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Toward a Factual Concept of Inspiration


In 1978, due to mounting evidence raising questions about the sourcing of his grandmother’s writings, Arthur White updated his 1966 paper “Toward a Factual Concept of Inspiration.” The expanded 58 page version, “Toward a Factual Concept of Inspiration II,” was released the same year of his resignation after forty-one years leading the Ellen G. White Estate. The paper made the case that the writings of Ellen G. White were based on visions and dreams inspired by the Holy Spirit. But the main sources cited on how inspiration works came from Arthur White's grandmother and her son—his father. The fact that she took her history from Protestant historians was brushed aside. As for errors, he conceded that there might be a few, but asserted that they were insignificant details.

In the case of Ellen White’s statements on science and health, areas not covered in Arthur White’s paper, the standard defense in the 1970s was to find extreme examples to show that her words could be true under unusual circumstances. In reality, it was clear that her statements were intended to be applied broadly, and in some cases—such as the age of life on this planet—the aim was to simply deny the findings of modern science.

Scholars have learned a great deal about Ellen White since the 1970s, and today it is even more evident that her writings are based on human sources. In addition to this, her work contains historical statements, scientific explanations, and biblical interpretations that—though they might have seemed credible in her day—are simply not true. The official teachings of the Adventist Church, which are based on White’s 1970s concept of inspiration, do not reflect the facts that scholars have carefully revealed since the document’s publication. 

Arthur White was correct. The church needs a factual concept of inspiration, but at present, it does not have one. It is past time for this work to begin and, in fact, it is an urgent priority. While Ellen White remains a treasure for Adventists, she is also an albatross hanging from our neck, inhibiting fresh thinking on important issues. Her teachings threaten division between those who believe she had special authority on everything she touched and those who—while believing God used her in unique ways—feel they have no choice but to acknowledge the contrary evidence. Church leaders should welcome an open, vigorous, and inclusive conversation that leads Adventists to a widespread consensus on the concept of inspiration. Biblical scholars and theologians should lead the way in developing such a concept, but historians and scientists are needed to help establish the facts. 

In response to the Ellen White research of the 1970s, I shared some early thinking on this issue at the first national Association of Adventist Forums conference and later published my paper, “The Scope of Ellen White’s Authority" in volume 16 of Spectrum. As a historian who has engaged in this work, I am going to take the liberty of venturing some thoughts on a factual concept of inspiration.

Where to start? Let’s acknowledge that belief in inspiration—any inspiration—is an act of faith. Inspiration cannot be proven. It may be supported by evidence: the claims of a prophet, facts and logic that give some credence to the claims, widespread acceptance of the claims, even a rapidly growing body of believers and the triumph of a movement. But none of this is proof. If it were, the claims of numerous prophets would command our belief.

The inspiration of Ellen White cannot be proven. Belief in her inspiration requires a leap of faith. That being said, continued belief in disproven claims about her inspiration is irrational. While one cannot disprove the inspiration of White, one can prove that White was not an authority on all matters, that much of what she wrote was clearly based on human sources, and that she was no more original than many other creative people. 

Belief in divine revelation is grounded in faith, but faith alone won’t suffice. Reason is still required, for one must choose which prophet to believe and which faith path to follow. Reason, of course, can mislead and be flawed. Nevertheless, without reason, we could not translate, read, or understand God’s word, and we would be open to no end of destructive nonsense. We have no choice but to use our reason to guide our faith.

Church leaders—even in White’s own lifetime—wrestled with the concept of inspiration. The first step they took was to deny any claim of verbal inspiration by asserting that her thoughts—not her words—were inspired and that when she used the words of others, it was only to describe what she had already seen in vision. The second step—a small one not conceded until the 1970s and since then kept mostly under wraps—was to acknowledge that she sometimes used the words of others to describe things she had not seen in vision. 

It is past time to move beyond these weak defenses of Ellen White’s inspiration toward a factual concept. White never claimed verbal inspiration. But when it comes to the question of authority, what difference does it make if the inspiration is verbal or through thought? Interestingly enough, White seldom claimed that her words were placed in her mind by the Holy Spirit; rather, she affirmed that her writings were her own descriptions of what she had been shown in vision. The phrases “I saw” and “I was shown” are scattered throughout her writings.

We seldom find such phrases in the Bible. Peter tells us that prophecy comes not by the will of men, but that holy men of God speak as they are moved by the Holy Spirit. Daniel and John report dreams and visions. Enoch walked with God, and Abraham talked with God. But this information does not come from Enoch, Abraham, or even from an eyewitness. Most Bible writers do not claim to have seen events in vision. They simply tell stories and state facts. The writers of the Chronicles were most likely copying temple records. Did they first see the events they described in visions and then use the words of the temple records to describe what they had seen? What about the poetry of the Old Testament? Did the Holy Spirit inform David or Solomon that a poem should be written that expressed a specific thought? Are the Gospels based on visions or Paul’s letters? 

The distinctions between inspiration by visions, dreams, and illumination are interesting but not all that helpful unless they are built on facts. Biblical scholars seek facts—archeological, historical, linguistic and others—to better understand the Bible. Then, they develop concepts of inspiration in accordance with the claims of the writer and the facts. They often do this without access to the context and sources available to Ellen White scholars.

Even so, many questions about White’s life and work remain unanswered. Ellen White scholars need to uncover more facts. For example, we need full contextual information on all her visions and dreams—time, place, circumstances, witnesses, and details of recording. We also need to fully understand the common beliefs of her day, the beliefs of those in her circle, and to what extent those influenced her thinking. As her writing on science, health, history, and even biblical narratives shows, the extent of her incorporation of previously published sources, authored by others, still requires scholarly work.  

The White Estate should make all Ellen White documents available to responsible researchers, both Adventist and non-Adventist. Historians will not agree on everything. But as facts and their significance become more firmly established, scholars tend to reach consensus, especially with the passing of time and the cooling of passions. As historians and others engage in honest, vigorous, inclusive, and extended conversations on the facts of White’s work—a conversation that will take place with or without the approval of church leaders—consensus on a factual concept of inspiration will eventually emerge.

Given what we know now, I think we can put forth some tentative conclusions. First, I see no evidence of fraud. It seems clear to me that Ellen White sincerely believed that she was God’s messenger and that her visions and dreams were divinely inspired. If she was not a fraud, however, was she delusional? How do we understand the claims that are beyond rational belief? Perhaps there are not as many as we think. First of all, it is necessary to separate her claims from the claims of others. Some witnesses are not reliable, and her inspiration was understood differently even among close observers of her life and work. We should examine the beliefs of all those who observed her first-hand and assess their contemporary understanding of her gift.

And what of the content of her claims? On close reading, many seem more modest than her apologists’ argue, and some are open to more than one interpretation. But we must acknowledge that White sometimes claimed visions or dreams as the source of ideas that simply aren’t true. How do we explain these statements? We can begin by placing each one of these claims in its context. Where and when did she say it? What was going on at the time? Who was her audience? Was she responding in real time or speaking of visions and dreams long past? Properly understood, some of these statements may not be that problematic.

But what about those that are problematic? I think the evidence shows that, at times, White may have misunderstood her gift. Is it required that those upon whom God bestows prophetic gifts always fully understand how he is using them? White believed all of her dreams were inspired, when perhaps sometimes they were just dreams. She believed all of her visions were from God, when perhaps sometimes they were just ecstatic experiences. Being human, it would not be surprising if she sometimes recalled what was in her best interest, let unwarranted claims for her gift stand, or even exaggerated just a bit.

A concept of inspiration that acknowledges all of this should not trouble us. For if God chooses to speak to humanity through a prophet, he must choose a prophet also influenced by time and place. God must speak to that prophet in ways they can understand, so that they can convey a message that is comprehensible to those who hear it. And finally, God has no choice but to use a flawed human with limited knowledge, an unreliable memory, and a strong sense of their important role.

God speaks in metaphors. How else could we understand? Does "father and son" really describe the relation between God and Jesus? Streets paved with gold would not make for comfortable walking and would quickly show wear. Jesus told his disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now" (John 16:12). Could the Holy Spirit have shown White things she could not bear? How did she understand metaphor?

Ellen White’s message was for post-Millerite, mid-19th century Americans. If she were alive and giving God’s messages to today’s Adventist church, would the Holy Spirit give her the same visions and dreams she received 150 years ago? Foundational truths don’t change. However, the understanding, expression, and application of these truths must change if they are to meet the needs of those for whom they are intended. As time passes, believers live in different cultures and face different challenges. There is a reason our pioneers referred to their message as “present truth.”

One can accept the teachings of Ellen White with a concept of inspiration that recognizes the facts of her life and understands the limits that humanity places on God’s ability to communicate with us. Proof is not available. But there is supporting evidence: her claims, her life of service and ministry, the acceptance of her gift by others, the fruits of her labors, and the power of her writings—even if they are heavily dependent on others and mirror some of the mistaken beliefs of her time and place.

We can then confirm this supportive evidence by a deeply internal, illogical leap of faith. As honest seekers of truth, we should respect those who choose not to take this leap, as well as those who cling to a concept of inspiration that is incompatible with the current facts. All should be welcome in the Adventist family. The unity of the emerging world church will not be sustainable unless they are. But if church leaders insist on an irrational concept of inspiration which demands belief in that which can be proven false, we can expect many of our youth and new Adventists to seek another path.  


Donald McAdams graduated from Columbia Union College and Duke University and has published on history, management, and education policy. He has been a professor at Andrews University and the University of Houston; president of Southwestern Adventist College and at the Texas Independent College fund; and executive vice president of the American Productivity & Quality Center and Texas Southern University. In 1993, he founded a management consultancy with clients in manufacturing, mining, travel, education, and healthcare. There, he designed for the Veterans Administration a system-wide implementation of quality management for their nearly 200 hospitals. In 2001, after 12 years on the Houston school board, he founded the Center for Reform of School Systems to provide governance training for urban school boards. By his retirement in 2011, he had trained boards in over 100 districts.

Arthur Lacey White standing next to the tombstone of William Miller. Spectrum/Ellen G. White Estate.  

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