Developing truth and changing perspectives

An example from SDA history of how Seventh-day Adventists have related to theological change

Gilbert Valentine, Ph.D., is vice president for academic administration, Mission College, Muak Lek, Thailand.

How could a biblical teaching be true in one country and not in another? How could one Adventist book committee have approved a manuscript and published it as gospel truth, while at the same time another committee at headquarters rejected it because it contained "some fundamental errors"?

The year was 1895 and the issue so vital that it elicited some of Mrs. White's strongest warnings to the Church about how it should respond to new light and not adopt the ways of the papacy.

This fascinating, little-known episode throws light on the way Mrs. White's prophetic ministry guided the Church in its quest for truth. It also provides a helpful historical context in which to understand some of Mrs. White's bold statements about the Church's need to adhere to the principle of the Bible being the only rule of doctrine, and at the same time for the Church to be open to the dynamic leading of the Spirit of truth.

A major issue for major men at a major meeting

The background to the story is the famous 1888 General Conference. Prior to the session there had been quiet stirring behind the scenes about how the Church should interpret the reference to "the law" in Galatians 3:24 and its context.

Finally, at the session itself, the debate broke out into the open. Leaders on one side of the dispute were respected and long-time Review editor, Uriah Smith, and the General Conference president, George I. Butler. These leaders and their colleagues argued that "the law" in Galatians 3 referred to the shadowy laws and ceremonial regulations concerning the tabernacle, all of which pointed to Christ. They held that when Messiah came these laws were no longer needed, having been fulfilled in Christ. But, they contended, the moral law, the Decalogue with the Sabbath at its heart was still a duty for the Christian.

This interpretation had become a major pillar in their whole apologetic for the seventh-day Sabbath. In their view, then, it was a vitally important passage, as was the way they interpreted it.

On the other side were two young ministers, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, who said that Galatians 3:24 included the law of the Ten Commandments, which, like a school master, led us to Christ.

The Jones and Waggoner interpretation was not new. It had been suggested 20 years before. In 1856 two senior Church leaders, James White and J. H. Waggoner (the father of E. J. Waggoner) had disagreed over the same issue.

J. H. Waggoner had written a book, saying that what Paul was referring to in Galatians 3:24 was the moral law. When the senior Waggoner refused to change that position, James White had the book taken out of circulation. On that occasion, Mrs. White had indicated that J. H. Waggoner's "moral law" interpretation was not correct.

By 1888 (with both James White and J. H. Waggoner dead), the issue had come up again, and the two young preachers at Minneapolis were suggesting that their interpretation showed the deep spirituality of the law and how it drew Christians to the cross of Christ for forgiveness. By 1888 it had become a moving piece of "present truth."

The difficulty of embracing new perspectives

The Minneapolis Conference, where the idea was debated between Smith, Butler, E. J. Waggoner, and Jones, demonstrated how difficult it sometimes is for the Church to embrace new understandings.

The spirit of opposition, prejudice, and suspicion greatly distressed Mrs. White. Some leaders even tried to have the General Conference adopt legislation that would prevent Waggoner and Jones from teaching their interpretation in public or in the Church's college in Battle Creek.

Mrs. White, who had been a part of the 1856 debate, was prepared to adjust her thinking if she could be persuaded from Scripture. Horrified by the attitudes of opposition and resistance, she urged the Church to be more open. As part of this urging, she said an important thing: "That which God gives his servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth 20 years ago but it is God's message for this time." 1

One church leader, for whom the new scriptural insight made the gospel much clearer, was Professor W. W. Prescott. He was the president of Battle Creek College and Education Secretary for the General Conference. He responded to Mrs. White's appeals for openness. His study led him to see bright new vistas of the grace of Christ, permeating the whole structure of Adventist teaching. He became a powerful preacher of righteousness by faith.

Not long after Minneapolis, Mrs. White was asked to go to Australia to help establish the work there. Four years into her Australia tenure, in 1895, the White family requested that Professor Prescott visit Australia to help with the establishment of the new college at Avondale.

A short time after his arrival he was invited to be the chief guest speaker at an evangelistic camp meeting in Melbourne. His preaching was powerful and stirred the congregation. His dignified presentations also drew the better classes of society. Mrs. White was spiritually blessed by the beautiful new way he presented old Adventist truths in a powerful, Christ-centered gospel context. Prescott preaches, she reported, like someone "inspired."2

One of the Professor's most effective sermons was "The Law in Christ," which taught the Sabbath truth but also expounded on the spirituality of the law and how it points us to Jesus. His theme was based on the new interpretation of Galatians 3:24. Mrs. White and other Church leaders such as A. G. Daniells and W. C. White were excited by this new emphasis on Christ. "It was," said W. C. White, "like a breath of fresh air."3

Some of the Australian leaders suggested that Prescott's material be made into a tract and circulated. Prescott did this, and the Book Committee of the Church publishing house at Warburton approved the manuscript and published it.

Some disputes die hard

Prescott, thinking that the tract might also be helpful in America, sent the manuscript off to the Review and Herald. But two months later he received a surprising reply. The Book Committee at world headquarters would not publish the manuscript because, they said, it contained "some fundamental errors."4

Amused, he said the situation was "a trifle peculiar." How can a tract be orthodox in Melbourne but not in Battle Creek? He related how the manuscript had been through the proper processes and how well it had been received by Mrs. White and others.5

When Mrs. White heard of this episode, she wrote one of her sharpest testimonies to the General Conference.6 She lamented that apparent ly the old Minneapolis spirit of opposition was still alive almost a decade later. It seemed, she reflected, that the Book Committee in Battle Creek was actually treading "the paths of Rome."

She wrote, "When Professor Prescott's matter was condemned and refused publication, I said to myself, this committee needs the converting power of God. ... It is not for these men to condemn or control the productions of those whom God is using as his light bearers to the World." Mrs. White advised the committee to read an article recently published in the Bible Echo on the infallibility of the pope and to be warned by it.7

"I have not confidence in your book committee," she wrote to Elder Olsen, then the General Conference president. "The plans to obtain control of human minds and ability are as strange fire which is an offense to God."8

Comparisons with New Testament situations

A few months later, in May 1896, Prescott was due to leave Australia and return to the General Conference. His itinerary called for him to sail via South Africa where he would visit with Elder S. N. Haskell, a longtime minister whom Mrs. White held in high esteem and for whom she held some affection. But she knew that he sometimes found it difficult to move with the times and that he might be suspicious of Prescott.

Sensing the possibility of such difficulties, she wrote a long covering letter to Elder Haskell, asking him to receive Prescott with openness, in much the way Paul had written in New Testament times to Onesimus in behalf of Philemon. Mrs. White did not want Haskell to react negatively to Prescott's themes the way some had in Battle Creek.

"We would gladly have retained Prescott in Australia," she wrote, "but it would have been selfish. We hope he will do the brethren much good in South Africa and that he will be received warmly. He has the truth in his heart as well as on his lips."9

Mrs. White added some strong counsel. "When the Holy Spirit works the human agent, it does not ask us in what way it shall operate. Often it moves in unexpected ways. . . . The Jews refused to receive Christ, because He did not come in accordance with their expectations. The ideas of finite men were held as infallible, because hoary with age."

Then, still stirred over the rejection of Prescott's manuscript by Uriah Smith and his colleagues, she added, "This is the danger to which the church is now exposed." Warming to her theme and thinking now of the harmful decisions that had been made in Battle Creek, she declared with confrontational prophetic authority, "We see here that the men in authority are not always to be obeyed, even though they may profess to be teachers of Bible doctrine. . . . The God of heaven sometime[s] commissions men to teach that which is regarded as contrary to the established doctrines." Not even a priest or ruler, she declared, has a "right to say you shall not give publicity to your views because I do not believe them."

Such revolutionary counsel does not always make things easy in the task of leading the church. And of course, Ellen White was not in any way advocating an abandonment of the Church's core teachings (although Editor Smith might have been inclined to think so). Neither was Mrs. White suggesting an abandonment of the principle that ministers with new insights and ideas should take counsel with their brethren and submit to the Church as guidance was being sought.

What might seem like a contradiction here is actually a typical creative tension where two critical principles needed to be held together.

What does this episode say?

What Ellen White was clearly suggesting on this occasion was that sometimes our understanding of Scripture and of truth is inadequate, not necessarily wrong. Perhaps it has been poorly expressed and therefore poorly understood. This is sometimes the case, even when it comes close to core gospel values and beliefs.

In the midst of our churchly disputations and debates over which doctrinal positions the Church should adopt (even when dealing with aspects of our distinctive teachings), it is helpful to study out what is the essential core or kernel of our faith, belief, or teaching; that which Mrs. White called the "vital" elements. This helps us to purge the Church of arguments over issues that are not in fact as ultimately important to our identity and mission as we think they may be, even as key men such as Uriah Smith and George Butler believed them to be.

Some points may be outer wrap ping only, or a shell that protects a core truth that becomes "vital" at a particular stage of the Church's development. For an expectant mother to explain to an enquiring sibling that a new baby is growing snugly in "mommy's tummy" is not wrong. As an explanation of the mystery of the beginnings of life, however, it may soon become quite inadequate when the sibling develops a fuller understanding of the anatomy of pregnancy. And who could deny the importance to the sibling of the arrival of a new brother or sister?

This basic principle helps us to understand how Mrs. White herself was able to grow in her theological understanding. Such was the situation in 1895 when the Church wrestled with itself over the meaning of "the law" in Galatians.

The kinds of distinctions Ellen White made at that time proved helpful in keeping the Church moving, not down the path toward Rome, but toward more light. An attitude of judicious openness was critical. Such an approach is important for us now, and in the future as more theological issues arise, and there is need for further development,

1 E. G. White, Manuscript 8a, 1888.

2 E. G. White to J. Edson White, Nov. 6, 1895; E. G. White to S. N. Haskell, Nov. 18, 1895.

3 W. C. White to O. A. Olsen, Oct. 24, 1895; W. C. White to A. G. Daniells, Dec. 13, 1895, W. C. White to A. T. Jones, Nov. 21, 1895.

4 General Conference Book Committee minutes, Nov. 13, 1895; W. W. Prescott to F. D. Starr, Jan. 16, 1896. The members of the book committee were U. Smith, G. C. Tenney, M. E. Kellogg, G. W. Caviness, J. Kolvord, F. M. Wilcox, and F. D. Starr. There is a
handwritten note on the manuscript in blue pencil in what appears to be Uriah Smith's handwriting alongside the reference to Galatians 3:24.

5 W. W. Prescott to F. D. Starr, Jan. 16, 1895.

6 E. G. White, Manuscript 148, 1898. (The date of 1898 is incorrect. External evidence indicates that the letter was actually written October 26, 1896.) See Gilbert M Valentine, "William Warren Prescott: Seventh-day Adventist Educator." Ph.D. Dissertation, 1982, Andrews University. Vol. 1:212, 213.

7 "Gladstone and the Papacy," Bible Echo, July 27, 1896, 225, 226.

8 E. G. White to O. A. Olsen, May 22, 1896.

9 E. G. White to S. N. Haskell. The letter minus its first four pages and its last page is published as "Danger of Rejecting Truth" in Testimonies to Ministers, 63-77.



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Gilbert Valentine, Ph.D., is vice president for academic administration, Mission College, Muak Lek, Thailand.

April 2003

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