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From Sinai to Golgotha

By Alden Thompson

Part 4. Ellen White's Pilgrimage to Golgotha

The preceding article in this series described how the great controversy setting enables us to resolve some of the difficulties that arise when we read the Old Testament. Recognizing the implications of the struggle between good and evil also helps us understand why Sinai and Golgotha are so different and why it took Israel so long to travel from one mountain to the other.

Having established certain principles in connection with the Biblical material, I will apply these principles as a means of understanding the experience and theology of Ellen White. In general, the point that I wish to establish is that Ellen White experienced a remarkable spiritual growth in the course of her life, one that led from Sinai to Golgotha. In 1906 she herself referred to this process of growth: "For sixty years I have been in communication with heavenly messengers, and I have been constantly learning in reference to divine things, and in reference to the way in which God is constantly working to bring souls from the error of their ways to the light in God's light." —This Day with God, p. 76. (Italics supplied.) The present article focuses on the developing in Ellen White's experience; the next one (the last in the series) will demonstrate how the growth in Ellen White's experience results in a remarkable shift of emphasis in the telling of the great controversy story.

In her early years, Ellen White stood very much in the shadow of Sinai. She had come to picture God as a "stern tyrant compelling men to a blind obedience" (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 31). But as she matured in her experience with the Lord, the shadows of Sinai receded.

More and more she experienced God as a "kind and tender parent" (ibid.) Instead of uncomfortable commands, she heard ever more clearly God's gracious invitation. He later writings reveal that, step by step, love had vanquished fear as a primary motivating force in her relationship with God.

Before we proceed, however, we need to focus more specifically on two key terms that are significant for both the current discussions in the church and the material presented here: inspiration and development. In this series it should be evident that in both areas I depart from the more traditional position of the so-called "fundamentalists" and "evangelicals." Adventists share many things in common with our friends in the conservative Christian world, but we must not overlook the significant differences.

I feel it is important to emphasize that the Adventist view of inspiration differs from that of many conservative Christians, for in spite of excellent articles in the denominational papers, including the Adventist Review (see Are Adventists Fundamentalists? Jan. 8, 1981), a fundamentalist view of inspiration still lurks in some Adventist circles. One of the primary concerns of a fundamentalist view is defending the unity and divine authority of the Scripture, a goal that is indeed commendable. But an emphasis on unity that runs the risk of overlooking instances of diversity that provide important clues as to how God deals with His children. Furthermore, it can be dangerous spiritually to spend too much time defending and proving Scripture when our primary task is witnessing to its power in our lives.

No attempt to prove inspiration

It should be clear that I am not attempting to prove the inspiration either of Scripture or of Ellen White. For me that question has been settled. My interest is to ask what God has said and why. Having answered the question of whether with a Yes, I believe we can profit a great deal by placing Sinai and Golgotha side by side, taking note of the differences and then asking Why? Also we can recognize the differences between Steps to Christ and the Testimonies and ask Why?

Largely because of the ministry of Ellen White, we Adventists are not only in an excellent position to be realistic in our understanding of inspiration; we are also able to recognize that a person's understanding of truth is something that grows and develops and that truth in a fresh perspective may become "present truth." That is what Ellen White meant when she used the phrase "present truth" during the 1888 crisis: "That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God's message for this time" —Manuscript 8a, 1888. [Cited in A.V. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory, 1881-1901 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1966), p. 274.]

Now when we Adventists use the term development, we are not talking about some evolutionary process that leaves God out of consideration, but rather a process of spiritual growth that is directly under the guiding hand of God.

To understand the concept of development from a Christian perspective, I find two principles to be particularly important. The first is the principle of variety, which simply means that God uses a wide variety of means so that He can meet the needs of people at each level of growth. The second may be called the principle of growth (and degeneration), perhaps best illustrated by the popular phrase, "By beholding we become changed." It is a law of the mind that we become like that which we behold (see Christ's Object Lessons, p. 355; Education, p. 192; Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 91, 459).

Applied as a law of growth, the possibilities are virtually unlimited: as we focus the thoughts on Christ, the mind is renewed, which enables us to see him more clearly, which leads to a further renewal that makes possible an even clearer perception. It is an ever-continuing process. As created beings we will never reach a complete understanding of truth. There is always more beyond. That is why Ellen White can say with confidence that we will continue to grow throughout eternity (see Education, p. 307; The Great Controversy, pp. 677, 678).

This law applies to every moral creature, prophets included. As applied to the growth of Ellen White, it has two important implications, which will be illustrated further below. First, as Ellen White's spiritual capabilities grew (as a result of prayer, Bible study, dreams, and visions), her theological understanding grew. Most notable were significant refinements in her view of God, His law, and sin.

As Ellen White grew, the concepts grew

Second, the visions that God sent Ellen White were always designed to be understandable to her at her level of growth at the moment of reception. That means that as Ellen White grew, the concepts given her in vision grew also, under God's direction, and were designed to meet her new capabilities. To put the matter more bluntly, God was constantly "editing" the great controversy visions He gave to Ellen White. As she became capable of seeing more, God showed her more. That was why she did not tell the Great Controversy story just once in 1858 but kept retelling the story throughout her life and making some significant changes along the way. In short, because of the way the principle of growth works, we probably should consider visions to be more like pen sketches illustrating truths rather than photographs portraying reality, or as animated illustrations rather than as exact videotape reproductions. The visions of Daniel, Ezekial, and John the revelator provide us with good Biblical examples.

As an introduction to the study of Ellen White's theological development, I find the early Testimonies to be extremely illuminating.* As noted earlier, reading the Testimonies had been a struggle for me. The strong words and the references to the frown of Christ, especially in volume 1, always managed to sidetrack my good intentions. But when it fell my lot to teach denominational history, I decided the time had come, strong words and frowns notwithstanding.

[* Since the Testimonies in the nine volumes appear in chronological order, they provide an excellent source for studying the development of Ellen White's experience from 1855 to 1909.]

But by this time I had already worked through many hard words in Scripture and had begun to formulate certain principles of how God leads His people, including prophets, from Sinai to Golgotha. With those principles in mind, I was not only amazed at what I found but greatly blessed as I observed God at work in the experience of Ellen White.

In Ellen White's autobiographical sketch in Testimonies, volume 1, I was impressed with young Ellen's great fear of God. She was an extremely sensitive person, oppressed by thoughts of an eternally burning hell and of a God who would save only the sanctified. She was deeply religious, so much so that she still wanted to be saved even though she actually considered God to be "cruel and tyrannical" (pp. 21-25). When she discovered the truth about the nonimmortality of the soul and came to the conviction that there was no eternally burning hell, a great burden rolled off her young shoulders.

Nevertheless, even though the burden of an eternal hell was gone, Ellen was still not entirely comfortable with God. She did not enjoy her prophetic ministry, but was driven on by the fear that failure to perform her duties would bring a "dreadful frown" to the face of her precious Lord (p. 74). How much like Ezekial, Jeremiah, and Moses, who longed to escape from their prophetic ministry but could not! After her young son became ill, Ellen feared that God would take him away from her if she allowed the child to hinder her from fulfilling her duty (p. 87). She suffered months of depression (p. 93), and even longed to die (p. 63). Should not such an experience leave its mark on her writings? Of course. And that is what I discovered in the Testimonies.

As I read, I noted her early struggles to find peace with God, a God who seemed quick to punish and reluctant to save. The Biblical pattern of the Sinai-Golgotha road was proving to be a real blessing as I saw God work in her experience. But still I was surprised at some of the things she said. For example: "God will have a people separate and distinct from the world. As soon as any have a desire to imitate the fashions of the world, that they do not immediately subdue, just so soon God ceases to acknowledge them as his children."—Page 137. I recognized that in context she is pointing up the danger of love of the world and the need for absolute commitment to Christ, that she is speaking more of a basic attitude than a fleeting thought. But to me, this expression sounded severe, more a reflection of the mood of Sinai than of Golgotha.

A startling passage

In this same connection, I was startled when I came to a passage from the early 1870s. James White had been working too hard at the Review office and had begun to run short of patience. He was getting shrill with the employees, and they were responding in kind. Ellen was concerned about the deteriorating situation and wrote specifically of the need for everyone to be forgiving, as God is forgiving. To illustrate the point, she told the story of the prodigal son. The thrust of the story is clear enough: God forgives. But I was quite unprepared for her description of the prodigal's return: "While the son was a distance from his home, his father saw the wanderer, and his first thought was of that rebellious son who had left him years before to follow a course of unrestrained sin."—Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 101, 102. She then describes how the father's heart was touched and he received the son home. But I sensed that something was missing. The homecoming seemed quite ordinary and the father almost hesitant. Where was the heartbroken father longing for the return of his son?

I quickly picked up Christ's Object Lessons and checked the parallel passage written almost thirty years later (1900). There I read the more familiar lines that had always been such a blessing to me. I read of the love of God, which "sets in operation influences" to bring the sinner home (p. 202). I read of the "ache and longing" in the father's heart, of the continual watching for his son's return, and the instant response of love to the form of the returning boy (p. 203).

Ellen's pilgrimage to Golgotha is complete. She no longer sees God as reluctant, but as eagerly longing for the return of the sinner and doing all he can to restore the one who has wandered away.

As Ellen journeyed from Sinai to Golgotha, she never rejected her earlier experience. Her deepening joy is clear for all to see, but she realized that God had been leading her every step of the way, even when she had been afraid of Him. After all, God was there at Mount Sinai, as well.

—First published in the Adventist Review, December 24, 1981

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