Inspiration and Infallibility – Is there a Difference?

All my life, I have been driven by my sincere belief in the inspiration of the Bible.  It has been and continues to be my primary source of authority in spiritual matters and life in general.  “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16) and “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21) are among the familiar verses that speak of the scriptures as being of divine origin.

Some years ago, however, I had an experience that forced me to clarify in my mind the issues raised in the question at caption.  A claim was being made on Jamaican radio that there were contradictions in the Bible.  One of the cases cited was the account of David numbering the people of Israel.  2 Sam. 24:1 says that the LORD was angry with Israel and moved David to number them, while 1 Chron. 21:1 says that Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number the people.

In my efforts to gain clarity in my own mind, I found the following statements from the prophetess Ellen G. White, quite useful:

“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.  Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost is imbued with thoughts.  But the words receive the impress of the individual mind.” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 21).

 “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.” (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 20).

“God had especially guarded the Bible; yet when copies of it were few, learned men had in some instances changed the words, thinking that they were making it more plain, when in reality they were mystifying that which was plain, causing it to lean to their established views, which were governed by tradition” (Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 220).

 “The truths of the Bible are as pearls hidden.  They must be searched, dug out by painstaking effort.  Those who take only a surface view of the scriptures will, with their superficial knowledge, which they think is very deep, talk about contradictions of the Bible, and question the authority of the scriptures.  But those whose hearts are in harmony with truth and duty will search with a heart prepared to receive divine impressions.  The illuminated soul sees a spiritual unity, one grand golden thread running through the whole, but it requires patience, thought, and prayer to trace out the precious golden thread.  Sharp contentions over the Bible have led to investigation and revealed the precious jewels of truth.  Many tears have been shed, many prayers offered, that the Lord would open the understanding to His Word.”  (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 20).

 My conclusion is that the Word of God is not the Bible, or Ellen G. White’s writings but the Word of God is found in them.  Truth was revealed by God to fallible human beings, who wrote in the best way they could.  We ignore such revelations from God to our own peril.  But we must employ normal intelligence and seek understanding from God in order to decipher exactly what the truth is.  To consider the example above, David numbered the people, but who motivated him to do it is someone’s opinion.  There is no need to stumble over that.

In contrast, Daniel had a vision and he related the explanation that the angel Gabriel gave him.  That was not Daniel’s opinion.  That was coming straight from God.  Is there no difference between the level of weight and certainty that one would place on such revelation as opposed to say the statement as to who motivated David to number Israel?

Can prophets make mistakes in their own understanding of some matters on which they might not have gotten specific revelations?  This question is no less a question than that of whether a human being is as infallible as God Himself.  In times gone by, prophets inquired of the Lord regarding matters on which they were uncertain.  Obviously, they did not know everything.  And if a matter was not an issue at the time, they would have had no need to inquire.

If a prophet makes an error of judgement on a matter, or misunderstands something, does God automatically cease communicating with the person and regard them as a false prophet?  There is no such indication in the Bible.  Moses struck the rock when God had told him to speak to the rock.  He erred, but did God abandon him?  No, He did not.  An old prophet misled a man of God, telling the man of God that God had told him, the prophet, that it was okay for the man of God to stop and eat at the prophet’s house, even although God had distinctly told the man of God not to stop and eat.  Yet God still gave the old prophet a message, after that, as the Bible says: “as they sat at the table, the word of the Lord came unto the prophet” (1 Kings 13:20).

There are many other questions that could be asked and answered.  But it is not necessary to try to exhaust them here.  The broad framework should be sufficient to allow us to answer some of the questions ourselves.  But there is an important matter of present query among many people that is worth citing here.  The Advent movement of today has widely embraced belief in the Trinity – a concept that was once labelled as pagan and unscriptural by the founders of the movement, citing statements by Ellen G. White concerning a three-person Godhead as a primary basis for making the change.

The question is being asked: by what authority has a view of God that was backed up by vision given more than once been changed to this new concept?  It is clear, from the report of the “Great Controversy” vision, as given by Ellen G. White that there was a hierarchy in heaven in which God, the Father was supreme and regarded as the Sovereign, His Son, Jesus Christ was next and then Lucifer was third (E. G. White, Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1, pp. 17, 18).  The prophet, in describing what was revealed to her, even went as far as to say that Christ was “the only being that could enter into all the counsels and purposes of God.”  (E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 34). 

 When the prophet spoke about a three-person godhead, was there a vision that revealed a different picture of God, Christ and heavenly beings, or was the prophet simply using expressions that were in common use at the time, while discussing other issues, without trying to teach a new doctrine?  I leave this question for us to ponder.

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).


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