Ellen G. White: Prophetic voice for the last days

An exposition of the Seventh-day Adventist belief in the "Spirit of Prophecy" and its manifestations in the ministry of Ellen G. White.

Alberto R. Timm, PhD,is rector of the Latin-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Brasília, DF, Brazil.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #17: "One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen C. White. As the Lord's messenger, her writ ings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested (Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10)."

Christianity had its roots in the testimony of Old Testament prophets (John 5:39), the teachings of Jesus, and the doctrine of the apostles (Acts 2:42). But after the apostolic era the Christian church lost much of its commitment to the prophetic apostolic message and began to incorporate the non-biblical components of the surrounding cultures. The original trust in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5, NKJV) was replaced over time by the acceptance of many lords, many faiths, and several modes of baptisms. Christianity has become so divided in its teachings and fellowship that a recent study has identified 34,000 different "Christian denominations" in the world.1

Many claim that ecumenical trends will eventually achieve a common liturgical fellowship of all Christians (cf. Acts 2:41 -47). But others argue that a mere liturgical fellowship should never be used to replace the actual need of a deeper restoration of Bible teachings of the apostolic Christianity.2

Seventh-day Adventists believe not only that such a biblical restoration has to take place in modern times but also that it actually began around 1844, at the end of the prophetic time period of the 2,300 evenings and mornings of the prophecy of Daniel 8:9-14. The end-time restoration of biblical truth was seen to be fostered by the preaching of the three angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-12 and by a modern manifestation of the prophetic gift in the life and work of Ellen G. White.

Biblical foundation

Over the years, Seventh-day Adventists have used several biblical arguments in support of prophetic guidance within their own movement. One of those is based on Amos 3:7, which states, "surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets" (NIV).

Those words are seen as providing an insightful glimpse into God's relationship with this world in some of its most crucial moments. God has provided special prophetic assistance throughout history, especially when major struggles between truth and error have occurred, and when truth needed to be restored.

The Bible is full of examples of this kind of divine intervention. Here are just a few that God initiated for specific, representative reasons:

1. When the world was to be destroyed by the Flood, God called Noah as a prophet and "preacher of righteousness" (Gen. 6-8; 2 Peter 2:5);

2. When God intended to liberate the Israelites from Egypt, He chose Moses as a prophet and leader (Exod. 3-4; Hosea 12:13).

3. When God's people turned away from Him by involving themselves with idolatry, He sent several prophets to warn them (2 Chron. 36:15, 16).

4. When the time had come for Christ to begin His ministry on earth, God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of Christ (Matt. 3).

One author suggests that the main characteristics of all four of these crises are showing up simultaneously in the time of the end:

1. As in the days of Noah, the world is ripe for destruction.

2. As in the case of the Exodus from Egypt, God's people will be rescued from an oppressive environment to a better place, even the heavenly Canaan.

3. As in the days of the biblical prophets, the world today is involved with many false systems of worship.

4. As in the days of John the Baptist, Christ is coming soon to His people.3

If in each of those specific crises the truth was restored by the special assistance of the prophetic gift, why should we not expect such an assistance when the final and broadest restoration of truth is taking place as we near the end of time (Dan. 8:9-14; Rev. 14:6-12)?

Seventh-day Adventists have used three additional arguments from the New Testament to uphold their modern prophetic guidance.

The first is the fact that the gift of prophecy is mentioned in all of the major New Testament lists of the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10, 28; Eph. 4:11). These gifts have been distributed by the Holy Spirit "for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-14)

This means that, as long as the church does not achieve "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ," the need and the possibility for those gifts (including the gift of prophecy) to be given to the Christian community still remains.

Another argument is the biblical warning that believers should not reject any specific manifestation of the gift of prophecy without a convincing reason to do so (1 Thess. 5:19-21). If the genuine gift of prophecy was not to be given after the apostolic age, why would such a warning be necessary? Instead John deliberately warns his readers, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). Why should we "try" the prophets if no true prophet was ever to appear after the apostolic age?

A third argument in favor of a modern prophetic guidance is based on those eschatological passages that promise a genuine prophetic manifestation before the second coming of Christ. For instance, Joel 2:28-31 says that "before the great and the terrible day of the Lord" many people would actually "prophesy," "dream dreams," and "see visions." Although this prophecy had a partial fulfillment in the upper room at the first Pentecost after Jesus' crucifixion (Acts 2:16-21), its fulfillment is related also to the same eschatological signs in the sun and moon described in Matthew 24:29-31 and Luke 21:25-28.

Finally, Revelation 12:17 refers to "the testimony of Jesus Christ" as one of the major characteristics of the end time remnant church. This testimony, identified in Revelation 19:10 as the spirit of prophecy, has been understood by Seventh-day Adventists as having a plain fulfillment in Ellen White's prophetic ministry.

Contemporary relevance

Some have asked, "Since we have the Bible, why do we need additional revelation in the writings of Ellen White?" If contemporary Christianity manifested itself as a homogeneous whole, all its followers interpreting the Bible in much the same way, there would be more reason to doubt the necessity of such an additional revelation. But the fact of the matter is that Christianity has become more divided today in its interpretation of the Bible than ever before.

In this context, T. H. Jemison notes that Cod provided a new manifestation of the prophetic gift "to serve three basic purposes: (1) to direct attention to the Bible, (2) to aid in understanding the Bible, and (3) to help in applying Bible principles in our lives."4

With so many Bibles circulating in the world today, why do we need to have our attention called to that book? Such a need is due to the fact that most of those who possess the Bible do not give to it the attention it deserves.

Today, millions of people are completely absorbed, perhaps obsessed, by a host of other preoccupations, which seem to grow in number and influence with every passing day. In such an absorbing world we need to be re minded constantly of the great themes of the Bible and of our existential priorities (see Matt. 6:33). A new manifestation of the gift of prophecy has been given us to direct our attention back to the Bible.

If the Bible is its own interpreter, why do we need additional "aid in under standing the Bible"? This specific need derives from the fact that Christianity is divided today into many conflicting schools of biblical interpretation, each of them claiming hermeneutical faithfulness to the Scriptures. God gave us a modern manifestation of the gift of prophecy through the writings of Ellen White to help us break away from the human traditions that conspire against the Word of God (see Matt. 15:6-9).

Those writings are a divine prophetic filter that helps us to remove all the human rubble that tradition has artificially imposed on the Bible, so that the divine message of the Scriptures can flow pure and clean into our hearts.

Why do we need a further, special "help in applying Bible principles in our lives"? Because many people today are willing to accept Christ as Savior but not as Lord. They study God's Word but do not fully obey its message. A modern manifestation of the Spirit of prophecy was given to help us bridge the existential gap between professing religion and living it in practice (see Matt. 5:13-16).

Oswald Chambers has said, "The golden rule for understanding spiritually is not intellect, but obedience. If a man wants scientific knowledge, intellectual curiosity is his guide; but if he wants insight into what Jesus Christ teaches, he can only get it by obedience."5

Hermeneutical challenges

There has always been a strong human tendency to reject, or at least to disregard, those prophetic messages that speak directly to one's own problems (see 2 Chron. 36:14-16; Matt. 23:29, 30, 34). Those who do not over come this tendency might end up developing the unbalanced approach of emphasizing those topics that seem to be more attractive and overlooking those they do not like very much. Seventh-day Adventists have also faced other major hermeneutical challenges in interpreting the writings of Ellen White.6

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some Seventh-day Adventists began to foster a revisionist, historical-critical rereading of Ellen White's prophetic work and writing. Downplaying the evi dence of supernatural, divine intervention in the life and work of Mrs. White, her ministry was explained almost exclusively in terms of a natural perspective. The nature of her visions and the content of her messages were accounted for almost exclusively on the basis of historical, psychological, cultural, and ecclesiological phenomena.

Ellen White's visions were perceived just as psychological trances, and the messages that went beyond her com mon knowledge were considered merely as the result of either plagiarism or her own creative imagination. Consequently, Ellen White's writings were understood as historically conditioned by the "more primitive" cultural milieu in which she lived, without much relevance to our "enlightened" generation.

As a reaction to this, in the 1980s a radical restorationism began to grow within Seventh-day Adventism. Enamored by a narrow view of the spiritual approach of nineteenth-century Adventism, some tended to read the writings of early Adventist authors, assuming that if all their teachings were not explicitly condemned by Ellen White in her own writings, they were fully endorsed by her.

The next step was to look for endorsements of those teachings by means of selective and one-sided rereadings of her writings. Strange as it might sound, this is exactly the hermeneutical rationale some use today to prove, for example, that Ellen White was as much an anti-trinitarian as some of her fellow believers.

In the pre-internet world, issues related to Ellen White and her prophetic ministry had a limited circulation within Seventh-day Adventism. But since the late 1990s a serious globalization of both criticisms to Ellen White and distorted interpretations of her writings is taking place.

Today, almost all the issues of the past and present are simultaneously available at the homes and offices of all those who have access to the World Wide Web. Such a massive spectrum of criticisms of Ellen White, along with the myriad distorted interpretations of her writings, are targeting the church at a time when many new (and defenseless) converts are joining the denomination without enough knowledge to respond to those challenges.

Understanding the message

In this milieu people easily become preoccupied with the mechanics of Ellen White's inspiration and with the technicalities behind her writings. Useful and necessary as is such knowledge, it is only so to the extent in which it helps to strengthen faith in the broader scope of the biblical message. It is regrettable that some become more concerned with issues related to Mrs. White's writings than with the actual message carried by the same writings.

Those who succeed in moving beyond the technical level into the broader thematic spectrum of her mes sage will find an extremely rich field for faith-uplifting research. A person can also benefit from previous studies trying to identify the major themes of those writings.7

But following are a few more principles that may be helpful when studying the messages found in the writings of Mrs. White.

Those who believe Ellen White was divinely inspired have no difficulty or problem recognizing the overall harmony and inner consistency of her work. Some might feel uneasy about the fact that Mrs. White herself did not systematize each of her major themes. But it is precisely this nonsystematic approach that challenges our thoughts and instigates a research process that can significantly enrich our understanding of the truth that is in her writing.

When we study the work of Ellen White, we can easily see that she refers to several principles or realities as centers8 and foundations9 of our faith. Such entities are not in contradiction to one another, but they rather complement each other within the whole integrated exposition of truth.

Richard M. Davidson called my attention to the possibility that in Ellen White we have a "concentric concept of truth" similar to the various layers of an onion cut in two parts. Some of the layers can be narrower and some wider, but all of them are closely related to one another in a concentric way. Likewise, the concept of "foundation" in our faith can be seen from a narrower or wider inclusive perspective.

To grasp the richness of Ellen White's message, we have to avoid the temptation of choosing just one of those thematic centers or foundations and assuming, reductively, that such a theme can stand for or in the place of all the others. In studying her work, we have actually to think in the integrative way she did while, for instance, she was exposing her understanding of the plan of salvation within the framework of the great cosmic controversy between God and Satan.10

Ellen White's message indeed comprises a harmonious constellation of Christ-centered truths. All her writings testify that "Christ, His character and work, is the center and circumference of all truth. He is the chain upon which the jewels of doctrine are linked. In Him is found the complete system of truth."11

Conclusion

Seventh-day Adventists believe there is enough biblical evidence for a modern non-canonical manifestation of the gift of prophecy. When modern criticism began to undermine the trustworthiness of Scripture, Cod chose Ellen G. White as a special prophetic voice to uplift the normative authority of His Word. The rationalistic approach of modernism is being replaced by the subjectivistic emphasis of postmodernism, but the interpretation of the Bible continues to be undermined. Perhaps Christianity has never been so close to the point of losing its biblical identity as in our days.

Along with King Jehoshaphat of long ago, today many are asking, "Is there not here a prophet of the Lord besides, that we might inquire of him?" (1 Kings 22:7).

Time has come for Seventh-day Adventists to let the world know that there is still a prophetic voice that can lead us back to the unsullied message of Scripture. After all, our spiritual house will last only if we build it on the im movable Word of God (Isa. 40:8; Matt. 7:24-27)

1 David B Barrett ct al, World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religion in the Modern World, 2nd ed. (Oxford Oxford University Press, 2001), 1 vi.

2. A helpful historical overview of the restorationist concept in North America is provided in Richard T. Hughes and C Leonard Alien, Illusions afInnocence. Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875 (Chicago-University of Chicago Press, 1988).

3 Valdear S Lima, "Necessitaroos de urn Profeta Hoje?" Revista Actventnta (Brazil), December 2000, 8, 9

4 T, Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press®, 1955), 371

5 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (Westwood,NJ.:Barbour, 1963), 151.

6 See Alberto R. Timm, "Issues on Ellen G. White and Her Role in the Seventh-day Adventist Church," rev June 7, 2002 (Lecture originally presented at the General Conference Field Conference in Theology, Greece and Turkey, April 29-May 7, 2002, and at the First International Conference on Ellen G White and Adventist History, Battle Creek, Mich , May 15-19, 2002)

7 See, for instance, George R. Knight, Meeting Ellen White A Fresh Look at Her life, Writings, and Major Themes (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1996), 109-127, Alberto R Timm, "Ellen G. White Side Issues or Central Message," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 7 (Autumn 1996}: 168-179; Douglais, 256-267; Walter M Booth, "Ellen White Theologian?" Ministry, October 2000, 5-7

8 Ellen White qualifies as "center" of our message such entities as God (Testimonies for the Church, 6 236), Christ (Coumeh to Teachers, 453), the Word of God (Sign, of the Times, October 10, 1895, 4), the third angel's mes
sage (Manuscript Releases, 14:55), the heavenly sanctuary (The Great Controversy, 488), God's throne (Signs of the Times, August 13, 1902, 2), the atonement of Christ (Evangelism, 223), and the cross of Calvary (Seventh-day
Adventist Bible Commentary, 4 1173)

9 Ellen White applies the expression "foundation" of our faith, for example, to God (Tim Day with God, 183), Christ (Tiie Desire of Ages, 599), God's Word (Counsels to Teachm, 374), the prophetic word (Evangelism, 196), the heav
enly sanctuary (Manuscript Releases, 4 248), Christ's atoning work (The Great Controversy, 73), and the seventh-day Sabbath (That I May Know Him, 357).

10 -See E. G While, Education (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press®, 1952), 190

11 White, Our High Calling (Washington, DC.: Review and Herald, 1961), 16


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Alberto R. Timm, PhD,is rector of the Latin-American Adventist Theological Seminary, Brasília, DF, Brazil.

February 2004

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