The Apocrypha & Adventism: A Response to Ted Wilson
by Matthew Korpman | 14 October 2021 |
In his sermon on October 9 for the 2021 Annual Council meeting, Elder Ted Wilson warned that “the devil,” “strange voices,” and “Babylon” were attempting to “confuse” Adventists with “aberrant” views on the Bible. Among these, he notes that:
I have even heard of an attempt to question the reliability of the 66 books of the Bible canon, suggesting we need to look at non-canonical apocryphal books to perhaps broaden our view on truth.
He exhorts the church to “reject this.”
Given that Elder Wilson mentioned only that he had “heard of an attempt,” it appears that he spoke based on the word of others rather than independent research. Whoever he heard it from, they were likely referring to my recent scholarship on the issue. I’m not too shocked that he’s resistant to it. I’m sure a number of Adventists would feel the same as he does and would think to react to such ideas with similar sentiments.
While certainly some may expect that I might be offended that the leader of my church’s General Conference appears to have mischaracterized my research as part of the work of the devil, my intention is not to dwell on the misunderstandings we all suffer from. Elder Wilson is simply reacting the same way so many Adventists leaders have to this information and illustrating the necessity of why it can’t be ignored by our church.
In this response to his comments, I would like to turn attention away from myself and back to the issue at hand, introducing others to the current state of Adventist research on the Apocrypha, to help contextualize what he said and explain why I, and other scholars in the church, would have to disagree with his assessment.
In 1969, Arthur White, the grandson of Ellen White and working at The White Estate which oversees her writings, was aware that Ellen White had mentioned the Apocrypha positively during a vision. This vision had never been released to the Adventist public or acknowledged to exist, but Arthur White recognizing that it might prove a problem someday, attempted to write a response to it. This written response by him and the vision’s content relating to the Apocrypha, which was kept secret from the wider church, was only eventually released publicly in 1985 because Ron Jolliff, at what was then Southwestern Adventist College, requested its release. The vision revealed that Ellen White stated: “I saw that the Apocrypha was the hidden book, and that the wise of these last days should understand it,” which Arthur White avoided interpreting with any research, arguing at the time that since it appeared that nobody knew of any other related statements, it was worth leaving alone as a topic of study.
Two years later, in 1987, Ronald Graybill, a professor at Loma Linda and past Associate Secretary at the Estate also, surprised Adventism when he published his groundbreaking article “Under the Triple Eagle: Early Adventist Use of the Apocrypha” in the now defunct magazine Adventist Heritage. Graybill had discovered that the early Adventists had largely supported the writings known as the Apocrypha, and specifically the book of 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) as inspired. He even discovered that the young Ellen White had made more references to the Apocrypha in her initial visions than James White himself had realized in their famous document Word to the Little Flock. Graybill’s ultimate conclusion: that Ellen White, when young, was influenced by and drew upon the Apocrypha, like those around her, and that the collection stopped its influence for the denomination around the 1880s.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Denis Fortin, a professor at Andrews University, presented the next important piece, an article at an Adventist conference on Ellen White’s writings. It was later published in The Review publicly in 2002, entitled “Sixty-Six or Eighty-One? Did Ellen White Recommend the Apocrypha?” Fortin’s research affirmed, contrary to past administrators, that Ellen White was likely aware she was drawing on the Apocrypha (agreeing with Graybill), but left the issue of whether she considered the Apocrypha to be inspired a question that he couldn’t answer.
Then in 2014, The White Estate released all of Ellen White’s unpublished writings publicly, revealing for the first time that she had mentioned the Apocrypha during another vision only less than a year before her other vision. There, in a transcript (archived as Manuscript 5, 1849), Ellen White spoke of the Apocrypha as “part” of “the Word of God” and warned that Satan was trying to remove it from the Bible. The never-before-seen statement was published along with a comment by Roland Karlman that noted, either comically or innocently, “there has been little published comment on [it].”
While I was studying at La Sierra University, I began to work on an undergraduate thesis on the topic under the supervision of Kendra and Gil Valentine, which eventually led to a publication in Spectrum in 2018 entitled “Adventism’s Hidden Book: A Brief History of the Apocrypha.” It demonstrated, with the increased online access of the Adventist Archives, that Graybill’s conclusion that the Apocrypha lost interest for Adventists in the 1880s was incorrect. It had in fact resurged later and only died out in the late 1910s, after Ellen White’s death. Furthermore, due to Ellen White’s newly seen 1849 vision, her young view of the Apocrypha appeared to have shifted in our understanding from simply using the language of these books to actively endorsing it as a collection. Alongside my paper in Spectrum also appears one by Donald Casebolt, entitled “It Was Not Taught Me By Man,” which agreed that Ellen White was using apocryphal material.
In 2019, I presented a paper for the Adventist Society for Religious Studies that was later published in Adventist Today entitled “Antiochus Epiphanes in 1919: Ellen White, Daniel, and the Books of the Maccabees,” in which I demonstrated how Ellen White’s views on biblical prophecy, influenced by 1 Maccabees, were not far removed from those expressed much later and with controversy by Desmond Ford. This was followed by a number of articles I wrote on the topic for CompassMagazine, exploring the contribution of different apocryphal books to Adventist heritage.
Following that, in 2020, I published a study in the European Adventist journal Spes Christiana entitled “Forgotten Scriptures: Allusions and Quotations by Ellen White to the Apocrypha.” This study was perhaps the most monumental since Graybill, as it demonstrated that contrary to earlier assumptions, Ellen White did in fact continue to draw upon, indirectly quote, and allude to the Apocrypha throughout her ministry, mostly without pause. This opened up new questions and concerns as to whether her early visions represented only her youthful views, or whether they were representative of her private convictions throughout her lifetime.
Finally, this year in 2021, I contributed a chapter to the Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha, entitled “The Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha.” In it, I reviewed the early reformers’ views about the Apocrypha, locating Adventist interest within the wider context of Protestantism. The chapter reveals that contrary to most assumptions, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many Protestants were open to and believed that certain apocryphal books were canonical/inspired. Likewise, most denominations (including Adventism) have never officially made their position clear on the Apocrypha, indicating that the canon is not closed officially for most Protestant groups even today.
A shift in understanding
Obviously, the contributions of Adventist scholars, including my own, have been building up what is a seismic shift in modern Adventist thinking, but which is rediscovering our earlier Adventist and even Protestant heritage more faithfully. Although I wondered when this research would begin to make an impact in the conversations the church is having, I never imagined that it would begin in a large-scale way by the president of the GC, Elder Ted Wilson himself. Moreover, I didn’t expect that the first time it would be mentioned, it would be so entirely demonized, vilified, and mischaracterized. In fact, it appears that Elder Wilson himself admits that he has never actually read my work or others, instead only having “heard” about it second-hand.
Among Elder Wilson’s other warnings that he issues during his sermon, listing out fourteen issues he wants Adventists to resist, he states as his second the diminishing interest in Ellen White’s teachings. I wholeheartedly agree. It is precisely because Ellen White declared in a vision in 1849 that the Apocrypha was the “Word of God” and that all Adventists should “bind it to the heart” that we explore and write on the topic. It is precisely because Ellen White argued in another vision in 1850 that the Apocrypha “is for the wise of these last days,” that we seek to understand how and why she spoke in such a manner. It is because we see evidence throughout her lifetime of her continued utilization and quotation from the Apocrypha, that we as Adventist historians care to investigate why that is so. If we are going to take Ellen White seriously, we must learn what to do with these facts and not merely ignore them. If we are to reject her counsel, we must know why and to what degree the rejection is merited.
My message to Elder Wilson and anyone else: don’t reject the research and don’t stay away from it because it sounds strange. Take the time to read and wrestle with it (and Ellen White). Rather than shun it as confusion from Babylon, I pray that organizations like the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the Adventist Theological Society, and many others will dedicate time to exploring these topics in the depth and reflection they haven’t yet received. We need more faithful engagement from church scholars on this issue, not less.
Matthew J. Korpman is an adjunct professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at La Sierra University. A graduate of La Sierra University and Yale University’s Divinity School, he is pursuing his PhD in New Testament at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of the popular book Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully (Quoir, 2019).