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Reviewing Revelation and Inspiration

The Sabbath School lessons for this quarter are an apology for the prophetic ministry of Ellen G. White. Given the role Mrs. White has played in Adventism, both while alive and after her death, we have become accustomed to going through one such exercise every few years. This is perfectly legitimate and understandable. The ministry Mrs. White rendered to this church is to be celebrated. As a foundational, primal force she deserves full recognition, and we should all thank God for the guiding hand of the Spirit when the Adventist movement was in its infancy. However, attempts to present Mrs. White as a latter-day incarnation of the biblical prophets are at best misguided, and at worst deceptive. Back in 1980, at the first National Conference of the Association of Adventist Forums, I expressed my opposition to any attempt to canonize Mrs. White.

Lamentably, these attempts go hand in hand with efforts to abandon the traditional Adventist understanding of inspiration, based as it is on Mrs. White’s own views on the matter, and argue for a verbal inspiration of Scripture. The author of the booklet published to aid Sabbath School teachers this quarter flatly affirms that God is the author of the Bible. This affirmation makes it difficult to envision any meaningful participation by humans in its actual writing. Mrs. White herself said that the authors of the books of the Bible wrote according to their own different styles so that the characteristics of its many writers are plainly in evidence. She explained that the messages in the books are “expressed in the words of men.” It is an oxymoron to hold that the words one reads in the Bible are the words of men and that God is its author.

It would seem to me that the problem is embedded in the juxtaposition of revelation and inspiration, and the understanding of revelation as the communication of propositions that provide readers with special knowledge. This, I must admit, is something that Mrs. White herself, at times, also did.

The lesson for this week follows a line of exposition that reflects its agenda but is not helpful. From a reference to “general revelation” in the Creation it goes on to “special revelation” in the prophets and then to the revelation of God in the incarnate Son. Placing the prophets in the middle, it could be argued, the author of the lesson wishes to follow a line that ascends toward a climax in Christ and leaves the prophets firmly entrenched within the process of God’s efforts to communicate with his creatures. What is to be noticed, however, is that both the creation of the world and the incarnation of the Son of God took place outside the pages of the Bible, and neither of these divine acts involved propositional truths, or information.

As revelation of God, the universe with all that is in it (including the human family) is, at best, ambiguous. We may, indeed, marvel at the beauty of nature, the loving maternal instincts of animals of different species, the immensity of the universe, and the splendor of colorful sunsets. Contemplating these wonders we may conclude that the creator is a loving, glorious, and all-powerful Being. Studying the natural world, we may also be astonished by the savagery of the survival of the fittest and the enormous waste of life and energy within it. The total lack of morality in nature, when considered as the work of God, leaves us confused. Nature does not speak with one voice about a Good and Just God.

The revelation of God in Christ is, in fact, the clearest manifestation of God’s character. But Jesus did not pass out information about either heaven or earth with any precision. He taught in parables capable of multiple interpretations, even within the pages of the Gospels. He lived his life to demonstrate that his purpose was not to impart information but to impart vision and life. This, for me, is the clue as to what is transmitted by revelation. It is not propositions, but life. When God reveals, God reveals Her/Himself. God is a person and must be understood as such, must be confronted as such. Or, better said, one must be confronted by God as such. Theological propositions about God don’t do the job. The impact of Jesus’ life-giving life, as the most perfect revelation of God within the created world, remains outside the pages of Scripture.

Just as the general revelation of God in nature is ambiguous, so also are the accounts of God in the Scriptures. In its pages one, may find the transcendent, invisible God who never sets foot on earth: the God of Genesis 1, and the book of Job. One can also find the God who as a great concession allows Moses to see his back as he goes away, or the God who is totally anthropomorphic and sits down to eat a banquet with Moses and seventy elders on top of Mount Sinai. One can find a Jesus who leaves his disciples feeling like orphans on earth, or one can find a Jesus who assures his disciples that he is always with them. One can find a Jesus who promises life at the resurrection, and one can find a Jesus who assures his listeners that at the moment they believe in him they instantaneously receive eternal life.

Throughout the Bible, the universe is architecturally conceived as a three-story structure, with the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. This is a prescientific, naïve, universe. The engineers at NASA cannot use it for its exploration. The author of the Gospel of John thought that the wind was a mysterious force whose origins are unknown and, therefore, an apt metaphor for the energy of the Spirit. Any meteorologist today can tell you exactly where the wind is coming from and why. There is no divine mystery at work here.

In the pages of the Bible, one finds stories that leave us morally confused. How can Judah be enthusiastically ready to punish Tamar with death for her supposed adultery after he had been quite happy for having been in bed with a supposed prostitute? What are we to make of a God who repeatedly commands the annihilation of whole clans, specifically singling out women and children, and whose worshippers sincerely pray that God smash the babies of their enemies on the rocks? Sabbath breakers, according to the Law, were to be punished by death, but thankfully we notice that in both the biblical and the extra-biblical literature the punishment was applied only once. This in itself also leaves us confused.

Many things have been, and are being taught on the basis of the Scriptures. It is on this account that it has been traditionally insisted upon within the church that the Word of God is always a Living Word, a spoken word. For the written words to be Word of God, the same Spirit that inspired the writers must inspire the readers. But the readers are counseled to test the spirits that inspire them. The differences between the authors are more than matters of style or emphasis: they are differences of perspective. Some books are apocalyptic, some are anti-apocalyptic. Some view the covenant as the central bond between God and the people. The Wisdom books ignore the covenant and think the bond is in creation. The portraits of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John could not be more different. This is encapsulated in the final confession of each. Whereas in Mark the Roman centurion declares, “Truly this man was a son of God,” in John the disciple Thomas worships declaring, “My Lord, and my God.”

Many have made it their purpose in life to show how all the different perspectives in the Bible may be harmonized into a coherent whole. Their efforts are cut to size by William of Ockham’s razor. He famously observed that the best explanation is the one with the fewer assumptions.

It is relatively easy to take three or four verses of Scripture and construct a theory of inspiration that equates revelation with inspiration and supposedly serves as a bulwark against the challenges of the Enlightenment. It is something totally different to take into account every page of the Bible with equal seriousness and then construct a theory of inspiration that is based on the evidence, and recognizes that we must embrace the Enlightenment with its plead for freedom (especially freedom of thought), reasoned discourse, and tolerance. The revelation of God as Godhead always occurs outside the pages of the Bible and can only be recognized by faith. Claims to the possession of an infallible and an inerrant Scriptures, which arose in Protestant circles to counterbalance Catholic claims to the infallibility of the pope, do not convince those who have read the Scriptures carefully.

It is to N. T. Wright’s credit that he explicitly refuses to use the words inerrant and infallible. He is now the Bishop of Durham, and the theologian of choice among conservative Christians in England and America. But he is also a serious scholar who taught New Testament at Cambridge University for twenty years and knows better. The Bible has led many astray. Those who doubt it should ask the relatives of the Christians who, with their Bibles in their hands, followed the Reverend Jim Jones to Guiana and David Koresh to Texas. Those making claims of inerrancy and infallibility provide fodder for those who ridicule biblical religion.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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