Steps to Christ by Ellen G. White: Review of the 125th Anniversary Edition
Reviewed by John McLarty, June 1, 2017: This anniversary edition also marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the Protestant Reformation with a historical introduction and notes by Denis Fortin.
In the 1970s a revival swept the Adventist college campuses in the United States. At the center of this revival was the preaching of Morris Venden. And at the center of his preaching was his autobiographical account of finding God. A woman called him out of the blue and asked if he knew God. She was not asking about his mastery of ideas and doctrine, but did he know God, actually, personally? He didn’t. So he launched into a desperate quest for a “personal relationship” with God. He turned to Ellen White’s book, Steps to Christ. At first he was put off by the some of the language—look to Calvary, consecration, surrender of the will. It seemed too esoteric. He reread the book multiple times, looking for a simple, workable formula. He finally settled on three steps: read your Bible, pray, and tell others what you have found in your reading and praying.
While Venden’s preaching was enormously formative for many North American Adventists coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, his three-part formula was a severely-reductionistic reading of the book. The book, in fact, offers plenty of material for theological consideration, and the behavioral spirituality prescribed by Venden (read, pray, tell) plays fast and loose with the book’s focus on inner spiritual movement (contrition, confession, repentance, will, desire, consecration, assurance, rejoicing). The important feature of this 125th Anniversary Edition is the theological and historical commentary that accompanies White’s original text. The commentator, Denis Fortin, is professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He served as dean from 2006 to 2013. Fortin had his own life-shaping encounter with the book as a sixteen year old. He began watching an Adventist television program. When he requested more information the local Adventist pastor came to his home and gave him a copy of Steps to Christ. He read it, and testifies, “It has shaped my understanding of God’s love for me, my salvation in Jesus in spite of my failings, and my need for spiritual growth. For years, every morning I recited her suggested prayer: ‘Take me, O Lord, as wholly thine. I lay all my plans at thy feet. Use me today in thy service. Abide with me, and let all my work be wrought in Thee.”
In the introduction, Fortin spells out the process that produced the book. In 1890 some Adventist ministers asked Ellen White to publish a book on the themes of salvation that could be used in their evangelistic efforts and could be sold by colporteurs. Her assistant, Marian Davis, began gathering material from articles and manuscripts White had previously written. White approved the final format, and Steps to Christ was published by the non-Adventist publisher, Fleming H. Revell. The book sold rapidly, the publisher going through three printings within six weeks of its first appearance.
The Adventist publishing houses in England and Australia wanted to publish the book in their respective countries, since Revell had waived the copyright outside the United States. Curiously, however, these publishers were not satisfied with the book as it had been written, and they asked White to add a thirteenth chapter, which she did. This thirteenth chapter is the greatly beloved first chapter in our versions, “God’s Love for Man.” This thirteen-chapter version of the book has been published in over 160 languages. Hundreds of millions of copies have been printed.
This picture of process raises some interesting questions about the nature of inspiration. While all of the material in the current version of the book came from the writings of Ellen White, the difference in spiritual tone set up by the two different beginnings is significant. The current first chapter, “God’s Love for Man,” echoes the optimism of American transcendentalists. The original first chapter, “The Sinners Need of Christ,” echoes Puritan pessimism. Certainly these two ideas are not mutually exclusive, but the spiritual tone of the book is fundamentally shifted by the addition of the new chapter. This shift in tone in the book mirrors a profound shift in the inner life of Ellen White herself (as expressed in her writings). Beginning in her childhood, White struggled intensely and long with an overwhelming sense of dread and unworthiness before God. The frown of God was far more vivid to her than God’s smile. This gloomy perspective shows up in her exhortations to the church. In 1867, she wrote, “Names are registered upon the church-books upon earth, but not in the book of life. I saw that there is not one in twenty of the youth who knows what experimental religion is. . . . unless the spell which is upon them be broken, they will soon realize that the portion of the transgressor is theirs” (1T504, repeated in MYP 384). In other places she applied this same appraisal—a ninety-five percent failure rate—to the general church membership and to Adventist ministers, ninety-five percent of whom failed to appreciate “the beauty of Christ’s ministry.” Contrast these “failure statements” with this: “God has a church, a chosen people; and could all see as I have seen how closely Christ identifies Himself with His people, no such message would be heard as the one that denounces the church as Babylon. God has a people who are laborers together with Him, and they have gone straight forward, having His glory in view”(TM20). Since the Church regards all of these statements as equally inspired, equally authoritative, it is no wonder that Adventists of all stripes can quote Ellen White in support of their competing perspectives. Fortin addresses Ellen White’s theology as though the perspective in Steps to Christ is applicable across her entire corpus. He completely ignores the questions raised by the two different versions of the book and the shift in her perspective as she matured.
Bible and Bible Only
For me, the most striking sentence in Fortin’s preface was this: “The well-known Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to comprehend God’s will is affirmed to some extent in her understanding of God’s revelation and how humans come to perceive and appropriate this revelation.” The qualifier, to some extent, is important. Fortin writes that the quadrilateral is not a square. White expresses respect for reason and nature and even “tradition” (even though she never uses that word approvingly) in learning truth and perceiving God’s will, but she “gave to Scripture the final and ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice.” Still, the acknowledgment of even partial validity for the Wesleyan quadrilateral is a striking challenge to the “Bible and Bible Only” of Adventists fundamentalists. “For White it is through Scripture and nature that God reveals Himself, and it is with the help of human reason and experience that this revelation is understood.” Some of us on the left fear the Church is drifting toward a radical rejection of nature and experience as reliable sources of knowledge. Fortin’s highlighting that White recognized elements of Wesley’s quadrilateral is a hopeful sign.
God is Love.
Fortin writes, “The theological setting of Ellen White’s theology of salvation is the love of God—a concept that ‘is uplifted first, last, and all through” her writings, according to George Knight.’” Fortin quotes Jean-Luc Roland approvingly, “While many Christian authors share a message, an ethic, and a spirituality grounded in God’s love, the writings of Ellen White reveal a deep desire to make this divine love the key principle that determines every dimension of piety and every aspect of private and community life.” This notion of God’s love as the single controlling principle of White’s theology is attractive. It is in line with the famous bracketting of the Conflict of the Ages series with the opening and closing phrases, “God is love.” However, it seems to me to be an oversimplification when applied to the totality of her writing. Considering Steps to Christ alone or even in concert with the other books produced over the next ten years—The Desire of Ages, Christ’s Object Lessons, and Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing—perhaps one could sustain this argument. But when we review her entire corpus including Early Writings and The Testimonies, and the infamous Messages to Young People, it strains the plain reading of the text to sustain the above assertion that the love of God “is uplifted first, last, and all through.” Ellen White may have arrived at that conclusion in her mature years, but there are ample examples in her earlier work of other principles, even contrasting principles. Fortin does not address this contrast between the early and late Ellen White.
Did Ellen White actually write Steps to Christ? What about her literary assistants? Ellen White was quite explicit about the creation of this book. Her assistant Marian Davis assembled the material from articles, letters, manuscripts, and books White had previously written. In fact, Fortin writes, “Adventists have known for a long time that White’s books published after 1880 are compilations, for the most part, of her prior publications. . .” He frankly acknowledges that Ellen White’s literary style depended significantly on the skills of her assistants. “Today some people still talk of the beautiful prose of Ellen Whites’ books without being aware that her assistants were contributors to her literary style and that the production of her books was a team effort.” White’s prose is not evidence of the action of inspiration on an unschooled writer, but the evidence of collaboration with skilled writers and editors.
Theology or Spirituality
Fortin explores White’s view of human nature. Augustinian total depravity versus “weakening” of Adam’s nature. He addresses justification and pardon, sanctification and perfection, will and prevenient grace. Fortin’s analysis of White’s theology exhibits the same presumption that White’s writings are monolithic. These is no recognition of contrasting and changing perspectives across the span of her career. Also, I was struck by his assumption that there was a formal theological unity in her writing that could be neatly compared with other systematic theological approaches. He notes her roots in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition and notes points of agreement and disagreement with Reformed theology. But he never addresses the striking difference between her “theology” and the theology of theologians. Reading his commentary I was reminded of a peculiar feature of many Adventist theological debates: lists of dueling Ellen White quotations. We conduct our debates within categories worked out in theological systems. But Ellen White did not write systematically. She always wrote pastorally. She was less concerned with the definition of sanctification than with the actual fact of growth in the believer. She offered varying definitions of justification, but her concern was not correct definitions of terms but corrected lives. Her primary goal was motivation—moving people to pursue holiness, to receive the power of God, to embrace their divine calling. She (and her assistants) used language appropriate to her objective and her language sometimes crosses theological fault lines. So while I found Fortin’s theological analysis interesting, I kept thinking the very enterprise of putting Steps to Christ under a theological lens was already a diversion from White’s primary purpose. Instead of asking where this book fits in the debates between Reformed and Wesleyan theology, we would do better to ask where this book fits in the literature of spiritual experience. The theological comparisons almost always take us backward to a time and place dominated by internecine Christian contention. It would be more helpful to compare it to classic exemplars of devotion like The Imitation of Christ and My Utmost for his Highest. And then to compare it to more contemporary takes on spiritual life such as Packer’s Knowing God, The Purpose Driven Life, Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, or N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian or even Living Buddha, Living Christ. Such an analysis would bring the testimony of Ellen White into dialogue with the world my church members live in.
John McLarty is senior pastor of Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle and director of Talking Rock Tours, excursions that offer intense engagement with nature, especially the rocks. He is a contributing editor for Adventist Today.