How Biblical is Ellen White? On Steve Daily's "Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography"

How Biblical is Ellen White? On Steve Daily's "Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography"

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Published:
August 12, 2021

Steve Daily, in his book, achieves a description of E. G. White on various levels. While not necessarily agreeing with all of his conclusions, the stimulus of this reading is very positive. The author highlights not only the human dimensions of a prophet but also the gray and borderline areas. In contrast with a hagiographic tendency that aims to deify the prophet, Daily reminds us of the human element, linked to social and cultural conditioning, and to the psychological rootedness that every prophet has. A prophet’s character is not a synthesis of the positive traits of all other human character types. Each one has a specific character that influences and conditions their message and ministry in a consistent and cross-cutting way. No prophet has a neutral ministry or speaks from some zero-point of truth and does not necessarily present an objective, universal message that is valid for all times. The objectivity and universality that the prophet has, or claims to have, is always mediated by subjectivity and cultural roots. For this reason a church community cannot blindly submit to its prophet and give carte blanche no matter what he or she says or does. Just as scrutiny must be exercised with leaders in general – presidents, secretaries or treasurers – in the same way this must be applied also to one's prophet. This is a positive central point of Daily, even if in this he indulges in some intemperance concerning descriptions and conclusions. Ellen White cannot be above a critical analysis of her writings and work. Each community must pursue an unbiased evaluation of its prophet in order to grasp what is binding for us today. We might wish for an easy way to know if a prophet is true or false in toto. Unfortunately, the prophet can be true in some points, ambivalent in others and perfectly contestable in others, without this implying rejection. Believers cannot simply give total approval to their prophets. It is the interpreting community that also determines which aspects and messages of the prophet are relevant for today and which are not. Therefore White's real and true acceptance does not imply acceptance of everything she said and did. Is there a danger in this? Of trivializing or not listening to one's prophet? Certainly. And this risk is significant. But the opposite hazard would lead us to uncritically accept whatever the prophet has said or done – and this is surely worse.

This critical spirit, taught to us by the Bible itself, also pertains to the prophet's gray areas, which are neither sinful nor synonymous with moral inconsistency. In fact, we should be even more concerned if the prophet is presented as not having gray areas. Ambiguity and inconsistency in humans is not only reality but also exposes the necessary one-sidedness present in every psychological identity. Daily perceives and describes this one-sidedness well, even though he always gives a drastic and negative reading. We cannot impute to E. G. White, either as an existential flaw or moral foulness, the fact of: her being a woman, an American WASP, physically fragile, having precise dietary tastes, acquiring money and managing it strictly, or of being slightly sex-phobic in a puritanical context. But what we also cannot do is to erase these gray areas in her, or even make them binding just by the fact that she is considered a prophetess by the church.

While Daily stops to consider these ambivalences and gray areas on a psychological, cultural and economic level, he does not really address the issue of White's relationship with the Bible. He presupposes it in some pages, the more theological ones, but does not highlight it directly. And this aspect is just as important as the others. Not only because White claims a strong and constant relationship with the Bible, but especially because at the biblical level it is frequently and naively assumed that everything White has said is a final and binding word.

Ellen White's inevitable and beneficial ambivalence, which we struggle to accept on a psychological, social or economic level, might seem to disappear on a biblical level. But it doesn't. Her relationship with the Bible is also ambivalent, and even at this level one must evaluate and criticize it with wisdom and discernment. She does not necessarily embody the reading we Adventists should have of the Bible today. We certainly cannot overlook, or worse ignore, her reading of the Bible and the broad directions of its interpretation. But to identify her reading with the reading we instead must have of the Bible today not only makes us lazy but elevates White to a status of sacredness that we should not grant her. It is not enough to say that White does not contradict the Bible or that she recognizes the superiority of the Bible over her writings. If we accept her interpretations as definitive, complete and always relevant, we are in fact putting her above the Bible. And this is not only improper but also unproductive ecclesiologically.

1. Positive aspects of White’s Bible reading

I’ll mention three particular features of White's biblical hermeneutic. First, her creativity. One would think that she is biblical because she highlights, copies, and preserves the great biblical messages and directions. She remains faithful to the essence but not necessarily to the form of the Bible. In this she demonstrates a fidelity to the Bible that is not paralyzing but stimulating and innovative. For instance, in considering the typical biblical sequence of Creation-to-Sin, she not only reverses but enriches it. In fact, her commentary on the first chapters of Genesis, included in her book “Patriarchs and Prophets,” does not begin with the creation narrative but with sin. And further – sin that began, not on earth, but in heaven.

Second, she offers a messianic reading of the Bible, steeped in confidence and hope. Not all of her texts, letters, or writings have this positive mix. But her commentaries on the Bible do. If we look at the index of her biblical commentaries, we notice that she primarily refers to the books of Psalms and Isaiah in the Old Testament, and to the Gospel of John in the New Testament.

Third, she reads the Bible from a particular point-of-view. One that coincides with her theological project. And the viewpoint she “privileges” is the Great Controversy theme – the conflict between good and evil. She could not have highlighted all the biblical accents and categories. It would have resulted in a plethoric, irrelevant and anonymous reading. Every reading chooses a perspective and, without neglecting everything else, then subordinates the rest to the main motive of its own core purpose. Her work is therefore biblical in its rootedness and consistent with her basic project.

2. Ambivalence and limits of White’s Bible reading

Now consider three ambivalent points of her biblical hermeneutic. First, precisely as a consequence of her particular focus that makes her project possible, she neglects other important elements also present in the Bible. For example, the motifs of multiculturalism, ecological urgency, minority rights, the ambivalence of faith, the paradox of life and religion – that are central to our time – are not present in her reading. In a sense they could not be there precisely because her context was different and these motifs have emerged with force only in our days.

Second, despite her messianic reading of the Bible, the tone and rhythm of her commentaries tend to become moralizing and guilt-tripping. This fact can be partly explained by the Puritanism with which she identifies herself and in connection with the cultural environment of America at the end of the 19th century.

Third, her theological focus and the Puritanical character of her ministry gives birth to an unambiguous reading of the Bible. White tends to present the Bible as a book that contains one, compact, direct, and homogeneous Truth. Such a Bible would be a clear and immediate book. In this way she tends to overlook or minimize the asymmetries, imbalances and discontinuities which instead represent the basic biblical structure. The Bible is by nature polyvalent and open to multiple interpretive possibilities. This is ubiquitously linked to the literary forms the Bible privileges and which are at the heart of its narrative and poetry.

Forgetting about her ambivalent reading of the Bible can lead us, on the one hand, to absolutize her profile, putting her above the Bible itself, and on the other hand to delegitimize and weaken the action and creativity of the referent community – Adventism. The prophet easily devolves into this, not a point of departure but a point of arrival, a word that closes and not a word that opens, an element of preservation and not of spiritual growth. In contrast, a true and a healthy prophet does not say everything and does not say any pretended final word.

We can see this risk in the commentaries she makes of two parables in Matthew 13: the “Hidden Treasure” and the “Pearl of Great Price.” She makes them synonymous because the Treasure and the Pearl, in her reading, refer to God and the value of his Kingdom. In fact, for her, the Treasure is the Word of God:

"The Word of God...is an inexhaustible Treasure."1

But also the Pearl of Great Price refers to God incarnate in Christ:

"Christ himself is the Pearl of great price."2

A closer reading tells us instead that these parables are not synonymous.The first one, that of the “Hidden Treasure,” is a "theocentric" parable since the Kingdom of Heaven (God, Christ or the Bible) is the Treasure to be searched for (v. 44) and the human individual is the poor entity who, having nothing, must sell all in order to have the Treasure. It is we who are called to make an effort worthy of the treasure in front of us.

The second parable, the “Pearl of Great Price,” is of a different nature. It is an "anthropocentric" parable because it clearly states that the Kingdom of Heaven is the “merchant” who looks for fine pearls (v. 45). So, if the Kingdom of Heaven is the non-possessing merchant – the poor person who “has not” – then who is the “fine Pearl?” The “fine Pearl” is a clear reference to humanity. The theological consequences of this reversal are very significant. First, that undivided, diligent effort is required – both from people and God – gives another profile to the essence of the Gospel. God cannot reach humankind if, at his own divine level, he is not ready to sell everything he has in order to reach the Pearl of Great Price (that we humans are). Second, the fact that God chooses the Covenant paradigm to describe the type of relationship that exists between deity and humanity, simply means that reciprocity is not accessory but mandatory for both sides. There are no privileged subjects. The covenant is not God’s paternalism disguised and sold as theological philanthropy. This interrelationship means that both man and God are required, on the one hand, to value each other specifically and, on the other hand, to recognize it is necessary to empty oneself. The “other“– God or man – cannot be reached with half an effort. Finally, that the human being is precious and full of value since the very beginning simply means that salvation is not a primary but a secondary fact and, at least at this level, anthropology precedes soteriology. The parable of the Pearl is not soteriological but anthropological as it reminds us that God’s intervention is “descriptive” of what already is there. At this level salvation does not save but only highlights the value that is intrinsically human.

Such theological meaning is disregarded in White’s reading of these two parables. Her interpretation is not false, but certainly is not categorical, and above all doesn’t disclose the richness of the text because it overlooks its founding paradox. Bottom line: Ellen White just cannot not be the last word of a healthy reading of the Bible or the conclusive word for Adventism.

 

Notes & References:


1.  E. G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1991), p. 109.

2.  Idem, p. 115.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

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