Ellen White: The Ultimate X-Factor in Adventist Hermeneutics

Ellen White: The Ultimate X-Factor in Adventist Hermeneutics

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Published:
May 19, 2022

In my review of Kwabena Donkor’s paper in the book Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach, I welcomed his introduction to the idea of “presuppositions.” I defined this as “the acculturated particulars and accustomed baggage we bring to the interpretive process” and then into our hermeneutics discussions. I now end my selected reviews of this 14-essay compilation with Dr. John Peckham’s “The Prophetic Gift and Sola Scriptura.” Delving into Ellen White’s prophetic role in Adventism is a fitting bookend to these essays. By any measure, she is the ultimate “presupposition,” or we might say, the supercharged engine that drives almost all theological discussions within Adventism.

It is almost impossible to overstate the role and importance of White to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We have 28 Fundamental Beliefs, and by dedicating one of them (#18) exclusively to her, we tip our hand about our posture toward her. Thus, Peckham’s essay seeks to explain our high regard for her as a prophet. He begins by teasing out a difference between her role and that of canonical prophets. Canonical prophets he labels as “magisterial,” versus White as “ministerial.” But this distinction seems too manufactured and therefore fails to get traction. In the end, she remains a prophet in the traditional canonical biblical sense.

Peckham takes great pains in the first part of his essay to establish the position that Adventism is built on the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) and bases its theology and teachings on the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible. Then he spends the second half undermining this proposition by making a case for what amounts to a Sola Scriptura-plus concept, creating an exception that opens the door for Ellen White as a post-canonical “ministerial” prophet.

Like many White apologists, Peckham makes the claim that she had no role in doctrinal development, echoing Alberto Timm’s emphatic declaration that “Ellen White’s writings were not the source of any Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.” They attempt a fine distinction between originating and confirming doctrine, arguing she only confirmed doctrines that others, through diligent Bible study, had developed. But even here this view is not entirely consistent with what likely happened during the period when the details of our doctrines were being solidified, especially on eschatology. Our unique conception of the synergistic relationships between Sunday laws, constituents of the Mark of the Beast, when to flee to the mountains at the onset of persecution, etc., are all based on White’s “I was shown” insights. She was “shown” this last-day scenario that she reproduced in The Great ControversyThat imagery then hardened and in time became an ironclad expectation of end times for the church. No one else in the denomination besides Ellen White had the gravitas to detail such a precise vision of how the world would end.

I grant that Ellen White might not have been the original source of the sanctuary doctrine or Bishop Ussher’s young earth hypothesis. But these positions took hold in Adventism because White, through the power of her pen, made them popular and thus acceptable. All three doctrinal examples have credibility concerns that, given a different environment, would warrant critical review. Yet because she spoke and wrote decisively about them, we are “stuck” and have to keep defending what has become increasingly problematic.

You know your leader is a “sacred cow” when you cannot or dare not criticize or suggest correction to even the most glaring mistakes she might have made. In a way that is illustrative of how boxed-in Adventist theology and many active Adventist theologians are, certain parameters of the church’s historic positions seem set in stone. Despite accumulating evidence showing that the 19th century environment that produced those positions is no longer germane and necessitates reappraisal, we continue to ignore the warning signs. And move headlong forward. The main, often unstated reason why we refuse to budge on those anachronistic positions is because they were validated by our cofounding “prophet.” Fearing her credibility will suffer, we rarely contradict her, even in small matters.

Take one such small matter: something as inconsequential as who wrote the book of Hebrews. Because White credits Paul as author, almost all official church publications toe that line, despite an extensive scholarly consensus to the contrary. It is probably unimportant who wrote Hebrews, but the official church hierarchy’s practice of adopting her position is reflective of its overall lack of appetite to contradict her. Instead, in spite of everything we now know about the circumstances and environment that led to the adoption of some of these positions, we still stick by them. It’s as though we are still in the 19th century.

And here I would like to comment on a glaring omission in Peckham’s article that I think was unnecessary. He seems to assume that White’s prophetic authenticity is settled, so he fails to discuss a real challenge inside and outside the church regarding her prophetic credentials. I think this is a mistake and a missed opportunity. Any serious discussion in the context of her presumed prophetic calling should proceed sympathetically but also with candor. Peckham does the former and avoids the latter. Better to raise the open questions and fail to answer them than ignore them altogether and expose your bias. Maintaining silence concerning her unacknowledged literary borrowings is an error that has persistently marred her reputation over the last century.

Now, in what follows, I turn to an Ellen White phrase that has come to define her as an almost reluctant scribe for God. Peckham quotes her extensively to show that at every turn, she readily subordinated her writings to the Bible. This was presumably often done to the point of seeming to depreciate her agency, and she even occasionally appears to scold her audience for making her writings necessary. She states: “If you had made God’s word your study, with a desire to reach the Bible standard and attain to Christian perfection, you would not have needed the Testimonies.”

A little over a century ago, the path to venerating and propping up Ellen White as a wholly other, unerring God-spokesperson and seer began to take shape. This road is now well-traveled, culminating with entrenched cognitive dissonance in our collective Adventist psyche. Even though we are aware of gaping holes in the road, we find ourselves unwilling or maybe incapable of making the necessary repairs to prevent the church bus from breaking an axle.

It started with the phrase “the lesser light,” which Peckham re-quotes. We trace this expression to an article White published in The Review and Herald on January 20, 1903. She only used this reference once, as far as we can determine. But you wouldn’t know it because of the numerous incarnations it has gone through in compilations and the different twists this metaphor has been subjected to in denominational publications. To put things in perspective, during her lifetime she wrote approximately five thousand articles and 40 books, also leaving the White Estate a treasure trove of roughly 50,000 manuscript pages. It is these manuscripts that the estate has used to extend her writing career, sometimes in controversial ways. So now she authors at least 100 books, 60 of them compilations.

After her death, and with her written materials held by the estate, the creation of compilations has followed a familiar course. The compilers select a topic, subject, or theme and then comb through her extant writings—including earlier compilations—for material considered relevant to the topic at hand. The material thus gathered, often out of context, is pasted together and presented in the new book as White’s positions on various topics. Messages to Young People is an excellent example of this process and shows how a compiler’s bias could make the prophet seem more strident and uncompromising than she actually is. Even though every word in a compilation came from her pen, which then makes her the author, it is obvious that the process could be fraught with manipulation due to a compiler’s prejudices, material selection, and the absence of contextual information. It is through the compilation process, and not a developed position of her own, that White’s writings became “the lesser light” to the Bible.

But what was the original context of this phrase before it was turned into the seminal expression of her prophetic persona? Below are some relevant excerpts from her January 1903 article:

Many more of our larger books might have been sold if church members had been awake to the importance of the truths these books contain, and had realized their responsibility to circulate them. My brethren and sisters, will you not now make an effort to circulate these books? And will you not bring into this effort the enthusiasm that you brought into the effort to sell "Christ's Object Lessons"? In selling this book many have learned how to handle the larger books. They have obtained an experience that has prepared them to enter the canvassing field.

She continues:

Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her life-work God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given his servant to be given to the world. From their pages this light is to shine into the hearts of men and women, leading them to the Savior. The Lord has declared that these books are to be scattered throughout the world.

As the above quotes show, the article actually centered on selling (“scattering”) more of her books. If sales were lagging, it was because church members had failed to connect some critical dots: 1) the books contain truths, 2) members have a “responsibility” to sell them, 3) White did not write (“originator”) the books; they are God’s “instructions,” and that is why 4) “The Lord has declared that these books are to be scattered throughout the world.”

It was only after explaining these crucial connections that she made the association—for the first and only time outside of compilations—between her writings and the Bible:

The Lord has sent his people much instruction, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little. Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light. O, how much good would be accomplished if the books containing this light were read with a determination to carry out the principles they contain! There would be a thousandfold greater vigilance, a thousandfold more self-denial and resolute effort. And many more would now be rejoicing in the light of present truth. (Emphasis mine)

In the above excerpts, White justified promoting her self-acknowledged “less important” or “lesser light” books because people were not reading the Bible as they should. If they had been, her “Testimonies,” whose sole purpose was to redirect the masses back to the Bible, wouldn’t be necessary. But if the goal was to get people back to reading the Bible, is reading an endless bookshelf of her “Testimonies” the most effective way to do this? It gets even more confusing considering she stated elsewhere that she should not be quoted “until you can obey the Bible” (MS 43, 1901). Then again, if one already accepts the “greater light,” do they still need the “lesser light?”

Are we still obligated then, as church members, to use her counsels as stepping stones to the Bible, and to God? This seems to be the inference if we accept her assertion that she has little to do with her writings and that they have divine origination. It seems to be the premise of Fundamental Belief #18: “As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provides for the church comfort, guidance, instruction and correction.” With this belief statement, we complete the circle, confirming her prophetic status and making her writings a continuation of Scripture. If this is what we’re saying, we should stop the obfuscation and say so, plainly.

 


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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