Against Thompson's Non-Contextual Methodology

Written by: 
July 19, 2023

This is a response to a book review by Alden Thompson published by Spectrum on March 30, 2023.

“Casebolt is a man on a mission, a mission to show that Ellen White is an unreliable guide to Adventist doctrine and history. As far as I can tell, his evidence and argumentation are impeccable.” This evaluation is at the core of Alden Thompson’s review of my last two books. He starts his review as follows: “Words like ‘far-fetched,’ ‘fanciful,’ ‘erroneous,’ and ‘outlandish’ are not likely to inspire confidence in Ellen White’s prophetic ministry.” He later states that “Casebolt uses such biting language when describing Ellen White’s ministry.” But this is citing “biting language” out of context. I stated that “far-fetched” and “fanciful” were the words used by Nichol, the most illustrious Adventist apologist, in characterizing Miller’s multiple prophetic proofs. They were not the biting comments of an opponent but a reasoned conclusion of an ardent defender of Ellen White’s ministry. I confess to being stunned when I discovered Nichol’s exact words. Thompson’s “non-contextual” account of Nichol’s biting language illustrates the fact that I need to make further factual clarifications. 

Before that, however, let me say that I have learned and appreciated much from Thompson’s pen for about three to four decades. When we were both residents of the Pacific Northwest I always read with pleasure and benefit Thompson’s articles in denominational magazines, like the Gleaner. So it is with great respect that I tremblingly venture to suggest that Thompson’s analysis has a few weak spots. A preliminary observation I would like to make is that in developing his thesis, he cites, “extensively and tediously,” several paragraph-long quotations from various sources (especially midrash), while the longest citation I could find of the two books being reviewed was not a paragraph or a sentence, or even a prepositional phrase but merely single words such as I just cited. In short, other than a description of my “mission” at the highest level of abstraction, I found virtually nothing describing my numerous and detailed pieces of empirical evidence.

His solution for White’s various faulty statements is to validate “non-contextual methods of interpreting Scripture,” specifically midrash and historicism. A non-contextual method is Thompson’s alternative label for eisegesis. He quotes the definition of eisegesis as a “faulty interpretation of a text by reading into it one’s own ideas.” It calls to mind the proverb: “A text out of context is a pretext.” Nonetheless, Thompson seems to believe that he has a means of transforming the “faulty interpretation of a text” into sensible exegesis, “leading out” a text’s “true meaning.” Thompson states that he has “made peace with both exegesis and eisegesis.” Before seeing how Thompson makes his peace, I emphasize that even supposing Thompson is successful, it is a stark historical fact that Miller’s Millerites and the shut door proto-Adventists of the 1840s repeatedly imagined and asserted that their interpretations were plain, simple, evident, and literal—that is, contextual. Not allegorical and non-contextual. Adventist apologetic literature still claims that both William Miller and Ellen White were practicing literal, contextual exegesis not metaphorical, allegorical, non-contextual eisegesis. My books provide multiple extensive and richly detailed examples of this.

Thompson’s exhibit A of the kind of non-contextual interpretation he has made peace with is midrash. He cites “extensively and tediously” a midrash of Genesis 15:17. This is how he explains how “the sacred text seems to transcend context.” The rabbis transform a three-year-old heifer, a female goat, a three-year-old ram and two birds into “Gehenna, the [foreign] kingdoms, Revelation, and the temple.” Thompson questions rhetorically: “Far-fetched?” He concludes, “it is certainly non-contextual, but by their [rabbinical] standards, not far-fetched and outlandish.” He also concludes that both midrash and historicism “represent real methods used by real believers and must be taken seriously.” Seriously? With this type of non-contextual logic where a heifer and a female goat can be morphed into Gehenna and domination by foreign kingdoms, sensible, literal, grammatical, contextual analysis may as well spit into the wind. Does Thompson really contend that midrash non-contextual interpretations are rational and valid? Are all non-contextual interpretations equally valid? If not, what criteria does Thompson propose for discerning the difference between sense and nonsense? Because a group of “real believers” wreak havoc on language, meaning, and syntax does that mean that their interpretation is sensible? How does Thompson propose to use these criteria on the concrete, specific cases I cite, such as Hosea 6:1–3 and Luke 13:32 and Miller’s principle of a day equals a millennium? (See chapters 3 and 5 of Father Miller’s Daughter). 

Thompson’s other suggestion for making peace with non-contextual interpretations is his longtime hypothesis of growth. He was most struck by my observation that Ellen Harmon was only twelve when Miller’s 15 non-contextual prophetic proofs—which he and Ellen White insisted were literal, contextual proofs—convinced her that Jesus really meant that the “wise” would definitely know the exact date of the Second Advent. He is prepared to concede that she was merely “an excitable teenager” at twelve but that she outgrew several faulty beliefs—namely, her faulty belief in an eternally burning hell and original neglect of evangelical methods appropriate to the intellectual class. I agree that Ellen White grew intellectually in manifold respects. However, she never recanted several of her demonstrably falsified beliefs, which I detailed in, for example, chapter four of Father Miller’s Daughter and my first on-line case, which dealt with the Seven Times of the Gentiles, or 2520-year prophecy. Suffice it to summarize here that although the 2520-year pseudo-prophecy is prominent on both the 1843 and 1851 charts that Ellen White said were approved by God, Uriah Smith and an author authorized to write for the Biblical Research Institute both stated that this prophecy is no prophecy at all. In fact, unwittingly no doubt, Smith mocks it (Father Miller’s Daughter, 4–5). 

Thompson wishes that I provide a “clearer context” for historicism. I refer him to pages 5–8 of Father Miller’s Daughter where I give a short summary of historicism’s roots in Reformation Era commentators such as Brightman and Whiston, along with a few prophetic time charts that failed of fulfillment only to have Miller reinterpret them with new dates and events that also failed. See also Firth and Froom in the bibliography, along with my mention of Iliffe’s book on Isaac Newton’s prophetic failures. I cut from the book thirty pages of manuscript that discussed numerous other failed historicist charts and their predictions fearing that most readers’ eyes would glaze over due to too much arcane detail. The point is clear. Miller had a whole host of predecessors whose non-contextual predictions failed. It is ironic that Thompson faults me for too little “clearer context” when he is trying to justify dispensing with context altogether.

Thompson wonders whether I favor the hypothesis of Ellen White as “an excitable teenager” or “a subtle conniving soul.” Neither. My hypothesis is more nuanced and clearly stated. She was an inexperienced, pre-teen who suffered a near fatal traumatic brain injury and an extended post-traumatic stress disorder that predisposes persons towards the perplexing and mysterious diagnosis of confabulation. To explain this more fully I have submitted a manuscript to Spectrum whose more detailed treatment of confabulation explicates this more fully. I am puzzled that more commentators, including Thompson, have not commented on the persons who had experiences so parallel to White’s. I refer to Caleb Rich, Richard Randall, Bernadette Soubirous, and Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc most markedly asserted her belief that God miraculously spoke through her. She was so sincere she was burnt alive for her faith. She believed that two popular medieval female saints’ voices guided her. Yet both these saints existed only in legends. Still, Thompson’s Catholic equivalent tends to be ideologically bound to contend that Joan of Arc’s and Bernadette Soubirous’s subjective divine experiences were objectively genuine.

I am honored and gratified that Thompson ends his review stating: “We are indebted to Donald Casebolt for uncovering an astonishing wealth of information on Ellen White and Adventism.” I only wish Thompson had provided at least a summary, and/or some examples from this wealth. He might have described one of the following beliefs that Ellen White did not outgrow.

She wrote that she had special revelation that masturbation caused mass insanity and death by multitudinous loathsome diseases. She says that the commonest illness caused by masturbation was consumption. This was one of the common labels for tuberculosis before its cause was discovered by science in 1882. Phthisis and scrofula were other common labels for various forms of tuberculosis affecting organs other than the lungs. She says that both are caused by masturbation, that mothers can pass on hereditary scrofula to their unborn children, and that females are more susceptible to death from masturbation since they have no semen which has forty times the life force of an equivalent amount of blood. This was her original and primordial health message. In short, she attributed the death and disease caused by TB to secret vice over a period of decades. And apologists are still struggling to assert that White did not err here.

As of 2023 her writings still assert that the Ottoman Empire collapsed on August 11, 1840, even though this has been debunked definitively. Her writings continue to assert that the Lisbon earthquake was a fulfillment of prophecy, and a sign of the end times, even though it is a quarter millennium in the past.

In closing, let me correct Thompson’s impression that I see my “mission” as proving that “Ellen White is an unreliable guide.” My objective was to examine the history of historicism, Miller’s non-contextual use of it, and the shut door, proto-Adventist appropriation of it. To describe Ellen Harmon’s conversion to the date-setting midnight cry and her endorsement of Snow’s, James White’s, Joseph Turner’s, and O. R. L. Crosier’s continued application of the opposite of a plain, commonsense, literal interpretation of the Bible. The consensus Adventist explanation of the empirical facts of Ellen White’s reliance on mistaken predecessors is that she got all significant theological, historical, and scientific beliefs from infallible, special revelation and that, therefore, she did not err in her interpretation of prophecies. But clearly, she did err. Thus, the more educated in hermeneutics, history, and science one becomes, the more impossible it is to believe in this non-empirical view of inspiration. It is like demanding obeisance to Ptolemaic dogma centuries after the Copernican revolution. Adventists with a fundamentalist inclination routinely denigrate scientific rational methods and reason, claiming that they have a monopoly on revelation that supersedes reason. They do not realize that Miller’s and Snow’s own (un)reason and counter-factual, and non-contextual explanations are tainted with original sin and therefore demonstrably faulty. I claim to have documented a series of disconfirmed, historicist interpretations that had roots in Reformation Era historicism, were reworked by Miller, and re-reworked by Snow, Crosier, and James and Ellen White. Thompson has taken half the journey in stating that traditional Adventist historicism is based on non-contextual, eisegesis. I believe his defense of non-contextually based doctrines is not persuasive. Merlin Burt’s observation (cited in Father Miller’s Daughter) that the foundations of unique Adventist doctrines are based on an allegorical rather than a commonsense, literal method is also only halfway to a full truth. 

A contextual, exegetical method is the only rational, reasonable method for interpreting any human communication, including sacred scriptures. “Exegesis is a normal activity all of us practice every day of our lives” (Hayes & Holladay 2007, 1). Read this book in its entirety for a summary of how exegesis is indispensable for decoding all human communication through language. If we tried to use a non-contextual method for decoding any of the written or oral messages in our daily lives, we would find our communications to be incomprehensible gibberish. 

The disappointed Millerites who understood Scripture to be commanding them to humbly crawl on the floor like six-month-olds illustrate “real methods used by real believers,” but they by all means should not “be taken seriously.”


Donald E. Casebolt studied in the MDiv program at Andrews University, studied Semitic languages and Protestant theology at Karl Eberhard University at Tubingen, Germany, and spent two years in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. He recently published Child of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White. A second book, Father Miller’s Daughter, was published by Wipf & Stock in 2022. He is a retired nurse practitioner.

Title image credit: Wipf & Stock

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email