Olson discusses the Veltman study

Robert W. Olson reflects on the Veltman study of The Desire of Ages and, more broadly, on our understanding and use of Ellen White's writings in general.

Robert W. Olson, Th. D., was the secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate

David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry

Are you satisfied with the validity of the Veltman study? Do you have any questions about the methodology Veltman used?

I am totally satisfied with this study. No one could have done a better job—no one. He did it as a neutral person would have and not as one who is an apologist.

Veltman says that a minimum of 30 percent of The Desire of Ages is to some degree dependent. Do you agree with that figure?

I don't think your wording expresses it accurately. In 31 percent of the sentences one word or more shows some degree of dependency. But of course if what she did was wrong, it wouldn't matter whether it involved 90 percent or 10 percent of what she wrote.

What does this study mean to our understanding of inspiration in general and Ellen White's inspiration in particular?

Because of the studies of the past 10 or 12 years we have a much better under standing of how Ellen White did her writing than we did earlier. W. C. White and Dores Robinson tried to explain this to our people in 1933. In our White Estate files we have a document, "Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White," that they wrote and offered for sale at that time. In that document they state that Ellen White had been told by the Lord that she would find precious gems of truth in the writings of others, and that the Holy Spirit would help her to recognize these and to draw them into her writings so they would be preserved.

How should we interpret Ellen White's writings now that we are aware of her use of sources?

Well, it is simply the method that the Holy Spirit used. Inspiration doesn't re quire originality. Read Luke 1:1-4. Luke didn't say that anything in his Gospel was original. He said that he wrote in order that Theophilus might know what the truth was, what to believe. It wasn't new, but it was true. Now we know that the same thing can be said of Ellen White's writings. Your question was how this would affect our interpretation of her writings.

Well, no differently than it affects our interpretation of the Gospel of Luke. That she used sources doesn't mean that she was any less inspired than if she hadn't; we simply know that she had help—and she was always looking for help in phrasing things.

In this study Veltman speaks of Ellen White's "factualizing" the original writers' speculations. I understand this to mean that as those authors wrote of an incident, they said, "Perhaps it happened this way." Then when Ellen White wrote of it, she said it indeed happened that way. Was she just con firming what she had seen of others' speculations?

Yes, I think so. But let's remember that Veltman doesn't say that she con firmed all of their speculations. She was selective. That's the important thing.

I studied a chapter that Veltman did not cover—the chapter "Lazarus, Come Forth," on the resurrection of Lazarus. In that chapter I found at least 24 extrabiblical points that were mentioned by the 10 authors I examined. Ellen White discussed 15 of these points. In five cases she stood completely alone, opposing what these other authors had said. For example, she wrote that Lazarus died after the messenger returned to Bethany, not before the messenger returned. Here she differed with Edersheim, Abbot, Farrar, Hannah, March, and McMillan. She was the only one to make that statement.

So where she took their speculations and wrote them as firm, as true, she did so selectively. She wasn't copying whole sale and endorsing everything.

Wouldn't it be reasonable to say that perhaps God used this method in part because of Ellen White's limited education? Maybe she used these other authors to compensate for her lack of education, and maybe God worked with her by showing her which parts to use and which to ignore.

Yes, I think so. But I would not state that Ellen White was infallible in the decisions she made along this line. There are instances in her writings in which she differed with herself. I have to say I just don't have an explanation for that kind of thing. I simply will not claim too much.

Consequently I don't want to prove all of history, for example, by what Ellen White has written. Her main purpose in writing was not to present historical facts, either biblical or otherwise. Her main purpose was always evangelistic. She was always a soul winner. She was always a homiletician. She was always a pastor. She was always trying to bring people to the foot of the cross.

So, for instance, in one place she says that the Tower of Babel was built before the Flood.1 Well, in Patriarchs and Prophets that's corrected. You will find that kind of thing—occasionally she differs with herself. We have to acknowledge fallibility. It's there.

[At this point Olson looked at the list of questions we had given him before the interview and brought up one we had skipped.]

You asked about changes in chronology—differences in the chronology of the life of Christ as presented in the pre- Desire of Ages and Desire of Ages texts owing to influence of sources. We know exactly why she used the chronology that she did, because Marian Davis tells us. Marian says, "In the order of chapters we followed Samuel Andrews' harmony as given in his life of Christ." That's why any changes were made that were made. No inspiration connected with such changes. I should say, no divine directive from the Lord telling her "This is the chronology."

When I taught Life and Teachings at Pacific Union College I used The Desire of Ages to establish the sequence, the way it all happened. I wouldn't do that today. Now I know that they were following Samuel Andrews. The Desire of Ages may not contain a perfect chronology. I don't think the Lord is that concerned about giving one to us. If He had been, Luke 4 and Matthew 4 would not differ on the three temptations in the wilderness.

Do you think there are times when she wrote with the purpose of interpreting a particular text or establishing either biblical history or church history?

I think that there were times when she was an exegete, but those instances are extremely rare. I think usually she was a homiletician. She used Scripture as an evangelist would.

For example, take John 5:39. She used that text in two ways, following different translations. She used the King James Version's imperative: "Search the scriptures [and you will have eternal life]." And she also quoted the Revised Version's indicative: "Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life [but you'd learn of Me if you read them right]."

She used two different translations of the same verse, and they really have opposite ideas in them. Now, if she was willing to do that with John 5:39, then I know that she was not necessarily trying to give me an exegesis of a verse when she quoted it. Rather, she was drawing a spiritual lesson from it.

So you would see the suggestion that Ellen White's writings comprise an "inspired commentary on Scripture" as true only in a limited way rather than as a general rule?

We cannot use Ellen White as the determinative final arbiter of what Scripture means. If we do that, then she is the final authority and Scripture is not. Scripture must be permitted to interpret itself.

In the article that contains his conclusions, Veltman suggests that Ellen White's writings may form a type of textual tradition that her later writings may differ somewhat from her earlier writings. Do you think that is true? If so, should we give more weight to her later writings?

I consider the later writings to be more precise—more accurate—than some of her earlier ones. I don't like to talk about mistakes in inspired writings. There are mistakes in the Bible, but whenever I mention it in a public forum of any kind I feel uncomfortable about doing it. I don't like to talk about mistakes in Ellen White, either; I'd rather concentrate on that which builds faith. But to answer your question, there are some discrepancies there. I mentioned a while ago the one about the Tower of Babel.

Maybe a key for handling the mistakes is looking at the purpose for which the material was written. Does it occur in material that is merely supportive or illustrative? It is the point that she was attempting to make that is of concern, and whether the supporting material, the illustration, the means of conveying that point, is actually completely accurate is not the real issue.

I agree with you 100 percent on that, and I think most of the White Estate staff would do the same. We believe that her counsel is always good to follow. I have never yet found one example of where you would suffer in any way by following her counsel. I've always found that you would benefit. Now, the rationale that she gives for the counsel may not always be absolutely and precisely correct. But we can't find fault with the counsel itself.

Let's move on to the question of Ellen White's literary assistants. Veltman says that "Ellen White's literary assistants, particularly Marian Davis, are responsible for the published form of The Desire of Ages." Do you agree with that statement?

Yes, this is true. However, it should be made clear that Ellen White supervised Marian Davis; she examined and approved her work. Not one line was published without Ellen White's approval.

Marian Davis would sometimes change words. She would divide sentences because she realized that shorter sentences made a greater impact. She would eliminate repetition. She constructed the book in its present form. Ellen White called Marian Davis her "bookmaker." Without her (or someone like her) we would never have had The Desire of Ages or Steps to Christ or Christ's Object Lessons or The Ministry of Healing or Education or Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing. In the case of all of these works, she selected key passages from Ellen White's writings and put them together in book form.

But Marian was very careful to state that she was only the editor, that's all. She took what Ellen White had written and created the book out of it.

In 1900 Ellen White wrote a letter to the president of the General Conference, Elder Irwin, that describes how her books were produced: "My copyists you have seen. They do not change my language. It stands as I write it.

"Marian's work is of a different order altogether. She is my bookmaker. . . . She takes my articles which are published in the papers, and pastes them in blank books. She also has a copy of all of the letters I write. In preparing a chapter for a book, Marian remembers that I have written something on that special point, which may make the matter more forcible. She begins to search for this, and if when she finds it, she sees that it will make the chapter more clear, she adds it.

"The books are not Marian's productions, but my own, gathered from all my writings. Marian has a large field from which to draw, and her ability to arrange the matter is of great value to me. It saves my poring over a mass of matter, which I have no time to do."2

Did Ellen White write any of her books following the process that you would normally think writing a book involves, in which you lay out the outline and then you write chapter 1, chapter 2, and so forth each in sequence?

She never just sat down and wrote a book. I don't think she ever did that. I don't know of one example. The only possible candidates for that would be Experience and Views (1851) her husband, I think, helped her put that together and the four volumes of Spiritual Gifts. After that, beginning as early as 1870 with Spirit of Prophecy, volume 1, she had the help of literary assistants.

But note this. In a letter to W. C. White, Marian Davis wrote: "Sister White is constantly harassed with the thought that the manuscript should be sent to the printers at once. I wish it were possible to relieve her mind, for the anxiety makes it hard for her to write and for me to work. . . . Sister White seems inclined to write, and I have no doubt she will bring out many precious things. I hope it will be possible to get them into the book. There is one thing, however, that not even the most competent editor could do and that is prepare the manuscript before it is written."3

So it is clear, Marian Davis was only the editor. Ellen White had to write first, and then Marian picked that up "Can I put it in here?" "Can I add something here?" etc.

Veltman wrote of time-conditioned elements in Ellen White's writings. How do you view that?

We recognize such elements in the Bible—for example, Paul's sending the slave Onesimus back to his owner. Why not in her writings ? I don't believe it's the role of the White Estate to determine what is time-conditioned and what is not. That's up to individuals as they apply Ellen White's counsels to their lives.

I suppose this last question is the toughest: What about Ellen White's denials of literary borrowing?

That's the only thing that I don't like about Fred's report. He mentions these denials but gives no examples. I feel like writing an article in which I mention every single denial and then from an apologist's standpoint give my view of them. 4

There are some problems in Ellen White's writings—that's a fact. And I do not have a totally satisfying answer to all of them, but I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt when necessary. I recognize in her ministry God at work. A lifetime of intimate connection with the work of Ellen White has convinced me that she was a true prophet in the highest sense—as real a prophet as Elijah or Nathan or Agabus. So if there are some things I can't explain—well, I'll have to wait until the Lord comes and get the explanation then.

1. Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 301.

2. From the White Estate booklet "How The Desire of Ages Was Written," pp. 40, 41.

3. Ibid., p. 34.

4. The editors of Ministry have invited Dr. Olson to write this article, and plan to publish it in our February 1991 issue.


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Robert W. Olson, Th. D., was the secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate

David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry

December 1990

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