Adventist Fundamental Belief #18 states:
The Scriptures testify that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and we believe it was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. Her writings speak with prophetic authority and provide comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction to the church. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.
Parts of this belief are categorical and parts are not. It is clear from this statement that Adventism officially considers Ellen White (1827-1915) to have had a prophetic gift. But it is much less clear how one should define the words “prophetic” and “authority.”
The most important word is “authority,” as it has significant action implications. People might define authority in a range from “interesting and useful” to “inerrant instruction from God.” The latter terminus of this range is what Adventists have struggled with since Ellen White’s first public manifestation of a perceived prophetic gift. Famous within our subculture was the attempt during the 1919 Bible Conference to find a balanced position. This attempt failed and, during the 1920s and following, Adventism took a serious turn toward fundamentalism, including elevating Ellen White into inerrant/infallible territory.
However, actually using such a descriptor is problematic, as White herself denied it:
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. (1 Selected Messages, p. 37)
In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. (1 Selected Messages, p. 37)
Yet, in the previous section of that book (labeled: Receiving and Imparting the Light) she discusses her visionary process, so it’s understandable how this mechanism infers near-inerrancy. Presumably, the only defects would be her misperception and/or suboptimal written expression of these experiences.
An Interpretation Process and Problem
As an example of how Ellen White has been interpreted without critical filtering, consider this story, related by conservative Adventist pastor and Last Generation Theology advocate, Larry Kirkpatrick. It’s from a web article he wrote, titled: “Shall Any Teach God Knowledge,” but I can no longer find it online.
While finishing my degree at Southern Adventist College (now Southern Adventist University) in Tennessee in 1992-1994 I met Robert Francis. . . he told me about a meeting he had had with several theology teachers some years previous. The question at hand had been how to relate what scholarship produced with what had been laid down in the Spirit of Prophecy writings. According to Dr. Francis, at one point he told the group of his peers, "Here is where we differ. You are putting the Bible first, then the scholars, and only then Ellen White. What we should do is put the Bible first, and then Ellen White, and then the scholars. There are fundamentally two different classes of writings: inspired and uninspired. The Bible and the writings of EGW are in one class; yours and mine are in the other.
The problem with this sort of process is that it cannot uncover error. Once a source is considered inspired, the critical filter is turned off because human evaluation is supposed to give way to the divine. But an initial evaluation occurred in order to declare the source inspired. So why does it then become inappropriate to give further consideration about whether some utterance or text is inspired? This would only be the case if the initial decision was without error. But humans have incomplete knowledge, so it’s indefensible to think any initial decision to elevate a source into inspiration territory should therefore justify turning off subsequent evaluation. This posture implicitly assumes that everything the presumed prophet said or will say is de facto truth.
To see this more practically, consider applying Francis’s process to the Koran as a written source. Or to Joseph Smith as a prophet candidate. If you get it wrong to start, there is no recourse. You would be wasting your time trying to make an Adventist convert of someone who made a choice based on this process. Especially relevant for the Ellen White context, there is no allowance for a genuinely inspired person to also say or write things that are wrong. With innerancy, you are “stuck."
The Euthyphro Question
To examine this issue at its most foundational level I need to make a seemingly odd turn here. To Plato. In his dialog, titled The Euthyphro, Socrates poses a question (which I’ve paraphrased to modernize and generalize):
Does God command us to do right because it is right, or is it right because it is commanded by God?
In other words,
1) Does “right” emanate from God? So, whatever God says is automatically right? Or,
2) Does “right” stand independently? Thus, it is a standard which God would also have to meet.
I wrote about this at length some years back, so I will attempt here to very briefly explain the core issue. I think our initial, gut response to these two options might likely be to select #1. That appears to elevate God, while #2 might seem to constrain God. But #1, sometimes called Divine Command Theory, is—I would argue—incoherent. If whatever God declares to be right automatically is right, then God could theoretically place what we normally and reasonably would consider to be abhorrent behavior into the morally right category.
Now consider this (presumably horrific) example. In Matthew 19:14 (KJV) Jesus says: “Suffer little children. . . to come unto me.” Suppose then, Matthew was to further report that when a child did come onto his lap, Jesus—incarnate God—wrung the little kid’s neck, then laughed uproariously and tossed the dead body over his shoulder. What do you think of my example? Possibly/probably: a) disbelief that it would be conceivable, b) horror at the image evoked, c) revulsion toward me for having suggested such a blasphemous scenario. Or perhaps all of them. But here’s the crucial point. Would you change your moral stance to allow for such child torture-killing because Jesus apparently modeled and approved an act that would be near-universally considered evil?
If “good” is equated to “whatever God does” (per my #1, above), then the statement “God is good” devolves into the tautology: “God is whatever God does.” The word “good” is then meaningless. There is no independent moral standard and no allowance for critique.
Further, Divine Command thinking was evidently not employed during the so-called war in heaven, alluded to in the Bible and amplified by The Great Controversy. This is a very familiar story to Adventists. If "right" emanates from God, how could Lucifer argue to the heavenly beings that God was unfair? If his audience considered that anything God did was necessarily right, they would have been nominally puzzled by the very contradictory idea of God being unfair or might even have thought Lucifer had a screw loose. There would have been no persuasive possibility, because there would be no independent and categorical standard by which to define the word “unfair.”
Bottom line here? It’s deeply problematic to believe that anything God might theoretically approve of is necessarily right. It’s much more reasonable to think there are absolute moral standards and God fully embodies them. Those standards exist independently, loosely analogous to 2 + 2 = 4. Consequently, we can and must evaluate—albeit quite imperfectly—moral claims. There have been a lot of god-wannabes throughout history. If they are to be disavowed (think Zeus as an easy rejection), then there needs to be definable moral criteria for doing so.
Back to Ellen White
Consider now one context where Ellen White’s claims and views run into conflict with modernity: the age of the earth question and its religious consequences. While Ellen disclaims inerrancy, she makes some strong, categorical arguments in favor of a young earth. Here is a very significant passage:
I was then carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week. . . But the infidel supposition, that the events of the first week required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. It makes indefinite and obscure that which God has made very plain. It is the worst kind of infidelity; for with many who profess to believe the record of creation, it is infidelity in disguise. . . Infidel geologists claim that the world is very much older than the Bible record makes it. . . And many who profess to believe the Bible record are at a loss to account for wonderful things which are found in the earth, with the view that creation week was only seven literal days, and that the world is now only about six thousand years old. These, to free themselves of difficulties thrown in their way by infidel geologists, adopt the view that the six days of creation were six vast, indefinite periods. . . (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, pp. 90-92)
First, she undergirds her position by placing it in vision. Does this end all consideration of whether she was in error? It certainly raises the stakes, but God can manifest in contexts that conform to a person’s world view limitations. Also, we cannot rule out the possibility that she was not being truthful, as difficult as that might be to consider. She was very sensitive about people questioning her divine connection.
Second, she labels the opposing view as the worst kind of infidelity. By adding “in disguise” she piles on additional negative moral weight. This is essentially ad hominem, attacking the character of those who disagree.
Third, she uses the argument that belief in long ages will harm the Sabbath doctrine. In this, she is reasoning backwards, from conclusion to premise, sometimes called the Appeal to Consequences. I’ve previously discussed this explicitly here, and it is a fallacious argumentative move.
Fourth, she claims that long ages obscure “that which God has made very plain.” Here she exhibits what we now frequently label a “plain reading” of scripture. It doesn’t recognize the possibility that “plain” means to look at the material with a modern world view, unaware of possible shifts in culture and language that can alter meaning.
With regard to geology, here she explicitly describes some earth processes:
At this time immense forests were buried. These have since been changed to coal, forming the extensive coal beds that now exist, and also yielding large quantities of oil. The coal and oil frequently ignite and burn beneath the surface of the earth. Thus rocks are heated, limestone is burned, and iron ore melted. The action of the water upon the lime adds fury to the intense heat, and causes earthquakes, volcanoes, and fiery issues. As the fire and water come in contact with ledges of rock and ore, there are heavy explosions underground, which sound like muffled thunder. The air is hot and suffocating. Volcanic eruptions follow; and these often failing to give sufficient vent to the heated elements, the earth itself is convulsed, the ground heaves and swells like the waves of the sea, great fissures appear, and sometimes cities, villages, and burning mountains are swallowed up. (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp 108-109)
It's beyond the scope of this essay to elaborate on the mistakes made in this explanation. But, at minimum, her narrative on how earthquakes and volcanoes operate is completely contra reality.
What then do we do with material that some, like me, find problematic, while others take as pure gospel? Is it infidelity to question Ellen White? If her characterization of earth processes violates all understanding of science, are we to reject science?
It’s likely that most Adventists do not consider Ellen White to be above examination. Or, they don’t view the issue as important enough to their daily lives to have considered it in much depth.
But that does not seem to be true for church president Ted Wilson. He gives every indication to me, via his words and actions, that he agrees with Robert Francis and essentially holds a Divine Command Theory mindset when it comes to Ellen White’s authority. As evidence, look at his sermons and what he has pushed for and implemented while president. He obviously has significant leverage in how the denomination addresses theology. Wilson will have been president for 15 years by the next General Conference session, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he seeks reelection then. This is an outsized influence and an underlying world view that fails the church by holding Ellen White to be essentially inerrant.
You do not have to make a binary decision about whether Ellen White is all-inspired vs. a fraud. This is a false dilemma, although some Adventists have argued for this. But if you can assume Ellen White is never wrong, you can also treat her like an incarnated Urim and Thummim, searching her voluminous writings for seemingly categorical pronouncements on whatever life subject you seek answers for. This places her in an untenable position, as she is quite obviously human and thus fallible. Worse, the church then never wrestles with how to deal with that fallibility and the consequences of holding to possibly untenable theology. We obviously won’t examine if she is above examination.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.
Title Image: Wikimedia Commons
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