Allan G. Lindsay, EdD
Retired Director, Ellen G. White Research Centre
Avondale College, Australia
Author/Narrator, Keepers of the Flame Video Series
Late in May 1909, 328 delegates came together as leaders of the church representing 83,000 members around the world. Ellen White, now 81 years of age, met with them in a tent pitched on the grounds of the Washington Missionary College. On Sunday afternoon, June 6, she gave the last of her eleven addresses. “With trembling lips and a voice touched with deep emotion” (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 6, p. 197), she spoke for the last time in person to the world church in session. At the end of her sermon she moved away from the desk to take her seat, but then turned back to the pulpit. She picked up the Bible on the desk, opened it, and held it
up in her trembling hands for all to see. “Brethren and Sisters,” she said, “I commend unto you this Book.”
How appropriate was this last message spoken to the church in session! How effectively did her words summarize the overall purpose of her gift and the essence of her counsel!
Though some today would make her writings an addition to the Sacred Canon, there was no doubt in her mind of the relationship between her writings and the Word of God.
Ellen White’s descriptions of the Bible highlight its importance. She called it the “Book of books” (Child Guidance, p. 513); “God’s Own Book” (Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 17); “the inspired Book of God” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 497); “the most precious book in the world” (“The Bible the Colored People’s Hope,” Review and Herald, December 24, 1895); and an “infallible Guide” (My Life Today, p. 25) that “is able to guide every step of the way to the City of God” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 461). The Bible, she affirms, “is God’s voice speaking to us just as surely as though we could hear Him with our ears.” Its study should be regarded as “an audience with the Most High” (In Heavenly Places, p. 134). Its truths “are the utterances of the Most High” (My Life Today, p. 24).
What counsel, then, does she give for receiving these words from God into our hearts?
Let us consider five principles:
1. Receiving the Word requires a correct attitude of heart.
Commenting on Jesus’ words in John 7:16, 17, Ellen White reminded us that “the perception and appreciation of truth . . . depends less upon the mind than upon the heart” (The Desire of Ages, p. 45). Here, the power of our intellect, the eloquence of our tongue, the number of our talents, is of no avail. What counts is what lies in our innermost being which only God sees. The Bible is “plain to all who study it with a prayerful heart. Every truly honest soul will come to a light of truth” (The Great Controversy, p. 520).
We are called to lay aside our “preconceived opinions” and our “hereditary and cultivated ideas.” We will “never reach the truth” if we search the Scriptures to vindicate our own opinions (Manuscript 12, 1901, in Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 431). Self-reliance has no part in the study of the Word—only “a prayerful reliance upon God and a sincere desire to do His will” (The Great Controversy, p. 599).
We may know all this to be true in theory, but do we understand the gravity of opening the Word withoutthese qualities of heart? When the Bible “is opened without reverence and without prayer; when the thoughts and affections are not fixed upon God, or in harmony with His will,” what is the result? “The mind is clouded with doubts; . . . skepticism strengthens. The enemy takes control of the thoughts, and he suggests interpretations that are not correct” (Steps to Christ, p. 110). She reminded the 1888 delegates that “many, many will be lost because they have not studied their Bibles upon their knees, with earnest prayer to God . . . ” (Letter 20, 1888, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, pp. 39, 40).
2. Receiving the Word requires our submission to the impressions and leading of the Holy Spirit.
Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are able neither to understand nor explain the Scriptures (The Great Controversy, pp. 526, 527; Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 411). It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth and to the One Who said He was “the Truth.” Through the Spirit acting upon God’s Word, Jesus comes to us as an abiding Presence (Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, p. 389; see also Selected Messages, bk. 2, pp. 38, 39). In this most solemn hour of the world’s history when the destiny of the world’s teeming millions is soon to be decided, how much “we need to be guided by the Spirit of truth” (The Great Controversy, p. 601).
But the presence of the Holy Spirit is not the only promise of Heaven’s involvement when we study the Word. “It is the office of heavenly angels to prepare the heart so to comprehend God’s Word that we shall be charmed with its beauty, admonished by its warnings, or animated and strengthened by its promises” (ibid., p. 600).
3. Receiving the Word is dependent on our “rightly dividing” and interpreting the Word.
Biblical hermeneutics giving us rules for interpreting the Scriptures was never the subject of even one article by Ellen White. However, scattered among her writings are guiding principles that help us search for the truth “as it is in Jesus.” She recognized, for example, the importance of the study of context. In the chapter aptly named “Snares of Satan,” she warns against the practice of some seizing upon “passages of Scripture separated from the context, perhaps quoting half of a single verse as proving their point, when the remaining portion would show the meaning to be quite the opposite” (ibid., p. 521).
She was concerned that the “time and place” of the writing must be considered when interpreting inspired counsel (Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 57). She also acknowledged the need to study the words used by the inspired author, for “different meanings are expressed by the same word” (ibid., p. 20). However, some with “an active imagination” focus on words that describe “figures and symbols” and “interpret them to suit their fancy, with little regard to the testimony of Scripture as its own interpreter” (The Great Controversy, p. 521).
We must avoid giving the impression that only scholars using advanced critical methods can determine Biblical truth, for she emphasized repeatedly that even the poor and uneducated (Gospel Workers, p. 123) can understand the Scriptures, “if the seeker after truth will compare Scripture with Scripture” under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. She believed that “the Bible is its own expositor. One passage will prove to be the key that will unlock other passages. . . . By comparing different texts treating on the same subject, viewing their bearing on every side,” their “true meaning . . . will be made evident” (“The Science of Salvation, the First of Sciences,” Review and Herald, December 1, 1891).
4. Receiving the Word encourages us to maintain a balance between established truth and openness to a further unfolding of it.
The search for the truth “as it is in Jesus” has been an ongoing quest for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. During the Sabbath conferences of the late 1840s and in the years that followed, the pioneers “searched for the truth as for hidden treasure.” From their study of the Word they erected certain “pillars,” set out certain “landmarks”—truths from the Bible that identified the essentials of the church’s message to the world. They were foundational truths “in regard to Christ, His mission, and His priesthood” (Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 207).
Fifty years later, however, the church faced questions about its understanding of some of these foundational teachings from those promoting pantheism. In a vision Ellen White was shown that the “foundation of our faith, which was established by so much prayer, such earnest searching of the Scriptures, was being taken down, pillar by pillar. Our faith was to have nothing to rest upon—the sanctuary was gone, the atonement was gone” (Sermons and Talks, vol. 1, p. 34, emphasis mine). In 1904 she responded to these threats by appealing to what had been confirmed as foundational “pillars of our faith” for the past fifty years (Selected Messages, bk. 1, pp. 207, 208). Truth that had been established from God’s Word in the early years must still be truth later, though the understanding of it will broaden, for the “path of the righteous is . . . shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18, NIV).
When Elder A.F. Ballenger raised his questions about the significance of the 2300-year prophecy, 1844, and the second phase of Christ’s high priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, Ellen White appealed to the evidence and authority of the Bible. She believed he was teaching “theories that cannot be substantiated by the Word of God.” She said she had come to the General Conference session in Washington in 1905 to testify “in vindication of the truth of God’s Word and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in confirmation of Bible truth” (Manuscript Release 760, p. 4). Any application of Scripture that moved “one pillar of the foundation that God has sustained these fifty years, is a great mistake.” Then she added, “God never contradicts Himself” (Letter 329, 1905, in Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 162).
She believed that “new truth is not independent of the old, but an unfolding of it” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 127). Truth, by its very nature, must agree with what has formerly been established as truth. To her it was unthinkable that the Holy Spirit would later deny what He had previously confirmed. She predicted that in the future some would arise claiming to have “new light, which contradicts the light that God has given under the demonstration of His Holy Spirit.” Her counsel was “not to receive the words of those who come with a message that contradicts the special points of our faith.” Thus she could write, “When the power of God testifies to what is truth, that truth is to stand forever as the truth. No aftersuppositions contrary to the light God has given are to be entertained” (Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 161).
Yet that is not all that Ellen White would say to us about our search for truth. She gives us an insistent call to maintain a balance between holding to truth that has in the past been established from the Word and confirmed by the Spirit, and a humble recognition that the Lord has much more to teach us and we must be open to His leading. She saw that our understanding of truth should be continually “advancing” and that we need to “walk in the increasing light” (“Open the Heart to Light,” Review and Herald, March 25, 1890). “There is no excuse,” she declared,” for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed,” and even “that all our expositions of Scripture are without error” (“Christ Our Hope,” ibid., December 20, 1892). In fact, she identified as “the greatest evil that could ever come to us as a people” the tendency to consider our doctrines, “because long cherished,” to be “on every point infallible” (Manuscript 37, 1890, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 830).
It is refreshing to hear her acknowledge that “age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation” (“Christ Our Hope,” Review and Herald, December 20, 1892). In 1888 she wrote that if a doctrine we have entertained as truth totters and falls after investigation, “let it fall, the sooner the better” (Letter 7, 1888, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 187). Seventh-day Adventists are just as likely to establish their own traditions as those “in ancient times,” if the “investigation of the Scriptures” starts “no new questions,” or raises “no difference of opinion,” which will drive us back to searching the Bible for ourselves (Gospel Workers, p. 298).
Throughout the history of the church, when God’s people have been “growing in grace” they have obtained “a clearer understanding of His Word,” seeing “new light and beauty in its sacred truths.” This should “continue to the end.” But, she warned, when our “spiritual life declines,” the tendency is “to cease to advance in the knowledge of truth.” We become satisfied with what we already know, and “discourage any further investigation” of the Word. We become “conservative,” she said—meaning holding onto the past—“and seek to avoid discussion” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, pp. 706, 707). In 1889 she identified “a spirit of pharisaism” coming into the church, with some of its members saying, “We have the truth. There is no more light for the people of God.” Such a position, she warned, was “not safe. . . . We should take the Bible and investigate it closely for ourselves” (“The Necessity of Dying to Self,” Review and Herald, June 18, 1889).
That challenge is still before us today. How much we need to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. We must turn away from any method of study of the Word leading into paths that take us away from those great distinctive truths that have made us a people. Yet we must be open to follow Him gladly and with open hearts, as He would lead His people more deeply and broadly into the glories of both the written and living Word.
5. Receiving the Word means more than an intellectual acceptance of doctrinal truth. Its ultimate purpose is the development of a character reflecting Christ’s life of loving and unselfish service for others.
In 2 Timothy 3:17 the apostle Paul described the purpose of the Word. It was given not just for doctrinal teaching. It was to rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness so that we may be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NKJV). If our Adventist heritage teaches us anything, it tells us how often we have forgotten this. The principles of the Word must not just be stored in the head but applied to the life. It is so easy to be deceived into thinking that because we are standing up for truth “when champions are few,” that we must be God’s saints regardless of the spirit in which we do it. As Dr. George Knight has reminded us, saints can get “angry” when upholding truth (Angry Saints, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1989).
As early as 1873 Ellen White acknowledged that “as a people” we were “triumphing in the clearness and strength of the truth.” We were “fully sustained by an overwhelming amount of plain Scriptural testimony,” yet “we were very much wanting” in such virtues as humility, faith, and love (“The Laodicean Church,” Review and Herald, September 16, 1873). We have missed the point if we think the Minneapolis Conference was only a confrontation over righteousness by faith, the law in Galatians, or the nature of Christ. Ellen White’s concerns centered on our great need to apply the principles of the Word and the attributes of the character of Jesus to the practical issues of daily living and personal relationships. “The matter of the law in Galatians,” she wrote in 1890, was “of minor consequence in comparison with the spirit you have brought into your faith.” Then in words that should be written in all our hearts, “The most convincing testimony that we can bear to others that we have the truth is the spirit that attends the advocacy of that truth. If it sanctifies the heart of the receiver, if it makes him gentle, kind, forbearing, true and Christlike, then he will give some evidence of the fact that he has the genuine truth” (Letter 83, 1890, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 632).
What a challenge is before us when we remember “the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His [God’s] character of love” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 415). That will mean not only preaching about God’s love, but also living it, for there is “nothing that the world needs so much as the manifestation through humanity of the Saviour’s love” (ibid., p. 419). Is that the reason why she wrote in 1886: “Search the Bible, for it tells you of Jesus. I want you to read the Bible and see the matchless charms of Jesus. I want you to fall in love with the Man of Calvary, so that at every step you can say to the world, His ‘ways are ways of pleasantness, and all’ His ‘paths are peace’ (Proverbs 3:17)” (Manuscript 80, 1886, in Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, pp. 250, 251)? Here is the greatest secret of experiencing the power of the Word and the ultimate reason for receiving its principles into our hearts.