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Some Suggestions on How to Abuse Ellen White

(Jan 15, 1996) ©1996 Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.

 

We all have observed the abuse the Bible gets from those who read it with the wrong attitude or with faulty reasoning. Throughout Christian history this abuse has mis-represented God in many ways causing horrific conflicts between Christians, on one hand, and outright rejection of biblical authority, on the other.

In Adventist history, the abuse of Ellen White mirrors this abuse of the Bible and generally for the same reasons. Letís list some of the ways that many misuse Ellen White and thus abuse her: 1) By reading her with a wrong attitude, (2) By reading her with a confused concept of revelation/inspiration, (3) By reading her with a muddled attempt to separate the sacred from the common, (4) By reading her without understanding how prophets use sources, and (5) By reading her with a disregard for context, such as time, place, and circumstances..

Wrong Attitude. Ellen White believed that "the Bible was given for practical purposes" (1SM:20) and that "no one need be lost for want of knowledge, unless he is willfully blind" (Ibid:18).

However, she recognized that challenges always exist in communication. she noted that "it is difficult for one mind to give to one of a different temperament, education, and habits of thought by language exactly the same idea as that which is clear and distinct in his own mind. Yet to honest men, right-minded men, he [an author] can . . . convey his meaning for all practical purposes." But if the reader "is not honest and will not want to see and understand the truth, he will turn his words and language . . . to suit his own purposes" (Ibid:19).

Ellen White lamented that some treated her writings as they did the Bible: "In the very same way that they treat the writings in my published articles and in my books, so do skeptics and infidels treat the Bible. They read it according to their desire to pervert, to misapply, to willfully wrest the utterances from their true meaning" (Ibid).

Oneís attitude in reading the Bible or the writings of Ellen White directly affects a correct understanding of what these writings mean. Attitude is more important than oneís academic training, important as this may be; the Jewish leaders with their scholarship did not recognize Jesus. On many occasions, Ellen White emphasized Christís counsel in John 7:17: "The perception and appreciation of truth . . . depends less upon the mind than upon the heart. Truth must be received into the soul; it claims the homage of the will. If truth could be submitted to the reason alone, pride would be no hindrance in the way of its reception. But it is to be received through the work of grace in the heart; and its reception depends upon the renunciation of every sin that the Spirit of God reveals" (DA: 455).

Thus Ellen White gave this promise: "Everyone who diligently and patiently searches the Scriptures that he may educate others, entering upon the work correctly and with an honest heart, laying his preconceived ideas, whatever they may have been, and his hereditary prejudice at the door of investigation, will gain true knowledge" (Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 430). The same attitudes that must be present when searching the Scriptures apply in searching for the truth revealed in the writings of Ellen White.

But studying Godís revelations requires more than an honest inquiry; the honest spirit must be willing to comply with divine instruction. The big "if," the O-word, obedience, permeates the Bible. Ellen White said it simply: We must be willing to obey the truth if we truly expect to find it: "Whenever men are not seeking, in word and deed to be in harmony with God, then however learned they may be, they are liable to err in their understanding of Scripture, and it is not safe to trust to their explanations."--Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 705.

Ellen White warned that an interpretation may be wrong if accompanied by an unChristlike spirit. In the context of the 1888 Minneapolis Conference, she said to those who were antagonistic to her and to A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner: "These testimonies of the Spirit of God . . . have no weight unless they are stamped with your ideas of the law in Galatians. I am afraid of you and I am afraid of your interpretation of any Scripture which has revealed itself in such an unChristlike spirit as you have manifested and has cost me so much unnecessary labor. . . . Let your caution be exercised in the line of fear lest you are committing the sin against the Holy Ghost. . . . I am afraid of any application of Scripture that needs such a spirit and bears such fruit as you have manifested" (Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 330).

Verbal or Thought Inspiration. We further abuse the Bible and Ellen Whiteís writings when we misunderstand how God speaks to human beings through His prophets. For some, it seems easier to believe that God dictated the words that the prophet faithfully recorded--something like a Fax machine. For them, this method would avoid mistakes by eliminating human error.

For others, this dictation method not only ignores reality, it opens the door unnecessarily to a list of problems that brings confusion and unfortunately focuses on the container rather than the content of Godís messages. Those who believe in thought inspiration emphasize that God meets His people where they are and patiently leads them along, unfolding truths that more fully develops what already have been revealed.

Ellen White identifies with those who accept the concept of thought inspiration rather than verbal inspiration. She recognized that "the writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. . . . The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language. . . . Everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. . . . The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not Godís mode of thought and expression. . . . Inspiration acts not on the manís words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. . . . The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God" (1SM: pp. 19-21).

In selecting His prophets God chooses the best men and women available and accommodates Himself to their limited "mental and spiritual endowments." (GC:vi) He does not send His revelations through E-mail or a Fax machine. Ellen White wrote this clear statement describing the divine-human cooperation in the revelation/inspiration process: "The Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man . . . Written in different ages, by men who differed widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments, the books of the Bible present a wide contrast in style, as well as a diversity in the nature of the subjects unfolded. Different forms of expression are employed by different writers; often the same truth is more strikingly presented by one than by another. And as several writers present a subject under varied aspects and relations, there may appear, to the superficial, careless, or prejudiced reader, to be discrepancy or contradiction, where the thoughtful, reverent student, with clearer insight, discerns the underlying harmony. . . . The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language; yet it is the testimony of God" (GC:vi, vii.).

With all this enormous diversity of "mental and spiritual endowments," as diverse as there are writers, one might ask how the reader could find coherence and unity in what they all declare to be "the word of the Lord"? The answer is simple: the unity of their messages is guaranteed by the one Author who inspired them all. Ellen White wrote: "The Creator of all ideas may impress different minds with the same thought, but each may express it in a different way, yet without contradiction" (1SM:22).

Ellen White had occasion to steer a young physician, David Paulson, away from a verbal-inspiration viewpoint. Dr. Paulson, a remarkable man of faith, had much to do with establishing Hinsdale Sanitarium and Hospital, Hinsdale, Illinois. She wrote: "In your letter you speak of your early training to have implicit faith in the testimonies and say, ĎI was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every [sic] word you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any [sic] and all [sic] circumstances, was as inspired as the Ten Commandments.í"

Ellen White continued: "My brother, you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found that I have made any such claims, neither will you find that the pioneers in our cause ever made such claims.

"In my introduction to The Great Controversy you have no doubt read my statement regarding the Ten Commandments and the Bible, which should have helped you to a correct understanding of the matter under consideration." Ellen White then quoted substantially from her own introduction to The Great Controversy and from an earlier pertinent statement found in volume 5 of the Testimonies. (See 1SM:24-31.)

We must definitely grasp the difference between thought revelation and verbal inspiration if we are to understand accurately the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Although verbal inspirationists (relating to either the Bible or the writings of Mrs. White) claim to enjoy greater security in possessing the exact word from God, they have great difficulty trying to explain what appear as "errors" and "contradictions" in both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. The incorrect assumptions of verbal inspirationists have led many into unnecessary confusion and loss of confidence in inspired writings.

Those who believe in thought inspiration understand the prophet to be Godís "penman," not His pen. God works through the mental processes of His messenger, inspiring the thoughts but, under the guidance of the Spirit, allowing the messenger to choose the way the thoughts are to be expressed.

Ellen Whiteís personal introduction to The Great Controversy has given us clear insight as to how prophets work. Recognizing that discrepancies may exist in the Bible and that "perfect order or apparent unity" may not be clear at first glance, she concluded: "All the mistakes will not cause trouble to one soul, or cause any feet to stumble that would not manufacture difficulties from the plainest revealed truth" (1SM:21, 16).

Infallibility. We must recognize that Biblical writers and Ellen White were not infallible. Infallibility is a characteristic of God alone, not His messengers. Although God revealed His messages without error, His messages were conveyed to and through fallible messengers. That is why Ellen White called the prophets "Godís penmen, not His pen" (1SM:21). And that is why she said bluntly: "In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible" (Ibid., 37).

Obviously, infallibility is not "on trial" in the prophetís words. What is at stake is Godís infallible authority given in the fallible language of His messengers. Godís messages breathe with infallible authority, not infallible language. Although God speaks through fallible men and women, we do not have a fallible message. Much to the contrary! For those reading prophetic messages, the search for accuracy depends on a personís faithfulness to the rules of hermeneutics (interpretation), uncontaminated by human philosophical presuppositions and a faulty concept of revelation..

For example, in previous segments we touched the problems inherent in assuming that God dictated the words that the prophets used. That incorrect understanding is called verbal inspiration. This kind of flawed thinking has led men and women through the years to believe that we lived on a flat earth because Isaiah referred to the "four corners of the earth" (Isa. 11:12, KJV). Such conclusions arise when defenders of the Word believe that if the Bible is from God it must be perfect in every detail. Think of the treatment the prevailing Church gave to Copernicus and Galileo.

In recognizing that prophets are Godís penman, not His pen, we are spared the anxieties that arise when we note a few possible discrepancies that arise when different Bible writers referred to the same subject or same event. For instance, observe the frustrating task a verbal inspirationist would have trying to reconcile Matthewís genealogy of our Lord with Lukeís. Or why does Genesis 15:13-16 seem to offer a different length of time for the Hebrewsí sojourn in Egypt than we find in Exodus 12:40. Or look at the four different records we get when we read what each gospel writer said Pilate ordered to be placed over Jesus on the cross ((Mt 27:37; Mk 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).

No wonder Ellen White wrote with great clarity: "The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. . . . The Bible was given for practical purposes (1SM:20).

Separating the inspired from the uninspired. Another way that the Bible and the writings of Ellen White are abused is when one attempts to decide what is inspired and what is not. Sometimes we refer to this activity as separating the sacred from the common. Ellen White had to contend with this practice: "When men, in their finite judgment find it necessary to go into an examination of the scriptures to define that which is inspired and that which is not, they have stepped before Jesus to show Him a better way than He has led us" (1SM:17).

Prophets often mixed the divine message with common, everyday information. When Paul referred to contemporaries with appreciation, that was not the divine message. When he asked Timothy to find the cloak and books that he had left at Troas and to "come before winter," that was common, everyday talk (2 Tim. 4:9-21). When we read the genealogy of the families of Israel since Adam, we are reading common information, not a message especially inspired by the Lord (1 Chron. 1-8).

Ellen White recognized this distinction between common information and the divine message: "There are times when common things must be stated, common thoughts must occupy the mind, common letters must be written and information given that has passed from one to another of the workers. Such words, such information, are not given under the special inspiration of the Spirit of God. Questions are asked at times that are not upon religious subjects at all, and these questions must be answered. We converse about houses and lands, trades to be made, and locations for our institutions, their advantages and disadvantages" (1SM:39).

This distinction appeared in a 1909 letter in which she was "troubled" about the former manager of the Paradise Valley Sanitarium, E. S. Ballenger, who was "denying the testimonies as a whole because of what seems to him an inconsistency--a statement made by me in regard to the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium." In an earlier letter she had stated that the Sanitarium had forty rooms, when it had only thirty-eight.

She explained the difference between forty and thirty-eight: "The information given concerning the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium was given, not as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion. There has never been revealed to me the exact number of rooms in any of our sanitariums; and the knowledge I have obtained of such things I have gained by inquiring of those who were supposed to know. . . . For one to mix the sacred with the common is a great mistake. In a tendency to do this we may see the working of the enemy to destroy souls" (1SN:38).

This 1909 incident is one example of a "common" reference. Other examples are found in Ellen Whiteís hundreds of letters wherein she spoke of the weather, shopping lists, the garden, or her grandchildren. But in that same document, she would often direct the readerís thought to his or her spiritual needs or to a profound spiritual thought. That shift would be a clear signal to readers that they were now listening to a message based on divine instruction.

On another occasion, Ellen White explained how she made a distinction between her own counsel and a clear message from the Lord. In 1897, Ellen White wrote from Australia to John Wessels in South Africa, suggesting that he come to Australia to help in establishing the sanitarium work. The letter included matters that she had been shown regarding his family, but some things she had not been shown, and she made this clear:

"I have not been given the message ĎSend for Brother John Wessels to come to Australia.í No; therefore I do not say, I know that this is the place for you. But it is my privilege to express my wishes, even though I say, I speak not by commandment. But I do not want you to come because of any persuasion of mine. I want you to seek the Lord most earnestly, and then follow where He shall lead you. I want you to come when God says Come, not one moment before. Nevertheless, it is my privilege to present the wants of the cause of God in Australia. . . . A work is to be done here, and if you are not the one to do it, I shall feel perfectly resigned to hear that you have gone to some other locality. I have been shown that it were better for you and the other members of your motherís family to be in some other locality, because where they are, the companionship and associations are not the most favorable to their spiritual healthfulness."--Letter 129, 1897, parts of which may be found in Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 58, 59.

Here we have a good example where Ellen White clearly differentiated between her opinion and revealed information, similar to Paulís experience as noted in 1 Cor. 7:6.

Degrees of Inspiration. Another way that the Bible and Ellen White has been abused and misused occurs when one uses the term "degrees of inspiration." This point is somewhat different than separating the sacred from the secular.

Mrs. White makes no distinction regarding the inspiration in her books, articles, or her letters when they are giving spiritual counsel. This eliminates the position some have made that only her books are inspired. Those taking that position forget that most of her books were first written in article form.

Further, Bible writers "mixed" extra-Biblical sources with their vision-based messages. One cannot then dismiss a prophetís work simply because some portion of the book contains material from sources other than direct divine revelation. If prophets include the writings of others to better express their thoughts, that material is not to be understood as merely "common" in the sense we have been using the term.

The term, "degrees of inspiration" is used when an attempt is made to distinguish between Biblical writers and other prophets. But, at least eight Biblical prophets were directly inspired and wrote for their times although their works were not included in the Biblical canon. The Biblical story not only does not hint of any difference in the quality of their inspiration, it describes their work as of equal authority with the canonical prophets. We find no difference between canonical and noncanonical prophets in how they received their messages, nor in how they communicated them, nor in how their contemporaries responded to them. Noncanonical literary prophets spoke for God and were regarded as Godís spokesmen by their contemporaries.

If one suggests that some prophets were granted a higher degree of inspiration/revelation than other prophets, comes the inescapable question: Who will decide? Can an uninspired person sit in judgment on a prophetís work and decide whether he or she is a first-, second-, or third-degree prophet?

An interesting moment came in 1884 when, the president of the General Conference, George I. Butler authored ten articles for the church paper on the subject of "differences in degrees" of inspiration. (RH: Jan. 8-June 3, 1884.)

Ellen White judiciously and kindly waited five years to respond, hoping that he would catch his own mistake. But when others began to teach Butlerís point of view in Battle Creek College, Mrs. White realized that the time had come for clarification. She wrote: "Both in the [Battle Creek] Tabernacle and in the college the subject of inspiration has been taught, and finite men have taken it upon themselves to say that some things in the Scriptures were inspired and some were not. I was shown that the Lord did not inspire the articles on inspiration published in the Review, neither did He approve their endorsement before our youth in the college. When men venture to criticize the Word of God, they venture on sacred, holy ground, and had better fear and tremble and hide their wisdom as foolishness. God sets no man to pronounce judgment on His Word, selecting some things as inspired and discrediting others as uninspired. The testimonies have been treated in the same way, but God is not in this." (1SM:23).

Writings are inspired, or they are not. Prophets are genuine or they are impostors. Other than the difference between the common and the sacred, which should be obvious to everyone, no one is able to divide a prophetís writings into the inspired portions and the uninspired. As soon as one tries, the final arbiter is a personís own opinion.

Ellen White had counsel for those who reject the unity and authority of the Bible: ""Men should let God take care of His own Book, His living oracles, as He has done for ages. They begin to question some parts of revelation, and pick flaws in the apparent inconsistencies of this statement and that statement. Beginning at Genesis, they give up that which they deem questionable, and their minds lead on, for Satan will lead to any length they may follow in their criticism, and they see something to doubt in the whole Scriptures. Their faculties of criticism become sharpened by exercise, and they can rest on nothing with a certainty. You try to reason with these men, but your time is lost. They will exercise their power of ridicule even upon the Bible. . . . Brethren, cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost. . . . We thank God that the Bible is prepared for the poor man as well as for the learned man. It is fitted for all ages and all classes" (1SM:17, 18).

When God speaks to prophets He does not slip a dictionary or an encyclopedia into their minds. Prophets take the inspired message and do their best to convey that message in language and thought forms that will do justice to the message. Some (such as Peter) needed others to help them with their grammar; others (such as Luke) gathered as much as they could from contemporary sources in order to set forth the truth that burned within them. Paul used contemporary writers to better establish contact with his Grecian audiences.

Old Testament writers often depended on oral reports or earlier documents in preparing their messages. Moses did not need visions to describe the story of his birth or to recount the historical narratives he placed in Genesis. The books of Joshua and Judges were probably compiled during Davidís monarchy, according to internal evidence. The authors of Kings and Chronicles obviously used sources that they often referenced. In fact, the authors, at times, quoted from other Old Testament books without crediting their source: compare 2 Kings 19:1, 2 with Isaiah 37:1, 2, and 1 Chron. 10:1-3 with l Sam. 31:1-3.

The New Testament presents many instances of borrowing from non-Biblical sources, such as the Wisdom of Solomon, I Enoch, Testimonies of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Palestinian Targums.

Ellen White forthrightly explained why she used various historians as she traced "the history of the controversy in past ages." She wrote: "In pursuance of this purpose, I have endeavored to select and group together events in the history of the church in such a manner as to trace the unfolding of the great testing truths that at different periods have been given to the world."

How did she use these historians? She noted: "In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. In narrating the experience and views of those carrying forward the work of reform in our own time, similar use has been made of their published works." (GC:xi, xii. References to those "in our own time" would include the works of J. N. Andrews and Uriah Smith.)

As all prophets did, Ellen White had to supply the human language to convey the grand thoughts and arching panoramas that she either saw in vision or sensed in those precious times of divine communication. Her capacity to supply appropriate language and style matured as the years went by--as any study of her personal manuscripts and published writings will indicate. At times she recognized that others had written with beauty and precision on certain subjects that she wanted to make clearer in her writings. To better clothe those divinely revealed truths she utilized the expressions of others. Speed truth along with as much human grace as possible was her compelling motivation.

Some have raised two questions regarding Biblical writers and also Ellen White: How does this borrowing affect the authority of the writer? Does the borrowed material become inspired? The questions arise because inspiration is misunderstood as mechanical dictation (verbal inspiration). The two questions would not arise if it were understood that prophets are permitted to find the best methods at their disposable to convey the thoughts God has given them.

Yet the question may remain: What is the value of the borrowed material? It seems logical that if God revealed His message to prophets, He would also assist them in conveying the message in human language. Ellen White noted that God "guided the mind in the selection of what to speak and what to write. The treasure was entrusted to earthen vessels, yet it is, nonetheless, from Heaven." (GC:vi, vii.)

The result of this divine-human cooperation in this second phase of the revelatory process would be a message that human beings could understand within the thought framework of their time. Obviously, God did not generally expect His prophets to include information about science or medicine or technology that was not available in their day--unless He deliberately revealed it to them. If prophets spoke of the starry universe, in their day, as if they alone saw through the Hubble telescope, their entire message would have been rejected as a wild dream. So they spoke of the heavens in the framework of their contemporaries.

If prophets referred to a globular earth in a day when leading astronomers spoke in terms of a flat earth, or an earth-centered universe, again their message would have been forthrightly rejected as absurd. (Rev. 7:1; 20:8) Thus we see a principle of accommodation by which God has worked with His prophets: He does not overrule their "errors" in those areas that do not directly affect His message. The message is more important than the messenger, the content more than the container.

In a way, God did not expect the Biblical writer to "reinvent the wheel." He led Paul to borrow from the apocrypha in developing a substantial part of Romans 1. He led him to find useful material, at least to his hearers in his day, in the Jewish Targums (Aramaic translation or paraphrase of a portion of the Old Testament) in developing 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 and 2 Timothy 3:8. He led John to find generous help from contemporary sources such as the Targums and 1 Enoch. If the language already available seemed to help the Biblical author to speed his message preparation along, he prudently borrowed for his purpose. No doubt, many of his contemporaries recognized quickly from where the writer borrowed his material. To the receivers of the prophetís message, such borrowing was no problem: they saw the big picture of the writerís message.

Likely many in Christís day recognized His references to extraBiblical sources that He used to develop His messages--messages that were truly original. But His use of sources had nothing to do with the authority or originality of His message.

But does borrowed material become inspired? Only in the sense that it assists the writer to state his message more clearly. This may lead to another question: Why did not Paul and John give credit to the authors of the borrowed material? Perhaps they believed, as did Ellen White, that "every gleam of thought, every flash of intellect, is from the Light of the world." (Ed:14) This conviction that God is the Author of all truth may have kept them from feeling the need to reference their frequent borrowings.

 

Copyright © 2000 Herbert E. Douglass.  All rights reserved.


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