The Great Controversy Is Dated, But True
by Alden Thompson | 12 December 2019 |
This article is reprinted from Adventist Today magazine, September/October 1993, pp. 14-15,19. Ellen White’s role in interpreting Scripture recently came up for discussion with regard to a statement from the General Conference, to be presented at the the upcoming session in Indianapolis, that appeared to say that only Ellen White can tell us what the Bible means.
The wide variety of reactions to The Great Controversy forces us to ask the question: Can Adventism be one flock under one shepherd (John 10:16)? I address that question here on the basis of a typology illustrating the variety in Adventism.
Any typology easily runs roughshod over multiple variations and overlap between types. Cheerfully ignoring that danger, however, I have constructed a conservative-to-liberal sequence based on two criteria: 1) attitudes towards culture (separation vs. accommodation) and 2) attitudes towards “inspired” text (divine vs. human). Three basic types emerge: sectarian (double conservative), mainstream, and rationalist/secularist (double liberal):
1. The Sectarian Impulse (double conservative): Confront the world. The double conservatives are hostile towards modern culture and gripped by God’s voice in inspired texts. They thrive on the confrontational element in the Great Controversy. That’s why their evangelism tends to be cross-town, after dark, or by media. It’s too intense for the neighbor next door.
Accommodation to culture alarms these true believers. Even cooperation with other Christians is compromise. Understandably, then, given the tendency of mainstream Adventism, their wrath against the church can be as intense as it is against the world.
But some of the same tensions that afflict Adventism as a whole are also at work here. The pure sectarians are the wilderness ascetics, humble colporteurs venturing cautiously into the wicked city with cheap newsprint editions of The Great Controversy. Living in the austere world of Ezekiel 9, the ascetics sigh and cry for the sins of Israel.
But money, media, and technology tempt even sectarians with the glossy and the expensive. It’s almost a form of intoxication: high visibility billboards advertising a plush $19.95 illustrated The Great Controversy; livid and vivid radio talk shows; high-tech video productions splashing out the sins of the church.
Interestingly enough, though sectarians typically hold tenaciously to the Great Controversy end-time scenario, the same sectarian impulse can also give rise to a futurism that jettisons The Great Controversy for something more contemporary and compelling. The most extreme example, of course, is David Koresh.
2. The Mainstream Impulse: Love the world. In its attitude towards culture, mainstream Adventism has turned cautiously liberal, a change already foreshadowed in the later writings of Ellen White. Loving the world in the best sense of the word, mainstream Adventists now seek to win more than warn.
The blood and beasts of Revelation still figure in public advertising, however, reminding us of our sectarian roots. But the tensions are there, for mainstream Adventists have learned to revel in the goodness of God. When Ellen White says that we should come near to ministers of other denominations, praying for and with them (Testimonies 6:78), we say amen. Maybe we even agree too easily when she says, “The Lord wants His people to follow other methods than that of condemning wrong” (Testimonies 6:121). Desire of Ages is now the Ellen White book of choice, at least for initial entry. The Great Controversy comes on the scene last, cautiously, often with fear and trembling.
But mainstream Adventism is also diverse. Learning to love the world means learning how the world thinks. Venturing forth from the wilderness and lingering in the city opens the eyes to changes in the world. Can a changed perspective on The Great Controversy be far behind? Here I see three basic positions, all preserving a sense of “sacred” text, but relating the writings of Ellen White to Scripture in different ways. The labels are over-simplified and probably misleading, but still may be helpful for purposes of discussion.
A. SECTARIAN MAINSTREAM: Ellen White is the final interpreter of Scripture. The Great Controversy is the end-time scenario for our day. Though affirming the priority of Scripture, many Adventists accept Ellen White’s interpretation of last-day events as final and absolute. Rather than applying a common measure to all “inspired” end-time scenarios, they grant Ellen White interpretative authority over Scripture in the same way that many evangelicals impose the New Testament interpretations on the Old. Vestiges of a fundamentalist view of inspiration make such a position difficult to avoid.
At a more sophisticated level, the dissonance of unfulfilled biblical scenarios (Ezekiel 40-48; Isaiah 65-66; Zechariah 14) is resolved by postulating a conditionalist interpretation for so-called “classical” prophecy, but a deterministic view for the apocalyptic prophecies in Daniel and Revelation.
As for those aspects of our world that seem to differ from those projected in The Great Controversy, one simply has to note that the struggle over authority (Revelation 13) is still very evident in our day. And any dissonance between the contemporary scene and that of The Great Controversy can be accounted for on the basis of Ellen White’s statement that “the final movements will be rapid ones” (Testimonies 9:11). Clifford Goldstein’s popular monograph, Day of the Dragon (Pacific Press, 1993) reflects this perspective.
B. ACADEMIC MAINSTREAM: Both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White are equally “inspired,” but Scripture retains a “functional” priority. The Great Controversy presents Adventism’s way of vindicating God in the presence of evil (theodicy), but is not a fixed end-time scenario. To draw an analogy, Ellen White is to Scripture as a local city ordinance is to the US constitution. Thus the phenomena of “revelation” and “inspiration” are qualitatively the same in Scripture and in the writings of Ellen White, but Scripture is the ultimate norm.
The “inspired” (but unfulfilled) end-time scenarios in Scripture suggest that details cannot be absolute, though all end-time scenarios illustrate the principles of the conflict between good and evil. Thus The Great Controversy continues to be viable as the classic statement of Adventist theodicy, even if changing times date some of the details.
This is my preferred position, one that I will address briefly in conclusion. The perspective is not well-known in “popular” church circles in spite of Ray Cottrell’s article in volume 4 of The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy” (1955) that spells out the eschatological implications of unfulfilled Old Testament prophetic passages. (See also Cottrell’s further analysis in Spectrum, November 1980, “The Sanctuary Review Committee and Its New Consensus.”)
C. EVANGELICAL MAINSTREAM. Only Scripture is revelational; Ellen White is devotional. The Great Controversy is simply a product of nineteenth century culture. For largely experiential reasons some Adventists are only loosely tied to the historicist eschatology of The Great Controversy. Having found peace with God on a personal level, they are less concerned about 1844 or Sunday laws. While appreciating some aspects of Ellen White’s ministry, they stress “the Bible only.” For them, Ellen White is distinctly a lesser light. Her end-time scenario is time-bound; presumably those in Scripture are not. Such an approach is suggested by Frank Knittel in “The Great Billboard Controversy” (Spectrum, May, 1993).
3. The Rationalist/Secularist Impulse (double liberal): Join the world. The double liberals move in the direction of an undifferentiated pluralism. At risk is the distinction between church and culture and the sacred nature of “inspired” texts. And the advent is no longer “the blessed hope.”
Though the essentially religious nature of Adventism has kept this tendency at bay, our secular culture does tempt the church with its views of history, prophecy, and Scripture. When the rationalist impulse moves God off stage, is He anywhere at all? That is the frightening specter raised by such articles as Donald Casebolt’s “Is Ellen White’s Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy Final?” (Spectrum June 1982, pp. 2-9) and Jonathan Butler’s “The World of E. G. White and the End of the World” (Spectrum, August 1979, pp. 2-13; reprinted in Pilgrimage of Hope, 1986). Devout Adventists are unsettled by Butler’s suggestion that Ellen White only “envisioned the end of her world,” that she “provided an eschatological perspective for her own time,” now it is “up to us to provide one for our time.”
Butler didn’t say “only.” But the specter is there. Those longing for a restored world are not ready to think that all things might “continue as they were from the beginning” (2 Peter 3:4).
I believe Adventism must admit the uneasy truths represented by the two extremes. The sectarians remind us of the danger of compromise. True Christianity will be countercultural until the Lord comes. To be in the world but not of the world is a delicate challenge. Loving the world in the sense of John 3:16 is right. But the love of the world in the sense of 2 Timothy 4:10 lurks not far behind.
The rationalists remind us that we must use our heads. Indeed. But must we lose our souls in the process? Can we not think and believe at the same time?
That’s our challenge. And I will argue with passion that we must be consistent, spiritually and intellectually. That means a return to Scripture, not in fear, but with earnest purpose. We cannot be fundamentalist and avoid asking the hard questions, whether of Scripture or of Ellen White. It is inconsistent to treat Scripture as untouchable but Ellen White as flawed. But perhaps most importantly, we cannot be coldly analytical without sensing the spiritual import of our work.
As for prophecy, popular views have not been shaped by Scripture itself. Ironically, fundamentalists and their critics often share the same assumptions about what prophecy should be: infallible, unerring, and certain to be fulfilled.
That’s not biblical. In Scripture, prophecy focuses on people, people who have the power to nullify divinely predicted threats or promises. Adventists see that in Jonah, but resist applying it to end-time scenarios.
When our eschatology is properly informed by all the end-time passages in Scripture (such as Isaiah 65-66 and Zechariah 14), we will see more clearly the difference between the enduring principles and their temporal applications. That will provide a basis for dealing with Ellen White’s eschatology in the light of changing times. Then we can wholeheartedly affirm the “blessed hope” without fearing the “failure” of our eschatology or being embarrassed by The Great Controversy.
And I will argue that Ellen White can be a real asset to us, not as a final interpreter of Scripture, but as a case study of “inspiration” at work. In my book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Review and Herald, 1991), I appeal to her as a positive, liberating force, not just a dogmatic, restrictive one. At least one evangelical observer of Adventism has seen her value in that respect. In a forthcoming review of Inspiration, Clark Pinnock notes that the miracle of Scripture is that God’s Word is heard “despite all human fragility and all limitations of human authors.” Then he added, “As an Adventist, Thompson is able to appeal effectively to Ellen White on this point. I almost envy him the prophet. . . .”
If Ellen White can help us avoid the fundamentalist and rationalist extremes in Adventism, we can await the Advent without panic and without forcing “predicted” events into a pre-determined pattern. And we can pray, that by God’s grace, the sectarians will see that the Maker of the universe is gentle and good. Maybe even the rationalists will suspect that God is at work in the world after all. That would be good. Very good.
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Alden Thompson is a professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University. His classic book Inspiration is again available on Amazon.