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Part 5. The Theology of Ellen White: The Great Controversy Story
The material discussed thus far in this series provides essential background for the proper understanding of Ellen White's theological growth as presented in this article. The first two articles compared and contrasted the command form of God's law, Sinai, with the invitation form, Golgotha, noting that the Sinai revelation was an emergency form of God's law necessitated by sin. We then illustrated from Scripture (part 3) and from the experience of Ellen White (part 4) how God has led His people from the commands of Sinai to the invitation of Golgotha, enabling His children to respond out of love instead of from fear.
We now turn to the theology of Ellen White and show how the transition from fear to love in her experience resulted in a remarkable shift of emphasis in the way she told the great controversy story itself. In fact, without the insights that she provides in her later writings, there would have been no catalyst for these articles, for it was Ellen White's understanding of the great controversy as described primarily in the Conflict of the Ages Series and the book Education that opened my eyes to the Sinai-Golgotha principle.
Having learned of the Sinai-Golgotha principle through the writings of Ellen White and having discovered its value for the interpretation of Scripture, it was a natural step to apply that same principle to her own writings, as well. The present article is the result of comparisons I have made in successive editions of her published works.
As the basis of my study I have taken the first four chapters of Patriarchs and Prophets (1890) and compared them with the first and second printed editions of the great controversy story: Spiritual Gifts, volume I (1858) and The Spirit of Prophecy volume I (1870).
[For details of the three-stage development of the Conflict Series, see Arthur White, Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1954), pp. 55-61. I am indebted to Diane Forsyth, associate pastor of the Walla Walla College church, for assistance with the basic research that led to the conclusions stated in the text.]
In general, Spiritual Gifts gives a simple narrative; The Spirit of Prophecy expands it; Patriarchs and Prophets transforms it.
The greatest surprise for me as I compared the successive retellings of the story was that those elements that I had considered to be essential to the Great Controversy narrative do not appear clearly until the final telling of the story in Patriarchs and Prophets, namely, that the whole controversy has to do with freedom of choice and the service of love.
[In the interests of precision, the conclusions in this article are based on the three parallel texts that narrate the beginning of the great controversy story (1858, 1870, and 1890). Further research based on all of Ellen White's published materials would enable us to pinpoint more exactly particular aspects in her development of the great controversy story. For example, the chapter entitled "Origin of Evil" in the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy already includes two key elements of the story as it appears in Patriarchs and Prophets (1890): The offer of forgiveness to Lucifer and the law of love as the setting for the great controversy. The earlier parallel chapter by the same title in The Spirit of Prophecy, Volume IV (1884) describes the offer of forgiveness to Lucifer, but the idea of a law of love is absent. We could thus conclude that the concept of the law of love as the setting for the great controversy crystallized in Ellen White's thinking between 1844 and 1888.]
The following aspects represent the most significant differences:
1. Role of the love of God in the great rebellion. Of the three editions, only Patriarchs and Prophets describes the role of love in the controversy. The beautiful two-page introduction to the first chapter (pp. 33, 34) is entirely absent from the earlier accounts. Spiritual Gifts and The Spirit of Prophecy simply narrate the facts of Lucifer¹s rebellion, emphasizing the frightful consequences when one resists the will of the all-powerful God.
2. Relationship of free will and the law to the character of God. From the beginning Patriarchs and Prophets focuses on the character of God as the key issue in the controversy: the law reflects God's character and thus can seek only the service of love. "Law of Love," "service of love," "freedom of will," and "voluntary service" are all key phrases (p. 34).
By contrast, in Spiritual Gifts, the issue of an unchangeable law is not clearly raised until the discussion of the change of the Sabbath (pp. 108-113), and there the issue is not the character of God and the service of love, but rather obedience to law (that is, keeping the right Sabbath) as the qualification for heaven. If Lucifer was excluded forever because God's law was unalterable, then every transgressor of God's law must also perish (pp. 110, 111).
Spirit of Prophecy does integrate the law into the discussion quite early, but significantly it is not the law of God but laws (i.e., commands) that are eternal: God had made "laws" and "exalted them equal to Himself" pp. 22, 23.
In short, the earlier accounts describe the controversy as a personal struggle between Christ and Satan. By contrast, Patriarchs and Prophets sees the conflict as the confrontation between two opposing principles, love and selfishness.
3. The possibility of restoration for Lucifer. All three accounts indicate that there was a point of no return for Lucifer and his fellow rebels, but in contrast with the two earlier accounts, which indicate that Lucifer's fate was sealed from the moment he first sinned, Patriarchs and Prophets reveals that Lucifer and his cohorts had ample opportunity to be restored after they had broken heaven's harmony. In keeping with His great mercy God "bore long with Lucifer," attempting to convince him of the tragic result of "persisting in revolt." If he had simply agreed that God's law was good and just, he could have "saved himself and many angels." And even though "he had left his position as covering cherub" he could have been "reinstated in his office" (p. 39).
In this same connection, it is noteworthy that Spiritual Gifts reveals absolutely no sympathy for the plight of the heavenly rebels, either on God's part or on the part of the angels (pp. 18, 19). In The Spirit of Prophecy, traces of sympathy begin to appear as the loyal angels attempt to persuade Lucifer to submit (p. 20). Christ also weeps at Lucifer's fate, but the Father remains unmoved (pp. 29-31). Only in Patriarchs and Prophets does all heaven seek to win back the rebels (pp. 38-43).
4. Eternal nature of Christ. Both Spiritual Gifts and The Spirit of Prophecy reflect the tendency of some early Adventists to see Christ as a created being who was exalted to equality with the Father.
[See Richard Schwartz, Lightbearers to the Remnant (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1979), pp. 167, 168. Also the article "Christology" in the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, revised edition, pp. 286, 288.]
But in Patriarchs and Prophets the statement of Christ's eternal relationship with the Father is clear and unmistakable. The earlier accounts describe Satan's animosity as the result of Christ's exaltation (cf. Spiritual Gifts, Vol. I, p. 18). But Patriarchs and Prophets reverses the cause-effect sequence, stating that it was only as a result of Lucifer's claim to equality with Christ that a statement of Christ's authority had become necessary. There had been "no change in the position of the authority of Christ"; this had been the same from the beginning. Page 38.
5. The love of the Father for sinners. In the first two accounts, Christ is clearly the friend of sinners, but the wrath of the Father still burns. Thus Jesus explains that He is willing to "stand between the wrath of His Father and guilty man" (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. I, 23; The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. I, 46; italics supplied). Only in Patriarchs and Prophets does Ellen White integrate John 3:16 into the story, thus emphasizing the love not only of the Son but of the Father as well. Accordingly, instead of describing Christ's role as shielding the sinner from the wrath of His Father, Patriarchs and Prophets states that Christ was willing to "stand between the sinner and the penalty of sin" (p. 64; italics supplied). Sin loses none of its offensiveness, however, for it must still "separate the Father and His Son" (p. 63). But the important thing is that the sinner can now see the friendly face of God not only in the Son but also in the Father.
6. The cross as an illustration of divine self-sacrifice. Perhaps the most far-reaching implication in the transformation of the great controversy story has to do with the relationship between the death of Christ and the law and character of God. In the earlier accounts both God and the law are described in arbitrary, authoritarian terms. If man is to be saved, then Christ must die, for an arbitrary God and an arbitrary law demand death for sin. Furthermore, the distance between "guilty man" and the Father means that Christ's death is seen as a reluctant concession to this "race of rebels" (cf. Spiritual Gifts, Vol. I, pp. 22-26; The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. I, pp. 45-51).
In Patriarchs and Prophets, however, the purpose of the death of Christ is seen in quite another light, namely, as the final answer to Satan's attacks against God. Satan had claimed that "God was not just in imposing laws upon the angels; that in requiring submission and obedience from His creatures, He was seeking merely the exaltation of Himself" (p. 42: italics supplied). Against the background of that attack, the death of Christ "answered the question whether the Father and the Son had sufficient love for man to exercise self-denial and a spirit of sacrifice" (p. 70; italics supplied). In other words, the cross demonstrated that God acts in harmony with His law of love, for He was willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate the supremacy of that law: He was willing to take our place.
As I write this material for our church paper, I do so with mixed feelings, for I know that some will find it both helpful and disturbing. Many in the church have a strong and warm attachment to the vivid and personal descriptions in the earlier writings of Ellen White. But I have also observed that many who have such an attachment also struggle to see the friendly face of God. Deep in our subconscious minds we are inclined to believe that God really should be reluctant to save sinners like us. Thus we turn to those writings that match our deepest feelings.
We do the same when we read Scripture. We think that somehow God is not God unless He stands apart from sinners. To bridge this gulf, God has been willing to "edit" His revelations, His visions to humanity, so that we will not turn away completely and worship other gods. He wants to meet us where we are and to help us grow. That is why Sinai is so different from Golgothaand it took 1,400 years to make the journey from one mountain to the other.
Ellen White was almost 60 years old when the bright rays of light from Calvary finally dispelled the last shadows of Sinai. That seems like a long time. And it is. But the impact of generations of sin is great, even on good peopleeven on prophets. Is that not what the law of God has said all along?
How long will it take us to make the journey? That depends on how seriously we take the Word of God and the messages that He has sent to us through Ellen White. We have a precious heritage. May God give us the grace to cherish it and to share it.
First published in the Adventist Review, December 31, 1981. Shared by permission of the author.