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Interpreting the writings of Ellen G. White

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Interpreting the writings of Ellen G. White

Gerhard Pfandl

Gerhard Pfandl, PhD, now retired, served as an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

 

As Seventh-day Adventists we believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Revelation12:17 and that God has graciously given this church the gift of prophecy as manifested in the life and work of Ellen White. Because we do not believe in degrees of inspiration, we have to recognize that her inspiration, though not her authority, is on the same level as the inspiration of the Old and New Testament prophets. Therefore, when using and interpreting her writings, we must apply the same principles of interpretation to them as we do to Scripture. Both are inspired literature; both, therefore, must be interpreted by the same principles.

The interpretations of biblical texts

Biblical texts can be understood and used in different ways. A preacher on Sabbath morning, like yourself, may explain what the biblical author wanted to say when he wrote the text, which, as you know, is called “exegesis.” However, a preacher often uses biblical language without regard to what the text originally meant. This would be called a homiletical use of Scripture. For example, in Mark 1:15 Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”1 The kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming at that time was the kingdom of grace, which He established at His first advent, but the language of the text can also be applied to our situation today.

All the time prophecies have been fulfilled, so a preacher may call upon his congregation to repent and believe in the gospel because “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom this time, however, is the kingdom of glory that Christ will inaugurate at His second coming, not the kingdom of grace. The first interpretation of Mark 1:15 is called exegesis, the second a homiletical use of the text.

Both uses are legitimate, but we must distinguish between them, and any teaching or doctrine of Scripture must be based on a careful exegesis of the text, not on a homiletical use of it.

Ellen White’s use of Scripture

Ellen White frequently used Scripturehomiletically.2 She was steeped in the language of the Bible, and whenever she spoke or wrote on a topic, she would use biblical language and biblical texts to convey the message she had received. For example, in the book The Great Controversy, Ellen White wrote, “Those who accept the teachings of God’s word will not be wholly ignorant concerning the heavenly abode. And yet, ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him,’ 1 Corinthians 2:9. Human language is inadequate to describe the reward of the righteous. It will be known only to those who behold it. No finite mind can comprehend the glory of the Paradise of God.”3

In this passage Ellen White applies 1 Corinthians 2:9 to the new earth. When we study the text in its context, however, we discover that Paul is not speaking about the new earth but about the Cross and salvation (vv. 1–8).Ellen White used the language of the text and applied it to the new earth because what the text says is also true of the new earth—no eye has seen and no ear has heard what God has prepared for his people.

Reading through the books of Ellen White, we discover many other examples where she uses the language of a biblical text or passage to express the message that God has given her for the church. The fact that she uses these texts does not mean that she is there by interpreting them, i.e., explaining what the biblical author meant to say. Understanding the difference becomes important when some people try to use her writings as the last word on the meaning of a particular text.

Interpreting the writings of Ellen G. White

Besides paying attention to how Ellen White used Scripture, we must also use care in interpreting and applying the things she wrote. Much controversy and misunderstanding in the church concerning her literary works could be avoided, if, in the inter­pretation of her writings, we always observe three guidelines:

1. Consider time and place. In 1897, Ellen White wrote an article for the Review and Herald entitled “The Bible in Our Schools,” in which she said, “There are times when Greek and Latin scholars are needed. Some must study these languages. This is well. But not all, and not many should study them.”4 A few years ago, a ministerial student in one of our colleges refused to take Greek on the basis of this quotation. Was he justified? What situation caused Ellen White to write these words?

Battle Creek College was founded in 1874. A few years later it offered bachelor degrees in arts and science. The curriculum, during the early decades, however, followed the classical educa­tion curriculum of the state colleges at that time. This meant bachelor of arts students had to study classical Latin and Greek for three years each. And what they read in these classes were Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Homer, and other pagan authors.5 Furthermore, except for the mission course, the courses offered did not include any Bible subjects. Thus in 1877–1878, the college had an enrollment of 413 students, but only 75 took a Bible class.6

For years Ellen White urged that the Bible, and not infidel authors, should be the center of our educational pro­gram. In 1896 she wrote, “The greatest wisdom, and most essential, is the knowledge of God. . . . The Bible must be made the foundation for all study.”7 In the following years, the situation began to improve. In 1897 E. A. Sutherland became president, and the classical curriculum was abolished. From 1898 on, only New Testament Greek, New Testament Latin, and medical Latin were taught.8

The two-year Greek program in our colleges today is the result of the reforms in the 1890s. Ellen White never again criticized the study of Greek or Latin. Her statement in Fundamentals of Education, therefore, cannot be used against the study of Greek or Hebrew today.

2. Study the immediate context. The immediate context is what comes before and what comes after a particular statement. What does Ellen White refer to in the paragraph or chapter from which a statement is taken?

In the book Christ’s Object Lessons, Ellen White makes the statement that “those who accept the Saviour, however sincere their conversion, should never be taught to say or to feel that they are saved.”9 Many Christians then and now believe in the erroneous doctrine of “once saved always saved.” Ellen White was clearly against this teaching. In the immediate context she wrote, “There is nothing so offensive to God or so dangerous to the human soul as pride and self-sufficiency. Of all sins it is the most hopeless, the most incurable.

“Peter’s fall was not instantaneous, but gradual. Self-confidence led him to the belief that he was saved, and step after step was taken in the downward path, until he could deny his Master. Never can we safely put confidence in self or feel, this side of heaven, that we are secure against temptation. Those who accept the Saviour, however sincere their conversion, should never be taught to say or to feel that they are saved. This is misleading. Everyone should be taught to cherish hope and faith; but even when we give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us, we are not beyond the reach of temptation.”10

The context makes it clear that she focuses on addressing the issue of self-confidence and temptations after conversion. Because we are never secure against temptations, we can never say that we cannot fall or that we are saved and therefore secure from temptation. But this does not mean that we cannot, day by day, have the assurance of salvation (1 John 5:12, 13). In fact, she clearly stated that we can have assurance of salvation. “We are not to doubt His mercy, and say, ‘I do not know whether I shall be saved or not.’ By living faith we must lay hold of His promise, for He has said, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’”11

3. Study the larger context. The larger context refers to other statements Ellen White has written on a particular topic. To illustrate this principle, we will look at one aspect of the Adventist health message—meat eating. On this issue she has very absolute-sounding statements, but also many modifying statements that need to be considered.

In 1903, Ellen White made what seems an absolute statement. She wrote, “Vegetables, fruits, and grains should compose our diet. Not an ounce of flesh meat should enter our stomachs. The eating of flesh is unnatural. We are to return to God’s original pur­pose in the creation of man.”12 Anyone reading this statement by itself would have to come to the conclusion that under no circumstances are we to eat meat.

However, just a few pages further on in the book, we find a modifying statement, from the year 1890, on the same topic: “Where plenty of good milk and fruit can be obtained there is rarely any excuse for eating animal food; it is not necessary to take the life of any of God’s creatures to supply our ordinary needs. In certain cases of illness or exhaustion it may be thought best to use some meat, but great care should be taken to secure the flesh of healthy animals. It has come to be a very serious question whether it is safe to use flesh food at all in this age of the world. It would be better never to eat meat than to use the flesh of animals that are not healthy. When I could not obtain the food I needed, I have sometimes eaten a little meat; but I am becoming more and more afraid of it.”13

The modifying circumstances are cases of illness or when other food was not readily available. She admitted that she had eaten meat herself from time to time. Therefore, in a very balanced statement made before the delegates at the General Conference in 1909, she said, “We do not mark out any precise line to be followed in diet; but we do say that in countries where there are fruits, grains, and nuts in abundance, flesh food is not the right food for God’s people. . . . If meat eating was ever healthful, it is not safe now. Cancers, tumors, and pulmonary diseases are largely caused by meat eating.

“We are not to make the use of flesh food a test of fellowship, but we should consider the influence that professed believers who use flesh foods have over others.”14

We should certainly aim for a veg­etarian diet, but never make it a test of fellowship. In some circumstances a diet that includes some meat may even be the best, but this should never serve as an excuse to continue eating meat when no necessity exists. “A meat diet is not the most wholesome of diets, and yet I would not take the position that meat should be discarded by everyone. Those who have feeble digestive organs can often use meat, when they cannot eat vegetables, fruit, or porridge.”15 When we look at the total body of what she has written on a given topic, a balanced picture emerges, considered invaluable for every Christian who takes his religion seriously, but particularly for Seventh-day Adventists, whom God has called to be His witnesses in these last days.

4. Look for principles. Prophets convey God’s truth as principles or policies. Principles are universal and apply to all people, in all places, and at all times. Policies are the applications of principles to particular situations. Policies may change with different circumstances and may look different in different cultures and places. “That which may be said in truth of individu­als at one time may not correctly be said of them at another time.”16 One example from the writings of Ellen White comes readily to mind.

In 1903, at a time when the general availability of cars was still a thing of the future, Ellen White wrote, “And if girls, in turn, could learn to harness and drive a horse, and to use the saw and the hammer, as well as the rake and the hoe, they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life.”17 The principle in this statement is that girls should be “fitted to meet the emergencies of life.” Applied to our time, this could mean that girls should learn how to drive and look after a car.

The growth experience of Ellen G. White

Apart from these principles of interpretation, we need to remember that prophets did not receive all the light at one time. They, too, experienced growth in their understanding of heavenly things. In Daniel 8:27, the prophet says, “I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.” About ten years later, the angel Gabriel came and explained to him the full import of the vision.

Similarly, Ellen White experienced growth in her understanding of what God revealed to her. In 1904 she wrote, “Often representations are given me which at first I do not understand, but after a time they are made plain by a repeated presentation of those things that I did not at first comprehend, and in ways that make their meaning clear and unmistakable.”18

Conclusion

In the interpretation of inspired writings, time and place and the immediate and larger context are all important. The historical and literary context will help us in our interpretations of the writings of Ellen White to navigate safely between too literal an interpretation and one so far removed from the intent of the author that her writings become useless.

 

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1 Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture Quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

2 This has been recognized for a long time. Robert W. Olson, former director of the Ellen G. White Estate, in 1981 wrote, “Ellen White’s writings are generally homiletical or evangelistic in nature and not strictly exegetical.” One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and Ellen White (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981), 41.

3 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 675.

4 Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923), 468.

5 Emmett K. Van der Vere, The Wisdom Seekers (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing, 1972), 59.

6 Don F. Neufeld, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub Assn., 1976), 47.

7 White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, 451.

8 Neufeld, Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 47.

9 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 155.

10 Ibid., 154, 155.

11 Ellen G. White, Ye Shall Receive Power (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1995), 296.

12 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 380.

13 Ibid., 394.

14 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 9:159.

15 White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 394, 395.

16 White, Testimonies for the Church, 3:470.

17 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 216, 217.

18 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 3 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 56.

2 This has been recognized for a long time. Robert W. Olson, former director of the Ellen G. White Estate, in 1981 wrote, “Ellen White’s writings are generally homiletical or evangelistic in nature and not strictly exegetical.” One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and Ellen White (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981), 41.

3 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 675.

4 Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923), 468.

5 Emmett K. Van der Vere, The Wisdom Seekers (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing, 1972), 59.

6 Don F. Neufeld, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub Assn., 1976), 47.

7 White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, 451.

8 Neufeld, Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 47.

9 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 155.

10 Ibid., 154, 155.

11 Ellen G. White, Ye Shall Receive Power (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1995), 296.

12 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), 380.

13 Ibid., 394.

14 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 9:159.

15 White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 394, 395.

16 White, Testimonies for the Church, 3:470.

17 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 216, 217.

18 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 3 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 56.

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