Adventism 202, Part 9: What Should We Do With Ellen White?

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Adventism 202, Part 9: What Should We Do With Ellen White?

If you’ve been following along in this series you probably knew this day was coming. So far we have used the Bible alone to establish most of what we’ve covered so far. But alas it’s time to address the proverbial elephant in the room. What should we do with Ellen White?

 

Recap

In the last article, we covered the “tools of the trade” for Biblical interpretation, and we discovered that we can place our tools into two different buckets: (1) inspired sources, and (2) uninspired resources. The uninspired resource bucket is chockfull of helpful tools: concordances, study notes, atlases, Bible software, dictionaries, commentaries, and a whole host of other goodies! But what about the inspired bucket? We found in the last article that only one tool qualifies for that particular bucket—that being a good quality Bible. In addition, a little analysis shows that the essential difference between the two buckets is that one contains inspired material that is normative (the ruling standard) while the other bucket of uninspired material can be helpful in understanding the Bible but it is not essential or authoritative. But this brings us to a dilemma.

 

Related Article: 4 Secrets to Navigating the Writing of a Prophet

 

Another Inspired Source?

When we first started this series we committed to going to the Bible to figure out the best way to become followers of Christ. We committed to using the Bible as our reliable source of information to figure out how to integrate our beliefs into a cohesive whole. But coming from an Adventist perspective, with this commitment comes the problem of what to do with the Adventist prophet Ellen White. She seems to not fit into either bucket, inspired source (the Bible) or uninspired resource. We’ve already committed to (re)building our faith on Scripture as the source of our theology, but the reason we chose Scripture is that it comes from God, that is, it is revealed and inspired. But what about Ellen White? Many Seventh-day Adventists believe she was a true prophet and thus received actual revelations from God and that she also produced inspired writings. Can we then use her writings as an inspired source for our theological system?

 

Well, the short answer is an emphatic “NO![1]

 

But before I elaborate on why we shouldn’t use Ellen White as a normative theological source, let’s take a step back to acquire a broader understanding of why not only Ellen White is excluded from being a source for theology, but rather why no non-canonical prophet should ever be used as a source for theology equal with the Bible.

 

Related Article: The Ecclesiological Role of Ellen G. White

 

Who is Ellen White?

Ellen Gould (Harmon) White (1827-1915) is recognized as one of the co-founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, along with her husband, James White and their friend, Joseph Bates.[2] But in addition to being one of the founders of the Adventist Church, she is also recognized as possessing the spiritual gift of prophecy. In other words, many Adventists believe she legitimately served as a prophet, that is, someone who received genuine revelations from God and produced inspired writings under the supervision of the Holy Spirit as we’ve discussed in previous articles.

 

Related Article: A New Spin on Ellen White

 

 

How do we Know She was a Prophet?

“So How do we know Ellen White was a prophet?” Great question! If you’re new to Adventism or grew up in an Adventist environment that never addressed this question in detail,[3] now is as great a time as any to answer this very important question. The simple answer is “WE don’t know.” Hear me out for just a second. “We” is an inclusive plural pronoun, so if you ask the question “How do WE know Ellen White was a prophet?” the answer is “WE” don’t.

 

This is very important to grasp. Even if you grew up in the Adventist Church you shouldn’t just accept Ellen White to be a prophet simply because the authoritative people in your life (parents, pastors, teachers, the church as a whole, etc.) told you to believe it. At some point you need to investigate this question for yourself so that YOU can know whether she is a prophet or not. No one can do this investigative work for you. No one can exercise their faith on your behalf in the matter of whether Ellen White was actually a prophet. You have to determine that for yourself. That means you’re going to have to do your homework and actually follow what the Bible says:

 

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

 

In order to fulfill this Biblical mandate, you’ll have to employ the procedures and tests we’ve already discussed in a previous article which I won’t recap in detail here. However, in brief, in order to settle this question for yourself, you’ll need to do 3 things: (1) read Ellen White, (2) test Ellen White (utilizing the tests previously discussed in this series), and (3) apply her teachings (if she passes the tests). Let me elaborate on these general principles just a bit more.

 

Related Article: How Ellen White is Like the Pope (And His Bishops), pt. 1

 

What to do with Ellen White’s Writings? #1Read Them.

So what are you to do with Ellen White’s writings, especially if you’re unsure about whether she was a prophet or not? The first thing you need to do is actually read Ellen White for yourself. Unfortunately, too many people only “know” Ellen White’s material through hearsay and what their grandparents or a pastor told them. What they have heard is that Ellen White said, such-and-such, in such-and-such book, about such-and-such topic. If that has been your experience with Ellen White, you are not yet in a position to judge her work. You shouldn’t evaluate White based on what others have said or written about her or her writings. Investigating a prophet requires a much more sophisticated approach. Essentially, you will have to actually go to her writings and read them for yourself.

 

Related Article: Ellen G. White’s View of Divine Inspiration

 

What to do with Ellen White’s Writings? #2Test Them.

After you’ve read a book or two from Ellen White, it’s time to test her writings.[4] Go back over the tests we covered in the previous article about prophets and apply the tests to Ellen White as best you can. This step is crucially important. If you neglect to test her and some random Adventist or other Christian shares with you something that she wrote in order to persuade you of something, you will have no legitimate way of knowing what to do with that information: whether to (1) adhere to it because it matches what you have already found in Scripture (and concurs with what you know about Ellen White’s teachings), or (2) investigate the content further because it doesn’t line up quite right with your previous theological knowledgebase (whether from Scripture or White), or (3) discard it outright because it doesn’t line up with Scripture or what you have previously studied from White. Without taking the time to test Ellen White for yourself, your reactions to her counsels will be based on gut feeling and intuition, which is not the best way to engage with any inspired writings whether it is Scripture or something else. To paraphrase one of the Church Fathers, if you only believe what you like in the gospels, it is not the gospels you believe but yourself.[5]

 

Again testing a prophet and making a tentative or final evaluation of their claims is very important. A prophet’s job includes rebuke and exhortation to change, so it is really important that you establish in your mind who you can legitimately give that authority to, because what prophets say will not always be things that you are inclined to hear even though it may be what is best for you and necessary for your spiritual development. The bottom line is that you need to test people who claim to have the prophetic gift, and you need to test them by Scripture and not uninformed opinion or feelings.

 

What to do with Ellen White’s Writings? #3 Apply Them.

If Ellen White passes your initial testing then it’s time to apply her writings to your own life. When dealing with non-canonical prophets, do not try to apply their teachings to other people’s lives, especially when they have not had the luxury—as you have had—to test her to see if the material you’re sharing is genuinely prophetic. Apply Ellen White’s writings to your own life, and do not use her writings as a measuring line for other people. To do otherwise is dangerous and spiritual malpractice.

 

So when it comes to Ellen White, we should:

  • Read her writings (and not what others have said about her or her writings,[6] at least not initially).
  • Test her writings (according to the tests outlined in Scripture and not according to our feelings and opinions).[7]
  • Apply her writings (if and only if, she has passed the Biblical tests, and even so, only apply her writings to yourself and not to others).

 

So if Ellen White is a Prophet, Why Can’t we Use Her Writings Like Scripture?

Now back to our main question, after we’ve read and tested her writings and are convinced that she had the genuine prophetic gift “What are we to do with Ellen White?”

 

If you mingle with Adventists for any extended length of time, you will inevitably come across many Adventist individuals that do not care for Ellen White’s writings. Some individuals are quite hostile to her writings for various reasons. By now, you can probably tell I’m not one of those people even though these individuals would certainly agree with me that we should not use Ellen White’s writings like the Bible, as an additional inspired source for doing our theology. However, though I may agree on this point with these individuals, it is for totally different reasons.

 

Related Article: The Writings of Ellen G. White as Seventh-day Adventist Related to Doctrines and Prophetic Interpretation (Part 1)

 

If you think back to your high school math classes, one of the things that probably bugged you, as much as it did me, was the constant chorus from your high school math teacher to “SHOW YOUR WORK!” What our math teachers were trying to get across to us is that it isn’t enough to just know the right answer. It matters how you arrive at the right answer (and the only way to demonstrate that on a math test is to “show your work”). And so we’re going to try and do this now and “show our work” as to how we can hold two seemingly contradictory concepts and still claim coherence. Why can we (assuming you’ve read and tested her writings) believe that Ellen White was a prophet who received genuine revelations from God and wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and yet refrain from using her material as an inspired source for doing theology? A quandary indeed, but let’s get into it!

 

Canonical and Non-Canonical Prophets 

Before we try to address this issue in more detail I’d like to recommend Jud Lake’s Ellen White Under Fire as an excellent resource to have in your personal library. Many of the concepts covered in this article are sourced from Lake’s work.

 

You may have heard someone before refer to the Bible as the “canon.” When someone refers to the canon they are simply emphasizing the Bible’s role as the normative rule or measuring line. What this means is that the Bible is supremely authoritative and has no equal. Now when we use the term “canonical prophet” this refers to a prophet whose writings or sermons have been preserved in the canon, that is the Bible.[8] Some examples of canonical prophets would be Moses, Jonah, David, etc.

 

Canonical prophets are easy to identify, but what about non-canonical prophets?  Non-canonical prophets are just what they sound like, prophets whose revelations didn’t make it into the Canon (the Bible). A prophet is considered non-canonical when one of the following is true…

 

  1. The prophet’s revelations were never recorded
  2. The prophet’s revelations were recorded but are lost to history
  3. The prophet’s revelations were recorded but were not added to the Canon due to either: their non-universal nature or their writings were altered and corrupted
  4. The prophet’s ministry commenced after the time of Jesus (i.e. after the last apostle’s death)

 

It can be tempting to think that the non-canonical prophets are the Junior Varsity, second-string team but they are not. They are just as inspired as canonical prophets. In fact, Jesus classified one of the non-canonical prophets of salvation history as one of the greatest prophets to ever live. (Luke 7:28). The reason a prophet doesn’t make it into the Canon is not about the quality (superiority or inferiority) of one’s prophetic gift but rather deals with the reasons enumerated above.

 

Literary and Non-Literary Prophets

Let’s address for a few moments a couple of reasons why a prophet may not make it into the canon, and thus should not be used as a primary theological source. There are two types of non-canonical prophets, (1) literary, and (2) non-literary. Some prophets wrote and others did not. Those that didn’t write anything clearly would have a very difficult time getting into the Canon. These individuals would include Noah (Gen 6-10), Elijah (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-2), Elisha (1 Kings 19; 2 Kings 2-13), Ahijah (1 Kings 11), Anna (Luke 2:36), Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-9) and others. All of these individuals are mentioned in Scripture, some even in great detail, and yet the Bible does not contain any books ascribed to them. Why is that? Because as far as we know they never wrote material to be included in the Canon; they were non-literary.

 

Related Article: Search the Scriptures –Ellen White on Dealing with Disagreements in the Church

 

But there were also prophets who wrote and yet their writings still didn’t make it into the canon. For example, the prophets Nathan and Gad wrote books but we do not find them in the canon (1 Chronicles 29:29). Does this mean their messages or books weren’t inspired? Definitely not! They were absolutely inspired but their messages and ministry were not necessary for the global witness that the Bible was to embody and/or their writings were simply lost to history.

 

There are other documents written by prophets or mentioned in Scripture but unfortunately, we do not possess them today.[9] We don’t know all the reasons why these documents were not preserved for us, but I think it is safe to assume that none were vital or absolutely crucial to the overall message of Scripture. What we have in our Canon is sufficient for our salvation, the unity of the church, and guidance for the accomplishment of the church’s mission.

 

Related Article: Ellen White’s role in doctrine formation

 

But if we are to accept Ellen White as a non-canonical prophet we should look again at the criteria above to see why we would disqualify her writings from being added to the Canon, and thus legitimizing her as a primary normative theological source like the Bible. The first two disqualifications would not apply. White was a prolific writer and we still have volumes upon volumes of her writings available to us today (including in some cases original manuscripts). But what about criteria three and four? Are White’s revelations not added to the canon because they are too specific, as in not universally applicable? In my personal opinion, I believe it is possible that some of White’s writings would be disqualified from the Canon due to this factor.[10] But the main reason Ellen White should not be added to the Canon (and thus not treated as the Canon) is that her ministry commenced after the time of Jesus.

 

Jesus, the Capstone of the Canon (Ephesians 2:20)

Most Christians agree that the Canon is closed and that no new documents can or should be added to its table of contents. At first, this may seem arbitrary but there is actually a good reason for this delimitation. The reason the Canon is closed is because of Jesus Christ, specifically the fact that Jesus Christ is the greatest revelation given to humanity. What this means is that after the time of the apostles (those commissioned by Christ as witnesses of His teachings and resurrection) the Canon came to an end. Essentially, the Canon is closed because there is nothing that can be added to the greatest revelation ever given (i.e. nothing is greater than the greatest). So the Canon closed with the death of the Apostle John (the last living apostle) who died around 100 CE.

 

But now that the canon is closed, we shouldn’t assume that God would remove the gift of prophecy from the church.

 

And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Revelation 12:17)

 

And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. (Revelation 19:10)

 

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: (Acts 2:17)

 

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: (Ephesians 4:11-13)

 

What can be deduced from the verses above is that the gift of prophecy is not removed from God’s people and we should not be surprised to see it manifested in the church.

 

Some Adventists claim that they only want to go by the Bible. That is fine, but if the Bible tells us that God is going to send prophets in the last days but we decide to ignore these prophets, the question must be asked “Are you actually still following the Bible?”[11] The obvious answer is “no.” And this is why Adventists take the claim to the prophetic office so seriously! We should not ignore individuals that claim to possess the prophetic gift without testing them first.

 

Related Article: How to Think Critically as a Christian

 

For Seventh-day Adventists, Ellen White is a literary, non-canonical, prophet just like Nathan, Gad, and others mentioned in Scripture. We do not add her writings to Scripture and they are not equal with Scripture since they must be validated by Scripture. Thus Ellen White’s functional authority is delegated to her by Scripture. Consequently, she should be treated like other non-canonical prophets. For example, if we were to find the book of Nathan today we would not add it to Scripture, even though it would still be authoritative for God’s people. That being said, it would be authoritative only because we know that Nathan was a true prophet and thus he passes the Biblical tests for possessing the prophetic gift. His book, though not a part of Scripture, would nevertheless possess delegated authority from Scripture.

 

The Bottom Line on Ellen White

So going back to our main question, what should we do with Ellen White when it comes to our search for theological truth? Are her writings (1) an inspired primary source for theology or are they (2) an uninspired resource? In actuality, Ellen White (and any prophet whose ministry commences after 100 CE) is an inspired resource. Remember from the previous article, sources are like a black and white map. They are completely sufficient to get us to our destination. Resources add color to the map, but they do not change or overrule the contents of the map. They only enhance the map. Ellen White’s writings only add color to the theological map of the Bible, but because her writings are inspired they should be treated as trustworthy and authoritative, though that authority is a delegated authority from Scripture. The Bible is still the only inspired source for our theology and has no equal. All other resources (including Ellen White) must be tested by the Bible.

 

Where Do I Begin Testing Ellen White?

If you’re interested in testing Ellen White in order to determine for yourself whether she actually had the prophetic gift, I would recommend what Merlin Burt (director of the Center for Adventist Research) calls Ellen White’s “Great Books.” Essentially, the idea is to read the books in which Ellen White articulates her most cherished themes such as the love of God, salvation, and the Great Controversy motif. This would include: The Conflict of the Ages Series (Patriarchs & Prophets, Prophets & Kings, The Desire of Ages, Acts of the Apostles, and The Great Controversy), Steps to Christ, Christ’s Object Lessons, Education, The Ministry of Healing, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing. If you’re short on time I would suggest focusing on Steps to Christ, The Desire of Ages,[12] and The Great Controversy. Reading these books will give you a good grasp of how Ellen White understood the Bible, Jesus Christ, and personal salvation which are great areas to test and see if White actually lines up with Scripture.

 

After you have conducted the Biblical tests and are satisfied with the genuineness of her calling, begin to incorporate some of her other materials into your devotional life. Read all of her “great books” and try to incorporate from time-to-time one of several devotionals that have been compiled from her writings including That I May Know Him, God’s Amazing Grace, or Maranatha. I’m sure you’ll find these materials beneficial to your spiritual life.

 

Lastly, in addition, to readings of White herself, other resources I would highly recommend are the Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Eds. Denis Fortin & Jerry Moon) and Ellen White Under Fire (Jud Lake). Lastly, if you’re are intrigued by the formation/compilation of the Bible as the canon, I would highly suggest watching a YouTube video featuring John Peckham, PhD, in which he explains the rationale behind the compiling of the canon.

Click here to read the rest of Ingram’s series on Adventism 202

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Notes.

[1] It’s tempting to just end the article here and move on to hermeneutics but for the sake of those who would like a more complete answer or at least a probable hypothesis as to why we shouldn’t use Ellen White’s writings as a source for our doctrines and beliefs, please feel free to continue reading. Actually, even if you already believe that her writings shouldn’t be the basis of doctrine, it’s still a good idea to read the full article so that you can explain to others in a logical, straight-forward, fashion as to why we do not use Ellen White as a theological source.

[2] Jerry Moon and Denis Kaiser. “For Jesus and the Scripture: The Life of Ellen G. White”.  Ellen G. White Encyclopedia. Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD. (2013). p. 18.

[3] From my own personal experience, much of the “proofs” provided by my early Adventist education was of the variety of miraculous signs including the cessation of breathing, unresponsive pupils to bright lights, and the lifting of heavy Bibles. Though these lines of evidence should not be dismissed since they certainly point to supernatural phenomena, I would suggest a more robust methodology be used to determine the genuineness of White’s prophetic gift as a Biblical prophet.

[4] Because of the volume of work that White produced it would be difficult to read everything she wrote for the purposes of testing so you’ll need to pick some of her major works and proceed from there.

[5] “For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.” Augustine. Contra Faustum, Book XVII (3)

[6] This is a sure-fire way to avoid prejudicing yourself in favor or against her writings before you have given her a fair chance to explain her theology through her writings.

[7] Please note that this testing process may last a long time. It is easier to expose a false prophet than it is to establish a true prophet because the signs we are looking for are in general negative signs that a true prophet wouldn’t exhibit. So, in essence, we are searching for something that shouldn’t exist in the ministry of a true prophet (libertinism, inexplicably failed predictions, contradictions with Scripture, etc.).

[8] Note that it would be unhelpful to use the phrase “Biblical prophet” instead of “canonical prophet” because there are various types of biblical prophets, some of which have contributed to the Bible and others have not.

[9] Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14), Letter to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16), The “first” 1st Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:9-15), The Book of Jashar (2 Samuel 1:18; Joshua 10:13), A book of Disasters (by Jeremiah) (Jeremiah 51:60 -63), Book of Truth? (Daniel 10:21).

[10] Specifically, volumes such as the 9 volumes of the Testimonies for the Church, seem to be directly addressed at Adventists and thus may not be as applicable to Christendom in general. This would be similar to a book probably written by Moses Book of the Wars of the Lord mentioned in Numbers 21:14. The content is so specific and the audience so narrow that perhaps it would have been awkward to try and include it in the Canon. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the writings aren’t inspired or possess no authority.

[11] If we were to ignore a genuine prophet, we would, in essence, be ignoring the spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus, which means you are ignoring Jesus. This is why it is so important to settle this question for yourself. You should never give someone this much authority in your life (spiritual life or otherwise) unless they are actually called from God and the can pass the tests that Scripture outlines for us.

[12] The Desire of Ages is a classic in Christian literature and is one of the most compelling works that testifies to White’s inspiration. White in her own words stated the following about her prophetic gift, “God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work … bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil.” I think the best response to this challenge by White comes from a recently deceased Adventist layman, named Moses Mason who put it this way, “Brothers and sisters, I find it hard to believe that the devil could have written the Desire of Ages.” I would have to concur with Elder Mason’s conclusion.

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About the author

Ingram London

Ingram London is a PhD student studying systematic theology at Andrews University. He serves as head of content development for The Compass Magazine.