Like Adventist pioneer W.W. Prescott, Andrews University Professor Denis Fortin said, he had “had to adjust his view of things” after studying the events surrounding the 1919 Bible Conference. And he called on his colleagues to do the same in his presidential address that opened the Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) Meeting in San Diego Nov. 21.
To honor the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Bible Conference, it was chosen to be the theme for the ASRS Conference. Fortin skillfully set the context for the conversation with a description of the six-week long event in 1919 that was called to provide time for reflection and discussion of difficult subjects and points of interpretations religion teachers faced at that time.
“New information and insights challenged the accuracy of biblical and historical facts and chronologies that Adventists had used to buttress their interpretations of prophecies. Prophetic timelines were now quietly questioned,” he said. Consequently, the writings of Ellen White were also addressed. One challenge concerned how inspiration worked. Some felt that there is no degree of inspiration between canonical and non-canonical prophets, so a prophet was either inspired or not. This favored a “predisposition toward the inerrancy and infallibility of all inspired writings.”
However, two of the people at the Conference “(A.G.) Daniells and (W.W.) Prescott had seen first-hand how Ellen White’s books were prepared and they could not espouse their inerrancy and infallibility.” They also knew that the facts about Mrs. White’s inspiration had not been clearly and honestly presented to church members.
Daniells risked discussing how some of Ellen White’s books had been prepared, “to illustrate that she was not inerrant or infallible, and that her books were not to be the last word in matters of interpretation or history.” For instance, when revising The Great Controversy in 1909, Ellen White “asked a few pastors to search for new quotes from known historians to replace the ones found in the 1888 edition.” Prescott had provided the most revisions to historical quotes. He had not wanted to do this research, “because he could not understand how his assistance could be incorporated into a book that claimed to be inspired.”
After presenting their concerns about the situation, Prescott commented to the attendees, “But I did not throw up the spirit of prophecy, and have not yet; but I have had to adjust my view of things.”
Fortin turned to a theory by Ormond Rush for explanation of what happens when “what a community comes to believe is affected and shaped by its imperfect, even flawed human life, history and experiences.” Four bipolar issues characterize such situations: continuity/discontinuity, plurality of interpretations, clarity/ambiguity, and normativity/relativity. Fortin gave examples of each within the Adventist context.
“Yet what I think we need to acknowledge candidly is that since the 1970s and 1980s the same kind of obfuscation and lack of authenticity has been prolonged. And I wonder to what extent this lack of authenticity to deal with difficult subjects is also something we have received from them as part of our heritage,” he said.
But he also expressed hope if the church were to embrace God’s guidance in a different way. “If Prescott had to adjust his view of things, I think we are in need of the same experience. That is perhaps the best lesson we could learn from the 1919 Bible Conference,” he concluded.
The Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) is a Seventh-day Adventist scholarly community whose purpose is to provide intellectual and social fellowship among its members and encourage scholarly pursuits in all religious studies disciplines, particularly with reference to the Seventh-day Adventist tradition. It was formally organized in New York City, 1979.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
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