Catching Up with Ellen: Five Important Ideas that are Often Missed

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April 18, 2019

I’m incurably Adventist, and I’m a fan of Ellen G. White. As is well known, the “G” stands for “Gould,” which was the maiden name of her mother, Eunice Gould Harmon. More recently Ellen has been identified as “Ellen Harmon White,” thanks to a collection of essays published in 2014 by Oxford University Press.[1] My fondness and respect for Ellen come largely from her ideas and insights — her thinking — as I want to explain. In the process, I hope no one will be offended by my habit of referring to Ellen simply by her first name. We are, after all, part of the same spiritual family, and I have lived a few months longer than she did. To me she is like a favorite aunt; I could comfortably call her “Aunt Ellen.” But it’s more than a matter of affection; her influence on my thinking has been enormously valuable, and I am profoundly grateful.

Ellen’s life ended more than a hundred years ago, on July 16, 1915. She had lived 73 of her nearly 88 years in the 19th century, beginning in 1827, and thus in a world radically different from ours in the 21st century. She never rode on an airplane, or even on a Greyhound bus. She was never treated with antibiotics. She never tasted pizza — or Ruskets. She never saw a television show or heard a radio broadcast. She didn’t have a computer or a cell phone, and she never heard of “social media.” So in many ways — scientific, technological, and cultural — we have moved far beyond her. Life “way back then” now seems positively primitive.

But in some important theological respects Ellen was, and still is, well ahead of most of us 21st century Adventists. In regard to religious dynamics and in our theological thinking, at least, it is high time for us, individually and collectively, to follow her lead. Even if we don’t actually catch up with her, we can at least move closer to her and let her encouragement help us make more progress than we have thus far. This possibility involves five important ideas: 1) the relation of faith, evidence, and reason; 2) the progressive nature of religious understanding; 3) the openness of God to human agency; 4) the purpose and function of praying; and 5) the top Adventist theological claim. There may well be more, but these five will keep us busy for now. For each of these ideas I will begin with Ellen’s own provocative comments, then add some of my own reflections.

Through her letters, articles, and books, Ellen has been an extraordinarily valuable teacher — as important to me personally as Edward Heppenstall at La Sierra College, Siegfried Horn at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and Langdon Gilkey at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She has enriched and stretched my thinking, which is exactly what a good teacher is supposed to do.

1. Religious beliefs are properly based on solid evidence.

Ellen wrote, “God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evidence on which to base our faith. His existence, His character, the truthfulness of His word, are all established by testimony that appeals to our reason, and this testimony is abundant. Yet God has never removed the possibility of doubt. Our faith must rest upon evidence, not demonstration. Those who wish to doubt will have opportunity; while those who really desire to know the truth, will find plenty of evidence on which to rest their faith.”[2]

Here — in plain English, without philosophical jargon, in a devotional classic we have long recommended to teenagers and other young Christians — is a whole theory of religious knowledge in a brief paragraph of five sentences. It is profound, sophisticated, and 100% solid.

Ellen’s distinction between “evidence” and “demonstration” is interesting. Although her formal education had been extremely limited, she may have been using the word “demonstration” in its traditional mathematical sense. A common term in geometry was “QED,” which stood for the Latin expression quod erat demonstrandum, meaning “which was to be demonstrated” and implying that the logical conclusion could not be rationally disputed. You cannot logically claim that 2 x 3 equals any number other than 6; if you try, no one will take you seriously, because you are being blatantly irrational. Ellen was emphatically affirming the intelligent basis of faith, along with recognizing the decisive role of personal choice. She insisted on being rational, but she was not a rationalist, because she also insisted on the importance of evidence.

Religious belief is a choice — a rational decision that needs to be based on relevant evidence but is not compelled by the evidence. That is what Ellen meant by “the possibility of doubt,” and what we imply by “choice.” Like a decision for marriage or a career, religious commitment deserves the most comprehensive and careful thinking of which a person is capable. Everyone needs — and every intelligent person wants — a reasonable understanding of reality, including Ultimate Reality. As far as I am concerned — and I am very much concerned — Christianity offers the most reasonable view available. Since I am something of a pragmatist, I look at how well ideas work, and I believe that the right thing to do is always the smart thing in the long run. In short, the right thing works.

Of the available versions of Christianity, for me the Adventist version makes the most sense. For example, the Adventist Health Study developed at Loma Linda University has shown that Adventists live not only longer but also healthier than most people. The weekly Sabbath rest and the Advent hope can also improve the quality of one’s life. So I have concluded that, at least for me, being an Adventist Christian is both right and smart. As Ellen said, “God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evidence on which to base our faith.” This means that our faith does not outrun the evidence; faith does not begin where the evidence ends. Faith looks at the evidence, takes it seriously, and makes the most reasonable choice in light of the evidence and its implications.

When we have doubts — and, as a result of life’s contingencies, most of us do have doubts at least occasionally — the best thing for us to do is to look again at the evidence and think seriously about what it means. Praying is always appropriate, of course, and in this case the most relevant and useful prayer is for the guidance of God’s Spirit in recognizing, understanding, and evaluating the evidence. “God never asks us to believe,” she said, “without giving sufficient evidence on which to base our faith.”

2. Religious knowledge is progressive.

This is probably Ellen’s most consequential idea, and it is well founded. Reading through the Hebrew Bible in any language, one becomes aware that the understanding of God continually developed — changed for the better — from Genesis to Malachi. As the centuries progressed, so did the overall comprehension of God. Eventually it culminated in — and was transformed by — Jesus of Nazareth, as documented in the New Testament. Then in the book of Revelation, John of Patmos used the message of Jesus to bring hope to the new Christian community as it was being persecuted by Imperial Rome. Now in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries the New Testament has become the basis of the Advent hope, in an example of what we Adventists call “present truth” — truth that is newly relevant, newly understood, and newly believed. Indeed, in 1849 Present Truth was the name of the first Adventist periodical, which successively became the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, the Review and Herald, and now, the Adventist Review.

But we never have all the truth; there is always more to learn, to know, to understand. So Ellen wrote: “Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men [i.e., “people”] 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]

Regarding theology, Ellen continued: “The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people, should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves, to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition, and worship they know not what.”[4]

She also 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 an 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.”[5] This certainly affirms the possibility that some historic Adventist doctrines deserve development and may even need revision.

And there was more: “We must have living faith in our hearts and reach out for larger knowledge and more advanced light. We do not claim that in the doctrines sought out by those who have studied the word of truth, there may not be some error; for no man that lives is infallible. But if God has sent light, we want it; and God has sent light, and let every man be careful how he treats it.”[6]

Indeed, “Long-cherished opinions must not be regarded as infallible….However long men may have entertained certain views, if they are not clearly sustained by the written word, they should be discarded. Those who sincerely desire truth will not be reluctant to lay open their positions for investigation and criticism, and will not be annoyed if their opinions and ideas are crossed….We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.”[7] Evidently even they will get the message eventually.

Again: “The rebuke of the Lord will be upon those who would be guardians of the doctrine, who would bar the way that greater light shall not come to the people. A great work is to be done, and God sees that our leading men have need of greater light, that they may unite harmoniously, with the messengers whom He shall send to accomplish the work that He designs they should. The Lord has raised up messengers and endued them with His Spirit, and has said, ‘Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.’ Let no one run the risk of interposing himself between the people and the message of heaven. The message of God will come to the people; and if there were no voice among men to give it, the very stones would cry out. I call upon every minister to seek the Lord, to put away pride, to put away strife after supremacy, and humble the heart before God. It is the coldness of heart, the unbelief of those who ought to have faith, that keeps the churches in feebleness.”[8]

For at least fourteen years — from 1889 to 1903 — the progressive nature of religious truth was a prominent emphasis of Ellen. These statements constitute an unmistakable argument for theological as well as moral and spiritual development in the community of faith that we Adventists intend to be. Without detracting from the need for spiritual growth and ethical maturation, the members who actually are the church must recognize and respond to the continuing need for theological advancement.

If Adventist leaders in 1980 had paid adequate attention to Ellen’s advice, the church might have avoided the theological and spiritual disaster of Glacier View. I mention this because Desmond Ford just passed to his rest on March 11, 2019. While I was never one of his closest followers, I am convinced that he did us a favor by forcing us to think more carefully and creatively about the “heavenly sanctuary” and its “cleansing.”

Just as our understanding of nature (which we call “science”) is constantly making progress, so our understanding of God (which is our “theology”) should also be making progress. There is no more reason to be satisfied with past understandings of God than there is to be satisfied with past understandings of medicine or astronomy. We may smile when we learn that a hundred years ago someone suggested that we no longer needed the United States Patent Office because everything that could be invented already had been invented. But at the same time we too often assume that everything that can be known about God and God’s ideal for humanity has already been discovered and articulated in “the faith of our fathers,” so that our theological task is simply to translate the historical insights into modern language. We forget that the history of theology is not a storehouse of eternal truths but the story of a continuing process.

When I discover that something I learned decades ago as a college student, or a little later as a seminary student, or later still as a doctoral student, has turned out to be inadequate or even incorrect, I am not disappointed in my earlier education. On the contrary, I am glad that I now have a better (though certainly not perfect) understanding of Ultimate Reality.

This raises a question about the significance of orthodoxy.” Well, we recognize that the word “orthodox,” which literally means “straight thinking,” does not actually identify eternal truth but rather theological consensus, and that theological consensus is no more permanent than is scientific consensus. Ellen summarized this reality in three memorable sentences in 1892: “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.”[9] Interestingly, she said “will be disappointed,” not “will be forever lost.” Evidently even theological traditionalists will get the message eventually. So even here there is good news.

Significantly, Ellen practiced what she preached. One example is her understanding of God’s response to Lucifer’s rebellion, which changed decisively during the time spanned by her three successive narratives of “the great controversy:”[10] According to Spiritual Gifts, vol.1, in 1858, divine judgment was swift, decisive, and irrevocable: Lucifer was doomed, period.[11] Twelve years later, in The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1, in 1870, loyal angels were described as pleading with Lucifer and he begged for reinstatement, but because of his origination of sin, that was impossible.[12] But twenty years after that, in 1890, according to Patriarchs and Prophets God offered Lucifer the possibility of reinstatement if he would repent and accept his assigned place in the universe.[13] Evidently even a recognized prophet can grow and change in theological understanding over a period of time.

3. God created real agents, not characters in a novel.

In creating humanity God took a colossal risk. It was, if you please, a cosmic crapshoot, because human agents could — and notoriously did — really mess things up. The Genesis narrative of the beginning of human history makes it clear that the process of Creation did not in fact yield what God had in mind. Indeed, the result was so different from the divine intention that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart” (Genesis 6:6 NRSV). God, being God, certainly foresaw the possibility of sin, but even God did not foresee its concrete actualization.

In turn this means that, regarding the future, God knows what God plans to do, but not what human agents will actually do. Consequently, about the ending of earth history Ellen wrote, “As the subject was presented before me, the period of Christ’s ministration [in the heavenly sanctuary] seemed almost accomplished. Am I accused of falsehood because time has continued longer than my testimony seemed to indicate? How is it with the testimonies of Christ and His disciples? Were they deceived?”

In this connection we remember that Paul envisioned himself among those “who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,” and who “will be caught up in the clouds…to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17 NRSV). These apostolic words may have been in Ellen’s mind as she wrote, “The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.”[14] In other words, what we think of as “promises” are very real possibilities, and what we think of as “threatenings” are equally real dangers. But neither the “promises” nor the “threatenings” are actual predictions.

In spite of the claims of various evangelists in the past, prophecy is not “history written in advance.” And contrary to last quarter’s Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, the book of Revelation does not “portray God’s control of history.”[15] God certainly can and does influence history in positive ways, but just as certainly God does not control history. That would make God the cause not only of slavery in America 200 years ago, but also of the recent massacre of Muslims in New Zealand. And Adventists are not the only ones who have made this mistake; in 2006 a book was published by Harper San Francisco with the title A History of the End of the World.[16]

The truth of the matter is that “God is not a novelist”[17] who decides how the story should end and then makes it end that way. God certainly knows ahead of time what God intends to do, but even God does not know, much less determine, what human agents actually will do. This is why “the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” This does not mean that God has no impact on history and no idea of its future course. But it does mean that the “plan of salvation” is not a “script of salvation” — although many Adventists have understood the former expression as if it were the latter. “The promises and threatenings of God” really are “conditional” — conditional on the way we human beings actualize our possibilities and avoid our dangers. Sin was never part of God’s original intention for humanity; the “plan of salvation” was always “Plan B.” The idea of a “fortunate fall” (felix culpa) is a theological mistake, the ironic product of God’s incredibly creative response to the tragedy of sin — so creative that we are tempted to suppose that it was the divine intention all along.

4. The purpose of praying is to change the pray-er.

Ellen wrote, “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. Not that it is necessary, in order to make known to God what we are, but in order to enable us to receive Him. Prayer doesn’t bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.[18] In other words, our prayers are not a means of persuasion, of modifying God’s intentions or actions. What our praying can accomplish is to modify us, putting us at God’s disposal for our own good and for the blessing of others. This is obviously advantageous to everyone involved — the person who prays, the person for whom one prays, and especially God, who is eager to bless every human being in every appropriate way and by every available means — which includes us.

But the dynamics of prayer seem more complicated. A related, even better-known idea of Ellen’s appears as part of a rhetorical question a page and a half later: “Why should the sons and daughters of God be reluctant to pray, when prayer is the key in the hand of faith to unlock heaven’s storehouse, where are treasured the boundless resources of Omnipotence?”[19] We should read this rhetorical question carefully, noting what it says and what it doesn’t say. While it encourages us to recognize that there are extraordinary possibilities ahead of us, it does not tell us that we will get whatever blessings we would like. It is “Omnipotence” — our infinitely loving God — who determines that, in light of what is best for us and others, so we remember that “the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.”

Unfortunately the current notion of “prayer warriors” seems to reflect a misunderstanding of the function of prayer in general and of intercessory prayer in particular. It seems to assume that prayer can persuade God to make something happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise, so that the more praying and the more pray-ers the better. But surely God does not need to be persuaded to do for us human beings whatever an infinitely loving and infinitely resourceful God can do. Sometimes the “prayer warrior” idea incorporates a theological refinement — to the effect that in the context of the painfully real controversy between Christ and Satan, numerous pray-ers and their repeated pray-ings somehow “justify” God in performing a particular miracle by avoiding the appearance of arbitrariness and/or favoritism. But this seems to be an inappropriate politicization of divine activity — as if God’s blessings are prompted or constrained by other people’s concerns and petitions.

5. The fundamental Adventist theological claim is that God is love.

This is as true for us Adventists as it is for any other Christians. God’s love is the basis of the Sabbath, the Advent hope, the sanctuary in heaven, and healthful living. The first words of Ellen’s multivolume narrative of “the conflict of the ages” are “‘God is love.’ His nature, his law, is love. It ever has been; it ever will be. ‘The high and holy One that inhabiteth eternity,’ ‘whose ways are everlasting,’ changeth not. With him ‘is not variableness, neither shadow of turning.’ Every manifestation of creative power is an expression of infinite love. The sovereignty of God involves fullness of blessing to all created beings.”[20] Five volumes and 3,500 pages later, the last words of the narrative are “From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.”[21]

The supreme moral and ethical question is this: What is the ultimate character of reality? Is it a matter of power or love? While Ellen didn’t address the issue in precisely these terms, her answer to the question was (and remains) perfectly clear in the opening words of her best-selling and most widely-read book: “Nature and revelation alike testify of God’s love. Our Father in heaven is the source of life, of wisdom, and of joy. Look at the wonderful and beautiful things of nature. Think of their marvelous adaptation to the needs and happiness, not only of man, but of all living creatures. The sunshine and the rain, that gladden and refresh the earth, the hills and seas and plains, all speak to us of the Creator’s love.[22]

Whether in an ancient biblical context or a modern Adventist context, the primary mission of a prophet is not to predict but to motivate — to challenge and inspire — sometimes by encouragement, sometimes by correction, and always by illumination. It is not primarily a matter of foresight but insight, not so much foretelling as forthspeaking — motivating, challenging, and sometimes confronting. So prophetic figures are not all sweetness and light, but their missions always have a positive objective. A prophet is a person who is “inspired to inspire” in the interest of a better future for the whole community.

Unfortunately the tendency of a prophet’s community is either to ignore or to idolize the prophet’s ministry, and to literalize the prophetic message — and thus, in one way or the other, to frustrate the prophetic mission. In relation to the ministry of Ellen, we Adventists do both. Sometimes we selectively ignore her counsel; sometimes we appropriate it to flatter our own collective ego, and sometimes we use it to criticize other Adventists. It is high time for us to let her valuable insights stimulate our own new thinking about, and new understandings of, eternal truth — and new kinds of witness and service.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (New York: Oxford, 2014).

[2] Ellen G. White, “What to Do with Doubt,” Steps to Christ (New York: F. H. Revell Co., 1892), 103.

[3] White, “The Mysteries of the Bible a Proof of Its Inspiration,” Testimony 33 (1889). Reprinted in Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (Mountain View, CA: 1948), 5:706-7. According to the online index of the Ellen White writings, in the 41 occurrences of the word “conservative,” the implication is regularly negative. But before using this fact to clobber your conservative Adventist friends, one should note that she was referring to people’s resistance to new practical approaches and methods.

[4] Ibid., 707.

[5] White, “Investigation of Doctrine,” Review and Herald, Dec. 20, 1892; reprinted in “Attitude to New Light,” Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Publishing Assn., 1946), 35.

[6] White, “Open the Heart to Light,” Review and Herald, Mar. 25, 1890.

[7] White, “Search the Scriptures,” Review and Herald, July 26, 1892; reprinted in “Attitude to New Light,” Counsels to Writers and Editors, 36-37.

[8] Ibid., 37-38).

[9] White, “Search the Scriptures,” Review and Herald, July 26, 1892.

[10] See Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991), Appendix E, 287-90.

[11] White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1: The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels, and Satan and His Angels (Battle Creek, MI: James White, 1859), 19.

[12] White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1 (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assn., 1870), 20.

[13] White, The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1890).

[14] White, ms. 4, 1885, “An Answer to a Challenge,” in ch. 5, “An Explanation of Early Statements,” Selected Messages of Ellen G. White, 3 vols. (Washington: Review and Herald, 1958-1980), 1:67. Emphasis supplied.

[15] Clifford Goldstein, ed., “Worthy Is the Lamb,” Adult Bible Study Guide, Jan./Feb./Mar. 2019: The Book of Revelation, p. 28.

[17] James Wood, “Introduction: The Limits of Not Quite,” The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (New York: Modern Library, 2000), p. xiv. I owe this quotation to Lucerne French Snipes.

[18] Steps to Christ, 93. Emphasis added.

[19] Steps to Christ, 94-95.

[20] The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1890, 1913), 33.

[21] The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1888, 1907, 1911), 678.

[22] Steps to Christ, 9.

 

Fritz Guy is research professor of Philosophical Theology at the HMS Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University. He has authored several books including Thinking Theologically, and (with Brian Bull) God, Sky & Land: Genesis 1 as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It and God, Land and the Great Flood: Hearing the Story with 21st-Century Ears.

Image courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate.

 

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