This article appeared in the May 30, 1996, issue of the Adventist Review, pp. 22-28. Reprinted by permission.
The Dynamics of Inspiration
A Close Look at the Messages of Ellen White
By Juan Carlos Viera
In the sacred pages of the Bible we discover at least six models, or patterns, of inspiration. These models shed light on the mysterious process by which God communicates to humanity and help us understand better the dynamics of Ellen White's inspiration.
1. The "Visionary" Model of Inspiration
Many Christians think of the "visionary" model--God speaking through prophetic visions and dreams--as the unique and only way God reveals His will to the prophets. This model suggests visions of a supernatural character in which the prophet exhibits signs of being controlled by a supernatural power. Such signs as being breathless or with unusual strength--or lack of strength--can be found in the testimony of Biblical prophets as well as in Ellen White.
The visionary model also includes experiences apart from visions and dreams, such as theophanies, in which the real presence of a heavenly being is seen or heard. Moses in the Midian desert and Joshua on the plains of Jericho received their messages in person from real, present divine beings. In other instances, the eyes of the prophet are opened to see the unseen world of the spiritual beings involved in the great controversy between good and evil.
Visions are so real to the prophets that sometimes it is hard for them to distinguish between vision and reality. They can tell the people, "I saw the Lord" and "I heard the voice of the Lord" (Isa. 6:1, 8).[*] Supernatural visions assure the honest and the sincere that God is speaking to them through the voice and the pen of the prophets.
But the Bible includes several models of inspiration apart from the visionary.
2. The "Witness" Model of Inspiration
In the "witness" model God seems to inspire the prophet to give his or her own account of things seen and heard. John could write: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you" (1 John 1:1-3). Being a witness means to relate the story as seen--or perceived--by the individual. Technically, a witness is not allowed to refer to views or opinions given by others. God inspires a person to give his or her own account without additional dreams or visions, but still the message is the result of divine inspiration, because the Holy Spirit impresses the mind of the prophet and inspires him or her to write as a witness.
The Gospels of Matthew and John are the result of the witness model. These apostles did not need a supernatural revelation to tell the story of Jesus; they were part of the story. The Gospels are no less inspired than the visionary writings just because they are not the result of a vision. They were inspired in a different way--the Holy Spirit was using a different model.
Some Adventist believers have a difficult time trying to understand how inspiration works when Ellen White gives her own testimony in autobiographical works, or when she tells the story of the Advent movement as she experienced it. Are these accounts less inspired than the ones that begin with "I saw"? No. We do not believe in "levels" or "grades" of inspiration; rather we believe God uses different ways to inspire the person to write a message.
3. The "Historian" Model of Inspiration
Whereas the Gospels of Matthew and John result from a "witness" model, Mark's and Luke's come from what we might describe as a "historian" model of inspiration. Luke tells us candidly that his story of Jesus did not come through visions and dreams, but through research. "Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us . . . it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:1-3).
In the historian model, God inspires the prophet to look [p. 23] for information in sources such as historical records, eyewitness accounts, and oral or written recollections. We may be assured that He leads His servants to go to reliable persons, to ask the right questions, and to quote from the proper sources.
Apart from Mark and Luke, books such as Acts, Exodus, Joshua, Ezra, and Esther illustrate how some historical records, including travel diaries, became part of the inspired writings. Neither Moses nor Luke needed a special revelation to record the history of the Exodus or the apostolic church. However, the Lord knew those narratives would not only encourage His people at later times but also counsel and warn them. Consequently, He inspired His servants to record those travels and circumstances surrounding God's people.
The historian model of inspiration also allows us to better understand why Ellen White included historical records--many times from secular sources--within her inspired writings. A secular quotation becomes an integral part of an inspired writing not because of an alchemistic change in substance, but because of the freedom God allows the prophet to use whatever source he or she considers necessary to make the final text of the message clear and complete.
The historian model of inspiration helps us to understand the use of religious sources other than visions and prophetic dreams. Just as Luke went to religious people in search of information about the story of Jesus, Ellen White went to religious books looking for expressions and literary figures that would allow her to give "a ready and forcible presentation of the subject" she had been inspired to present.
4. The "Counselor" Model of Inspiration
In the "counselor" model the prophet acts as an adviser to God's people. For example, Paul dealt with family matters in his first letter to the Corinthians. In some instances, he had a "command" from the Lord (1 Cor. 7:10). In other instances he did not have a special revelation (verse 25), but that did not prevent him from giving inspired counsel--counsel coming from a mind filled with the Spirit of God (verse 40).
A large part of Ellen White's writings comes under the counselor model of inspiration. Many times she used the term "I saw" when giving counsel to parents and teachers, when advising children and young people, or when bringing warnings to ministers and administrators; but many times she did not. We should not give lesser value to advice for which a special revelation was not stated. That would limit the Lord to a single method of communication. God inspired the prophet to use her own judgment in giving advice--advice coming from a mind illuminated by the same Spirit who gives visions and dreams.
5. The "Epistolary" Model of Inspiration
Letters from James, John, Paul, and Peter brought inspiration, devotion, instruction, and correction [p. 25] to the believers of the first century as well as to Christians of all ages. However, in the framework of the dynamics of inspiration, epistles confront us with new dilemmas: first, how to handle personal letters now made public through their insertion in the Biblical canon; second, how to understand inspiration when the prophet writes greetings, names, circumstances, or even common things that do not require a special revelation.
Surely Paul never imagined that his letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon would become public domain. But the Lord planned those letters to be part of the canon to bring inspiration, instruction, and comfort to many young ministers and believers confronting similar circumstances.
Likewise, Ellen White never imagined that her personal letters, especially those addressed to her husband and children, would become public domain. In deciding to make these available, the White Estate board of trustees considered two principles: first, Ellen White herself stated that testimonies that had been directed to a single individual to instruct, correct, or encourage that person in a particular situation would be helpful to others also. Second, if the Lord allowed Paul's personal letters to be in the Bible to serve a wider audience, why should He not do the same with a later prophet?
Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians reveals his emotions--feelings of discouragement and even repulsion for the heavy sins allowed in the church. The Holy Spirit did not enter the scene with a special revelation or vision. Rather, the Spirit inspired God's servant to express himself with his own feelings and sentiments. But in case some believers would consider this message only a letter coming from a concerned pastor, the apostle reminded them that whatever he preached or taught--or even wrote--was the result of the teachings of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:1-13).
Ellen White's personal letters show the prophet corresponding with her audience, expressing her burdens and feelings. Many times there is no "I saw" at the beginning of the letter. But this does not mean that she is writing only her personal feelings or opinions. She is well aware of the divine source of her writings.
6. The "Literary" Model of Inspiration
In the "literary" model the Holy Spirit inspires the prophet to express his or her intimate feelings and emotions through the means of poetry and prose, as in the psalms.
Ellen White was not a poet; nevertheless, she expressed her intimate sentiments and emotions in thousands of handwritten diary pages. In those pages the believer finds [p. 26] inspiration, instruction, correction, and comfort, as in any other portion of the inspired writings.
But there is a further dimension to the dynamics of inspiration. In conveying His message, God not only uses human beings but also human language. And both are imperfect. How do these imperfect vehicles affect God's perfect message?
1. An Imperfect Messenger
The fact that prophets were called "holy men of God" (2 Peter 1:21) neither means they were sinless nor prevents us from recognizing their weaknesses as human beings. Any attempt to make the Biblical prophets "perfect" will be confronted by the Bible record itself. Think of King David. Though he was a prophet, he committed gross sins. When his relationship with God was broken by sin, God sent another prophet to correct His servant (2 Sam. 12:1-13). After David's repentance the way of communication was once again open, and he was inspired to write the beautiful psalm of confession (Ps. 51).
We should not build our confidence in the Biblical prophets on the basis of the prophets' perfect record. Neither should we do so with a modern prophet--the authority of the prophetic word is not based upon a perfect life or perfect behavior. Ellen White never claimed perfection or infallibility. "In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His Word is true, and in Him is no variableness, or shadow of turning." From her diaries and personal letters, we know that sometimes she was discouraged; sometimes she had disagreements with her husband; many times she had to ask forgiveness; she made mistakes.
2. A Mistaken Prophet
In the Biblical record we find instances in which a prophet had to be corrected because of preconceived ideas. The apostles first believed that only the Jews could be saved. The Holy Spirit had to correct that idea if the gospel was to be carried to all the world. A vision in Peter's case (Acts 10, 11) and special revelations in Paul's case (Eph. 3:3-6) enlightened the apostles and thereby the whole church.
In the Advent movement we also find instances when the prophet had to be corrected because of preconceived ideas. Our pioneers were greatly limited in their comprehension of mission by a theological error carried over from the Millerite movement--the shut door doctrine, the belief that the door of mercy was closed. Even Ellen White accepted it. In successive visions, the Spirit corrected the idea, first in her mind and then, through her, in the entire movement.
The fact that the Holy Spirit corrected any mistaken doctrine related with global mission in the minds of Peter, Paul, and Ellen White gives us the assurance that the Spirit is in control of the inspired message.
In other instances a prophet had to be corrected because the counsel or suggestion was different from the Lord's plan. Thus we find Nathan the prophet first approving David's plan to build a house for the Lord, but the Lord corrected that idea.
We find parallels in Ellen White's ministry. In 1902 the publishing house operated by Seventh-day Adventists in the South of the United States was struggling financially. The leaders of the church sought inspired counsel. After some consideration Ellen White endorsed the decision of the leaders to close the publishing house. But during the following night God corrected His messenger. She had to write a different message.
Again, all the New Testament writers believed Jesus' return was near. Although we cannot follow the exact chronological manner in which the Holy Spirit dealt with this issue, we know the apostles received further information. For instance, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gave the impression that he expected to be alive for the Lord's coming (1 Thess. 4:16, 17). However, additional information between the two letters led him to caution the church not to expect the Lord to come immediately (2 Thess. 2:1-4).
Likewise, John was convinced he was living in "the last hour" (1 John 2:18). Further visions gave him the opportunity to tell the church, surely with sadness, that many things would happen--including fierce persecution--before the coming of the Lord. Undoubtedly, the book of Revelation as the answer of the Spirit to many questions arising in the mind of the beloved apostle.
All the believers in the Advent movement, the Lord's special messenger included, shared the conviction that the Lord's coming was near. We do not need to be embarrassed [p. 27] by the fact that Ellen White expressed her expectations, as did Paul, Peter, and John in Biblical times. Once again the Holy Spirit had to correct some ideas and give additional information to guide the church in the right direction.
In 1856 Ellen White was shown that some believers attending a meeting would be alive until the coming of Jesus. In the years that followed, the Lord gave her an extended vision of the great controversy with additional information about the journey that was still ahead. It also was revealed that "we may have to remain here in this world because of insubordination many more years."
3. Imperfect Language
Seventh-day Adventists do not believe in verbal inspiration (the idea that God dictates the exact wording to the prophet). With the exception of the Ten Commandments, all the inspired writings are the result of the combined efforts of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the prophet with a vision, an impression, a counsel, or a judgment; and the prophet, who begins to look for sentences, literary figures, and expressions to convey God's message accurately.
God gives the prophet freedom to select the kind of language he or she wants to use. That accounts for the different styles of the Biblical writers and explains why Ellen White describes the language used by inspired writers as "imperfect" and "human."
Because "everything that is human is imperfect," we must accept the idea of imperfections and mistakes in both the Bible and Ellen White's writings. This means at least two things: 1. The prophet uses his or her common, everyday language learned from childhood and improved through study, reading, and travel; there is nothing supernatural or divine in the language used. 2. The prophet can make orthographical or grammatical mistakes, as well as other kinds of language imperfections such as lapsus linguae (a slip of the tongue) or lapsus memoriae (a slip of the memory), which need to be corrected by an editor before the text is ready for publication. The editor corrects not the inspired message, but rather the noninspired language.
We find a lapsus linguae in Matthew's Gospel, when he quotes Zechariah but mentions Jeremiah in connection with the 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 27:9, 10; Zech. 11:12, 13; Jer. 32:6-9). For a person who believes in verbal inspiration, this raises serious questions; but for those who accept that the Lord speaks to human beings in imperfect speech, this illustrates how the divine message reaches us through an imperfect language.
The following statement of Ellen White, when she quotes Paul but mentions Peter, is similar: ."The love of Christ constraineth us," the apostle Peter declared. This was the motive that impelled the zealous disciple in his arduous labors in the cause of the gospel." [p. 28] Fortunately, we have enough evidence in the Bible, as well as in the history of the Advent movement, to show us that the Holy Spirit always corrected His messengers in matters important to the church.
The Lord surprises us with His marvelous and sometimes strange ways. In communicating with His people, He has selected human beings, dedicated but faulty, using an imperfect human language, as His instruments to convey His message. We must be grateful to our heavenly Father that He did not select a "superhuman" language understood by only a few select persons, but chose to use our own imperfect, common way of seeing and understanding things.
In accepting His ways, we also must be careful not to confuse the content with the container. We must not discard the "treasure" inside just because the "vessel" is imperfect and sometimes unworthy.
Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version.
For a Biblical illustration of supernatural strength, see Judges 13-16. For lack of strength while in vision, see Daniel 10:7-11. Many reliable witnesses state that Ellen G. White was breathless while in vision.
See Ex. 3; 4; Joshua 5:13-15.
See 2 Kings 6:15-17.
See 2 Cor. 12:1-4.
The Great Controversy, p. xii.
Ellen G. White suggests both ideas: (1) that her own judgment was "under the training of God" (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 60); and (2) that her mind and judgment were controlled by "the mind and judgment of the great I AM" (Spalding and Magan Collection, p. 87).
Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 660.
Ibid., p. 67.
Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37.
Ibid., pp. 63, 64.
Letter 208, 1902, in Spalding and Magan Collection, p. 282.
See Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 131, 132.
Evangelism, p. 696.
Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 20, 21.
Review and Herald, Oct. 30, 1913; see Paul's statement in 2 Cor. 5:14.
See Selected Messages, book 1, p. 26.
Juan Carlos Viera, D.Miss., Ellen G. White Estate.