Volume 14, Number 3
What does the Spirit of Prophecy mean to us? How can we interpret it correctly?
With the exception of biblical writers and the former Russian communist leader, Vladimir I. Lenin, Ellen G. White is possibly the most translated author of all time. The number of different languages that her works have been put into exceeds those of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, German socialist philosopher Karl Marx, English playwright William Shakespeare, English mystery writer Agatha Christie, German fairy-tale collaborators Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, British author Ian Fleming (creator of the James Bond thrillers), or American novelist Ernest Hemingway.
By the close of her seventy-year ministry, her literary productions totaled approximately 100,000 pages, or the equivalent of 25 million words. They deal with a wide range of subjects--spirituality, theology, education, health, family, etc. Massive amounts of these materials are preserved as letters, diaries, interviews, sermons, general manuscripts, periodical articles, pamphlets, and published books. Based on the sheer volume and quality of her writings, Ellen G. White could have published some 250 doctoral dissertations of 400 pages each!
But she was more than a prolific author. While the world is only now coming to appreciate her deep spiritual and practical insights, Seventh-day Adventists throughout their history have recognized her as a recipient of the true gift of prophecy. They refer to her writings as the Spirit of Prophecy or the Testimonies.
In recent times, however, liberal scholars within our ranks have raised questions about her writings, even as they do with the Bible. And throughout our history, offshoot groups have misused and misrepresented her writings. These and other influences have sometimes created uncertainty or confusion in the minds of church members about the writings of Ellen G. White. We will address some of the key issues regarding her works and offer some principles on how to understand them.
A. Some Key Questions
What is the Spirit of Prophecy?
The book of Revelation teaches that God's end-time remnant church keeps "the commandments of God" and has "the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev 12:17). In a later chapter of that book, we are told that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (19:10, emphasis mine).
The apostle Paul also employs such language, using the phrases "testimony of Christ," "testimony of God," and "testimony of our Lord" (1 Cor 1:6; 2:1; 2 Tim 1:8). Similarly, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah uses the expression "the law and the testimony" (Isa 8:19-20) to refer to the messages given by God's true prophets in earlier times.
Thus, for Seventh-day Adventists, the reference to the "commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Rev 12:17; cf. Rev 20:4) suggests that God's end-time people will be characterized by keeping the commandments of God (all ten of them, including the seventh-day Sabbath) and by the testimony of Jesus, that is, the everlasting gospel given through God's true prophets (including Ellen G. White). Thus, our Fundamental Beliefs #17 states in part: "One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White."
But some argue that we should not equate "the testimony of Jesus" or "the spirit of prophecy" with the writings of Ellen White. While indeed we should not think that these terms refer only to Mrs. White and her work, the term "testimony of Jesus" (or "spirit of prophecy") can be used legitimately for all the messages of instruction, encouragement, and correction proclaimed by God's chosen messengers, His prophets. (See relevant verses in Rev 1:2, 9; 6:9; 12:17; 19:10; and 22:16.)
Because the gift of prophecy is an identifying mark of God's end-time remnant church (Rev 12:17) and because we believe that this gift was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White, the Seventh-day Adventist church is justified in referring to her writings as the Spirit of Prophecy or the Testimonies, even as we would to all inspired messages from God. Therefore, our Fundamental Beliefs #17 notes: "As the Lord's messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. (Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10.)"
Should all Adventists believe in the Spirit of Prophecy?
Yes, indeed! The Bible says we should accept the Spirit of Prophecy. In 1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21 we are told, "Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." First Corinthians 12 also says there are many gifts in the church, including the gift of prophecy. All these gifts will be present in the church until Jesus comes (Eph 4:7-13). If we accept the other gifts of the Spirit, we must accept the gift of prophecy as well. In fact, as we have noted, the Bible singles out this gift as one identifying characteristic of the end-time church (Rev 12:17; 19:10). Whenever God gives a gift to His people, they must respectfully accept it.
Moreover, belief in the Spirit of Prophecy is one of the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, the body of doctrines identifying us as a church. Therefore, before one is baptized, it is important to be carefully instructed to subscribe to all 27 of the Fundamental Beliefs, including the teaching on the Spirit of Prophecy. If after baptism a member cannot conscientiously adhere to this or any other doctrine, the church should respect the right of that person to withdraw from membership.
At times, when members or church employees blatantly oppose our understanding of this biblical doctrine, the church may have to encourage them to honorably withdraw from its fellowship, or even insist that they do so. To be a Seventh-day Adventist and to remain one requires a belief in this biblical teaching and, at minimum, a respect for the church's conviction that the genuine gift of prophecy was manifested in the life and work of Ellen G. White. When one of its members begins to undermine its teachings, the church should diligently try to win that member back to full agreement with the body of believers or, if this is not possible, take steps to help the person find another denomination whose beliefs are more like his own.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that the writings of Mrs. White, as a genuine manifestation of the Spirit of prophecy, are a precious gift from God, to be cherished and appreciated. These writings, like the Bible, are to help prepare us for heaven. Even now, as they lift our gaze toward things eternal, they give us a foretaste of what God has prepared for those who love Him.
What is the relationship between the Spirit of Prophecy and the Bible?
Ellen G. White understood that the Bible alone constitutes the Christians standard or norm for teaching and practice. She wrote, "The Word of God is the great detector of error; to it we believe everything must be brought. The Bible must be our standard for every doctrine and preaching. We must study it reverentially. We are to receive no one's opinion without comparing it with the Scriptures. Here is divine authority which is supreme in matters of faith. It is the Word of the living God that is to decide all controversies" (The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, pp. 44, 45; cf. The Great Controversy, p. 595).
Sister White herself beautifully explained the relationship between her writings and the Bible, referring to her works as the "lesser light" pointing to the Bible, the "greater light." She wrote: "Little heed is given to the Bible, and
the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light" (Colporteur Ministry, p. 125).
Another analogy, developed by Mrs. S. M. I. Henry, is that of a telescope and star. Mrs. White's writings are like the telescope, and the truths of the Bible are like the stars. A telescope does not project or create new stars. It only helps us to focus on the stars that God has already placed there. Similarly, the writings of Mrs. White help us to focus on the truths revealed in God's Word. And in some cases, we see clearly some of these stars of God's truth that were hiding in obscurity.
These two analogies refute any suggestion that would make Mrs. White's writings a part of the sixty-six books of the Bible canon or even seem like a kind of "third testament" of the Bible. She is not alone in her status as a non-canonical prophet, a true prophet whose works are not included as part of the Bible.
In Bible times some prophets wrote books which became part of the biblical canon. These canonical prophets include such notables as Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, and John. Others, however, such as Enoch, Elijah, and Elisha, wrote no books of the Bible, yet their messages and ministries are preserved in it. Still, there were prophets like the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) whose messages have not been preserved in the Bible. And finally, there were prophets who actually wrote books which have not been preserved. They include Nathan and Gad (1 Chron 29:29), Shemaiah (2 Chron 12:15), Jasher (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18), Iddo (2 Chron 12:15; 9:29), Ahijah (2 Chron 9:29), and Jehu (2 Chron 20:34).
But whether included in the Bible or not, the messages delivered by all categories of prophets were authoritative. Ellen G. White was also a true prophet. Though her writings are the "lesser light" pointing to the "greater light" of Scripture, and though they are not a part of the Bible, yet like the non-canonical prophets mentioned above, her messages are nonetheless authoritative.
What is the purpose of the Spirit of Prophecy?
Since the Bible is the norm for Christian doctrine and practice, why did God give the Spirit of Prophecy writings? Ellen White offers at least five major reasons.
1. To bring people back to the Word they have neglected. She wrote: "The word of God is sufficient to enlighten the most beclouded mind and may be understood by those who have any desire to understand it. But notwithstanding all this, some who profess to make the word of God their study are found living in direct opposition to its plainest teachings. Then, to leave men and women without excuse, God gives plain and pointed testimonies, bringing them back to the word that they have neglected to follow" (Testimonies for the Church, 5:663).
2. To vividly impress truths of revelation already revealed. According to Ellen White, those taking the Bible seriously need the message impressed on the heart, made alive in their hearts:
"The Lord designs to warn you, to reprove, to counsel, through the testimonies given, and to impress your minds with the importance of the truth of His word. The written testimonies are not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed. Man's duty to God and to his fellow man has been distinctly specified in God's word, yet but few of you are obedient to the light given. Additional truth is not brought out; but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given and in His own chosen way brought them before the people to awaken and impress the mind with them, that all may be left without excuse" (ibid., p. 665).
3. To call us to holy Christian living. In 1871, she explained that the Testimonies are given so we can order our lives in accordance with the Bible's teachings: "You are not familiar with the Scriptures. 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. It is because you have neglected to acquaint yourselves with God's inspired Book that He has sought to reach you by simple, direct testimonies, calling your attention to the words of inspiration which you had neglected to obey, and urging you to fashion your lives in accordance with its pure and elevated teachings" (ibid., 2:605).
Indeed, many can testify that those who diligently study the Spirit of Prophecy alongside the Bible tend to be more spiritual, more active in the church, and more effective soul-winners than those who don't do so.
4. To help us understand the Scriptures. Mrs. White's writings have a role to play in hermeneutics, our interpretation of Scripture. While upholding the Bible as the norm and thus referring to her works as the lesser light, Ellen White herself described her two-fold function in the church this way: "God has, in that Word [the Bible], promised to give visions in the `last days'; not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth" (Early Writings, p. 78, latter emphasis mine). Elsewhere she explained that the light God gave her "has been given to correct specious error and to specify what is truth" (Selected Messages, 3:32, emphasis mine).
Notice that the writings of Ellen White are not to establish a new rule of faith apart from the Bible. Rather, they have been given the church to "comfort" God's people (when they are in the right path), to "correct" them (when they err from the truth) and to "specify" what is truth (when they are not sure). With so many confusing, conflicting voices involved in biblical interpretation, can anyone doubt the importance and urgency of the Spirit of Prophecy in the hermeneutical enterprise?
Even though her writings should play a major role in hermeneutical issues, she herself makes it clear that her writings are not a short cut or a replacement for serious Bible study. In 1890 she wrote: "God's Word is the unerring standard. The Testimonies are not to take the place of the Word. . . . Let all prove their positions from the Scriptures and substantiate every point of truth from the revealed Word of God" (Evangelism, p. 256).
5. To shield us from error that will come into God's church in the last days. Ellen White referred to errors that will be introduced and entertained in the church as tares among the wheat. She wrote:
"I am instructed that the Lord, by His infinite power, has preserved the right hand of His messenger for more than half a century, in order that the truth may be written out as He bids me write it for publication, in periodicals and books, Why?--Because if it were not thus written out, when the pioneers in the faith shall die, there would be many, new in the faith, who would sometimes accept as messages of truth teachings that contain erroneous sentiments and dangerous fallacies. Sometimes that which men teach as `special light' is in reality specious error, which, as tares sown among the wheat, will spring up and produce a baleful harvest. And errors of this sort will be entertained by some until the close of this earth's history" (This Day With God, p. 126).
No perceptive Seventh-day Adventist today can seriously doubt the relevance of the above statement. Indeed, in my most recent book Must We Be Silent? I have documented and challenged some of the errors that are currently being entertained in the church—homosexuality, women's ordination, racism, divorce and remarriage, higher criticism, pluralism, and questionable gospel gimmicks and worship styles. I can honestly say that but for the guidance of the Spirit of Prophecy, it would have been very difficult to detect the subtle errors in the arguments of those pushing these unbiblical ideologies.
As we approach the close of the earth's history, we must expect many more dangerous heresies to creep into the church. The writings of Ellen G. White have been given us to alert us in times of uncertainty.
Are her writings merely good suggestions, but not authoritative?
Those wishing to undermine confidence in the writings of Ellen G. White sometimes argue that since her messages are not part of the Bible, her writings are merely inspirational, not authoritative. They consider Mrs. White's writings devotional material without serious theological content.
But are her writings inspiring (like Shakespeare's or Martin Luther King, Jr.'s), but not inspired (like the Bible writers')? Are the messages of canonical prophets inspired and authoritative while those of non-canonical prophets are inspirational but non-authoritative? Are the Spirit of Prophecy writings merely good suggestions that are not binding upon God's end-time people?
The Bible teaches that even though they are not part of the canon of Scripture, the messages communicated by non-canonical prophets are to be received as possessing binding authority. The message of Nathan (a non-canonical prophet) to David, for example, carried divine authority. Because "the Lord sent Nathan to David" (2 Sam 12:1), the message he bore was authoritative, not simply inspirational or pastoral. Similarly, David recognized the authoritative nature of the message by another non-canonical prophet, Gad, "David's seer" (1 Chron 21:9). Conscious of the divine authority of his message, "Gad came to David and said to him, `Thus says the Lord . . .'" (v. 11). David's response to this non-canonical prophet indicates that he received the message as binding upon him: "So David went up at the word of Gad, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord" (1 Chron 21:19).
A prophetic message, then, is not less binding because it is delivered by a non-canonical prophet. If a message is given by a true prophet of God, it cannot be treated as simply inspirational or pastoral but not authoritative. Just as surely as God held Ahab and Jezebel accountable for their attitude and response to Elijah's message, so will He hold us accountable for how we treat the messages of God's end-time prophet. According to Ellen White:
"It does not become anyone to drop a word of doubt here and there that shall work like poison in other minds, shaking their confidence in the messages which God has given, which have aided in laying the foundation of this work, and have attended it to the present day, in reproofs, warnings, corrections, and encouragements. To all who have stood in the way of the Testimonies, I would say, God has given a message to His people, and His voice will be heard, whether you hear or forbear. Your opposition has not injured me; but you must give an account to the God of heaven, who has sent these warnings and instructions to keep His people in the right way. You will have to answer to Him for your blindness, for being a stumbling block in the way of sinners" (Selected Messages, 1:43).
Here Ellen White has distinguished between the authority of the message a prophet bears ("You must give an account to the God of heaven, who has sent these warnings . . .") and the role of the messenger ("Your opposition has not injured me"). The prophet has no authority independent of the messages conveyed, no ability to make the decisions for the church or for individuals. Such executive power in Bible times lay with the king, the priests, the elders, and other officials. Prophets are not given this authority, only the commission to convey faithfully the messages God gives to them. It is up to others to decide what shall be done, whether they will obey. When we speak of the authority of the prophet, then, we must understand that it is different from that of a pastor or elder, who has responsibility over what is done in the church. The prophet's responsibility is only to deliver the message of the One who is truly in authority.
Believing that the Holy Spirit "is the author of the Scriptures and of the Spirit of Prophecy [her own writings]" (ibid., 3:30), Mrs. White made this forthright statement about her works: "God is either teaching His church . . . or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. . . . There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil" (Testimonies for the Church, 4:230).
Are her letters also authoritative?
Some argue that although books like Steps to Christ, The Desire of Ages, and Patriarchs and Prophets are inspired and authoritative, Ellen White's letters to individuals or churches are not. The letters, they say, offer good practical advice or counsels, but they are not necessarily inspired or authoritative.
If this argument were valid, one would also have to argue that the letters of John, Peter, or Paul (to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Thessalonians, Philippians, etc.) are not inspired and authoritative. Moreover, since New Testament books like the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles were letters to an individual (Theophilus, Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1), the messages contained in them are not authoritative. But the apostle Peter discredited this view when he referred to the letters of Paul as "scriptures," the result of "wisdom given unto him," adding that those who misinterpret them do so at the peril of their own lives (2 Pet 3:15-16). What is true of Paul's letters is equally true of Luke's, Peter's, John's, James's and those of all true prophets, including Ellen G. White.
Indeed, "prophets' letters carried the same weight of authority as their formal sermons [or books]. In some cases, letters would be more helpful than a sermon because they were written to specific people with specific problems. Letters written to one person or to a church became equally beneficial to others as these letters (and sermons) were copied and widely distributed. People everywhere down through time have identified with these inspired, practical applications of divine principles to the details of life."
In 1906, Ellen White wrote to a man who was slighting her testimonies to him and others by declaring them "to be merely the opinion of Sister White." She made it clear that her letters are to be accorded the same attention as her books. She wrote:
"When I went to Colorado I was so burdened for you that, in my weakness, I wrote many pages to be read at your camp meeting. Weak and trembling, I arose at three o'clock in the morning to write to you. God was speaking through clay. You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper, expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in visions--the precious rays of light shining from the throne" (Selected Messages, 1:27).
In summary, we cannot say that the letters or counsels given by Ellen White, even to individuals, are merely her personal opinions, and thus have no authority. While the specific application of her messages varies with circumstance, place, or time, yet as with the Bible prophets, her writings carry the counsel and authority of God. They have been preserved for us so we can avoid the mistakes of their original recipients and imitate their examples when they were doing right. If we find these writings applying to a certain circumstance in our lives, we can consider that God is speaking through them to us.
B. Some Key Principles
Thus far, I have been addressing questions that are often raised regarding the writings of Ellen G. White. Next, I will offer some principles on how to interpret them. But before pursuing this task, it is important for me to state what may come as a surprise to some readers: We don't need new methods to understand much of the writings of Ellen White! Let me explain what I mean.
Ellen White's writings are not difficult to read or understand. They are not written in Greek or Hebrew, but in plain, simple American English. Most people of average reading ability in English can understand them. Since her writings are clear in themselves, we must be wary whenever we hear people calling for some new or special methods to interpret Ellen White.
For you see, people seeking to revise Adventist doctrines and practices are fond of raising false questions, which we all too often expend unnecessary energy trying to resolve. Before answering such questions, we will do well if we first ask ourselves which part of Ellen White's writings are so obscure as to require a special hermeneutic to understand.
Which of her writings needs special principles to understand?
Which of Ellen White's books or writings are difficult to understand, and why? Her autobiographical works (e.g., Life Sketches and Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2) are plain reading and easy to understand. Her Bible study books (e.g., Patriarchs and Prophets, Prophets and Kings, The Desire of Ages, The Acts of the Apostles, and The Great Controversy) are also clear enough. Similarly, her devotional books (like Steps to Christ, The Sanctified Life, Christ's Object Lessons, In Heavenly Places, Sons and Daughters of God, etc.) are simple, straight-forward works that do not require special hermeneutics to understand. Again her health books (e.g., The Ministry of Healing, Medical Ministry, Counsels on Diet and Foods) as well as her home and family books (The Adventist Home, Child Guidance, Letters to Young Lovers) are all simple to read. Furthermore, her articles in Review and Herald, Signs of the Times, The Youth's Instructor, etc. were all written to be read and understood.
Since Ellen White's writings are not difficult to comprehend, we must try to understand why there are calls in some quarters for new principles to interpret her works. It appears to me that, as far as the Spirit of Prophecy is concerned, there are three major areas where our liberal friends have problems.
The first has to do with Mrs. White's writings that deal with end-time events, what scholars call "eschatology." The critics don't like our eschatology--our teachings on the Sabbath/Sunday issue, the antichrist, the mark of the beast, the remnant, spiritualism, the time of trouble, etc., and perhaps especially our emphasis on preparing a people to stand in the day of the Lord. Because writings like The Great Controversy, Last Day Events, and Early Writings deal with these issues, some within our ranks are seeking special ways of re-interpreting her writings to avoid believing or teaching the Bible doctrines contained in them.
In the opinion of some of these critical scholars, Ellen G. White's eschatology was culturally conditioned by the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic bias prevalent in her day. Her emphasis on obedience to God is mislabeled a "perfectionistic" outlook. They consider her writings an obstruction to their desire to be part of the ecumenical and tongue-speaking charismatic crowd. Reinterpreting her works is the way for them to get rid of the church's alleged "eschatological paranoia," "apocalyptic sensationalism," and "sectarian mentality and xenophobia."
Second, some of our scholars who have embraced higher criticism and naturalistic evolution find it difficult to uphold the Bible's teaching on a literal six-day creation, a literal worldwide flood in Noah's day, the sanctuary teaching, and other distinctive Adventist doctrines from the Bible. Since Ellen White's writings proclaim and defend these teachings, some are seeking methods of interpreting these writings that would allow them to hold on to their "progressive" views.
Third, while the critics find no problems with Sister White's messages of comfort, they do not appreciate her messages of warning and correction, such as those found in many of the Testimonies and those having to do with Christian lifestyle issues.
As long as Ellen White talks about love, acceptance, and forgiveness, the liberals have no problem with her. But once she starts calling attention to lifestyle practices like the use of alcohol, flesh meats, and coffee, immoral practices and relationships, jewelry and Christian adornment, Sabbath observance, etc., some within our ranks immediately have problems with her works. They want some special hermeneutics to allow them do away with those lifestyle issues they don't like.
The above reasons explain why I suggested that we must be skeptical about calls for new principles to interpret Ellen G. White. Most of these calls are driven by hidden ideologies whose ultimate objective is to jettison our biblically-established doctrines and practices. The fact of the matter is, however, that most of Ellen White's writings are plain and easy to understand. We don't need new methods to understand them. We need a willing heart to do what God requires of us.
With this background, I will now offer a few guidelines on how to interpret the Spirit of Prophecy writings. For after all, while most of her writings are easy to read and understand, we must make sure that we correctly understand and apply them to our situation today.
1. Simply Read the Books
One of the reasons why we don't understand the writings of Ellen G. White is that we don't read them. It is ironic that we often find ourselves reading all kinds of books, commentaries, magazines, etc., but hardly any of Ellen G. White's works. Many of us seem to value the opinions of scholars--within and without the churchabove that of Mrs. White. Is it any wonder that we are often confused?
Moreover, some of us seem to abdicate our responsibility to study her writings for ourselves, allowing instead some specialist to tell us what Sister White may have said about a particular subject. When we take the pains to check out some of the claims by the scholars, however, we discover that sometimes they inject their own questionable views into what Mrs. White actually taught. I found this to be the case when I was researching for my book Must We Be Silent? Many times I discovered that the claims by certain scholars regarding the views of Ellen White on a number of issues were actually a distortion of her position!
Let's not simply assume that whatever a person may say about Ellen White's position is necessarily true. Let's adopt the Berean spirit of finding out whether those claims are so (Acts 17:11). A correct understanding of the Spirit of Prophecy requires that we set aside a specific time each day to study God's counsels. Read broadly, not just reading the same books over and over. Begin your reading with prayer and adopt an attitude of openness to be guided by God's Spirit, and a willingness to follow whatever new light God will reveal to you.
Recognize, too, that a correct understanding of troubling issues may take time--time for research, and time to reflect on research. If the issue is unsettling, don't forsake your belief while you are trying to get the facts together. Scripture's counsel is sound: "Believe His prophets, and you shall prosper" (2 Chron 20:20).
2. Pay Attention to the Historical Context
Some of the misunderstandings that often arise with respect to the writings of Ellen White have to do with individuals who take her statements out of their historical context and misapply them. One example will illustrate this point.
In 1894, Mrs. White wrote against "a bicycle craze" in Battle Creek in which "money was spent to gratify an enthusiasm in this direction that might better, far better, have been invested in building houses of worship where they are greatly needed." She considered the bicycle craze as "idolatry" and a "bewitching influence" brought upon the people by Satan. Elsewhere, she warned that "money expended in bicycles and dress and other needless things must be accounted for" (Testimonies for the Church, 8:51; Testimonies to Ministers, p. 398).
If placed within today's context, the above counsel may seem odd, even ridiculous. Does this statement suggest that today we cannot buy bicycles for ourselves and our children? No. The context of those statements suggests that Mrs. White was addressing a specific situation at that time in which church members were "gratifying" their inclinations in their spending of money--God's money.
In fact, one issue of Reader's Digest captured the spirit pervasive at that time when it noted that at the beginning of the twentieth century, "the American people were swept with a consuming passion which left them with little time or money for anything else. . . . What was this big, new distraction? For an answer the merchants had only to look out the window and watch their erstwhile customers go whizzing by. America had discovered the bicycle, and everybody was making the most of the new freedom it brought. . . . The bicycle began as a rich man's toy.... The best early bicycle cost $150, an investment comparable to the cost of an automobile today. . . . Every member of the family wanted a `wheel,' and entire family savings often were used up in supplying the demand."
While the context of Ellen White's own statement explains what she was dealing with in the "bicycle craze," the above historical background helps us better to appreciate her counsel at that time. Her concern was for the wise and balanced expenditure of God's resources at a time of great need in God's work (cf. Haggai 1). She warned against those who were "selfishly pleasing their own imagination and gratifying their own desires" (Testimonies for the Church, 8:51). If she were alive today, Mrs. White might well direct her counsel to those of us who spend money on luxury items, automobiles, homes, sports equipment, electronic gadgets, or unneeded clothing. And yes, there still are very expensive bicycles!
3. Avoid Misleading "Proof-Texting"
There is always a danger for us to take her writings out of their immediate literary contexts, illegitimately stringing together some Spirit of Prophecy quotations, and making her statements mean something completely different from what they originally asserted. While certain offshoot groups are most guilty of compiling statements along these lines, the tendency is never far away from any of us.
In 1906 Mrs. White expressed concerns about this kind of proof text treatment of her works: "Those who are not walking in the light of the message may gather up statements from my writings that happen to please them, and that agree with their human judgment, and by separating these statements from their connection and placing them beside human reasonings, make it appear that my writings uphold that which they condemn" (Letter 208, 1906, in Manuscript Release #760, "The Integrity of the Sanctuary Truth" [a document available from the Ellen G. White Estate], p. 28).
There is nothing inherently wrong with finding and citing proof texts. As I explained in my earlier work Receiving the Word (pp. 28-30), a proof text is a verse or a longer passage used to establish a point. If the passage in its context supports the point, using it as proof is legitimate. In Bible studies, in religious articles and books, in sermons, and in conversations and discussions, we may quote key Scriptures which bear on the topic at hand without having to quote the whole chapter or passage, as long as a fair reading of the larger passage would support the point.
When we refer to "proof-texting" or a "proof-text method," however, we usually mean using an isolated text arbitrarily to prove one's own point, without regard to whether the text in its own setting would support that point at all. Such an approach can lead to misguided conclusions.
You may recall the story of a man who adopted such a method in seeking the will of God for a major decision of his life. Unwilling to engage in the painstaking effort of studying the Bible in its historical and grammatical context as the basis for drawing valid applications for his situation, he decided to close his eyes, open his Bible at random, prayerfully put his finger down, and get guidance from whatever verse his finger landed on. His first try came up with the text which says that Judas "went and hanged himself" (Mt 27:5). Finding these words unhelpful, he tried again and this time got "Go, and do thou likewise" (Lk 10:37). In desperation he tried one more time; the text he found was, "That thou doest, do quickly" (Jn 13:27).
This story may not be true, but it aptly illustrates the dangers inherent in the arbitrary proof-text method. Instead of considering seriously the context of a given passage, the interpreter simply chooses several key phrases that coincide with his concerns and builds a doctrine completely different from what the verses meant in their settings. Mrs. White reacted against this tendency in relation to her own writings:
"I know that many men take the testimonies the Lord has given, and apply them as they suppose they should be applied, picking out a sentence here and there, taking it from its proper connection, and applying it according to their idea. Thus poor souls become bewildered, when could they read in order all that has been given, they would see the true application, and would not become confused. Much that purports to be a message from Sister White, serves the purpose of misrepresenting Sister White, making her testify in favor of things that are not in accordance with her mind or judgment" (Selected Messages, 1:44).
Beware of accepting someone's private compilation from Mrs. White's writings, which may reflect that person's own biases rather than Mrs. White's position. As Mrs. White said about rumors concerning her teachings, so we might say about unauthorized proof-texting: "If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her [Ellen G. White], read her published works" (Testimonies for the Church, 5:696).
4. Allow Her Writings to Interpret Themselves
While much of her writing is plain and requires no special hermeneutic to understand, a few things may appear difficult to understand. Often, these have to do with specific instructions in her letters to individuals or her testimonies and counsels to the church. In many cases, we don't know the entire background of the situation. Reading her letters or counsels in such situations is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation: we get an idea of what the parties are talking about, but it is not always possible to get the full picture. What should we do in such instances?
Mrs. White told us the solution: "The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture" (Selected Messages, 1:42). In other words, if you are not sure about a particular issue in a particular place, check other places in her works for additional insight. This is what we normally do when we run into problems in the Bible--we study Scripture "precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little" (cf. Is 28:10). In the same way, if questions arise in our reading of a particular counsel or letter, it may be wise for us to read her detailed treatment of that subject in her general works. We must allow Ellen White's own writings to interpret themselves.
5. Learn to Discern the Underlying Principles
Mrs. White's messages were often directed to people in particular situations. While the situations may be different from our own, we must carefully discern the underlying principles that may be applicable to us.
For example, at a time when many Americans still lived on farms, Ellen White suggested that a school curriculum for girls should include harnessing and driving horses. She wrote: "if girls . . . could learn to harness and drive a horse, and to use the saw and the hammer, as well as the rake and the hoe, they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life" (Education, pp. 216, 217).
The underlying principle in the above counsel is that girls should be "fitted to meet the emergencies of life." Indeed, the context of the statement shows that Mrs. White called for both sexes to be trained to be useful in homemaking. For the boys, she counseled: "To make a bed and put a room in order, to wash dishes, to prepare a meal, to wash and repair his own clothing, is a training that need not make any boy less manly." And the girls were also to learn how to "harness and drive a horse," not leaving such things for boys only.
Today, one way to apply the principle of how to be "fitted to meet the emergencies of life" would be for girls as well as boys in high school or college to take courses in auto mechanics and driver's education. But Mrs. White's concern was for more than emergencies, as her instruction for the boys shows. She wanted people to be fitted for the practical duties of life so that they need not be helpless when faced with the demands of everyday living, and so that they can help to lighten the burdens of others in the home. These underlying principles help us apply the counsel to situations which may differ from the one which prompted it.
6. Be Sure Conclusions Don't Pit Ellen White Against Scripture
If in our study we draw some conclusions from Mrs. White's writings which make her appear to contradict Scripture, then either our understanding of the Bible or of Ellen G. White is not correct. Because she was a true prophet, inspired by the same Spirit as the biblical writers, her teachings will always be in harmony with the Scriptures.
We can illustrate this principle by considering Ellen White's strong counsels against using flesh meats. In many places, she stirringly urged a return to a vegetarian diet, man's original diet in the Garden of Eden. For example, she wrote: "Vegetables, fruits, and grains should compose our diet. Not an ounce of flesh meat should enter our stomachs. The eating of flesh is unnatural. We are to return to God's original purpose in the creation of man" (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 380).
In 1890, she wrote: "Among those who are waiting for the coming of the Lord, meat eating will eventually be done away; flesh will cease to form a part of their diet. We should ever keep this end in view, and endeavor to work steadily toward it. I cannot think that in the practice of flesh eating we are in harmony with the light which God has been pleased to give us" (ibid., pp. 380, 381). Or as she stated in 1908: "It is for their own good that the Lord counsels the remnant church to discard the use of flesh meats, tea, and coffee, and other harmful foods. There are plenty of other things on which we can subsist that are wholesome and good" (ibid., p. 381).
Now, because the Bible says that one may eat of the meats designated clean (Lev 11, Deut 14), the Passover included eating a lamb (Ex 12), and Jesus apparently ate fish after His resurrection (Jn 21), shall we conclude that Mrs. White contradicted Scripture on this point? No, taking such a position would show that we had not examined her writings thoroughly enough.
While Ellen White strongly advocated not using flesh food, she did not teach that eating meat was wrong under all circumstances. She urged that people obtain the best diet they can. "In countries where there are fruits, grains, and nuts in abundance," she wrote, "flesh food is not the right food for God's people" (Testimonies for the Church, 9:159). For her, church members should "avoid meat eating, not because it is regarded as sin to eat meat, but because it is not healthful" (Manuscript Releases, 5:401, emphasis mine).
Health was her overriding concern here, made more acute by a change in the condition of animals. Flesh meat, according to Sister White, was never man's best food, and "its use is now doubly objectionable, since disease in animals is so rapidly increasing" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 313). She stated: "Animals are becoming more and more diseased, and it will not be long until animal food will be discarded by many besides Seventh-day Adventists. Foods that are healthful and life sustaining are to be prepared, so that men and women will not need to eat meat" (Testimonies for the Church, 7:124). Today's concern over mad cow and foot and mouth diseases, together with increasing evidence of the advantages of a vegetarian diet over meat products, offer compelling support for Ellen White's counsel.
So Ellen White does not contradict Scripture on this point. Rather, her counsel accords with the Bible's admonition to care for the body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, 17; 6:19, 20). For Ellen G. White, following health principles means avoiding all practices that are harmful to the body and using judiciously the things which are healthful. It also involves walking in the advancing light that God has given to meet the special conditions prevailing in the end times. She sums up her position thus:
"While we do not make the use of flesh meat a test, while we do not want to force any one to give up its use, yet it is our duty to request that no minister of the conference shall make light of or oppose the message of reform on this point. . . . If we could be benefited by indulging the desire for flesh foods, I would not make this appeal to you; but I know we cannot. Flesh foods are injurious to the physical well-being, and we should learn to do without them. Those who are in a position where it is possible to secure a vegetarian diet, but who choose to follow their own preferences in this matter, eating and drinking as they please, will gradually grow careless of the instruction the Lord has given regarding other phases of the present truth, and will lose their perception of what is truth; they will surely reap as they have sown" (Counsels on Diet and Foods, pp. 401-403).
7. Study for Personal Edification
Another principle that will enable us to understand and benefit from Mrs. White's writings is that we must study to find counsel for our own lives, not to prove our conclusions or use the knowledge gained as a whip or a club to knock people on the head. A wrong spirit often clouds our perceptions of truth. And even a valid interpretation may be twisted, misunderstood, or misapplied if a person cherishes an unchristlike spirit.
During the 1888 General Conference debate on righteousness by faith, Mrs. White made a comment that reveals how the critical or antagonistic spirit of an interpreter can affect the interpretation. She wrote to certain individuals: "I am afraid of your interpretation of any Scripture which has revealed itself in such an unchristlike spirit as you have manifested. . . . I am afraid of any application of Scripture that needs such a spirit and bears such fruit as you have manifested" (Letter 83, 1890, in Manuscript Releases, 9:330).
Thus, if we desire to understand Sister White's writings correctly, we must always approach our study with a humble, teachable, and Christlike spirit. Our goal must be to discover the will of God for our lives so we can faithfully put it into practice.
The best way to summarize the principles for interpreting the Spirit of Prophecy is to quote Mrs. White's counsel on how to understand the Bible. The same principles apply to her own writings since both works are inspired by the same Spirit:
"As our physical life is sustained by food, so our spiritual life is sustained by the word of God. And every soul is to receive life from God's word for himself. As we must eat for ourselves in order to receive nourishment, so we must receive the word for ourselves. We are not to obtain it merely through the medium of another's mind. We should carefully study the Bible, asking God for the aid of the Holy Spirit, that we may understand His word. We should take one verse, and concentrate the mind on the task of ascertaining the thought which God has put in that verse for us. We should dwell upon the thought until it becomes our own, and we know `what saith the Lord'" (The Desire of Ages, p. 390).
A correct approach to both the Bible (the "greater light") and the Spirit of Prophecy (the "lesser light") requires that we take the following steps outlined in the above statement:
1. In 1983, Roger Coon's research at the U.S. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., revealed the top ten most-translated modern authors as: "1. Vladimir I. Lenin, Russian communist leader222 languages; 2. Georges Simenon, Franco-Belgian detective-story writer143; 3. Leo Tolstoy, Russian novelist122; 4. Ellen G. White, American cofounder of SDA117 [now more than 150, possibly making Ellen White the second most translated author of all time]; 5. Karl Marx, German socialist philosopher—114; 6. William Shakespeare, English playwright111; 7. Agatha Christie, English mystery writer99; 8. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, German fairy-tale collaborators97; 9. Ian Fleming, British creator of James Bond thrillers95; 10. Ernest Hemingway, American novelist91" (Roger W. Coon, A Gift of Light [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1983], pp. 30, 31).
2. The most current and detailed discussion of relevant questions on Ellen G. White is found in Herbert E. Douglass's Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1998). The entire book is available online at the official Ellen G. White Estate Web site: http://www.WhiteEstate.org.
3. See, for example, Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr., "A Comparison of the Christian Attitudes and Behaviors Between Those Adventist Church Members Who Regularly Read Ellen White Books and Those Who Do Not," Andrews University Institute of Church Ministry, 1982. See especially the Conclusions on pp. 41, 42.
4. See my Must We Be Silent?: Issues Dividing Our Church (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Berean Books, 2001), available at many Adventist Book Centers or from Berean Books, P. O. Box 2799, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, pp. 13, 14.
6. See, for example, Must We Be Silent?, pp. 238-244; 251-266; 353-402; 458-462. Readers will also want to refer to the eye-opening book Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventists Affirm, 2000), a work that compellingly documents the distortion of Ellen White's position on key issues in the women's ordination debate.
8. Background information on some of Ellen White's statements can also be useful. I have personally found the following books helpful: My Dear Brother M, by Paul A. Gordon (gives some background to some of the testimonies and letters of EGW); Great Visions of Ellen White, by Roger W. Coon; Messenger of the Lord, by Herbert E. Douglass (deals with questions often raised by critics and more). There is also the CD-ROM which makes all of Mrs. White's published works accessible at the stroke of a computer key.
9. One careful scholar of Ellen White's writings has summarized the basic principles of health reform that Ellen White believed and practiced: "(1) Do the best one can under circumstances that may be beyond one's control; (2) Avoid everything hurtful, such as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs; (3) Use judiciously that which is healthful--use self-control; (4) Do not mark out any precise line in diet that everyone must follow, because not everyone has the same physical needs or opportunities to find the best food; (5) Follow health practices to improve one's mind for spiritual purposes, not to earn God's acceptance (legalism); and (6) Reason from cause to effect" (Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, p. 400).