[The Christian church is giving much thought to the nature of Scripture and inspiration. Can we define inspiration more specifically than inspiration itself has done? What about "errors" in the Bible? Can we determine what is divine and what is human? Inspired counsel warns, "Hands off!"]
E ach generation has picked out different "errors" in Scripture because its world view has been different. Origen thought that Scripture was in error when it placed in Christ's mouth the words "If one strikes your right cheek, turn the other cheek" (see Matt. 5:39). This statement could not possibly have been made, said Origen, because one would need to use his more awkward left hand to strike the right cheek! To us it is absurd to see an error here; it is simply a manner of speaking. To us who live in the Western world, influenced heavily by Greek methods of thinking, the gospels seem to be in error when they give divergent accounts of the cock crowing (compare Mark 14:30 with Matt. 26:34, Luke 22:34, John 13:38). But in so doing, are we also imposing our own cultural norms upon Scripture? If we were speaking to a Hebrew at the time when the Gospels were written, our concern might be to him just as absurd as Origen's concern is to us. We see clearly that Origen's concern was cultural because we are not part of his culture; it is much harder for us to see that our own concern is cultural. Therefore, it is important that we allow revelation to speak for itself regarding its own nature rather than imposing on it our cultural norms.
Much study needs to be done before taking a stand on the inerrancy of the original writings of the apostles and prophets. We must be reluctant to go beyond inspiration itself in defining the nature of inspiration, for whenever we determine the nature of Scripture from our own viewpoint, we end up with a concept that conforms to our world view.
It will be helpful to provide a summary of Ellen White's statements regarding difficulties and errors in Scripture.
"God's Word," she says, "is infallible; for God cannot err." My Life Today, p. 27. "Man is fallible, but God's Word is infallible." Selected Messages, book 1, p. 416. Notice that the fallibility of man is not compared with the infallibility of Cod but with the infallibility of Cod's Word. The term God's Word here clearly means, in its context, the Bible. Some have argued that the term infallibility in Ellen White's day did not mean "without error." That concept, however, is not supported either by the context (which equates infallibility with the fact that God cannot err) nor by the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, which lists as the primary meaning of infallible (even in the latter half of the nineteenth century) "not liable to error."
Mrs. White's clearest statements delineating the nature of errors in Scripture are to be found in Selected Messages, book 1, p.16, and in Early Writings, pp. 220 and 221, where she states that errors resulting from copyists and translators exist. She also notes that when copies were few, some men, intending to improve upon what was said, actually distorted the message by making changes.
Some have felt that Selected Messages, book 1, p. 20, directly affirms errors in Scripture. The pertinent passage says: "The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language. Jesus, in order to reach man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical purposes." A careful reading will show that to use this paragraph to affirm errors in Scripture would mean the necessity of affirming errors in Christ Himself. What is declared is that human language is imperfect, since different meanings are expressed by the same word.
Ellen White also attributes seeming difficulties in Scripture to careless, superficial, or prejudiced readers (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 20, 25); the sinfulness of man (The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on 1 Kings 22:7, 8; p. 1036; Steps to Christ, pp. 110, 111; Early Writings, pp. 90, 91); our own weakness and ignorance, which make us incapable of comprehending and appropriating the truth contained in the text (Education, pp. 1 70, 1 71; My Life Today, p. 342; Steps to Christ, p. 106); interpretations of Scripture that came in during the Dark Ages (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 710); imperfections in human understanding of language; and the perversity of the human mind, which is ingenious in evading truth (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 19).
Some difficulties are there because God in His wisdom has not yet opened the meaning of those passages to man (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 377). There are other passages of Scripture whose difficulties will be understood only in the future life (Gospel Workers, p. 312; Steps to Christ, p. 113). It seems that Mrs. White identifies the real difficulty as being in man himself rather than in God's Word.
She has very serious warnings against those who come to Scripture with preconceived ideas as to its nature and who by thus imposing their human theories actually put human judgment in place of the Word of God. Some, she says, who take only a surface view of the Scriptures will, with their superficial knowledge that they think is very deep, talk of contradictions in the Bible (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 20). Others, she says, dissect God's Word, attempting to determine what is revelation and what is not. Do we not sometimes do just this when, unwilling to state that God's revelation itself is faulty, we say that it is the human transmission of that revelation by the prophet that is in error? By so doing we are drawing a line between what is divinely revealed and what is human transmission, and thus we are deciding between what is revelation and what is not. Some would answer that they are simply trying to broaden the definition of inspiration to include errors. But Ellen White's counsel is: "Hands off, brethren! Do not touch the ark. Do not lay your hand upon it. ... When men begin to meddle with God's Word I want to tell them to take their hands off, for they do not know what they are doing." The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on 2 Tim. 3:16, p. 920.
It is sometimes tempting to attempt to determine the nature of Scripture by inductive reasoning. Since it is stated that God has had His hand on Scripture down through the ages and, furthermore, that He has allowed errors to creep into the transmission of Scripture, therefore, if He did not protect His Word during transmission, certainly He would not have protected it while the prophet was writing it out. Another argument runs like this: God is infallible, but man is fallible. In the Bible we have God's revelation transmitted through human instrumentalities. Human instrumentalities are fallible; therefore, the Bible is fallible. These arguments come from our contemporary age rather than from Inspiration. They fail to take into consideration what Inspiration has to say regarding the nature of Scripture, and they fail to recognize that the Bible is actually the voice of God speaking to us as clearly as if God Himself were present.
Mrs. White warns us to be afraid of those who express disbelief in some scriptures (Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 383, 384) and says that those who question the reliability of some Scripture records have let go their anchor (Signs of the Times, May 12, 1909).
It appeals to our logic to state that we must accept what we find when we come to Scripture. However, we need to recognize that it is our culture that determines what we find. We are told that scriptural difficulties can never be mastered by the same methods that are employed in grappling with philosophical problems (The Great Controversy, p. 599). Thus we cannot allow our historical-scientific methods to determine the nature of Scripture. Instead, we must have a clear "Thus saith the Lord"
(Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 709). Difficulties must be seen in the light of the whole of Scripture and must be studied under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Early Writings, p. 221; Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 692; Messages to Young People, p. 259).
Ellen White also tells us how to relate to difficulties in Scripture. She declares that she takes the Bible just as it reads, and suggests that we let the Word of God stand just as it is (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 711). We are not to attempt to correct the errors of the Bible. No man can improve the Bible by suggesting what the Lord meant to say or ought to have said (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 16). It is not our responsibility to explain every seeming difficulty in the Bible in order to meet the cavils of skeptics and infidels. In trying to explain what we understand imperfectly, we are in danger of confusing the minds of others in reference to points that are clear and easy to understand (Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 705, 706). The Word of God, when taken as a whole, is a perfect chain, one portion linking into and explaining another (Early Writings, p. 221).
As the church continues to give study to this sensitive issue, it must be committed to the necessity of a "Thus said the Lord" in determining the nature of revelation. The Lord has given us much light; we would do well to avoid going ahead of that light.
Ron Runyan wrote this article that appeared in Ministry, August 1979.