According to the prophet Isaiah, God calls us to “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). Christ “expounded” (explained or reasoned) with the two disciples about the prophecies of the Messiah on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). And Paul frequently went into the synagogues to “reason” with the Jews on the Sabbath day (Acts 18:4, 19). Some may point out that this “reasoning” was about Scripture, and this is true. The study of Scripture is inseparable from reason. Along with using reason to help us determine what in Scripture should be taken literally and what is symbolic, we also use reason to compare Scripture with Scripture, to draw conclusions that are implicit within it.
If we truly believed in Solo Scriptura, we would not preach sermons, but would merely read and recite extended passages of Scripture with no comment. The idea of the sermon relies on the notion that reason can help Scripture bring its truths to the present day and apply its passages to contemporary life. This is what Christ Himself did in the synagogue, when he read from the scroll of Isaiah. If he had sat down after reading, making no further comment, He would have avoided trouble with the Jewish leaders. But it was His comments and reasoning after the Scripture reading that made the important point that needed to be made, and that caused trouble with his own townspeople (Luke 4:17-30).
Closely related to reason, experience often serves as a guide to the proper understanding of Scripture. Some of Christ’s most difficult statements are not obviously symbolic. In His sermon on the mount, He states that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out, and if your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off (Matthew 5:29, 30). Are these acts possible? Yes. Did Christ say He was being symbolic or exaggerating? No. But our reason and experience of other types of literary hyperbole, both inside and outside the Bible (along with other scriptural principles, like the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit) tell us that Christ is using the literary device of hyperbole to make a spiritual point.
Another example of the use of experience in conjunction with Scripture is found in the story of the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts in the debate over whether to circumcise Gentiles. In that discussion, appeals were made to both Scripture and experience. Notably, Peter appealed to his experience in preaching to Gentiles who had received the Holy Spirit but were not circumcised, as an argument against circumcision (Acts 15:6-11). Barnabas and Paul supported Peter’s story of the conversion of Gentiles with their own accounts of the “miracles and wonders” done among the Gentiles. Immediately afterward, James quoted the prophet Amos as supporting these arguments that God was going to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Scripture was indeed cited, but it was a case of Scripture confirming experience, and not the other way around (Acts 15:12-18).
While Christ rejected the use of the kind of tradition that caused people to violate the teachings and spirit of Scripture, the Bible records that He himself followed certain customs and traditions. He had a “custom” to enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and read from Scripture (Luke 4:16). While Sabbath rest was a biblical command, the entering of the synagogue for Sabbath worship and the reading of a particular passage of Scripture was a custom or tradition that had arisen in support of the Sabbath command. Likewise, Jesus had a “custom” of repairing to the Mount of Olives for prayer (Luke 22:39). He received a customary baptism (Luke 3:21, 22) at the hands of his cousin John, a rite that cannot be found commanded in the Old Testament. Baptism is a custom or tradition that appears to have developed in the period between the Old and New Testaments. It was practiced by the Essenes at Qumran, John the Baptist adopted it, and Christ made it a part of the Christian church through His example and teaching (Matthew 3:13-15; John 3:5).
Of course, baptism today is not based on tradition, but on the teaching of the New Testament. But the manner in which we carry it out, the service and ritual, the testimony of the candidates, the wearing of robes, is all part of our tradition in carrying out the biblical ritual. As Adventists, we have many other traditions; mid-week prayer meeting, summer camp meeting, weeks of prayer and revival, ingathering, potlucks, even a worship service divided between Sabbath school classes and a formal preaching service are customs and traditions we have inherited and developed. Where do they come from? Many of them hail from Methodist and Baptist practices of the early 19th century that we have adopted and modified. Does that make them wrong?
Reflection will show that certain traditions are actually necessary for worshipping and studying “decently and in order.” If we did not all agree that Sabbath school was at 9:30 a.m. and the church service at 11 a.m., it would be difficult to worship together on a regular basis. These traditions are not harmful unless they begin to be viewed as equivalent with church doctrine or teaching. The helpful use of tradition is to guide the church in its practical affairs, as long as the church knows it can revise or change those traditions when needed.
In its best sense, tradition is the reason and experience of generations crystallized over time. It is the collective memories of the church community about how best to deal with recurring problems or carry out practices and implement beliefs. Thus, it should be appreciated and not discarded without thought, but it should not be a barrier to changes and innovations that are called for by changing times. Tradition becomes a problem when it hardens into dogma and becomes confused with core belief and doctrine. Christ rebuked the use of traditions when they violate God’s commands. “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).
One must be careful in dealing with this question of tradition. We do not want to create authorities competing with or supplementing the Bible. But neither do we want to impoverish the Bible and our belief systems by rejecting supporting helps of which the Scriptures themselves approve. Indeed, there is one very important area where the tradition of the church, received from the prophets and apostles, is absolutely essential to the Christian church since its beginning: the information about how we define the parameters of Scripture.
Nowhere in Scripture itself are we given a list of the books that make up Scripture. If you look in the table of contents of your Bible, you will find it at the front of the Bible, outside of any of the inspired books. Where did this list come from? Effectively, from the tradition of the early church, “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” who gave witness to the authority of those books that make up Scripture.
To be clear, they did not give authority to Scripture; rather, they recognized the authority that the Spirit had already put there.[i] They then passed along that information, both in written Scripture, and by word. “So then, brethren,” Paul told the Thessalonians, “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” 2 Thes. 2:15. What these “word of mouth” traditions were have largely been lost to history; the list of canonical books is the one continuing remnant of this oral tradition, which the church eventually put into written form. To reject all uses of tradition would be to reject the identity of the biblical canon itself.
What about Ellen White – “Prima Traditionis?”
As believers in the Sola, Tota, Prima Scriptura principle, how does a faithful Adventist approach the writings of Ellen White, which the Adventist Church views as inspired? It is instructive as to how Ellen White viewed her own works in relation to the Bible. Some would wish to make her writings part of the “Sola Scriptura” package, but she herself acknowledged that could never be. She wrote that the “Spirit was not given—nor can it ever be bestowed—to supersede the Bible; for the Scriptures explicitly state that the Word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested . . . .” (3 SM 30)
She denied that her writings carried either of the characteristics associated with the Sola or Prima Scriptura principles. She rejected notions that her work had either ultimate authority, or could serve as the basis for rules of faith and practice. She acknowledged that her work was the “lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light” of the Bible. She repeatedly indicated that doctrines must be based on the Bible, and that her writings did not give “additional light to take the place of the Word.” She was clear that church members should embrace “the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice,” and that last day visions were “not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of his people, and to correct those who err from Biblical truth.” (3 SM 29-30.)
So, Ellen White herself denies being the basis of new doctrine, or being an ultimate authority. That authority continues to be the Bible. In regards to her writings, she uses language that fits very well with the idea of “witness” to Biblical truth. “The written testimonies are not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed. . . . Additional light is not brought out; but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given . . . .” (5 T 665).
And yet, the evidences of her inspiration make it inappropriate to treat her as just another witness, with authority equal only to other uninspired commentaries or writings of the reformers, that we may accept or disregard upon our own judgment. Again, her self testimony is instructive: “Some have taken the position that the warnings, cautions, and reproofs given by the Lord through His servant, unless they come through special vision for each individual case, should have no more weight than counsels and warnings from other sources. . . . There have been those who claimed my testimonies purporting to be given by the Spirit of God were merely the expressions of my own judgment . . . . This statement is utterly false.” (5 T 683).
So where do we place Ellen White in relation to our “stool of truth?” She cannot occupy the spot held by the scriptural seat, which is the sole ultimate authority, and only basis of teaching doctrine. She must play a supporting role, similar to, but superior to the other legs on the stool. Perhaps a helpful way to think of her is as a kind of “prima traditionis”—a source of teaching, insight and authority that, while subject to the Bible, and not the basis of doctrine, is superior to the other formative norms. She is tested by the Bible, but her inspired teachings are superior to other human sources of truth, whether experience, reason, or history.
Some would treat her as an “inspired” commentator on the Bible, and there is some truth to this. This view, however, can lead to some dangerous results if pressed too far. Often Ellen White used Biblical language and references as rhetorical devices, as the basis for devotional thoughts, and as homiletical springboards. She was not always intending to give the precise exegetical meaning of a passage, or to exhaust its potential meanings or applications.[ii] Deciding where she was using these various approaches can be difficult, and this was no doubt one of the reasons she urged church members and leaders not to use her writings to settle doctrinal disputes.
She had to release such cautions in the 1880s, when various leaders were arguing about the nature of the law in Galatians, as well as later on, when others were seeking for the true identity or meaning of the “daily” in Daniel 8. In both instances, she urged others to reach results based on scriptural study, and not based on her writings.[iii] She did not want to play a role as a normative norm, but was obviously content, and indeed desirous, of being a formative norm, albeit an inspired one; a “prima traditionis,” that should take precedence over other formative norms.
Conclusion: The Two Books – Nature and Scripture
The use of these other sources of information about God and religious experience is merely a recognition that God has two books, Scripture and nature. As Adventists, we rightly emphasize the importance and truths of Scripture, as this avenue plainly shows the way of salvation and clearly reveals the character of God. But the book of nature has a valid and important place in both the church and the world, and indeed careful scriptural study cannot be done without it.
Ellen White recognized the importance of the formal use of the tools of nature, reason and experience, in education and the search for truth. In a remarkable statement, she indicated that above all else, we must study three things in our schools:
“The plans devised and carried out for the education of our youth are none too broad. They should not have a one-sided education, but all their powers should receive equal attention. Moral philosophy, the study of the Scriptures, and physical training should be combined with the studies usually pursued in schools. Every power—physical, mental, and moral—needs to be trained, disciplined, and developed, that it may render its highest service.”[iv]
What was moral philosophy? It was a systematic study of knowledge, morals, and questions of right and wrong derived by the use of reason from a study of human nature, history, and the natural world. Almost all Protestant universities of Ellen White’s day had courses in moral philosophy designed to introduce students from all disciplines and fields of learning to the overarching truths of God’s second book, that complemented and supplemented the truth’s of God’s word.[v] We have largely lost sight of this important field of study, and have to a great extent lost our ability to influence society for moral truths, except indirectly through converting individuals in outright evangelism.
Our pioneers understood that you could talk about right and wrong, truth and error, even outside the parameters of the Bible. They were involved in political issues, such as abolition of slavery, prohibition of alcohol, and health and temperance reform. They could be involved in these things in part because they could talk about these issues with moral language drawn not just from the Bible, but from the world of human moral reasoning. If you believe only in Solo Scriptura, you cannot do this. But a balanced and careful use of Sola Scriptura, along with Prima and Tota Scriptura, opens up these possibilities. We need to listen to the reformers, and our own pioneers, in rediscovering the balance among these vital scriptural principles.
- What elements of our church services do we do just out of a sense of tradition, that perhaps we could re-think and update in light of Biblical principles?
- Once we accept that sources of information outside the Bible can help inform doctrine and teaching, how do we make sure that we maintain a scriptural superiority over these other sources?
- Did Jesus have to wrestle with both conservative and liberal extremes in relation to religious authority in his own day? Read the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4:7-27, and discuss how the story illustrates Jesus’ response to both conservative and liberal extremes.
[i] The early church was exercising what we might call “ministerial” authority when it recognized the list of inspired books. That is, authority that is essentially delegated from on high, and one must exercise in a certain way once specific criteria are met. This stands in opposition to “magisterial” or “discretionary” authority, which means that one has the authority to actually decide an issue one way or the other. Thus, once the church recognized the divine credentials of a book, which was based on some combination of authorial authority (was it written by an apostle, or a known and authorized associate of one), its consistency with existing scripture, and endorsement by apostolic authority, then it must include the book in the canon. If it did not meet these criteria, then the church did not have the discretion to include the book. Its role was merely recognizing what the Spirit had done.
[ii] George Knight, Reading Ellen White: How to Understand and Apply Her Writings (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Ass’n., 1997), 28-29.
[iii] Knight, Reading Ellen White, 26-27.
[iv] Ellen Gould White, Christian Education (Battle Creek, MI: International Tract Society, 1894), 210.
[v] Guelzo, Allen C., “The Science of Duty”: Moral Philosophy and the Epistemology of Science in Nineteenth Century America,” in David Livingstone, D.G. Hart, Mark Noll, eds., Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 267-269, 271.