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Circumstances Change the Relations of Things

Thursday afternoon at the Unity Conference Rolf Pohler, theological adviser to the North German Union Conference, Germany, examined Ellen White’s attitudes to theological continuity and change in the light of the Adventist church’s contemporary struggles with unity. With a variety of sometimes seemingly contradictory quotations, Pohler made it clear that a close look at Ellen White’s responses to issues of church authority, policy, and structure yields no simple answer to today’s church challenges. Most writers’ attempts to derive lessons from Ellen White’s attitudes are subjective—"more like a look in the mirror than an accurate lesson about history," he said. Secondly, we need to recognize the enormous differences between Ellen White’s world and ours. As the prophet herself said: “Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relations of things.”[1] But despite our subjectivity and removal in time, a look at Ellen White’s attitudes to many of the issues we face offers insights into our own situation.

On the vital issue of "present truth," Ellen White was ready to change. In the context of the Minneapolis conference of 1888, she wrote: “What would not have been truth twenty years ago, may well be present truth now.”[2] When people called on her to resolve doctrinal controversies, she consistently urged people to remain open to new interpretations of Bible texts, additional doctrinal insights, and possible revisions of erroneous views.[3] She even urged openness to ideas from outside the church as a means of advancing truth.[4]

In the development of Adventist theology in her own time, Ellen White’s role may be described as "formative, not normative."[5] While she contributed significantly to the development, acceptance, preser­vation, and revision of doctrines, she did not want to be regarded as the final criterion and arbiter of truth. Changes in her own personal theological development have been well-documented by various scholars. She ascribed her own experience of change to divine inspiration. "For sixty years I have been in communication with heavenly messengers, and I have been constantly learning in reference to divine things."[6]

Ellen White’s two-fold approach to the issue of doctrinal development moved between a view of divine truth as "eternal, changeless and immovable" and what sometimes seems like the opposite—truth as "inexhaustible, capable of unlimited expansion." This movement in her understanding encouraged her to constant exploration of traditional doctrines alongside an openness to "new light" which must be examined, investigated, tested, and constantly reviewed.

"While we must hold fast to the truths which we have already received, we must not look with suspicion upon any new light that God may send."[7]

Though Ellen White's statements on doctrinal continuity and change appear somewhat contradictory, Pohler suggested when they are examined in the historical contexts in which they were given, they can be seen as actually complementary and part of the crucial spiritual maturing process of the church.

“Much has been lost because our ministers and people have concluded that we have had all the truth essential for us as a people; but such a conclusion is erroneous and in harmony with the deceptions of Satan, for truth will be constantly unfolding.”[8]

Pohler went on to examine Ellen White’s view on the actual process of theological development. Once again she sought balance in the process of change between "old truths" being rediscovered and restored to the church with many more to be expected. The balance was rooted in the teaching of Christ whose work Ellen White saw as correcting misinterpretations of the Bible and revealing new facets of divine revelation.

“Some things must be torn down. Some things must be built up. The old treasures must be reset in the framework of truth. . . .  Jesus will reveal to us precious old truths in a new light, if we are ready to receive them.”[9]

“Seventh-day Adventists,” said Pohler, “may do well to emulate the example of their prophet who served both as a strong factor of doctrinal continuity and a constant catalyst of doctrinal change.”

The second half of Pohler’s paper explored the implications of Ellen White’s views of theological continuity and change for church leadership, authority, organization, structure, and policy. He identified three aspects of her teaching that have a direct bearing on the on-going struggle about “unity in mission” in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Since human understanding of truth is subject to development, church teaching, policy, and practice must follow suit. Foundational truths must remain and be distinguished from peripheral views which depend on circumstances. On various occasions, Ellen White suggested that organizational structures and policies should serve the church, not vice versa.

Once again: “Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relations of things.”[10]

When people acted independently of the church or relied too much on individual leaders, she emphasized the importance of the collective will of the church as expressed by the General Conference in session. But when the leadership of the church abused its authority by acting in a dominant manner, White would stand up against them, calling them to refrain from exercising dictatorial power. Her statements, made in a particular setting, would become misleading or even wrong when applied indiscriminately to other situations.[11]  She advocated what Pohler called "conscientious nonconformity"—sometimes being willing to accept humbly decisions made by church majorities even though one might disagree while at the same time, questioning tradition, being ready to stand up for sound Biblical interpretation, the rights of individual conscience and “standing for the right though the heavens fall.”[12] In her own practice, Ellen White exemplified this tension when as the habitual supporter of tithing she withheld her own tithe to alleviate suffering and injustice. It was a practice that Pohler described as “conscientious nonconformity,” grounded not in disloyalty or rebellion but in conformity with the core teachings and principles of the word of God.

For Ellen White, change in divine messengers, individual members, and dedicated leaders was not a sign of spiritual weakness but rather an evidence of personal and spiritual growth.

“Some things must be torn down. Some things must be built up.”[13]


Helen Pearson is a counselor, psychotherapist, writer, and trainer from Wokingham in England and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. She is a member of the Spectrum reporting team at the London Unity Conference.

Papers presented at the Unity Conference can be downloaded on their website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.


Notes & References:

[1]Ellen G. White, Report of an Interview / Counsel on Age of School Entrance (St. Helena, CA, 1904), Manuscript 7, 1904, EGWE; White, Selected Messages, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 217; idem, Manuscript Releases, 21 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981, 1987, 1990, 1993), 6:354.

[2]Manuscript 15, 1888, EGWRC, AU, Berrien Springs, MI.

[3]The debate on the law in Galatians and on “the daily” are illustrations of this.

[4]"When the resolution was urged upon the conference that nothing should be taught in the college contrary to that which has been taught, I felt deeply, for I knew whoever framed that resolution was not aware of what he was doing" (Ellen White, Manuscript 16, 1889, EGWRC, AU, Berrien Springs, MI). "Instructors in our schools should never be bound about by being told that they are to teach only what has been taught hitherto. Away with these restrictions. There is a God to give the message His people shall speak. Let not any minister feel under bonds or be gauged by men's measurements. The gospel must be fulfilled in accordance with the messages God sends. That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God's message for this time" (Manuscript 8a, 1888, EGWRC, AU, Berrien Springs, MI). In 1896, White wrote: "The God of heaven sometimes commissions men to teach that which is regarded as contrary to the established doctrines" (Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers [Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1923/1962], 69).

[5]Richard Hammill, "Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today," Ministry, July 1982, 17.

[6]Ellen G. White, This Day with God (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1979), 76.  Cf. idem, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 686.

[7]Gospel Workers, 310.

[8]Ellen White, "Candid Investigation Necessary to an Understanding of the Truth," Signs of the Times, 26 May 1890, 305-306.

[9]Ellen G. White, "Minneapolis Talks," 88-89; see also Selected Messages, 1:355, 409.

[10]Ellen G. White, Report of an Interview / Counsel on Age of School Entrance (St. Helena, CA, 1904), Manuscript 7, 1904, EGWE; idem, Selected Messages, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 217; idem, Manuscript Releases, 21 vols. (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981, 1987, 1990, 1993), 6:354.

[11]While written with regard to health reform, James White's description of the difficulty his wife was facing in leading the church to a balanced position may apply here: "She makes strong appeals to the people, which a few feel deeply, and take strong positions, and go to extremes … What she may say to urge the tardy, is taken by the prompt to urge them over the mark.  And what she may say to caution the prompt, zealous, incautious ones, is taken by the tardy as an excuse to remain too far behind" ("To a Brother at Monroe, Wisc.," Review and Herald, 17 March 1868, 220).

[12]Education (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1903/1942), 57.

[13]Ellen G. White, "Minneapolis Talks," 88-89; see also Selected Messages, 1:355, 409.


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