by Chris Barrett
For those familiar with the history of the writings of Ellen White within our Church there are some similarities between that history and the history of the Bible which may have a lot to say about our understanding of the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
There has been a process of collection, sorting, compilation, and guarding the writings of Ellen White. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of that process has been done by the “believers”; by the Church itself. A natural result of this is the proliferation of that which is collectively considered “good” and a shrinking of that which does not fit so well.
It is no secret that there are things within the writings of Ellen White that are hard to explain. Perhaps as a result there are also documents and writings which seem hard to get access to, particularly in the past.
This process is very significant. Ellen White is considered by Adventism to be an inspired writer. This inspired status has not stopped a process of sorting and selection taking place. Perhaps it has even motivated it. Practice would suggest there are some things which are considered more “inspired” than others. It is these more “inspired” writings which have been proliferated, compiled, and recompiled over time.
I would submit that this process of sorting is in fact one of “choosing” that which best fits the theological stance, culture, and world view of Adventism.
You may be asking: What does this have to do with anything?
Ellen White may provide us with a powerful demonstration of what happens to the writings of an “inspired” person within a community of believers, and therefore on the process behind the Bible.
Place Ellen White in a different context for a moment. Remove paper and printing press from her day. Remove from her day through to ours all the technologies and tools which contribute to the proliferation of printed material and research ability. Remove the tools which have in fact made it harder to “lose” the material which does not fit so easily into the world of Adventism.
If you do this, what are you left with? An inspired writer within a community of believers with the same tools and context as was that of any inspired writer found within the Bible?
If we and Ellen White were living in the context of 1500 BC, I would suggest that after an equivalent 100 years of intervening time there would be little or nothing left of the difficult parts of Ellen White's writings. What about after many hundreds of years?
If in fact you were to remove all these tools from Ellen White and the community of believers who have now spent a hundred plus years “choosing” her “good” writings – what would you be left with? I submit that nobody would know about the “shut door”. The “amalgamation of man and beast”. Or any of the many other “hard to understand” things. In fact her writings may well be as purely reflective of the culture, stance and theological worldview of Adventism as the selected writings within Canon are of the collective worldview of the ongoing community of believers from which the Bible has come.
This has some powerful implications for our view of the Bible. We often take its “internal consistency” as evidence of its inspiration and accuracy. In fact, its internal consistency may have just as much, perhaps even more, to do with how it came into being within a community of believers than it does with the source or process of inspiration.
Is there really any functional or qualitative difference between the “inspiration” of Ellen White and any other “inspired” writer? Probably not. Is there really any difference in how these writings undergo a process of selection and sorting? Absent technology, probably not. Is not what we see a very human, community shaped, worldview formed, selection of writings? The Bible and Ellen White are arguably no different in this way.
There are no original documents from any Bible writer. Human nature has not changed, and I would submit that over long periods of time this exact same process of selection, sorting, copying, collecting, guarding, and hiding took place in the formation of the Bible. Ellen White gives us a modern example of how this happens.
If the function and quality of the inspiration and writings of Ellen White are no different from those of writers found within the Bible, and it is hard to show they are different, what does that say about Biblical Authority? Is it not primarily a status granted to it by a community of believers? Is the continuation of that authority to do solely with the Bible in its own right and role? Or is it in fact more to do with the continuation of that status granted by the community of believers?
Think about the continued “authority” of the Koran. Is it due to that granted by God, or simply the continued existence of a community of believers who grant it such a status? I would put that it is a mutually reinforcing circle. The Koran presents the worldview reflecting that of the original and ongoing community out of which it came; the ongoing community subscribes to the worldview, and thus each guarantees the existence of the other.
What is the difference between the Koran, the Bible, and the writings of Ellen White? They may in fact all reflect the spiritual response of man to God, but they also equally demonstrate the results of community acting upon the work of the other. Is it in fact at all possible to demonstrate that the Bible's continued authority is anything more to do with God than is that of any other sacred writing?
I would submit that Ellen White's writings within this community of believers demonstrates a key possibility. The possibility that inspiration, authority and function of an inspired writer or book are primarily granted, and sustained, within and by the perpetuation of a worldview within a community of believers.
This is not to suggest that the Bible, or indeed the writings of Ellen White, do not have a spiritual value. It should however cause us to seriously evaluate how we view their authority in the context of discovery about our world and life today.
Unfortunately we see the opposite. Serious evaluation is avoided. As the Bible and Ellen White become more and more out of sync with growing understandings about our world and life, so too does the worldview of the community guarding their authority. In spite of the fact that the Bible may present a “false” worldview, the core of that community become more “conserve – ative” as they seek to preserve the worldview called for by their understanding of their Authoritative source of information about reality.
It is the edges of that community where the friction happens. It is there, at the edges, that a growing discomfort takes place as people who are willing to ask the hard questions grapple with disagreement between reality and interpretations of reality as presented by the “false” worldview.
Thank God for Ellen White and the history of selection, deletion, compilation and purification that has taken place. I believe it gives a significant insight into how human nature, living out the same processes, responses and behaviors as we have to Ellen White, may well have functioned in bringing us the Bible.
To me this process suggests the Bible is not a book from the pen or hand of God, but a book whose role and authority is, at the best, very much the product of humanity within community. Does it not also suggest that at the most it should only ever be used as a spiritual guide to provide an insight into spiritual dimensions and the experience of others as they also have attempted to understand God within their time and context?