by Richard W. Coffen  |  4 August 2022  |

During my approximately nine decades of membership in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, I’ve heard Ellen White referred to as an “inspired commentator” who wrote “inspired commentaries.” 

After a careful search I haven’t been able to find one instance in which she described herself in such terms. While some among us have regarded Ellen White as an inerrant or infallible source of information, she herself acknowledged in a letter to her nephew,In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it.”

In fact, within her voluminous “lesser light” output we find instances in which she clearly misunderstood what the “greater light” says. As someone who has benefited from her writings, let me respectfully point out some of the ways in which Ellen White missed points made in certain passages of Scripture.

Syntax and grammar

In Genesis 3, the primeval couple lived in a garden YHWH planted in a geographical locale known as Eden. God planted it with many trees, and told the newly created male, who did not yet have a personal name, that he could eat from all the trees but one—the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8,16,17). YHWH also “built” (that’s the Hebrew word) a female companion for this primeval man.

At some point a cunning snake with the gift of gab who lurked in the forbidden tree began to engage the first woman in a conversation about the forbidden fruit. It doesn’t appear that the woman was taken by surprise by the loquacious snake. The clever snake convinced the woman that the banned fruit was what she really desired. 

But here is Ellen White’s input: “She [Eve] first erred in wandering from her husband.” Ellen White repeated this perspective later: “Absorbed in her pleasing task, she unconsciously wandered from his side.” 

According to Ellen White, the primeval woman became a sitting duck (my terminology; not hers!). The assumption inherent in her description of the event is that the woman would have been able to resist the temptation had she remained by her husband’s side.

Let’s consult the scriptural record: 

When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it (Genesis 3:6, NET, emphasis added). 

The New English Translation is not unique. The King James Version also indicates her husband was there with her. The grammar in the Hebrew is a prepositional phrase plus the male pronominal suffix. Barry Bandstra says in his book Genesis 1-11: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, “The phrase is essentially the shortened relative clause (who was) with her.”

So it appears that the woman’s husband was standing by all the while she had been conversing with the talkative snake, but remained mum. Finally, when she downed a piece of the verboten fruit, she proffered another piece of the fruit to her husband—the fellow who had been by her side all the time but for some reason had remained mute.

Where would Ellen White have gotten this idea of a wandering woman? Most likely from a book in her library, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 

According to Milton, Satan: 

sought them both, but wished his hap might find
Eve separate; he wished, but not with hope
Of what so seldom chanced; when to his wish,
Beyond his hope, Eve separate he spies,
Veiled in a cloud of fragrance, where she stood (Book IX, lines 421-425).

Milton continued, saying that the tempter:

forth to meet her went, the way she took
That morn when first they parted: by the tree
Of knowledge he must pass; there he her met (Op. Cit., lines 847-849).

Arthur White, in a letter dated February 25, 1953, said that J. N. Andrews had given Ellen White her copy of Paradise Lost but (according to her grandson) she took the book into her kitchen, where she placed it on a high shelf and didn’t look at it. The implication was that because of the similar thoughts expressed by both John Milton and Ellen White, God revealed the same information to both parties. (Arthur could not, of course, have been present at the time Andrews gifted Ellen White with Paradise Lost to know this detail personally.)

Again: Scripture says nothing about Eve having wandered from Adam. Rather, the Hebrew grammar and syntax indicate that Adam was with Eve at the site of the temptation and the fall. 

Vocabulary

The same word can have multiple meanings. “Buckle,” for example, can mean two almost contrary things: to fasten together, or to collapse under a great weight. 

Understanding the context and the original languages can better help us understand the intended meaning. In The Great Controversy it appears that Ellen White misunderstands the meaning of the original Greek in 2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10. 

“The coming of the Lord is to be preceded by ‘the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness” 2 Thessalonians 2:9,10.

Unfortunately Ellen White lops off the first part of verse 9, which speaks of “him whose coming is after the working of Satan.” She also misunderstood the word “after” as a preposition denoting sequence in time. She concluded that Jesus’ second coming will occur “after the working of Satan.” 

The Greek word rendered “after” in the King James Version is katá. It can be translated in various ways, but they do not generally imply a chronological sense. The word means “according to,” as in “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3); it can also be rendered “with respect to,” “in conformity with,” or “in accordance with.” 

Paul wasn’t talking about Jesus here, as Ellen White assumed. Rather, the apostle was referring to an evildoer behaving in a similar way as does Satan. This evil being will perform deceitful miracles. The individual referred to in this passage is not the returning Jesus but rather his opposite—a deceiver.

Context

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the preacher who didn’t like a certain high-piled hairstyle worn by some of his female parishioners. So one week he chose for his preaching text Matthew 24:17: “Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:” But to make his point he removed the beginning and the end, so orally, it sounded this way: “Topknot, come down!” The joke shows the folly of taking words out of context to say what you want them to say.

Sometimes Ellen White seemed oblivious to the immediate literary context: namely, what the original author intended. From a practical standpoint, such a procedure renders the biblical message ineffective. 

Here’s an example of Ellen White’s not understanding historical and literary contexts. Zechariah 13:6 (KJV) says 

And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.

Ellen White alludes to this verse in Early Writings: “Jesus will present His hands with the marks of His crucifixion” to those who mocked Jesus at his crucifixion. In Acts of the Apostles, she refers to “the manner of His death,” crucifixion, of course. She then quotes Zechariah 13:6 as an illustration of how Jesus died—having been nailed through his hands to the cross.  

Does the person referred to in Zechariah 13:6 refer to Jesus and the scars resulting from his crucifixion? Based on the context, no. 

The word “prophet” means “to speak on behalf of.” In some of the ancient Near Eastern religions, certain individuals claimed to speak on behalf of their deity. However, not every prophet did so. Jeremiah, for example, had a face-to-face confrontation with false prophet Hananiah (Jeremiah 28:5-17). 

Various false prophets, some claiming to speak for YHWH, had circulated among God’s people. A cleansing was imminent. “A fountain” would be “opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). YHWH’s cleansing would “cut off the names of the idols.” He would “cause the prophets . . . to pass out of the land” (verse 2). The parents of a false prophet would tell a lying son, “Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies” in YHWH’s name (verse 3). These parents would proceed to “thrust him through when he prophesieth” (verse 3).

In his embarrassment, the false prophet would abandon the prophet’s uniform, the Elisha-like “rough garment” (verse 4). He would try to deny his previous occupation, and might instead claim to be a farmer (verse 5), giving as evidence his work-inflicted wounds. 

Some people would know better, and say that this false prophet had engaged in self-mutilation—just as did the false prophets on Mt. Carmel. The challenger would say, “What are these wounds in thine hands?” (verse 6). The false prophet would claim injury while at a friend’s house (verse 6). One lie would lead to another and to another. 

So when read in context, the person with the wounds was not Jesus, but a lying false prophet—contra Ellen White.

Misreading

Just because we hold Ellen White in high regard and consider her to have been inspired, we mustn’t gloss over these examples in which she misconstrued in one way or another a scriptural verse. Ellen White wasn’t and isn’t alone in doing so. We find examples of the same among New Testament writers, who seem to have followed common rabbinical practice of reading into Old Testament verses meanings the original authors didn’t have in mind. This especially is obvious in so-called messianic prophecies: pretty much every one of them was taken out of context and applied by later writers to the coming of the Messiah. While the gospel writers may have had the right to give prophecies a new meaning, we have to also admit these interpretations wouldn’t pass muster today as examples of proper exegesis.

Ellen White, with her cut-short elementary education, had an alibi for poor exegetical practices. We don’t. It seems to me the most reasonable conclusion in her case is this: although she may be an inspired authority, she was not an infallible commentator who wrote infallible commentaries on Scripture. So it makes sense that she referred to her writings as “a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.” 

Inspired humans aren’t, contrary to the thinking of some evangelicals, inerrant or infallible. In fact, our denomination has rejected the inerrantist perspective, even for the Bible. It behooves us, therefore, to establish careful models for inspiration and authority that show respect for proper syntax, vocabulary, context, and grammar.



Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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