by Ervin Taylor
In Part II of this blog, I’d like to address what, in my view, would appear to be a second major reason why certain politically well-connected Adventists want, need and are currently working hard to make sure that the wording of FB#6 is made more explicit. The hypothesis is that an important reason for their efforts has much to do with the perceived need to reinforce the authoritative status of Ellen White as a means of maintaining classical Adventist theology as the cornerstone of traditional Adventist identity.
On this and another website with an oxymoronic name, it has been alleged that some comments of the writer reveals that he has a “problem” with Ellen G. White (EGW).
Let us here be explicit: EGW was a sincere but troubled Christian woman who, beginning in her teen-age years, had a series of out-of-body experiences or “visions.” What exactly caused these visions is a matter of dispute. We probably will never be able to exactly pin that down to the satisfaction of everyone. Whatever caused them, EGW viewed these experiences as being communications from God. More importantly, the individuals who formed her social reference group believed that her visionary states represented communications from God. (Interestingly, that opinion was not shared by EGW’s twin sister). Together with several other strong-willed individuals, one of whom became her husband, the formation of a small 19th Century American religious community was eventually accomplished. That small faith community eventually evolved into the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
Historical research over the last four or five decades have uncovered a significant amount of evidence that the experiences reported by EGW were not all that unique in certain parts of 19th century America. For example, a decade earlier, another set of visions were described by a young man living about 100 miles from EGW. His experiences were responsible for the creation of another indigenous American faith tradition: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).
Visionary episodes of the type EGW experienced have been regarded as manifestations of the divine in both pre-modern and early modern societies. Other scholars have noted that “fits, trances, and visions” (to borrow a phrase from Ann Taves) have been reported as occurring in many cultures. Visions continue to be expected parts of an intense religiosity of various religious systems both Christian and non-Christian. However, there was and is a great diversity in the specific beliefs that result from these visionary experiences.
The point being advanced here is that “visions” of various types should not be considered to be an unusual phenomenon in the history of religion. In fact, they are probably responsible for the creation of most religious systems including the Abrahamic faiths. Thus, there should be no hesitancy in accepting the statements from EGW that she experienced vivid visionary states. The question is what are we to make of the statements she made on a whole range of topics as the result of these visions. Are her conclusions and understandings to be considered authoritative for contemporary Adventist Christians? Some Adventists would answer “absolutely yes”, others would answer “absolutely not”, and some would answer that they are “not sure.” I personally would be comfortable with a “no” answer.
Officially, the Adventist Church has avoided explicitly insisting that EGW views should be regarded as being on the level of the Bible. However, in popular Adventist culture, her authority, for all practical purposes, is essentially considered co-equal with the Bible.
On the other side, a number of Adventist scholars have called for the EGW literary legacy to be reenvisioned and refocused away from EGW as an authoritative oracle to EGW as an inspirational devotional writer.
These comments dealing with EGW have been made in the context of positing that a major factor in the current efforts of Adventist traditionalists to change the language of FB#6 is the perception that the theological authority of EGW is at more than serious risk, it is at a kind of critical tipping point.
I don’t think anyone would question that EGW believed in a recent creation “about six thousand years ago” and that this creation took place in six literal days. She reported several visions where she reported that she had gone back in time and personally witnessed events transpiring in in the early years of this world.
Against that, many scientifically-trained Adventists dispute the validity of that belief and their objections are now well known as they have been noted in various Adventist media including the Adventist Review. The importance of the issue is reflected in the approximately $1 million a year which is spent by the Adventist General Conference supporting the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI). The task of the GRI is essentially to seek scientific validation for EGW’s views about earth history, i.e., young life Creationism. Despite the tens of millions of dollars expended, the efforts of the GRI has been widely deemed to have been an abject failure in that after more than 40 years of effort, there has been an admission that no viable scientific evidence has been produced by the GRI to call into question the standard geological time scale. In the minds of traditionalists, that fact and the challenge of objections by church members in good and regular standing to a position clearly held by EGW creates a dire threat to the whole fabric of the SDA theological enterprise. Also a large cohort of Adventist theologians have expressed the view that an accurate understanding of inspiration is that inspired declarations sometimes include erroneous statements of historical and scientific fact.
Regretfully it appears that the answer to this threat by the currently dominant party in institutional Adventism at the General Conference level is not to rethink what EGW was reflecting upon when she reported her visions. On the contrary, they appear to be doubling down by seeking to codify in explicit language a literalistic interpretation of a Biblical passage in Genesis as endorsed by EGW. They believe that by putting the “right” words in a section of the Adventist Creed, i.e., the 6th statement of Adventist fundamental beliefs, they will somehow achieve what decades of largely misdirected efforts have heretofore not been able to accomplish.
I invite comments on this hypothesis as to what motivates efforts to make FB#6 into another Adventist fundamentalist slogan.