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The Integrity of the Prophetic Gift

The drift of this study guide, as with the whole quarter, is more on defending Ellen White’s writings than helping us to understand the nature of biblical prophecy. Any charge against her integrity is offset by pointing out similar problems within the ministry of the Old Testament prophets. She said some very unpopular things, but so did Micaiah the prophet (1 Kings 22:10–18). Did she use literary assistants? So did Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 43:2–4). Ellen White’s later writings gained in theological insight and maturity compared with her earlier works, but then the prophets also advanced in understanding (Dan. 9:2; Gal. 2:11–16; 1 Pet.1:10).1 She sometimes got things wrong (for example, her belief in the “shut door”) and had to correct her false statements, but so did Nathan, the prophet (2 Sam. 7:1–7; 1 Chron. 22:8).2

This is a dangerous defense strategy, for in an effort to shield Ellen White the study guide may succeed in only undermining confidence in the Scriptures.3 Some might conclude that if the Bible and Ellen White’s writings manifest certain similar elements that conflict with their view of inspiration, then logically they should dismiss both. Clearly it can be either a case of united they stand or united they fall. The form of the argument might end up stimulating an unfortunate skepticism.

The fact that Ellen White left a written legacy distinguishes her from such prophets as Hulda or Nathan. A written source alongside the Bible presents a set of very real difficulties. Ellen White bequeathed to her spiritual heirs some twenty-five million words, and with them they inherited a monumental problem. How do we preserve the uniqueness of Scripture, and at the same time recognize her writings as prophetic? Are her writings complementary or supplementary to the Bible? Either option has problems. How to interface the two sources without compromising one or the other has been, and continues to be, a difficult assignment for Adventism.

If the lesser light is the means of illuminating or interpreting the greater light, then it in fact takes control. Even when the analogy shifts from light to a telescope, a testing instrument or to maps, the lesser ends up dictating to the greater.4 The tail truly then wags the dog. I think it’s very important, therefore, to distinguish Ellen White’s volumes from Scripture. The movement for gender equality taught me many things; one of which was the inclusive or exclusive power of language. If we speak of Ellen White as an inspired prophet, it becomes difficult not to do what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does with the Book of Mormon, that is, to make her writings and Scripture equal sources “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).5 We speak of a greater and lesser light. To maintain the unique role of Scripture, we must continue this differentiation in all the terms we use to describe Ellen White’s writings.6

Scripture Ellen White’s Writings
Greater Light Lesser Light
Inspired Wrote in the Spirit
Canonical Noncanonical
Universal Limited
Only rule for faith and practice Personal Guide
Authoritative Source Secondary Source

At every point from the original writings to our reading of Scripture there is a very clear human contribution. When we read the Bible, we pray for the Spirit to guide us, but the process of understanding the text is manifestly a human endeavor too. Whatever version we use, the task of translating it was not the result of the Spirit alone. Readers of Hebrew or Greek do not escape the human work of the lexicographers, let alone their own humanity. Scribes were careful and skilled, and no doubt guided by the Spirit, but theirs was very much a human activity. Experts in textual analysis are skillful in their work, but the methods are still very human in nature. The collection of the accepted books of the Bible was directed by the Spirit, but still involved careful human decisions.

So the Bible we read today comes to us not only via the superintending power of God, but also through the frail limits of human skills and choices. The Bible we read is certainly not without errors, but it hinders none of us from finding an adequate knowledge of God and the One he sent. The Scriptures we have are in no way altered by postulating an inerrant original text (the so-called autographs), nor is the situation changed by accepting errors in the original text. If an inerrant text was important for our salvation, then God needed to control the process absolutely not only from the beginning but also until the end. It seems his supervision was relative from the start to the finish. Perhaps we should look at a classic example of a Biblical error.

In Matthew 23:35, the writer attributes the wrong father to Zechariah the priest. It’s evident how the error occurred. Zechariah the prophet’s father was Barachiah (Zech. 1:1). The description Jesus gives of Zechariah’s death leaves no doubt that the reference is to the priest (2 Chron. 24:20–21). It’s simply a case of memory applying the name of the prophet’s father to the priest because they both had the same name. The name of Zechariah the priest’s father was in fact Jehoiada (2 Chron. 24:20). In an attempt to rescue Matthew, one might hypothesize that the name of the priest’s grandfather was Barachiah.7 However, if one allows this sort of speculative argument as legitimate, then of course any document can be demonstrated to be inerrant, even today’s newspaper.

I do, therefore, accept the study guide’s argument that neither the Bible nor Ellen White were infallible or without error. “Ellen White was not infallible, and she never claimed infallibility. She grew, changed her mind on issues, and was constantly open for more light” (Thursday’s section). However, the study guide then adds this statement, which cannot be taken without question: “But as history has shown, if erroneous counsel has been given by a prophet, God will intervene [sometimes!] to correct the mistake” (Thursday’s section). If this was God’s consistent modus operandi, we would have no errors in either the Bible or Ellen White’s writings.

I became a Christian in my mid-twenties because I was fascinated and challenged by the person of Christ. Questions about the nature of the Christian documents that predicted or recounted Jesus’ story came later. Jesus once asked his disciples, “Do you wish to go away?” To which Peter protested, “Lord, to whom can we go?” (John 6:67–68). That is where we, too, end up: where do we go to get the Jesus story? The Scriptures, whatever their shortcomings, are the best and adequate source of a knowledge of Jesus. Not Tacitus, Josephus, the Gospel of Thomas, or even the Desire of Ages, are adequate.8 The Scriptures may not tell us all we’d like to know, but they do tell us all we need to know.

It’s unfortunate that other Christians often see us as having an alternate Bible. It’s vital that our words and actions disabuse our fellow Christians of this misunderstanding. In the end, the Scriptures are simply “they that testify on my [Jesus’] behalf” (John 5:39 NRSV). Adventists should covet not to be known as “the People of the Book,” but as the “People of the Person of whom the Book speaks.”

Notes and References

1. Presumably, the Galatians text is quoted to demonstrate Peter’s failure to see the importance of Jewish and Gentile Christians eating together.

2. For a worthy but dated attempt to deal with many of these errors or corrections in Ellen White’s writings see F. D. Nichol, Ellen White and Her Critics (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald, 1951).

3. I do not say it’s an erroneous method, simply that it’s a double-edged sword.

4. See Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1998), 408–9.

5. Latter-day Saints appeal to Ezekiel 37:19, where the prophet speaks of two sticks becoming one in his hand. This refers, in their view, to the union of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. In context, Ezekiel is talking about the uniting of Judah and the northern tribes in the post-exilic return.

6. One may change my choice of terms. The point is that the language used must consistently differentiate Ellen White’s writings from Scripture.

7. This is a popular ploy among some conservative Christians.

8. The Desire of Ages does not provide us with an independent historical source for the life of Christ. It belongs to the nineteenth-century “Life of Jesus” genre, even though it is one of the better examples of that format.

Norman Young is Honorary Research Fellow at Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.

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