While the first four statements on Creation may be easily accepted by most Christians, conservative and liberals alike, in the following articles, 5 through 10, I will tread on dangerous waters, so to speak, because we will be dealing with the exegesis and hermeneutics of the Bible and especially with the Book of Genesis. I am aware that touching on the interpretation of Genesis may prove to be a difficult task, not only because of the condensed format and content of the text itself, but also because of the staunch allegiance to various interpretations people have come to adopt, be it by self-study or by accepting others views on the topic. It is not my intention to offend anyone’s beliefs, but only to look at the Genesis creation account in the light of its cultural background and also the scientific evidence we have at this time. Before we look closely at Genesis, thesis 5 says something about the Bible in general.
Thesis 5 – We understand the Bible as a human enterprise and search for God, an interface that allows us to draw closer to God and understand His love. The Bible is not dictated by God and is not inerrant and absolute.
It may look, at surface, that these statements deny the Revelation of God in the Bible, but there is no such intention here. As a matter of fact, the delay in publishing this article had to do with the fact I took extra amounts of time for research. Also, I engaged in conversations with two professors of the Adventist Theological Institute in Bucharest, Romania, posing questions and waiting for answers. Some answers are still missing, perhaps because I was too bold in asking the questions, but my hope has been for an open dialogue in an academic manner in search for truth.
The Bible is the sacred text for Christians. It includes the Hebrew sacred text, the TaNaKh (Torrah, Prophets, and Writings) known as the Old Testament, and the New Testament, which is a collection of writings from the first century A.D. When I say that the Bible is a human enterprise, I mean that the entire process, the writing, the copying, the recopying, the selection and compilation of the books to be included in the Bible, all these have been acts of humans. God did not dictate any of the portions of the Bible and God did not choose the canon of the Bible we have in our hands. The great assumption made by theologians is that “the Bible is the inspired Word of God”, but once you say that, a floodgate of contradictions come out of various interpretations of what exactly is meant by “inspiration”.
As Gerhard Pfandl mentioned in a brief article, ” because the Bible does not develop a full theory of inspiration, various views have arisen in regard to the nature of inspiration”. Pfandl, a retired Associate Director of The Biblical Research Institute, identifies five kinds of inspiration:
- The Intuition Theory – defines inspiration as a heightened degree of insight. The Biblical authors were religious geniuses but in principle not different from other great thinkers, such as Plato, Buddha, or Mohammed.
- The Illumination Theory – allows for the working of the Holy Spirit, but only in heightening the biblical authors’ natural abilities. There is no special communication of truth, but merely a deeper perception of spiritual matters.
- The Plenary or Dynamic Theory – has the Spirit of God imbuing the writers with the thoughts and concepts they are to pass on. This view allows the writer’s own personality to come to play in the choice of words and expressions.
- The Verbal Inspiration Theory – the Holy Spirit supplies not only the thoughts but also the words and expressions, albeit from the writer’s own vocabulary and background.
- The Dictation Theory – teaches that the Holy Spirit actually dictated the biblical books to the various writers.
Another SDA theologian, Alberto R. Timm, Director of the Brazilian Ellen G. White Research Center, gives a historical account on the development of the inspiration doctrine in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In an article published on the Adventist Theological Society, he asserts that:
Terminology employed in discussing the nature of biblical inspiration is often confusing. Such technical expressions as mechanical inspiration, verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, and thought inspiration have at times carried different meanings. Because of the various shades of meaning, it is important to be aware of the basic understanding of those terms.
Thus, mechanical inspiration is usually associated with the theory that all the words of Scripture, even down to the Hebrew vowel points, were actually dictated by the Holy Spirit. This theory virtually negates the human element of Scripture.
Verbal inspiration normally is understood by its advocates to mean the Holy Spirit guided the writers not only in receiving a divine message but also in communicating it, without completely eliminating the personality and the style of the writers. The emphasis, however, is on the end-product of the whole inspiration process, namely, on the words of Scripture.
The term plenary inspiration points out that Scripture in its entirety is inspired, making no distinction between alleged inspired and non-inspired words. Some authors prefer this term in order to distinguish their position from any mechanical understanding of inspiration, which may at times be associated with the term verbal inspiration.
Lastly, thought inspiration is proposed by others to indicate that it is the writer who is inspired, the Holy Spirit thereby transmitting God’s thoughts to the writer, who then chooses the proper words to express those thoughts under the continued guidance of the Spirit.
Misunderstanding the issue
To examine critically the doctrine of inspiration, especially by a lay member of the church, is looked upon with suspicion, if not anger, by theologians. For them, the main issue is authority. By claiming the authority of the Bible based on inspiration, they actually claim authority for themselves, for their opinions regarding spiritual matters as ones who are the “professionals” in the field. The accusation, coming often in the form of a question such as “Who are you to place human reason above the revealed Word of God?”, implies that such an examination must necessarily comes from rationalism, understood not in its epistemological meaning as a methodology which employs reason as source and test of knowledge, but in its reductionist meaning of a worldview centered on secularism and atheism.
My position is that we cannot understand the Bible except by using our reason, and I believe this is supported by the Bible itself: 1 John 4,1-3; Matthew 7,15-17; Deuteronomy 18,21-22; Deuteronomy 13,1-3, etc.. are just a few texts among many others from which we learn that it is our duty to “test” the teachings of anyone even when signs are given and they are fulfilled, because true knowledge only comes from using our rationality.
Understanding the Bible implies understanding that the Bible did not come in a cultural or historical vacuum, all the books of the Bible being ancient writings. Another fact is that most of the ancient writings, even those older than the Bible, are talking about gods who have relations with humans and communicate with humans. Most of the ideas we find in the Bible are also found in mythologies of the cultures of the Mesopotamian Basin. Leaving aside the ideas about the origins, which I will examine later in the following theses 6-10, I will mention here just a few that have to do with the ideas that gods communicated with humans and vice-versa.
- In the Epic of Gilgamesh, containing information from tablets as old as 2100 B.C., the god Enki, or Ea, as it is known later in Akkadian or Babylonian mythology, communicates to Utnapishtim (Noah in Genesis) that the gods decided to destroy the world by a flood and advised Utnapishtim to make a ship in which he could save himself, his family, friends, and animals from the upcoming deluge.
- Hesiod, one of the great authors of Greek mythology, said that it was the muses, which he identifies as the daughters of Zeus, who “inspired” him to write.
- The Oracle of Delphi is said to tell the future to those who inquired about it. The Oracle was the prophetess named Pythia, the messenger of the god Apollo, and her predictions, called “oracles”, were always coming to fulfillment. In some of the English translations of the New Testament, the words of the Scriptures are called “the oracles of God”.
- The ancient literature is filled with supernatural stories, with predictions about the future coming from gods, with temples of various gods in most of the cities and visionaries, prophets and future-telling mediums who transmitted the will of gods to humans.
Another very ancient idea circulating in the area where the Biblical writers lived was that the humans cannot see the reality of gods majesty.
- Enki speaks to Utnapishtim through a wall that separates them.
- Zeus, when he falls in love with Semele, a mortal woman who, after sacrificing a bull on his altar, went on to wash herself in a river, came to visit her as an eagle. Hera, his wife, planned to destroy his affair and showed herself to Semele as an old woman, became friends with Semele, and when Semele confided in her that Zeus was visiting her, taught her to put Zeus to a test and ask that he showed himself to Semele in all his glory. When, later on, Zeus does this, Semele is consumed by fire.
- In the Old Testament we find this idea in the “Burning Bush” of Moses, and the fact that God refused to show Himself in His glory.
The ancient people understood that gods reveal themselves to humans in various forms. Lucilius Balbus, a stoic mentioned by Cicero, said that:
- God may reveal himself directly to humans, or
- The goodness of nature, on which humans depended for their life and happiness, is a manifestation of God, or
- The brutal calamities of nature, earthquakes, thunders, tsunamis, are also means of God manifestation of his anger, or
- Contemplation of the Universe by philosophers like Seneca may help oneself realize the divine origin of one’s soul and prepare one for understanding the spiritual realities and communication with the deity.
While philosophers were the privileged ones, the plain, normal people would need to seek the advise from these wise men who could communicate with the gods. Since gods were understood mostly as being benevolent toward humans, the advise received from gods was to be regarded with trust and obedience, otherwise a punishment was on the way. Humans have been attempting to consult the gods from the earliest times, as this is demonstrated by traditions of Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans and many others. Besides dreams and prophets, spoken of in large measure by all Mesopotamian traditions, there were also divination objects, like the Tablet of Destiny (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian), which in many ways can be compared to the Urim and Thummim stones mentioned in the Bible (Samuel), through which it was said that the will of gods was manifested. Also. in the New Testament, we find that in order to replace Judas Iscariot, the apostles chose Mathias by casting lots, understood as a means by which God’s will can be known.
Another long-held tradition among both Hebrews and Gentiles was that nothing has happened or would happen without God predicting the future to His prophets. Thus, the ancient literature is permeated by stories of predictions that preceded various events of history, like the end of the world, the fall of Jerusalem, the assassinations of Julius Caesar or Domitian, and many others. Christians took over from the Jews predictions about the end of the world, as we find in Mark 13, or Acts 2, 17-21 where Peter mentions ideas from Joel 2, 28-31.
It is such a world as described briefly above that the Biblical writers write their stories. In the OT YHWH revealed Himself rarely and only toward few people: Abraham (Gen. 12:6–7; 17:1–2), Isaac (Gen. 26:24), Jacob (Gen. 35:9–10; 48:3–4; cf. Ex. 6:3), Moses (Ex. 3:2ff., 16–17), Manoah and his wife (Judg. 13:21–22), and Solomon (I Kings 3:5ff.; 9:2ff.). At the same time, consulting of oracles was prohibited as seen in Isaiah 8,19; Hosea 4,12; and Habakkuk 2,18. Often times we find that Biblical writers claim to have been told by God what to write, like in the Old Testament (Exodus 25,1; 2 Samuel 23,2; Ezekiel 32,1; etc.). In the New Testament we find reaffirmations of the inspiration of Scriptures (meaning the Old Testament) by Paul (2 Timothy 3,16) or Peter (2 Peter 1,21), and also it is implied that the readers or hearers believed that the New Testament writers were also inspired (1 Thessalonians 2,13; 1 Corinthians 2,13). Clearly, the Bible was not dictated by God and therefore the Bible is not inerrant nor absolute. Is the Biblical text inspired by God? And if it is inspired, to what extent is it inspired and in what manner? We must admit that we don’t know for sure. Paul says “All Scripture” but he can only refer to the Old Testament since the New Testament was not compiled yet. To those who study history it becomes clear that the writers’ narratives were influenced by the traditions of other people. At the same time, the Biblical writers offer a replica to the ancient stories, a polemic against the mythologies prevalent around them. While I do not intend to diminish the possibility of God revealing Himself to writers or prophets of the Bible, this is an issue that cannot be proven in an objective, scientific manner. As one of the professors mentioned above stated during a debate on the issue of inspiration, it is ultimately a decision left to the reader to believe that the Bible was or not inspired by God (he obviously believed that it was). As for me, as I already stated before, it does not help me in any way that someone tells me “the Bible is inspired by God”, because in order to understand the message, all I have, and all I need actually, is the text itself. Understanding the conditions under which that text was written and the reasons for which it was written, makes the difference between understanding or misunderstanding the message of the Bible.
How does our church understands or presents the doctrine of inspiration?
Our church inherited the Protestant views on inspiration. Fighting against the fourfold sense of Scripture adopted in the medieval times (allegory, anagogy, tropology, and literal), which is still upheld in the Roman Catholic church, the reformers of the 16th century affirmed that the only true sense of Scripture is its literal sense resulting from a plain reading of the text. The attention has been turned back to the Bible only in order to understand the truths revealed within. No outside sources of meaning or keys for interpretation should be employed, whether the Pope, the church councils, philosophy, or other human authority. This has been known in hermeneutics as the “historico-grammatical method” of interpretation.
As Alberto R. Timm has shown in the articles he wrote under the theme “Adventist Views on Inspiration”, here, and here, and here, during our 150 years of history, the issue of inspiration has never been settled among Seventh-day Adventists, but rather has been a controversial issue. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, counting the fact that this doctrine has been built upon concepts coming from mythology, Hellenism, Judaism, christianity, enlightenment and positivism, whether realizing it or not. In the beginning of our church history predominated the verbal inspiration. When the Testimonies were submitted for revision in 1883 and the Great Controversy edited in 1910-1911, the thought inspiration was put forth in opposition to the verbal inspiration. Later on, after E.G. White’s death in 1915 and under attack from Modernists who challenged the historicity of the narration of the creation in Genesis and generally of the supernatural acts in the Bible, the tendency was to cling back to a verbal view on inspiration as a solid ground on which to defend the ideas of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. But events of 1919, like the Evangelical Conference on Fundamental Beliefs of Philadelphia, the D.M. Canright’s critical book “The Life of Mrs. Ellen G. White” and the SDA Biblical Conference held between 1-21 July, fueled renewed animosities regarding the inspiration doctrine. Thus, a special Conference of Bible and History Teachers was held between 31 July – 1 August 1919 chaired by Arthur G. Danniels, that tried without success to unify our theologians and administrators views on inspiration. Falling back toward Fundamentalism, the main view on inspiration until the 1950’s was the verbal inspiration.
Between 1950-1970, a trend towards the Encounter Theory of Inspiration is supported by Frederick E. J. Harder, who in his Doctoral dissertation tried to include Emil Brunner’s views on the personal aspect of inspiration, which seemed to depart from the “special revelation” aspect, and also by Jack W. Provonsha, professor of Christian Ethics at the Loma Linda University. In 1966, in the Adventist Encyclopedia, an entry on Biblical Inspiration states that Adventists do not believe in verbal inspiration, as usually understood, but rather on what was called Thought Inspiration. With verbal, thought, and encounter views on inspiration in the mix, theologians like Roy Branson, Herold Weiss, John C. Brunt, and Larry G, Herr adopt a “revisionist” approach to inspiration, using the historico-critical method of interpretation, which has been met with criticism from other theologians like Edward Zinke and Gerhard F. Hasel. Alarmed by the direction in which the controversies would take the church, the Annual Council of the General Conference adopted a document called “Methods of Bible Study”, which forbade the use of the historico-critical method by Adventists. However, in 1991, Alden Thompson, a professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College, printed his book “Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers”, in which he emphasized the role of human reason in dealing with the Scriptures, a view that was criticized by various Adventist theologians, especially those of the Adventist Theological Society, who charged that Thompson was based only on partial readings of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy and that was done from a historico-critical perspective, which the 1986 document of GC deemed “unacceptable”.
In 1993, Fernando Canale, professor of systematic theology at the Andrews University, proposes a “new approach” to the issue of inspiration, based on an understanding of God and His acts from a Biblical perspective rather from Greek philosophical views, meaning that we should understand God from a temporal-historical conception of God’s being and actions, not a God who acted within a timeless realm, thus rendering an inspired Scripture whose theological teachings also belong to a timeless realm, from which it follows that the historical side of Scripture belongs not to the divine but rather to the human condition needed for the expression of its truths, or in other words, the Scripture is “historically conditioned”. Canale proposes that God acted within history, thus the Scripture is “historically constituted”. Further moves toward fundamentalism come in 1995 from Robert S. Folkenberg, then president of the GC, and Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, then a doctoral student at Andrews University. George R. Knight, who was a professor of church history, criticized Pipim for still believing in the “inerrancy and verbalism”. Ironically, both Folkenberg and Pipim proved later to be detrimental to the church’s reputation due to their outrageous actions. Enough said on that. Knight views on inspiration were that a) the inspiration is not infallible, inerrant, or verbal, b) that several factual mistakes can be found in the inspired writings, and c) that those writings are infallible only as a guide to salvation. Furthermore, the concept of models of inspiration was built upon in 1996 by Juan Carlos Viera, director of the Ellen G. White Estate, in his Adventist Review article entitled “The Dynamics of Inspiration”, which in my opinion continued the work of multiplying the ambiguities in the models of inspiration he proposed.
It would not be fair to not mention at least Raymond Cottrell’s support for a historically conditioned perspective on inspiration, printed on a paper titled “Inspiration and Authority of the Bible in Relation to Phenomena of the Natural World”, submitted in 1985 at the revisionist Conference on Biology and the Biblical Record. I will examine this paper in more detail in the following theses dealings with the issues of the Creation narrative of Genesis. Suffice to mention that the paper was published in print only in 2000, as a chapter of said Conference’s symposium, titled “Creation Reconsidered” (smile), a title I can relate to fully.
In conclusion, I find that the SDA’s concepts of “thought inspiration”, “author’s inspiration”, “propositional revelation’, etc. are only meant to avoid the criticism allotted to the doctrine of verbal inspiration, which is known to be untenable, while in practice they are still translated into a literal reading and interpretation of the Genesis account of Creation, enforced at present by our fundamentalist leadership. Were we to start, in trying to understand the Creation, from the New Testament and not from the Old Testament, as Emil Brunner advises, we would begin to unravel the mystery of God’s Creation outside the chains of literal reading. Unfortunately, Seventh-day Adventists adopted a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, which is not only counter-intuitive, but altogether obsolete. However, claiming divine inspiration of the Word cannot make up for the pitfalls in which a literal interpretation of Genesis will lead. The Protestant Principle, including the notion of Sola Scriptura, described by Huston Smith in the following words (the bold is mine) is today’s article conclusion:
Stated philosophically, it warns against absolutizing the relative. Stated theologically, it warns against idolatry. The chief Protestant idolatry has been Bibliolatry. Protestants do believe that God speaks to people through the Bible as in no other way. But to elevate it as a book to a point above criticism, to insist that every word and letter was dictated directly by God and so can contain no historical, scientific, or other inaccuracies, is again to forget that in entering the world, God’s word must speak through human minds.