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Inspired or Dictation Machine?

This week’s lesson concentrates on Paul’s authority and the Gospel, and Sunday’s section speaks particularly on the issue of the nature of inspiration.  I’ve adapted part of a lecture on this topic I gave for a class on Ellen White a few years ago; although the examples are from her life the principles remain the same for anyone inspired by God.

There are two different thoughts about the nature of inspiration:

The first is that it is “Verbal” – like a dictating machine – and there is no room for the prophet’s individuality.  This causes problems when there are inconsistencies in reporting an event or message.  We can see from the Bible itself that each prophet “speaks” in an individual way.  The way Ezekiel delivers his message is very different from Isaiah; Paul’s books are very different to John’s or Peter’s.

The second is “Thought Inspiration – God inspires the prophet, not the words.

Adventists officially believe that inspiration is NOT verbal and inerrant – the prophet is not a fax machine.  In an 1883 General Conference Resolution it was stated that “We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed”

Most of the problems people have with prophecy in general, and with Ellen White specifically, are as a result of misunderstanding the nature of inspiration.  If a person believes that every word that the prophet utters is the actual Word of God and the prophet makes a mistake, or what they say is colored by their experience and circumstances, the person will then dismiss everything the prophet says – “if they can be wrong in one thing then everything could be wrong”.

In both the Old and New Testaments the prophets who heard God speak directly to them conveyed those messages through the thought processes of their day, and through the idioms and analogies that their hearers could understand.  If the listeners weren’t able to comprehend the message then there was no point in giving it.  God is ineffable – we can’t possibly understand or comprehend the whole picture or message so he has to speak to us in language we understand.  He does this through other human beings whom he has chosen to speak for him.  Otherwise he might as well just “beam” the information directly into our heads.

There is a difference between revelation and inspiration:  Revelation “emphasizes the divine act that discloses information…this divinely revealed message or content is infallible and authoritative”.  Inspiration “refers to the process by which God fits a person to be his messenger.”

Prophets write within the literary, historical, social, and religious context of their time, contemporary issues often determining the emphasis and frequency of what they wrote about… “Both biblical prophets and Ellen White, though speaking to contemporary issues in their day, provide us with ageless principles that apply to us today”.

Genuine prophets are not motivated by personal whim or desire for reward but by the movement of the Holy Spirit.   The Spirit of Prophecy is both the Spirit of Christ through the Holy Spirit making himself known to men and women through his chosen prophet, and the testimony about Christ, Himself the chief purpose for the gift of prophecy.

Lifelong development – Ellen White grew wiser and more experienced at interpreting her visions.  She never claimed her writings superseded the Bible, never claimed infallibility but emphasized that only God is infallible.  Her work was to correct errors and bring lost truth to light.  Her visions defined truth and created unity – after bible study. 

Twin roles – She was a messenger of appeal and warning to the general public and a counselor/teacher to Adventists.  She warned that her writings were “not to be used as doctrinal authority” for the general public.

She made clear that she did not receive a specific vision for each testimony – “the Lord does not give a vision to meet each emergency which may arise”, nor did God dictate each word.  She believed that her words were not God’s words but that she conveyed God’s thoughts with the best words she could employ and the accumulation of visions helped develop principles which can be used to judge situations.

Mrs White said that she was “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.”

Interestingly, she admitted that some things were hidden from her after a vision until they became relevant.  In the “Bible Echo” she wrote “It is the glory of God to conceal Himself and His ways, not by keeping men in ignorance of heavenly light and knowledge, but by surpassing the utmost capacity of men to know.  Humanity can comprehend in part, but that is all that men can bear.  The love of Christ passes knowledge.  The mystery of redemption will continue to be the mystery, the unexhausted science and everlasting song of eternity.”

Using other sources without credit

Ellen White reused other writers words in “The Great Controversy” and “in some instances no specific credit has been given since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject.  Ellen wanted the best, clearest words to express the message she felt was so important to give and, given the volume of work she put out it was often fastest to use other people’s words if they expressed well what she was trying to say.”

Willie said in 1920 that his mother had been “promised wisdom in the selection from the writings of others.”

“Mentally armed with the inspired outline of truth, her extensive reading frequently helped her fill in the details with pertinent historical background and with literary adaptations that make her writings forceful, delightful and creative”

Bible authors borrowed from other writers without informing readers.  Ellen borrowed language from other writers when she described her visions.  “This practice is what we would expect when prophets use their own experience and frame of reference in describing what they have seen in visions or dreams.”


Author’s note: I apologize for the lack of footnotes and references but I wrote the lecture nearly three years ago, and all my notes are still in boxes in the basement. I do know that I drew heavily on Herb Douglass’ “Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White” and I suspect that most of the unidentified quotes are his.  In which case I heartily thank him, and apologize to anyone else I may have quoted without being able to refer to them.

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