Whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church considers the Bible as the highest authority in faith and practice has been questioned by fellow Christians for a long time. Adventists have proclaimed sola Scriptura since 1874, when Miles Grant accused Seventh-day Adventists of basing their understanding of the heavenly sanctuary on the writings of Ellen G. White and not on the Bible.1
The Bible for the Adventist pioneers
For Adventist pioneers, the Bible was the highest authority of faith and practice. One of the cofounders, Joseph Bates, stated that “the Bible is a sufficient rule” in understanding the Sabbath.2 That also applies to other doctrines. James White, another cofounder, believed that “the Bible is a perfect, and complete revelation. It is our only rule of faith and practice.”3 Accepting Scripture as the standard for doctrines and Christian behavior, he explained that “the Bible is an everlasting Rock. It is our rule of faith and practice.” Every Christian should “take the Bible as a perfect rule of faith and duty. . . . The Word should be in front, and the eye of the church should be placed upon it, as the rule to walk by, and the fountain of wisdom.”4
Uriah Smith, an editor of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, answered Miles Grant’s accusation against Adventist belief about the heavenly sanctuary. He wrote that much has “been written upon the subject. But in no one of these are the visions once referred to as any authority on this subject or the source from whence any view we hold has been derived. Nor does any preacher ever refer to them on this question. The appeal is invariably to the Bible, where there is abundant evidence for the views we hold on this subject.”5
Seventh-day Adventists did not see themselves as depending on Ellen White’s visions to formulate doctrines. Instead, they went to the Bible as their source.
Ellen White, the church’s third cofounder and its prophetic voice, during the last General Conference Session that she attended (1909), stated, “Brethren and Sisters, I commend unto you this Book.”6 She consistently held this position for her entire ministry. In 1885, she had expressed the same idea: “The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union; all who bow to this holy word will be in harmony. . . . Let us meet all opposition as did our Master, saying, ‘It is written.’ Let us lift up the banner on which is inscribed, The Bible our rule of faith and discipline.”7 She upheld Scripture as the only authority for doctrine in the church.
During the early stage of their formation as an organization, Adventists “were a people of the ‘book’ ” because they based their doctrines only on the Bible.8 While this is true for the initial formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, what about later theological development? How did Ellen G. White respond to doctrinal controversy? Did she refer to the Bible or her own writings to settle problems?
The Bible in the doctrinal controversies
Perhaps the most controversial General Conference session in Seventh-day Adventist history occurred in 1888. At issue was whether the law discussed in the book of Galatians was the ceremonial law or the moral law. General Conference president George I. Butler asked Ellen White to settle the controversy.9 However, she decided that God “wants us to go to the Bible and get the Scripture evidence.”10 She also advised that “the truth can lose nothing by close investigation. Let the word of God speak for itself, let it be its own interpreter, and the truth will shine like precious gems amid the rubbish.”11 Refusing to be used to settle doctrinal controversy, she instead suggested that the church study the Bible to resolve the issue.
Another significant doctrinal controversy involved the pantheistic ideas John Harvey Kellogg presented in The Living Temple. His book presented a unique view of God.12 He argued, “Suppose now we have a boot before us,—not an ordinary boot, but a living boot . . . and as we look at it, we see little boots crowding out at the seams . . . scores, hundreds, thousands of boots, a swarm of boots continually issuing from our living boot,—would we not be compelled to say, ‘There is a shoemaker in the boot’? So there is present in the tree a power which creates and maintains it, a tree-maker in the tree.”13 Kellogg’s belief that God is in all things actually depersonalized Him, striking at the church’s belief that God is personal.14 In confirming the church’s long-standing position about God’s personal nature, Ellen White again called attention to the Bible. “God has led us in the past,” she declared, “giving us truth, eternal truth. By this truth we are to stand.”15 To Kellogg, she straightforwardly wrote, “You are not definitely clear on the personality of God.”16 She did not give new light to settle the issue. Instead, she referred to the church’s conclusions as a result of its thorough biblical study about God’s nature.
In 1905, A. F. Ballenger challenged the doctrine of sanctuary. He expounded a teaching that Jesus, after His ascension to heaven, entered the Most Holy Place and not the Holy Place17 as the church had believed until then.18 Ballenger’s idea led to confusion among many Adventists. Ellen White directed attention to the understanding of the Bible that the Adventists had believed for many years. She wrote, “The Lord has strengthened me to come the long journey to Washington to this meeting to bear my testimony in vindication of the truth of God’s Word and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in confirmation of Bible truth.”19
Referring to the Bible, she only confirmed the biblical truth that the church had received. Throughout her life, she called the church’s attention to the Bible and the Bible alone as the standard of doctrine and belief. She urged the church to test all teachings using only the Bible. The church should consistently study the Bible in settling doctrinal controversy.
The Bible in Adventist fundamental beliefs
Since the beginning, Adventist pioneers saw the Bible as the highest authority for faith and practice. Statements of belief of both Sabbatarian Adventists and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whether written personally or voted corporately, have shown that their position about the Bible has remained unchangeable.
In 1854, for example, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald articulated five core doctrines for the Sabbatarian Adventism. Even though it was not a formal statement of beliefs, it did outline their general understanding. For more than four months, it appeared as a header statement under the title “Leading doctrines taught by the Review.” The editor stated that the first doctrine was “The Bible and the Bible alone, the rule of faith and duty.”20 Hence, even before the formal organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, believers held the position that the Bible was their only “rule of faith and duty.”
After the establishment of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Uriah Smith prepared “Fundamental Principles” of Seventh-day Adventism. Even though it was his personal statement, it came to be “considered somewhat normative among early believers.”21 The third statement of the belief declared: “that the Holy Scriptures, of the Old and New Testaments, were given by inspiration of God, contain a full revelation of his will to man, and are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”22
The list of fundamental beliefs published in 1931 by Seventh-day Adventists contained 22 statements of belief. The first declared: “That the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, contain an all-sufficient revelation of His will to men, and are the only unerring rule of faith and practice.”23 It described the Bible as “unerring” in defining “faith and practice.”
The Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, voted in 1980, expressed the same stance toward the Bible. Its first statement indicated that “the Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.”24 The last sentence is still the same in the more recently expanded set of fundamental beliefs.25 Through these statements, Seventh-day Adventists have constantly reminded themselves that the Bible is the primary source and highest authority for defining doctrine and practice.
We still believe
Throughout Seventh-day Adventist history, the Bible has been the only standard for determining doctrine and practice. Its place was never taken by any writings or works including by Ellen G. White. She recognized and placed the Bible as the sole standard in the life and faith of the Christian. Statements from Adventist pioneers show they held the same position. Even during doctrinal controversy, the pioneers, including Ellen White, referred to the Bible as the source of authority.
The development of Adventist fundamental beliefs throughout the history gives the same hint that the Bible is the only source of doctrine and test of teaching and experience. This has been the official standing of the Seventh-day Adventist church. By God’s grace, we still strive to be “people of the book.”
- Uriah Smith, “The Sanctuary,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 44, no. 26, December 22, 1874, 204.
- Joseph Bates, A Vindication of the Seventh-day Sabbath, and the Commandment of God: With A Further History of God’s Peculiar People, From 1847 to 1848 (New Bedford, MA: 1848), 136.
- James White, ed., A Word to the “Little Flock” (Brunswick, ME: [James White], 1847), 13.
- “The Gifts of the Gospel Church,” Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 21, 1851, 70; emphasis added.
- Smith, “The Sanctuary,” 204.
- William Ambrose Spicer, The Spirit of the Prophecy in the Advent Movement: A Gift that Builds Up (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1937), 30. Cf. A. L. White, Ellen G. White Biography, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), 197.
- Ellen G. White, “A Missionary Appeal,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 62, no. 49, December 15, 1885, 770.
- George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 60.
- Knight, 96.
- Ellen G. White, “Morning Talk by Ellen G. White,” October 24, 1888, Manuscript 9, 1888.
- Ellen G. White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials: Letters, Manuscripts, Articles, and Sermons Relating to the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), 38; emphasis added.
- Brian C. Wilson, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 2014), 90.
- John Harvey Kellogg, Living Temple (Battle Creek, MI: Good Health Publishing Company, 1903), 29.
- Department of General Information of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Year Book (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1889), 147.
- Ellen G. White to physicians and ministers, October 1903, Letter 242, 1903; emphasis added.
- Ellen G. White to J. H. Kellogg, March 16, 1903, Letter 300, 1903.
- Calvin W. Edwards and Gary Land, Seeker After Light: A. F. Ballenger, Adventism, and American Christianity (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2000), 137.
- Department of General Information, Yearbook, 149.
- Ellen G. White, “The Sabbath Truth in the Sentinel and Elder’s Ballenger Views,” May 20, 1905, Manuscript 59, 1905; emphasis added.
- “Leading Doctrines Taught by the Review,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 15–September 12, 1854, 1; and then under the title “Leading Doctrines,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 19–December 19, 1854, 1; emphasis added.
- Michael W. Campbell, “Seventh-day Adventism, Doctrinal Statements, and Unity,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 27, nos. 1, 2 (2016): 96.
- Uriah Smith, A Declaration of the Fundamental Principles Taught and Practiced by the Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press, 1872), 5; emphasis added.
- Year Book of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination 1931 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1931), 377; emphasis added.
- Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook 1981 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1981), 5; emphasis added.
- Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrine (Silver Spring, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2018), 11.