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Ellen White's role in doctrine formation

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Archives / 1981 / October

 

 

Ellen White's role in doctrine formation

Ron Graybill
Ron Graybill is an assistant secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate.

 

 

For Seventh-day Adventists the one standard, rule, and ultimate authority for doctrine is the Bible. All other doctrinal authorities are subordinate. "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," Ellen White wrote (The Great Controversy, p. 595). "The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union. . . . Let us lift up the banner on which is inscribed, The Bible our rule of faith and discipline."—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 416.

In this article the term doctrine is used in the sense of church doctrine. Such doctrine is often found in a church's statement of fundamental beliefs. It constitutes the church's formulation, summary, emphasis, and organization of divine truths. Thus doctrine expresses the church's under standing of God, His will and ways.

The first step in doctrine formation is to seek to understand the Bible through exegesis. The purpose of exegesis is to determine, as nearly as possible, what the author meant and what his first audience understood when they read his words, with minds made receptive by the Holy Spirit. Even in apocalyptic literature, we seek exegetically to establish what the language, form, history, and context will allow. It is in the exegetical process that the Bible must be allowed to be its own interpreter. In doing exegesis, we lay aside, so far as possible, our preconceived notions of what the Bible might mean, in the sense that we silence our personal wishes with regard to the outcome of the interpretation. We attempt to learn the questions that the particular author was trying to answer, the issues and problems that confronted him, and the concepts and methods that he had at his disposal in attempting to solve these problems.

Linguistics, history, the identification of literary forms, and careful attention to context all play crucial roles in the exegetical process. Those skilled in the use of such exegetical tools are indispensable to the church. The common person can gain a saving knowledge from the Bible, to be sure. Yet that common person is indebted to technical experts who have, by comparing ancient manuscripts in a process known as textual criticism, attempted to establish the most accurate original text of the Bible. The common person is also indebted to the linguists who have translated those ancient manuscripts into modern languages. In this sense the common person's knowledge and understanding of the Bible are indebted to the work of Biblical scholars and can be further enhanced by their continued contributions.

It must be remembered that the Bible, though written in the words of men, remains the word of God. Because of this, the exegete, as he employs his technical expertise, must plead to receive the Spirit's guidance just as do the participants in every other stage of Bible study and doctrine formation.

This exegetical process does not, how ever, yield church doctrine. It is only the indispensable first step in doctrine formation in that it establishes our fundamental understanding of our ultimate authority for doctrine, the Holy Scriptures. The exegetical process elucidates the teachings of the Bible in all their multiplicity. These teachings vary in clarity and emphasis from Bible writer to Bible writer and even within the work of individual authors. Furthermore, not all the teachings of the Bible are used by the church in forming doctrine. For instance, although the Bible teaches kindness to animals, we have not made this teaching one of our fundamental beliefs. For the Salvation Army, however, kindness to animals is a part of church doctrine.

In saying that the fruits of exegesis are not doctrine, we assert that doctrine is not merely a restatement of Scripture in contemporary terms. Doctrine is not related to Scripture in the way a transla tion of a document is related to the original written in a different language. A closer, though imperfect, analogy would be the relationship between the laws of a country and the constitution of its government. The constitution spells out objectives and themes and sets limits on possible laws, but living legislators frame the laws, appealing to contemporary needs and newly under stood facts, as well as to the objectives and themes of the constitution. The analogy is imperfect in that there are many doctrines that spring from exegesis with little apparent interpretive influence from the church. What is more, every doctrine must have an exegetical warrant, an exegetical justification in Scripture. This means that, whereas any law not forbidden in the constitution may be enacted, only doctrine expressed or implied in Scripture may be adopted.

The second step in doctrine formation is taken in the theological work of the church. Thus there is both an exegetical phase and a theologizing phase in doctrine formation. Theology involves, at least in part, the comparing of passage with pas sage, author with author, and teaching with teaching. As this study goes forward, certain clear themes emerge. Christ is seen as the supreme self-revelation of God and the unifying theme of all Biblical revelation. Building upon the exegetical work of the church, theology seeks to harmonize the apparent contradictions of Scripture, to assess the relative significance of various Biblical teachings, to identify unifying themes, and to express the church's resultant understanding in doctrine.

Because we recognize the necessity and inevitability of this theologizing stage it would be naive of us to speak of the Bible as an exclusive influence in forming church doctrine. Scripture is certainly the only normative authority, but even in matters of faith it is the living church that decides—for example—how it will balance the teachings of the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, the book of James, and the book of Revelation on such topics as faith, works, and judgment. In matters of practice a church that uses the Bible as its "exclusive" authority would not be in a position to ask its members to refrain from the use of tobacco because the Bible nowhere mentions tobacco. The Bible contains principles of healthful living but there are cases in which science, interpreted by the living church, has a role to play.

In this theologizing stage of doctrine formation, the church—any church, religious society, or fellowship group— employs various extra-Biblical aids, such as the writings of revered founders and respected theologians, together with previous decisions of the church in doctrinal matters. One of the most helpful aids for Seventh-day Adventists is the writings that the Spirit of prophecy led Ellen White to pen. Her writings have proved instructive and worthwhile in the church's efforts to formulate its doctrines. She offers the church aid, direction, and insight for this process.

This is not to say that Ellen White is a theologian any more than she is an exegete. Except in rare instances, Ellen White does not offer us exegesis in the technical sense, or the tools necessary to carry on exegesis. Raoul Dederen has stated it well: "As interpreter of the Bible, Ellen White's most characteristic role was that of an evangelist—not an exegete, nor a theologian, as such, but a preacher and an evangelist. . . . The prophetic and hortatory mode was more characteristic of her than the exegetical. . . . The people to whom she was preaching—or writing— were more the object of her attention than the specific people to whom the individual Bible writers addressed themselves."— "Ellen White's Doctrine of Scripture," in "Are There Prophets in the Modern Church?" Supplement to MINISTRY, July, 1977, p. 24H.

It is simply the case that, in doctrine formation, neither exegetes nor theologians are sufficient unto themselves. Not even together can they formulate church doctrine, for church doctrine expresses the whole church's understanding, not just the understandings of the trained experts or gifted leaders in these fields. The fact that Mrs. White's own particular calling and vocation was that of a prophet suggests that her role is not merely devotional or pastoral, nor yet exegetical or theological, but prophetic. Although her ministry exhibits elements of all these other roles, it is apart from them, distinct. Prophetic authority is authority to bring God's message to bear on the root problems of human existence, to search out human perversity, and highlight human potential in Christ. A prophet may argue theologically, may offer devotional reflection, and may minister pastorally to God's people, but his message is usually more disturbing than a pastor's, more challenging than a devotional writer's, more gripping than a theological formulation, and more relevant than an exegetical exposition.

Mrs. White's prophetic role in shaping doctrine is formative, not normative. As the church engages in its theological task of formulating the fruits of exegesis into doctrine, it welcomes the prophetic influence as it chooses to expound and emphasize certain teachings of Scripture and not others. Thus Mrs. White does not prove for us that the seventh day is the Sabbath, nor is she the standard or norm for that belief, but by emphasizing the importance of the Sabbath in our relationship with God, she influences us to give special attention to this particular teaching of Scripture.

We believe the revelation and inspiration of both the Bible and Ellen White's writings to be of equal quality. The superintendence of the Holy Spirit was just as careful and thorough in one case as in the other. There is, however, a definite distinction to be made between the normative authority of Scripture and the formative authority of Mrs. White's writings in our church. Why should a distinction be made? In the first place, Ellen White clearly placed the Bible alone in the category of standard and rule for doctrine. Then there are practical reasons for making the distinction. Only if we refrain from using Ellen White as a normative authority for doctrine can we hope to meet other Christians on a common ground and expect them to see the validity of our doctrines. It follows then that even within the church Mrs. White must not be made the final court of appeal in matters of doctrine, because to make her so would be to have one standard for doctrine for entering the church and a different standard after one entered.

We can add a further practical reason why we dare not use Ellen White as the final arbiter in matters of doctrine. The vast scope of subjects on which she wrote and the fact that she employs or comments on so large a proportion of the verses in Scripture make it extremely difficult in practical life to avoid giving her a more important role than any Biblical author in the formation of doctrine. She simply had much more to say on all doctrinal topics than any other inspired writer. Thus if her writings are used to end all doctrinal disputes, it is almost impossible to maintain the Bible as the normative authority for doctrine. The writings that the Spirit of prophecy inspired Ellen White to pen certainly should not be ignored in doctrinal debate. They promise us valuable insight into the message of Scripture, they highlight the importance of certain themes and truths. In the final analysis, however, those debates that are ended must be ended by appeals to Scripture alone. It is tempting in Ellen White's case to grant her more practical authority than any single Bible writer, because she wrote more about the Bible than any single Bible writer. This temptation could lead us into a situation in which canonical authority is actually less important to us than confirmatory authority.

Mrs. White's legitimate function in relation to the Bible should be consistent with her self-proclaimed purpose in this regard. The difficulty is that there is an apparent difference in her understanding of her purpose from one group of statements to another. On the one hand, Mrs. White has spoken of the purpose of her testimonies—a generic term referring to all her counsels. With relation to the Bible they are to—

Lead men to the Bible (Evangelism, p. 257).

Bring men and women back to the neglected Word of God (Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 455).

Call attention to God's Word (Life Sketches, p. 199).

Impress Bible truth upon minds (ibid.).

Simplify the great truths already given in God's Word (ibid.).

Exalt God's Word (Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 606).

Give a clearer understanding of God's Word (ibid., vol. 4, p. 246).

Impress upon hearts truths already revealed (ibid., vol. 2, pp. 660, 661).

Harmonize with God's Word (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 402).

Mrs. White says that her testimonies are never to be put ahead of the Bible (Evangelism, p. 256) and are not to be an addition to God's Word (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 246). They "are not to give new light" (Life Sketches, pp. 198, 199) or "take the place of the Bible" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 663). All the above statements can fit into a model that would clearly subordinate Ellen White's authority to the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, there are statements in which she appears to claim, by virtue of her inspiration, the right to define and specify the meaning of Scripture. She says that her writings on doctrinal matters are essentially without error: "There is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written."—Selected Messages, book 3, p. 52. The testimonies, she assures us, "never contradict His [God's] Word" (ibid., p. 32). She often recalled the early days when "the power of God would come" upon her, and she "was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error" (Gospel Workers, p. 302). When the brethren could go no further in those early Bible conferences, she would be "instructed in regard to the relation of Scripture to Scripture" (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 38). "Thus," she says, "many truths of the third angel's message were established, point by point."—Ibid. Even portions of her diaries should be republished, she said, because they contain "light" and "instruction" that was given "to correct specious errors and to specify what is truth" (ibid., p. 32). "I am thankful," she wrote to the evangelist W. W. Simpson, "that the instruction contained in my books establishes present truth for this time. These books were written under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit."—Letter 50, 1906.

These latter statements especially warn us that Mrs. White's comments on Scripture cannot be lightly regarded if we are to honor her authority as she understood it. But in view of such statements we can also see why some have found it difficult to believe that our doctrines are, in the final analysis, based on the Bible and not on Ellen White. Our early critics had much the same problem. Having read Ellen White's account of how her vision helped settle the differences that arose among the brethren gathered at the conference in Volney, New York, in 1848 (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. II, pp. 98, 99), the critics scornfully summarized the incident by saying: " There was a diversity of sentiment; Sister White saw that they must lay aside their diversities and unite, and they did so.'"—J. N. Loughborough, "Recollections of the Past—No. 12," Review and Herald, March 3,. 1885. J. N. Loughborough protested this interpretation. "The reason these persons gave up their differences," he tells us,'"was not simply because Sister White said they must give them up, but because in the same vision they were pointed to plain statements of Scripture that refuted their false theories, and had presented before them in contrast a straight and harmonious track of Bible truth."—Ibid.

Loughborough was not at the meeting in question, but his interpretation of it in 1885 bears serious consideration. Could the Ellen White statements listed above be interpreted in this same light? If not, we suffer from an intolerable tension when Ellen White appears to be saying on the one hand that our beliefs must be established by the Bible and the Bible alone, and on the other hand asserts that her writings provide the ultimate verification of our doctrines.

Since we believe that Mrs. White received revelations equal in quality to those received by Bible writers, though different in purpose and function, we bring her counsel and witness to bear on all stages of the doctrine-forming process— not as a final authority, but as a source of influence and insight. If we are to do this in the most effective, useful, and unifying way, we must also make Ellen White's writings the subject of careful study. Not every church member is called to engage in the finer points of this study any more than is every church member called to be a Greek scholar. However, this does not render unnecessary the efforts of some to go to greater depths in the study of these writings.

Many of the same techniques employed in Biblical studies are also useful in modified form in the study of Ellen White's writings. A substantial collection of her handwritten manuscripts are extant. These handwritten drafts can help us to understand more clearly what Ellen White had in mind when she was writing. During her own lifetime some of her literary assistants had considerable latitude in the editing of her handwritten materials. Theirs was a work substantially more significant than that of an ordinary copy editor who might attend to merely mechanical and technical matters. Mrs. White, of course, reserved to herself the right of final approval on what they prepared. Thus both the handwritten original and the finished draft of any Ellen White manuscript constitute equally valid texts. The object of this textual analysis of Ellen White's writings is consequently to discover the range of possible meaning in a given message or to recover lost nuances rather than to establish one true original text.

It has been stated that Mrs. White's understanding of the Bible and God's activities grew over time. Thus it is useful to study all of her writings, published and unpublished, in their chronological sequence to chart the growth and change in various concepts.

Because Mrs. White is known to have used literary sources quite extensively, it will be helpful to identify, as far as possible, all of these sources. Her meaning can often be clarified by comparing and contrasting what she has written with the source from which she is drawing her expressions and ideas. We need to see what she chose to use in contrast with what she chose not to use from a given author or a given passage, and to ask why she selected particular material.

As the relevant sources become more readily available we can meaningfully begin our study of some specific topics that will be helpful in establishing the proper relationship between Ellen White's pro phetic authority, the authority of exegetes and theologians, and the authority of Scripture itself in the formation of doctrine. We need a comprehensive and thorough examination of all of Ellen White's statements about Scripture, published and unpublished. We need to study what she says about the hermeneutics, inspiration, authority, and usefulness of Scripture. This must be done, first of all, in chronological context in order to detect developments in her teachings. Second, it must be done in historical context by comparing and contrasting what she wrote with what others were writing and preaching around her. For instance, she traveled and preached with G. B. Starr in New Zealand during a time when he was vigorously attacking higher criticism. Start's sermons were published in a local newspaper and thus can be compared with Mrs. White's own comments on higher criticism to see where she agreed, where she disagreed, and where she was silent on the points Starr made.

There is also something to be said about a certain "high" view of Scripture, found in Ellen White's writings, that lies quite outside the discussion of inspiration as such. This has to do with her statements about the Scripture's usefulness. She ascribes great power to the Bible. It is more than merely a source of correct religious ideas. It is able to increase the power of the intellect and fill every other emotional, spiritual, and even physical need of man kind. This view of Scripture implies something about its inspiration, to be sure, but it is not a direct comment on its inspiration.

Not only must we study Ellen White's concept of the Scripture's usefulness but we must give more attention to her use of the Scriptures. We know that she used Scripture in a variety of ways, only rarely engaging in what we would call exegesis. But there is more than this to Ellen White's use of Scripture. Ellen White had a tendency to incorporate long passages of Scripture into her writings. In many cases these passages were written out in long hand in her original manuscripts. What does this say about her view of Scripture? In places where we would zero in on a specific verse or phrase in Scripture, or where we would simply place a reference in our writings, Ellen White would sit at her writing table laboriously copying an extended passage word for word. What does this mean? Does it imply a desire to stand back and let the scripture speak for itself, or is it merely a habit that helped to fill up pages? I suspect the former is more likely. Phenomena like this warn us that we may sometimes be asking the wrong questions about Ellen White's relationship to the Bible. At any rate, before we attempt to force her into analytical categories provided by hostile critics, we need to analyze her relationship to the Bible on her own terms, examining both what she said and what she did.

In summary, then, the Bible is our only standard and rule for doctrine. It is our ultimate doctrinal authority. The first step in understanding it is exegesis. The exegetical process is followed by a theologizing process. In this process, Ellen White, by virtue of her prophetic authority, influences us as we form the results of exegesis into doctrine. Her writings may be profit ably studied, but she remains a formative authority in Adventist doctrine. The Bible is the only normative authority.

 

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An early glimpse of Ellen White:

On April 20, 1846, an early  Adventist by the name of Otis Nichols wrote a six-and-one-half-page letter to William Miller in which he gave reasons why he considered the visions of 18-year-old Ellen Gould Harmon to be genuine. It is significant that these reasons, which were set down within a year and one-half after Ellen Harmon's first vision, are strikingly similar to those held by Seventh-day Adventists today. The arguments are firmly rooted in Scripture. The following is the portion of the letter pertaining to Ellen Harmon, later to become Ellen White. —Editors.

Within is a part of the vision of E.G.H. [Ellen Gould Harmon] of Portland [Maine]. I fully believe them [the visions]
to be from Heaven. The manner and circumstances attending is unlike anything I have seen or read of since the days of the apostles. I would ask you to lay aside prejudice and suspend judgment until you have read and compared them with the Scriptures [and] present truth. And "if they speak not according to this word (and present truth), it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:20). "Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:20, 21).

Visions are either from heaven (Acts 10:4-16) or from Satan (Deut. 13:1-5). Many of them at the present time are
undoubtedly Satan's counterfeit, so, of course, there is a true coin. We are to judge of them by their fruits according to the Bible and the truth. If they are from heaven with a command to make it known to others, God will hold all accountable that hear. We are told in Deuteronomy 18:22 how to know whether it is from the Lord: "If the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken." But many now say that every vision has failed. Well, this is fulfilling Ezekiel 12:22-28. That proverb has been used to perfection for a few months past in the land of Israel saying the days are prolonged and every vision faileth. But God says, "I will make this proverb to cease" with "the effect of every vision."

The first vision of E.G.H. was in the fall of 1844, which never was published to the world. It was a view of the travels of the Advent company from the seventh month, 1844, and so far as fulfilled they have had as perfect a fulfillment as could possibly be, especially in most Advent bands and individuals wherever we are acquainted. Her calling was most remark able—only 17 years of age, sick with dropsical consumption and confined to the
house for most of the time for five years and had been given over by physicians to die. In this state God called her and told her to go out and tell the flock what He had revealed to her—that an angel should accompany her all the time and sometimes two in time of need; that no wicked power on earth should have dominion over her if she would obey the Lord.

At the time she first went out to deliver her message (January, 1845) she was scarcely able to walk across the room and could not speak with an audible voice. But she had faith in God and was carried in this state a few miles to deliver her message. When she arose to speak, her voice was nearly gone, but God fulfilled His word [and] gave her strength of body and a clear, loud, audible voice to talk nearly two hours with tremendous power and effect on the people without fatigue of body. From that time [and] for many weeks she continued to travel day and night talking almost every day until she had visited most of the Advent bands in Maine and the easterly part of New Hampshire.

Her message was always attended with the Holy Ghost, and wherever it was received as from the Lord it broke down and melted their hearts like little children. [It] fed, comforted, strengthened the weak, and encouraged them to hold on to the faith and [to] the seventh-month movement—that our work was done for the nominal church and the world and what remained to be done was for the household of faith. * Those that rejected her message very soon fell into the world and [into] a nominal faith. Those that did receive her testimony as from the Lord and afterward denied it, calling it mesmerism and an unholy thing, are many of those that are given over to strong delusion and working of Satan—a ship without a helm or anchor and driven by every wind, thus causing the way of truth to be evil spoken of. This class of persons are her greatest enemies and have done what they could by calumny and lies to destroy her influence and character.

But God has hitherto protected her in a remarkable manner from all harm [and] raised up benefactors for her wherever she goes, notwithstanding the malice of wicked spirits and fallen Adventists through [whose] influence there have been a number of warrants for her arrest. God has signally protected her; at one time a sheriff and a number of men with him had no power over her person for an hour and a half, although they exerted all their bodily strength to move her while [neither] she nor anyone else made any resistance.

What I have written I have a knowledge of and think I can judge correctly. Sister Ellen has been a resident in my family much of the time for about eight months. I have never seen the least. impropriety of conduct in her since our first acquaintance. God has blessed our family abundantly with spiritual things as well as temporal since we received her into our family. The Spirit of God is with her and has been in a remarkable manner in
healing the sick through the answer of her prayers; some cases are as remarkable as any that are recorded in the New Testament. But prejudiced or unbelieving persons find it just as convenient to call it mesmerism and ascribe the power to the devil as the unbelieving Pharisees did (see Matt. 10:25; 12:24). Is not this a sin against the Holy Ghost? (see Mark 3:22, 29, 30).

That power which is manifested in her as far exceeds the power of mesmerism as Moses' [power] did the [power of the] magicians of Egypt. The devil has as much power to imitate and counterfeit the work of God as he did in Moses' time, and the people can be deceived if they will. "Try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:20). "If the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken" (Deut. 18:22).

In conclusion, the Bible has always been a lamp to my feet and a light to my path, and is so still. I desire it should be until Jesus comes the second time to redeem the purchased possession of our vile bodies, which I believe will be very soon. I have ever aimed to read the Bible with common sense and simplicity and can truly say we are in those perilous times of the last days of 2 Timothy 3, Jude, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, [and] Matthew 24:24. The Scriptures must be fulfilled. . . . [Several additional sentences complete the letter.] Yours waiting for the return of our Lord from the wedding, Otis Nichols, Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 20, 1846.

 

* Seventh-day Adventists have believed that the parable of the ten virgins has a prophetic application to the experience of God's people in 1844. The "Midnight Cry" was symbolic of the message they gave in the summer of that year. For a time, this belief also entailed the idea that the "door was shut" against the "nominal church and
the world," as Otis Nichols wrote. Gradually they came to understand that God's mercy was still open to some whom they had previously felt were rejected.

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