Even thinking back on it decades later, the hair on my neck tingles. I was sitting in a seminary classroom, flipping back and forth between Matthew 8 and Mark 5. My face had gone numb.
These two chapters tell the same story, I thought. Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee in a boat with His disciples. It’s a dangerously stormy night, but with His voice, Jesus instantly calms the storm. When they get to shore, they meet a demon-possessed man.
That’s what Mark 5 says. But in Matthew 8, there are two demon-possessed men! OK, which is it? I thought desperately. Which version gives the correct information?
That’s honestly the first time I ever realized that there were slight differences among the Gospels. For a few seconds, doubt and panic washed over me. I’ve just started pastoral training, I told myself. If I can’t totally trust the Bible’s accuracy, how can I preach from it?
As it turns out, a Bible-believing seminary classroom is the perfect place to wrestle with questions like this. My professors, probably suppressing smiles, patiently talked our class through these issues and left my faith stronger than before. And they did it by explaining how God inspired His prophets and His Bible.
why it’s important
You’ve already seen why this issue was important to a stunned seminarian (me). If I’m not clear about how God communicated with His human messengers, I might get bitter or discouraged when my imperfect ideas about revelation and inspiration aren’t the ones God happened to use. Many have lost their faith this way.
Even worse, if I believe that I can’t trust my own Bible thinking, I might allow someone else to do that thinking for me. In 1978, more than nine hundred followers of preacher Jim Jones died in Guyana because he insisted that it was God’s will that they commit suicide. Near Waco, Texas, in 1993, David Koresh harangued his followers with his deranged ideas about Revelation, and they perished with him in their compound.
So it’s important for us to find out how God inspired the people He called to write the Bible.
how God inspired the Bible
Centuries of thoughtful Bible readers have realized that the more we understand what the Bible says about how God inspired it, the better we can apply its messages to our lives—and the better we’re able to deal with minor yet eyebrow-raising puzzles like the vanishing demoniac. I’m going to show you some “revelation-inspiration” models that scholars have suggested and match each of them with what the Bible itself says. (Note: The last one makes the most sense.)
The community model. The community idea basically says that it’s not so much the Bible that’s inspired but the whole community of believers. Those who take this approach say that God’s inspiration automatically infuses everyone who worships together in His name. That means that the whole Bible isn’t necessarily true, just those ideas that the community itself decides to believe. (If you’re rolling your eyes right now, you’re not alone. Most Christians reject this model, and so does the Bible.)
The encounter model. The encounter idea teaches that the Bible writers personally “encountered” God, and that’s as far as it went. During those encounters, God didn’t reveal any real “truth” or commandments or plans—just Himself. This means that anything the Bible writer writes down probably doesn’t contain any guidance the rest of us need to pay much attention to. Instead, we should seek the same kind of “encounter” with God and not worry about the nuts and bolts of belief and practice.
Of course, people familiar with their Bibles know better. “All Scripture,” Paul said, “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NKJV*; emphasis added). All throughout the Bible, we hear God encouraging people to obey His specific commands.
And Moses tells us why: “Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12, 13; emphasis added). And, sure enough, when God’s people obeyed, things generally went well. When they disobeyed, things went bad.
The New Testament writers and Jesus Himself pointed back to the Old Testament for detailed life guidance. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 when He said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ ” (Matthew 4:4). John called Jesus the “Word” of God—not the “Encounter” with God (John 1:1, 14).
Needless to say, most Christians today reject the encounter model. “Sure, we need to encounter God,” they say, “but we also need to find out how He wants us to live our lives.”
This brings us to another inspiration model that is quite popular but still not quite biblical.
The verbal-plenary (VP) model. The “verbal” part means all the words and grammar in the Bible, and the “plenary” part is from the Latin word meaning “full.” The VP model insists that all of the Bible’s words are fully inspired. Sounds good, right? Isn’t this a whole lot less wishy-washy than the community or encounter models? With the VP model, we can know exactly what God said to the prophets, and we can take His words at face value.
Keep in mind that this is slightly different from a closely related model, called the “dictation model,” in which Moses sat with pen in hand at the beginning of Genesis while the Lord dictated the exact words to him in his ancient Hebrew language: “In . . . the . . . beginning . . . God . . . created . . .” The VP-believing Bible students say that it’s not quite that mechanical and mindless. They say God inspired the prophet’s mind, yet while the prophet was writing, God controlled the process so tightly that every word is still inspired.
However, we have to be careful here. With each of the inspiration models—no matter how sensible they sound—we need to compare it with what the Bible says about how God really inspired His writers. Because if we don’t, we could get tangled up. The “Peter’s denials” puzzle is a good example.
What’s the “Peter’s denials” puzzle? It makes the vanishing-demoniac puzzle seem pretty tame. Back in seminary, one of my professors assigned us a book written by a then-famous evangelical, a very godly man who had done much for God’s cause. (I’ll call him Dr. Smith, but that’s not his real name.) Dr. Smith firmly believed that the Bible was “inerrant in the autographs,” which means he believed that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts had no errors or inconsistencies whatsoever.
Dr. Smith had become alarmed at the spread of the “community” and “encounter” models, so he decided to fight back. He wrote a book that championed the verbal-plenary model, and in that book, he tackled many of the Bible’s seeming contradictions.
For example, when he looked closely at the four Gospel accounts of Peter’s three denials of Jesus, he discovered that the timelines didn’t match up. That’s because some of the events were listed in different orders, which meant that Peter’s denials showed up at slightly different places along the timeline. But since Smith firmly believed that the original Greek manuscripts contained absolutely no errors, he diagrammed everything out on paper. To make things fit, he finally decided that Peter actually denied Jesus six times—or maybe even nine times (in other words, two or three separate sets of three denials apiece)!
In all my decades of pastoring, I’ve never heard this multiple-sets-of-denials idea anywhere else, even among the strictest verbal-plenary believers. Evidently, most other scholars besides Dr. Smith allow a certain amount of wiggle room here. But Smith’s well-meaning but agonized bending of common sense is what happens when you impose strict principles on the Bible that aren’t there to start with.
There are quite a few differences between the various Gospel stories—so many of them that the verbal-plenary model doesn’t seem to make sense. For example, why use four Gospel writers rather than just one? And if all four are needed, why aren’t the details of their stories exactly the same? There must be another way God chose to inspire His Word.
Let’s look at one more model, the one many careful Bible students think is the best.
Whole-person inspiration model. In the whole-person inspiration model, God isn’t out there somewhere beyond space and time giving us only limited encounters with Him, nor is He allowing the “community” to come up with its own truth for the era they’re living in, nor is He feeding words one by one to human copyists.
Instead, God came close to each Bible writer, inspiring the whole person—the mind, the heart, the emotions—and then carefully guided the words in a way that allowed the writer to use his own personality to pour out his message. This seems to be the best way to describe what 2 Peter 1:21 says about prophetic inspiration: Men “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The phrase
“carried along” comes from the Greek word phero, and it’s the same word used in Luke 5:18, where a sick man was carried into the presence of Jesus.
What’s so wonderful about this whole-person approach is that it gives us a Bible that’s written in a variety of styles—the educated Greek of Luke and Paul, the abrupt, “What’s the bottom line?” prose of Mark, the older-but-wiser bitterness of Ecclesiastes, the mournfulness of Job and Jeremiah, the crisp wisdom of Proverbs, and the emotional psalms of David. That’s because the whole-person inspiration model reveals a God who really comes close to us and values our individuality.
so, what about those demoniacs?
Was there just one demoniac or where there two? And how about when Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus near Jericho (Mark 10; Luke 18)? Was it just Bartimaeus, or were there two blind men (Matthew 20)?
Knowing how close God has come to us—close enough to carry along the Bible writers with His guiding Spirit, and close enough that His Son actually became one of us—knowing how much God cares, we can look at those minor differences and say, “If a loving God didn’t consider them important enough to clear up, we don’t have to worry. It’s not a big deal.”
I’ve actually come up with a little rhyme I use when I have a question the Bible doesn’t answer. Even after careful study, I may find that the Bible does not have solutions to puzzles that I think are important. So I just murmur, “The Bible doesn’t say—and that’s OK.” I trust my Creator and His Holy Spirit enough to have put in the Bible the truths I need to act on.
* Bible verses marked NKJV are from the New King James Version®.
Maylan Schurch is pastor of the Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bellevue, Washington. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times.®