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Ellen White's Theological Growth
Ellen White's growth theologically is a fascinating journey to trace. Take, for example, her understanding on the meaning of the law in Galatians. In the 1850s J H Waggoner had written a book in which he took the position that the law in Galatians was the moral law. Stephen Pierce opposed him arguing that it was the law system including the ceremonial law. She opposed Waggoner and supported Pierce. Later the denominational position accepted that the law in Galatians was the ceremonial law alone. She supported this position. She published this view in her book Sketches from the Life of Paul.
At the time of the debate over the subject at Minneapolis in 1888 she began to doubt the position she had held that it was the ceremonial law. When hearing E J Waggoner, "For the first time I began to think it might be we did not hold correct views, after all upon the law in Galatians." It seems she did change her position again later when Acts of the Apostles was published in 1911. She wrote of the moral law as the schoolmaster. (Some scholars today would say this position is incorrect and would contend that the law referred to in Galatians means the Torah as a covenant and national system.)
In the context of the debate over the law in Galatians around 1888 she came out with statements like: "We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed."201
This illustrates well that we find her changing her position on the basis of others pointing out a more correct position from the Bible. She was prepared to change her own previously published position on a basis of further Bible study.202 She also refused to let her writings be
the final arbiter in the matter; instead she requested that the matter be resolved from the Bible alone.
This was also her way of handling the controversy over the "Daily" which raged for decades in Adventism. She had previously written that the pioneer position was correct. The pioneer position was that the Daily mentioned in Daniel chapter 8 represented Pagan Rome.203 A new position was put forward that it represented the Papacy in their counterfeit of the work of Christ through the mass. The new view was opposed by old stalwarts who appealed to the statement in Early Writings as having settled the matter forever. Ellen White eventually took herself out of the contest by declaring that she had no special light on the matter and that they should work it out from the Bible and not her writings.204
We find that she could also change her position on: The proper time to open and close Sabbath. She, for a time, felt it should be kept from 6 pm to 6 pm. However others convinced her it was more biblical to observe the Sabbath from sunset to sunset.205 At first she felt it was acceptable to eat pork and proclaimed it to be "a healthy and nourishing food." Later, when it was pointed out to her that this was not the case, she changed her position.206 Some have criticised her for requesting oysters in a letter she wrote to her daughter-in-law in 1882, but they fail to understand that the distinction between clean and unclean foods was largely an undeveloped concept in Adventism in the nineteenth century.207
Early Adventists had in their copy of the Bible the books of the Apocrypha. Most Christians in her era probably thought that although the Apocrypha did not rate on the same level as the Bible yet these books did contain some wisdom and truth. Today Protestants have these books removed from their Bibles and they are usually found only in Roman Catholic Bibles. It comes as a surprise to some Adventists to see in her writings, such as "A Word to the Little Flock," references to 2 Esdras. These references were added by James White in the footnotes. That she would refer to the language used by an Apocryphal book would not appear strange or wrong to her, her husband or early Adventists. The later writings of Ellen White do not contain such allusions or references. She, along with the rest of the Protestant world, gradually saw a clearer distinction between these books and the Bible.208
These points are important. To fail to detect her theological growth means you may be able to see inconsistencies within her writings. You can pit the early Ellen White against the later; but that would be unfair and constitute a failure to see what really was one of her strengths—her ability to grow in her understanding. But in seeing her strengths we must also acknowledge her weaknesses. As an ordinary human being, we must let her be what she was and honestly accept that. At times she does not always appear to be consistent in what she says.
The Importance of Context
It is true that she encouraged openness to finding out more from the Bible. But there are times when she seems to put the dampener on more investigation and growth. The following few examples demonstrate this. First a sampling of the statements which seem to invite open inquiry: "Our brethren should be willing to investigate in a candid way every point of controversy. . . . We should all know what is being taught among us; for if it is the truth, we need it. . . . If the pillars of our faith will not stand the test of investigation, it is time that we knew it. . . . We must study the truth for ourselves. No living man should be relied upon to think for us. . . ."209
On the other hand she wrote: "As a people we are to stand firm on the platform of eternal truth that has withstood test and trial. We are to hold to the sure pillars of our faith. . . . No line of truth that has made the Seventh-day Adventist people what they are, is to be weakened. We have the old landmarks of truth. . . . Woe to him who shall move a block or stir a pin of these messages. . . . Not one pin is to be removed from that which the Lord has established. The enemy will bring in false theories, such as the doctrine that there is no sanctuary. This is one of the points on which there will be a departing from the faith. Where will we find safety unless it be in the truths that the Lord has been giving for the last fifty years?"210
In Adventist history, whenever the church is about to look at some new point of view from the Scriptures, both types of statements are appealed to. Usually those who are for the new ideas will quote the former and those who are against the new ideas will quote the latter. So, which is the real Ellen White?
Generally speaking, the statements she makes appealing for openness are dated around the 1880s and 1890s. This was during the discussions over the meaning of the word "law" in Galatians. It was a time when the gospel news was about to make a greater impact on Adventism. At this time she stood with those advocating uplifting Jesus. She is saying to the old vanguard to open up their minds and allow this uplifting of Jesus to bring us back into a more balanced position. She did this even though it would appear that not all they were saying was correct—for instance, recent studies indicate that both Jones and Waggoner were advocating a form of sinless perfectionism.211
On the other hand the statements that appear to close the door against new understandings come at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. This was the era of Kellogg and his teachings. Kellogg's teachings were coming close to pantheism. If he was right, then it would lead to the teaching that there was no sanctuary in heaven. These new ideas would have brought confusion to the Adventist movement. She personally stood against them and saved the church from being shipwrecked.
There were other times when she used her prophetic office to put people down and effectively end discussion. Such was the case with A F Ballenger and his ideas on the sanctuary. She said that he had gathered together a mass of Scripture and his application of these passages was misleading. She appears not to have attempted to show where he was wrong from the Bible rather she defended the traditional views on a basis of "the remarkable beginnings and the long history of the doctrine, and the confirmation of the doctrine given to her in her own visions."212 It is significant that she does not even try to exegete the passages of Scripture used by Ballenger rather she says this truth had been "sought out by prayerful study, and testified to by the miracle working power from the Lord."213 It is to her visions that she makes the final court of appeal.214
In 1906 she wrote to an evangelist W. W. Simpson: "The visions that the Lord has given me are so remarkable that we know that what we have accepted is the truth. . . . The power of God would come on me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth, and what is error. . . . under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit. I would be taken off in vision, and explanations would be given to me. . . . All these truths
are immortalized in my writings. . . . 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."215
She also wrote in a letter to her son Willie, "For there is instruction that the Lord has given me for His people. It is the light that they should have, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little there a little. This is now to come before the people, because it has been given to correct specious errors and to specify what is truth"216 (emphasis added).
These statements have serious implications. She appeals to her experiences as the final authority for the teachings of the church. If this is true then the experiences of the church through her prophetic gift becomes the final authority for Adventist doctrines. If that is so then the church may be said to have another authority outside of the Scriptures. This is not consistent with what she says elsewhere. It could be that when she sees the future of the church at stake and threatened, she sees the need to use the full weight of her prophetic authority to keep everything in place.
But, there are those other statements where, in many other places she says we are not to use her writings to settle doctrinal issues. For instance, "The testimonies of Sister White should not be carried to the front. God's Word is the unerring standard. The Testimonies are not to take the place of the Word. . . . Let all prove their positions from the Scriptures and substantiate every point the claim as truth from the revealed Word of God."217 And "But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines, and the basis of all reforms. . . . Before accepting any doctrine or precept we should demand a plain 'Thus saith the Lord in its support."218
Indeed she seems condemned by her own counsel when she says, "But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God's Word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.219
There is an inconsistency in these statements. And in this we find a revelation of her humanity. What human can pass the test of always
being consistent in what we say and what we live—now stretch that over a 60-year ministry. However, that does not invalidate the fact that she has been genuinely used of God. Remember, earlier we discovered that some of the great men, used in the Bible by God, were not always consistent either. She certainly was using all her prophetic authority to protect Adventism against what she perceived to be threatening teachings, in doing this she may not have always been consistent with her often made statements regarding the importance of recognising no other authority than the Bible.
The Issue of Ellen White's Authority
There are some important principles at stake here. Are Seventh-day Adventists truly Protestants as they claim? If so then we are to have no other authority in doctrine outside the Bible. Fundamental Belief number one states: "The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of his will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God's acts in history."
The church's first baptismal vows states: "Do you believe that the Bible is the full, sufficient and only basic rule of faith and practice for the Christian?" Do new converts have to give assent to this only to be told later that they must bow their judgment to Ellen White?
When asked to explain further the authority of Ellen White, the General Conference put out a statement of "Affirmations and Denials." Here are a few: "We believe that Scripture is the foundation of faith and the final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice." "We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White function as the foundation and final authority of Christian faith as does Scripture." "We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White may be used as the basis of doctrine." And, "We do not believe that Scripture can be understood only through the writings of Ellen White."220
It is important to note that what is at stake is not her inspiration, but her authority. At the present time there is going on in the church widespread discussion among members that take into account issues such as:
What if she is not always totally original? She did borrow from others, who can sort out what is borrowed and what has been shown to her?
What if she is not always totally accurate? We know she did not always use the best sources available or use them correctly.
What about the fact that she lived in a world so different to us today? That was a world when Adventism was mainly in North America. She only lived fifteen years into the 20th century and never saw most of the big issues we have to face today.
Then, in what way is she an authority for the church today? Authority today is not something that can be claimed it must be earned. We have a division of opinion at the present time to these questions. While some will say she is an authority and we must not question her right to prescribe to us, there is a growing number (particularly among the younger generation) who would say she has no relevance today. This discussion has been going on in the homes and hearts of thousands of Adventists since the early 1980s.
So what is Ellen White's function? This is a question we will continue to wrestle with here, in this book, and in other places. A lot is at stake. The question must be asked, Are we a free people? Free to grow in our understanding of the Bible? Free to disagree with what she has written in the areas of science, health, history, prophecy and education, etc. What should a person do if they find they have come to some other conclusion than what she has written? Do they surrender their private judgment? These questions are crucial to the future of Adventism.Here again we must keep before us the statement in Scripture telling us the purpose of prophecy. This passage is the only place in the New Testament that defines the purpose of prophecy. "But everyone who prophecies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort"(1 Corinthians 14: 3).
There can be no doubt that she earned tremendous respect from her contemporaries in Adventism as they found her able to give advice and counsel that was so often correct and timely. When a person is in close contact with God over so long a period of time, as she was, their abilities in the area of wisdom and discernment can be sharpened. She herself was conscious of this when she wrote to her critics, "For the
last forty-five years the Lord has been revealing to me the needs of His cause and the cases of individuals in every phase of experience, showing where and how they have failed to perfect Christian character. The history of hundreds of cases has been presented to me, and that which God approves, and that which He condemns, has been plainly set before me. . . .
With the light communicated through the study of His word, with the special knowledge given of individual cases among His people under all circumstances and in every phase of experience, can I now be in the same ignorance, the same mental uncertainty and spiritual blindness, as at the beginning of this experience? Will my brethren say that Sister White has been so dull a scholar that her judgment in this direction is no better than before she entered Christ's school, to be trained and disciplined for a special work? Am I no more intelligent in regard to the duties and perils of God's people than are those before whom these things have never been presented? I would not dishonor my Maker by admitting that all this light, all the display of His mighty power in my work and experience, has been valueless, that it has not educated my judgment or better fitted me for His work."221
She earned the respect of her contemporaries and, in turn, they gave her authority. She was established, in their minds, with prophetic authority because of her wise counsel. However, an umpire in sport can have authority even when they make a wrong decision. Today we can see that, in hindsight, she did at times make some wrong calls. But that does not rob her of her prophetic authority anymore than Nathan lost his when he gave the wrong advice to David regarding the building of the temple. Or when John the Baptist got it wrong regarding the nature of the kingdom that Christ was setting up.
So what sort of authority does she have with the Adventist community? We know that some would want to give her formal authority. That is, her words are always taken to be true simply because she says so. To them she is the last word on the sciences of biology, geology and history, as well as theology. They would say she can tell you how tall was Adam, how old is the earth and what causes earthquakes. But that type of authority is now gone forever as more Adventists become aware of her sources in some of those areas. No longer can she speak outside of her culture as a timeless voice of authority.
Many others in Adventism would say that they prefer to give her "internal authority." That is when she speaks we will listen to what she has to say and treat her words with respect as one so often used by God. However, when she speaks, they declare that they will weigh up the "intrinsic truthfulness" of what she has to say. They are saying that they will have to be convinced by the strength of argument that she presents. As such they are wittingly or unwittingly following Paul's counsel of 1 Corinthians 14: 29 and 1 Thessalonians 5: 21 where Paul admonishes believers to "judge" or "test" the ideas that come from prophets.
In doing this they also follow the counsel of Ellen White herself who when rebuking those who took an inflexible approach to what she had previously written concerning the age children should commence school, said, "That is how it is, and my mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, 'Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.' God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things."222
Accepting her prophetic authority does not involve laying aside our mind or personal judgment. It means that we will listen carefully to what she has to say and, guided by the same Spirit who gave her a prophetic ministry, we will make valued judgments as to the wisdom of the counsel as Paul admonishes in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21.
201 CWE, p. 37. [back]
202 For further study on this point read: Ellen White's Role In The Resolution of Conflicts in Adventist History, by Ron Graybill of the White Estate. Also "The Law And The Prophet. Ellen White's struggle to understand the law in Galatians." A four part series in Adventist Review by Tim Crosby commencing May 8, 1986. For understanding her refusal to allow her writings to be used as an authority to settle the differences in 1888 over the law see Ministry, February, 1991, pp. 6-11. Crisis In Authority, by George Knight. [back]
203 EW, pp. 74-75. [back]
204 1SM, pp. 164-165. [back]
205 For an excellent understanding of how she changed her mind on the time to open and close Sabbath see Herbert Douglas, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1998), pp.157-158. [back]
206 "The Development Of Adventist Thinking On Clean And Unclean Meats," Ron Graybill, Ellen G. White Estate, June 10, 1981. p. 1. [back]
207 Ibid., pp. 2-3.[back]
208 An excellent account of Ellen White's relationship with the Apocrypha is found in "Sixty-six Books—or Eighty one? Did Ellen White Recommend the Apocrypha?" By Denis Fortin. Adventist Review, March 28, 2002, pp. 9-12. [back]
209 CWE, pp. 43-45 [back]
210 Ibid., pp. 52-53. [back]
211 See papers by Kerry Hortop and Milton Hook in Towards Righteousness by Faith, Arthur Ferch, Editor, (Warburton Victoria, Australia: Signs Publishing Company, 1988). [back]
212 Graybill. Ellen White's Role in the Resolution of Conflicts, p. 11. [back]
213 Manuscript 44, 1905. It is interesting to note that although she opposed Ballenger on the meaning of "within the veil" as mentioned in Hebrews 6:19; yet the Seventh-day Adventist Church's "Glacier View Consensus Document" of 1980 accepted Ballenger's position that the expression did apply to the second veil; not the first as we have traditionally taught. See "Christ in the heavenly Sanctuary," Ministry, October 1980, p 17. "The symbolic language of the Most Holy Place, 'within the veil,' is used to assure us of our full direct, and free access to God (chaps. 6:19-20; 9:24-28; 10: 1-4). [back]
214 Ron Graybill comments "She seems not to have sensed that such arguments contradicted her own rule that no authority outside Scripture should have any weight in deciding what the Bible taught. Ballenger, undeterred rejected her arguments. To accept them, he said, would place the thousands upon thousands of pages of your writings in books and periodicals between the child of God and God's book. If this position be true, no noble Berean dare believe any truth, however clearly it may seem to be taught in the Scriptures, until he first consults your writings to see whether it harmonizes with your interpretation. "The Power of Prophecy: Ellen G. White and the Women Religious Founders of the Nineteenth Century," Degree draft by Ron Graybill, University Microfilms International, 1983, p. 128. [back]
215 Letter 50, 1906, as found in MR. 760, pp. 22-23, " The Integrity of the Sanctuary Truth," White Estate, March 12, 1981. [back]
216 Ellen White to W. C. White, November 22, 1910. [back]
217 Letter 12, 1890. [back]
218 GC, p. 595. [back]
219 5T, pp. 706-707. [back]
220 "The inspiration and authority of Ellen G. White's writings—A statement of present understanding," Ministry, February, 1983. p. 24. [back]
221 5T, pp. 685-6. [back]
222 3SM, p. 217. For a more complete understanding of her statement consult George Knight, Myths In Adventism, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1985). chapter one "The Myths of the Inflexible Prophet." and of particular helpful and valuable counsel is Knight's later book, Reading Ellen White, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1997), in his chapter, "Use Common Sense". [back]