By NEAL C. WILSON
Interesting study and research has been going on in our church in the past several years. Among the areas being examined is the role of Ellen White in the life of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In this area, as in all others, we want to know all that can be known, because truth has a way of invigorating the believer.
For some time there have been reports circulating that in her special writing ministry Ellen White drew an “alarming” amount of material from non-inspired books. Most, if not all, such books are known to have been in Ellen White’s library, and some of them have been mentioned in her books and letters. Those who have been investigating this matter include Walter Rea, one of our pastors in the Southern California Conference. Over the past few years he has spent a great deal of time and effort in researching this subject. On January 28 and 29, G. Ralph Thompson, a General Conference general vice- president, chaired a 19-member committee composed of Biblical and other scholars, Seventh-day Adventist professionals, and administrative leaders. The committee met in the conference room of the Glendale Adventist Hospital in California to review not only the quantity but the quality of the work done by Elder Rea.
The initial report from this very competent committee indicates that in her writing Ellen White used sources more extensively than we have heretofore been aware of or recognized. The committee, however, cautions against the loose use of such terms as “literary dependency,” and “extensive borrowing and paraphrasing.” When such phrases are not clearly and precisely defined their use can result in irresponsible and misleading conclusions.
Even though I have carefully read the report and listened to the proceedings of this committee, it is not my purpose in this communication to evaluate the helpful comments of the members of the committee. That will follow, in due time, along with certain positive recommendations. Instead, I write in order to give my personal reaction to this and other developments that must be faced honestly and openly. I can identify with the members of the special committee and with the apostle Peter when he affirmed, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables” (2 Peter 1:16).
In spite of what some would have you believe, there is no internal upheaval or major crisis in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is God’s church, and He has made Himself responsible for its success. There is no reason to become alarmed, unnerved, or panicky. On the other hand, I do not want to lull you into false and comfortable spiritual security. There are still lessons of truth and faith that we will be called upon to learn and exercise. It is evident that the individual members of the church need to understand more clearly the doctrine of inspiration and just how God reveals Himself to His people.
The articles by Arthur L. White in the ADVENTIST REVIEW (January, February, 1978; July and August, 1979, now available in reprint) were especially helpful. In the 1978 articles Elder White reviewed the doctrine of inspiration as generally understood by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The second (1979) series reviewed Ellen White’s method of preparing her publications. How she used her editorial assistants and other people in her effort to present her materials to the public, free from literary and factual inadequacies, is a fascinating story. In observing the methodology of a modern prophet, we are able to understand better how God used men and women in the past when He revealed His gracious will to the lost, needy world.
Other Adventist researchers have made their studies available to us in various periodicals. Several viewpoints have been expressed, but all seem to be contributing to our storehouse of understanding. In fact, my heart rejoices with every new study that gives us a fresh look at how God used Ellen White as His last-day messenger. I would like to share with you what these studies are saying to me.
1. Originality is not a test of inspiration. A prophet’s use of sources other than visions does not invalidate or diminish the prophet’s teaching authority. Ellen White’s comment that the Holy Spirit “guided the mind [of the Bible writer] in the selection of what to speak and what to write” (The Great Controversy, p. vi) explains also how she was assisted in selecting or rejecting information from existing materials. In the marvelous operation of revelation God gives the thought “in many and various ways” (Heb. 1:1, R.S.V.), and then inspires the human messenger with perceptions whereby he or she fills out the “message” with the information available. This assisting function of the Holy Spirit guards the messenger from using materials that would misrepresent the intent of the message given directly to the messenger.
The Bible writers have also given us an insight into how they wrote their works that eventually were recognized as inspired documents. In Luke’s preface to his Gospel, he explains to Theophilus his burden. Apparently many reports were being written regarding the life and teachings of Jesus, and he felt the compulsion, after ‘ ‘having followed all things closely . . . , to write an orderly account . . . , that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed”
(verses 3, 4, R.S.V.).
Luke was not an eyewitness. He used the materials available. One of his source materials, though he did not mention his indebtedness to it, was Mark’s Gospel, much of which was directly copied, often word for word.
Luke’s final product was an extended, more complete life of Jesus, which included material not found in Matthew, Mark, or John. Luke’s insight as a physician is reflected in the way he describes some events (Luke 4:38; 5:12; 8:43, etc.).
The compilers of the books of Kings and Chronicles note extra-Biblical sources for their work (1 Kings 11:41; 1 Chron. 9:1). Other Bible authors such as Jude and Isaiah give evidence of borrowing from either other inspired sources or non-Biblical sources.
In other words, Bible writers frequently used the materials of others as the need arose. The Holy Spirit assisted them in the selection of appropriate materials. And that same principle of guarding and guiding by the Holy Spirit is seen in the experience of God’s messenger in these last days.
2. God inspires people, not words. Seventh-day Adventists are not verbal inspirationists. They have never believed that the Holy Spirit, in some way, has dictated to the prophet the actual words that appeared in the autographs. They identify with those who believe that God inspires thoughts through visions, dreams, or direct address, but, except in rare instances, not the forms of expression by which those thoughts are to be conveyed to others. The messenger operates within his or her mental and spiritual capacity, and uses his or her style of expression, skilled or common, guarded always by the Holy Spirit from misrepresenting the revealed message.
This principle, of course, relieves all anxiety when it is learned that a messenger of the Lord has used existing materials, even another’s phrases. We are not alarmed when we discover that a prophet uses editors to improve style, or specialists in certain areas to review pertinent information.
This principle of thought inspiration is one example of the fact that God does not do for people what they can do for themselves. God made men and women who could respond to Him in love and appreciate Him for the freedom implicit in love. He could have created us so that we could not sin, but then we could not love. After sin, He could have overpowered our rebellious will to prove His sovereign power, but that would not have left us as responsible beings. He simply appeals to us to respond to His gracious offer of love and pardon, to accept His power to do what He asks. The responding is up to us. God makes it possible for us to breathe, but we must do the breathing. God makes it possible for us to have faith, but we must do the trusting and submitting.
In much the same way, God gives His messenger the message, but not as a heavenly telex; He gives the thought, but not the encyclopedia to check out all the historical dates, or the dictionary on how to spell words. God does not necessarily provide that which men and women can provide for themselves. But He does guide and guard His messenger by the Holy Spirit, who will protect the integrity of the message intended.
3. The Holy Spirit helps the messenger to select his material carefully. Frequently, while tracing Ellen White’s use of such men as William Hanna or John Harris in writing The Desire of Ages, we find that she would not only not use much of what they wrote, but that at times, after using a part of a paragraph, would go on to take positions contrary to their writings. This selective skill is another instance of the guiding, guarding role of the Holy Spirit. There is no question about it—prophets, ancient or modern, selected their material well. Ellen White used authors of recognized quality such as Geikie, Farrar, Hanna, Clarke, and Edersheim. This says to me that where they helped to fill out what she had been shown to be true, she wisely used them; when they gave evidence that they did not see the whole truth, she plainly stated the facts as they had been revealed to her by the Holy Spirit.
4. The prophet’s use of existing materials does not necessarily mean that the prophet is dependent upon these sources. No; the prophet begins with the message received; the messenger knows what must be said; in general his or her thought structure has been given by God. But the responsibility for finding historical back- ground, descriptive amplification, and thought clarification is left up to the messenger. The employment of other authors to make the message attractive and convincing should not imply that the prophet is dependent upon others for his or her message.
The most important discovery
5. Whenever we recognize similarities we must also see the dissimilarities. This is probably the most important discovery that I have made, over the years, when I think about how Ellen White has made use of existing sources. The principle also applies to Biblical writers.
Biblical writers, as well as Ellen White, set forth a theological contribution that is more expansive, more complete, and more integrated than the authors they used for descriptive amplification. The dissimilarities between Ellen White and the authors she at times used are of kind and not degree.
She did more than merely gather together those gems of thought that had lain rather disconnected through the centuries. Ellen White’s theological system, her organizing principle—the great controversy theme—is unique in the continuum of historical theology. Her concept of truth regarding how sin developed; why Jesus came to earth; the integral role of the Holy Spirit in His life and in the believer’s; the sanctuary doctrine, illustrating how the plan of redemption operates—all this gives special character to her prophetic, teaching authority in these last days.
Our responsibility is to listen to truth from wherever God speaks. And we are not left to wonder whether we are listening to the Word of God. John wrote, “He who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true” (John 3:33, R.S.V.). The psalmist spoke out of experience: “The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps. 119:130, R.S.V.). God has made us with the ability to hear Him, either through the inner word of His Holy Spirit (1 John 3:24; 4:13) or the exterior word of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:15, 16).
After 25 years of translating the New Testament into modern English, J. B. Phillips wrote a remarkable testimony to his experience as a translator, called Ring of Truth. He pitied the modern generation, which knows so little about genuine Christianity, primarily because they have never given the Bible a fair hearing.
I agree with Dr. Phillips “that we have in the New Testament, words that bear the hallmark of reality and the ring of truth” (page 125). Such has been my experience and the experience of many people I have known. The same experience applies to those who have heard “the ring of truth” in the writings of Ellen White. No one can take that “ring” from the soul. No “new” information can shake that self-authenticating experience.
But if one’s knowledge of the Bible or of Ellen White is only theoretical, as it would be with an anatomy book or the evening newspaper, then most any allegation against the Bible or Ellen White would be either alarming or just another reason to doubt.
It may be that certain things I have written in this article will sound new to some. I recognize that we are not all at the same place on the road of information or even experience. But I assure you, the confidence we may have in these agencies God has used to reveal truth to men and women will be in proportion to how much we learn and accept from the Bible and Ellen White.
I have heard the ring of truth in the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Our mandate is to preach from the Bible, enriching our sermons by insights on the gospel found in the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. I believe with all my heart that Ellen White was an inspired messenger of God. Based on my understanding of revelation and inspiration as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I must conclude that she is a reliable teaching authority and that she is a part of God’s continuing revelation and corroboration of doctrine and truth.
As the psalmist said, “O taste and see” (Ps. 34:8, R.S.V.). As Samuel responded, ” ‘ “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears”‘” (1 Sam. 3:9, R.S.V.). As Jehoshaphat challenged Israel, ” ‘Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed’ ” (2 Chron. 20:20, R.S.V.). D