The rise of fundamentalism within our denomination is troubling. Extremes from both ends of the ideological spectrum are robbing contemporary Adventism of the ability to grow and expand as a denomination. Often these sincere Christians, in their piety and zeal, fundamentally misunderstand how to apply Scripture to practical living and disallow the ability for God to lead through revelation in this present age. This is rarely intentional on the part of those who could be classified as fundamentalists, but is inevitably the consequences of such a mindset. Because the fundamentalist mindset in Adventism is focused on “defending truth” and not “seeking truth” it is incompatible with the North American rise of intellectual Adventism. In their eagerness to bring Adventism back to the “traditional faith of the founders,” these Christians fail to realize that in so doing they are refusing to follow where God is leading. They have become trapped within an extreme form of Adventism and only know it to be “true.” In “Christian Service” Ellen White addressed those who fail to follow God’s light, be they conservative or liberal, when she wrote, “Accumulated light has shone upon God’s people, but many have neglected to follow the light, and for this reason they are in a state of great spiritual weakness.”
Last week some of my friends, themselves Theology and Religious Studies majors, were discussing the matter of Ellen White and her role in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The more moderate and conservative of our group, who are pursuing careers as theologians and pastors in the church, were quite dismissive of White’s writings. I was surprised that they could negate her role as a Messenger of the Lord and still consider themselves Adventists.
Try to imagine the scene. The liberal, avid reader of Borg, Armstrong, Spong, and Crossan, (proponent of “Process Theology,” and admirer of Theistic Evolution) was left to offer a defense of Ellen White. It was quite an interesting discussion that ensued between three Adventists attempting to reconcile Ellen White and Christianity.
While the following paragraphs are an attempt to summarize the conversation with my friends, while presenting my thoughts on Ellen White, it is by no means a comprehensive study on the subject. Nor is it a complete representation of the many conversations that developed from our questions regarding Ellen White.
One cannot begin to discuss Ellen G. White without addressing the fact that her writings and ministry, within Adventist Christianity, have often been greatly misunderstood. This is partly because of the element of fundamentalism present within Adventism. It is troubling that there are those within our denomination who would readily proof-text White’s writings to prove an argument as those who would quote the Holy Scriptures. This non-biblical literalism, when applied to the Scriptures, is just as detrimental to understanding biblical texts as it is when applied to the writings of Ellen White, or any author. Literalism must be regarded as yet another extremist child of fundamentalism. It extracts passages from their context and interprets them apart from their intended meaning. This is a form of intellectual hypocrisy, and is all too common among members within our denomination.
It is my belief that reading any passage with a specific predisposition will only serve to affirm that opinion, insofar as the individual reading the passage cannot conceive of any alternative interpretation or application of that text. This leads to misguided principles of study, biblical hermeneutics, interpretation, and application of literary passages. Theologians have often written that, “The Bible can be used to support or condemn anything if one is willing to set aside sound principles of hermeneutics, textual context, and interpretive application.” This is equally true of the writings of Ellen White. Adventists have, from the time of God’s revelation to our fledging denomination, been poor stewards of White’s writings. Our denomination has misunderstood the “greater picture” with respect to our denominational heritage and the larger history of Christianity.
One of Adventism’s major contributions to Christian thought (the idea of progressive revelation, called “Present Truth” by Adventists) is often neglected or simply misapplied by our fundamentalist members. Adventism dictates that it is, by its very nature and understanding of revelation, a progressive denomination, or at least, it should be theologically. Unfortunately, because Adventist administrators and theologians have aligned the denomination with Evangelical Christianity, extremist conservatism has greatly influenced the laity of the church. Due to the influences of fundamentalism, Adventism has remained theologically restrained and locked in an unhealthy, often ill-informed, dogmatic rendering of our Twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs for some greater notion of “Traditional Adventism,” which is neither traditional nor Adventist. Ellen White no more inhibits our growth as Adventist Christians than John Wesley for Methodists, Martin Luther for Lutherans, or John Calvin for Calvinists.
The idea that Ellen White, in contrast to her contemporaries, was somehow a conservative (or as some would insist a “liberal”) is not supported by Adventist history. She held beliefs that were more progressive for her time and also beliefs that were conservative. As her understanding increased, so her beliefs grew and became more inclusive to reflect her personal growth. It is in the sense that Ellen White was able to adapt and grow throughout her life that she is considered “progressive” not because her views today represent what Progressive Adventists believe today. Fritz Guy writes, “Ellen White, for example, consistently used the words “conservative” and “conservatism” with a distinctly negative connotation, referring to excessive caution, a lack of venturesomeness, and a concern for popular approval, in theological as well as practical contexts. Words she associated with “conservative” included “compromising,” “concession,” “narrow,” “old,” “please the people,” “policy men,” “satisfied,” “self-centered,” and “superficial(1).” Progressive Adventists need to rescue Ellen White from the fundamentalists within our denomination. She rightly embodies within our Adventist identity as “Progressive Christians,” not as part of an agenda of fundamentalism which has become pervasive throughout Adventism.
Adventists have misused the ministry of Ellen White, and her writings, to attack and redefine the very ethos of Adventism: Progressive Revelation. Throughout the entirety of Scripture, there is a portrayal of a loving, Almighty Creator who earnestly seeks to be understood by a rebellious people and to re-establish His governance in the hearts of mankind. Scripture also recounts the history of a rebellious people that earnestly seeks to understand their Almighty Creator through His divine loving nature, and to reconcile themselves by trusting His governance. The beauty of the Scriptures, indeed the very holiness that renders it to be the Word of God, comes precisely from this narrative, not some fundamentalist notion of “word inspiration.” What a testament it truly is that the God who is willing to risk being misunderstood is truly a God of Divine Love who desires that we might ultimately understand him better (2). Ellen White encourages our earnest study of Scriptures and community dialogue when she wrote that, “Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s Word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion (3).” Ellen White understood that God wants to dialogue with people. She knew that more than wanting a dogmatic faith, God desires a people willing to grow and expand in understanding.
In her ministry to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen White attempts to give witness to a God who desires for people to understand Him better. A God who is willing to work within our humanity and a God that understands our shortcomings, yet is still able to use us for His purpose of salvation. Truly, this is a God that exhibits a capacity for ultimate love. We, as Adventists, must understand the historic role of prophets within this framework of God’s character to truly appreciate Ellen White within our denomination. There are three primary traits concerning prophets that affect their mission.
1. Prophets are human.
This suggests that Ellen White, rather than a source of ultimate truth, is fallible and must be afforded the ability to have her own human free will apart from the will of God. It is true that prophets often commit themselves and their lives in service to God and His purpose for their life, but it is equally true that God allows us to make mistakes along the way. He even allows us to “be human.” That is precisely why He is a God of Divine Love—being both Just and Merciful always.
2. Prophets are contemporary.
This means that Ellen White, rather than an inerrant source of reference for all time, should be understood within the time-period in which she is writing. The issues she addresses are mostly relevant to Adventist Christians in the nineteenth-century, not those in the twenty-first century. This does not suggest that her writings are no longer relevant to Adventists. Rather, this means that we can no longer read her writings “out-of-context” and apply the words she addressed to Adventists in nineteenth-century America to the twenty-first-century global Adventist Community. It requires us to understand the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church through the study of our history as a denomination and interpret how that heritage impacts us today. By understanding Ellen White’s writings within their original context, one is better able to apply these biblical principles to situations which she may not have addressed directly.
3. Prophets are God’s means of communication.
Ellen White, rather than a prophet for all of Christianity, should be properly understood within her role in Adventism. God chose to begin a dialogue with the believers of a movement that would become known as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Lord of the Universe beckons us, “Come let us reason together.” (4) As a movement, Adventism has had a profound experience with God, one that affects our basic identity as Adventist Christians. Our history as a church has become so tightly interwoven with the ministry of Ellen White that to separate one from the other is to completely destroy the very fabric of Adventism. God used Ellen White as a messenger, a prophet for the early Adventist denomination, to offer guidance and direction to our movement. He began the conversation with Ellen White, but it is imperative that all Adventist Christians endeavor to continue that dialogue.
With these three primary traits, Adventists can come to appreciate the ministry of Ellen White by more fully understanding her limitations as a prophet, contemporaneous role within the Adventist movement, and God’s continued dialogue with Adventist Christianity. Prophets are not infallible nor are prophets theologians. Ellen White is fallible. And while she is factually inaccurate on many issues that she addresses, she remains sound and reliable in the application of biblical principles. Ellen White was not a theologian. She does not define Adventist theology. If she does, then our denomination has no claim to Christianity, but is more rightfully defined as a cult. It is interesting to note that although Ellen White was not a theologian, she brought our denomination theologically closer to Christian orthodoxy(5). This is yet another great testament to her conviction to serve God and how God used her within our midst. She offered words of inspiration to Adventists, for all of us to always be thinking about and investigating their faith, writing, “Allow no one to be brains for you; allow no one to do your thinking, your investigating, and your praying(6).” Some examples of Ellen White bringing Adventists to a more orthodox Christianity can be observed within her thoughts concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, understanding of the Atonement, her concept of the New Birth, and issues surrounding the Close of Probation or “Shut Door” theory.
The “Great Controversy” vision, received in March 1858, that developed into the five-volume “Conflict of the Ages” series, offers a case in point of Adventism’s concept of progressive revelation and how Ellen White “changed” or evolved in understanding as time and knowledge progressed. Julius Nam writes, “White may have seen a comprehensive vision on the great controversy in 1858, but as time passes, her understanding of this vision grows and expands—aided by growing spiritual wisdom, deeper understanding of Scripture, input from others around her, reading others’ works and incorporating them in her own writings, and probably some significant, signature experiences such as the 1888 General Conference session. Her view of God shifts dramatically from a stern, impassive judge to a loving, longsuffering parent(7).”
Three “Threads of Truth,” woven throughout Scripture, are the History of Redemption, the Great Controversy theme, and the Principle of Divine Love. Ellen White’s writings have helped to illuminate and expound upon these truths. Without Ellen White, our denomination’s understandings of these three themes, (“Threads of Truth,”) within the Bible would be greatly diminished. While she was indeed no theologian, her “theology,” if one might call it that, compliments that of Scripture. She wrote of Adventists and our mission, “You are not to shut yourselves up to yourselves, and be content because you have been blessed with knowledge of the truth. Who brought the truth to you? Who showed the light of the Word of God to you? God has not given you His light to be placed under a bushel(8).” I wonder how we allow some in our denomination to place God’s progressive revelation under a bushel?
Personally, Ellen White’s life story, her mission, writings, preaching, and travels are all part and parcel of an inspiring Christian testimony centering on a woman after the very heart of God—a woman who struggles to lead a movement to an understanding that more closely reflects a loving Creator God who desires, above all else, a loving relationship between Him and His people. Her story is our story. She is the quintessential Adventist, our paragon. Her life demonstrates an understanding of progressive revelation. Her writing illustrates a woman who desired conversation and dialogue, not debate and consensus. She writes of God’s expectations, “Greater light shines upon us than shone upon our fathers. We cannot be accepted or honored of God in rendering the same service, or doing the same works, that our fathers did. In order to be accepted and blessed of God as they were, we must imitate their faithfulness and zeal—improve our light as they improved theirs, and do as they would have done had they lived in our day. We must walk in the light which shines upon us, otherwise that light will become darkness(9).” She reflects the ethos of Adventism to the Christian world—progression. Her life and work, ironically, do not match that of the fundamentalists who often quote her to belittle intellectualism, offend progressive thinking, and cry “Heresy!” to any new idea not explicitly advocated by their personal notion of “Traditional Adventism.”
Our Almighty Father began His conversation with the Adventist Movement through Ellen White. He has not stopped that conversation and requests further dialogue with all of us. We are to understand and appreciate, and in so doing, build upon the work of Ellen White and our early Adventist founders. WE are to reflect an Adventism of the twenty-first century: one that knows within its heart that “God is still speaking.”
In conclusion, in a post about Ellen White it would only be fitting and appropriate to allow her to "speak" for herself. Concerning Adventist’s understanding of Scripture and ideas, Ellen White wrote, “There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without 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(10).”
1.“Theologically Thinking” by Friz Guy.
2.“The God Who Risks Being Misunderstood” article in ‘Spectrum’ by Ray Roennfeldt.
3.“Testimonies for the Church” vol. 4 by Ellen G. White.
5.“Fundamentals of Christian Education” by Ellen G. White.
6.“Change: The Adventist Constant” blog post on http://progressiveadventism.com/ by Julius Nam.
7.“Ellen White: The Embodiment of Change” post on http://progressiveadventism.com/ by Julius Nam.
8.‘Review & Herald’ article in August 14, 1888 by Ellen G. White.
9.“Testimonies for the Church” vol. 1 by Ellen G. White.
10.“Counsels to Writers & Editors” by Ellen G. White.