Divine communication originates with God, as the term itself indicates. It is intended, however, for human beings who, since the entrance of sin, have perceptions of the great issues of life that are limited, and often completely contrary. The Bible tells us that the divine message can be misunderstood and misused (2 Peter 3:16). At the same time, the Holy Spirit offers help to those who honestly want to know the truth (Ephesians 1:17-19).
The way we perceive, interpret, and ultimately handle the message of God will determine whether the message accomplishes the divine objectives in communicating it. If the human receptor is not willing to receive the communication, or perceives it incorrectly, or rejects it because it does not meet his or her expectations or because it confronts the individual with changes in the traditional way of living, then God’s purpose is not fulfilled, and this person is left to his or her own fate.Hermeneutics is the word scholars use to refer to the procedures for interpreting writings of the past. In “Some Principles for Correctly Interpreting the Writings of Ellen G. White”
is a set of hermeneutical principles that can help the reader better to understand the writings of Ellen G. White. Finally, a fuller treatment of these principles in “Basic Rules of Interpretation–Internal
Some Principles for Correctly Interpreting
the Writings of Ellen G. White
Begin With a Healthy Outlook
Focus on the Central Issues
Account for Problems in Communication
Study All Available Information on a Topic
Avoid Extreme Interpretations
Take Time and Place Into Consideration
Study Each Statement in Its Literary Context
Recognize Ellen White’s Understanding of the Ideal and the Real
Use Common Sense
Discover the Underlying Principles
Realize That Prophets Are Not Verbally Inspired, Nor Are They Infallible or Inerrant
Avoid Making the Counsels “Prove” Things They Were Never Intended to Prove
Make Sure Ellen White Said It
Begin With a Healthy Outlook
First, begin your study with a prayer for guidance and understanding. The Holy Spirit, who inspired the work of prophets across the ages, is the only one who is in a position to unlock the meaning in their writings.
Second, we need to approach our study with an open mind. Most of us realize that no person is free of bias, no one is completely open-minded. We also recognize that bias enters into every area of our lives. But that reality doesn’t mean that we need to let our biases control us.
A third healthy mind-set in the reading of Ellen White is that of faith rather than doubt. As Mrs. White put it, “Many think it a virtue, a mark of intelligence in them, to be unbelieving and to question and quibble. Those who desire to doubt will have plenty of room. God does not propose to remove all occasion for unbelief. He gives evidence, which must be carefully investigated with a humble mind and a teachable spirit, and all should decide from the weight of evidence” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 255). “God gives sufficient evidence for the candid mind to believe; but he who turns from the weight of evidence because there are a few things which he cannot make plain to his finite understanding will be left in the cold, chilling atmosphere of unbelief and questioning doubts, and will make shipwreck of faith” (ibid., vol. 4, pp. 232, 233).
If individuals wait for all possibility of doubt to be removed, they will never believe. That is as true of the Bible as it is of Ellen White’s writings. Our acceptance rests on faith rather than on absolute demonstration of flawlessness. Ellen White appears to be correct when she writes that “those who have most to say against the testimonies are generally those who have not read them, just as those who boast of their disbelief of the Bible are those who have little knowledge of its teachings” (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 45, 46).
Focus on the Central Issues
A person can read inspired materials in at least two ways. One is to look for the central themes of an author; the other is to search for those things that are new and different. The first way leads to what can be thought of as a theology of the center, while the second produces a theology of the edges. Doing a theology of the edges may help a person arrive at “new light,” but such light in the end may look more like darkness when examined in the context of the central and consistent teachings of the Bible.
What makes the teachings of many apostles of “new light” so impressive is their obvious sincerity and the fact that much of what they have to say may be needed truth. How can we tell when we are on center or chasing stray geese near the edges of what is really important? In her book Education, Ellen White wrote, “The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the Word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy, to the great consummation. He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the other of the two antagonistic motives; and how, whether he will or not, he is even now deciding upon which side of the controversy he will be found” (p. 190; italics supplied).
A similar passage on the “grand central theme” of the Bible defines the central theme of Scripture even more precisely. “The central theme of the Bible,” we read, “the theme about which every other in the whole book clusters, is the redemption plan, the restoration in the human soul of the image of God.” “Viewed in the light” of the grand central theme of the Bible, “every topic has a new significance” (ibid., p. 125; italics supplied).
In such passages we find our marching orders for the reading of both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Read for the big picture; read for the grand central themes. The purpose of God’s revelation to humanity is salvation. That salvation focuses on the cross of Christ and our relationship to God. All our reading takes place within that context, and those issues closest to the grand central theme are obviously of more importance than those near its edges.
It is our task as Christians to focus on the central issues of the Bible and Ellen White’s writings rather than on marginal ones. If we do so, the marginal issues will fit into place in their proper perspective within the context of the “grand central theme” of God’s revelation to His people.
Account for Problems in Communication
The process of communication is not as simple as we might at first suspect. The topic was certainly at the forefront of James White’s thinking as he watched his wife struggle to lead the early Adventists down the path of reform. In 1868 he wrote that “What she may say to urge the tardy, is taken by the prompt to urge them over the mark. And what she may say to caution the prompt, zealous, incautious ones, is taken by the tardy as an excuse to remain too far behind” (Review and Herald, Mar. 17, 1868; italics supplied).
As we read Ellen White’s writings we need to keep constantly before us the difficulty she faced in basic communication. Beyond the difficulty of varying personalities, but related to it, was the problem of the imprecision of the meaning of words and the fact that different people with different experiences interpret the same words differently.
“Human minds vary,” Mrs. White penned in relation to Bible reading. “The minds of different education and thought receive different impressions of the same words, and it is difficult for one mind to give to one of a different temperament, education, and habits of thought by language exactly the same idea as that which is clear and distinct in his own mind. . . . The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical purposes.
“The stamps of minds are different. All do not understand expressions and statements alike. Some understand the statements of the Scriptures to suit their own particular minds and cases. Prepossessions, prejudices, and passions have a strong influence to darken the understanding and confuse the mind even in reading the words of Holy Writ” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 19, 20; italics supplied).
What Ellen White said about the problems of meanings and words in regard to the Bible also holds true for her own writings. Communication in a broken world is never easy, not even for God’s prophets.
We need to keep the basic problems of communication in mind as we read the writings of Ellen White. At the very least, such facts ought to make us cautious in our reading so that we don’t overly emphasize this or that particular idea that might come to our attention as we study God’s counsel to His church. We will want to make sure that we have read widely what Ellen White has presented on a topic and studied those statements that may seem extreme in the light of those that might moderate or balance them. All such study, of course, should take place with the historical and literary context of each statement in mind.
Study All Available Information on a Topic
When we read the full range of counsel that Ellen White has on a topic, the picture is often quite different than when we are dealing with only a part of her material or with isolated quotations. Many times in her long ministry Ellen White had to deal with those who took only part of her counsel. “When it suits your purpose,” she told the delegates of the 1891 General Conference session, “you treat the Testimonies as if you believed them, quoting from them to strengthen any statement you wish to have prevail. But how is it when light is given to correct your errors? Do you then accept the light? When the Testimonies speak contrary to your ideas, you treat them very lightly” (ibid., p. 43). It is important to listen to all the counsel.
Along this line we find two approaches to the Ellen G. White writings. One assembles all her pertinent material on the subject. The other selects from Mrs. White only those sentences, paragraphs, or more extensive materials that can be employed to support a particular emphasis. The only faithful approach is the first. One important step in being true to Ellen White’s intent is to read widely in the available counsel on a topic.
But not only must we base our conclusion on the entire spectrum of her thought on a topic; our conclusion must harmonize with the overall tenor of the body of her writings. Not only bias, but also unsound premises, faulty reasoning, or other misuses of her material, can lead to false conclusions.
Avoid Extreme Interpretations
The history of the Christian church is laced with those who would place the most extreme interpretations on God’s counsels and then define their fanaticism as “faithfulness.” A leaning toward extremism seems to be a constituent part of fallen human nature. God has sought to correct that tendency through His prophets.
Even though balance typified Ellen White’s writings, it does not always characterize those who read them. Ellen White had to deal with extremists throughout her ministry. In 1894 she pointed out that “there is a class of people who are always ready to go off on some tangent, who want to catch up something strange and wonderful and new; but God would have all move calmly, considerately, choosing our words in harmony with the solid truth for this time, which requires to be presented to the mind as free from that which is emotional as possible, while still bearing the intensity and solemnity that it is proper it should bear. We must guard against creating extremes, guard against encouraging those who would either be in the fire or in the water” (Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 227, 228).
Nearly four decades earlier Mrs. White had written that she “saw that many have taken advantage of what God has shown in regard to the sins and wrongs of others. They have taken the extreme meaning of what has been shown in vision, and then have pressed it until it has had a tendency to weaken the faith of many in what God has shown” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 166).
Part of our task in reading Ellen White is to avoid extreme interpretations and to understand her message in its proper balance. That in turn means that we need to read the counsel from both ends of the spectrum on a given topic.
A case in point is her strong words about playing games. “In plunging into amusements, match games, pugilistic performances,” she wrote, the students at Battle Creek College “declared to the world that Christ was not their leader in any of these things. All this called forth the warning from God.” A powerful statement, it and others like it have led many to the conclusion that God frowns on all games and ball playing. But here, as on all extreme interpretations, one should use caution. After all, the very next sentence reads: “Now that which burdens me is the danger of going into extremes on the other side” (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 378).
As the following statements demonstrate, Ellen White did not hold for either extreme on the topic of ball playing and games. Speaking of parents and teachers, she wrote: “If they would gather the children close to them, and show that they love them, and would manifest an interest in all their efforts, and even in their sports, sometimes even being a child among children, they would make the children very happy, and would gain their love and win their confidence” (ibid., p. 18).
As we noted in the preceding section, it is important to read the full spectrum of what Ellen White wrote on a topic before arriving at conclusions. That means taking into consideration what appear to be conflicting statements that not only balance each other but may at times even appear to contradict each other. Of course, as shown in the next two sections, the historical and literary contexts generally hold the reason for Ellen White’s extreme statements. When we understand the reason she said something a certain way, we can see how what appears to be contradictory bits of advice often balance each other out. With those understandings in place we will be ready to examine the underlying principles of the particular topic we are studying.
When we read the balancing and mediating passages on a topic, rather than merely those polar ones that reinforce our own biases, we come closer to Ellen White’s true perspective. In order to avoid extreme interpretations, we need not only to read widely regarding what Mrs. White said on a topic, but we need also to come to grips with those statements that balance each other out at each end of the spectrum on a given subject.
Take Time and Place Into Consideration
We need to take the time and place of Ellen White’s various counsels into consideration. She did not write them in a vacuum. Most of them met problems faced by specific individuals or groups in quite specific historic contexts.
For example, in the 1860s Ellen White suggested that women should shorten their skirts. Why? Because in her day skirts dragged on the ground. In the process they picked up the filth of a horse-and-buggy culture among other things. Such skirts also had other problems that Ellen White and contemporary reformers of her day repeatedly pointed out. Thus she could write that “one of fashion’s wasteful and mischievous devices is the skirt that sweeps the ground. Uncleanly, uncomfortable, inconvenient, unhealthful–all this and more is true of the trailing skirt” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 291).
But what was true of her day is generally not true of ours. Of course, one can think of some traditional cultures that still mirror the conditions of the nineteenth century. In those cultures the counsel fits without adaptation. But we must adapt it for most cultures today.
Part of the needed adaptation is reflected in The Ministry of Healing quotation we read above. If the problem with trailing skirts was that they were unclean, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unhealthful, then it seems safe to assume that some of the principles of correct dress in this case would be that it is clean, comfortable, convenient, and healthful. Such principles are universal, even though the idea of shortening one’s skirt has roots in time and place. Further reading in the Bible and Ellen White furnishes other principles of dress that we can apply to our day. Modesty, for example, comes to mind.
It can’t be too heavily emphasized that time and place are crucial factors for our understanding as we read Ellen White’s writings. One way to use her writings improperly is to ignore the implications of time and place and thus seek to apply the letter of each and every counsel universally.
In Ellen White’s writings such counsels as those urging schools to teach girls “to harness and drive a horse” so “they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life” (Education, pp. 216, 217); warning both young and old in 1894 to avoid the “bewitching influence” of the “bicycle craze” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp. 51, 52); and counseling an administrator in 1902 not to buy an automobile to transport patients from the railroad station to the sanitarium because it was a needless expense and would prove to be “a temptation to others to do the same thing” (Letter 158, 1902) are clearly conditioned by time and place. Other statements that may also be conditioned by time and place are not so obvious (especially in those areas we tend to feel strongly about), but we need to keep our eyes and mind open to the possibility.
Another aspect of the time and place issue in Ellen White’s writing is that for many of her counsels the historical context is quite personal, since she wrote to an individual in his or her specific setting. Always remember that behind every counsel lies a specific situation with its own peculiarities and for an individual with his or her personal possibilities and problems. Their situation may or may not be parallel to ours. Thus the counsel may or may not be applicable to us in a given circumstance.
Study Each Statement in Its Literary Context
In the preceding section we noted that it is important to understand Ellen White’s counsel in its original historical context. In this section we will examine the importance of reading her statements in their literary framework.
People have too often based their understandings of Mrs. White’s teachings upon a fragment of a paragraph or upon an isolated statement entirely removed from its setting. Thus she writes that “many study the Scriptures for the purpose of proving their own ideas to be correct. They change the meaning of God’s Word to suit their own opinions. And thus they do also with the testimonies that He sends. They quote half a sentence, leaving out the other half, which, if quoted, would show their reasoning to be false. God has a controversy with those who wrest the Scriptures, making them conform to their preconceived ideas” (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 82). Again she comments about those who by “separating . . . statements from their connection, and placing them beside human reasonings, make it appear that my writings uphold that which they condemn” (Letter 208, 1906).
Ellen White was repeatedly upset with those who pick out “a sentence here and there, taking it from its proper connection, and applying it according to their idea” (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 44). On another occasion she observed that “extracts” from her writings “may give a different impression than that which they would were they read in their original connection” (ibid., p. 58).
W. C. White, Ellen White’s son, often had to deal with the problem of people using material out of its literary context. In 1904 he noted that “much misunderstanding has come from the misuse of isolated passages in the Testimonies, in cases where, if the whole Testimony or the whole paragraph had been read, an impression would have been made upon minds that was altogether different from the impression made by the use of selected sentences” (W. C. White to W. S. Sadler, Jan. 20, 1904).
The study of literary contexts is not an optional luxury on inspired statements–it is a crucial part of faithfully reading Ellen White’s writings. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of studying Ellen White’s articles and books in their contexts rather than merely reading topical compilations or selecting out quotations on this or that topic through the use of indexes or computer printouts. Such tools have their places, but we should use them in connection with broad reading that helps us to be more aware not only of the literary context of Ellen White’s statements but also of the overall balance in her writings.
Recognize Ellen White’s Understanding of the Ideal and the Real
Ellen White often found herself plagued by “those who,” she claimed, “select from the testimonies the strongest expressions and, without bringing in or making any account of the circumstances under which the cautions and warnings are given, make them of force in every case. . . . Picking out some things in the testimonies they drive them upon every one, and disgust rather than win souls” (Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 285, 286).
Her observation not only highlights the fact that we need to take the historical context of Ellen White’s statements into consideration when reading her counsel, but also indicates that she put some statements in stronger or more forceful language than others. That idea leads us to the concept of the ideal and the real in Mrs. White’s writings.
When Ellen White is stating the ideal, she often uses her strongest language. It is as if she needs to speak loudly in order to be heard. One such statement appears in Fundamentals of Christian Education. “Never,” she exhorted, “can the proper education be given to the youth in this country, or any other country, unless they are separated a wide distance from the cities” (p. 312; italics supplied).
Now, that is about as forceful a statement as she could have made. Not only is it adamant, but it appears to imply universality in terms of time and space. There is no stronger word than “never.” In its strictest meaning it allows no exceptions. She uses the same sort of powerful, unbending language in terms of location–”in this country, or any other country.” Once again a plain reading of the words permits no exceptions. We are dealing with what appears to be a universal prohibition regarding the building of schools in cities. But the statement is stronger than that. Such schools are not merely to be out of the cities, but “separated a wide distance” from them. Here is inflexible language that does not suggest any exceptions.
At this point it is important to examine the historical context in which she made the statement. According to the reference supplied in the book (p. 327), this counsel was first published in 1894. But by 1909 the Adventist work in large cities was increasing. And those cities had families who could not afford to send their children to rural institutions. As a result, Ellen White counseled the building of schools in the cities. So far as possible,” we read, “. . . schools should be established outside the cities. But in the cities there are many children who could not attend schools away from the cities; and for the benefit of these, schools should be opened in the cities as well as in the country” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 201; italics supplied).
By this time you may be asking yourself how the same woman could claim that proper education could “never” be given in Australia “or any other country, unless they [schools] are separated a wide distance from the cities” (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 312) and yet still advocate the establishment of schools in the cities.
The answer is that rural education for all children was the ideal that the church should aim at “so far as possible.” But the truth is that the hard facts of life make such education impossible for some. Thus reality dictated a compromise if Christian education were to reach children from poorer families. Ellen White understood and accepted the tension between the ideal and the real.
Unfortunately, many of her readers fail to take that fact into consideration. They focus merely on Mrs. White’s “strongest” statements, those that express the ideal, and ignore the moderating passages. As a result, as we noted above, “picking out some things in the testimonies they drive them upon everyone, and disgust rather than win souls” (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 286).
Ellen White has more balance than many of her so-called followers. Genuine followers must take into account her understanding of the tension between the ideal and the real in applying her counsel.
Ellen White had more flexibility in interpreting her writings than many have realized. She was not only concerned with contextual factors in applying counsel to different situations, but also had a distinct understanding of the difference between God’s ideal plan and the reality of the human situation that at times necessitated modification of the ideal. For that reason it is important that we don’t just operate on the “strongest expressions” in her writings and seek to “drive them upon everyone” (ibid., pp. 285, 286).
Use Common Sense
Seventh-day Adventists have been known to differ and even argue over some of Ellen White’s counsel. That situation is especially true of those statements that seem so straightforward and clear. One such statement appears in volume 3 of the Testmonies: “Parents should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age” (p. 137; italics supplied).
That passage is an excellent candidate for inflexible interpretation. After all, it is quite categorical. It offers no conditions and hints at no exceptions. Containing no “ifs,” “ands,” “ors,” or “buts” to modify its impact, it just plainly states as fact that “parents should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age.” Mrs. White first published the statement in 1872. The fact that it reappeared in her writings in 1882 and 1913 undoubtedly had the effect of strengthening what appears to be its unconditional nature.
Interestingly enough, however, a struggle over that statement has provided us with perhaps the very best record we possess of how Mrs. White interpreted her own writings.
The Adventists living near the St. Helena Sanitarium in northern California had built a church school in 1902. The older children attended it, while some careless Adventist parents let their younger children run freely in the neighborhood without proper training and discipline. Some of the school board members believed that they should build a classroom for the younger children, but others held that it would be wrong to do so, because Ellen White had plainly stated that “parents should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age.”
One faction on the board apparently felt that it was more important to give some help to the neglected children than to hold to the letter of the law. The other faction believed that it had an inflexible command, some “straight testimony” that it must obey. To put it mildly, the issue split the school board. An interview with Mrs. White was arranged.
Early in the interview Mrs. White reaffirmed her position that the family should ideally be the school for young children. “The home,” she said, “is both a family church and a family school” (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 214). That is the ideal that one finds throughout her writings. The institutional church and school are there to supplement the work of a healthy family. That is the ideal.
But, as we discovered in the previous section, the ideal is not always the real. Or, to say it in other words, reality is often less than ideal. Thus Ellen White continued in the interview: “Mothers should be able to instruct their little ones wisely during the earlier years of childhood. If every mother were capable of doing this, and would take time to teach her children the lessons they should learn in early life, then all children could be kept in the home school until they are eight, or nine, or ten years old” (ibid., pp. 214, 215; italics supplied).
Here we begin to find Mrs. White dealing with a reality that modifies the categorical and unconditional nature of her statement on parents being the only teachers of their children until 8 or 10 years of age. The ideal is that mothers “should” be able to function as the best teachers. But realism intrudes when Ellen White uses such words as “if” and “then.” She definitely implies that not all mothers are capable and that not all are willing. But “if” they are both capable and willing, “then all children could be kept in the home school.”
During the interview she remarked that “God desires us to deal with these problems sensibly” (ibid., p. 215). Ellen White became quite stirred up with those readers who took an inflexible attitude toward her writings and sought to follow the letter of her message while missing the underlying principles. She evidenced disapproval of both the words and attitudes of her rigid interpreters when she declared: “My mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, ‘Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.’ “ She then added that “God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things” (ibid., p. 217; italics supplied).
Ellen White was anything but inflexible in interpreting her own writings, and it is a point of the first magnitude that we realize that fact. She had no doubt that the mindless use of her ideas could be harmful. Thus it is little wonder that she said that “God wants us all to have common sense” in using extracts from her writings, even when she phrased those extracts in the strongest and most unconditional language.
Discover the Underlying Principles
In July 1894 Ellen White sent a letter to the denomination’s headquarters church in Battle Creek, Michigan, in which she condemned the purchase and riding of bicycles (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp. 50-53). At first glance it appears strange that such an issue should be considered important enough for a prophet to deal with. It seems especially odd when we note that the bicycle issue had been specifically revealed in vision.
How should we apply such counsel today? Does it mean that Seventh-day Adventists should not own bicycles?
In answering that question we first need to examine the historical context. In 1894 the modern bicycle was just beginning to be manufactured, and a fad quickly developed to acquire bicycles, not for the purpose of economical transportation, but simply to be in style, to enter bicycle races, and to parade around town on them. In the evening such parading included the hanging of Japanese lanterns on the bicycles. Bicycling was the “in” thing–the thing to do if you were anything or anybody on the social scale.
Extracts from an article entitled “When All the World Went Wheeling” will help us get into the historical context of the bicycle counsel. “Toward the end of the last century,” we read, “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. Society and celebrity went awheel.
“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” (Reader’s Digest, December 1951).
In the light of the historical context, Ellen White’s statement in 1894 regarding bicycles takes on a new significance. “There seemed to be,” she wrote, “a bicycle craze. 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. . . . A bewitching influence seemed to be passing as a wave over our people. . . . Satan works with intensity of purpose to induce our people to invest their time and money in gratifying supposed wants. This is a species of idolatry. . . . While hundreds are starving for bread, while famine and pestilence are seen and felt, . . . shall those who profess to love and serve God act as did the people in the days of Noah, following the imagination of their hearts?
“There were some who were striving for the mastery, each trying to excel the other in the swift running of their bicycles. There was a spirit of strife and contention among them as to which should be the greatest. . . . Said my Guide: ‘These things are an offense to God. Both near and afar off souls are perishing for the bread of life and the water of salvation.’ When Satan is defeated in one line, he will be all ready with other schemes and plans which will appear attractive and needful, and which will absorb money and thought, and encourage selfishness, so that he can overcome those who are so easily led into a false and selfish indulgence.”
“What burden,” she asks, “do these persons carry for the advancement of the work of God? . . . Is this investment of means and this spinning of bicycles through the streets of Battle Creek giving evidence of the genuineness of your faith in the last solemn warning to be given to human beings standing on the very verge of the eternal world?” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp. 51, 52).
Her counsel on bicycles is obviously dated. Within a few years bicycles became quite inexpensive and were relegated to the realm of practical transportation for young people and those without means, even as the larger culture switched its focus and desires to the four-wheeled successor of the humble bicycle.
While it is true that some of the specifics of the counsel no longer apply, the principles on which the specific counsel rests remain quite applicable across time and space.
And what are some of those principles? First, that Christians are not to spend money on selfish gratification. Second, that Christians are not to strive for mastery over one another by doing things that generate a spirit of strife and contention. Third, that Christians should focus their primary values on the kingdom to come and on helping others during the present period of history. And fourth, that Satan will always have a scheme to derail Christians into the realm of selfish indulgence.
Those principles are unchangeable. They apply to every place and to every age of earthly history. Bicycles were merely the point of contact between the principles and the human situation in Battle Creek during 1894. The particulars of time and place change, but the universal principles remain constant.
Our responsibility as Christians is not only to read God’s counsel to us, but to apply it faithfully to our personal lives. The Christian’s task is to search out God’s revelations and then seek to put them into practice in daily living without doing violence to the intent of their underlying principles. That takes personal dedication as well as sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Realize That Prophets Are Not Verbally Inspired, Nor Are They Infallible or Inerrant
“I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the ten commandments. I held that view with absolute tenacity against innumerable objections raised to it by many who were occupying prominent positions in the [Adventist] cause,” wrote Dr. David Paulson to Ellen White on April 19, 1906. Deeply concerned over the nature of Ellen White’s inspiration, Paulson wondered whether he should continue to hold such a rigid view. In the process he raised the question of verbal inspiration and the related issues of infallibility and inerrancy. Since a correct understanding of such issues is of crucial importance in reading Ellen White and/or the Bible, we will examine each of them in this section.
Mrs. White replied to Paulson on June 14, 1906. “My brother,” she penned, “you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found that I have made any such claims [to verbal inspiration], neither will you find that the pioneers in our cause ever made such claims” for her writings. She went on to illustrate inspiration in her writings by referring to the inspiration of the Bible writers. Even though God had inspired the Biblical truths, they were “expressed in the words of men.” She saw the Bible as representing “a union of the divine and the human.” Thus “the testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it is the testimony of God” (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 24-26).
Such sentiments represent Ellen White’s consistent witness across time. “The Bible,” she wrote in 1886, “is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. . . . The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. . . .
“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God” (ibid., p. 21).
We see the problematic nature of the issue of verbal inspiration illustrated in the life of D. M. Canright, at one time a leading minister in the denomination, but its foremost critic between 1887 and 1919. Canright bitterly opposed Ellen White. His 1919 book against her asserted that “every line she wrote, whether in articles, letters, testimonies or books, she claimed was dictated to her by the Holy Ghost, and hence must be infallible” (Life of Mrs. E. G. White, p. 9). We have seen above that Ellen White herself took just the opposite position, but that didn’t stop the damage being done by those with a false theory of inspiration.
Before we go any further, perhaps we should define our terms. Webster’s New World Dictionary describes “infallible” as “1. incapable of error; never wrong. 2. not liable to fail, go wrong, make a mistake, etc.” It renders “inerrant” as “not erring, making no mistakes.” It is essentially those definitions that many people import into the realm of the Bible and Ellen White’s writings.
As to infallibility, Mrs. White plainly writes, “I never claimed it; God alone is infallible.” Again she stated that “God and heaven alone are infallible” (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37). While she claimed that “God’s Word is infallible” (ibid., p. 416), we will see below that she did not mean that the Bible (or her writings) were free from error at all points.
To the contrary, in the introduction to The Great Controversy she sets forth her position quite concisely: “The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will” (p. vii). That is, she did not claim that the work of God’s prophets is infallible in all its details, but that it is infallible in terms of revealing God’s will to men and women. In a similar statement Ellen White commented that “His Word . . . is plain on every point essential to the salvation of the soul” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 706).
W. C. White treats the same issue when he observes: “Where she has followed the description of historians or the exposition of Adventist writers, I believe that God has given her discernment to use that which is correct and in harmony with truth regarding all matters essential to salvation. If it should be found by faithful study that she has followed some expositions of prophecy which in some detail regarding dates we cannot harmonize with our understanding of secular history, it does not influence my confidence in her writings as a whole any more than my confidence in the Bible is influenced by the fact that I cannot harmonize many of the statements regarding chronology” (Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 449, 450; italics supplied).
In summary, it appears that Mrs. White’s use of the term infallibility has to do with the Bible being completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation. She doesn’t mix that idea with the concept that the Bible or her writings are free from all possible errors of a factual nature.
Thus the faithful reader’s belief is not shaken if he or she discovers that Matthew attributed a Messianic prophecy, written centuries before Christ’s birth, to Jeremiah when it was actually Zechariah who inferred that Christ would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (see Matt. 27:9, 10; Zech. 11:12, 13). Nor will one be dismayed over the fact that 1 Samuel 16:10, 11 lists David as the eighth son of Jesse, but 1 Chronicles 2:15 refers to him as the seventh. Neither will faith be affected because the prophet Nathan wholeheartedly approved of King David’s building of the Temple but the next day had to backtrack and tell David that God didn’t want him to build it (see 2 Sam. 7; 1 Chron. 17). Prophets make mistakes.
The same kind of factual errors can be discovered in Ellen White’s writings as are found in the Bible. The writings of God’s prophets are infallible as a guide to salvation, but they are not inerrant or without error. Part of the lesson is that we need to read for the central lessons of Scripture and Ellen White rather than the details.
What is important to remember at this point is that those who struggle over such problems as inerrancy and absolute infallibility are fighting a human-made problem. It is not anything that God ever claimed for the Bible or Ellen White ever claimed for the Bible or her writings. Inspiration for her had to do with the “practical purposes” (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 19) of human and divine relationships in the plan of salvation. We need to let God speak to us in His mode, rather than to superimpose our rules over God’s prophets and then reject them if they don’t live up to our expectations of what we think God should have done. Such an approach is a human invention that places our own authority over the Word of God. It makes us the judges of God and His Word. But such a position is not Biblical; nor is it according to the way Ellen White has counseled the church. We need to read God’s Word and Mrs. White’s writings for the purpose for which He gave them and not let our modern concerns and definitions of purpose and accuracy come between us and His prophets.
Avoid Making the Counsels “Prove” Things They Were Never Intended to Prove
In the previous section we noted that Ellen White did not claim verbal inspiration for her writings or the Bible, nor did she classify them as either inerrant or infallible in the sense of being free from factual mistakes. In spite of the efforts of Mrs. White and her son to move people away from too rigid a view of inspiration, many have continued on in that line. Down through the history of the denomination some have sought to use Ellen White’s writings and the Bible for purposes for which God never intended them. Likewise, claims have been made for prophetic writings that transcend their purpose.
As a result, we find individuals who go to her writings to substantiate such things as historical facts and dates. Thus S. N. Haskell could write to Ellen White that he and his friends would “give more for one expression in your testimony than for all the histories you could stack between here and Calcutta” (S. N. Haskell to E. G. White, May 30, 1910).
Yet Ellen White never claimed that the Lord provided every historical detail in her works. To the contrary, she tells us that she generally went to the same sources available to us to get the historical facts that she used to fill out the outlines of the struggle between good and evil across the ages that she portrays so nicely in The Great Controversy. In regard to the writing of that volume, she wrote in its preface that “where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject.” Her purpose in such books as The Great Controversy was “not so much . . . to present new truths concerning the struggles of former times, as to bring out facts and principles which have a bearing on coming events” (p. xii).
That statement of purpose is crucial in understanding her use of history. Her intention was to trace the dynamics of the conflict between good and evil across time. That was her message. The historical facts merely enriched its tapestry. She was not seeking to provide incontrovertible historical data. In actuality, as she put it, the “facts” she used were “well known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world” (ibid., p. xi).
What is true of Ellen White’s use of facts in post-Biblical church history is also true of her practice when writing of the Biblical period. As a result, she could ask her sons that they request “Mary [Willie’s wife] to find me some histories of the Bible that would give me the order of events. I have nothing and can find nothing in the library here” (E. G. White to W. C. White and J. E. White, Dec. 22, 1885).
“Regarding Mother’s writings,” W. C. White told Haskell, “she has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority on history. . . . When ‘[The Great] Controversy’ was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as an authority on historical dates and use it to settle controversies, and she does not now feel that it ought to be used in that way.” (W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Oct. 31, 1912; italics supplied; cf. Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 446, 447.)
Twenty years later W. C. White wrote that “in our conversations with her [Ellen White] regarding the truthfulness and the accuracy of what she had quoted from historians, she expressed confidence in the historians from whom she had drawn, but never would consent to the course pursued by a few men who took her writings as a standard and endeavored by the use of them to prove the correctness of one historian as against the correctness of another. From this I gained the impression that the principal use of the passage quoted from historians was not to make a new history, not to correct errors in history, but to use valuable illustrations to make plain important spiritual truths” (W. C. White to L. E. Froom, Feb. 18, 1932).
Not only do we need to avoid using Ellen White to “prove” the details of history, but the same caution must be expressed in the realm of the details of science. In saying this I do not mean to imply that there is not a great deal of accuracy in the scientific inferences of Ellen White’s writings–and the Bible’s, for that matter–but that we must not seek to prove this and that scientific detail from them.
Let me illustrate. Some claim that John Calvin, the great sixteenth-century Reformer, resisted Copernicus’s discovery that the earth rotated around the sun by quoting Psalm 93:1: “The world also is stablished; that it cannot be moved.” In a similar vein, many have pointed out that the Bible talks about the four corners of the earth and the fact that the sun “comes up” and “goes down.” In such cases, the Bible is merely making incidental remarks rather than setting forth scientific doctrine.
Remember that the Bible and Ellen White’s writings are not intended to be divine encyclopedias for things scientific and historical. Rather they are to reveal our human hopelessness and then point us to the solution in salvation through Jesus. In the process, God’s revelation provides a framework in which we can understand the bits and pieces of historical and scientific knowledge gained through other lines of study.
Make Sure Ellen White Said It
A fair number of statements are in circulation that apparently have been falsely attributed to Ellen White. How can we identify such statements? The first clue that they are apocryphal for those who are familiar with Ellen White’s writings is that such statements are often out of harmony with the general tenor of her thought. That is, they seem strange when compared to the bulk of her ideas, appear to be out of place in her mouth. Strangeness, of course, is not proof that we are dealing with an apocryphal statement. It is merely an indication.
The safest way to test the authenticity of an Ellen White statement is to ask for the reference to its source. Once we know where it is found, we can check to see if Ellen White said it and also examine the wording and context to determine if it has been interpreted correctly.
The issue of supposed statements also came up in Mrs. White’s lifetime. Her fullest treatment of the problem appears in volume 5 of Testimonies for the Church, pages 692 through 696. It can be examined profitably by all readers of Ellen White’s writings:
“Beware,” she says, “how you give credence to such reports” (p. 694). She concludes her discussion of the topic with the following words: “To all who have a desire for truth I would say: Do not give credence to unauthenticated reports as to what Sister White has done or said or written. If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published works. . . . Do not eagerly catch up and report rumors as to what she has said” (p. 696).
While we can no longer send supposed statements to Ellen White for her verification, we can contact the White Estate office at the General Conference headquarters or visit the nearest SDA-Ellen G. White Research Center to verify the authenticity of a statement or to inquire about other questions we might have.
Basic Rules of Interpretation–Internal
[Excerpt from Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: the Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1998), pp. 388-392. Notes, indicated in brackets, are numbered as in the original text.]
Basic Rules of Interpretation
Everyone wants to be understood. Often misunderstandings arise when a statement has been lifted out of context. Thus, everyone who has been misunderstood appeals to fairness and asks that the context be considered. Context includes both internal and external clues that will establish the truth about any statement under consideration.
Internally, we usually get a clear picture of “what” an author meant by reading the words, sentences, paragraphs, even chapters, surrounding a puzzling statement. Externally, we ask further questions that may help us to understand, such as when? where? why? and perhaps how? “Time,” “place,” and “circumstances” [p. 389] apply to the external context, as we shall soon see.
¤ Rule One: Recognize that the Bible and the writings of Ellen White were the product of thought inspiration, not verbal inspiration–as described in the previous chapter.
¤ Rule Two: Recognize that some word-definitions may change as time passes. For example, hundreds of words in the King James Version (1611) of the Bible have changed in meaning or have acquired such new meanings that they no longer convey the meaning that the King James translators intended to convey. Casual readers would surely misunderstand certain Bible texts if they were not aware of these serious changes in word meanings.
Word-change definitions have already occurred in the writings of Ellen White. How often have readers been confused with: “It is the nicest work ever assumed by men and women to deal with youthful minds”? When Mrs. White used these words later in another setting, she saw the problem and elaborated: “This work is the nicest, the most difficult, ever committed to human beings.” What was going on? In the nineteenth century, “nice” was often used, as the dictionary indicates, to mean “exacting in requirements or standards . . . marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision and delicacy.”
Another word that has assumed a definition today that was not primary in the nineteenth century is “intercourse.” For hundreds of years “intercourse” meant “dealings between people,” or “the exchange of thoughts and feelings.” Today it is most frequently used in reference to sexual contact, a use that was never meant in the hundreds of occasions Ellen White employed this word.
¤ Rule Three: Understand the use of hyperbole. Hyperbole is the use of obvious exaggeration to make a point. John used hyperbole when he said that if all the acts of Jesus were written, “the world itself could not contain the books” (John 21:25). Hyperbole is a literary device used throughout the Bible.
Ellen White used the ratio 1 in 20 at least five times, and 1 in 100 at least twenty-one times. She did not say 1 in 13 or 1 in 99, etc. She may have used hyperbole when she wrote: “It is a solemn statement that I make to the church, that not one in twenty whose names are registered upon the church books are prepared to close their earthly history, and would be as verily without God and without hope in the world as the common sinner.”
¤ Rule Four: Understand the meaning of the phrase in which a word is used. In 1862 Ellen White wrote that Satan works through the channels of phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism. But does this mean that all psychology is evil? Obviously not, because in 1897 she pointed out that “the true principles of psychology are found in the Holy Scriptures.” Similarly, we might note that television can be a channel through which Satan works, but Satan’s use of television does not make television evil. Psychology, the study of the human mind and how it matures, is a proper study for Christians–if the presuppositions are Biblical and not humanistic.
¤ Rule Five: Recognize the possibility of imprecise expressions. In 1861 Ellen White penned a thought that seems inconsistent with later statements on the same subject: “Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.” In an 1884 Signs article, she wrote: “The sciences which treat of the human mind are very much exalted. They are good in their place; but they are seized upon by Satan as his powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.”
Obviously, in this 1884 statement we [p. 390] have an editorial correction in the thought that Ellen White wanted conveyed regarding “the sciences which treat of the human mind.” Possibly the 1861 statement referring to phrenology and mesmerism was a printer’s error. More probably it was a general statement, corrected later, that reflected the commonly used terms for psychology in the mid-nineteenth century. Many books dealing with physical and mental health included chapters devoted to phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism, or advertised other works that focused on these modalities.
¤ Rule Six: Look carefully at the immediate context (that is, the same paragraph or page) for clarification of a statement that seems, at first glance, to be troublesome. For example, some people are confused about Ellen White’s admonition that we “should never be taught to say, or feel, that they are saved.” This caution was meant to warn of the erroneous doctrine of “once saved, always saved” that was, and is, prevalent among most evangelical Christians.
But this warning was given within the larger context of explaining Peter’s self-confidence that led to His tragic denial of his Lord on that Thursday night. She wrote: “Never can we safely put confidence in self, or feel, this side of heaven, that we are secure against temptation. [Then comes the often misunderstood statement:] This is misleading. Everyone should be taught to cherish hope and faith; but even when we give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us, we are not beyond the reach of temptation. . . . Our only safety is in constant distrust of self, and dependence on Christ.”
Another example of the importance of context is found in Ellen White’s assertion that “God’s servants today could not work by means of miracles, because spurious works of healing, claiming to be divine, will be wrought.” This statement seems at variance with the Adventist position that “all” of the spiritual gifts given to the Christian church (1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4) will continue to the end of time (1 Cor. 1:7). Further, this statement seems to contradict Ellen White’s own comments that in the last days “miracles will be wrought, the sick will be healed, and signs and wonders will follow the believers.” How do we understand all this?
The seeming contradiction arises when one does not read the whole page carefully. Ellen White made two points: First, she spoke to present conditions specifically: In referring to “miraculous works of healing,” she said that “we cannot now work in this way” (emphasis supplied). Further, “God’s servants today could not work by means of miracles” (emphasis supplied).
Secondly, she was setting forth the Lord’s instruction for the present time: The “work of physical healing, combined with the teaching of the word” would be best done in the establishment of “sanitariums” where “workers . . . will carry forward genuine medical missionary work. . . . This is the provision the Lord has made whereby gospel medical missionary work is to be done for many souls.” In other words, at the present time, distinguished by many instances of false miracles of healing, God’s work of healing can best be done within the sanitarium program of intelligent teaching regarding the cause and cure of disease.
Another “misquote” asserts that it is a “sin to laugh,” using the quotation, “Christ often wept but never was known to laugh. . . . Imitate the divine, unerring Pattern.” From what we know of Jesus in the Bible, that statement sounds strange. After all, why would children surround Him enthusiastically! Then we notice the ellipse. Something is missing.
We check the passage and the context. Here Ellen White is counseling a church member who “has not seen the necessity of educating herself in carefulness of words and acts. . . . My sister, you talk too [p. 391] much. . . . your tongue has done much mischief. . . . Your tongue has kindled a fire, and you have enjoyed the conflagration. . . .You sport and joke and enter into hilarity and glee. . . . Christ is our example. Do you imitate the great Exemplar? Christ often wept but never was known to laugh. I do not say it is a sin to laugh on any occasion, but we cannot go astray if we imitate the divine, unerring Pattern. . . . Christian cheerfulness is not condemned by the Scriptures, but reckless talking is censured.” “As we view the world bound in darkness and trammeled by Satan, how can we engage in levity, glee, careless, reckless words, speaking at random, laughing, jesting, and joking?”
Here we note that the context puts a new cast on the misquote. “Laugh” in this context meant inappropriate recklessness of speech and behavior, a jesting and joking that had “shown a lack of wisdom in using the truth in a manner to raise opposition, arouse combativeness, and make war instead of possessing a spirit of peace and true humbleness of mind.” Ellen White was not condemning appropriate laughter, as she clearly noted, but she put her counsel in a balanced perspective.
¤ Rule Seven: Recognize that the meaning of a word can change when it is used in a new context. The term “shut door” meant several things to ex-Millerite Adventists. To Ellen White it meant something different. James White and Joseph Bates redefined their use of the term between 1844 and 1852.
Other words that Ellen White used may seem obsolete today, such as “office,” which most often referred to the administrative offices of the publishing house, but sometimes to the General Conference headquarters.
¤ Rule Eight: Recognize that the challenge of semantics resides in all communication. Words mean different things to different people, because of personal differences such as education, age level, spiritual experiences, geographic location, and gender. Ellen White spoke to this problem: “There are many who interpret that which I write in the light of their own preconceived opinions. . . . A division in understanding and diverse opinions is the sure result. How to write in a way to be understood by those to whom I address important matter is a problem I cannot solve. When I see that I am misunderstood by my brethren who know me best, I am assured that I must take more time in carefully expressing my thoughts upon paper, for the Lord gives me light which I dare not do otherwise than communicate; and a great burden is upon me.” For a writer, the task of avoiding misunderstanding is more difficult than merely trying to be understood, because the writer must consciously be aware of semantic problems.
 Examples comparing KJV with NKJV include: abroad–outside (Deut. 24:11), allege–demonstrate (Acts 17:3), anon–immediately or at once (Mark 1:30), bowels–heart (Gen. 43:40), by and by–immediately (Mark 6:25), charity–love (1 Cor. 13), communicate–share (Gal. 6:6), conversation–conduct (1 Pet. 3:1, 2), feeble-minded–fainthearted (1 Thess. 5:14), forwardness–willingness (2 Cor. 9:2), let–hindered (Rom. 1:13), meat–food (Matt. 6:25), nephew–grandsons (Judges 12:14), outlandish women–pagan women (Neh. 13:26), peculiar–special (Tit. 2:14), reins–hearts (Ps. 7:9), suffer–let (Matt. 19:14), vain–worthless (Judges 9:4), virtue–power (Luke 6:19), witty inventions–discretion (Prov. 8:12).  Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students,
p. 73, emphasis added.
 Education, p. 292.
 Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster Inc., Publishers, 1983).
 “The disciples prayed with intense earnestness for a fitness to meet men and in their daily intercourse to speak words that would lead sinners to Christ.”– The Acts of the Apostles, p. 37. “By social intercourse acquaintances are formed and friendships contracted which result in a unity of heart and an atmosphere of love which is pleasing in the sight of heaven.”–The Adventist Home, p. 45.
 Compare Ex. 9:6 with Isa. 19. The frequent use of “all” is often an example of Hebrew hyperbole.
 Christian Service, p. 41 (1893).
 Review and Herald, Feb. 18, 1862.
 My Life Today, p. 176.
 Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 296.
 Signs of the Times, Nov. 6, 1884.
 Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 155.
 Ibid. See also Selected Messages, book 1, p. 314.
 Medical Ministry, p. 14.
 The Great Controversy, p. 612; see also Early Writings, p. 278; Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 126.
 Medical Ministry, p. 14.
 Ms. 11, 1868, cited in Manuscript Releases, vol. 18, pp. 368-370.
 Ibid., p. 369.
 See pp. 554-565 for a study of the “shut door” issue.
 See Volume 3 of the Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, pp. 3185-3188, for “Glossary of Obsolete and Little Used Words and Terms with Altered Meanings.”
 Selected Messages, book, 3, p. 79.
Basic Rules of Interpretation–External
[Excerpt from Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: the Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1998), pp. 394-407. Notes, indicated in brackets, are numbered as in the original text.]
“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.”
Eight basic rules of interpretation that embrace a document’s wider context would include:
¤ Rule One: Include all that the prophet has said on the subject under discussion before coming to a conclusion.
This rule seems obvious; yet, it probably is the first reason why confusion reigns when people disagree. The reason: most people see only what they want to see. This simple fact influences most all research, whether in astrophysics, medicine, politics, or theology. Unfortunately, few people will admit it. We call this phenomenon, the paradigm fixation or the problem of presuppositions. Especially in studying the Bible, nothing seems more difficult for most people than to look at all the facts! This difficulty is not because a person’s capability to think is deficient. The difficulty that separates thinkers looking at the same information is that their presuppositions are different, presuppositions not only of the head but of the heart.
Presuppositions most often steer students only to “see” what they want to see, thus they overlook the total range of what a writer has written on a particular subject. These paradigms control the mind in what it wants to see, and the heart in what it wants to believe. Earlier we called this phenomenon “attitude.” These deep, often unverbalized, attitudes most often determine one’s conclusions.
After recognizing this hovering cloud of presuppositions (paradigms or world-views) that every student should recognize, the next challenge is to examine all that a person has said or written on the subject under discussion. Only in this way can the writer (or speaker) be treated fairly.
Many Biblical scholars through the centuries have accepted Isaiah’s principle: “But the word of the Lord was to them, ‘Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little’” (28:13). Accepting this principle assumes that the Bible contains a unified, harmonious unfolding of God’s messages to human beings. But this principle does not teach that all texts are equally clear, or that the meaning of a verse can be understood apart from that verse’s context. The over-arching message of the Bible (or any other book or author) provides the final context for the meaning of any particular “precept” or “line.”
The same principle applies to the writings of Ellen White. She wrote often: “The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture.”
She believed her writings to be consistent and harmonious from beginning to end, revealing “one straight line of truth, without one heretical sentence.” That is a [p. 395] remarkable statement for any author to make, especially one who had been writing for more than sixty years.
On some subjects that many consider important today, Mrs. White wrote nothing. Movies, television and radio programs, abortion, cremation, organ transplants, etc., were not current topics in her day.
Little Said on Some Subjects
On some subjects she said very little. We have relatively few statements on life insurance, and only one on the wedding ring. Her comments on two “special resurrections” are brief–she mentions a special resurrection of some on Christ’s resurrection morning and another immediately prior to Christ’s second coming.
On some subjects she wrote abundantly–topics such as Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, and divine-human cooperation.
Certain subjects have frequently caused unnecessary disagreements within the church because students did not apply this first rule of hermeneutics. For example, statements such as “eggs should not be placed upon your table” should be balanced, according to other statements Ellen White has written concerning eggs and her principle of “step-by-step” understanding of truth (see pp. 282, 310, 311).
Other subjects in the writings of Ellen White that profit from a fair use of this first hermeneutical rule include appropriate clothing, Sabbath observance, and counseling. Theologically, one is wise to follow this first rule when studying such topics as the atonement, the nature of Christ, the nature of sin, how sin is punished, and the relation of the “latter rain” to the Second Coming. Several of these subjects have polarized Adventists because some put more weight on expressions in a private letter than on the general instruction of a book, or on a paragraph lifted out of context that seems to fly in the face of full chapters in a published book.
¤ Rule Two: Every statement must be understood within its historical context. Time, place, and circumstances under which that statement was made must be studied in order to understand its meaning.
Although this rule seems obvious, it lies at the root of many deep disagreements. In the day of selective media bites, most anyone in the public eye has been misunderstood by having his/her statements taken out of context. How often a misquoted person is heard saying, “But that is not what I meant!” Or, “I said that, but they didn’t include everything I said!”
If living today, Ellen White could often say, “But that is not what I meant!” “Yes, I said that, but they didn’t include everything I said!” Let us note three times that she emphasized the importance of this second rule of hermeneutics.
In 1875 she pointed out that that “which may be said in truth of individuals at one time may not correctly be said of them at another time.” Why did she say this? Because she was being criticized for her endorsement of certain leaders who later fell from grace or apostatized.
In 1904 she appealed to the fact that God “wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”
In 1911 she emphasized that “regarding the testimonies, nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered.”
Here we have three fundamental categories: time, place, and circumstances–all of which must be considered when one seeks to understand the meaning of any statement. These categories are not synonymous.
Time. Some Ellen White statements need to be understood in terms of when she made them. For instance, on January 16, 1898, she wrote: “We are still in probationary [p. 396] time.” Will these words always be true? Obviously not. The time will come when probation will cease (Dan. 12:1; Rev. 22:11). At present we know that certain events still lie in the future, e.g., creation of the image to the beast (Rev. 13), Sunday-law enforcement, the great final earthquake, etc. Thus, at the moment, “we are still in probationary time.”
What about the following statements? “The voice from Battle Creek, which has been regarded as authority in counseling how the work should be done, is no longer the voice of God.” “It has been some years since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God.”
But in 1875 Ellen White wrote concerning the General Conference in session: “When the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.”
Why the difference in her position? During the late 1880s and 1890s, as the record shows in her letters and sermons, some of the policies of the General Conference officers were not ones that Ellen White could endorse. On April 1, 1901, the day before the General Conference session opened, she spoke these words: “It is working upon wrong principles that has brought the cause of God into its present embarrassment. The people have lost confidence in those who have the management of the work. Yet we hear that the voice of the conference is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I have thought that it was almost blasphemy. The voice of the conference ought to be the voice of God, but it is not.” Obviously, times had changed and her observations changed accordingly.
But that 1901 General Conference session made significant changes in policies and personnel. Ellen White was pleased. Only two months after the changes, she became aware that her son Edson was quoting some of her pre-1901-session statements and applying them in the new, post-1901-session period. Times had changed–the statements of the 1890s no longer applied. She wrote to Edson: “Your course would have been the course to be pursued, if no changes had been made in the General Conference . But a change has been made, and many more changes will be made [in 1903, many more were made] and great developments will [yet] be seen. No issues are to be forced. . . . It hurts me to think that you are using words which I wrote prior to the Conference.”
In 1909 Ellen White was clearly in the post-1901 mode when she wrote: “God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference [session], shall have authority.” In summary, when we speak of the authority of the General Conference and Ellen White’s several statements, we should immediately determine when the statements were made, and under what conditions.
Place. Some statements may be true for one person or group while at the same time they may not be true for another person or group. James White spoke to this difficulty when two groups, in different places, would read his wife’s admonitions: “She works to this disadvantage . . . she makes strong appeals to the people, which a few feel deeply, and take strong positions, and go to extremes. Then to save the cause from ruin in consequence of these extremes, she is obliged to come out with reproofs for extremists in a public manner. This is better than to have things go to pieces; but the influence of both the extremes and the reproofs are terrible on the cause, and brings upon Mrs. W. a three-fold burden. Here is the difficulty: What she may say to urge the tardy, is taken by the prompt to urge them over the mark. And what she may say to caution the prompt, zealous, incautious [p. 397] ones, is taken by the tardy as an excuse to remain too far behind.”
The “place” consideration will help those who have been confused about whether Ellen White’s writings should be quoted in public. On one occasion Mrs. White wrote that “the words of the Bible, and the Bible alone should be heard from the pulpit.” On two other occasions she wrote: “In public labor do not make prominent, and quote that which Sister White has written.” “The testimonies of Sister White should not be carried to the front. God’s word is the unerring standard.”
Do these statements prohibit ministers from quoting the writings of Ellen White publicly, especially in a church service? The first quotation speaks to the Christian world generally, comparing “an imaginary religion, a religion of words and forms,” with the “words of the Bible and the Bible alone [which] should be heard from the pulpit.” The whole page (context) is emphasizing that “those who have heard only tradition and human theories and maxims [should] hear the voice of Him who can renew the soul unto eternal life.”
The next two quotations speak to Seventh-day Adventist evangelists. Adventist evangelists should prove their doctrines from the Bible, not from the writings of Mrs. White. The second reason for this caution is obvious: those who are not acquainted with the authority of Ellen White would not be persuaded by her statements, and might react negatively. In summary, Mrs. White never said that her writings should not be quoted in the Seventh-day Adventist church pulpit.
The place test is especially important when compilations are made of Ellen White’s thoughts on selected subjects. An incident in the early 1890s demonstrates the problem of misapplying testimonies given to one person for a particular purpose. Mrs. White, writing from Australia, addressed a letter to A. W. Stanton in Battle Creek, a man who had taken the position that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is Babylon. She included that letter in articles printed in the church paper.
In his fifty-page pamphlet, “The Loud Cry of the Third Angel’s Message,” Stanton quoted freely from Ellen White’s reproofs to the church, concluding that these testimonies constituted God’s rejection of the organized church. He stated that those who finish up God’s work on earth must separate from the Adventist Church which had become Babylon. He made his case by stringing together misapplied Ellen White comments and by including a letter to a private party that was used out of context.
Mrs. White replied that Stanton had “misapplied [a private letter sent to another for a particular purpose], as many do the Scriptures, to the injury of his own soul and the souls of others. . . . In the use of a private letter sent to another, Brother S. has abused the kindly efforts of one who desired to help him.”
Further, she acknowledged that her misapplied statements might “appear” to support Stanton’s conclusions. However, “those who take them in parts, simply to support some theory or idea of their own, to vindicate themselves in a course of error, will not be blessed and benefited by what they teach.”
This Stanton incident and Ellen White’s response (which settled the matter for church members) provides us with a historical example of how damaging and deceptive a compilation of worthy writings can be when time and place are not considered.
¤ Rule Three: The principle underlying each statement of counsel or instruction must be recognized in order to understand its relevance for those in different times or places.
Whenever prophets speak they are either conveying truth as a principle or as a policy. Principles are universal, in the sense that they apply to men and women [p. 398] everywhere; they are eternal, in the sense that they are always relevant, always applicable.
Policies, however, are the timely applications of eternal, universal principles. Principles never change but policies do, depending on circumstances. Thus policies may apply a principle in a way that the prophet never envisioned.
Ellen White was well aware of the difference between universal principles and policies that are determined by changing circumstances: “That which can be said of men under certain circumstances, cannot be said of them under other circumstances.” Her contemporaries recognized that Mrs. White appealed to the intelligence of her readers more often by citing principles than by spelling out the answers to local issues.
Understanding the basic difference between principles and policies will help one avoid misusing either the Bible or the writings of Ellen White. The following topics illustrate the need to place Mrs. White’s counsel in the context of time, place, and circumstances.
Teaching girls to harness and drive horses. In outlining a school curriculum, Ellen White wrote that “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.” Is this a principle or a policy? Obviously, the principle is clear: girls should be “fitted to meet the emergencies of life.”
When this counsel was given in the early years of the twentieth century, most Americans still lived on farms. For many practical reasons, including safety, this principle could be best applied by girls learning how to “harness and drive a horse” and not leave such things for boys only. Today, the principle would be best served in high school or college with courses in auto mechanics and driver’s education.
School-entrance age. In 1872 Ellen White wrote her first major treatise on Christian education. Regarding the age when students should begin school, she said: “Parents should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age. . . . The only schoolroom for children from eight to ten years of age should be in the open air amidst the opening flowers and nature’s beautiful scenery.”
For thirty years this counsel was the rule for Adventist elementary schools generally. In 1904 the local school board of the St. Helena, California, church met, with Ellen White present, to discuss the issue of school-entrance age. The principles quickly emerged: (1) children differ in their development; (2) ideally, parents should be their children’s teachers for the early years, until they are 8-10 years old (thus recognizing differences in child development); (3) if parents are not able to teach and control their children properly, it would be better for the children to learn under a teacher who would teach discipline as well as the appropriate studies; (4) if both parents are employed outside the home, it would be better for their children to be placed in the controlled environment of the classroom rather than left in an empty house; (5) for the sake of the St. Helena Sanitarium’s reputation, it would be beneficial to all if children were not observed throughout the day “wandering about, with nothing to do, getting into mischief, and all these things.”
So, on the basis of principle, from the standpoint of what is best for children and for their influence on the reputation of the sanitarium, policy was changed and arrangements were made to accept younger students at the St. Helena church school.
The bicycle craze. 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 [p. 399] 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.”
With that background we may be better able to understand Ellen White’s counsel at that time when she wrote that “money expended in bicycles and dress and other needless things must be accounted for.” She went further than the principle of exorbitant cost; she cautioned regarding the spirit of “bewitching” competition and the desire to “be the greatest.”
Thus, her policy on bicycles (which, if placed within today’s context, may seem odd, even ridiculous) was based on clear-cut Biblical principles. The wise and balanced expenditure of funds and the avoidance of the competitive spirit are principles that should impact on decisions in all ages. If Mrs. White were alive today, she might apply the principle of accountability to the way people spend money on luxury items, automobiles, sports equipment, electronic gadgets, or clothing.
Sports. Unfortunately some have excerpted some of Ellen White’s statements on sports without maintaining her sense of balance. In 1895 she warned students that in “plunging into amusements, match games, pugilistic performances,” they were declaring “to the world that Christ was not their leader. All this called forth the warning from God.” However, the next sentence, often not quoted, reveals her common sense: “Now that which burdens me is the danger of going into extremes on the other side.”
For example, to rule out sports altogether would be missing Mrs. White’s point. In the early 1870s she counseled parents and teachers that they should come close to their children and pupils and if they would “manifest an interest in all their efforts, and even in their sports, sometimes even being a child among children, they would make the children very happy, and would gain their love and win their confidence.”
On another occasion Ellen White wrote that she did not “condemn the simple exercise of playing ball.” What did concern her was that ball-playing, and sports in general, “may be overdone.” She followed this statement by explaining what she meant by being overdone.
The lesson to be learned here, as in other subjects that often polarize readers of Ellen White’s writings, is that the full range of her thoughts on a particular subject should be read in order to get her perspective.
Flesh food. Earlier we studied Ellen White’s health principles and her application of these principles. Here we will emphasize again how she, a dying consumptive at 17, went on to outlive her contemporaries after a remarkably rigorous life. One of her open secrets was to distinguish between principle and policy.
Out of the many examples available, let us note again how she related to flesh foods–the part of her diet in her younger years that she enjoyed most! In chapter 27 we saw how she embraced the health message as it came to her in 1863, some of which cut straight across her personal habits and delights. We also noted how she occasionally departed from her habitual practice of abstaining from flesh food. Yet, in 1870 she claimed that she had acted according to principle ever since receiving the health vision in 1863: “I have not changed my course a particle since I adopted the health reform. I have not taken one step back since the light from heaven upon this subject first shone upon my pathway. . . . I left off these things from principle. And since that time, brethren, you have not heard me advance an extreme view of health reform that I had to take back. I have [p. 400] advocated nothing but what I stand to today.”
What were the basic principles of health reform that Ellen White believed she had faithfully followed? (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.
Health reform policies are choices that flow from those principles. If vegetarianism were a principle, then we would have a problem with God’s command for the Israelites to eat the Passover lamb. We also would wonder why He distinguished between clean and unclean meats. And what would we do with our Lord’s practice of eating the Passover lamb, as well as fresh fish, with His disciples?
Vegetarianism is a policy, a wise policy, that is being reaffirmed constantly in the scientific laboratories of the world, as well as in the epidemiological studies showing the awesome difference in the incidence of disease between vegetarians and consumers of flesh foods. The Christian’s duty is to “eat that food which is most nourishing,” leaving each person to apply this principle by making choices on the basis of “known duty.” Sometimes emergency situations arise and one is forced to choose the good rather than the best, or even a lesser evil to avoid a greater evil. Although the principle remains, the policy or application may change with circumstances.
Courting in school. Some people misunderstand Ellen White’s counsel regarding dating or courting during the school years. They fail to note the age of the students involved. Part of the instruction was given especially for the Avondale campus where many of the students were still in high school: “We have labored hard to keep in check everything in the school like favoritism, attachment, and courting. We have told the students that we would not allow the first thread of this to be interwoven with their school work. On this point we are as firm as a rock.”
Some of her concern was directed to students at Battle Creek College, where also there was a mix of high-school and college students: “Students are not sent here to form attachments, to indulge in flirtation or courting, but to obtain an education. Should they be allowed to follow their own inclinations in this respect, the college would soon become demoralized. Several have used their precious school days in slyly flirting and courting, notwithstanding the vigilance of professors and teachers.”
Would Ellen White have given the same counsel regarding older, more mature students? Where would Christian young people find their life mates if not in the environment of a Christian campus committed to Adventist goals? On several occasions she set forth the principles that should guide young people and the school program in the area of Christian courtship. For example: “In all our dealings with students, age and character must be taken into account. We cannot treat the young and old just alike. There are circumstances under which men and women of sound experience and good standing may be granted some privileges not given to younger students. The age, the conditions, and the turn of mind must be taken into consideration. We must be wisely considerate in all our work. But we must not lessen our firmness and vigilance in dealing with students of all ages, nor our strictness in forbidding the unprofitable and unwise association of young and immature students.”
¤ Rule Four: We must use common sense and sanctified reason as we analyze [p. 401] the difference between principles and policies.
During Ellen White’s comments at the St. Helena school board meeting in 1904, she again emphasized a principle of hermeneutics that would help them and others when trying to apply principle to policy. She noted that church members were taking her words legalistically, unthinkingly: “Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.”
Her response: “God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”
Christianity is a reasonable religion. God implanted within men and women not only the ability to respond to His grace (and the ability not to respond) but also the capacity to reason from cause to effect. On many occasions Ellen White said, “God has given us powers to be used, to be developed and strengthened by education. We should reason and reflect, carefully marking the relation between cause and effect. When this is practiced . . . they may fully answer the purpose of God in their creation.”
She did not make reason the final arbiter of right and wrong. Reason, for her, is the capacity to understand the reasonableness of God’s counsel and the ability to reflect on the results of obeying or disobeying that counsel. She described this relationship between God’s will and human reasoning powers: “We are to be guided by true theology and common sense.” For her, sanctified reason and common sense are virtually synonymous.
Reason and extremes. Every subject, whether it be in theology, law, ethics, music, graphic art, or constitutional law, is beset with those who tend to go to extremes. We call those groups Pharisees or Sadducees, conservatives or liberals, literalists or symbolists, indifferent (cool) or fanatics (hot), etc. In philosophy and religion, we call the one group objectivists, the other, subjectivists.
Truth (as principle) is not some kind of balance between two errors. Truth transcends errors of both extremes by recognizing the truths that each extreme wants to guard. But truth does not incorporate the spirit or the errors that each extreme holds to. When people recognize the element of truth in their opposition, a remarkable event happens–peace prevails, conciliation happens, and real unity develops. Real unity is not the result of administrative appeal or a committee vote; unity rests on commonly accepted principles of interpretation.
At the same time, matters dealing with policy (not principle) require a different approach. For example, dealing with dress Ellen White wrote: “There is a medium position in these things. Oh, that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.” Speaking of diet, she counseled: “Take the middle path, avoiding all extremes.”
But avoiding extremes is more than an intellectual matter. Some people may understand intellectually the correct linkage between principle and policy, but emotionally they tend to extremes. Even when they promote correct policy, they may be either extremely hot or cold. Ellen White put her finger on their problem, even when their policy is correct: “We have found in our experience that if Satan cannot keep souls bound in the ice of indifference, he will try to push them into the fire of fanaticism.”
A respected Adventist theologian of an earlier generation recalls how he unintentionally exercised “the fire of fanaticism” in applying one of Ellen White’s health principles. While selling religious books in his youth, M. L. Andreasen lived on granola. He carried it with him, mixed it with water, and ate it twice daily.
Then someone read from one of Ellen White’s books that people “eat too much.” He looked around and found sufficient verification of that statement. So, [p. 402] to be faithful to new light, he cut his daily ration in half. Some time later he read the statement himself in Testimonies, volume 2, page 374: “You eat too much.” That caused him to think again. Should he cut his daily ration in half again?
Then it dawned on him. He was honest and wanted to do right but he now thanked God for “a little good sense.”
Because Ellen White said on several occasions that “two meals [daily] are better than three,” some families made it a rule for everyone, including those in the sanitariums. In reference to sanitariums she showed how to link principle with policy and circumstances: “If, after dispensing with the third meal in the sanitarium, you see by the results that this is keeping people away from the institution, your duty is plain. We must remember that while there are some who are better for eating only two meals, there are others who eat lightly at each meal, and who feel that they need something in the evening. . . . [Eliminating the third meal may] do more harm than good.”
In 1867 Mrs. White answered some prevalent questions regarding health reform. One of the questions was: “Is there not danger of brethren and sisters taking extreme views of the health reform?” She answered: “This may be expected in all stirring reforms. . . . It is God’s plan that persons who are suited to the work should prudently and earnestly set forth the health reform, then leave the people to settle the matter with God and their own souls. It is the duty of those every way qualified to teach it to make people believe and obey, and all others should be silent and be taught.”
In summary, this fourth principle of hermeneutics appeals to common sense in linking principle with policy. This requires both soundness in thought and emotional evenness. Ellen White well said: “There is a class of people who are always ready to go off on some tangent, who want to catch up something strange and wonderful and new; but God would have all move calmly, considerately, choosing our words in harmony with the solid truth for this time, which requires to be presented to the mind as free from that which is emotional as possible, while still bearing the intensity and solemnity that it is proper it should bear. We must guard against creating extremes, guard against encouraging those who would either be in the fire or in the water.”
¤ Rule Five: We must be certain that supposed quotations are indeed written by the author to whom they are attributed.
Every public figure has had the problem of facing people who were adamant about what they “know” the speaker or author had said. The “belief” may be as wild as one’s imagination, but still the speaker or author must try to defend himself against the error or distortion. Obviously, the contending person does not have the reference for what he is “quoting.” Most of the time he/she got his information from a third or fourth party. We often call these distorted memories and flat errors “apocryphal statements.”
This problem plagued Ellen White from the beginning of her early ministry, and even today. Included in statements that have been incorrectly attributed to her are topics such as: (1) Inhabitants of other planets are now gathering fruit for a Sabbath stopover of the redeemed on the way to heaven; (2) She saw an angel standing by Uriah Smith inspiring him as he wrote Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation; (3) The Holy Spirit is, or was, Melchizedek; (4) She designated certain mountain spots as safe hideouts in the time of trouble; (5) She named specific cities, etc., that would be destroyed by coming earthquakes, fires, floods, etc.; (6) Christ will return at midnight; (7) Eggs should never be eaten (forgetting the immediate context and many other statements regarding varying circumstances); (8) She would be a member of the 144,000; (9) Literal darkness will cover the earth as a signal that probation [p. 403] has closed; (10) Christ’s last mediatorial work before probation closes will be for children who have wandered away from the church; (11) We should live as though we had 1,000 years to live, and as we would if we were to die tomorrow; (12) Entire churches and conferences will apostatize, etc.
¤ Rule Six: Though not contradicting themselves, we must allow for the maturing experience of authors, even prophets, in that truth is unfolded to them only as fast as they are able to understand it.
This rule helps students who are concerned about certain portions of a prophet’s life or writings that fall into a category other than “time, place, and circumstances,” addressed in Rule Three above.
Ellen White clearly taught that God leads His people along as fast as they are able to receive further truth. The history of Israel is a splendid example of how He works with people where they are, not where they will be in the future. The prophets were also part of this divine plan to unfold truth as fast as people are ready for it. They themselves experienced the process. Paul not only knew more about the plan of salvation than did Joel or David, he experienced the “unfolding” in his own life.
Some call this process “progressive truth.” The term is helpful if it is describing a person’s progressive awareness of spiritual truths. But it misses the mark if it is used in the context of an evolutionary development that proceeds out of the evolving of human understanding through trial and error, through thesis and antithesis into synthesis. God’s method of teaching the human race involves both the recovery of lost truth and the unfolding of further truth, as fast as people are ready to receive it. Evolutionary progression is understood as humanity’s growth from ignorance to knowledge, without any absolutes that would put universal value on knowledge.
This process happens to individuals as well as to groups of people. Most people know how this process has been working in their own lives. If we have been growing in grace, what we knew about God’s will for us individually ten years ago was much less than what each of us knows today. No doubt all of us wish we could adjust what we said to others ten years ago, even though we thought it wise at the time!
But some may say, “A prophet should be different. What prophets said when they were twenty years old should not need ‘clarification’ or ‘expansion’ when they are fifty-five!” This view arises out of a verbal-inspiration framework. We must not forget that God speaks to men and women who “differ widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments.” This “wide” spread of individual differences includes the “wide” spread of a person’s grasp of truth between his/her youth and the mature years. Though the core of truth remains the same, one’s insights are enlarged. Maturing skills of insight and communicating skills may express the core message differently in later years. In 1906 Ellen White reflected on her learning experience: “For sixty years I have been in communication with heavenly messengers, and I have been constantly learning in reference to divine things, and in reference to the way in which God is constantly working to bring souls from the error of their ways to the light in God’s light.” Prophets are humble people who have seen, to some degree, the glory of the Lord. Humble prophets easily recognize indebtedness to God for their fresh perspective, “like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Prov. 4:18).
The growth principle pervades all creation. It explains Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the [p. 404] Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). This text lies behind the rule: “It is a law of the human mind that by beholding we become changed.” Thus, the more young Ellen Harmon studied her Bible and prayed for divine guidance as she faced life’s choices, she became “transformed,” and “changed”–she grew in knowledge of God’s character and His ways.
Consequently, letting the growth principle inform our study of Ellen White (or the Bible) we should expect deepening insights as she conveys God’s messages to others. We can see the growth of her ability to convey deeper insights, especially when we compare her earliest descriptions of the origin of the great controversy in heaven with that in Patriarchs and Prophets.
Thus, when readers sense a broader perspective in Patriarchs and Prophets (1890) than is found in Spiritual Gifts (1858), they are recognizing the hermeneutical rule that a prophet will grow, as anyone else, in spiritual perception. This increase in spiritual perception will help the prophet to state more clearly the message that God wants conveyed. This is the principle that best describes the experience of Jesus on earth. Luke described His growth and maturing ability to share spiritual things with others: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
¤ Rule Seven: In some instances, a person must understand the experience of an event, either directly or vicariously, before understanding the truth of the event.
This rule may sound contrary to sound reasoning. But such was the situation when the apostles faced the unbelieving world after Christ’s resurrection. Who would believe them unless the apostles had seen the empty tomb or had seen Jesus during the next forty days before His ascension? In a similar sense, early Adventists in the late 1840s and early 1850s “experienced” the growing connection between the supernatural visions of Ellen Harmon-White and the voice of authority for their growing community.
In late 1896 while in Australia, Mrs. White had to respond to John Bell who was promoting a divisive message regarding the time when the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 would be fulfilled. In essence, he was placing it in the future. She wrote insightfully, in terms of this seventh rule of interpretation: “The peculiar views he holds are a mixture of truth and error. If he had passed through the experience of God’s people as He has led them for the last forty years, he would be better prepared to make the correct application of Scripture. The great waymarks of truth, showing us our bearings in prophetic history, are to be carefully guarded, lest they be torn down, and replaced with theories that would bring confusion rather than genuine light.”
She ended her five-page response by noting this seventh rule: “Many theories were advanced, bearing a semblance of truth, but so mingled with Scriptures misinterpreted and misapplied that they led to dangerous errors. Very well do we know how every point of truth was established, and the seal set upon it by the Holy Spirit of God. . . . The leadings of the Lord were marked, and most wonderful were His revelations of what is truth. Point after point was established by the Lord God of heaven. That which was truth then, is truth today.”
Later Ellen White wrote out a more extended response on this “futurism” that was being taught in Australia. Again she emphasized the role of experience that should be respected by Adventists: “The Lord will not lead minds now to set aside the truth that the Holy Spirit has moved upon His servants in the past to proclaim. . . . The Lord does not lay upon those who have not had an experience in His work the burden of making a new exposition of those prophecies which He has, by His Holy Spirit, moved upon His chosen servants to explain.” [p. 405]
Living through the experience when truth is revealed becomes a rock-solid foundation not only for those who first experience it but also for those who later want to “re-experience” it in their own truth system. Truth, whenever found, “fits” previous truth as a tree limb “fits” its trunk. Truth is coherent.
¤ Rule Eight: Not everything in the Bible or in the writings of Ellen White can be understood at first glance, or even after years of study.
This thought may sound strange to the inquiring mind. But think of astronomers and neurosurgeons (or genetic-code researchers, microchip specialists, etc.) who spend their entire lives expanding their knowledge–but feeling increasingly awed at what opens before them.
True Christians practice the principle of suspended judgment when they and their colleagues reach the limit of understanding. Especially when they ponder the Biblical story (and Ellen White’s writings) on such subjects as the nature of God (not His character, of which much has been revealed), why sin developed, how Christ could become a human being, how regeneration works–they acknowledge that these “are mysteries too deep for the human mind.” They remember that we are not “to doubt His Word because we cannot understand all the mysteries of His providence.”
To force an interpretation because one feels everything must be understood is surely to lead to a misinterpretation. Or to dismiss or disregard any portion of the Bible or the writings of Ellen White simply because some passages are not easily understood also damages one’s understanding of truth.
 Selected Messages, book 1, p. 44.
 See T. Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1955), pp. 438-450. 
Note the kind of scientific thinking that prevailed before Copernicus changed the worldview of astronomers (and everyone else) with his paradigm shift, placing the sun instead of the earth at the center of the solar system. Consider the physicians who bled George Washington, America’s first president, to death because their medical paradigm did not understand the germ theory nor even the strong possibility that hydrotherapy treatments might have reversed his chest infection. One of the chief responsibilities of those searching for truth is to examine the lens through which the researcher searches for truth. The lens (the paradigm or worldview) by which we look at information determines how we evaluate so-called “facts.” Alfred North Whitehead said it well: “When you are criticizing [or, one may add, interpreting] the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible.”–Science and the Modern World
(New York: Mentor Editions, 1952), pp. 49, 50.
 See p. 373.
 Attitude determined how first-century Jews looked at Jesus as recorded in Matthew 16: If this young Galilean teacher did not fit their paradigm of what they thought the Messiah should be, they would look elsewhere–and they did. If one does not believe in miracles because of some kind of scientific paradigm, the Biblical story becomes folklore. If one does not believe that God speaks through men and women through visions, he/she then searches for reasons to explain away the vision phenomenon. And on it goes.
 Selected Messages, book 1, p. 42.
 Selected Messages, book 3, p. 52.
 “The light that I have received, I have written out, and much of it is now shining forth from the printed page. There is, throughout my printed works, a harmony with my present teaching.”–Review and Herald, June 14, 1906.
 Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 549-551 (1867). To understand this statement we must also employ “hermeneutic rule number two.”
 Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 180, 181 (1892).
 The Desire of Ages, pp. 785-787, 833, 834; Early Writings, pp. 184, 185, 208; The Great Controversy, pp. 18, 667; Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 304-308.
 Early Writings, p. 285; The Great Controversy, p. 637.
 Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 362, 400. Note some helpful statements in Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 135; vol. 9, p. 162; The Ministry of Healing, p. 320.
 “If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published works.”–Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 696. See George Knight, Reading Ellen White, pp. 121-123.
 Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 471.
 Selected Messages, book 3, p. 217. See p. 345.
 Ibid., book 1, p. 57.
 The Upward Look, p. 30.
 Letter 4, 1896, cited in Manuscript Releases (MR), vol. 17, pp. 185, 186 (1896).
 Letter 77, 1898, cited in Ibid., p. 216 (1898).
 Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 492.
 Ms 37, 1901, cited in Sermons and Talks, vol. 2, pp. 159, 160. See also George E. Rice, “The Church: Voice of God?” Ministry, Dec., 1987, pp. 4-6.
 Letter 54, 1901, cited in MR, vol. 19, pp. 146-148.
 Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 261.
 Review and Herald, Mar. 17, 1868.
 Prophets and Kings, p. 626.
 Selected Messages, book 3, p. 29.
 Evangelism, p. 256.
 In Ellen White’s first testimony to the church, she wrote: “Some have taken an injudicious course; when they have talked their faith to unbelievers, and the proof has been asked for, they have read a vision, instead of going to the Bible for proof. I saw that this course was inconsistent, and prejudiced unbelievers against the truth. The visions can have no weight with those who have never seen them and know nothing of their spirit. They should not be referred to in such cases.”–Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 119, 120. See also Ibid., vol. 5, p. 669.
 Review and Herald, Aug. 22 to Sept. 12, 1893. See p. 231.
 Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 32-62.
 “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. . . . Reports fly from one to another regarding what Sister White has said. Each time the report is repeated, it grows larger. If Sister White has anything to say, leave her to say it. No one is called upon to be a mouthpiece for Sister White. . . . Please let Sister White bear her own message.”–Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 44, 45. “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, cited in Arthur White, Ellen G. White: Messenger to the Remnant, p. 86.
 See p. 34.
 Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 470.
 In a private letter W. C. White reported to A. O. Tait on a union committee meeting to which his mother was invited. White noted how they hurried the discussion along in order to listen to Ellen White: “As you are well aware, Mother seldom answers such questions directly; but she endeavors to lay down principles and bring forward facts which have been presented to her that will aid us in giving intelligent study to the subject, and in arriving at a correct conclusion.”–Cited in Arthur White, The Ellen G. White Writings, pp. 165, 166.
 Education, pp. 216, 217.
 Testimonies, vol. 3, pp. 131-160; Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 15-46.
 Ibid., p. 137.
 A verbatim report of Ellen White’s participation in the school board discussion is found in Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 214-226.
 Reader’s Digest, Dec. 1951. See George Knight, Reading Ellen White, pp. 100-102.
 Testimonies to Ministers, p. 398.
 Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 51, 52.
 Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 378.
 Ibid., p. 18. See also Testimonies, vol. 3, pp. 134, 135.
 The Adventist Home, pp. 498, 499.
 See pp. 310, 311.
 Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 371, 372. “I present these matters before the people, dwelling upon general principles.”–Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 493 (1897). In 1904, at the age of 76, she said that she was healthier than “in my younger days,” attributing her improvement to the “principles of health reform.”–Ibid., p. 482. In 1908 she reacted to those who were stating that she had not been following the principles of health reform as she had “advocated them with my pen.” Forthrightly she wrote: “As far as my knowledge goes, I have not departed from those principles.”–Ibid., pp. 491, 492, 494. See Review and Herald, Mar. 17, 1868, for an editorial by James White where he addressed those who were more rigid than they should have been with health principles. One of the problems that called forth the editorial was the virtual verbal-inspiration paradigm that drove some readers to their super-critical positions.
 See pp. 322-324.
 Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 163; Selected Messages, book 1, p. 396.
 MR, vol. 8, p. 256.
 Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 432; see also Ibid., vol. 5, p. 109.
 Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 101. See Jerry Allen Moon, W. C. White and Ellen G. White, p. 359.
 Selected Messages, book 3, p. 217. See p. 395.
 Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 436.
 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 148.
 Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 425.
 See pp. 260, 261.
 Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 211. The ancient Greeks often spoke of moderation (”nothing in excess”) as the search for the “golden mean.”
 Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 644.
 Virginia Steinweg, Without Fear or Favor (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979), pp. 53, 54.
 Counsels on Diet and Foods, pp. 141, 173; Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 416, 417.
 Ibid., p. 283. “The practice of eating but two meals a day is generally found a benefit to health; yet under some circumstances persons may require a third meal. This should, however, if taken at all, be very light, and of food most easily digested.”–The Ministry of Healing, p. 321.
 Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867.
 Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 227, 228.
 For further study of these and other illustrations of the Ellen White “apocrypha,” see Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, vol. 3, pp. 3189-3192.
 For further study of the principle of accommodation, see pp. 34, 282, 304, 311, 422.
 “The fact needs to be emphasized, and often repeated, that the mysteries of the Bible are not such because God has sought to conceal truth, but because our own weakness or ignorance makes us incapable of comprehending or appropriating truth. The limitation is not in its purpose, but in our capacity.”–Signs of the Times, Apr. 25, 1906.
 “In all ages, through the medium of communion with heaven, God has worked out His purpose for His children, by unfolding gradually to their minds the doctrines of grace. . . . He who places himself where God can enlighten him, advances, as it were, from the partial obscurity of dawn to the full radiance of noonday.”–The Acts of the Apostles, p. 564.
 “God intends that to the earnest seeker the truths of His Word shall be ever unfolding.”–Signs of the Times, Apr. 25, 1906; “He [Christ] promised that the Holy Spirit should enlighten the disciples, that the word of God should be ever unfolding to them. They would be able to present its truths in new beauty.”–Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 127.
 The Great Controversy, p. vi.
 This Day With God, p. 76.
 “Whoever examines her written words–going from the childlike composition of her girlhood writings through the strenuous period of her young maturity to the gracious, eloquent, and deeply moving works of her later years–will perceive the steady progress in vision and expression, and may remember that she gained these abilities, under God’s hand, not by supinely waiting for the outpouring of the Spirit, but by moving under the impulse of that Spirit in the exercise of every power of her being.”–A. W. Spalding, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, vol. 1, p. 76.
 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 91.
 “Looking unto Jesus we obtain brighter and more distinct views of God, and by beholding we become changed. Goodness, love for our fellow men, becomes our natural instinct.”–Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 355.
 See Alden Thompson, “The Theology of Ellen White: The Great Controversy Story,” Adventist Review, Dec. 31, 1981.
 Ellen White spoke reverently about the development of Christ’s spiritual and mental endowments: “The powers of mind and body developed gradually, in keeping with the laws of childhood. . . . Since He gained knowledge as we may do, His intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures shows how diligently His early years were given to the study of God’s word. . . . Thus to Jesus the significance of the word and the works of God was unfolded, as He was trying to understand the reason of things. . . . From the first dawning of intelligence He was constantly growing in spiritual grace and knowledge of truth. . . . Communion with God through prayer develops the mental and moral faculties, and the spiritual powers strengthen as we cultivate thoughts upon spiritual things.”–The Desire of Ages, pp. 69-71.
 “Thus the process by which the mystical proclivities of a teenage girl were recognized as the revelations of an authoritative prophet was aided at every step by the underlying philosophical assumptions of the Adventist community. Unlike the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Ellen White did not proclaim her revelation and gather a following; rather, she had a particular kind of religious experience that came to be accepted as authoritative within an existing group. The prophetic ministry of Ellen White was an aspect of Adventist social experience, not just the psychological experience of a single individual.”–Bull and Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary, p. 25.
 Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 101-104.
 Ibid., pp. 110, 112; see Ibid., book 1, p. 161.
 See George Reid, “Is the Bible Our Final Authority?” Ministry, Nov. 1991.
 Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 699. “The Bible is but dimly understood. A lifelong, prayerful study of its sacred revealings will leave much unexplained.”–Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 82; “Both in divine revelation and in nature, God has given to men mysteries to command their faith. This must be so. We may be ever searching, ever inquiring, ever learning, and yet there is an infinity beyond.”–Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 261; “We can understand as much of His purposes as it is for our good to know; and beyond this we must still trust the might of the Omnipotent, the love and wisdom of the Father and Sovereign of all.”–Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 699.