Ellen G. White's Central Theme

THE THEME of the great controversy between Christ and Satan is without question the central and most important theme in the writings of Ellen G. White. Because it is broad and encompassing we can expect to find references or allusions to it in the compilations made from her articles and other manuscripts as well as in the Testimonies for the Church and The Conflict of the Ages Series. . .

Joseph J. Battistone was an associate professor of religion at Andrews University at the time this article was written.

THE THEME of the great controversy between Christ and Satan is without question the central and most important theme in the writings of Ellen G. White. Because it is broad and encompassing we can expect to find references or allusions to it in the compilations made from her articles and other manuscripts as well as in the Testimonies for the Church and The Conflict of the Ages Series.

Clearly, the great controversy theme is the perspective from which the messenger of the Lord interprets the Scriptures. Such titles as "Why Was Sin Permitted?" "The Temptation and Fall," and "The Plan of Redemption" in Patriarchs and Prophets reveal an interest in the issues raised in the great controversy and in the strategies that are developed as the conflict unfolds.

The importance of this theme is seen, furthermore, in her selection and application of Old Testament passages. Often the amount of space she provides is out of proportion to the emphasis given to them in the Old Testament. As a case in point, we cite her discussion of the sin committed by Nadab and Abihu. Ellen White devotes a full chapter to an incident that is presented in the Bible in three verses (see Patriarchs and Prophets, chapter 31), whereas she makes no comment on a large portion of the book of Leviticus. This selection and emphasis is not a mystery. What she concludes and stresses in her treatment of the Old Testament is material that contributes directly or indirectly to the unfolding of the great controversy between Christ and Satan.

This does not mean, of course, that every page of her writings will contain references to Satan's crafty schemes or to God's redemptive activity. What we are suggesting is that the great controversy theme is the basic perspective from which Ellen White writes. Once this is recognized, her writings will be better understood and appreciated.

The great controversy theme appears, moreover, in numerous character sketches of Old Testament personalities. In such portraits she relates the issues of the great controversy to the experience of the individual and demonstrates how the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan is settled within the domain of each individual life. Herein lies the genius of Ellen White. She takes a profound and abstract theological problem the problem of evil and discloses in a sublime way its practical significance for each person. Because of this, her writings assume a sense of urgency akin to that of the Scriptures. Consequently, it is difficult for one to read them with a spirit of detachment or indifference.

In developing the great controversy theme, she often resorts to moralizing. In the tragic experience of Adam and Eve she points to the evil consequences of sensual indulgence (see Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 378). The importance of a godly home for Christian witnessing is discussed in connection with her presentation of Abraham's sojourn in Canaan (ibid., pp. 141, 142). Her study of the experiences of Eli contains sober warnings to parents who neglect to discipline their offspring, whereas in the case of Samuel she offers positive lessons on parental guidance (ibid., chapters 55 and 56).

Makes Use of Typology

In developing the great controversy theme from the Old Testament, Ellen White makes use of typology. To a great extent her typology is Christocentric; the types in the Old Testament in one way or another prefigure the person and work of Christ. In Abraham's offering of Isaac, for example, she sees typified in advance the death of Christ on Calvary (ibid., pp. 147- 155; Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 369).

This typology for the most part is based on the work of New Testament writers. Ellen White, however, moves beyond these Christological types and includes within her scheme such individuals as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Jacob, and Joseph to name a few. Her typological approach to the Old Testament is an integral part of the redemptive history she portrays in the great controversy. Thus she is able to preserve the historical integrity of the Old Testament events while uncovering, at the same time, their deeper significance for the church. Because she views the Old Testament from a broader horizon than that of the New Testament writers, her typology extends beyond the types advanced by them. In this way she is able to bridge the cultural chasm between ancient Israel and the church today with fresh insights into the problem of evil. As a result, we are able to discern a practical relevance that the Old Testament has for the modern world in general and for the church in particular.

What we have observed in her interpretation and use of the Old Testament applies also to her study of the New Testament; the great controversy theme provides the basic perspective from which she writes. Note, for example, her interpretation of the parables of Jesus, particularly those found in Matthew 13. Each parable, in one way or another, has to do with God's revelation of saving truth in Christ and Satan's attempts to obscure this disclosure. While it is true that the idea of a controversy is inherent in these parables, the amplification of the controversy theme is clearly the work of Ellen White, inspired by God.

Perfection Is the Theme

A study of her interpretation of Christ's parables reveals, moreover, an interest in character growth, which leads us to the theme of the great controversy. The perfection of Christ's character in the remnant church constitutes the last act in the plan of redemption. When Christ's character is perfectly reproduced in His followers she states, God's name will be ultimately vindicated in the universe and the great controversy decisively settled (ibid., pp. 69, 314-319, 418-421).

We also note the theme of the great controversy in Ellen White's presentation of Jesus' deeds. When Jesus walked on the water, cleansed the leper, and exorcized demons, she notes, He made decisive inroads into Satan's territory. In His nature miracles, acts of healing, and exorcisms He vindicated the character of God, redeemed man from the clutches of sin, and consequently, defeated the devil (see The Desire of Ages, pp. 202-475).

In The Acts of the Apostles we observe the theme of the great controversy in Ellen White's study of the missionary preaching and activity of the church. Her insight into the nature and function of the church, the activity of the Holy Spirit, the work of angels, and the meaning of salvation, ultimately grow out of her understanding of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. Hence, it is not at all surprising to find in the introductory and concluding chapters of this volume a recapitulation of the major issues and events in the great controversy.

From what has been said, it is not difficult to see the impact that the theme of the great controversy has made on Ellen White's interpretation and use of Scripture. A recognition of this fact will enable us to interpret and use her writings more effectively.

The idea of a controversy between Christ and Satan is not, of course, unique to Ellen White. What is original with her, however, is her inspired view of the role of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the scheme of the great controversy. This comes to the surface when we study the panoramic presentation of this theme in volume 1 of Spiritual Gifts. Here we note the entire scope of the conflict from the fall of Satan to the final eradication of sin from the universe. A large portion of the text has to do with the period from William Miller's time to the end of the age of sin. Clearly, her concern at the time of this publication (1858) was to identify the purpose and place of the Advent Movement in the scheme of the great controversy. It seems apparent that foremost in her thinking was the desire, on the one hand, to re veal Satan's crafty wiles in order to alert the church to the imminent dangers of spiritual complacency, skepticism, and worldliness. On the other hand, her intention was to define the nature and purpose of our mission in the world (see Early Writings, p. 233).

This same concern is apparent throughout her other writings. It is evident in her frequent references to the law, particularly, the fourth commandment (Patriarchs and Prophets, chapters 27, 29, 32, 42; Prophets and Kings, chapters 33, 38, 51, 61, 62; The Great Controversy, chapters 25, 35-37). It is also clear in the emphasis that she gives to healthful living (Counsels on Health and Counsels on Diet and Foods). Thus, while Ellen White's writings cover a diversity of topics history, religion, theology, science, health, and education, to name a few they also enjoy an inner unity and cohesiveness. Throughout the tapestry of her work the great controversy theme appears, like a golden strand.

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Joseph J. Battistone was an associate professor of religion at Andrews University at the time this article was written.

October 1975

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