Sola Scriptura: The reformers and Ellen G. White

What is the sola Scriptura principle and how did Ellen G. White view it?

Alberto R. Timm, PhD, serves as an associate director, Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Post-apostolic Christianity lost much of its original biblical identity under the paganizing influence of Greco-Roman culture. In the Alexandrian allegorical method, many Christian interpreters found enough latitude for their syncretistic accommodation of Scripture to popular culture. The acceptance of this hermeneutical methodology began to erode several Bible doctrines from mainstream Christianity. By itself, the allegorical method would have driven the Christian church into such a pluralistic interpretation of the Scriptures that its religious identity would end up vanishing completely. But the Church of Rome took advantage of this religious hermeneutical subjectivism and the sociopolitical influence of the Roman Empire to establish herself as the only true interpreter of Scripture.

Gradually, many extrabiblical “apostolic traditions” reshaped the interpretation of the Scriptures and the teachings of the church. Augustine even confessed, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”1 Thomas Aquinas argued that “the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth.”2 Later on, the Council of Trent in its fourth session (1546) would assert that all saving truths and rules of conduct are contained “in the written books and in the unwritten traditions . . . preserved in the Catholic Church.” To the “holy mother Church” belongs the authority to judge the “true sense and interpretation” of the Holy Scriptures.3 Consequently, ecclesiastic interests overruled true faithfulness to the Word of God and built up a strong, nonbiblical hermeneutical tradition.

Already, in the Middle Ages, pre-Reformers such as John Wycliffe, John Huss, Jerome of Prague, and the Waldenses tried to restore the authority of Scripture above religious traditions and ecclesiastical decisions. Even though much limited in scope, those attempts helped pave the way for the great hermeneutical and ecclesiastical Reformation of the sixteenth century.

This article surveys, briefly, how the sixteenth-century Reformers used the sola Scriptura principle in response to the Roman Catholic claim of being the only true interpreter of Scripture and how Ellen G. White both reemphasized and applied this principle in her expositions of Scripture.4 Such concepts can provide a useful framework for understanding Ellen White’s crucial end-time role in uplifting the sola Scriptura principle.

The Protestant response: the sola Scriptura principle

The sixteenth-century Reformation was first and foremost a hermeneutical reformation that generated an ecclesiastical reformation. One of the leading principles of the movement was the sola Scriptura principle, which implied (1) the theoretical acknowledgment of the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and practice on religious matters, and (2) the practical application of that principle in the actual interpretation of Scripture. From the theoretical perspective, Luther stated clearly: “Therefore, Scripture is its own light. It is good that Scripture interprets itself.”5 At the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther affirmed that he did “not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other.” Unless he was “convicted by Scripture and plain reason,” he would never recant his views.6

John Calvin argued more explicitly that “those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture,” and that “Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning.”7 Likewise, article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1571) reads, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”8

But from a practical perspective, the Magisterial Reformers did not use the sola Scriptura principle as a reason to reject all other sources of religious knowledge. Luther not only accepted the first Ecumenical Creeds and much of the Church Fathers but also wrote Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) and The Large Catechism (1529). Likewise, Calvin wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536, revised in 1559) and his own Catechism (1538). Several other confessions and articles of faith were crafted, exposing a variety of Protestant beliefs and nuances. Furthermore, while Zwingli and Carlstadt rejected whatever the Bible did not endorse, Luther tended to allow whatever the Bible did not prohibit.9 Assuming that “whatever is not against the Scripture is for the Scriptures, and the Scriptures for it,”10 Luther kept several components of the Catholic mass in his own liturgical model.11

Different attempts were made to define the relationship between the inspired Scriptures and other non- inspired Christian statements and writings. For instance, the Lutheran Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration (1577) suggested “a threefold tier of authority”12 comprising (1) the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which are “the only true standard or norm by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged”; (2) “the true Christian doctrine” collected from God’s Word into the three ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Creed of Athanasius—and the early Lutheran confession and doctrinal articles; and (3) “other good, useful, pure books, expositions of the Holy Scriptures, refutations of errors, and explanations of doctrinal articles.”13

Luther emphasized the unconditional authority of Scripture in contrast to the relative and conditional authority of the theologians of the church. Only a derived authority was granted to those parts of the tradition of the church “which prove to be based on Scripture” and to the three ecumenical creeds, “because he was convinced that they conform to Scripture.”14 Consequently, from a Protestant perspective, a creed is only a norma normata (secondary rule of faith) with “only ecclesiastical and therefore relative authority, which depends on the measure of its agreement with the Bible,” which is the norma normans (primary rule of faith).15

Nonetheless, Alister E. McGrath argues that “the only wing of the Reformation to apply the scriptura sola principle consistently was the radical Reformation, or ‘Anabaptism.’”16 But even the Anabaptists who subscribed to the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession (1527) did not go very far in the process of restoring biblical truths by means of the sola Scriptura principle. So the motto “the reformed church, always being reformed according to the Word of God” (ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum Dei)17 should remain the enduring principle of those who want to carry on the restoration process started by the Protestant Reformation.

Instead of carrying on such endeavors, many post-Reformation Protestants and Evangelicals began to embrace alternative hermeneutics that overshadowed the wide-ranging sola Scriptura principle and a more specific historicist interpretation of Bible prophecies. Those alternatives included the Roman Catholic futurist and preterist interpretations of Bible prophecy; the liberal historical-critical swiping away of the supernatural element of Scripture; and the dispensational fragmentation of the overall unity of the Scriptures. Each of these used a human principle in place of the Bible, thus distorting or even destroying the sola Scriptura principle. During the 20th century, several social- scientific hermeneutics would appear on the scene, challenging even further the sola Scriptura principle.

Ellen G. White’s emphasis on the sola Scriptura principle

Many nineteenth-century North American restorationists and revivalists emphasized the need to rediscover some teachings of the apostolic church. But no other contemporary religious movement so consistently applied the sola Scriptura principle for restoring Bible truth as did Sabbath keeping Adventists (founders of the Seventh- day Adventist Church). Crucial in this process was the prophetic ministry of Ellen G. White, which, without replacing or overshadowing the Bible (as some critics claim), actually leads people to an unconditional commitment to the Bible as its own expositor. This is evident in both her counsels on how Scripture should be interpreted and the way she actually interpreted it. 

Without mentioning by name the futurist and preterist theories, White upheld the Protestant historicist identification of the papacy as the “little horn” of Daniel 7:8, 11, 21, 22, 24–26; 8:9–14, the antichrist of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12, and the beast from the sea of Revelation 13:1–9.18 She also endorsed the view of the 1,260 symbolic days of Revelation 11:3 and 12:6 (cf. Dan. 7:25; Rev. 11:2; 12:14; 13:5) as the period of papal supremacy between a.d. 538 and 1798.19

On the other hand, Ellen White warned forcefully that faith in the Bible was “as effectually destroyed by the higher criticism and speculation . . . as it was by tradition and rabbinism in the days of Christ.”20 She explained further, “The work of higher criticism, in dissecting, conjecturing, reconstructing, is destroying faith in the Bible as a divine revelation. It is robbing God’s word of power to control, uplift, and inspire human lives.”21

In contrast to the dispensationalist theory of splitting Bible history into several (usually seven) distinct dispensations, Ellen White spoke of two dispensations (the Old and the New Testaments), connected to each other by a typological interrelationship. She declared, “There is no such contrast as is often claimed to exist between the Old and the New Testament, the law of God and the gospel of Christ, the requirements of the Jewish and those of the Christian dispensation. Every soul saved in the former dispensation was saved by Christ as verily as we are saved by Him today. Patriarchs and prophets were Christians. The gospel promise was given to the first pair in Eden, when they had by transgression separated themselves from God. The gospel was preached to Abraham. The Hebrews all drank of that spiritual Rock, which was Christ.”22

Recognizing the existence of “different degrees of development” of God’s revelation to meet the needs of people in the different ages, White argues that in both dispensations “God’s claims are the same” and “the principles of His government are the same.”23 “The Old Testament is the gospel in figures and symbols. The New Testament is the substance. One is as essential as the other.”24

Besides disclaiming the hermeneutical alternatives mentioned above, Ellen White also provided other insightful hints for a sola Scriptura interpretation of the Bible. Speaking of the Bible as “its own expositor,” she highlighted that the Bible should be studied within the framework of the great cosmic-historical controversy between God and Satan.25 She furthered also a proper balance between the exegetical study of a given passage26 and its interpretation in the light of the analogy of Scripture.27

Reiterating elsewhere her emphasis on the analogy of Scripture, Ellen White confirmed its positive outcome: “The Bible is its own interpreter, one passage explaining another. By comparing scriptures referring to the same subjects, you will see beauty and harmony of which you have never dreamed.”28 These concepts informed the way she actually used the sola Scriptura principle to interpret the Bible.

 Ellen G. White’s use of the sola Scriptura principle

The fact that Ellen White did not do a modern exegetical analysis of the Bible text should never be used to disclaim her expositions of Scripture. Her use of Scripture is indeed a prophetic one, unfolding in many cases the inner motivations of the individuals involved and the spiritual struggles that were taking place behind the scenes. Furthermore, Ellen White’s own expositions of Scripture were in harmony with the sola Scriptura principle, allowing the Bible to be its own interpreter.

While many critics of the Bible questioned the historicity of Genesis 1–11 and denied its miracles, Ellen White remained in line with the Bible prophets who confirmed the historicity and reliability of those accounts. For example, as the historicity of the creation accounts (Gen. 1; 2) was confirmed by other texts of both the Old Testament (Ps. 33:6–9; 94:9; 95:4, 5; 121:2; 136:5–9; 146:5, 6; 148:1–5; Isa. 40:26) and the New (Acts 17:24–26; Col. 1:15, 16; Heb. 4:4, 10; Rev. 14:7), Ellen White also confirmed it.29 The Bible refers to the fall of Adam and Eve at the instigation of the serpent (Gen. 3) as literal (Rom. 5:12, 14, 18, 19; 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9), and Ellen White understood it likewise.30 Both the Old Testament (Ps. 104:6–9) and the New (Matt. 24:37–39; Heb. 11:7; 1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 2:5; 3:6), consider the story of Noah and the universal flood (Gen. 6–8) literal; so did Ellen White.31

As the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:23–29) was understood as a historical event by the Old Testament (Deut. 29:23; Isa. 13:19; Jer. 49:18; 50:40; Amos 4:11) and the New (Luke 17:28, 29; 2 Pet. 2:6–8; Jude 7), so did Ellen White.32 The historicity of the miracles related to the Exodus and the pilgrimage in the wilderness were confirmed by other passages not only of the Old Testament (Pss. 66:6; 78:10–55; 105:26–45; 106:7–33; 136:10–16; Mal. 4:4) but also of the New (Acts 7:17–44; Heb. 11:22–30); so did Ellen White.33 The story of Jonah in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 1:17; 2:10) really happened as recorded in the Bible, according to Jesus (Matt. 12:39–41) and as affirmed by Ellen White.34

In contrast to the critical attempts to discover the “historical Jesus” (Albert Schweitzer) and to “demythologize” the four Gospels (Rudolf Bultmann), Ellen White recognized the Gospel narratives and miracles as historical. Her classic book The Desire of Ages35 builds up trust in the way Jesus and His ministry are portrayed in the canonical Gospels and provides many helpful insights into those narratives. This book is a good example of her commitment to the sola Scriptura principle in studying the Bible and expounding its message.

Concluding remarks

One should realize that Ellen White’s commitment to the sola Scriptura principle is not acceptable to those who read the Bible from any other hermeneutical perspec- tive, who deny any post-canonical manifestation of the gift of prophecy or who even disagree with her expositions of Bible doctrines. But at a time when Christianity is divided into many conflicting schools of biblical interpretation and into 45,000 different Christian “denominations” (by mid- 2014),36 Ellen White’s writings function as “a divine prophetic filter,” able to remove false interpretations artificially imposed on the Bible,37 allowing it to interpret itself and touch our lives with its transforming message.

 

1 St. Augustine, “Against the Epistle of Manichæus, Called Fundamental,” ch. 5, sec. 6, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (NPNF), Series I, 4:215.

2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 5, a. 3, accessed Nov. 12, 2014, www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu.

3 Council of Trent, 4th session, in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder (Rockford, IL: TAN, 1978), 17, 19.

4 This article is an abbreviated version of the chapter “Sola Scriptura and Ellen G. White: Historical Reflections” from The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and History, eds. Alberto R. Timm and Dwain N. Esmond (Silver Spring, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2015).

5 Martin Luther, WA 10/III: 238, lines 10, 11 (Also “ist die schrifft jr selbs ain aigen liecht. Das ist dann fein, wenn sich die schrifft selbs außlegt.” [original spelling]); WA 7:97, line 23 (“scriptura . . . sui ipsius interpres”).

6 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1990), 144.

7 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.7.5, trans. Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:80.

8 “The Thirty Nine Articles, 1571, 1662,” accessed on Nov. 16, 2014, www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1571-39articles.asp.

9 Roland H. Bainton, Christendom: A Short History of Christianity and Its Impact on Western Civilization (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 31.

10 Barnas Sears, The Life of Luther; With Special Reference to Its Earlier Periods and the Opening Scenes of the Reformation (Philadelphia, PA: American Sunday-School Union, 1850), 370, 371.

11 See Luther’s “The New Ecclesiastical System, 1523-4,” in B. J. Kidd, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1911), 121–133.

12 Robert D. Preus, Getting Into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1977), 22.

13 Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, 2nd ed. (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2006), 508, 509.

14 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1966), 6, 7.

15 The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), 1:7.

16 Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 101 (“scriptura sola” in the original).

17 An insightful study on the origin of this motto and other similar expressions is provided in Michael Bush, “Calvin and the Reformanda Sayings,” in Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., Calvinus sacrarum literarum interpres: Papers of the International Congress on Calvin Research (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 285–299.

18 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1911), 439, 443.

19 Ibid., 439; see also 54, 55, 266, 267.

20 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 142.

21 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 474; Ellen G. White, Education (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), 227.

22 Ellen G. White, in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 1061.

23 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), 373.

24 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 2 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 104.

25 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), 462, 463.

26 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1896), 90.

27 Ellen G. White, “The Science of Salvation the First of Sciences,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 1, 1891, 737.

28 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2002), 499.

29 White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 44–51.

30 Ibid., 52–62.

31 Ibid., 90–104.

32 Ibid., 156–170.

33 Ibid., 241–498.

34 Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), 265–278.

35 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898).

36 “Status of Global Mission, 2014, in the Context of AD 1800–2025,” no. 41, accessed Dec. 1, 2014, www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/ statusofglobalmission.pdf.

37 Alberto R. Timm, “Ellen G. White: Prophetic Voice for the Last Days,” Ministry, February 2004, 20.

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Alberto R. Timm, PhD, serves as an associate director, Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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