"You shall have no other god besides me” (Exodus 20:3).
“The battle is not between faith and unbelief but between faith and idolatry” (Kierkegard).
The focus of this article is neither idolatry in terms of how it was experienced and practiced in biblical times (and to some extent even today in religious systems like Hinduism), nor is the focus on money, popularity, fame, entertainment, pornography, etc. which Christians often define as modern forms of idolatry.
This article is concerned about a far more subtle form of idolatry that prevails within the closely guarded confines of the Adventist family and the church. As a matter of observation, the two often blend because in the minds of many, it is the Church that defines the behavior of the Christian family at home and in the Church. The idolatry referred to in this article is the many beliefs and practices derived from the writings of Ellen G. White and subtly enforced by the church as having the same authority as God’s Word. Perhaps even more dangerous is the not-acknowledged but real belief that salvation is conditional to accepting everything that she wrote.
In a symposium that focused on the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, the main presenter made a statement that despite its brevity accurately defines the core difference. Two words, he said, suffice to determine the difference: The word "ONLY" and the word "AND." Protestantism is founded on the concept of the Bible ONLY; whereas, Catholicism is founded on the concept of the Bible AND the Apostolic Tradition which gives authority to the church to make official statements that at times supersede the Bible. Then, the presenter went on to elaborate on his statement.
Reading the report of the symposium got me to critically examine our standing as an authentic Protestant denomination. I began to wonder about the true possibility that the Seventh-day Adventist Church may have a closer link with the Catholic approach than to the Protestant one. Indeed, I find a number of ANDs that have become core values specific to our church.
The following is my list of ANDs. I am sure readers may come up with their own versions.
- The Bible AND Ellen G. White
- The Bible AND the Church Manual
- The Bible AND dietary practices
- The Bible AND our peculiar view of the Sanctuary (difficult to defend biblically as many of our own scholars have concluded)
- The Bible AND Sabbath Observance practices (they vary from country to country)
- The Bible AND the official, and sometimes not-so-official, statements of the General Conference
What is of great concern to me is not that those added items are wrong in and of themselves but that they provide water to the mill of those who contend that Adventism is built on the Bible AND. It is not only non-Adventists who raise the issue. There is a growing number of people within our own rank who now dare to express their concerns on the matter, especially in Western Europe.
Many scholars from the Protestant family raise questions about our standing as a genuine Protestant body. Their point of contention is our hard-to-conceal reliance on the writings of Ellen White to prop up biblical truths. One must acknowledge that our official statement of belief does much to dispel any idea that her writings are on par with the Bible. But there is much discrepancy between what the official document states and what one hears in the pulpit or what the membership at large believes. There is no doubt that for many, Ellen White is the final word on any number of issues. Two that come to mind amongst others are the heavenly sanctuary and science.
Most believers find it easier to quote her writings to defend their understanding of the heavenly sanctuary doctrine than to present the belief from a purely biblical perspective. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find more than half a dozen verses on which to build the doctrine that many Adventists consider as being the unique contribution of Seventh-day Adventism to theology. It is, therefore, so much easier to fall back on a “The Spirit of Prophecy says” argument.
It is also no secret that the intelligentsia within the church are having a hard time reconciling the recent scientific findings relating to our universe as well as to other matters with the traditional teachings of the church. Notwithstanding her ignorance in the field of science, Ellen White’s writings are often used to bring the conversation to an end. Whether she is right or not is not the issue; that the Church uses her statements in that manner is. This inevitably feeds the criticism that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has an AND added to the Bible.
The church appeals to her for other beliefs and practices as well.
It cannot be denied that the church has relied far too much on the writings of Ellen White to support biblical truths that could and should stand on their own feet. It seems that most teachings and opinions put forward by the Church end with a quote from her writings. This was for a long time particularly true with the Sabbath School lessons. The format was simply a question answered by a quote from Scripture inevitably followed by Ellen White’s comment on the topic. Lately, some most welcome change has occurred.
It has been pointed out many times before, but it needs to be said again: the biggest disservice and damage the Church has done to the credibility of God’s messenger for the last days are the numerous compilations of writings and statements mostly taken out of context and made to fit into and to support the ideas that the compilers wished to get across. White’s personal letters to individuals and her statements made in private conversations were never intended to be gathered into a nine-volume set titled Testimonies to the Church. The same thing can be said of many other publications covering a range of subjects, quoted under the heading: “The Spirit of Prophecy says.” The overall weakness of compilations is that the immediate context of the statements chosen and published are never described. It is obvious that any context surrounding a personal statement made to someone or to a small group is, rarely if ever, that of the Church at large.
The effect on the minds of the believers has been negative, if not devastating, in the sense that individuals who read and try to apply the “counsels” to their lives have simply been overwhelmed by their sheer number. This creates a sense of utter discouragement for many. Another problem is the use of the Testimonies and other compilations as tools to judge the genuineness of the Adventist faith of fellow believers. The most extreme example of this is the stand taken by the Reformed Seventh Day Adventists.
In our own meetings, ministers—unintentionally I would hope—try to get their points across by lacing sermons and Bible studies with quotes from the writings of EGW. She is quoted more frequently than Scripture. The more conservative the speaker, the higher the number of quotes. One unintended negative result is that imperceptibly Ellen White is confirmed as having higher authority than the Bible. Another is that many ministers do very little Bible research, preferring to fall back on EGW, which is the exact thing she so vehemently decried and warned against.
Another matter of concern is that many of her statements are not corroborated by the Bible. A case in point is the statement that only those that have given up eating flesh will be translated. That may well prove to be true, but one is hard-pressed to find biblical support for it. One can find many more statements which similarly have no clear biblical support. That EGW said such things to individuals is perfectly acceptable (whether inspired or not), but when these are given the status of official Adventist beliefs and practices, EGW has then subtly been given equal status with God. Would it be too strong to say that as Catholicism has made of Mary the intercessor between humanity and God, Adventism has made of EGW the final interpreter of God’s Word although we say that the Bible is self-explanatory?
A tempest is brewing in the French Polynesian field over the fact that the French translation of the Testimonies do not contain everything that the English version does. A very vocal group is creating a lot of fear about personal salvation because the incomplete translation leaves the members in the dark about things they ought to know and do. The ripple created is gathering momentum and will create a scission if not nipped in the bud.
Maybe the glaring weakness in the way our Church promotes and uses the writings of EGW is to be found in the fact that whereas Adventists believe in studying the Bible exegetically, we seldom do so with the writings of EGW, most certainly not outside scholarly circles. In a recent Spectrum article, Charles Scriven pointed to the fact that the Church has often applied to Ellen White statements that should apply to God only. He pointed out that it is time to tell the truth about her and the misuse of her writings.
If we do not, we should not complain if people see us as having, like Catholicism, the Bible AND . . . approach to ultimate truth.
Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.
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