Book Review: More than a Prophet

Truth is progressive. This idea is foundational to Adventist epistemology, and ultimately, for a theology of spiritual gifts. More Than a Prophet builds on this concept by arguing that the Adventist denomination needs to grow in its understanding of Ellen White's prophetic life and ministry.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in western Colorado.

Truth is progressive. This idea is foundational to Adventist epistemology, and ultimately, for a theology of spiritual gifts. More Than a Prophet builds on this concept by arguing that the Adventist denomination needs to grow in its understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic life and ministry. The church needs to face up to the real Ellen White. More Than a Prophet is also the third installment by the author since 2004 to help Adventists obtain a clearer understanding of Ellen White and inspiration. Bradford is a recently retired professor of practics. This third book is much broader than either of his two previous books, Prophets Are Human (2004) and People Are Human (2005), in which a fictional dialogue is set up to answer questions that an Adventist couple face—especially those questions raised because of criticisms generated through negative Web sites.

One could have wished that the content of the book was more carefully edited. The publisher, at the very least, should have caught the numerous errors that abound throughout the book. For example, beginning with footnote 188 (p. 115) every footnote is off by one (there is no footnote 443 in the text). Despite this, once one gets past these problems, an even more foundational problem is the view of Ellen White and Adventist history that he presents.

If the church were to accept his view of inspiration and the role and authority of Ellen White, it would certainly mark a real shift in the stance of the church toward her prophetic ministry. It is for this reason and several more that the Ellen White Estate has issued a disclaimer that it does not endorse the book, despite the foreword’s mistaken claim that the manuscript was favorably reviewed by White Estate officers. Other church leaders who had initially endorsed his two earlier books now seem to be distancing themselves from this volume.

So why is the book controversial? The answer lies in his understanding of the relationship between Christianity and culture. These paradigms, which became popular in scholarly circles after the publication of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, Christ and Culture (1949), argue for five descriptive categories. These categories run within a continuum. On one side there is the view that Christ is against culture; on the other side is the view that Christ is of culture. Most of the church, Niebuhr suggested, rest somewhere in what he called “the church of the middle.”

While not explicitly stated, the relationship of Ellen White to her culture as presented by Bradford is one that is much closer to the “of” side of the continuum instead of being closer to the “church of the middle.” In developing his views of “culture,” Bradford places the 1919 Bible Conference at a critical juncture between the Ellen White of history and the Ellen White found in the church today. It was at this Conference, he maintains, that the real truth about Ellen White was hidden.

Although these transcripts were discovered in 1973 (thanks to inquiries made by Don Mansell), only a modest amount of study has been given to the transcripts.

Bradford argues that “progressives” like A. G. Daniells and W. W. Prescott, in fighting against traditionalists like J. S. Washburn and Claude Holmes who were advocating the verbal inspiration of the testimonies or Ellen White’s writings, were correct in pointing out historical errors in The Great Controversy and the entire process of how she prepared her books—they knew from firsthand experience that her writings were far from inerrant. Yet Bradford only examines the two discussions about inspiration that occurred at the end of the Conference and does not talk about earlier discussions that prefaced them. If he had, he would probably be uncomfortable with the verbal inspiration of the Bible that some of these “progressives” articulated. Ultimately, both the “progressives” and the “traditionalists” were impacted by the rising fundamentalist movement— especially as a way to combat the rise of modernism, which threatened the inspiration of Scripture. Many Adventists today would be uncomfortable with either position. Was the real truth about Ellen White covered up? Not in the way that Bradford presents it. The Adventist Church was at a pivotal moment in its history when it grappled with how it would face functioning without a living prophet. The fact of the matter is that the church was also confronted with a much broader shift in American culture that would have far-reaching implications for the continued development of Adventist theology. Instead, the 1919 Bible Conference polarized Adventist theology into two camps (in fact, it is the first time that the term liberals and conservatives are utilized in an Adventist meeting). These two camps would fragment and overlap through the rest of the twentieth century and continue to impact the church up to the present.

In conclusion, a central argument for Bradford is that “there has consistently been a group that has a more enlightened understanding of her role but they have not felt free to share what they know with the larger body of believers” (193). Bradford presumes that he is part of this progressive and therefore enlightened group. Unfortunately his view of inspiration and Adventist history that he presents is fatally fl awed. This book therefore does not contribute toward unearthing the real Ellen White and thus represents a step backward for the church in its progressive quest for truth.

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Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in western Colorado.

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