading of her works, we can infer that she was a woman of her culture. She wrote mostly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a child of her times, she used American English. Much of her advice was specific to the condition of the church in the United States. She addressed issues contemporaneous with her, not those contemporaneous with Moses or those living in the next millennium, though the principles underlying the specifics of her testimonies can by all means be applied universally.

We can detect certain cultural conditioning in some issues she addressed. She saw nineteenth-century politics as being fraught with eschatological and cosmological overtones (for instance, the Sunday laws being enforced at that time and the attempt to legislate a national Sunday law). Her suggestion that we should see in Revelation 13 aspects of the United States fulfilling a special role in an area that was uninhabited - a nation arising from the "land" rather than from the "sea" seems to echo the concept of Manifest Destiny held by many Americans of the time. She was highly involved in the temperance movement sweeping America. The "standards" of Christian conduct no card playing, no dancing, no attending the theater paralleled that of the Methodism she left. Even though she indicated definite independence in her development of health reform, studies have shown that some of her ideas con formed nearly word-for-word with that written by others of her time.

Those who espouse the CEO-dictating-to-stenographer model (see Part 1) to describe how inspiration functioned in the case of Ellen White, find such indications of human involvement in the inspiration process unacceptable and regard them as serious anomalies. Wishing to retain Mrs. White's writing as authoritative (a laudable motive), they might deny or attempt to explain away such a human role in the writings, becoming quite alarmed when any such evidence is discussed. Others, also unwilling to adjust their "steno graphic" view (though holding to it in a different way) move to the opposite extreme. They discard the authority of the writings because they conclude from the presence of human involvement that Ellen White was not inspired, or that her writings do not measure up to their conception of what degree of accuracy inspired writing should possess.

These traces of the human element, however, are precisely what those holding the incarnational/quantum-duality model expect in inspired writing (see Part 1). Thus, its presence does not trouble them. They have no problem at all affirming Ellen White's authoritative prophetic role. They do not regard these examples as anomalies, or as reasons to doubt the validity of Mrs. White's work. Instead, they recognize them simply as traces of the humanity of the inspired recipient.

7. Approaches to interpreting inspired writings

Significantly, when examining the particle/wave duality of light (see Part 1) the researcher can study only one aspect at a time. The apparatus and protocol set up in the lab to investigate photons can detect only that. Such an experiment can reveal nothing about light waves. Similarly, the equipment and procedures set up in the lab to study light waves are worthless when it comes to telling us about the existence and behavior of photons. In other words, while it is possible even imperative to hold in one's thinking the dual nature of light, it is impossible to examine empirically both aspects at the same moment and with the same equipment.

It appears that we find ourselves in a similar plight when it comes to the communication of God's Word the divinely inspired light that shines on our pathway. Although in theory it is not a matter of either/or but both/ and, the divine/human duality of Scripture seems to elude simultaneous investigation as a unity. So, contrary to what some suggest, it is not heretical to deal with merely the human aspect of the Bible in isolation from its divine side, or vice versa. That's not heresy but simple necessity. The heresy occurs when we deny the unity, wholeness, and complementarity principle in relation to inspiration.

Personal experience also seems to bear out this theoretical difficulty of being able to simultaneously investigate both the divine and human dynamics of inspiration. Whether we want to admit it or not, as human beings we are physical and materialistic creatures. Because of this, it is difficult for us to discern and comprehend supernatural things. This realization does not mean we do not have an inclination toward that which is immaterial or spiritual. Nonetheless, most of us find it hard to discern the reality of heavenly things.

In other words, that which we can empirically detect and verify is much more real to us than are "theoretical constructs." Toyotas and apples are more real to most of us than are protons, angels, and God. These latter categories may be just as real as the former, but typically they do not have the same immediacy for us. When we have a mystical experience, it is not an empirical matter. The point is that when it comes to the dual nature of Scripture, it is easier for us to relate to and detect its human characteristics than for us to study its divine aspects.

What would convince us of the presence of divine aspects in a body of writing anyway? Inerrancy? Absolute accuracy doesn't really epitomize divine inspiration. If it did, a strong case could be made for the inspiration of The Encyclopaedia Britannical Heavenly language? A supernatural grammar? Or something more subjectively subtle such as the impact made on persons' lives? Persons have testified that John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress changed their lives. Was Bunyan inspired?

Some may assert: "Because the Bible is divinely inspired we cannot treat it as we would any other book. The tools we use to understand Jeremiah must be different from those used to interpret the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach a religious but uninspired literary work."

Certainly such advice legitimately reminds us that Scripture is God's Word not just David's word or James's word. There is by all means a divine aspect to the Bible, and to deny it is heresy. But merely studying the human aspect of the Bible is not in and of itself heretical. Why? Because doing so does not necessarily deny the complementarity principle of its dual nature.

Additionally, the affirmation that we should use a different approach and different tools because Scripture has a divine side seems a bit naive in practice. For example, those who advocate such methodologies do not see anything wrong in studying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that they can read the Bible in the original languages.

It is a noble aspiration to use different tools when approaching the Bible, but those who eschew the tools of rational scholarship inevitably use many of the same (or similar) tools themselves. How does someone who wishes to honor the divine side of the product of inspiration do linguistic analysis differently from those who either ignore or deny any supernaturalism at work? Do conservative scholars adopt a different ancient vocabulary? Do they learn a distinct grammar or syntax? After all, some of those philologists who helped resurrect those dead ancient languages were not necessarily motivated by faith. So the identical linguistic tools are used by both those who concentrate on the human aspect of Scripture and those who emphasize its divine side. Again, the important thing is to give both aspects, the divine and the human, their due weight as we approach Scripture.

Every biblical scholar, whether liberal or conservative, whether emphasizing the human or the divine in the text, wrestles very similarly with the ancient vocabulary. They all analyze the grammar, scrutinize the syntax, and look to the literary and historical contexts in their attempt to decipher the message of Scripture.

The point is that one does not have to possess a supernatural presupposition to use the tools of conservative scholarship (such as the grammatico-historical method). The difference in approaching the Bible lies not in the tools themselves nor in how the tools are used. The difference exists in the presuppositions about authoritative supernaturalism that lie in the minds of the scholars and in the additional approaches employed by more liberal approaches.

It seems to me that if these approaches ("tools") (1) are not so rooted in materialistic thought that they must deny supernaturalism and (2) are utilized with the recognition that they apply merely to the human side of the duality of inspiration and Scripture, they might legitimately be used even by conservative biblicists. Any tool that works only because it denies supernaturalism will, of course, be ruled out.

The same kind of logic used by those who dispute these conclusions would mean that no conservative Christian could be a scientist because science operates on the basis of purely materialistic presuppositions. And, some have maintained this stance because all the sciences pure or applied are empirically based. However, a scientist may indeed be a believer, but theistic supernaturalism does not usually inform the investigation of protons or black holes or robins or oil deposits or sodium chloride.


In closing, it might be helpful to return to the complementarity principle of light. Let us imagine (1) that Isaac Newton, Christian Huygens, and Niels Bohr are not physicists but theologians, (2) that when they talk about light, they are really speaking of God's Word, which is a light to our path, (3) that Newton's particle theory is the same as emphasizing the divine aspect of Scripture, and (4) that Huygens's wave theory is like focusing on the human side.

Let's eavesdrop on them.

Newton says: "Huygens is one of the most dangerous theologians in the church. He uses tools that inherently act as though God's Word is merely the word of man. Only agnostics and atheists can truly agree with his approach. His theory flies in the face of what the church has always taught. Believe him and the light of God's Word loses its authority, and anything goes."

Huygens counters: "Newton, in his mysticalpietism, concentrates solely on the divine side of the Bible. As a result, he cannot see the obvious that God's Word bears the marks of human activity. Newton must go through all sorts of mental gymnastics and strain all credulity whenever he comes to evidence of the human side of Scripture. His theory leads people to make naive assumptions about the Bible."

Bohr speaks up: "Newton and Huygens really sound silly in their disputations. Don't they understand the complementarity principle? Each uses the tools appropriate to the half of the duality he emphasizes. Why can't they stop quibbling and live like Christian brothers?"

Are we listening?

1 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, (Hagerstown, MA: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), 1:36.

2 Ibid., 37.

3 For a fuller explanation, see Ron Graybill, "Visions and revisions, part II: editing the Testimonies" Ministry, April 1994.

4 White, Testimonies for the Church, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 3:90.

5 ——, The Great Controversy (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 66.

6 Ibid., 65.

7 Review and Herald, vol. 77, no. 46, Nov. 13, 1900,721.

8 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, MA: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1955, 1977), 4:17.

9 That I May Know Him (Hagerstown, MA: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1964), Letter 119, 1895, 12.

10 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (Hagerstown, MA: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1960, 1979), 218.

11 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), 686.

12 ——, The Great Controversy (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 553.

13 ——, Spirit of Prophecy (Battle Creek, Midi.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1969 facsimile), 1:81-85; Manuscript 29, 1885; Patriarchs and Prophets, 108-110.

14 ——, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 1:131, 132.

15 ——, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, MA: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 1:57.

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.

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Richard W. Coffen is assistant to the president, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland.

February 2000

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