A recent example—and the most prominent one—is the case of Ellen G. White who, as is believed by Seventh-day Adventists, received the gift of prophecy. Her writings explain how she believed that the Holy Spirit worked in the revelation-inspiration process both in her own experience and in the experience of biblical writers. Other researchers have attempted to derive her own concept of inspiration from her writings by synthesizing her statements made over several decades, but no attempts have been made to examine the development of her views of inspiration over time. To see a development of her concept of inspiration or her presentation of the subject it is necessary to consider linguistic changes over time.
Miscellaneous Remarks on Divine Inspiration (1850-1880)
The statements Ellen White made on inspiration in these three decades were exclusively incidental remarks in the context of other subjects such as dress reform, the erroneous doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and discouragement resulting from her literary deficiencies. Apparently, at this point, she was not really interested in a tangible definition of the nature and process of inspiration.
In 1858, she made a few general remarks about the original biblical autographs and the transcriptions of these in subsequent centuries. She suggested that when “his word,” referring to God’s word, was written out by the prophets to form the Bible it was a “copy of God’s revealed will to man.”1 His purpose in revealing “his designs to man”2 was to provide them with a clear understanding of His will so that no one would have to fall prey to Satan’s deceptions. Though God was the originator and “author” of Scripture, He also “carefully preserved”3 and “especially guarded”4 it beyond its initial production process.
Yet this statement about God’s preservation of the Bible is followed by seemingly contradictory remarks. She suggested, for example, that early on, when there existed only few copies of the biblical text, some “learned men”5 changed some words aiming at making some biblical statements plainer, yet they were guided by their own “established views”6 and by “tradition,”7 which led in turn to a mystification of that which had been plain before. Ellen White seems to indicate, however, that God preserved the perfect harmony, simplicity, and clarity of Scripture as a whole, with one part explaining another, and with the text in its entirety showing the way of life and the way to life.
Accordingly, in protecting the biblical text, God was more concerned with the revealed message than with the exact words per se. Although His protective influence on the transcribers should not be equated with the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the inspiration process, Ellen White’s explanations may nevertheless indicate that, for her, inspiration was not so much about specific words but about the message.8
In 1867, she stated that divine revelations could not be produced by any human means but were given at the will of the Holy Spirit. When she was writing down the scenes presented to her in visions or dreams, she would revive them in her mind as plainly as at the time of the vision.9 She also indicated, however, that after receiving a vision, she “was left to describe” the scenes and messages of a vision in her own language as best as she could, the only exception being the words spoken by angels, which she would “always enclose in marks of quotation.”10
Composing sentences with correct grammar and usage was not, however, a skill that came to her naturally. At times, her grammatical deficiencies discouraged her so much that she seriously considered ceasing to write until she was able to improve her literary proficiency. Such considerations illustrate her keen awareness of her need of literary assistants to prepare her manuscripts for publication. Interestingly, she argued that God was more concerned about getting the revealed message out to the people than delaying the publication to ensure correct usage and accurate grammar.11
During these years, Ellen White expressed deep trust in the reliability and faithfulness of Scripture, although, in her view, minor—and possibly even more extensive—changes of wording did not take away from the ability of the Word to reveal God’s will and His way of salvation. She stressed the divine protection of the Bible but conceded that this protective guidance was concerned with the harmonious revelation of God’s will rather than the preservation of the original text of the autographs. The fact that she realized her own need of literary and grammatical assistance illustrates her experience and understanding that inspiration was first of all concerned with the message, the thoughts, and the ideas—and only secondarily with specific words. Though, in her experience, the Holy Spirit allowed her to choose language to best describe what she had been shown, she left no doubt that it was the Spirit who originated these ideas and thoughts.
No Judgment Between Inspired Writings (1880-1895)
In the following 15 years, Ellen White made numerous statements about the incarnational relationship between the divine and the human in the revelation-inspiration process. Most of these were accessible to church members in church publications. Though the early and the latter years in this period were characterized by responses to heterodox ideas, the mid-1880s witnessed a few almost systematic statements on inspiration that have received more attention in recent scholarship.
In 1882, she responded to the accusation that her testimonies to specific individuals were simply based on information she had received from other people and thus constituted “merely the opinion of Sister White.”12 She objected that she had been “prompted by the Spirit of God”13 to write down “things that had been shown me,”14 “which the Lord has presented to me,”15 and “what God has opened before me in vision.”16
Extending the divine influence to other writings, she argued that even her articles in the denominational papers were not merely expressions of her own ideas but the result of what God had revealed to her. She classified the resistance and questioning of her testimonies, in fact, as an insult to the Holy Spirit and a rebellion against God.17 In the context of this discussion she referred to an interesting biblical example to illustrate that a prophet having some previous familiarity with the circumstances does not necessarily discount the involvement of divine inspiration. Thus she stated that the Apostle Paul sometimes received information about specific circumstances from concerned church members, but it was previous revelations from God that allowed him “to judge the true character of these developments.” In the end, his letters of reproof were not merely his human opinion, but they were “written just as much under the inspiration of the Spirit of God as were any of his epistles.”18
The fact that Ellen White’s testimonies came from God did not mean, however, that the language of her writings could never be corrected and revised. This may be seen when, in 1883, the General Conference passed a resolution to correct the “grammatical” imperfections in the 30 numbers of the Testimonies for the Church, assigning the task to a group of five people (W. C. White, Uriah Smith, J. H. Waggoner, S. N. Haskell, and G. I. Butler). The resolution affirmed that Seventh-day Adventists believe in the inspiration of the “thoughts” rather than, “except in rare cases,” the “very words in which the ideas should be expressed,” and it was reasoned that these imperfections could, and should, be removed “without in any measure changing the thought.”19
Some of the members of the group of five were somewhat hesitant to change words in the text of the inspired messages, but Ellen White herself fully approved of the procedure. Recalling her lack of literary skills and the resulting need for literary assistants, she suggested that God had once convinced her to present the revealed light “in the best manner possible” while removing remaining defects later.20 Ellen White’s employment of literary assistants and the correction/revision processes show that, in her view, changing the grammar and wording of an inspired text without changing the thought, idea, or sense of the respective statement was permissible, since inspiration did not reside in the exact words but rather in the thoughts and ideas.
During her time in Europe (1885-1887), Ellen White read and paraphrased a passage from Calvin E. Stowe’s Origin and History of the Bible regarding objections to the Bible. Following Stowe’s thought closely, she stated that the human writers of the Bible differed in education, perception, logic, vocabulary, and rhetoric. The Holy Spirit did not give them the exact words or expressions to write but inspired and moved the writers to express specific ideas in their own human language. Thus they were “God’s penmen, not His pen.”21 The words each writer chose thus “receive[d] the impress” of his own mind. Since one word can have different meanings, and one idea can be expressed through various words, human language is only an imperfect tool whose lack of precision may lead to misunderstandings. She suggested, however, that the “Bible was given for practical purposes”22 and that everyone who comes with an honest, open, and searching heart will find the Bible plain and simple.23
In the introduction to her classic The Great Controversy (1888), she emphasized that God was the author of the Bible even though most of it “was written by human hands” and not by God’s own hand as the Decalogue was.24 The Holy Spirit had “shed light into the minds and hearts” of the prophets and had revealed to them truth through “dreams and visions, symbols and figures.”25 Then the Spirit “guided the mind in the selection” of what to speak or write, and to present what was “most forcibly impressed upon his own mind.”26 The biblical writers presented “the thought [that the Holy Spirit impressed on their minds] in human language.”27
Influenced by their respective education, occupation, rank, situation, experience, perceptive faculties, and even their “mental and spiritual endowments,”28 the biblical writers focused on and emphasized different aspects and details. Thus the same point of truth may be presented in very different ways, yet taken together, all the different presentations form a perfect unity. The final result, the Bible, constitutes a “union of the divine and the human.”29 It contains the “authoritative, infallible revelation of His will” and the “knowledge necessary for salvation” although both are conveyed through the imperfect means of human language. It is to be the “standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience.”30
In the same year, Ellen White frequently opposed the assertion that both the Bible and her testimonies could be divided into some parts that were inspired and some that were not, some parts that represented messages of divine origin and other parts that represented only the personal opinion of the writer, some parts that contained intelligence disclosed by a vision and some parts that contained information acquired solely through human informants.31 In her view, such delicate distinctions were “utterly false.”32 In regard to the information acquired through human informants, she quoted from her previous remarks on Paul, suggesting that this circumstance did not controvert the Holy Spirit’s guidance and authority in giving the counsel.
Though in previous years she had repeatedly referred to the biblical unity of human language and divine thoughts, now she made mention of the totality of Scripture, the “inspiration of the Scriptures,” the Bible as “the Inspired Word” and as “the Word of God,” thus emphasizing the reliability and divine origin of Scripture.33 At the same time, she admitted that it was “probable” that mistakes had crept into the biblical text in the postapostolic period. Thus she suggested, as she had previously in volume one of Spiritual Gifts in 1858, that inspiration was working on the biblical writers in conveying the revealed message but did not extend to the process of copying and transcribing in subsequent centuries. Yet she left no doubt that the teachings of the Bible were a plain guidebook to heaven.
As demonstrated above, in the period from 1880 to 1895, Ellen White frequently responded to views of inspiration that tried either to introduce a hierarchy of textual accuracy and authority within the corpus of inspired writings or to distinguish between inspired and uninspired writings, resulting in people distrusting and questioning the authority and relevance of both the biblical text and her writings. She argued that the prophets had to express the revealed thoughts and ideas with their own words, a circumstance that reflected their education, occupation, rank, situation, experience, perceptive faculties, as well as mental and spiritual endowments. As already mentioned in the first period, she herself often felt disadvantaged because of her literary and grammatical deficiencies. She repeatedly emphasized, however, the need to resist the temptation of trying to distinguish between divine and human aspects in the written text and instead stressed the importance of coming to the Bible with an honest, open, and searching heart focusing on its practical teachings for our personal lives.
Dealing With Diverse Misconceptions (1895-1915)
In the last 20 years of her ministry and life, Ellen White made numerous miscellaneous statements about inspiration, most of them in private letters to individuals. A few statements were published, such as her letter to David Paulson, because her answers to the misconceptions some of these individuals struggled with were also of interest to the church at large.
In the mid-1890s, she explained that God’s infallibility, invariableness, and unchangeableness does not make the prophet infallible. God’s word is true but she as the channel of his messages of reproof never claimed infallibility.34
In 1900, she repeated some of the ideas that she had outlined 12 years earlier about the existence of the biblical writers’ different individualities, styles, and experiences in the various books of the Bible. She stated: “The Creator of all ideas may impress different minds with the same thought, but each may express it in a different way, yet without contradiction. . . . It is seldom that two persons will view and express truth in the very same way. Each dwells on particular points which his constitution and education have fitted him to appreciate. The sunlight falling upon the different objects gives those objects a different hue.”35
Though the biblical writers expressed what had been revealed to them “according to the development of their minds by the Holy Spirit,” the latter did not cramp or force their mind “into a certain mold” because “diversity broadens and deepens the knowledge that is brought out to meet the necessities of varied minds.”36 Shortly afterward, she reiterated further aspects of the statements she made in 1888. She stated that although the biblical “penmen selected the most expressive language through which to convey the truths of higher education,” they were but imperfect human attempts to describe divine realities. In His communication with human beings God has to condescend because “infinite [divine] ideas cannot be perfectly embodied in finite [human] vehicles of thought.” He communicates with “human beings in imperfect speech, in order that the degenerate senses, the dull, earthly perception, of earthly beings may comprehend His words.”37
In early December 1902, Ellen White suggested that she did not consider herself the “originator” of such books as The Great Controversy, Patriarchs and Prophets, The Desire of Ages, and Christ’s Object Lessons because it was God who had given her the “instruction” contained in these books during her life. Thus, even though these books had the same source as the biblical writings, she viewed her writings as having a slightly different purpose from these, namely as a “lesser light” pointing and leading people to the “greater light,” the Bible.38
In several private letters she stated that her books “contain clear, straight, unalterable truth” and instruction that is “not of human production.” That is why they should “certainly be appreciated.”39 In fact, she outright denied her own ability to have produced these books. The works were possible only because, as she said, “the Lord has given me the help of His Holy Spirit.”40 In a letter Ellen White had written to her son James Edson shortly before, she explained that as she tried to catch “the very words and expressions” she had heard in a dream, her pen would hesitate a moment until “the appropriate words” came to her mind.41 Three years later, she wrote to him and his wife that the “Spirit of God” worked upon her mind and gave her “appropriate words with which to express the truth.”42 In the same vein, she told his brother W. C. White: “When writing these precious books, if I hesitated, the very word I wanted to express the idea was given me.”43
In 1906, Ellen White received communication from David Paulson, who sought clarification on some questions relating to her inspiration. Initially he had been taught to believe that the Testimonies for the Church had “absolutely no human side” and that “every word” she spoke and wrote, irrespective of “circumstance, place, or manner,” was “as verbally inspired as the ten commandments or the sermon on the mount.”44 She responded that from studying her writings he should have known that she never “made any such claims” nor did anyone of the early Adventist pioneers make “such claims.” Then she referred him to several of her previous publications such as the introduction to The Great Controversy and some passages in volume five of Testimonies for the Church.
Though Paulson no longer held that strict view of inspiration, he still believed in God as the source of her writings. Yet he also arrived at the conclusion that she was not “infallible or inspired in every thought, word, and action.” He understood that some of the things Ellen White had written were “not directly inspired” but he felt it would be presumptuous for him “to draw the line and to say: ‘This is human, while this is divine.’”45 She agreed that God was the source and the originator of the ideas presented in her articles and books, but she could not agree with all of Paulson’s views.
Thus it seems that it was in response to Paulson’s views on distinguishing between the human and the divine that she stated: “To some of the questions you asked, I am not to answer, Yes or No. I must not make statements that can be misconstrued.”46 In her view, saying Yes or No to the question of whether all of her writings were directly inspired could encourage people to either disregard messages of divine truth or lead into extreme views.
Interestingly, however, three years later, she herself drew a line of distinction regarding her writings, a distinction that did not define the nature, process, or extent of inspiration, but that revealed two different spheres in the life of a prophet. Thus she stated: “In my words, when speaking upon these common subjects, there is nothing to lead minds to believe that I receive my knowledge in a vision from the Lord, . . . [However, w]hen the Holy Spirit reveals anything regarding the institutions connected with the Lord’s work, or concerning the work of God upon human hearts and minds, as He has revealed these things through me in the past, the message given is to be regarded as light given of God for those who need it. But for one to mix the sacred with the common is a great mistake. In a tendency to do this we may see the working of the enemy to destroy souls.”47
She suggested that information on “common” matters may be incorrect since she was a fallible and imperfect human being like everyone else, whereas information on “sacred” matters had to be “regarded as light given of God.” While this difference could technically be described in terms of human (common) vs. divine (sacred), such a distinction would obviously be prone to misunderstandings because sacred matters are, in fact, made known through a revelation-inspiration process that is both a divine and a human process. Thus, she probably preferred to define the difference between uninspired and inspired material as one of the common and the sacred.
To clarify what she meant by “common” she continued: “But there are times when common things must be stated, common thoughts must occupy the mind, common letters must be written and information given that has passed from one to another of the workers. Such words, such information, are not given under the special inspiration of the Spirit of God. Questions are asked at times that are not upon religious subjects at all, and these questions must be answered. We converse about houses and lands, trades to be made, and locations for our institutions, their advantages and disadvantages.”48
Another interesting statement about her experience of the inspiration process is concerned with her experience while writing The Great Controversy. She stated that the scenes about which she was writing were frequently presented to her in “visions of the night, so that they were fresh and vivid” in her mind.49 It could be argued that the Holy Spirit controlled the writing process or, in other words, guided her through it in this manner.
A last example has to do with the revision of The Great Controversy in 1911. When she learned that the printing plates from the original editions were worn out and the book had to be reset, she was determined to have the book “closely examined, to see if the truths it contained were stated in the very best manner, to convince those not of our faith that the Lord had guided and sustained me in the writing of its pages.”50 The examination was conducted by the “most experienced workers,” though final approval of all revisions lay with her. Her son, W. C. White, described the different editorial tasks as follows: omitting biographical notes; changing archaic or unnecessarily offensive expressions; adapting spelling, punctuation, and capitalization; introducing historical references; replacing quotations with “new quotations from historians, preachers, and present-day writers” because these were “more forceful” or their original sources could not be retrieved anymore.51
Although the correction of grammar and usage is easily comprehensible considering that inspiration did not so much concern the very words rather than the thoughts and ideas, the replacement of a quotation by a different quotation may prompt more serious questions. Her son answered these by saying: “It is generally admitted that in Sister White’s discourses, spoken to the people, she uses great freedom and wisdom in the selection of proofs and illustrations, to make plain and forcible her presentation of the truths revealed to her in vision. Also, that she selects such facts and arguments as are adapted to the audience to whom she is speaking. . . . And she has always felt and taught that it was her duty to use the same wisdom in the selection of matter for her books, than she does in the selection of matter from her discourses.”52
Thus he suggested that his mother used historical works to illustrate certain developments or specific ideas shown to her in visions and dreams. Therefore it would be possible to use other quotations to illustrate the same point in cases where the original source for that quotation could no longer be found. Ellen White approved these clarifying statements of her son: “What he has written regarding my wishes, and decisions, and instruction relative to this work is a true and correct statement.”53
In this last period of her life, Ellen White attempted to explain the relationship between the human and the divine in the revelation-inspiration process. While she could not agree with a division of her writings into human and divine parts, she did acknowledge a difference between sacred and common communications, thus maintaining the connection between the divine and the human in the inspired, sacred writings. She also explained how, during the writing process, the Holy Spirit frequently revived her memory by showing her specific scenes multiple times in visions and dreams during the night. When she at times struggled to find an appropriate word to describe something she had been shown, the Spirit suggested a word which she would choose because it seemed to fit perfectly. Quotations from historical works were usually chosen by her to illustrate scenes and developments she had seen in vision, yet, in the revision process, they could be replaced by more forceful or better-documented quotations.
Though Ellen White’s description of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and supremacy in the revelation-inspiration process did not undergo any dramatic changes across the years, a growth is discernible from rather general statements to more specific ones. The majority of the statements made in the earlier years (1850s-1890s) were published and thus became available to the Adventist public; whereas, in the later years (1890s-1910s) her statements about inspiration remained mostly unpublished and were addressed to only a few individuals.
It is noteworthy that many of her statements were responses to criticisms of her prophetic role or to views about inspiration that weakened the authority and significance of inspired writings. Very few statements, such as the introduction to her classic The Great Controversy, seem to serve the purpose of providing readers with a semi-systematic explanation of how inspiration works. It is striking that the way she described the generation of Scripture paralleled her own experience with the inspiration process.
Her concept of the revelation-inspiration process may be summarized as follows: Revelation can be produced only by God, not by human beings. Revelation occurs through flashlight picture scenes, the communication of thoughts, ideas, and in a few cases specific words and statements. When she wrote down what had been revealed to her, she was usually left on her own to express the ideas with her own words. In that process she employed human assistants to present the message in the best and most favorable manner. Frequently, however, the Holy Spirit provided guidance to her by suggesting appropriate words and by repeatedly reviving previously revealed scenes. Though she remained open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, it was still her responsibility to accept these suggestions. It is therefore apparent that the Holy Spirit operated in diverse ways to assist her in faithfully transmitting the thoughts and scenes revealed to her.
Ellen White also opposed a division of inspired writings into inspired and uninspired matter. She similarly disagreed with individuals who tried to differentiate between human and divine aspects in her writing. However, she did allow a distinction between the sacred and the common, acknowledging that inspired individuals could write sacred materials (those that were the product of a divine-human process) but could also write “common” materials (which represented merely human ideas and considerations).
Thus, her concept of the dynamic influence of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration process does not conflict with the notion of the prophet’s freedom of choice. Rather, the concept of the prophet’s freedom is in full harmony with her suggestion that the Spirit does not employ a government of force that totally overrules the will of the person.54 It is our task to cooperate with Him.
Similarly, she pointed out in regard to the Christian life that believers have to realize the need to keep their “heart under the control of the Holy Spirit,” emphasizing the choice of each person to voluntarily submit his or her considerations to the divine agency and yield the will to the Spirit.55 She talks of the “desire to be under the Holy Spirit’s influence” and the necessity to search “earnestly for the impartation of the Holy Spirit,” statements that are again indicative of the freedom of human choice in relation to the Holy Spirit’s work.56 In the inspiration process, the Holy Spirit somehow ensures the faithful transmission of the divine will, plan, and message without overruling the prophet’s will. Thus He reveals Himself as the God of truth. Whether working in the experience of a prophet or in the life of a Christian believer, the same divine principle becomes visible: God grants each person freedom of choice, something one would expect from a God who is love.
Denis Kaiser is a Ph.D. student at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.