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Chapter Twenty Four
Ellen White and the Bible
Many gifts are given to the church to help keep unity and protect against heresy: "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Ephesians 4: 11-14).
When Ellen White spoke out against errors that would confuse the church and cause harm to the relationship members had to Christ, she was doing what prophets are called upon to do. However, the same can be said for other gifts such as the gift of being an evangelist, a pastor and a teacher. It is important to remember that these and the teachings from these gifts must be in harmony with God's final revelation in Christ as found in the Scriptures. The final court of appeal must always be the Bible.
This was the strong conviction of her husband James White who wrote: "There is a class of persons who are determined to have it that the Review and its conductors make the views of Mrs. White a test of doctrine and Christian fellowship. . . . What has the Review to do with Mrs. White's views? The sentiments published in its columns are all drawn from the Holy Scriptures.
No writer of the Review has ever referred to them as authority on any point. . . . It's motto has been, 'The Bible, and the Bible alone, the only rule of faith and duty.'. . .
"Every Christian is therefore duty bound to take the Bible as the perfect rule of faith and duty. He should pray fervently to be aided by the Holy Spirit in searching the Scriptures for the whole truth, and for his whole duty. He is not at liberty to turn from them to learn his duty through any of the gifts. We say that the very moment he does, he places the gifts in a wrong place, and takes an extremely dangerous position."395
He could see that, very early in Adventism, some were inclined to give her writings an authority over and above the Scriptural authority for the work of a prophet. "They conclude that if it be true that God is reviving some of the gifts, 'for the comfort of his people, and correct those who err from Bible truth.' That all errors would at once be corrected by these gifts, and the church be saved the trouble of searching the Word for truth to expose error. . . . They would put the gifts where they do not belong. . . . The revival of any, or all of the gifts, will never supersede the necessity of searching the Word to learn the truth."396
The Bible is the Foundation of Faith and Practice
His comments highlight an important principle—the Bible is its own interpreter and every Christian is free to study the Bible (guided by the Holy Spirit) to find truth for themselves. The following points support James White in his stand:
1. Jesus left a promise to His Church. "All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." ( John 14:25-26)
2. Recognising this point and practicing it is part of being Protestant. The Catholic Church tried to impose upon Christians the role of the pope as the infallible interpreter of Scripture. This concept was rejected by Protestants, because it violated the principle of Sola Scriptura. Besides, once you have any external authority telling you what the Bible means, you make that authority more powerful than the Bible itself.
3.The Bible is a completed book. Hebrews 1:1 gives the reason for this, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . . " The generation of Jesus' day were taught by Christ and individuals wrote down what they had learned. Jesus was the fullest, most complete revelation of God. Nothing that comes after Him will ever add to or eclipse the revelation of God in Him. All that comes after will be but a reflection of the light that shone through Him. Therefore the work of prophets is to call people back to study and obey that final, complete, revelation in Jesus. The work of prophets is to point out duties already revealed and neglected.
It is the position of Ellen White herself: "Let all prove their positions from the Scriptures and substantiate every point they claim from the revealed Word of God."397 To the delegates of the General Conference in 1901, she said, "Lay Sister White right to one side: lay her to one side. Don't you never [sic] quote my words again as long as you live, until you can obey the Bible. When you take the Bible and make that your food, and your meat, and your drink, and you make that the elements of your character, when you can do that you will know better how to receive some counsel from God. But here is the Word, the precious Word, exalted before you today. And don't you give a rap any more what 'Sister White Said' [sic]—'Sister White said this,' and 'Sister White said that,' and 'Sister White said the other thing'. But say, 'Thus saith the Lord God of Israel.'398
5. This is the official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as stated in what the church affirms and denies about the authority of Ellen White's writings. Notice a few significant points from the 10 affirmations and the 10 denials on our position regarding the authority and function of Ellen White's writings.
"3. We believe that Scripture is the foundation of faith and the final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.
"3. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White function as the foundation and final authority of Christian faith as does Scripture.
"4. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White may be used as the basis of doctrine.
"6. We do not believe that the Scripture can be understood only through the writings of Ellen White.
"7. We do not believer that the writings of Ellen White exhaust the meaning of Scripture."399
Fritz Guy is clear on this point: "The ministry of Ellen White does not define, control, or restrict an Adventist understanding of scripture. That is, what she wrote does not determine in advance the results of Adventist scriptural exegesis; nor did she ever intend her work to be so used. She did not suppose that scripture needed her explanation to make it intelligible; and she did not claim that her understanding was the definitive interpretation of the canonical text. She never said, 'Let me tell you what the Bible means.' She never claimed that her articles and books constituted the definitive commentary on scripture.'. . . A prerequisite to any serious exegesis is the recognition that one does not already know ahead of time what the text is going to say; and no Adventist should be embarrassed if a fresh, careful listening to scripture discloses something different from what it said to Ellen White a hundred years ago" (emphasis added).400
Ellen White Used Scripture Homiletically, Not Exegetically
6. Ellen White's use of Scripture is usually that of an evangelist or homiletician, not an exegete. She can use the same text of Scripture at times in harmony with the context and intended meaning of the writer. At other times she can use the same text out of context with a different meaning to the intention of the biblical writer. Robert Olson gives the following two examples:401 Ecclesiastes 7:2. In harmony with the context and meaning, she wrote, "God made man upright; He gave him noble traits of character, with no bias toward evil. He endowed him with high intellectual power. . . ."402 Out of harmony with the context and original meaning of the writer she wrote, "Among the first things to be aimed at should be a correct position, both in sitting and in standing. God made man upright, and He desires him to possess not only the physical but the mental and moral benefit, the grace and
dignity and self-possession, the courage and self-reliance, which an erect bearing so greatly tends to promote."403
Nahum 1: 9. "The whole universe will have become witnesses to the nature and results of sin. And its utter extermination, which in the beginning would have brought fear to the angels and dishonor to God, will now vindicate His love and establish His honor before the universe. Never will evil again be manifest. Says the Word of God: 'Affliction shall not rise up the second time.404 (Emphasis added). An astute reader will recognize that this passage from Nahum is talking of the destruction of Nineveh and not with the final disposition of sin from the universe.
There is no evidence to suggest that when she was commenting on a passage of Scripture that the meaning she was giving was the one and only true meaning. To the examples of Olson we may add her use of the parable of the ten virgins as found in Matthew 25:1-13. In Christ Object Lessons she interprets it as meeting its application when Christ returns.405 However in The Great Controversy she applies it to the time just before the 1844 disappointment and states that it illustrates the experience of the Adventist people.
She is not using 1 Corinthians 2:9 correctly when she applies it to the glories of the new earth. "Paul had a view of heaven, and in the discoursing on the glories there, the very best thing he could do was to not try to describe them. He tells us that eye had not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for those that love Him. So you may put your imagination to the stretch, you may try to the very best of your abilities to take in and consider the eternal weight of glory, and yet your finite senses, faint and weary with the effort, cannot grasp it, for there is an infinity beyond."406
The next verse states, "but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit." The verse in context is talking about a present experience in the life of the believer whereby they are able to know and better understand God and his purposes, than the person who does not know God. The point being made is that the spiritual person understands, but the unspiritual cannot understand through their natural senses. The subject of the new earth is not Paul's point in this passage.
In the hand written notes taken at the 1919 Bible Conference after meeting (most likely by Prescott. Haloviak thinks this on a basis they were found in the Froom box of papers and Froom was known to be a
friend of Prescott) a statement is made by someone as follows, "Sister White is not a biblical exegete. Her gift is not the gift of exegesis. She would be the last person to go to. Are we to allow our conclusions of the Bible to be blocked?"407 (emphasis added). Bearing in mind that she had asked some of these men (Prescott and Daniells, for instance) and her helpers to assist her in putting together her books through some difficult parts of the Bible, the statement may come from first hand experience.
Alden Thompson believes that Ellen White frequently used methods of biblical application that were commonly used among early Adventist writers. Perhaps this could explain why she used expressions from the Apocrypha in Early Writings. This would be readily accepted by her contemporary Adventist community, to whom she was writing.408 This is also in harmony with her comment that inspired writings do not put God on "trial" in thought or "word" or "logic"409
Jon Paulien talks of Ellen White as an interpreter of the Bible in this way, "While more study needs to be done on this question, it is my opinion that Ellen White rarely uses Scripture exegetically (i.e. being primarily concerned with the biblical writer's intent). As was the case with the classical prophets of the OT, her main concern was to speak to her contemporary situation. This would generally cause her to use Scripture theologically and homiletically rather than exegetically. To say this is not to limit her authority. Her intention in a given statement should be taken with utmost seriousness. At the same time we must be careful not to limit the authority of the biblical writer, denying that writer's intention on the basis of a homiletical statement that Ellen White never intended to exhaust the meaning of the biblical text."410
The main thrust of Paulien's paper is that we must not take an "echo" reference of Ellen White's and make it the standard interpretation of a passage. By "echo" passage Paulien means when she, as a homiletician, uses a biblical word or two out of context to apply a spiritual truth. An example of this could be where in Ministry of Healing she states, "In relation to tea, and coffee, tobacco, and alcoholic drinks, the only safe course is to touch not, taste not, handle not."411 The italicised section, from Colossians 2:21, is certainly not the true meaning of the text where Paul warns against the asceticism of the gnostics. The basic principle behind what she is saying can be seen, but it is not the exegetical meaning of the passage. She uses the language of Paul to press home an important point regarding temperance.
Herbert Douglass adds: "When she commented on the Bible, how reliable was she? Understanding the limitations of finite human nature, one would expect some discrepancies. Not to have made a few mistakes would have been a first for prophets! For that reason, she never expected anyone to consider her the Bible's infallible commentator or interpreter."412
If then she mostly comments as a homelitician and not an exegete, it is perilous to use her as an inspired Bible commentator. It also shows the weakness producing a Bible with her comments in the margin.413
Ellen White Grew in Her Understanding of Scripture
7. None of the seven points cause problems if she is seen in her true role as a Christian prophet. If we use the "Bible alone" for our source of doctrine and teachings. Fritz Guy has expressed the matter well,
"She called attention to the word. . . .
"She urged obedience to the Bible. . . .
"She showed the application of the Bible to her own time, encouraging people to be faithful. . . .
"She certainly did not claim that her own understanding was the final word, the definitive interpretation. On the contrary, she urged every person to listen to the Bible for himself . . . she insisted that 'there is no excuse for anyone in taking the position . . . that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error.' No one need feel uncomfortable if in serious, careful listening to the Bible he discovers that it says something a little different from what it said to Ellen White."414
395 James White article "A Test", Review and Herald, October 16, 1855, as reprinted in The Pioneers And The Spirit of Prophecy, which is a reprint of early Review and Herald articles Published by N.E. Legaspi, for the students of the Far Eastern Division, Manila, Philippines. 1956. p. 13. [back]
396 The Gifts: Their Objects, p. 27. [back]
397 Ev, p. 256. [back]
398 Verbatim report of remarks of Mrs. E. G. White, at a meeting held in Battle Creek College library, April at the General Conference of 1901, p. 167. [back]
399 "The Inspiration and authority of the Ellen G. White writings: A statement of present understanding." Ministry, February, 1983, p. 24. The preface to the statement by the Biblical Research Institute states "Although it is not a voted statement, we believe that the worldwide participation in its development makes it a reflection of the views of the church on the topic it addresses." [back]
400 Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1999), pp. 123-124. [back]
401 Taken from Robert Olson's article Hermeneutics, p. 7. Ellen White Estate document, June 1, 1986. [back]
402 PP, p. 49. [back]
403 Ed, p. 198. [back]
404 GC, p. 504. [back]
405 COL, 405-421 [back]
406 6SDABC, p. 1107. [back]
407 "Use of Spirit of Prophecy," typed from some handwritten notes. [back]
408 Alden Thompson, Old Testament Apocalyptic and Adventist Eschatology. A paper presented at West Coast Bible Teacher's Conference, May 1, 1982, pp. 10-11. [back]
409 1SM, 21. [back]
410 Unpublished paper by Jon Paulien, "Ellen White and the Interpretation of Revelation". [back]
411 MH, p. 335. [back]
412 Douglass, p. 19. [back]
413 The producing of these Bibles gives the impression she is the final word on the meaning of the text. It also assumes authority on behalf of the compiler in being able to select the appropriate Ellen White statement. Particularly when we realize she can comment on the same passage giving entirely different meanings. Even more serious is the Clear Word Bible by Jack Blanco, (Review and Herald, 1994) which puts her extra comments in the text itself. [back]
414 Fritz Guy, "A Frank Look At Ellen White," Adventist Review, 1986, pp. 9-10. (the date cannot be read and will need to be searched out) [back]