The Revelation, Inspiration, and Authority of Scripture

Alternative approaches to hermeneutical positions presented in previous Ministry articles

Ekkehardt Mueller, Th.D., D.Min., is associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

This article presents some alternative approaches to those presented in Richard Coffen's articles, "A Fresh Look at the Dynamics of Inspiration" in the December 1999 and February 2000 issues of Ministry.

An elderly woman was feeling ill. Before going to bed, she prayed: "Dear Lord, You have said in Your divine Word that You would fulfill whatever we ask in Your name. Now I ask You to make me well if it is Your will. Thank You, Lord." The next morning she awoke whole and healthy, said Thank You to her Lord, and went shopping. On her way she met her pastor, who was talking to a colleague. The lady was so happy about the answer to her prayer that she had to share her experience. However, instead of joining the woman in her joy, the pastor responded: "Dear lady, don't you know that the text in Mark upon which you based your prayer is not genuine?"

The Bible, revelation, inspiration, and Scripture's reliability and authority are issues hotly debated today in many Christian circles. In some cases the possibility of divine revelation as well as inspiration is totally rejected. In others revelation and inspiration are reinterpreted.1 All of this has had repercussions in Adventist circles.

The discussion of these issues create heat because they have far-reaching implications in fundamentally important arenas of theology. They also have a strong impact on the beliefs and the everyday lives of Christians. Although Jesus and salvation through Him form the heart of our theology and experience, it is ultimately only through Scripture that we receive necessary information about Jesus and the redemption He brought. Through the Bible we get to know Jesus in His multifaceted ministry on our be half. Our understanding of the nature and content of Scripture shapes our perception of our Lord and the grasp we have of discipleship.

Besides these implications, our view of the nature of Scripture will influence our selection of a hermeneutical method as well as the exegetical procedures we employ as we come to the Bible.

In addition, the mission of the church is dependent on the message of the church, which again is dependent on how one perceives the nature and authority of Scripture. Social action and involvement may become meaningless and may even cease without a proper biblical foundation.

This article focuses primarily on the methodological approach to the study of revelation, inspiration, and the authority of Scripture. It will not dis cuss these as biblical doctrines per se but, due to the limitations of space, will only supply some short definitions. The article does, however attempt to open a way by which these things can be productively studied.

1. Definitions

According to the biblical testimony, special revelation2 is an act of God in which He reveals to specific human beings (1) Himself, (2) truths of various nature, and/or (3) His will. Because of God's initiative and action, these humans, called prophets, have access to an experience which otherwise is not open to humans, and they receive knowledge which otherwise is unavailable.

According to Scripture, inspiration is God's act in which He enables the prophet to faithfully pass on the received message. By this process the proclaimed message becomes a word from God and is not merely a human word. In order to communicate revelation reliably, inspiration is needed. Yet, revelation and inspiration cannot be sharply separated or easily distinguished from one another.

In talking about the authority of Scripture we believe that it is "the in fallible revelation of His will"3 and that it is the standard for everyday living. Everything has to be tested by it. Each doctrine must be founded in it. Scripture has priority and authority over all human thought, research, and emotion.

2. Methodology

First of all, we need to be aware of the fact that no scholar and no scientist will work without certain presuppositions. Regarding our topic, some will outrightly deny that there are such things as divine revelation and inspiration. Others will claim the opposite. Some hold that there maybe divine inspiration. Related to these presuppositions are the ones that consider the Bible merely a human book, merely a divine book, a mixture of both, or a book with both characteristics at the same time. The respective presuppositions will influence the research and the conclusions that grow out of it.

Second, there are a number of approaches to the Bible, some of which will be presented and discussed. They are not mutually exclusive but can be combined with one another. One option is to proceed inductively. Another is to work deductively. Furthermore, the researcher can choose to study inspiration by means of extrabiblical sources and draw conclusions which he or she applies to the Bible. Another possibility is to create analogies in order to demonstrate how inspiration works and to make deductions. Again the respective approach will shape the outcome.

a. Inductive versus deductive

The major question is whether to proceed inductively or deductively. Normally, an inductive approach stands for the investigation of biblical phenomena. One reads, for instance, through the Gospels, compares them with each other, and detects differences and so-called discrepancies. One studies Chronicles and Kings and notices gaps and divergence. A comparison of Paul's experience as reported in Acts and in Galatians seems to reveal differences. Supposedly, even the conversion accounts in Acts do not correspond. An inductive approach looks for discrepancies and takes notice of these phenomena. Oftentimes, it does not allow for harmonization even where it seems to be possible and advisable. It is preoccupied with finding differences rather than agreement and unity. And it always has only parts of the entire puzzle. Nevertheless, based on the collected and interpreted data, a doctrine of inspiration is formulated. The problem with this approach is that it often largely disregards the self-testimony of Scripture. The starting point is not with what Scripture claims to be, but with the phenomena of the biblical texts as seen and interpreted by a rational human being of the twentieth or the twenty-first century.

The deductive approach starts with the self-testimony of Scripture, that is, the texts which directly or indirectly refer to revelation, inspiration, and the authority of Scripture. A doctrine of inspiration, for example, is formulated based on the claims of Scripture and its numerous references to this topic.

Probably, the issue of inductive versus deductive is not simply a matter of either/or. Both approaches are needed. In formulating a doctrine of inspiration, one cannot disregard the textual phenomena, and one should not discard the self-testimony of Scripture. The Bible must be allowed to speak for itself.

Thus, the question is How do we start? or Which approach comes first? In a trial, it is only fair to listen to a witness first and to take him or her seriously be fore one questions his or her statements. To a certain degree, Heinrich Schliemann even took Homer's writings at face value and excavated Troy, a city previously believed to be fictional.4 Because the Bible claims revelation and inspiration, it is fair to start from there and to ask oneself how the phenomena can be reconciled with this assertion.5

b. Use of Extrabiblical Sources

Among others the "history of religions" school has used extrabiblical sources to interpret Scripture; sources such as Babylonian myths, Hellenistic mystery cults, and ideas of the Roman Emperor cult.6 Their views have been read back into the Bible. Adventists are very hesitant to use this procedure be cause we accept the principle of Scripture being its own interpreter. However, we must go a step further.

To study inspiration in an inspired, noncanonical prophet, for instance in E. G. White, and read back into the Bible the data that have been gathered, is, on the basis of the sola scriptura principle, not acceptable. The Bible can stand on its own, and a biblical doctrine of inspiration must be derived from the Bible and the Bible alone. Genuine noncanonical prophets may provide helpful information, but to view the Bible through the processes involved in the inspiration of a noncanonical prophet is circular reasoning.7

Although the Bible does not provide evidence for stages of inspiration, that is, one prophet being more inspired than another, the question remains whether or not inspiration really worked the same way in all prophets. The outcome is equal in so far that revelation, God's message, is passed on faithfully, but the processes are not necessarily identical. Jeremiah's experience in dictating God's message to Baruch while being inspired (Jer. 36) is obviously different from Luke's experience in gathering information, and under inspiration putting his Gospel together.

c. Use of analogies

Analogies can be extremely helpful. They are like pictures that bring home a point to the audience. But analogies, like parables, have limitations. They should not be overextended. To create an analogy and make deductions from the analogy may not any longer correspond with the reality.8 Therefore, we need to exercise caution.

One of the most common analogies is the so-called incarnational model. In this case, Scripture is paralleled with Jesus Christ. There are theologians who deny the divine character of Scripture. There are others who omit or underestimate the human factor. The incarnational model stresses both the human and the divine. However, even after having accepted the last option, a question remains. Are the human and divine sides complementary, yet separable? Or is there an inseparable unity between the human and the divine?

In the case of Jesus, Christians claim that He was truly God and be came also truly man. Human and divine cannot be split apart in Jesus. This seems also to be true for Scripture. Second Peter 1:21 points to a cooperation between the Holy Spirit and human agents, acknowledging the divine and the human. Yet, Scripture was not created by humans. Inspired by God, prophets talked about God. God is the origin and final Author of Scripture.

Gerhard Maier summarizes this in three points: "#1) 'Men spoke'; that is, representatives of 'normal' persons at a particular place and time, not 'instruments," writing implements,' or the like; and they used a 'normal' human language. ... #2) None of them, curiously enough, spoke from the standpoint of men, but 'from God'; that is sent from him, empowered, proceeding from his vantage point and bringing across a message from him that is no less than a 'divine' message. #3) The one who brought about this peculiar state of affairs is the 'Holy Spirit.' "9 Prophetic messages and prophetic writings are the words of the Lord and are accepted by God as such. 10 Biblical books are the word of the Lord. 11

Thus, the human and the divine in Scripture are not complementary. They are integrated. Consequently, different sets of tools in order to study the human side and the divine side of the Bible cannot do justice to the unified nature, the truly incarnational character of Scripture. And by the way, many tools of scholarship are not just neutral. They are linked to presuppositions to such an extent that when these presuppositions are eliminated the tools themselves also evaporate. 12

Jesus' position on Scripture

In all these questions, Christians are always referred back to Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior. He is their great exemplar. How did Jesus come to grips with Scripture in His time? How did He deal with issues such as revelation, inspiration, and authority? Jesus made statements about Scripture, and He used Scripture profusely. Certainly, He was not naive or ignorant with regard to the issues we raise here and elsewhere. Here is Jesus' position on Scripture:

• Jesus trusted Scripture. For Him the Old Testament, His Bible, was God's Word. Through human agents God has spoken.

• Jesus regarded the prophets as re liable communicators of God's words and accepted inspiration in the writers of the Old Testament. For example, He recognized the validity of the predictive prophecies of the Old Testament (see Luke 24:17-27). Many of these prophecies He regarded to be fulfilled in Himself.

• Jesus accepted the historical reliability of Scripture, including all the important events in Israel's history as well as Creation and the Flood.

• Jesus embraced as the author of a biblical book the person identified as such in the writing.

• Divine interventions in history such as miracles posed no problem for Jesus.

• Jesus interpreted Scripture liter ally and typologically. Critical methods in expounding the Bible were foreign to Him. Although He must have known so-called discrepancies in Scripture, He did not focus on them, not even mentioning them.

• Jesus considered Scripture as ad dressed not only to the original readers and hearers but also to His generation. Thus He assumed the fact that Scripture transcends culture.

• Jesus believed that an under standing of God's will and His actions in history are founded on Scripture. His doctrinal outlook was derived from the Old Testament.

• Thus for Jesus the man, the same Old Testament was the standard for His life as well as the ground of His behavior.

• Jesus openly recognized the practical value of Scripture; that it fosters faith and can be used as the authority and weapon against temptation.

• Jesus expected His contemporaries to know Scripture. 13

A practical conclusion

How then can we as pastors handle these issues of revelation, inspiration, and the authority of Scripture? Here are some suggestions:

• Start with an attitude of trust in stead of a position of doubt. This does not exclude openness.

• Take seriously Scripture's self-testimony.

• Do not deny or underestimate problems in the biblical text, but avoid overstating them.

• Be careful of extreme positions on personal inspiration as well as mechanical inspiration.

• Look for solutions with regard to the biblical phenomena without trying to make them fit artificially.

• Be able to suspend judgment. If you cannot find a solution, it does not mean that there is none. 14

• Use an appropriate hermeneutical method and suitable exegetical tools that fit the character of God's Word.

• Live the Word of God.

• Proclaim it, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

1. Cf. Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth," J. M. Robinson and J. B. Cobb, Jr., Hrsg., in Theology as History, New Frontiers in Theology, Bd. 3 (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 101-133; Gabriel Moran, The Present Revelation: The Search for Religious Foundations (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 38-40,130,227,299, 341; Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics (Wheaton, 111.: Crossway Books, 1994), 97.

2. Theologians distinguish between general revelation, that is, what is found for instance in nature, and what we call special revelation.

3. See the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, no. 1, in Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1995), 7.

4. Cf. Encyclopaedia Britannlca: Micropaedia (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981), VIII: 965.

5. Cf. Peter M. van Bemmelen, Issues in Biblical Inspiration: Sunday and Warfield (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1987), 377-378.

6. These were proposed by Gunkel, Reitzenstein, and Bousset.

7. By means of Biblical criteria a prophet is declared genuine and inspired. Then this very prophet is used to formulate a doctrine of inspiration of the Bible.

8. It may be useful to compare the nature of Scripture with the nature of light. However, to conclude that for these different aspects of light different tools must be used and to apply this to Scripture seems to go too far. Scripture may be similar to light, but it is not light in the literal sense. Cf. Richard W. Coffen, "A Fresh Look at the Dynamics of Inspiration: Part 2," Ministry (February 2000), 21-22.

9. Maier, 102.

10. See Jer. 36:1-6 and Jer. 25:2-8.

11. See Micah 1:1; Hos. 1:1; Zeph. 1:1.

12. See, e.g., form criticism, which investigates the oral stage of material, small units that were, for instance, created at a campfire or a funeral procession. No revelation took place. Texts developed along evolutionary lines.

13. References can be found in Ekkehardt Mueller, "Jesus and Scripture in the Gospels," unpublished manuscript, March 1999.

14. See Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951).

 

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Ekkehardt Mueller, Th.D., D.Min., is associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

April 2000

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