Ellen White, theologian?

Can Seventh-day Adventists justly say that Mrs. White was a theologian in her own right?

Walter M. Booth, Ph.D., is retired and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

It is becoming increasingly common in Seventh-day Adventist circles to think of Ellen White as an inspired and inspiring writer, popular lecturer, wife, and mother, but not as a theologian.

I would like to address this tendency, expressing my conviction that Ellen White was an outstanding theologian.

The character of biblical theology and of any formulation of it should reflect the nature of God. Our theology must reflect the transcendent meaning, which God in His transcendence inevitably gives to His own existence and activity, to human existence, and to all truth. Transcendent meaning is high-level meaning, meaning that requires for its expression the use of superlatives.

Biblical theology must be based on the Scriptures and reflect the full biblical message, which may be said to include four central themes: (a) the existence, nature, and activity of God; (b) the nature and destiny of human beings; (c) the origin, nature, and consequences of sin, human sinfulness; and (d) the plan of redemption.

Ellen White's theology: General characteristics

An important characteristic of Ellen White's theology is its purely scriptural basis. She recognized the Bible as the only rule of faith and was loyal to it without compromise. At its heart, her theology is purely biblical.

Second, her theology is comprehensive. None of the divisions of theology--soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.--that theologians recognize escaped her attention. For all of these areas, and for the four central themes of the Bible, she provided detailed exposition.

Third, she perceived the transcendent meaning of the Scriptures and gave to this meaning comprehensive exposition. Her loyalty to the Bible rendered its transcendent themes accessible to her, and her theology stands on a high conceptual level. Her understanding of this meaning is illustrated below.

Fourth, her theology is dynamic, as will be also be illustrated.

Fifth, her theology is basically positive. She accepted the biblical concept that human beings are radically and universally affected by sin but she did not overemphasize it. She was more interested in positive elements, such as the love of God and His ideal for human beings.

Sixth, because of her consistent emphasis on love God's love for human beings and love as an ethical human ob ligation her theology is humane and sensitive. In writing about the love and compassion of God, she repeatedly used the language of human affection and endearment. She understood, however, that the love of God was far more extensive and impressive than human love. She believed that God is deeply sensitive to the needs of every human being and deeply touched with the feelings of human grief and helplessness.

Last, she recognized the need for a balance between theoretical theology and practical theology. She accorded detailed attention to both of these so that there is no shortage of either practical or theoretical theology in her writings. In an important statement regarding this balance, she advised her fellow believers who had been concentrating "mostly upon the prophecies and the theoretical points of our faith" to become acquainted "without delay" with "lessons of practical godliness." 1

Ellen White and the four themes of Scripture

1. Mrs. White's concept of a transcendent God can be illustrated by her use of the phrase "an infinity beyond" and similar expressions. In writing about God's knowledge and wisdom, she stated that "There is infinity beyond all that we can comprehend. We have seen only the glimmering of divine glory and of the infinitude of knowledge and wisdom.. ."2 No one, she said, "can fully comprehend the existence, the power, the wisdom, or the works" of God. Human beings may be "ever searching, ever learning, and still there is infinity beyond."3

An important dimension of her theology was her emphasis on God's love. She believed that theology is "valueless" unless "saturated with the love of Christ."4 She described God's love as "unfathomable, indescribable, without a parallel ""beyond any human computation." 5 The human soul, she said, "was purchased at an infinite cost, and is loved with a devotion that is unalterable."6

The dynamic element in her theology of God is illustrated by her belief that God is continuously active: "constantly at work for the good of his creatures," "perpetually at work in nature." 7

2. Her views on the nature and destiny of human beings were positive and dynamic. She believed that they were of unlimited value to God, stating that, formed in the image of God, they were "very dear" to Him.8

She believed human potential for growth and achievement to be virtually unlimited. She said, for example, that if youth would "take the Bible as their guide, and stand like a rock for principle," they could "aspire to any height of attainment"; and that, beyond the reach of their most expansive aspirations, there would "always be an infinity" of achievement.9 She maintained that the destiny for which human beings were divinely intended was indeed glorious. Included in this destiny were "the wondrous glories" of immortality, imperishable honors and "glory, riches, and honor" of "infinite value." 10 The re deemed, she said, are divinely intended for an endless advance in knowledge and holiness, an "ever increasing" capacity to know, enjoy, and love, and the enduring conviction that there is still beyond "joy and love and wisdom infinite." 11

The dynamic element in her theology of humanity is illustrated by statements about human growth and activity and the divine ideal for human beings. God, she said, "works continuously" for human beings and requires them to "work continually" for Him. They "should never rest from doing good," 12 Christians, she said, must experience "constant growth," "constant progress in the divine life," and "continual striving and constant progress" toward "perfection of character." 13

3. Ellen White's theology of sin is discussed here in terms of the disintegrative effects of sin on human beings and her nonpermissive attitude toward sin.

She believed in the diminishing, demeaning effect of sin on human beings: "Through sin, the whole human organism is deranged, the mind is perverted, the imagination corrupted," and "the faculties of the soul" "degraded." 14

Mrs. White understood that, although God was love, in His holiness, He could not tolerate sin. She herself offered no permissiveness of sin what ever: sin of any kind, sin to any degree. The Scriptures take a hard line against sin. So, also, did Ellen White.

4. Redemption was recognized by Ellen White to be the primary element in the meaning of the Cross; redemption rescuing the human being from the guilt and power of sin. But there were other components of meaning in her view of redemption:

She believed that the death of Christ on the cross provided a powerful affirmation of human beings in that it demonstrated incontrovertibly the love of God for them and their value to Him. We can understand these issues far better with reference to the heavy risk inherent in the Incarnation, a risk that Ellen White herself recognized: "Remember that Christ risked all. For our redemption heaven itself was imperiled [sic]." 15 "Could Satan in the least particular have tempted Christ to sin... the hope of the human race would have perished. Divine wrath would have come upon Christ as it came upon Adam. Christ and the church would have been without hope."16

It is clear that, by taking on human nature, Jesus accepted this colossal risk. By accepting this risk He affirmed to human beings the crucial importance of their existence to God, their value to Him, and His love for them. In going to the cross for them He reinforced this affirmation. In commenting on John 3:16, Mrs. White declared that "Thus he [God] showed to the heavenly universe and to the fallen world the value he placed on man." 17

There was also, for Ellen White, a cosmic dimension in the meaning of the Cross. The eternal existence of morally free beings means that, objectively considered, sin is always a possibility. One of the objectives in the great controversy, however, is to guarantee that evil, once eradicated from earth, will never rise again anywhere in the universe.

Ellen White believed that the plan of redemption would culminate in the second coming of Jesus, the bestowal of immortality and eternal life on the saints, the elimination of sin and the impenitent, and the transformation of this world into a Paradise, in which the realization of God's exalted ideal for human beings would be carried forward eternally without interruption.

Conclusion

I am convinced that Ellen White's theology satisfies the most essential characteristics of the best in a long line of theological tradition. Again, she has given us a theology that (1) is purely biblical and comprehensive, (2) recognizes the transcendent meaning of divine truth, (3) shows a balance be tween positive and negative, between theoretical and practical—with heavier emphasis on the positive and practical, and (4) is humane and dynamic.

Surely, had she published a systematic formulation of her theological views, her high standing as a theologian would be acknowledged. I am convinced that, either she was all that she claimed to be or her theological thought must be regarded as one of the most impressive achievements of the human spirit.

1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1948), 3:214.

2. ————, Christ's Object Lessons (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1941), 113.

3. ————, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1958), 116.

4. ————, "Principles of Service" in Signs of the Times, May 10,1910.

5. ————, "Our High Calling." Review and Herald, February 28, 1888; "Christian Benevolence," no. 1, Review and Herald, January 4, 1898.

6. ————, "Pray Without Ceasing." Review and Herald, October 30, 1900.

7. ————, "A Time of Trouble." Review and Herald, September 17, 1901; "God in Nature." General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 18, 1897.

8. ————, "Go Ye Into All the World." Review and Herald, June 18,1895.

9. ————, "The Fruits of Faith." Signs of the Times, March 4, 1889.

10. ————, Spirit of Prophecy (Hagerstown, iMd.: Re view and Herald Pub. Assn., 1969), 2:97; Testimonies for the Church,2:46,40.

11. ————, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1943), 55.

12. ————, "The New Year." Review and Herald, January 4,1881; The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1940), 207.

13. ————, Selected Messages (Hagerstown, Md.: Re view and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958-1980), 2:222; Testimonies for the Church, 8:64.

14. ————, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1942), 451.

15. ————, Christ's Object Lessons, 196.

16. ————, Selected Messages, 1:256.

17. ————, "Sacrificed for Us." Youth's Instructor, July 20, 1899.

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Walter M. Booth, Ph.D., is retired and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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