by Angus McPhee | 22 November 2023 |
A history of Seventh-day Adventists would be incomplete without Ellen White’s role in their doctrines and institutions. She appeared on the scene as a teenager when her family attended Millerite meetings.
Lisbon’s earthquake (1755), New England’s Dark Day (1780), and the Leonids (1833) had become signposts pointing to an imminent Second Advent (Great Controversy (GC) 303-309, 333).
Then William Miller’s calculations convinced many that Christ would appear—at the latest—October 22, 1844. When Christ hadn’t returned by sunrise, it dawned on Hiram Edson that the sanctuary of which Miller had spoken was in heaven and not the earth. Christ would appear after its cleansing. The “delay” was thus explained (GC 423). So began (with apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien) a fellowship of the Ring of Truth.
They were affirmed in their convictions by young Ellen Harmon, who married James White in 1846. It felt like no mere coincidence that this young visionary had appeared in their midst. Believing that they were in the last days and understanding that the “remnant of her seed” was illustrated in the last piece of a bolt of cloth, they now proceeded to establish their credentials as the remnant, or last church, for one of their number had the testimony of Jesus, the spirit of prophecy.
White’s living presence demanded a posthumous literary presence. The current General Conference (GC) president equates the Bible and “the Spirit of Prophecy”—which, in Adventist parlance, means “the writings of Ellen G. White.” Her writings are a sine qua non.
Notwithstanding, White devoted much of The Great Controversy to the Protestant Reformation and the importance of the Bible alone as the foundation for Christian doctrine.
In our time there is a wide departure from their doctrines and precepts, and there is need of a return to the great Protestant principle—the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty. … The same unswerving adherence to the word of God manifested at that crisis of the Reformation is the only hope of reform today (GC 204-205).
Adventists continue to assert that “The Holy Scriptures are the … definitive revealer of doctrines.” In this respect the church sees itself as continuing the Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura.
Nevertheless, in practice, White is the authority to which exegesis is expected to conform.
Ellen White as interpreter
The precedent was set at the Sabbath conference at Volney, New York, 1848. White, a 20-year-old attendee at the time, later recalled that hardly two agreed, particularly on the Millennium and the 144,000. In a vision, her accompanying angel pointed out the truth and urged the group to unite in the third angel’s message. “Our meeting ended victoriously. Truth gained the victory” (Life Sketches pp.110-111).
In none of her references to that incident did White record how the Scriptures were explained. Views changed, not as a result of further study but because of the vision.
This statement now takes on a new significance:
We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history [emphasis mine] (Life Sketches p.196).
Thus, it would be natural to ask “How has the Lord taught us?”
In her writings she gives warnings accompanied by reflections on her own involvement in the development of Adventist doctrine.
We are to be established in the faith, in the light of the truth given us in the early experience … [when] the power of God would come upon me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error … I would be taken off in vision, and explanations would be given me (Gospel Workers, pp.302,303).
Here an interesting admission is made. She could not understand the reasoning of the brethren on her own; she could not comprehend the meaning of the Scriptures they were studying when she was not in vision. So her revelations were accepted as light from heaven (Review & Herald, May 25, 1905).
On the other hand, in 1890 she was clear that if individuals made God’s Word their study they would not have no need for the Testimonies. We are to go to the Scriptures for ourselves, search the inspired Word with humble hearts, and lay aside our preconceived opinions.
We do not claim that in the doctrines sought out by those who have studied the word of truth, there may not be some error, for no man that lives is infallible (Review & Herald, March 25, 1890).
That being the case, Bible study must conform to accepted rules for exegesis. That the Bible is its own interpreter was made clear by Gerhard Hasel in the Australasian Division Bible Conference in 1978. He cited six statements by White, of which this is typical: “The Bible is its own expositor”—for example, Education, p.190. “The interpreter,” Hasel added, “has to silence his personal wishes with regard to the outcome of the interpretation.”
It must be admitted that, while Bible study can result in interpretations that differ from White’s, Adventists throughout their history have preferred hers. For example, the interpretation of Daniel 8 regarding the “cleansing of the sanctuary” differs from Gabriel’s explanation.
Our church, from its inception, has understood the “cleansing of the sanctuary” to be a process that must occur between 1844 and Christ’s return (GC 421-422). Might the “delay” then be because God’s people have not completed a concurrent special work of purification, of putting away of sin? (GC 425). Might it be because “angels [may] need considerable time to do their assigned tasks in the judgment?” [And after they have done their work, is it possible that there are review boards or “superior courts” in heaven to make sure that each case has been dealt with fairly?]
After all, White had said, “When the investigative judgment [the “cleansing of the sanctuary”] closes, Christ will come” (GC 485).
Nowhere does the Bible concur, but it does say that Christ’s return will follow the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all the world. The idea of a “delay,” because of lengthened celestial proceedings or dependent on human maturation, is the product of time‑setting, whether done innocently or deliberately.
In the light of proper Biblical exegesis, in harmony with the rule that the Bible should interpret itself, should the Seventh-day Adventist Church continue to ignore rules of Biblical interpretation which it both espouses and promotes or accept that White, while encouraging Bible study, was not an authority in biblical interpretation and made mistakes which appear hard to acknowledge?
How much fiction?
Besides, Fred Veltman’s research into White’s sources for The Desire of Ages, authorized by GC President Neal Wilson, revealed that some of her sources were fiction. Veltman wrote that White borrowed from many historical fictions that fell “under the literary category of ‘Victorian lives of Christ.’ The books in this category were never intended to be biographies.”21
That being the case, and because The Desire of Ages is the third volume in the set which came to be known as “The Conflict of the Ages Series” and of which The Great Controversy is the fifth, one is justified in asking, “How much fiction has been incorporated into the other volumes?”
One might counter that there is some fiction in Scripture. And that is a fact. To employ fiction as Jesus did to make a point is one thing, but to involve it to “fill out” the Bible story is another. “We Have Seen His Star,” chapter 6 of The Desire of Ages, is clearly an embellishment of the short biblical narrative. Despite obvious embellishments, Adventists often quote her narratives as historical fact.
A biblical faith
If the church understands the problem, it must decide where to go from here.
- Should members who might be inclined to leave be encouraged to remain?
- Should every member be encouraged to engage in intelligent discussion and study of the Bible as the Bereans did, with a strict adherence to the accepted rules for exegesis?
- Might the church officially and seriously embrace that ancient and longstanding confession of Christian faith known as the Apostles’ Creed as its statement of fundamental teachings?
- Might the church even compile a set of teachings which better reflects the focus of the Protestant reformers on the gospel of salvation by grace, and on the Bible as the only source of faith and doctrine?
Thus could be born a Seventh-day Adventism devoid of a dependence on the convictions of any one individual, a church still devoted to Christ, the product of an educated and ongoing Bible study. The Apostle Paul advised: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
Or, to quote Ellen White, “The same unswerving adherence to the word of God manifested at that crisis of the Reformation is the only hope of reform today.”
- These are explained in Arthur E. Lickey, God Speaks to Modern Man (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1952), p.540, and F. M. Wilcox, The Testimony of Jesus (Takoma Park, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1934), pp.19,116. ↑
- Kenneth H. Wood, “The Message for Today” in Editor’s Viewpoint, Adventist Review: March 19, 1981. ↑
Angus McPhee is a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor who has cared for congregations in New Zealand (1966-1974, 2006) and Australia (1975-2004). He lives in New South Wales, Australia.