Excerpts from "Seventh-day Adventists Believe..."
What does the Bible tell us about the gift of prophecy? How does Ellen G. White fit in?
The New Testament gives prophecy a prominent place among the gifts of the Holy Spirit, once ranking it first and twice second among the ministries most useful to the church (see Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). It encourages believers to desire especially this gift (1 Cor 14:1, 39).
1. They assisted in founding of the church.
The church was "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Eph 2:20, 21).
2. They initiated the church's mission outreach.
It was through prophets that the Holy Spirit selected Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1, 2) and gave direction as to where missionaries should labor (Acts 16:6-10).
3. They edified the church.
"He who prophesies," Paul said, "edifies the church." Prophecies are spoken "to men for their upbuilding, and encouragement and consolation" (1 Cor 14:4, 3 RSV). Along with other gifts, God gave prophecy to the church to prepare believers "for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12).
4. They united and protected the church.
Prophets helped to bring about "the unity of the faith," protecting the church against false doctrines so believers would "no longer be infants tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph 4:14 NIV).
5. They warned of future difficulties.
One New Testament prophet warned of an approaching famine. In response the church initiated a relief program to assist those who suffered because of that famine (Acts 11:27-30). Other prophets warned of Paul's arrest and imprisonment in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23; 21:4, 10-14).
6. They confirmed the faith in times of controversy.
At the first church council the Holy Spirit guided the church to a decision on a controversial issue dealing with the salvation of Gentile Christians. Then, through prophets, the Spirit reaffirmed the believers in the true doctrine. After conveying the council's decision to the membership, "Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen ["confirm," KJV] the brothers" (Acts 15:32 NIV).
Post-Biblical Prophets and the Bible
The prophetic gift produced the Bible itself. In post-biblical times it is not to supersede or add to Scripture, because the canon of Scripture is now closed.
The prophetic gift functions in the end-time much as it did in the time of the apostles. Its thrust is to uphold the Bible as the basis of faith and practice, to explain its teachings, and to apply its principles to daily life. It is involved in establishing and edifying the church, enabling it to carry out its divinely appointed mission. The prophetic gift reproves, warns, guides, and encourages both individuals and the church, protecting them from heresy and unifying them on Bible truths.
Post-biblical prophets function much like prophets such as Nathan, Gad, Asaph, Shemaiah, Azariah, Eliezer, Ahijah, and Obed, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Simeon, John the Baptist, Agabus, Silas, Anna, and Philip's four daughters, who lived in Bible times, but whose testimonies never became a part of the Bible. The same God who spoke through the prophets whose writings are in the Bible inspired these prophets and prophetesses. Their messages did not contradict the previously recorded divine revelation.
Testing the Prophetic Gift.
Because the Bible warns that before Christ's return false prophets will arise, we must investigate carefully all claims to the prophetic gift. "Do not treat prophecies with contempt," Paul said. "Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thess 5:20-22 NIV; cf. 1 Jn 4:1).
The Bible specifies several guidelines by which we can distinguish the genuine prophetic gift from the spurious.
A later prophet must not contradict earlier prophets. The Holy Spirit never contradicts His previously given testimony, for God "does not change like shifting shadows."
1. Does the message agree with the Bible?
"To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa 8:20). This text implies that messages of any prophet ought to be in harmony with God's law and testimony throughout the Bible. A later prophet must not contradict earlier prophets. The Holy Spirit never contradicts His previously given testimony, for God "does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17 NIV).
2. Do the predictions come true?
"`How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?' If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him" (Deut 18:21, 22 NIV; cf. Jer 28:9). Though predictions may comprise a comparatively small part of the prophetic message, their accuracy must be demonstrated.
3. Is Christ's incarnation recognized?
"By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God" (1 Jn 4:2, 3). This test demands more than a simple acknowledgment that Jesus Christ lived on earth. The true prophet must confess the biblical teaching on Christ's incarnation--must believe in His deity and pre-existence, His virgin birth, true humanity, sinless life, atoning sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, intercessory ministry, and second advent.
4. Does the prophet bear good or bad "fruit"?
Prophecy comes through the Holy Spirit's inspiring "holy men of God" (2 Pet 1:21). We can discern false prophets by their fruits. "`A good tree cannot bear bad fruit"' Jesus said, "`nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them"' (Matt 7:16, 18-20).
This counsel is crucial in evaluating a prophet's claim. It speaks first of the prophet's life. It does not mean that the prophet must be absolutely perfect. Scripture says that Elijah was a man of "like passions as we are" (James 5:17 KJV). But the prophet's life should be characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, not by works of the flesh (see Gal 5:19-23).
Second, this principle pertains to the influence of the prophet on others. What results accrue in the lives of those who accept the messages? Do their messages equip God's people for missions and unify them in their faith (Eph 4:12-16)?
Any person claiming to have the prophetic gift should be subjected to these biblical tests. If he or she measures up to these criteria we can have confidence that indeed the Holy Spirit has given that individual the gift of prophecy.
The Spirit of Prophecy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church
The gift of prophecy was active in the ministry of Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church. She has given inspired instruction for God's people living during the time of the end. The world of the early nineteenth century, when Ellen White began to deliver God's messages, was a man's world. Her prophetic call put her under critical scrutiny. Passing the biblical tests, she went on to minister through her spiritual gift for 70 years. From 1844, when she was 17, until 1915--the year of her death--she had more than 2,000 visions. During that time she lived and worked in America, Europe, and Australia, counseling, establishing new work, preaching, and writing.
Ellen White never assumed the title of prophetess, but she did not object when others called her by that title. She explained, "Early in my youth I was asked several times, Are you a prophet? I have ever responded, I am the Lord's messenger. I know that many have called me a prophet, but I have made no claim to this title. . . . Why have I not claimed to be a prophet? Because in these days many who boldly claim that they are prophets are a reproach to the cause of Christ; and because my work includes much more than the word `prophet' signifies. . . . To claim to be a prophetess is something that I have never done. If others call me by that name, I have no controversy with them. But my work has covered so many lines that I can not call myself other than a messenger."2
The Application of Prophetic Tests.
How does Ellen White's ministry measure against the biblical tests of a prophet?
1. Agreement with the Bible.
Her abundant literary production includes tens of thousands of Bible texts, coupled often with detailed expositions. Careful study has shown that her writings are consistent, accurate, and in full agreement with the Scriptures.
She prophesied that major changes within Protestantism would bring about a departure from the faith of the Reformation.
2. The accuracy of predictions.
Ellen White's writings contain a relatively small number of predictions. Some are in the process of being fulfilled, while others still await fulfillment. But those that can be tested have been fulfilled with an amazing accuracy. Two instances that demonstrate her prophetic insights follow.
a. The rise of modern spiritualism.
In 1850, when spiritualism--the movement that touts communication with the spirit world and the dead--had but just arisen, Ellen White identified it as a last-day deception and predicted its growth. Although at that time the movement was decidedly anti-Christian, she foresaw that this hostility would change, and that it would become respectable among Christians (Early Writings, p. 59). Since that time spiritualism has spread worldwide, gaining millions of adherents. Its anti-Christian stance has changed; indeed, many call themselves Christian spiritualists, claiming that they have the true Christian faith and that "Spiritualists are the only religionists who have used the promised gifts of Christ, by which gifts they heal the sick, and demonstrate a future conscious and progressive existence."3 They even assert that spiritualism "gives you the knowledge of all the great systems of religion, and still more, it gives you more knowledge of the Christian Bible than all the Commentaries combined. The Bible is a book of Spiritualism."4
b. A close cooperation between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
During Ellen White's life a gulf existed between Protestants and Roman Catholics that seemed to preclude any cooperation between the two. Anti-Catholicism raged among Protestants. She prophesied that major changes within Protestantism would bring about a departure from the faith of the Reformation. Consequently, differences between Protestants and Catholics would diminish, leading to a bridging of the gulf separating the two (The Great Controversy, pp. 571, 588).
The years since her death have seen the rise of the ecumenical movement, the establishment of the World Council of Churches, the Catholic Church's Vatican II, and Protestant ignorance and even outright rejection of the Reformation views of prophetic interpretation.5 These major changes have broken down barriers between Protestants and Catholics, leading to growing cooperation.
3. The acknowledgment of Christ's incarnation.
Ellen White wrote extensively on the life of Christ. His role as Lord and Saviour, His atoning sacrifice at the cross, and His present intercessory ministry dominate her literary works. Her book The Desire of Ages has been acclaimed as one of the most spiritual treatises ever written on the life of Christ, while Steps to Christ, her most widely distributed book, has led millions to a deep relationship with Him. Her works clearly portray Christ as fully God and fully man. Her balanced expositions fully agree with the biblical view, carefully avoiding the overemphasizing of one nature or the other--a problem that has caused so much controversy throughout the history of Christianity.
Her overall treatment of Christ's ministry is practical. No matter what aspect she deals with, her overriding concern is to bring the reader into a more intimate relationship with the Saviour.
4. The influence of her ministry.
More than a century and a half has passed since Ellen White received the prophetic gift. Her church and the lives of those who have heeded her counsels reveal the impact of her life and messages.
"Although she never held an official position, was not an ordained minister, and never received a salary from the church until after the death of her husband, her influence shaped the Seventh-day Adventist Church more than any other factor except the Holy Bible."6 She was the moving force behind the establishment of the church's publishing work, schools, medical-missionary work, and the worldwide missionary outreach that has made the Seventh-day Adventist church one of the largest and fastest growing Protestant missionary organizations.
The material that she wrote fills more than 120 books, 200 tracts and pamphlets, and 4,600 periodical articles. Sermons, diaries, special testimonies, and letters comprise another 50,000 pages of manuscript materials.
The scope of this material is astounding. Ellen White's expertise was not limited to a few narrow fields. The Lord gave her counsel in matters of health, education, family life, temperance, evangelism, the publishing ministry, proper diet, medical work, and many other areas. Perhaps her writing in the field of health is the most amazing because of the way her insights, some given more than a century ago, have been verified by modern science.
Her writings focus on Jesus Christ and uphold the high moral and ethical values of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Although many of her writings are directed to the Seventh-day Adventist church, large portions have been appreciated by wider audiences. Her popular book Steps to Christ has been translated into around 150 languages and has sold more than 15 million copies. Her greatest work is the well-received five-volume Conflict of the Ages Series, which details the great controversy between Christ and Satan from the origin of sin until its eradication from the universe.
The impact of her writings on individuals is profound. Recently the Institute of Church Ministry of Andrews University did a study comparing the Christian attitude and behavior of Adventists who regularly read her books and those who do not. Their research strongly underscores the impact her writings have on those who read them. The study reached these conclusions: "Readers have a closer relationship with Christ, more certainty of their standing with God, and are more likely to have identified their spiritual gifts. They are more in favor of spending for public evangelism and contribute more heavily to local missionary projects. They feel more prepared for witnessing and actually engage in more witnessing and outreach programs. They are more likely to study the Bible daily, to pray for specific people, to meet in fellowship groups, and to have daily family worship. They see their church more positively. They are responsible for winning more converts."7
The Spirit of Prophecy and the Bible.
The writings of Ellen White are not a substitute for Scripture. They cannot be placed on the same level. The Holy Scriptures stand alone, the unique standard by which her writings, and all others, must be judged and to which they must be subject.
1. The Bible the supreme standard.
Seventh-day Adventists fully support the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, the Bible as its own interpreter and the Bible alone as the basis of all doctrines. The founders of the church developed fundamental beliefs through study of the Bible; they did not receive these doctrines through the visions of Ellen White. Her major role during the development of their doctrines was to guide in the understanding of the Bible and to confirm conclusions reached through Bible study.8
Ellen White herself believed and taught that the Bible was the ultimate norm for the church. In her first book, published in 1851, she said, "I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice. By that Word we are to be judged" (see Early Writings, p. 78). She never changed this view. Many years later she wrote, "In His Word, God has committed to men the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience" (The Great Controversy, p. vii). In 1909, during her last address to a general session of the church, she opened the Bible, held it up before the congregation, and said, "`Brethren and sisters, I commend to you this Book.'"9
The writings of Ellen White are not a substitute for Scripture.
In response to believers who considered her writings an addition to the Bible, she wrote, saying, "`I took the precious Bible and surrounded it with the several Testimonies for the Church, given for the people of God. . . . 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'" (Testimonies for the Church, 5:664, 665).
2. A guide to the Bible.
She saw her work as that of leading people back to the Bible. "Little heed is given to the Bible," she said, therefore "the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light" (Colporteur Ministry, p. 125). "The Word of God," she wrote, "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, vol. 5, p. 663).
3. A guide in understanding the Bible.
Ellen White considered her writings a guide to a clearer understanding of the Bible. "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." "The written testimonies are not given to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed" (ibid., p. 665).
4. A guide to apply Bible principles.
Much of her writings apply the biblical counsels to everyday life. Ellen White said that she was "directed to bring out general principles, in speaking and in writing, and at the same time specify the dangers, errors, and sins of some individuals, that all might be warned, reproved, and counseled" (ibid., p. 660). Christ had promised such prophetic guidance to His church. As Ellen White noted, "The fact that God has revealed His will to men through His Word, has not rendered needless the continued presence and guiding of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, the Spirit was promised by our Saviour, to open the Word to His servants, to illuminate and apply its teachings" (The Great Controversy, p. vii).
The Challenge to the Believer.
Revelation's prophecy that the "testimony of Jesus" would manifest itself through the "spirit of prophecy" in the last days of earth's history challenges every one not to take an attitude of indifference or disbelief, but to "test everything" and "hold on to the good." There is much to gain--or lose--depending on whether we carry out this biblically mandated investigation. Jehoshaphat said, "`Believe in the Lord your God, and you shall be established; believe His prophets, and you shall prosper'" (2 Chron 20:20). His words ring true today, as well.
1. Frank B. Holbrook, "The Biblical Basis for a Modern Prophet," pp. 3-5 (Shelf document, Ellen G. White Estate Inc., General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904-6600).
3. J. M. Peebles, "The Word Spiritualism Misunderstood," in Centennial Book of Modern Spiritualism in America (Chicago, Ill.: National Spiritualist Association of the United States of America, 1948), p. 34.
5. For the historicist view of Daniel's and Revelation's prophecies that dominated Protestantism from the Reformation until the nineteenth century, see L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 4 vols. (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald, 1946-1954), vols. 2-4. See also chapter 12 in Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . : A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines(Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988).
7. 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," 1982, pp. 41, 42. A research report of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. The survey sampled more than 8,200 members attending 193 churches in the United States.
8. T. H. Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1955), pp. 208-210; L. E. Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1971), pp. 91-132; P. G. Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977; Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1988), pp. 103-293.
From Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . : A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), pp. 217-229