The Writings of Ellen G. White as Seventh-day Adventist Related to Doctrines and Prophetic Interpretation (Part 1)
FOR fifty or sixty years after the disappointment of 1844 there was almost continuous criticism of some of our basic teachings. This was especially true of the sanctuary question. The most bitter attacks were made on Seventh-day Adventist views on the investigative judgment and the cleansing of the sanctuary. This unfavorable reaction against the nature of our Lord's heavenly ministry has continued with varying intensity to the present time. There is probably no point of our teaching that has aroused more bitter opposition than this. Do we get our sanctuary teaching and our main doctrinal background from the Bible alone, from the Ellen G. White writings, or basically from the Bible and authenticated in many cases from the Spirit of Prophecy writings?
Our Sources of Evidence
Our position on doctrinal sources has been expressed sometimes in strongly Protestant terminology, such as the following:
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.—The Great Controversy, p. 595.
I am fully in harmony with you in your work when you present the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the foundation of our faith.—Selected Messages, book 2, p. 85.
In the work of teaching the truth it is necessary that the important points of our position be well fortified with Scripture evidences.—Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 447, 448.
All should be careful about presenting new views of Scripture before they have given these points thorough study, and are fully prepared to sustain them from the Bible.—Testimonies to Ministers, p. 106.
We are fully sustained in our positions by an overwhelming amount of plain Scriptural testimony.—Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 253.
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 they claim as truth from the revealed Word of God—Evangelism, p. 256.
Our position and faith is in the Bible. And never do we want any soul to bring in the Testimonies ahead of the Bible.—Ibid.
Specific evidence that the sanctuary truths originated from Bible study quite independently of the Ellen G. White visions, and actually quite unknown to her, is given in Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, pages 36, 37. This book is available from the White Publications, and the main facts it contains are given in Exhibit F, compiled by Arthur White. These and many other Ellen G. White statements maintain the supremacy of Biblical evidence as "the standard of all doctrine," "the basis of all reforms," "the foundation of our faith," "the important points of our position."
Our denominational leaders, teachers, and writers have left on record their convictions that the primary source of vital doctrines is the Holy Bible. Here are five examples from scores that might be quoted:
F. M. Wilcox
The main purpose of the Testimonies is to give a clearer understanding of the Scriptures.—The Testimony of Jesus, pp. 68, 69.
Every doctrine is to be tested by the Sacred Word. If any belief does not stand this test, it is of darkness and not of light.—/bid., p. 70.
The foundations of the faith held by Seventh-day Adventists rest on the Word of God. They were developed by the study of this Word.—Ibid., p. 71.
But what deserves especial attention here, is the unrighteous use some are making of the visions. They take advantage of the common prejudices against visions, misrepresent them, and those who are not ready to join them in anathematizing
We are fully sustained in our positions by an overwhelming amount of plain Scriptural testimony.—Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 253.
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 them as the work of Satan, then brand any view held by the body of Sabbathkeepers as the "vision view," and not the Bible view of the subject. In this way an unhallowed prejudice can be excited in the minds of some against any view, and even all the views held by that body of Christians called Advent Sabbathkeepers. This course has been and is being pursued on the subjects of the two-horned beast, sanctuary, time to commence the Sabbath and period of the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth. It should be here understood that all these views as held by the body of Sabbathkeepers, were brought out from the Scriptures before Mrs. White had any view in regard to them. These sentiments are founded upon the Scriptures as their only basis.—Review and Herald, Oct. 16, 1855, P. 61.
"To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." All gifts of the Spirit in the church, must be thus tested. Now it is evident that that which tests occupies a higher position than that which is tested by it. This, in one word, expresses our view of the relative position which the Bible and the visions sustain to each other. —Review and Herald, Oct. 18, 1887, p. 649.
A. G. Daniells
The Bible is the supreme, infallible revelation of God to all men in all nations, and for all time. By this book all theories, teachings, and doctrines are to be tried. By it all men's characters are to be weighed, and their destiny decided. Next to the gift of Christ to redeem the human race, the Bible, God's holy word, is God's best gift to instruct and guide mankind through the journey of life. Theories, whether of religion, science, or morals, that plainly contradict this divine Book are false. They are not of God. They must, therefore, be rejected.
We have a right to expect, then, that if Mrs. White had the prophetic gift, her life and her teachings should be in full accord with the Bible on all matters vital to salvation.—The Abiding Gift of Prophecy, p. 281.
The fact that the distinctive truths that gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventist Church were reached by diligent, prayerful Bible study, and not by a credulous following of the visions, is worthy of emphasis. In those pioneer days, as today, these doctrines were preached with convincing power from the Bible alone. After men had done all in their power to find the truth for themselves, then God graciously sent them messages through the gift of prophecy to assure them of their conclusions, or to correct mistaken interpretations of Scripture. The doctrines did not come from the visions, though the visions confirmed the doctrines. Thus a wonderful unity was effected, and assured confidence was maintained by those who accepted the manifestations of the gift—Ibid., p. 275.
The Place of the Gift in the Church
W. A. Spicer
Opposers have been quick to say, "Oh, you eventh-day Adventists have another Bible — the writings of Mrs. White."
No, we reply, Seventh-day Adventists have but one Bible. That is the one foundation of faith and doctrine. The church is built upon Christ, and all its doctrine upon the living word. All spiritual gifts are gifts to the church that is built upon the word. These gifts are to minister the word of God to us, and to lead us into the Scriptures, which are our one rule of faith.—The Spirit of Prophecy in the Advent Movement, p. 29.
No; critics of this movement can never say justly that Seventh-day Adventists have "another Bible." The one book is all that is needed to maintain the doctrines they preach as fundamental in the gospel of salvation.—Ibid., p. 30.
They [our early pioneers] turned to Holy Scripture as never before to dig for the treasures. They needed a whole system of truth in order to carry "the everlasting gospel" to men in the advent message that had come to them. They found treasures of doctrinal truth that had been hidden under the rubbish of tradition and trampled into the ground by the great apostasy that Daniel the prophet saw in the vision of his eighth chapter: "It cast down the truth to the ground." Now the time had come to lift up truths that had long been "trodden underfoot."—Pioneer Days of the Advent Movement, pp. 88, 89.
Late in her life Mrs. White wrote of the searching out of these truths in the early days:
"Many of our people do not realize how firmly the foundation of our faith has been laid. My husband, Elder Joseph Bates, Father Pierce, Elder Edson, and others who were keen, noble, and true, were among those who, after the passing of the time in 1844, searched for the truth as for hidden treasure. 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--ibid, p. 91.
All this time of searching, the Spirit of prophecy was a help and a guide. Not that this gift was the means through which the doctrines were given to them. The doctrines were to be founded upon Holy Scripture. To this end Mrs. White was unable to join with the brethren in their discussions. Of those first years when this study was going on, she wrote:
"During this whole time I could not understand the reasoning of the brethren. My mind was locked, as it were, and I could not comprehend the meaning of the scriptures we were studying. This was one of the greatest sorrows of my life. I was in this condition of mind until all the principal points of our faith were made clear to our minds, in harmony with the word of God."—lbid., p. 90.
The doctrines were to be founded on Holy Scripture. The Bible is the foundation of doctrine, the rule of faith.
From the first, these pioneers laid down this principle of the Bible as the rule of doctrine. In the first tract that James White brought out, in 1847, he wrote:
"The Bible is a perfect and complete revelation. It is our only rule of faith and practice."—/bid., p. 92.
The spiritual gifts are gifts to the church that is built upon Holy Scripture. But when these brethren were in need of special help to know how to relate the Scripture to the events and the subjects to be understood, the Spirit of Prophecy brought to them scenes viewed in vision, and light came which illuminated their understanding of how this or that scripture applied. Mrs. White wrote of this:
"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, and 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 were 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 me."—Ibid., p. 93.
That our fundamental doctrines had their origin, if not always their complete and detailed unfolding, in the Bible, is clear. For example, the doctrine of the Second Advent was common to all our first pioneers before the gift of prophecy was manifested among them and before the Sabbath truth called them out of their former denominational connections. Ellen G. White's writings on this doctrine were not additional basic proofs, but she added details and drew spiritual lessons for the church. They almost all had the Bible conception of the Trinity, the two angels' messages, baptism, et cetera, prior to Spirit of Prophecy confirmation.
In the formative period 1844-1855, what we refer to as the fundamental truths were few in number, and not much detail of prophetic interpretation was attached to them. In 1858 the fundamentals were:
- The second advent of our Lord.
- The seventh-day Sabbath.
- The three angels' messages of Revelation 14.
- The sanctuary truth with its 1844 emphasis.
- The conditional immortality truth.
Some thirty years later, in 1889, Ellen G. White, in manuscript 13 (see Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 30, 31), listed these same five fundamentals, but detailed exposition had grown, especially on numbers 3 and 4 above.
Development of Doctrine and Prophetic Interpretation
The development of doctrine always appears to have originated in Bible study. It is not possible always to determine exactly at what point the Spirit of Prophecy counsel appeared in confirmation of any given detail. Sometimes it was given during or immediately following current discussions, sometimes much later. The basic structure of both doctrine and prophetic interpretation came from the study of Scripture, and was confirmed and augmented by the counsels of Ellen G. White. This was the pattern in the eleven or twelve years after 1844 when there was no organizational structure, and up until 1849 when there were no periodicals to act as a doctrinal forum and a unifying influence. Even when confirming views already discovered in the Scriptures, Ellen G. White stressed the necessity of personal and continuous Bible study.
Precious light has come, appropriate for this time. It is Bible truth, showing the perils that are right upon us. This light should lead us to a diligent study of the Scriptures and a most critical examination of the positions which we hold. God would have all the bearings and positions of truth thoroughly and perseveringly searched, with prayer and fasting. Believers are not to rest in suppositions and ill-defined ideas of what constitutes truth. Their faith must be firmly founded upon the word of God. . . .
Whatever may be man's intellectual advancement, let him not for a moment think that there is no need of thorough and continuous searching of the Scriptures for greater light. As a people we are called individually to be students of prophecy. We must watch with earnestness that we may discern any ray of light which God shall present to us. We are to catch the first glearnings of truth; and through prayerful study clearer light may be obtained, which can be brought before others.
When God's people are at ease and satisfied with their present enlightenment, we may be sure that He will not favor them. It is His will that they should be ever moving forward to receive the increased and ever-increasing light which is shining for them.—Testirnonies, vol. 5, pp. 707-709.
It is abundantly clear from other sources and at later dates that Ellen G. White sought repeatedly to put Bible study in the forefront and regarded her own writings as contributing to the confirmation of truths therein revealed:
The written testimonies are not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed. . . Additional truth is not brought out; but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given and in His own chosen way brought them before the people to awaken and impress the mind with them, that all may be left without excuse.—Ibid., vol. 2, p. 605.
The Testimonies are not to belittle the word of God, but to exalt it and attract minds to it, that the beautiful simplicity of truth may impress all. —Ibid., vol. 5, p. 665.
One of Mrs. White's best-known statements pertinent to this subject was:
Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light—Evangelism, p. 257.
It was on the basis of this relationship between the Bible and the prophetic gift that our Seventh-day Adventist doctrines have developed over the years. Further light came on such subjects as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, righteousness by faith, the sanctuary question, as well as on major prophetic interpretations, especially those connected with the final events—almost always on the basis of initial discovery in the Word of God, confirmed by the Spirit of Prophecy writings. The prophetic gift was also exercised in the curtailment of erroneous, non-Biblical views. (See Early Writings, page 78.)
(To be continued)
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