Adventist Criticism of Higher Criticism

One of the most fervent and ongoing cautionary appeals from the current Seventh-day Adventist General Conference administration, led by Ted Wilson, involves hermeneutics—the theory and methodology of biblical interpretation. In Wilson’s Sabbath sermon prior to the 2021 Annual Council, this subject was one of his 14 points of concern:


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11574
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What about Ellen White? Does she have the license to do so?

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Interpreting Genesis: According to Ellen White, ‘let us make man in our image’ included only the Father & Son, Holy Spirit was not included. While it is unanimously believed by christians to be the act of the three divine persons.

Well presented article. However, allow me to put a finer point on the crux of the disparity between HC and HGM.

The real point is in presupposition.

HGM approaches the Bible as being in some sense a miraculous entity, As such, it is presumed that the various authors and their works had a unified purpose and message with a common thread which can be, must be, discernible, and the message is presumed to be “true” in the most unquestionable sense. This presumption goes down to the level of comparing words and phrases, even tenses, among authors writing in different places, in different centuries, with different audiences and treating it all as a mystical unity which can be interconnected to arrive at “truth” via proof-texting. That presupposition (inspiration) is the underlying current which makes theology possible and necessary. The existence of thousands of denominations and sects which have existed throughout Christian history, all certain that their connection of the dots is the correct one, show the difficulty/fallacy of trying to impose this methodology on that anthology known as “The Bible”. This doesn’t even yet touch the issue of who selected the works which made the canonical cut and why those were selected while others were rejected. This in itself is problematic. This method is primarily interested in finding “truth” using a methodology which is completely open to private subjective interpretation except for the claim that the interpreter is guided by a spiritual power enabling the making of the right connections, while other interpreters are equally certain that they are also guided by the spiritual power but coming to wildly different conclusions. This is the inevitable result of invoking magical communication, either in the production of a document or in its interpretation.

Historical criticism, as noted, is interested in a great many fields in order to understand ancient literature in its context using the disciplines of archaeology, source analysis, comparative religion, redaction analysis, political/cultural analysis, and the findings of the scientific disciplines, all in the interest of attempting to provide an objective understanding of a particular author and his writings. The HC practitioner is not in the business of discovering metaphysical “truth”. Rather, the purpose is to understand. This methodology does not approach these ancient writings as a unified whole; rather, that “whole” is first deconstructed in order to understand each piece of literature on its own. In short, the historian, and that is what this is (historical analysis) is presented with a document; he is tasked with asking who wrote it, when was it written, to whom was it written, what cultural influences were present which might have had effect, where did the writer get his information, were there political issues involved, and how does this compare with surrounding contemporary religious views?

Of course, Ted Wilson’s declaration that these factors are irrelevant since the Bible is presupposed to be unique and the information therein deemed to be the result of some type of infallible, unknowable non-sensory, communication. Historical data can only be allowed to illuminate the documents, but never to account for them. This thinking process is circular. How can one know whether or not historical influences can explain a piece of literature if that question is precluded a priori? If a document is presupposed to be outside the normal causality of history, how does one initially verify its status and veracity or claim to uniqueness? That prior conclusion is thus arbitrary.

The crisis between the methods occurs when the findings of the Historical method clash with the presupposed status of the uniqueness and inspired truth source of the Bible as maintained by the HGM proponents.

Examples:

Archaeology: Foundational to the Judeo/Christian understanding of salvation history is the story of the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, the miraculous exodus of a vast multitude, the sojourn in the wilderness for forty years, and the conquest of the land. The problem is illustrated by the esteemed Israel Museum. The hall devoted to the best known part of the story — the Exodus from Egypt — is an empty room with exactly one exhibit on display: a movie featuring co-curator and Israel Museum Egyptologist Dr. Daphna Ben-Tor, who explains that the hall is empty because there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever to support the biblical tale. Rather than showing a conquest of the land from the south, the archaeological evidence indicated a gradual, organic migration of people from the coastal areas to the Judean hills coalescing into the tribe of Hebrews. Historical critics thus see the stories of Exodus and Joshua as national foundation myths rather than actual history.

Source criticism: Where did the writer(s) get the information presented? Was he an eyewitness? Did he compile legends? Can literary dependence on previous works be shown? When a gospel writer such as Mark shows literary dependence on Homer’s Odyssey, Josephus’ account of the arrest and trial of Jesus (ben Ananius), or creating narrative details from the Septuagint, it simply shows the method used by that author in constructing his story. But for the HGM proponent, there can be no such sourcing because it is presupposed that the narrative is unique, inspired, and historically accurate. It is difficult to find points of commonality. Another example would be the author of Acts obviously rewriting the story of Odysseus’ shipwreck as that of Paul, with many corresponding details, in the same order, and even changing perspective from 3rd person “they” to first person “we” at the same point in the account. To a source analyst, it is simply a matter of interest in discovering the method of construction of the book of Acts. To the HGM interpreter, it is an attack on the very historicity of Acts and thus, its message of truth.

Comparative Religion: The anthropologists examining the Greco/Roman/Egyptian mystery religions of dying and rising savior gods such as Osiris, Romulus, Attis, and Dionysus, with their sacramental practices (often sacred meals), and the mystical joining of the believer with the deity, observe the similarities of the Christian message arising in the same time and places. That observation leads to the hypothesis that there was some level of cross-pollination and influence. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr was fully aware of the close parallels when he argued, “When we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter .”

Literary Analysis: This discipline, among other things, can be used to find probabilities for things like authorship. For instance, comparing vocabulary, syntax, themes, and historical development likelihood, the traditionally assumed authorship of the Pauline epistles has been challenged, virtually to the point of certainty. Based on differences in vocabulary, grammar, theme consistency, and the time needed for certain things to develop, it is considered that Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thess, 1 Tim, 2 Tim, and Titus are late forgeries written in the name of Paul, but actually written by unknown individuals. Some of the issues beyond vocabulary, grammar, syntax, are church organization and theological themes differing from the more certain Pauline epistles.

Ted Wilson is wrong in his disparagement of the Historical method, but he is right that it is incompatible with the HGM methodology and conclusions. SDA scholars attempt to use elements of the Historical method, but won’t or can’t allow the disciplines to consistently follow their natural course. I suspect that these same scholars (or church leaders for that matter) are more than happy to relentlessly apply all the methods of the Historical Critical method to Mohammad, the Koran, and the Hadith. Why? The one and only reason is that the presuppositions present for Jewish and Christian documents are absent when examining Islam. Robert Spencer has done a masterful study on Mohammad and the Koran using HC, finding strong reasons to doubt Mohammad’s existence and providing evidence that much of the Koran was written and compiled more than a century after his supposed time. He of course doesn’t approach the subject with the assumption that god communicated his words through the angel Gabriel.

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Kudos for a masterful summary.

It occurs to me that if we stick to Historical-Grammatical exclusively, God created for six literal days, with no sabbath or weeks and a snake who was so smart that he spoke their language without help from a Satan or a Lucifer. There were two cherubim but no angels.

There was plant life for a day or two but it disappeared until God created Adam and Eve, who cultivated a garden until the talking snake got them evicted.

Nothing was irrigated outside of Eden except by Adam’s perspiration. Well, that’s what the Bible says and Wilson says it’s evil for individuals to decide what is meant to be taken literately.

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I suspect ‘historical-grammatical’ scholarship has benefitted more from higher criticism than many of its proponents would admit. As the above comments illustrate, we often cherry pick from extrabiblical historical research (such as archaeology) when it matches our assumptions.

However, no approach can pretend to be without bias. Just as ‘believers’ can be criticised for finding their ideas confirmed, so ‘non-believers’ also come with bias. Often historical criticism seems to presume that any claim made by the biblical text is false. The ability of ancient writers to compose a cohesive text is denied, as all texts must have been collated by editors and all predictions were obviously written after the event.

At the same time, the apologetic approach has become so defensive as to buffer us from any new insight.

So, the untrained believing scholar (like me) is left to seek understanding from both perspectives, while being aware that each has its weak points.

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On a practical level, where does all this place Christianity; and, on a personal level what does it do to Christian faith? Could there be something behind both that we’re missing?

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Could you give more precise references in both Homer and Acts?

Let me add here what Ted Wilson actually forgot to mention in his sermon: Never apply the historical-critical approach on the writings of Ellen White.

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A little background: Acts clearly depended on Josephus for historical details. Virtually every historical detail in Acts appears in Josephus. At points where Josephus has mistakes or inaccurate order, Acts follows, also using the same vocabulary. An example is the listing of rebels. Josephus mentions Judas the Galilean, Theudas, and The Egyptian. Acts lists them in the same order. However, Josephus had them out of order. Theudas preceded Judas chronologically by 10 years. Did both coincidentally make the same mistake, or was Luke using Josephus for the outline and details of his epic?

The writer of Acts also felt free to borrow from famous epics, specifically the Odyssey. In two accounts, the Shipwreck and the Death of Eutychus, the details and order are too close to be coincidence.

ODYSSEUS AKA PAUL

Ancient Greek fiction frequently followed patterns which we see in Acts. This is a tipoff that Acts is a novella, not an actual history. What are common elements in the Greek novels?

They are always religious in nature and evangelize on behalf of particular god.
They are travel accounts (epics), frequently involving sea travel… Just as in Mark, Acts is built on a travel motif.
They incorporate miraculous or wondrous happenings.
They involve meeting foreign people.
They frequently incorporate couples who don’t have sex. example Paul and Lydia.
They usually incorporate captivity and escape motifs. Prison escapes via earthquakes.
There are always enthusiastic or excited crowds.
Visions or revelations from supernatural origins help move the plot.
Persecution and rescue are common motifs, especially with divine assistance.

One can hardly fail to notice that Acts falls into this category of literature.

When it can be shown that an account appears to be unusually similar to scenes in famous literature, it bears closer examination. This is especially so when some of the events seem unusual when compared with real life. When many elements, words, and order of events are paralleled, the likelihood that the new account is being inspired or rewritten/transposed from the original become probable.

Let’s look at two events in Acts of the Apostles as examples.

THE SHIPWRECK

Odysseus plied the same waters as did Paul in Acts, and he endured a shipwreck with many and unusual parallels:

Both experienced a shipwreck with similar images and vocabulary.
Both were assured of ultimate safety by a supernatural being.
Both held on to planks and floated in the sea.
Both make landfall on the same island, MALTA (What a coincidence! Out of1000’s of islands!)
Both encounter friendly and helpful people.
Both protagonists are mistaken for being a god.
Both continue their journey on a new ship.

This kind of similarity probably indicates dependence of Acts upon the Odyssey; the parallels look more than coincidental. It isn’t every day that one has an encounter with a supernatural being. This is a marker of fiction. Being mistaken for a god is also not an everyday thing.

In the Odyssey, “ A goddess appeared. She took pity on wandering Odysseus with such woes; sat on the firmly bound boat and spoke ‘Surely Poseidon will not utterly destroy you, even though he is bent on doing so’”.

In Acts, Paul states, “Last night there appeared to me an angel of the god to whom I belong and who I serve saying "Do not be afraid Paul’, saying 'You must appear before Caesar. God has given you all those who are making the voyage with you. Cheer up for I trust God and that all things will turn out as I was told.”

This sequence is unique in ancient tales of shipwrecks, especially the visitation by a supernatural being. In both cases a supernatural being offers pity and guarantees safety for the travelers. Both accounts then go on to say that while the people will survive, they will lose their ship and have to travel on another. In both the Odyssey and Acts, the doomed ship is called a naus , a less common word for a ship, further tying the narratives together. The rewrite of the Odyssey by Acts is more than suspiciously apparent.

It is also that the writer of Acts borrowed details of the events prior and after the shipwreck scene from Josephus’ account of his own shipwreck as described in his “Vita”, his autobiography.

A Roman procurator is involved in both accounts (cf Acts 24.1-27)
Jewish religious leaders are involved in both accounts (priests in Vita and Paul in Acts)
The procurator causes Jewish religious leaders to be imprisoned (cf Acts 24.1-27)
The procurator's actions result in prisoners going to Rome (cf Acts 25.10-11)
The accused in both cases appealed to Caesar. 
The religious leaders in both cases are deemed to be unjustly accused (cf Acts 24-26)
Journey to Rome is by ship (cf Acts 27.1-44)
The sea journey to Rome seeks to effect justice at the imperial level to undo injustice done at the  provincial level (cf Acts 24-27)
The ship not only sinks (cf Acts 27.41-44)
But chooses to sink in the Adriatic Sea (cf Acts 27.27)
The heroes, Josephus or Paul, act with courage and provide leadership (cf Acts 27.31-38)
All passengers survive (presumably in Josephus’s account) (cf Acts 27.44)
Both heroes pass through Puteoli (cf Acts 28.13-14)

THE DEATH OF EUTYCHUS, a reversal

In the Odyssey 10-12 Compared to Acts 20

Odysseus and followers sail from Troy to Achaea
Acts: Paul leaves Achaea and goes to Troy (Troas)

Odyssey: The story is told from the perspective of “We”
Acts: The story is told from the perspective of “We”.

Odyssey: After a trip they have a meal
Acts: After a trip they have a meal

Odyssey: Discusses light level inside
Acts: Discusses light level in a room

Odyssey: A deep sleep
Acts: A deep sleep

Odyssey: There is a sudden change to third person narration perspective; “they”
Acts: Sudden change to third person narration perspective; “they”

Odyssey: Elpenor, a young man in a high spot in a building
Acts: Eutychus, a young man in a high spot in a building

Odyssey: Elpenor falls down to the ground
Acts: Eutychus falls to the ground

Odyssey: Elpenor dies
Acts: Eutychus dies

Odyssey: They wait to bury Elpenor until dawn next day
Acts: They wait to deal with Eutychus’ body until dawn the next day

Odyssey: Associates retrieve Elpenor’s body
Acts: Associates revive Eutychus

The main difference is that Elpenor died and stayed dead. At the beginning of the episode, there is a reversal of travel direction between the same places. At the end the Acts rewritten episode results in Eutychus being resurrected. The reversal is complete. Paul is greater than Odysseus. Are the similarities too similar to be coincidental? If so, what does this tell us about the composition of Acts as a whole? The principle of contamination shows that when a piece of literature includes transposed episodes from earlier writings and/or improbable/impossible magical details, that it is not to be considered as trustworthy history as a whole. This is just a quick example of source criticism applied to Acts. There is more…and one cannot miss the similarities between this genre and the Gospel of Mark.

Other apparent borrowings are also to be seen in Acts. For instance Euripides in the Bacchae (440-9) experiences a miraculous unlocking of chains and an escape due to an earthquake. Similarly, Acts shows a miraculous unlocking of chains and escape due to an earthquake, twice! Acts 12, 16.

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I’m not sure how to answer that. Perhaps the question needs to be sharpened. What form of Christianity do you have in mind? In the early centuries of Christian development, there were dozens and dozens of varying Christianities. For the most part, one thread survived for a myriad of reasons; one closely tied to a view of God acting in history (it should be noted that not all versions of early Christianity shared that historical view).

Historical criticism (analysis) is not interested in belief categories. Rather, it asks what happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen? How did it happen? In what way is a particular set of phenomena related to other contemporaneous events? What types of evidence do we have? In literary discussions, we want to know things such as genre (myth, legend, fiction, propaganda, actual attempts at writing history), purpose (political, religious, entertainment), influence (original, plagiarism, rewritten transposition, similarity to surrounding cultural movements), and on and on.

To the degree that one’s beliefs are tied to “facts” of history and their interpretation, historical analysis can be a threat. To the degree that one’s beliefs are mystical; not viewed through the prism of observable or objective phenomena, historical analysis has little impact other than observing the origin and development of the belief current itself as an anthropological inquiry.

For an example of a belief system tied to alleged historical events which can be examined by this audience without threat except by analogy, compare the Mormon belief that an ancient tribe of Israelites known as the Lamanites, ca 750 BC, sailed to South America and became the ancestors of the (Indians) who live there today. Historical analysis would reveal that no such exodus occurred, that archaeological evidence shows the presence of Indians there long before the alleged date of migration. Genetic information shows that there is no Jewish DNA among the Indian tribes, etc. Nevertheless, the claim of a revelation to Joseph Smith maintains the truth of the matter. Now what? A vital historical claim certified by faith is demolished by actual evidence. Should a Mormon then renounce his faith?

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Hi again Bart,

We have been through this before, and I have not forgotten your points made. My question, perhaps worded awkwardly, has to do with “What common thread does the ancient forerunners of, like the biblical Paul character, tie them together?” IOW, why would the ancient stories re-appear with different characters? Who would create them and why? I think you covered that before, (sorry for the repetition.)

Further to my question here, is there within the human psyche a need that would keep repeating the scenarios throughout history… For the Christ story, the only common thread I come up with is the realization (belief) that there is something flawed with us humans that looks for some sort of salvation… All cultures seem to need sacrifices to “buy off their GODs” - There seems to be a need for some form of redemption. Is that the commonality of all religion… If so, what, if anything, satisfies the need?

I know you say you simply search the history, but you must have some thoughts that satisfy your own quest - if you don’t mind my asking.

Source criticism, as the name implies, looks for possible sources for the construction of new documents. Usually, when a source was “borrowed” in antiquity there would be some details remaining very similar while others would be reversed, all the while betraying to the careful reader the identity of the source and the use made of it. For instance Plato borrowed the character Elpenor from the Odyssey, renaming him Er, keeping some parallels while reversing others. Elpenor was a great warrior; Er wasn’t. Elpenor fell from a rooftop, and so did Er. It is unusual for a large number of parallels to be present, in the same order, and with few reversals, but that is exactly what we see in a pivotal gospel account.

The account of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy of the destruction of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the arrest and trial of Jesus seems to have been adapted from the writings of Josephus regarding Jesus ben Ananius who lived during the war of 66-70 AD. Josephus writes,
"Four years before the war, when the city was enjoying profound peace and prosperity, there came to the feast at which it is the custom of all Jews to erect tabernacles to God, one Jesus, son of Ananias, a rude peasant, who suddenly began to cry out, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary, a voice against the bridegroom and the bride, a voice against all the people.” Day and night he went about all the alleys with this cry on his lips. Some of the leading citizens, incensed at these ill-omened words, arrested the fellow and severely chastised him. But he, without a word on his own behalf or for the private ear of those who smote him, only continued his cries as before. Thereupon, the magistrates, supposing, as was indeed the case, that the man was under some supernatural impulse, brought him before the Roman governor; there, although flayed to the bone with scourges, he neither sued for mercy nor shed a tear, but, merely introducing the most mournful of variations into his utterances, responded to each lashing with “Woe to Jerusalem!” When Albinus, the governor, asked him who and whence he was and why he uttered these cries, he answered him never a word, but unceasingly reiterated his dirge over the city, until Albinus pronounced him a maniac and let him go. During the whole period up to the outbreak of war he neither approached nor was seen talking to any of the citizens, but daily, like a prayer that he had conned, repeated his lament, “Woe to Jerusalem!” He neither cursed any of those who beat him from day to day, nor blessed those who offered him food: to all men that melancholy presage was his one reply. His cries were loudest at the festivals. So for seven years and five months he continued his wail, his voice never flagging nor his strength exhausted, until in the siege, having seen his presage verified, he found his rest. For, while going his round and shouting in piercing tones from the wall, “Woe once more to the city and to the people and to the temple,” as he added a last word, “and woe to me also,” a stone hurled from the ballista struck and killed him on the spot. So with those ominous words still upon his lips he passed away.

There are many parallels here with the gospel Jesus:
Both were named Jesus
Both were peasants
Both appeared in Jerusalem during holy days
Both predicted destruction of the temple
Both predicted destruction of the walls
Both predicted destruction of the population
Both predicted destruction of themselves
Both created a temple disturbance
Both were arrested by the Jewish leaders
Both were beaten by the Jews
Both were brought before the Roman governor by the Jewish leaders
Both were scourged by order of the Roman governor
Both resisted the urge to ask for clemency
Both remained silent when the Roman governor asked their identity
Both remained silent when accused of crimes
Both were thought to be not guilty by the Roman governor
Both were thought to be motivated by some supernatural impulse
Both were ultimately killed by the Romans
Both had their last words recorded lamenting their situation.

Does this sound familiar? Is this simply coincidence, or is it more likely that the gospel story was inspired by the account of Jesus ben Ananius as the story of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy, temple disruption, and trial were constructed? History remembered or history created?

In the case of Paul, the account in Acts is so different from the Paul of the epistles that one can only conclude that the writer of acts wished to, or needed to, make use of the collection of Paul’s letters, but needed to put them to different purpose than the original intention. A different context and different message was provided for Paul in Acts than that of the epistles. From that point forward, Paul has been “known” and interpreted through the picture in Acts rather than independently from his own letters.

Ted Wilson’s robust thrust in his sermon was the spirit of prophecy. In point no. 2 of his 14 point sermon, he states, "Ellen White was absolutely a prophet of God and her ministry including “strong messages from the throne room of God” In point no. 10, he cited a quote from LDE, p. 180, (5T, p. 136.2, 1882), which reads:
“When the religion of Christ is most held in contempt, when His law is most despised, then should our zeal be the warmest and our courage and firmness the most unflinching. To stand in defense of truth and righteousness when the majority forsake us, to fight the battles of the Lord, when champions are few. This will be our test. At this time we must gather warmth from the coldness of others, courage from their cowardice, and loyalty from their treason.”
But this quote did not originate from the ‘throne room of god’, as he would want us to believe, but from the book, Sermons by Henry Melvill, 1844. Following is the original quote:
Henry Melvill (1798-1871): “…there should be feeling that days, in which religion is most decried and derided, are days in which zeal should be warmest, and profession most unflinching. To adhere boldly to the cause of righteousness, when almost solitary in adherence, is to fight the battle when champions are most needed…Let them, saith the Psalmist, the times be times of universal defection from godliness – I will gather warmth from the coldness of others, courage from their cowardice, loyalty from their treason” (Sermons by Henry Melvill, p. 266, 1844).
Did her message come from the throne room of God? Was Ted Wilson ignorant of this fact? She not only copied this sermon but copied 48 of Melvill’s 55 sermons!

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Depends on the premise of where the ‘sermon’ quoted from originated. If TW is saying it was from EGW, then one would suspect he is not aware of the history or is ignoring that history of human origination. If he is saying that the original ‘idea’ is from God, then he has ‘wiggle’ room. ‘Wiggle’ by saying he was giving credit to God and not a human. That would be an interesting question for him to answer.

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Do “courage” and “loyalty” attribute stolen words to inspiration?

That would never be possible! God is against prophets who steal words one from another (Jeremiah 23:30).

The gathering of some historical information was acknowledged by the Bible authors. Ellen White too gathered information from 100s of authors, and made a forced acknowledgement of a few sources for the 1911 GC. The supernatural events mentioned in the first chapter of GC, the destruction of Jerusalem, were from Josephus. Josephus was not the firsthand witness to these events. Jesus did not predict those events, neither did John the revelator mention any of these events. I believe them to be of legends and fiction.

How about prophets who insert themselves into scripture, changing the intent and meaning.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. Heb. 1:1,2.

In ancient times God spoke through the mouths of prophets and apostles. In these last days He speaks to them by the Testimonies of His Spirit. Testimonies Vol IV, p. 148; Vol V, p.661.

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