Who Has More Authority? Ellen White, or the Bible?
by Daniel A. Mora | 27 July 2021 |
The question of the authority of Ellen White’s writings continues to be a head-scratcher for Adventists. One traditional position can be seen in a recent article by Marvin Moore responding to Loren Seibold’s article, “Ellen White, the Bible, and Persistent Hermeneutical Confusion.” Moore’s observations affirm that the interpretations of eschatological events made by Mrs. White cannot be wrong, because she has the authority to interpret these prophecies.
Did Ellen White really believe that her interpretations were infallible? Did she believe she was a prophet on the same level as the biblical prophets?
Moore quotes Jud Lake’s definition of inspiration and revelation in Lake’s book Ellen White Under Fire, saying that this definition is the best he has read on this subject. He explains Lake as follows:
Lake says that we cannot spell out degrees of inspiration. Either a person who has the gift of prophecy is inspired by God or they are not. Ellen White’s inspiration is no different from that of the biblical prophets. Either God revealed certain things to Daniel, John, Paul, and Ellen White, or He did not.
I find this definition highly problematic. I believe that the best definition of the nature of Ellen White’s ministry is the one she gave:
The Lord desires you to study your Bibles. He has not given any additional light to take the place of His Word. This light is to bring confused minds to His Word, which, if eaten and digested, is as the lifeblood of the soul. Then good works will be seen as light shining in darkness.
She perceived her writings on a lower level than the Bible, referring to her messages as the “lesser light.”
Restoring Biblical primacy
Early Adventists held a firm position on the infallible authority of the Bible. These pioneers had a restorative approach to Scripture, as explained by Merlin D. Burt—that is, they studied and critiqued the traditional interpretations of the Bible that had been developed over the centuries.
Though Ellen White affirmed this principle of the supremacy of the Bible in the introduction of her book The Great Controversy, some who should hold to the Bible and the Bible alone are now holding to Sola Ellen White, Tota Ellen White and Prima Ellen White.
While it is true that Ellen White affirmed that her inspiration came from the same Holy Spirit that inspired the biblical authors, it is also true that she differentiated between the function of her writings and the canonical writings.
I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice. By that Word we are to be judged. God has, in that Word, promised to give visions in the “last days”; not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth.
Here, Mrs. White categorized and delimited her writings. Moore actually contradicts himself by using Lake’s argument: if there are no degrees of authority, then why should only “the Bible and its writers be given the highest level of authority”? If Moore really believes Lake’s statement, wouldn’t it make sense to drop this fallacy and its associated and ambiguous definitions once and for all, and put Ellen White’s writings on the same level as the Scriptures?
Canonical vs. non-canonical
In his definition Moore does say that the authority of the Scriptures is above Ellen White, “because the Bible was given for all times and circumstances”; while Ellen White’s writings are limited to the Adventist Church. Gerhard Pfandl makes a related argument when he claims that Adventists believe that Ellen White’s authority is the same as the non-canonical prophets.
The most notable difference between the canonical and non-canonical prophets is that the inspired messages of the non-canonical ones are conditional and limited to the time in which they were given. The messages of the non-canonical prophets were circumstantial and limited to their times (cf. Hasher [Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18]; Nathan and Gad [1 Chronicles 21:9; 29:29; 2 Chronicles 9:29; 29:25]; Ahijah [2 Chronicles 9:29; 1 Kings 11:29; 14:7], among others).
So there are degrees of authority and functioning between the biblical writers and Ellen White! If this is the place that Adventism gives to Ellen White’s writings, then her writings must be limited and conditional along with her eschatological interpretations.
Would this be undermining her authority as the Lord’s messenger? Of course not! She never saw herself as a prophet, in the strict sense of the word. She considered herself a messenger set apart by the Lord
[…] to bear the message to the erring ones, to carry the word before unbelievers, and with pen and voice to reprove from the Word actions that are not right. Exhort from the Word.
If Mrs. White said, “I do not claim to be a prophetess,” it is because she knew the essence of her work for the Lord. We should believe her.
The Bible alone
In fact, Ellen White affirmed that the Bible is the only supreme and infallible authority for Christians, in all senses:
We are to receive God’s Word as supreme authority. We must accept its truths for ourselves, as our own individual act. And we shall be able to appreciate these truths only as we shall search them out for ourselves, by personal study of the Word of God…;
The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience.
With the best of intentions, I’m sure, Marvin Moore claims an authority for Ellen White which she never claimed for herself. Why? It appears, in the context, that he does so to protect White’s extra-biblical interpretation of the prophecies to support Sunday laws.
A few days ago I asked the following question to an editor of the Adventist Review: Is the Adventist interpretation of the Sunday Law infallible? I have yet to receive an answer.
It is disturbing to me that Ellen White continues to be used as an infallible interpreter of the Scriptures, when the exegesis of the apocalyptic writings allows us to explore other riches of the biblical text, as recently demonstrated by Jon Paulien.
If we were to ask Ellen White, “Can we use your writings to establish principles of faith, doctrines or biblical interpretations?” I think her answer would be the same as it was back then:
Lay Sister White to one side. Do not quote my words again as long as you live until you can obey the Bible. When you make the Bible your food, your meat and your drink, when you make its principles the elements of your character, you will know better how to receive counsel from God. I exalt the precious Word before you today. Do not repeat what I have said, saying, “Sister White said this,” and “Sister White said that.” Find out what the Lord God of Israel says, and then do what He commands. Christ said, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me.”
…do not make prominent, and quote, that which Sister White has written, as authority to sustain your positions. To do this will not increase faith in the testimonies. Bring your evidences, clear and plain, from the Word of God. A “Thus saith the Lord” is the strongest testimony you can possibly present to the people. Let none be educated to look to Sister White, but to the mighty God, who gives instruction to Sister White…
Is the mark of the beast of Revelation 13 the Sunday law? Moore relies on Ellen White to say it is. Even the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute recently went so far as to bring back the long-disproven nonsense that the number of the beast, 666, is a papal title, VICARIVS FILII DEI. There is no proof that this title has ever been imprinted on a papal crown.
The only thing certain is that no prophetic interpretation is of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20,21). We cannot and should not extinguish the spirit of continuing investigation. Ellen White and the other Adventist pioneers maintained the principle that no human interpretation of prophecy is infallible!
There is no excuse for any one in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.
- Ellen White to Sanderson, Brother and Sister, Letter 130, 1901 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, September 27, 1901). ↑
- Ellen White, “An open letter from Mrs. E. G. White to all who love the blessed hope,” The Review and Herald, January 20, 1903 par. 9; quoted in ídem, The Colporteur Evangelist (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1920), 37. ↑
- See for example James White, A Word to the “Little Flock”, RH, May 30, 1847; ídem, “Notes,” RH, February 14, 1856; ídem, “Do We Discard the Bible by Endorsing Her Visions?,” RH, January 13, 1863; George I. Butler, “The Vision: How They Are Held among Sev-enth-day Adventists,” RH Supplement, August 14, 1883, 12. ↑
- Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1889), 672, 675; ídem, Selected Messages, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), 27. ↑
- Ellen White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1882), 78. ↑
- “Regarding the testimonies, nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered. Nothing must be done untimely.” Ellen White, Selected Messages, 1: 57. ↑
- Ellen White, “A Messenger,” RH, July 26, 1906; ídem to O. A. Olsen, Letter 55, January 30, 1905 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1905). ↑
- Ellen White, “Christ our Helper in the Great Crisis”, Manuscript 100, 1893 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, n/p, 1893). ↑
- Ellen White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), vii; cf. ídem, “A Missionary Appeal”, RH, December 15, 1885, 769, 770; ídem, “Bible Religion,” RH, May 04, 1897, 273; ídem, Counsels on Sabbath School Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1938), 84. ↑
- For example see Ellen White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4 (n.p; n/d), 233. ↑
- Ellen White, Talk/“I would prefer not to speak today …,” Manuscript 43, 1901 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, April 01, 1901), par. 26. ↑
- Ellen White to Colcord, Brother and Sister, Letter 11, 1984 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, January 16, 1894), par. 4. ↑
- Ellen White, “Christ Our Hope,” RH, December 20, 1892. See ídem, “Open the Heart to Light,” RH, June 18, 1889; ídem, “Open the Heart to Light,” RH, March 25, 1890. ↑
Daniel A. Mora writes from Panama.