Ellen White, inerrancy, and interpretation

Honest and keen insights into a challenging and controversial issue.

Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

Seventh-day Adventists have been profoundly shaped by the prophetic thrust of the biblical writers. We are not only steeped in apocalyptic prophecy, that is the "foretelling" messengers, but have also been shaped by the classical prophetic tradition, that is the "forth-telling" prophets.

Elements of both these prophetic types were also manifest in the long and productive ministry of Ellen White. Key questions con fronting Adventism today concern the role of Ellen White and whether we understand and correctly interpret the nineteenth-century prophetic messages, and if we do, how we will view or treat these messages. Does Mrs. White's ministry, embodied in her writings, measure up to biblical tests of a prophet who communicated "the testimony of Jesus Christ"? Does she truly communicate the truth about Jesus and His Word?

A ministry in crisis

Ellen White and her ministry do not seem to find ready acceptance in some contemporary Adventist quarters. The crisis involves not only direct attacks but a subtle neglect. Three reasons account for this trauma:

1. Her practical, deeply theological/spiritual understanding of the centrality of Jesus in the "great controversy" has been swallowed up by preoccupation with peripheral minutiae. Ellen White as an influential force will continue to recede unless the Christo-centric core of her ministry is recovered and given the emphasis it so deserves.

2. Her devoted "true believers" have not only majored in the marginal but have also tended to make her appear extreme by arbitrary and forced selections from her writings; usually with the most negative connotations being accentuated.

3. Many have tried to claim too much for her in an attempt to secure the authoritative reliability of the prophetic message and have thus taken the focus off the central purpose of her ministry.

Such overwrought claims have featured a misplaced demand for some sort of fundamentalistic "inerrancy" which usually majors in minor factors of "cheap truth" and numerous unproved assumptions. The term, "cheap truth" is used here to refer to such issues as absolute textual, historical, and scientific accuracy. This type of thinking asks questions that are alien to the prophet's concerns. Thus, in a sincere attempt to save her prophetic authority, many have gotten their vision of the "visions" severely out of focus.

This article will analyze these key factors, in an attempt to lay out a corrective, interpretive protocol for the writings of Ellen White.

Interpretation and the core message of Ellen White

As noted already, the central focus of Ellen White's ministry is Jesus: His profound role as the key agent of the Godhead in restoring sinners to God and into a deeply satisfying and living relationship with Him. In other words, any correct interpretation of Ellen White must begin with the foundational question: Is the central burden of her multifaceted ministry Jesus the Savior and Lord of our lives and the Church? Does she truly manifest the "spirit of prophecy" that consistently testifies of Jesus (Rev. 12:17 and 19:10)?

To find an answer to this question, we may look at five of her more prominent books: The Desire of Ages; Steps to Christ; Christ's Object Lessons; Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing; and The Great Controversy.

If one can walk away from reading these books declaring that they have not (1) been drawn closer to Christ, (2) been drawn to Scripture, (3) been inspired to Christian service and moral rectitude, and (4) received a deepened sense of dependence on God, then there is nothing much we need further to say about Ellen White and her prophetic ministry.

Such a conclusion might seem extreme. The truth is that if her writ ing does not have these effects that is, if the loving Lordship of Jesus Christ is not seen to be centrally mediated through her work, and if there is no resonance with a Christ-centered foundation, the mature Christian reader is then unprepared to profit from the prophet and to go on to the next interpretive steps.1

Steps toward interpretation

1. The broad picture. The next step in interpreting Ellen White is to view a particular issue she takes up in the context of the broad picture and principles that she has developed. In other words, if you are going to deal with Ellen White's teaching on milk and eggs, don't start with milk and eggs. Rather, it is important to first under stand the broader principles of health (physical, mental, and spiritual) and diet, and then come back to how milk and eggs fit into that wider context. This approach prevents us from misinterpreting or taking an inaccurate stand on the matter of milk or egg consumption. In this context, one may begin with Ministry of Healing and Counsels on Health before taking on the more context-specific compilation, Counsels on Diets and Foods.

2. Gather appropriate information. The next step is to try and get all the key statements, or "testimonies," on any particular subject under consideration.2 When this is done, the balance and perspective of Ellen White emerges with marked clarity.

For instance, I have devoted a significant amount of my scholarly effort on Ellen White's understanding of salvation and perfection. Studying a broad spectrum of the documents on perfection led me to discover what Ellen White was really saying when she wrote about perfection: a dynamic growth in grace and coming to the place where believers become so responsive to God's redemptive lead ing that they would rather die than knowingly go against His clearly expressed will. Such an experience indicates that they are so much in love with Jesus Christ that they no longer indulge in known, willful transgression of His will.

This is certainly a very different picture from the discouraging vision of sinless "perfectionism" that has so often been portrayed as Ellen White's position. This will not automatically solve the meaning of every single statement that she wrote on this subject, but it certainly depicts the main outlines of her practical teaching on justification (forgiving grace), sanctification (transforming grace), and perfection (victory over inherited and cultivated tendencies to sin). Clarity, when it comes to the main features or issues in Mrs. White's salvation theology can save us from the deep ditches of cheap grace on the left and pharisaic legalism on the right. This, of course, is also true of other issues.

"Problematic" statements?

Along with the emerging patterns and themes of central importance, there will usually be "problematic" statements that don't seem to fit; these statements need to be pondered carefully. More detailed exegesis is needed, and this involves a number of steps:

1. How are key words used in various literary contexts? Look at the key words in the statement and make sure how the writer uses them in the context of the subject being investigated.

2. Ascertain the social, historical, political, and personal contexts. Often the study of a context might clarify what may at first sight seem puzzling or even contradictory.

3. Distinguish between the "ideal" and the "real." George Knight states that in our approach to a prophetic message, it would be well to discern between the "ideal" and how the prophet might be modifying the "ideal" in order to meet a practical situation that is less than "ideal," because of the demands of the "real."3 \

For example, Ellen White holds up the ideal of vegetarianism in her writings. There are, however, circumstances where the "reality" of the situation demands something less than the "ideal."

A. G. Daniells, a contemporary of White and the president of the General Conference, tells about visiting a very conscientious missionary in "Lapland" who was determined to maintain his vegetarian convictions. Daniells noticed the poor health of this worker and later reported that "he put the fear of the Lord in him that he must eat reindeer meat or else." Ellen White discourages the use of "drugs," but surely this does not apply to situations where "drugs" are necessary to combat malaria, especially in its final and extreme stages!4

4. Don't try to prove things the prophet is not proving. This final principle deals with the question of inerrancy and views of inspiration that suggest the dictation of words by God to the prophet. The false concepts normally conjured up by the idea of inerrancy in a prophet, usually produce two scenarios.

The first, inerrancy, usually majors in minors and side issues, rather than the central, shaping issues of the prophet. It feels the need to have every detail of what the prophet writes absolutely free of any error, including minor matters that have little to do with the ultimate calling and thrust of the prophet's ministry.

Second, when these kinds of unreal expectations are not met, there follows the threat, if not the reality, of a lost faith in the veracity and trust worthiness of the prophet and the prophet's message.

"Inerrancy," infallibility pitfall

"Inerrancy" is a concept assumed by many "fundamentalists" to suggest that the Bible has no errors of any type in it. Many earnest and sincere believers in Ellen White's inspiration hold, at least implicitly, the same position for her writings. This alleged lack of error involves not only doctrinal and spiritual matters, but also demands absolute inerrancy in the tangential scientific and historical scope of the prophet's writing.

Closely related to the concept of inerrancy is the idea of God's "verbal dictation" of God's message through the prophet. In this view, inerrancy is guaranteed because God is seen to dictate every word that makes up inspired and authoritative messages.

Are such claims realistic?

First, it is critical to categorically affirm all the doctrinal and spiritual reliability and authority of both the Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. To claim, however, that there are no errors of any kind is not only untenable, but, as alluded to above, is fraught with the prospect of disillusionment, that normally results from failed expectations.5

Ellen White's counsel stands valid: "All the mistakes [this appears to be a tacit affirmation of the fact that Ellen White knew there were "mistakes" in inspired writing] will not cause trouble to one soul, or cause any feet to stumble, that would not manufacture difficulties from the plainest revealed truth."6 In other words, if you can't accept the total veracity of inspired writing because you have noticed some irrelevant defect in an inspired piece of writing, most likely you will also have trouble with the "plainest revealed truths."

Certainly, if one wants to major in minor defects or errors, they can usu ally be found. But if one wants to major in the big picture which inspired writers have "painted" for us (human though they be), the path laid out by inspiration is sufficiently clear so that none need be lost on the pilgrimage to the eternal kingdom.

Second, it is important to identify the basic motivation of people who hold to verbal/dictation and inerrancy views. The argument is that if any part of the Bible or Ellen White is not total ly reliable, it would compromise the doctrinal, ethical and spiritual reliability of the whole. Thus, by implication, a compromise in the absolute inerrancy of a body of inspired writing, would entirely destroy the authority of inspired writings. Ironically, such an argument makes the authority of inspiration dependent on human intellect, judgment and recourse. It must therefore be rejected.

Third, what about the inerrancy claims for inspired writers which pertain to history and science?

No serious Adventist Christian would want to spend a lot of time emphasizing any supposed or real errors in the Scripture or Ellen White. But, assuming the possibility of historical and scientific error, what are the facts that can be clearly affirmed? Did God allow factual mistakes into the Bible and Ellen White's writings?

I would suggest that the best position for the believer in special revelation is to simply admit that we do not know all the facts, and that we do not currently have evidence to support all the statements of the Bible and Ellen White. While there is an abundance of evidence to demonstrate the predominant historical reliability of inspired writings, this evidence is only probable, rather than coercive in nature. Thus there is much that we cannot prove beyond the proverbial "shadow of doubt." This is where the need for faith is evident.

What about science? The inspired writings are not a treatise on science; neither are they anti-scientific. Inspired writers are not so much seeking to describe how the heavens work as to prescribe how believers may find their way to heaven. These writers speak in terms that are largely narrative, historical, poetic, dramatic, and so forth, rather than scientific and technical.

What seems to lurk behind the main presuppositions of the inerrancy advocates is the assumption that faith requires such total historical and scientific evidence that it would enable believers to prove absolutely every detail of the inspired writings to be true. This kind of thinking immediately raises the question: Should the believer's practical experience of faith have to depend on such improbable, detailed evidence? Is there not enough probable evidence to justify faith in the authority of God's prophetic messages?

Inerrancy versus a concern for the great truths

The issues that involve history and science could be addressed this way: Have you ever met a person who was saved from sin by finding out about Newton's law of gravity? Has the profession of belief in the historical fact of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln ever saved anybody? Such facts add to one's knowledge, but do they have saving efficacy? Is it not true that most of the facts of history deal with what could be characterized as "cheap truth" (see above)?

Is it not also true that the issues that inspiration concentrates on are matters involving more signif icant and "costly truths" such as confession of sin, the practice of moral commitment, holy covenant, the reception of grace, atonement, and the exercise of justice and mercy? These are matters that scientific enquiry and critical historical research simply do not, and in them selves cannot, deal with.

While the Bible and Ellen White deal with issues that are scientific and historical, their approach has much more to do with the theological meaning of science and history rather than establishing every fact and nuance of science and history. The worldview of God's prophets assumes that we live in an objective reality made by God, governed by divinely instituted natural laws that form the essential backdrop for any meaningful scientific research to take place.

The prophets view history as an objective, factual reality, rather than a myth. What is quite profoundly arresting about the messages of the prophets is not so much what the facts are, as what the moral and spiritual meaning is behind these facts.

God's inspired messengers are not primarily historians but rather "providential interpreters" of history. For them history is the setting for the "drama of the ages" in the conflict between good and evil. In the arena of the inspired interpretation of these facts, the expensive truths that shape the moral and spiritual dimensions of history reveal themselves.

All the facts of history and science cannot begin to compare with the biblical declaration that "God is love" and that in love He has created this world. There is nothing really anti-scientific or a-historical about the works of true prophets; they simply have a story line whose concerns transcend the questions which preoccupy research scientists, academic historians and antiquarians.

Inerrancy and the bottom line

Every truth that really matters concerns issues of probable faith, rather than what can be objectively, scientifically proved beyond the proverbial "shadow of a doubt." The rationalistic demands that lurk behind the assumptions of the inerrant fundamentalists seem quite trivial when compared with the great moral and spiritual issues the prophets of God seek to address.

While no one can scientifically prove the existence of human consciousness to a confirmed skeptic, most of us go on living by faith that the probability of self-conscious existence is a more trustworthy alternative than total skepticism. We are at a loss to define clearly why we love God or why He loves us, but we have good probable evidence that He does in fact profoundly love us.

It is this love that makes our lives meaningful and gives us the dignity of self-worth in a world that has nearly choked on the cheapness of historical enquiry and scientific demonstration.

Inerrant fundamentalism's misplaced focus

What is possibly most disturbing about the inerrantist, fundamentalist claims for inspiration are their misplaced focus: They spend so much time and energy seeking to establish the authority of the primary medium of special revelation that they can easily lose sight of its powerful message.

In other words, the ultimate key to the authority of the Bible and Ellen White is not the formal authority granted them by those who deem them sufficiently accurate and trust worthy, but the authority which lies in the power of their message. Theologians usually express this by distinguishing between the Bible's formal and its material authority.

The power of the message of the prophets is self-evidently the source of their authority. The Bible and Ellen White have self-authenticating claims to authority due to the transcendent power of their revealed message. The authoritative claims of the Scripture find their best vindication when struggling, frustrated sinners discover the self-evident sufficiency of its saving message.

In conclusion: Is it possible to grasp the meaning of inspiration? Of course it is. Will believers be able to satisfy every question that might come up? Of course not! Yet if one focuses on the big picture and judiciously employs the rules of interpretation, sufficient progress can be made so that serious interpreters will one day be able to sit down with the Author of all inspired writing and get the rest cleared up. Where is our focus going to be?

1 For more in-depth treatments of the principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) to be employed in reading Ellen White, see George Knight, Reading Ellen White (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1997) and Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1998), 372-465.

2 This process has become much easier today with the computer technology that the Ellen G. White Estate has developed for the study of Ellen White.

3 Knight, 90-94.

4 See Knight, 98, 99, for a tragic example of a sincere but misguided application of Ellen White's counsels on the use of "drugs."

5 Knight lists a number of such manifestations of prophetic fallibility, 105-118.

6 White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 19S8, 1980), 1:16.

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Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

December 2002

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