Part III: The Relationship Between the Ellen G. White Writings and the Bible
There is perhaps no subject more misunderstood in Seventh-day Adventist beliefs than the question of the proper relationship between the writings of Ellen G. White and those of Scripture.
A comparison of the writings of Christian authors such as Walter R. Martin, Norman F. Doughty, and others who have written critically about the doctrinal beliefs of Adventists, with some of the statements often quoted from Adventism's own writers which appear to present differing, if not conflicting, positions, makes one wonder if we in the church may not ourselves be responsible for causing some of the confusion outside!
For example, take the definition of two words we have often used in this three-part presentation: inspiration and revelation. Former Adventist minister Walter Rea, following Webster, sees inspiration as "the divine influence directly or immediately exerted upon the mind or soul of men." Rea labels this as "subjective." Revelation is seen as "God's disclosure of Himself and His will to His creatures"; this Rea labels as "objective."
After further defining objective and subjective, Rea alleges that this objective revelation possesses authority, whereas subjective inspiration does not. Objective revelation, in Rea's eyes, is concerned with fact and policy, whereas subjective revelation is seen as associated with values and personal opinions.
Rea then draws the conclusion that Ellen White's utterances convey mostly subjective inspiration. That is, they consist mainly of personal values or opinions (either hers, those of persons who influenced her, or authors from whom she copied). As such, her writings possess virtually no authority from God unless they can be proved from other sources, preferably Scripture.
John J. Robertson, in his book, The White Truth, takes issue with this subjective/objective dichotomy. For him, "Revelation represents God's activity as the sender of a message to His chosen prophet. Inspiration represents God's activity upon or within the prophet, who then becomes the transmitter of that revelation to His people."
This writer also takes issue with the subjective/objective dichotomy projected by Walter Rea, but would prefer to define the terms--as was done in part 1 of this series--somewhat differently than Robertson. Borrowing in part from Raoul Dederen, we suggested that inspiration may be thought of as a process by which God enables the prophet to receive and communicate His message, whereas revelation is seen as the content of the message thus communicated.
A stranger to Adventism, reading these three sets of definitions, might perhaps be forgiven for wondering if the church really has its theological act together! It has been much the same with our pronouncements on the relationship of the writings of Ellen White to Scripture.
Inside the church there has also been some confusion about, as well as abuse and misuse of, Mrs. White's writings. Some members have indeed made a second Bible of them, often seeming to make Mrs. White the more important of the two. Some ministers and teachers have quoted Mrs. White ten or more times for every quotation from Scripture; some have even preached "freight-train" sermons (the locomotive is the sermon's introduction, followed by a string of freight cars--quotations from Mrs. White; bringing up the rear is the caboose, the conclusion of the sermon). The frustration and irritation experienced by a motorist who is held up by a long, slow freight train is almost identical to the feelings of exasperation and anger on the part of one forced to listen to this kind of homiletical monstrosity.
Mrs. White's writings have also been misused by parents, teachers, and preachers who have used statements from them as a theological club with which to bludgeon an offender into submission.
However, such misuse, whether by proponents of the "second-Bible" view (or even the "addendum to the Bible" idea) or by other misapplications, is not the position of the Seventh-day Adventist church even if these positions are adopted by some of its well-intentioned, though ill-informed, members. And, as John Quincy Adams was wont to say, "Arguments, drawn from the abuse of any thing, are not admissible against its use." In other words, "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water!"
What, then, is the position of the denomination with regard to the proper relationship between the writings of Mrs. White and sacred Scripture? As I understand it, we hold that Ellen G. White was inspired in the same manner and to the identical degree as were the prophets of the Bible; but--and this will be paradoxical to some--we do not make of her writings a second Bible, or even an addition to the sacred canon of God's Word. Let me explain.
I. God's Word Through the Prophets
Seventh-day Adventists generally believe that the sacred canon of Scripture was closed with the inclusion of the Apocalypse of John. And the canon, therefore, is both complete and sufficient in itself. In other words, it is possible for an individual to find Jesus Christ, to obtain salvation and eternal life, without ever having heard of Ellen G. White or ever having read one word of her writings.
Adventists, further, have traditionally held since their earliest days that the Scriptures are the source of our doctrinal beliefs, the authority of those beliefs, and the test of all beliefs (and all religious experience, as well).
However, having said all that, it is also clearly evident from Scripture that God also used a number of prophetic messengers, many of whom were contemporaries of the Bible writers, but whose utterances do not form a part of the canon itself. Some of them did their work during Old Testament times, some during New Testament times. It seems evident that their prophetic ministries involved the same kinds of work as that of the Bible writers. And this list of noncanonical prophets included women as well as men--five such as mentioned in each of the Testaments.
The first prophet mentioned in Scripture was Enoch, "the seventh from Adam" (Jude 14); thus the "spiritual gift" of prophecy was among the earliest of the so-called "gifts of the Holy Spirit" to be given to the human family. During the first 2,500 years of human history all prophetic utterances were oral. Moses marks a transition point: He was the first literary prophet. From his time onward both varieties of prophet flourished.
Literary but Noncanonical Prophets
Not all of the literary prophets, however, found themselves as authors of works that would later be gathered together in the canons of the Old or New Testaments. At least eight literary but non-canonical prophets are mentioned by name in the Old Testament. Jasher was the first, in the fifteenth century B.C., perhaps a mere 40 years after Moses' time. Although the Book of Jasher is mentioned in both Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18, this book was not included in the Old Testament.
For-and-one-half centuries later, "Nathan the prophet" and "Gad the seer" wrote books during the reign as King David; but while the latter's psalms were incorporated into the Old Testament, the books of the former were not. About two decades later Ahijah the Shilonite authored prophetically inspired writings, and another 20 years later along came the prophet Shemaiah and Iddo the Seer as literary but noncanonical prophets. Then some 20 years afterward, Jehu wrote an inspired prophetic book and the last of the literary but noncanonical prophets (at least as referred to in the Bible) was Elijah in the early ninth century B.C.
The question immediately comes to mind, if these men were truly inspired, why were their writings not included in the Old Testament? Some have suggested a ready solution: Their writings, though inspired, were not as inspired as those of the biblical authors. This idea of degrees of inspiration has a long history in Adventism; a variation of the theme has surfaced in our own time.
One hypothesis of equal (if not superior) validity is that the messages of these literary but non-canonical prophetic writers were of a local nature: They were written to meet an immediate situation in their own day. The Holy Spirit in His infinitely superior wisdom felt that it was unnecessary to preserve those messages for later periods in history.
Degrees of Inspiration?
We now offer three arguments against the view of degrees of inspiration (or degrees of revelation):
a. From empirical observation: The scriptural record does not differentiate between the canonical and noncanonical prophets as to the source of their messages, or the "chain of command" employed in communicating the messages from the Godhead to the prophet. There is no difference in the method of communication; no difference with regard to the physical phenomena associated with a prophet in vision; no difference in the kinds of messages communicated--encouragement, counsel, admonition, reproof, rebuke; no difference in the kinds of "imperfections" in the "earthen vessels"; no difference in the responses the messages elicited--some hearers heeded and were blessed, others disregarded and paid the consequences. Admittedly this is arguing from silence; but is it unreasonable to hold that the burden of proof must rest squarely upon the person who would seek to establish different degrees of inspiration?
b. From logic: To raise the question of degrees of inspiration (or of revelation) immediately creates the necessity of determining just who will do the classifying. Such an arbiter must of necessity be raised not merely to the level of the prophet, but must be raised to a level above that of the prophet, since he sits in judgment, decreeing that one part of the prophet's writings is more inspired than another.
This problem is further compounded because no man can raise himself even to the level of a prophet--much less a position above a prophet. Paul clearly declares that the Holy Spirit divides the spiritual gifts "severally" to every man "according to his own will" (1 Corinthians 12:11; Hebrews 2:4). "No man taketh this honour unto himself"; the most any human, on his own, can do is to "covet earnestly the best gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31). Surely no mere human should presumptuously place himself over the prophets to determine such a question as this!
c. From faith: I accept Ellen White as an inspired prophet of the Lord, and she once declared that there was no such thing as degrees of inspiration. And that, if there were no other argument, would be sufficient to settle the question for me.
No less a person than the president of the General Conference, George I. Butler, once discoursed on the subject of inspiration and revelation. In his ten articles, which were published from January 8 through June 3 of 1884 in the Review and Herald, Butler posited the idea that there were "differences in degrees" of inspiration.
Ellen White remained silent for five years. Was she, charitably, hoping that he would discover his own blunder and correct it, thus sparing himself (and her) the embarrassment of a public rebuke?
We do not know; however, in 1889 she wrote a rather trenchant response:
Both in the [Battle Creek] Tabernacle and in the college the subject of inspiration has been taught, and finite men have taken it upon themselves to say that some things in the Scriptures were inspired and some were not. I was shown that the Lord did not inspire the articles on inspiration published in the Review, neither did He approve their endorsement before our youth in the college [there]. When men venture to criticize the Word of God, they venture on sacred, holy ground, and had better fear and tremble and hide their wisdom as foolishness. God sets no man to pronounce judgment on His Word, selecting some things as inspired and discrediting others as uninspired. The testimonies have been treated in the same way; but God is not in this.
Degrees of Authority--An Untenable Position
Some favoring the idea of degrees of inspiration (or revelation) have recently advanced the idea that prophets also have degrees of authority. The latter position is as untenable as the former, largely for the same reasons. Empirically, there is no evidence from Scripture that one group of prophets had more--or less--authority than another group. However, if there were, indeed, degrees of authority, how would these be determined? And by whom?
King David's experience with two literary but noncanonical prophets who ministered during his reign would seem to provide evidence against degrees of inspiration or authority.
Nathan. In part 2 we discussed the problem of Nathan's enthusiastically endorsing David's plan to build the temple without first checking with God to see whether the plan met His divine approval. It did not, and that night God spoke to Nathan telling him to go back to the king and correct the earlier message (2 Samuel 7:1-17).
Five chapters later we find Nathan back at the palace, at God's direction, to rebuke David for his twin sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. Using the guise of a parable Nathan courageously drives home to David's heart the enormity of the monarch's crimes; and David, convicted by the Holy Spirit through His messenger, confesses and repents. Nathan then assures David that God has accepted his response and has forgiven him (2 Samuel 12:1-14).
Nathan warns, however, that inexorable consequences will result from David's acts. These consequences will still take place in spite of God's generous and merciful forgiveness (vss. 15-23). Later, out of his genuine repentance and remorse, David penned Psalm 51, in which he appeals to God to "blot out my transgressions, . . . cleanse me from my sin, . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and . . . Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee" (vss. 1, 2, 10-13). And God granted him this heartfelt wish.
Nathan and David were both prophets. A few hundred years later when the Old Testament canon would be drawn up (perhaps under the supervision of Ezra), the Book of Nathan would not be included, but the psalms of David would be. Thus David would become a canonical prophet, Nathan a noncanonical prophet. We know of this encounter not because it is found in the Book of Nathan, but because the author of 2 Samuel 12 included it in his book.
If David perchance had been given a vision of the future, in which he was informed of his subsequent status and that of Nathan, and if David had subscribed to the fanciful theory of degrees of inspiration, the following exchange might logically have taken place:
Upon being rebuked by Nathan, David might have raised his hand in caution and said, "Wait a minute, Nathan. You must show more respect and deference to me. Yes, you're a prophet; but you will be a forgotten noncanonical prophet a few centuries from now. I'll be a canonical prophet; Christians three millennia from now will be singing my psalms in their churches. My fifty-first Psalm of repentance will encourage the hearts of millions down through the ages. But 3,000 years from now no one will know a single word of anything that you wrote in the Book of Nathan!"
David might even have chided Nathan somewhat, in an effort to defend himself, by adding, "Be careful now, Nathan. Remember, you didn't get it quite straight awhile back when you delivered your prophetic approval of my plan to build the Temple. Are you sure you've got it right now?"
What about degrees of authority? Well, the story begins very simply, "And the Lord sent Nathan to David." Did Nathan have authority? Whose authority? How much authority? Those simple words quoted from 2 Samuel 12:1 answer these questions in a most forceful way.
The experience of Gad, the other literary but noncanonical prophet who ministered to David, is useful at this point.
In 1 Chronicles 21 we read that Satan tempted David to sin by numbering Israel. The king's general, Joab, protested in vain. Israel was numbered (vss. 1-6), "and God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel" (vs. 7).
In the very next verse, David engages God directly in conversation. He confesses his foolishness and guilt and asks for pardon. But in verse 9 God does not address David directly, as He surely could have, for prophets have a special "pipeline" with the Almighty.
No, "the Lord spake unto Gad, David's seer." Since David would be a canonical prophet, why didn't God communicate directly with him? Why did He choose, instead, a noncanonical prophet?
Notice, further, what God said to Gad: "Go and tell David, saying, Thus saith the Lord . . ." (vs. 10). Surely this phrase indicates most forcefully the authority of Gad's message. Did Gad need any more authority than a "thus saith the Lord"? Is there any more authority than a "thus saith the Lord"?
What did God tell Gad to do? He was instructed to tell David that God was now offering the king his choice of three punishments: three years' famine, three months of destruction by his enemies, or three days of pestilence in the land (vs. 12).
God also told Gad to tell David, "Now therefore advise thyself what word I shall bring again to him that sent me" (vs. 12). David had the unique prophetic "pipeline"; but he was not to use it in this instance; rather, he was to communicate back to God through Gad.
Again, there is no evidence that David claimed inspiration superior to that of Gad. Instead, "David went up at the saying of Gad, which he spake in the name of the Lord" (vs. 19).
It is absurd to speak of degrees of inspiration. Either a prophet is inspired, or he is not. I recently attended a meeting in which there was a large number of women who were expecting to bear children at some time in the near future. Some were well advanced in pregnancy; some were in its early stages. Sometimes we speak of a woman in the first trimester of pregnancy as being "a little bit pregnant." But the expression is not only inexact, it is incorrect. You have never seen any woman who was a "little bit pregnant." Either she is pregnant, or she is not pregnant!
Likewise, you have never seen a prophet who was a "little bit" inspired.
It is equally absurd to speak of degrees of authority. On February 2, 1980, respected Adventist scholar Don F. Neufeld preached a sermon in the Takoma Park, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist church entitled "When Jesus Speaks." For this, the last message he ever preached, Neufeld took for his text Revelation 19:10: "For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." In his message he discoursed on the various possible renderings of those phrases familiar to Adventists, "the testimony of Jesus" and "the spirit of prophecy." And in his conclusion he drove home a very cogent point:
Through His witness to the New Testament prophets, Jesus predicted that prophetic activity, as one of many spiritual gifts, would continue in the church. In other words, the testimony of Jesus to His people was not to cease once the books that make up our present canon of Scripture would be written. Prophetic activity would continue beyond the close of the canon.
This brings us to an important question. If in all prophetic activity it is Jesus who is speaking, whether in Old Testament times, in New Testament times, or in post-New Testament times, can we logically draw a distinction and say that what Jesus said in any one period is more or less authoritative than what He said in any other period, at least with reference to the generations involved?
For example, could something that Jesus said in the first century A.D. be more or less authoritative than what He said in the 19th century A.D.? The answer, I think, is obvious. It doesn't make any sense to argue for degrees of inspiration, as if what Jesus said in one generation was more inspired than what He said in another.
Seventh-day Adventists generally hold that Ellen G. White is best understood in the role of the literary but noncanonical prophets of the Bible. As such, her writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit in the same way and to the same degree as the writings that were incorporated into the Bible; yet we do not make a second Bible of them, nor even consider them as an addition to the sacred canon of Scripture.
Let us note next how Ellen White saw her writings in relation to the Bible.
II. The "Greater Light"/"Lesser Light" Analogy
In an "open letter" to her fellow church members, written December 6, 1902, and published in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald of January 20, 1903, Mrs. White was looking ahead to the new year and was especially burdened about the colporteur work, which was languishing at the time. "I have been instructed that the canvassing work [door-to-door sales of Seventh-day Adventist literature] is to be revived, and that it is to be carried forward with increasing success."
She expresses appreciation for the united efforts of the laity and literature evangelists in promoting Christ's Object Lessons (the royalties from which she dedicated toward lifting the indebtedness of Battle Creek College), and urges giving greater attention to the circulation of her other works. Highlighting the importance of this missionary endeavor, she adds:
Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her life-work God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given his servant to be given to the world. From their pages this light is to shine into the hearts of men and women, leading them to the Saviour. The Lord has declared that these books are to be scattered throughout the world.
Then, by way of amplifying this idea that "light is to shine" from her writings, and to demonstrate the relationship between those books and the writings of Scripture, she employed an oft-quoted metaphor:
The Lord has sent his people much instruction, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little. Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.
Here Mrs. White makes incidental reference to Genesis 1:16: "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night." By analogy she is saying that the Bible is the "greater light," and her writings are the "lesser light."
Before examining this analogy in detail to determine what Mrs. White intended to teach by it (and, of equal importance, what she did not intend to convey), let us first examine the question of how Mrs. White herself viewed this "greater light" of Holy Scripture.
Synthesizing a helpful list provided by Denton E. Rebok and some remarks in three paragraphs from the introduction to The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, we note Mrs. White's position on Scripture, and then how she saw her writings vis-à-vis the Bible:
a. Nature of the Bible
1. The entire Bible is the inspired word of God.
2.The "truth of God is found in His word." No one need "seek elsewhere for present truth."
b. Purpose of the Bible
1. The Bible sets the pattern for Christian living.
2. It contains "comfort, guidance, counsel, and the plan of salvation as clear as a sunbeam."
3. It is fitted for the needs of all--rich and poor, learned and illiterate, "all ages and all classes."
4. It contains all the knowledge that is "necessary for salvation." Therefore, men should "cling" to their Bibles, believe and obey them; and then "not one" of them would be lost.
c. Primacy of the Bible
1. It is to be accepted "as an authoritative, infallible revelation" of God's will.
2. As such, it is "the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience."
d. Role of Spiritual Gifts (Prophecy):
1. The existence of the Bible "has not rendered needless the continual presence and guiding of the Holy Spirit."
2. Rather, Jesus promised His followers the gift of the Holy Spirit to "open the word to His servants" and "to illumine and apply its teachings."
3. Since consistency is an attribute of Deity, and since it was the Holy Spirit who originally inspired the Bible, it is impossible that the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Spirit would be contrary to what the Bible says.
4. The Holy Spirit was not, is not, and never will be given "to supercede the Bible" because "the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested."
5. The Testimonies were given only because man has neglected his Bible; and these are given to direct him back to the Bible.
(a) They are not given as an addition to the Word of God.
(b) They are not to take the place of the Word of God.
Metaphors to Interpret the Analogy
There are perhaps four metaphors that can be used to help us understand what Mrs. White intended to teach from her "greater light"/"lesser light" analogy (and in so doing keep us from misinterpreting it):
1. Time and geographical relationships. The Bible is God's universal message for all men for all time. Its 66 books were written by approximately 40 literary, canonical prophets over a period of approximately 1,500 years, and the Bible has represented the will of God for all mankind for between two and three millennia. On the other hand, the literary but noncanonical prophets--eight are mentioned in the Old Testament, and Adventists today put Ellen White into this category--wrote primarily for their own time and people. Thus the canonical prophets may be seen in this narrow distinction to be the "greater light," and the noncanonical prophets may be seen as the "lesser light."
2. Tester/testee relationship. Every nation in the world, from ancient Egypt with its Pharaonic cubit to modern nations with their meter and kilogram, have maintained national standards of line and mass measurement in which precision and accuracy are of paramount importance. Without such, no nation could function. Commerce and trade, the building professions, and mass production would be an impossibility.
A visitor to the museum adjoining the library of the United States National Bureau of Standards at Gaithersburg, Maryland, will see on display the original National Prototype Meter No. 27 which was the U.S. national reference for line measurement from 1893 until 1960 (when the meter subsequently was defined in terms of the light emitted by electrically excited atoms of the gas krypton-86).
After the Treaty of the Meter was signed at Sèvres, France, in 1875, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures made 31 prototype meters and kilograms of platinum (90 percent) and iridium (10 percent), a substance especially noted not only for exceptional durability but also for a low coefficient of expansion and contraction. The signatory powers drew lots (the U.S. thereby acquired Meters Nos. 21 and 17 and Kilograms Nos. 4 and 20), and these new standards were sent to the national capitals of the participating nations. There these were preserved in an environment in which humidity and temperature were stringently controlled. (The technician who works with the national kilogram in Gaithersburg, for example, is not allowed to touch the metal weight--moisture from her fingers could affect its weight! She must also wear an aluminized apron to deflect body heat away from the standard.)
In addition to the national reference standards of length and mass, the National Bureau of Weights and Measures also has "working standards" of exactly the same length and weight, made of the same materials. If you suspect your yardstick or ruler is an incorrect length, you could take it to Gaithersburg and compare it with one of the working standards.
Incidentally, the working standards are indistinguishable from the national reference standard; the only difference between them is that one was arbitrarily chosen by lot for its elevated position as the standard of the nation.
Now to the application: The national standard could be seen as the "greater light"; the working standard could be seen as the "lesser light." Or in an equally valid analogy, the working standard could be seen as the "greater light"; the ruler or yardstick you bring to have tested would thus be the "lesser light."
The national yardstick is never tested by your hardware-store yardstick; likewise, the Scriptures are never tested by the writings of Ellen G. White. However, if and when our store-bought articles of measurement are tested by the authority and found to be totally accurate and reliable, we do not hesitate to use them as an authoritative standard--but always in relationship and reference to the ultimate accepted standard (the "greater light").
3. Forty candles/one candle. Place 40 identical lighted candles at one end of a table, and another lighted candle at the other. (The Bible was written by about 40 different authors, and Ellen G. White's writings, of course, by one author.) Since 40 candlepower is greater than one candlepower, so the Scriptures may be seen to be the "greater light," while the writings of Ellen White are seen as the "lesser light."
It is especially important in this context, however, to remember that what is emitted, by either the 40 candles or by the single candle, is "light." And Ellen White's analogy of the sun and the moon as superior/inferior lights is particularly apt because the light that is radiated by the two orbs in the heavens is all the same kind of light. The moon has no light of its own; it simply reflects the light of the sun. Light is light; whether from the sun--or the Son. And if the light that is in you goes out in darkness, "how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:23).
It is also worth remembering that these metaphors we call parables are generally intended to teach one truth and one truth only. If pressed too far, they will break down. For example, while Ellen White is to some extent well represented by the one candle, the fact remains that the bulk of her writing exceeds by many times the total word content of the Old and the New Testaments combined (the "greater light"). The analogy should not be carried too far!
4. National Map/State Map. Many travelers in the United States take with them an atlas to aid them in navigating the nation's highways. Many atlases have a double-page map of the 48 contiguous States at the beginning, followed by individual single-page state maps. The national map would thus be seen as the "greater light," the State map as the "lesser light."
Two applications are worth making here: There is no disagreement between the representation of Maryland, for example, on the two-page national map and on that of the single-page state of Maryland map. However, there is substantially more detail on the "lesser light" state map of Maryland than there is on the "greater light" national map.
In concluding our discussion of this "greater light"/"lesser light" analogy, it is probably worth noting that, on the basis of Ellen White's own statements, it would seem to be an improper distortion to assert (as do some modern critics) that by this figure she meant that the Bible had greater inspiration or authority than her writings.
The Analogy of the Telescope
Apart from the "greater light"/"lesser light" metaphors, another analogy, also drawn from the world of nature, has been particularly helpful in defining the relationship between the writings of Ellen White and those of Scripture. It was developed by Mrs. S.M.I. Henry, an "evangelist" for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in the mid-nineteenth century and a convert to Seventh-day Adventism while a patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1896. (She subsequently found divine healing through prayer.)
Mrs. Henry wrote, in an extended and fascinating autobiographical account, about her initial misunderstanding of the role of the Testimonies, her further disillusionment at discovering that many Adventists in Battle Creek gave only lip-service to belief, her personal struggle to understand the function of the spiritual gift of prophecy in modern times, and her subsequent enlightenment as a result of a season of special prayer. Her study led her initially to view Ellen G. White's writings as a lens--and subsequently, as a telescope--through which to look at the Bible.
Developing the analogy, she said that these writings were also "subject to all telescopic conditions and limitations":
Clouds may intervene between it and a heaven full of stars,--clouds of unbelief, of contention; Satan may blow tempests all about it; it may be blurred by the breath of our own selfishness; the dust of superstition may gather upon it; we may meddle with it, and turn it aside from the field; it may be pointed away toward empty space; it may be turned end for end, so that everything is so diminished that we can recognize nothing. We may change the focus so that everything is distorted out of all harmonious proportions, and made hideous. It may be so shortened that nothing but a great piece of opaque glass shall appear to our gaze. If the lens is mistaken for the field we can receive but a very narrow conception of the most magnificent spectacle with which the heavens ever invited our gaze, but in its proper office as a medium of enlarged and clearer vision, as a telescope, the Testimony has a wonderfully beautiful and holy office.
Everything depends upon our relation to it and the use which we make of it. In itself it is only a glass through which to look; but in the hand of the Divine Director, properly mounted, set at the right angle and adjusted to the eye of the observer, with a field, clear of clouds, it will reveal truth such as will quicken the blood, gladden the heart, and open a wide door of expectation. It will reduce nebulae to constellations; faraway points of light to planets of the first magnitude; and to suns burning with glory.
The failure has been in understanding what the Testimonies are and how to use them. They are not the heavens, palpitating with countless orbs of truth, but they do lead the eye and give it power to penetrate into the glories of the mysterious living word of God.
Denton Rebok attests that "Sister White herself said that Mrs. S.M.I. Henry had caught the relationship between the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy and the Bible as clearly and as accurately as anyone could ever put into words."
A telescope doesn't put more stars into the heavens; it simply reveals more clearly the stars that are already there. And Ellen White's writings, to change the figure, may also be seen as a microscope that helps "to magnify and make clear the details of the truths of the Word" of God. Likewise, the writings of Ellen White add detail and make clear the teachings of the Scriptures.
III. The Jemison Model of Relationship
The late T. H. Jemison, in a work that for decades was the standard Seventh-day Adventist college textbook for prophetic guidance, devotes an entire chapter to "The Ellen G. White Writings and the Bible" in A Prophet Among You.
Quoting extensively from Ellen White's own words, chiefly in the chapter "The Nature and Influence of the 'Testimonies,'" Jemison shows that Mrs. White saw her writings as fulfilling eight functions, which could readily be subsumed under three categories:
A. To Direct Attention to the Bible:
1. To exalt the Bible.
2. To attract minds to the Bible.
3. To call attention to neglected truths.
B. To Aid in Understanding the Bible:
4. To further impress truths already revealed.
5. To awaken minds.
6. To simplify truths.
C. To Help in Applying Bible Principles in Our Lives:
7. To bring out principles and help apply them.
8. To instruct in details.
Jemison's concluding paragraph in this chapter is especially instructive. After posing the question, what is meant by such Ellen White expressions as "additional truth is not brought out" and "the written testimonies are not to give new light" and "are there no descriptions given and details enumerated in the Ellen White books that are not mentioned in the Bible?" Jemison responds:
Certainly, or there would be little purpose in the giving of these messages. Are these not "additional truth" and "new light"? Not at all. The writings introduce no new topic, no new revelation, no new doctrine. They simply give additional details and round out subjects already a part of the Scripture record. The whole realm of spiritual truth is encompassed by the Bible. There is no need for more to be added. But further details, incidents, and applications made in these modern writings lead to keener perception and deeper understanding of the truth already revealed.
The Two "Special Resurrections"
An illustration of how those writings give us not only additional details but also suggest new relationships between certain specific passages of Scripture is seen in the treatment Ellen White gives in her discussion of the two special resurrections spoken of in the Bible.
1. The special resurrection at Easter. Twice in the Bible, once in Matthew's Gospel and once in Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, there is mentioned an intriguing subject with tantalizingly little detail: the special resurrection that took place on Easter Sunday morning and the amazing aftermath, 40 days later at the Ascension.
These are the facts as they are found in Scripture: In Matthew 27:51-53 we are told that (a) there was an earthquake at the moment of Christ's death; (b) It opened a number of graves; (c) after Christ arose Sunday morning "many" were raised to life; (d) these persons were identified as "saints" (in the Bible a saint is not some super-righteous, miracle-working holy person, but rather an ordinary, garden-variety Christian, a sinner saved by grace); (e) the persons raised from the dead then went into Jerusalem ("the holy city"); (f) they appeared to "many" of the citizens of that place; and in Ephesians 4:8 (margin) we are further told that (g) they ascended with Christ to heaven 40 days after they were raised from the dead.
Ellen White, however, draws back the veil and gives nearly a dozen additional facts of identification and information:
During their natural lifetimes they were "co-laborers with God."
They were martyrs; "at the cost of their lives" "they had borne their testimony unflinchingly for the truth."
They represented "every age" of history "from creation down even to the days of Christ." (Abel was the first martyr; John the Baptist the last martyr of record before Calvary.)
They differed in stature and form, "some being more noble in appearance than others. . . . Those who lived in the days of Noah and Abraham resembled the angels in form, comeliness, and strength." [Adam was more than twice the height of men now living; Eve a little shorter (her head came a little above his shoulders)].
These were raised to immortality; whereas the three persons raised during Christ's pre-Calvary ministry were not raised to eternal life, and subsequently died again.
Christ was the One who raised them to life.
Their work was to witness to the resurrection of Christ. They were witnesses that the priests could not silence. Their testimony contradicted the perjury of the bribed Roman soldiers.
Their message was: The sacrifice for man is now complete; Jesus, whom the Jews crucified, is now risen from the dead. The proof? "We be risen with Him."
They were the living fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 26:19.
Jesus presented them in person to His Father in heaven as the first fruits of all the righteous dead who someday would be brought back to life.
It is true that in Ellen White's writings we have "no new topic, no new revelation, no new doctrine"; but we do have a great deal of new information!
2. The special resurrection just before the second coming of Christ. Four passages of Scripture speak, directly or by implication, of a special resurrection just before the second coming of Christ. Ellen White interprets for us: There will be three classes of people--(a) all those who have died in the faith under the third angel's message, keeping the Sabbath; (b) the crucifiers of Jesus who did not find salvation before they died 19 centuries ago; and (c) the most violent opponents of Christ's truth and His people. Only the first two categories are reasonably inferred from Scripture, the third comes to us as additional, extrabiblical information, from the prophetic gift in our own time.
Ellen White and Development of Seventh-day Adventist Doctrine
Many of those in the Seventh-day Adventist church today who express concern (if not doubt) about the authority of Ellen White in the church generally focus their interest on the issue of doctrinal authority. This being the case, it is especially helpful for us to examine, successively, how we as a people arrived at our doctrine, what role Ellen White played in the development of these doctrines, and how Ellen White herself viewed the nature of her contribution to that process.
The Sabbath Conferences
Most Seventh-day Adventist church historians would probably agree that the doctrinal framework of the denomination was largely hammered out during a series of long weekend gatherings that we today call Bible conferences, but which in earlier times were generally known as Sabbath conferences.
The historians, however, appear to be in less agreement regarding the time of when these gatherings were held. LeRoy Edwin Froom, author of the monumental, exhaustive four-volume work, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, in a chapter entitled "Sabbath Conferences Consolidate Emerging Movement," seems satisfied to settle for merely the six conferences held in 1848:
1. Rocky Hill, Connecticut, April 20-24, at Albert Belden's home. Attendance: about 50. Speakers: H. S. Gurney, Joseph Bates (the Sabbath and the law), and James White (the dawning significance of the third angel's message, its scope, and specifications).
2. Volney, New York, August 18, in David Arnold's carriage house. Attendance: about 35. Speakers: Joseph Bates (the Sabbath), and James White (the parable of Matthew 25:1-13).
3. Port Gibson, New York, August 27 and 28, in Hiram Edson's barn. No specific details available.
4. Rocky Hill, Connecticut, September 8 and 9, in Albert Belden's home. No specific details available.
5. Topsham, Maine, October 20-22, in the Stockbridge Howland home. Discussion centered around the possibility of publishing a paper, but since the participants were without funds, no concrete action was taken.
6. Dorchester, Massachusetts, November 18, Otis Nichols' home. A further discussion on publishing a paper took place, and Ellen White received affirmative counsel from the Lord regarding this literature ministry.
The editors of the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, however, see a three-year period as involved in doctrinal formation, rather than merely the beginning year of 1848; and they point out that in 1849 there were another six conferences (James and Ellen White attended at least three of them: Paris, Maine, in September, and Oswego and Centerport, New York, in November). And in 1850 there were a total of ten Sabbath conferences, eight of which the Whites attended.
The conferences were attended mostly by those who had been caught up in the Millerite movement and were unwilling, after the great disappointment of October 22, 1844, to throw over their former experience (as many others had done). Interested friends of these ex-Millerites also attended the meetings, which might run over Friday and Sabbath, or Sabbath and Sunday, or Thursday through Sunday.
Keeping in mind that the Millerite movement was probably the most ecumenical movement of the entire nineteenth century, it is not surprising that this remnant of it comprised a group of people with widely divergent theological viewpoints. Commenting upon the first of the 1848 conferences, James White, in a letter written afterward to Stockbridge Howland, said of the 50 who attended, "They were not all fully in the truth."
Regarding the second of the Sabbath conferences (and the first general meeting to be held in western New York), Ellen White, in describing the positions of the approximately 35 attendees, wrote that "hardly two agreed. Some were holding serious errors, and each strenuously urged his own views, declaring that they were according to the Scriptures." The problems discussed did not center so much on whether a belief could be found in Scripture, but rather on what the Scripture meant by what it said. Yet, invariably, when the weekend was over, there was unity of belief. What happened to bring this unanimity out of such diversity?
First, there was earnest Bible study and prayer. Writing in 1904, more than a half-century after the events, Ellen White still had vivid memories of the conferences. She wrote about them because "many of our people now do not realize how firmly the foundation of our faith has been laid." She identified by name some of the more prominent participants "who searched for the truth as for hidden treasure." Concerning her own participation, she added:
I met with them, and we studied and prayed earnestly. Often we remained together until late at night, and sometimes through the entire night, praying for light and studying the Word. Again and again these brethren came together to study the Bible, in order that they might know its meaning, and be prepared to teach it with power.
But Bible study and prayer alone were not enough to convince the participants. These hardy farmers and tradesmen held tenaciously to their pet theological theories, hardly budging an inch. Concerning this Mrs. White added:
These strange differences of opinion rolled a heavy weight upon me. I saw that many errors were being presented as truth. It seemed to me that God was dishonored. Great grief pressed upon my spirits, and I fainted under the burden. Some feared that I was dying. Brethren Bates, Chamberlain, Gurney, Edson, and my husband prayed for me. The Lord heard the prayers of His servants, and I revived.
In addition to earnest and extended Bible study and prayer the conferences saw the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit; but this intervention did not come until the participants had gone as far as they could go. Let us note next, then, the work of the Holy Spirit as He worked through the human vessels at these conferences at which our doctrinal positions were established.
The Role of the Visions in Doctrinal Formation
The function of the visions given at the conferences appears to have been to (a) correct the brethren if they were on the wrong track, or (b) confirm and corroborate if they were on the right track, but (c) never to initiate doctrinal formulation. As Arthur L. White would later state in point No. 12 (of 21) "Helpful Points in the Interpretation and Use of the Ellen G. White Writings":
The counsels are not given to take the place of faith, initiative, hard work, or Bible study. God did not use the Spirit of Prophecy to make us dependent or weak. Rather, the counsels are to make us strong by encouraging us to study the word of God, and by encouraging us to move forward.
Wrote Ellen White concerning this stage of doctrinal development:
When they came to the point in their study where they said, "We can do nothing more," the Spirit of the Lord would come upon me, I would be taken off in vision, and a clear explanation of the passages we had been studying would be given me, with instruction as to how we are to labor and teach effectively. Thus light was given that helped us to understand the scriptures in regard to Christ, His mission, and His priesthood. A line of truth extending from that time to the time when we shall enter the city of God, was made plain to me, and I gave to others the instruction that the Lord had given to me.
Speaking of the second Sabbath conference in particular, and of the work and place of the visions, Ellen White wrote in her autobiography:
The light from heaven then rested upon me, and I was soon lost to earthly things. My accompanying angel presented before me some of the errors of those present, and also the truth in contrast with their errors. These discordant views, which they claimed were in harmony with the Scriptures, were only according to their opinion of Bible teaching; and I was bidden to tell them that they should yield their errors, and unite upon the truths of the third angel's message.
What caused those post-Millerite Adventists to accept the visions of this young prophet hardly into her twenties? Perhaps three reasons were instrumental:
First, there was the content of the visions. They were relevant and helpful in solving the immediate problems with which the conferences were dealing.
Second, there was the awesome physical phenomena accompanying an open vision. This was never a test of authenticity, because Satan can and does counterfeit physical phenomena, but it surely was an evidence of supernatural activity.
Third, there was the continuing phenomena of the prophet's mind being "locked" when she was not in vision. This apparently lasted for a period of "two to three years"--concurrent with the Sabbath conferences--and during this time when not in vision, all Mrs. White could do was to report what she had seen in vision; she could not enter into the subsequent discussions of either the meaning of what she had seen or of Bible truth generally. "My mind was locked, as it were," she wrote years later, "and I could not comprehend the meaning of the scriptures we were studying." And it remained thus "locked" until all of the principal points of our faith had been systematically developed.
She also wrote of the effect of this on those attending the conferences: "The brethren knew that when not in vision, I could not understand these matters, and they accepted as light direct from heaven the revelations given."
From her perspective at the age of 77 years, Ellen White's observation concerning her feelings toward this phenomena in which her mind was locked is even more poignant: "This was one of the greatest sorrows of my life."
Largely because of the helpful nature of her visions at the Bible conferences, Mrs. White could write of such occasions: "Our meeting closed triumphantly. Truth gained the victory. Our brethren renounced their errors and united upon the third angel's message, and God greatly blessed them and added many to their numbers."
Froom, looking at the above facts, sees Ellen White's role in doctrinal formation as essentially that of an umpire: To one, "your idea is right"; to another "your idea is wrong." Says he:
Throughout this entire time of intense searching the Spirit of prophecy was a help--but only a help. No doctrine or interpretation of prophecy was initially discovered or disclosed through the Spirit of prophecy. The doctrines of the Sabbatarians were all founded upon Holy Scripture, so that theirs was a truly Protestant platform.
One cannot help but wonder, however, if Froom's statement conflicts with Mrs. White's testimony that "a line of truth . . . was made plain to me" and, in addition, "instruction was given as to how we were to labor and teach effectively"; although Froom's observation is probably fairly close to the mark.
How Ellen White Saw Her Authority
In view of the rather dramatic, if not sensational, experiences through which she passed, not only during 1848-1850 but in later years as those original doctrines were repeated and amplified by the Holy Spirit, it is interesting to examine the effect of these experiences upon Ellen White's consciousness. How did she see herself? How did she evaluate the work God led her to perform? What consequences would result from a rejection of her work?
1. She disclaimed giving merely personal knowledge/opinion. Ellen White was the object of vitriolic attack even during her lifetime; and she spoke out sharply in defense of herself--and God. She disclaimed the notion that she was presenting merely human information or opinion, but rather asserted that all her statements came from God and that she was merely the conduit.
I have no special wisdom in myself; I am only an instrument in the Lord's hands to do the work He has set for me to do. The instructions that I have given by pen or voice have been an expression of the light that God has given me.
In her letters and testimonies, said Ellen White, "I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision--the precious rays of light shining from the throne."
Ellen White claimed a unique place in her church--a work not given to any other member. She quoted an angel as telling her "'God has raised you up and has given you words to speak to the people and to reach hearts as He has given to no other one. . . . God has impressed this upon you by opening it before your vision as He has to no other one now living.'" Speaking for herself, she went on, "'God has not given my brethren the work that He has given me.'" To illustrate the essential nature of that uniqueness she added:
"When I am speaking to the people I say much that I have not premeditated. The Spirit of the Lord frequently comes upon me. I seem to be carried out of, and away from, myself. . . . I . . . feel compelled to speak of what is brought before me. I dare not resist the Spirit of God."
"From higher ground, under the instruction given me of God, I present these things before you," she declared. She went on to deny that anyone could accept part of her writings, while rejecting other parts. "We cannot be half the Lord's and half the world's. We are not God's people unless we are such entirely." Next, note this: Speaking of her testimonies, she affirmed:
"God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work . . . bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil."
She was not giving "merely the opinion of Sister White"; and those who asserted this, she declared "thereby insulted the Spirit of God." She further amplified this, saying:
If those to whom these solemn warnings are addressed say, "It is only Sister White's individual opinion, I shall still follow my own judgment," and if they continue to do the very things they were warned not to do, they show that they despise the counsel of God, and the result is just what the Spirit of God has shown me it would be--injury to the cause of God and ruin to themselves.
2. Mrs. White claimed authority to define doctrinal truth. But she went still farther. Not only when she spoke about matters in the homes and churches of her fellow church members was she a direct spokesperson for God, but also when she defined a doctrinal position, that definition was authoritative and reliable.
Speaking of "our early experience" (undoubtedly a reference to the Sabbath conferences of 1848-1850), when "one error after another pressed in upon us," with "ministers and doctors bringing in new doctrines," the little bands would sometimes spend "whole nights" searching Scripture and praying to God for guidance. At these times "the Holy Spirit would bring the truth to our minds. . . . The power of God would come upon me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error."
Mrs. White declared, in effect, that her statements on doctrine were essentially without error. "There is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written." Her testimonies "never contradict" the Bible because she was "instructed in regard to the relation of Scripture to Scripture." Even doctrinal matters in her personal diaries, she wrote five years before her death, should be put in print because they contain "light" and "instruction" that was given her to "correct specious errors and to specify what is truth." To Evangelist W. W. Simpson, laboring in southern California, she wrote in 1906 that "I am thankful that the instruction contained in my books establishes present truth for this time. These books were written under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit."
In 1905, shortly after having had to rebuke the spurious doctrines advanced by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his followers, and again looking back to those early Sabbath conferences in which the manifestation of the Holy Spirit was so marked, Mrs. White declared without equivocation:
When the power of God testifies as to what is truth, that truth is to stand forever as the truth. No after suppositions contrary to the light God has given are to be entertained.
In the rest of the passage she talked of men arising in the future (as they had in the past) with "interpretations of Scripture which are to them truth, but which are not truth." These people would claim to possess "new light." But, she asserted, the doctrines of these men would "[contradict] the light that God has given under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit." She then counseled the future leaders of the church to reject such messages that contradict the "special points of our faith" and move even "one pillar from the foundation that God has sustained" from 1844 to the turn of the century. Acceptance of such views would "lead to a denial of the truth that for the past fifty years God has been giving to His people, substantiating it by the demonstration of the Holy Spirit."
3. Motivation of critics. The fundamental motivation of those who "dissect" Mrs. White's writings "to suit your own ideas, claiming that God has given you ability to discern what is light from heaven and what is the expression of mere human wisdom" was identified by the prophet as "the prevailing spirit of our time . . . infidelity and apostasy--a spirit of pretended illumination . . . but in reality. . . the blindest presumption." She added:
There is a spirit of opposition to the plain word of God and to the testimony of His Spirit. There is a spirit of idolatrous exaltation of mere human reason above the revealed wisdom of God.
And pressing the question of causation still farther, Mrs. White explained the "true" reason (italics hers) for opposition to her writings which is seldom uttered publicly: She has written or said something that cuts across the lifestyle of the critic, perhaps in the area of diet or dress, reading matter, entertainment and amusement, stewardship, or Sabbath observance. The critic thus exhibits by his criticism "a lack of moral courage--a will, strengthened and controlled by the Spirit of God, to renounce hurtful habits."
4. The danger of doubt. Next we notice Mrs. White turning her attention to the question of doubt--doubt of Scripture and doubt of the writings of God's contemporary prophet:
"Satan has ability to suggest doubts and to devise objections to the pointed testimony that God sends, and many think it a virtue, a mark of intelligence in them, to be unbelieving and to question and quibble. Those who desire to doubt will have plenty of room. God does not propose to remove all occasion for unbelief. [If He did, He would simultaneously remove all opportunity for the exercise of faith!] He gives evidence, which must be carefully investigated with a humble mind and a teachable spirit, and all should decide from the weight of evidence." "God gives sufficient evidence for the candid mind to believe; but he who turns from the weight of evidence because there are a few things which he cannot make plain to his finite understanding will be left in the cold, chilling atmosphere of unbelief and questioning doubts, and will make shipwreck of faith."
Mrs. White earnestly declared, "If you lose confidence in the Testimonies you will drift away from Bible truth." She even gives the successive steps on the ladder that leads down to "perdition." Note them:
a. Satan causes church members to engage in a spirit of criticism of denominational leadership at all levels--he excites "jealousy and dissatisfaction toward those at the head of the work."
b. Spiritual gifts in general (and the gift of prophecy, as exercised through Mrs. White, in particular) "'are next questioned;'" with the end result that they have "'but little weight, and instruction given through vision is disregarded.'"
c. The basic, or pillar, doctrines of the church, "'the vital points of our faith,'" engender skepticism; and closely following this:
d. "'Then [follows] doubt as to the Holy Scriptures'" themselves, "'and then the downward march to perdition.'"
Mrs. White elaborates:
When the Testimonies, which were once believed, are doubted and given up, Satan knows the deceived ones will not stop at this; and he redoubles his efforts till he launches them into open rebellion, which becomes incurable and ends in destruction." "By giving place to doubts and unbelief in regard to the work of God, . . . they are preparing themselves for complete deception.
5. An appeal--and a warning. Mrs. White earnestly entreated the critics of her day
not to interpose between me and the people, and turn away the light which God would have come to them. Do not by your criticisms take out all the force, all the point and power, from the Testimonies. . . . If the Testimonies speak not according to the word of God, reject them. Christ and Belial cannot be united. For Christ's sake do not confuse the minds of the people with human sophistry and skepticism, and make of none effect the work that the Lord would do. Do not, by your lack of spiritual discernment, make of this agency of God a rock of offense whereby many shall be caused to stumble and fall, "and be snared, and be taken.
Going further, she charges that "your unbelief will not change the facts in the case"; "your unbelief does not affect their [the Testimonies'] truthfulness. If they are from God they will stand."
Then, "God is not as man; He will not be trifled with." And "opposition to God's threatenings will not hinder their execution. To defy the words of the Lord, spoken through His chosen instruments, will only provoke His anger and eventually bring certain ruin upon the offender."
Speaking about her work, and the Lord who commissioned it, Mrs. White further warned:
If God has given me a message to bear to His people, those who would hinder me in the work and lessen the faith of the people in its truth are not fighting against the instrument, but against God. "It is not the instrument whom you slight and insult, but God, who has spoken to you in these warnings and reproofs." "It is hardly possible for men to offer a greater insult to God than to despise and reject the instrumentalities that He has appointed to lead them."
In a night vision the Lord told Mrs. White about those who had turned from the light sent them. "In slighting and rejecting the testimony that I have given you to bear, it is not you, but Me, your Lord, that they have slighted."
And, finally, "if you seek," said Mrs. White, "to turn aside the counsel of God to suit yourselves, if you lessen the confidence of God's people in the testimonies He has sent them, you are rebelling against God as certainly as were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. You have their history."
On the other hand, "all who believe that the Lord has spoken through Sister White, and has given her a message, will be safe from the many delusions that will come in the last days."
To sum up this consideration of Ellen White's role in the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, we conclude that she played an important part in the formation of Adventist doctrinal belief, especially during the Sabbath conferences of 1848-1850; but her role was essentially limited to passing on messages from God given in vision, rather than entering into dialog with those who were developing the framework of our doctrinal system.
The Spirit of God did not come upon her until those engaged in serious study and prayer had gone as far as they could; then the messages given through Mrs. White tended either to correct (if the participants were going in a wrong direction) or to confirm and corroborate (if they were headed in the right direction); but there is no evidence that the visions were given to initiate doctrinal formulation.
Mrs. White, while maintaining the primacy of Scripture, nevertheless saw herself as the counterpart of the Bible prophets in receiving God's messages and passing them on to His people. Since it was the same Holy Spirit, speaking in Bible times and again in modern times, those messages carried equal weight. They could not be ignored with impunity, either by critics who tried to dissect them, or by others who conveniently neglected or ignored them.
IV. "The Bible and the Bible Only!"
In the days of the Protestant Reformation the rallying cry of the "protesters" against the primacy of human tradition over inspired Scripture was "The Bible and the Bible Only!"
In the early days of the Advent movement this same slogan was often heard, but at this time the slogan was primarily employed to camouflage subtle denigrations of Ellen White's ministry and messages. This slogan is also heard today in the same connection.
At a camp meeting last spring an Adventist pastor from one of our North American colleges told this experience: One Sabbath, in a certain Sabbath school class taught by a professor on campus and attended by college students, the teacher started out by asking the class members individually what insights they had found in extrabiblical contemporary writings that would bear on the day's lesson study. Responses were offered by way of quotations from such helpful writers as Luther and Calvin, as well as Keith Miller, Paul Tournier, C. S. Lewis, and so on. Next the teacher asked for student reaction to the lesson, and a series of individual testimonies followed. At this point one member of the class, a college student well versed in the writings of Ellen White, said that she had found something helpful, something that met her need, in Mrs. White's writings; but before she could elaborate, the teacher cut her off with the remark, "Let's stay with 'The Bible and the Bible Only' in this class!" Ironically, up until that moment, the direct witness of the Bible had been totally absent from the class!
Ellen White, in addressing Sabbath school teachers in 1900, instructed them to "leave the impression upon the mind that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our rule of faith." And in the last book she wrote before her death in 1915 she admonished the church's ministers that "the words of the Bible, and the Bible alone, should be heard from the pulpit." Did this mean, as some today allege, that her writings should never be incorporated into a sermon? Not at all.
In a helpful 37-page monograph Arthur L. White, for years the secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference (and himself a grandson of the prophet), surveys the position of the pioneers of our denomination and cites published statements not readily available to the present-day inquirer. He also examines the 13 major statements from Mrs. White's pen in which she used the Reformation slogan "The Bible and the Bible Only," and comes to four conclusions in summarizing the documentary evidence:
- That at no time was this phrase employed to exclude the binding obligation to respond to the visions as light which God has given to His people.
- That in most instances the words are employed in the setting of contrasting the teachings of God's Word with tradition or man's theories of a false Sabbath, et cetera.
- In several cases the words are used in defining our position on the visions with the explanation that to follow the Bible enjoins the acceptance of the workings of the gift of prophecy as binding upon all who accept God's Word, which forecasts the appearance of this gift in the last days.
- That through the visions God has led us to a correct understanding of His Word and has taught us and will continue to do so. Further, we must ever recognize our obligation to accept this leading of God.
Arthur White also points out that although the 13 major statements from Ellen White's pen span more than half a century (from 1851 to c. 1914), still the tenor of the statements at the end of her life are not appreciably different from the earliest statements written on the subject. Mrs. White never changed her stand on this subject.
Uriah Smith's Parable
"Do We Discard the Bible by Endorsing the Visions?" was the question posed by Uriah Smith in an editorial in an 1863 issue of the Review and Herald. He answers with a resounding "No!" and in the course of his treatment of the subject he tells an interesting parable to illustrate his position:
"Suppose," he proposes, "we are about to start on a voyage." Before departure the ship's owner gives the crew a "book of directions," and assures them that its instructions are sufficient for the entire journey. If these instructions are heeded, the vessel will arrive safely at its destination.
So the crew sets sail, and opens the book to learn its contents. They discover that, in general, the author has laid down basic principles to govern the conduct of the crew during the voyage, and has touched on various contingencies that might arise. However, the author points out that the latter part of the voyage may be particularly hazardous, for "the features of the coast are ever changing by reason of quicksands and tempests." Because of this, the author has arranged for a pilot to join the crew to provide special help in guiding the ship safely into the final port.
The author also counsels the crew to give heed to the directions and instructions of the pilot, "as the surrounding circumstances and dangers may require."
At the appointed time, the pilot appears, as promised. But, inexplicably, as he offers his services to the captain and crew, some of the sailors rise up in protest, claiming that the original book of directions is sufficient to see them through. "'We stand upon that, and that alone; we want nothing of you,'" they declare.
Smith then raises the rhetorical question, "Who now heed that original book of directions? Those who reject the pilot, or those who receive him, as that book instructs them? Judge ye."
Finally, anticipating the objection of some of his readers that he intended this parable to oblige the church to take Ellen White as their "pilot," the editor attempts to forestall such complaint with this postscript:
We say no such thing. What we do say is distinctly this: That the gifts of the Spirit are given for our pilot through these perilous times, and whenever and in whomsoever we find genuine manifestations of these, we are bound to respect them, nor can we do otherwise without in so far rejecting the Word of God, which directs us to receive them.
The position of General Conference President George I. Butler, in a Review and Herald article, is fairly typical of the apologetic response of early Seventh-day Adventist pioneers. To the objection that the Bible is sufficient because Paul declares that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16, 17), Butler's rejoinder was:
If all Scripture is profitable, we suppose those portions are which teach the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, and that tell us they will be in the church in the last days, and tell us how to distinguish between the false and genuine. These prove the visions under consideration to be of the right stamp.
Many who today sound the Protestant rallying call, "The Bible and the Bible Only," seem to infer a false dichotomy, an either/or situation: If you have the Bible, you cannot have Ellen White; if you have Ellen White, you cannot have the Bible. This dichotomy is patently invalid.
Some Seventh-day Adventists, including ministers and scholars, say, for example, "I cannot find the Seventh-day Adventist doctrine of the investigative judgment in the Bible." These persons state, however, that they still accept the doctrine because of the legitimate hermeneutical rule that allows for a later prophet to enlarge the understanding of truth by an earlier prophet.
What these people are really saying, in the opinion of this writer, is: "With my present theological a prioris and my present hermeneutical tools--my presuppositions and my predilections--I do not find that doctrine in Scripture." However, other Seventh-day Adventist scholars, of equally impeccable academic pedigree, assert that they do find that doctrine in Scripture--in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, and in Jesus' parables of the wedding garment and the net.
What does the Seventh-day Adventist church hold regarding the relationship between the writings of Mrs. White and the Bible?
- We do not regard the writings of Ellen G. White as an addition to the sacred canon of Scripture.
- We do not think of these writings as of universal application, like the Bible, but as written particularly for the Seventh-day Adventist church.
- We do not regard Mrs. White's writings in the same sense as the Holy Scriptures, which stand alone and unique as the standard by which all other writings must be judged.
But, having said that, we need to say more. Since we believe that inspiration is indivisible, and since the only activity of the prophet is to tell us what Jesus told him ("the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy"), there is therefore no basis for a belief in either degrees of inspiration or degrees of authority. Ellen White was inspired in the same manner and to the same degree as were the Bible prophets. And the counsel that Mary gave to the servants at the wedding feast at Cana concerning her Son might well be paraphrased: "Whatsoever he saith unto you [and by whatever prophet] do it" (John 2:5).
If, as at least some scholars believe, Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians was the first book of the New Testament to be written, then his concern as expressed in its closing verses may have an interesting significance to Christians today:
"Quench not the Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:19). "Don't tune Him out," as we might put it in today's vernacular. The existence of the possibility of doing just this undergirds the necessity for the warning.
"Despise not prophesyings" (vs. 20). Was Paul here, first of all, telling the Christians that the word of God to them did not end with the closing of the Old Testament canon of Scripture? That the spiritual gift of prophecy was still being exercised--and would continue to be exercised--until the end of time? Was he warning, don't despise latter-day prophets, who will be just as inspired and authoritative--prophets whose messages also come directly from the Holy Spirit? Perhaps.
"Prove all things" (vs. 21). The Christian has an obligation to "try the spirits" (1 John 4:1), because while not all of them are from God, the obverse is equally true: Not all of them are from the devil, either! The Christian is hereby commanded (by the Holy Spirit through Paul) to seriously examine the content of purported prophetic writings. He must also examine the fruitage of these writings, both in the life of the alleged prophet and in the lives of those who follow that prophet. This task must be undertaken with an open mind willing to receive more truth, a mind that seeks to validate all new light by what has been tested before (Acts 17:11). And, having made the test, and noted the results:
"Hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
In a time of acute crisis, at the turn of the century when leaders in the Adventist church were bringing in subtle heresies, God's prophet proclaimed a message that has startling relevance for us today, in another time of crisis:
The Lord will put new, vital force into His work as human agencies obey the command to go forth and proclaim the truth. . . . The truth will be criticized, scorned, and derided; but the closer it is examined and tested, the brighter it will shine. . . .
The principles of truth that God has revealed to us are our only true foundation. They have made us what we are. The lapse of time has not lessened their value. It is the constant effort of the enemy to remove these truths from their setting, and to put in their place spurious theories. He will bring in everything that he possibly can to carry out his deceptive designs. But the Lord will raise up men of keen perception, who will give these truths their proper place in the plan of God.
May you be one of them!