The Purpose of Health Reform and Its Theological Foundations
Ellen White provided a clear statement of purpose that she envisioned for health reform. The statement also included elements of a plan for action in the implementation of the program. Notice the use of the verbs teach and show in this statement to explore its implications and theological assumptions. Here is her statement of purpose:
“In teaching health principles, keep before the mind the great object of reform―that its purpose is to secure the highest development of body and mind and soul. Show that the laws of nature, being the laws of God, are designed for our good; that obedience to them promotes happiness in this life, and aids in the preparation for the life to come.”1
The simplicity of the statement is deceiving. It highlights the significance of the subject and provides the underlying assumptions upon which the program itself is built. Note the first part of the second sentence: “the laws of nature, being the laws of God, are designed for our good.”
Health reform is theocentric. For Ellen Whitem health reform was not a secular or humanistic program but a fundamentally spiritual one that integrates religious convictions and the scientific study of the laws of nature. White used the phrase “law of nature” in a religious-scientific way, meaning by it the laws that regulate the operations of the natural world under the guidance of God. She also referred to the laws of nature as “the unchangeable principles of nature.”2 According to her these laws are an expression of God’s will for His creation, including humans. For her, God constitutes the center around which the program is developed, thus transforming it into a well-integrated health system and philosophy of health. Without a center we would not have a system of health but pieces of information about health. She offered at least two main arguments to support a theocentric understanding of the health-reform program.
A. God is the Creator of the laws of nature. The theocentric nature of health reform is first manifested in the fact that God is the creator of the laws of nature: “In infinite wisdom, the world which God had newly formed was placed under fixed laws. Laws were ordained, not only for the government of living beings, but for the operations of nature.”3 The fact that God created these laws as an expression of His will imbues them with a moral content—they are to be obeyed. Since they are an expression of love, they aim at the well-being of humanity. They were designed “for our good.”
In the context of her discussions on health reform, she specifically used the expression “laws of nature” to refer to the laws that God implanted in our being in order for it to function properly. She encourages us “to study that marvelous organism, the human system, and the laws by which it is governed.”4 These laws are “the manifestation of God’s love and wisdom in the works of nature.”5 Her understanding of natural law as established by God and aiming at our well-being lay close to the center of the health-reform program she promoted and removed it from any secular approach to the study of health.
B. Only God/Christ can heal. We find in her writings a second argument supporting the theocentric nature of health reform. This argument rejects any understanding of nature along the lines of deism and pantheism. She wrote, “Through the agencies of nature, God is working, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, to keep us alive, to build up and restore us. When any part of the body sustains injury, a healing process is at once begun; nature’s agencies are set at work to restore soundness. But the power working through these agencies is the power of God. All life-giving power is from Him. When one recovers from disease, it is God who restores him.”6
Second, for Ellen White the power to heal observable in the operations of nature was not inherent in nature itself. The system is there but it lacks the power needed to heal. Healing power exclusively resides in God, who makes it available to us through the agencies of nature. In other words, nature lacks life-giving power because it is part of creation itself and, more specifically, because it has also been damaged by sin and is consequently sick (Rom. 8:19–23). To the superficial observer it would appear that it is the forces of nature that bring healing, but, according to Ellen White, what we witness in the operations of nature is the power of God preserving and restoring human life on the planet. This is an unapologetic rejection of a secular, or mechanical, understanding of the operations of nature.
The theocentric nature of the health reform promoted by Ellen White is at the same time Christ-centered: “There is in nature the continual working of the Father and the Son. Christ says, ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,’ John 5:17.”7 He came to give us “health and peace and perfection of character.”8 She added, “From Him flowed a stream of healing power, and in body and mind and soul men were made whole.”9 The healing power of God that is active through nature’s agencies is indeed the power of Christ manifested on the Cross. Physicians try to work with nature to bring healing, but the truth is, White says, that Christ is the one who imparts health and life.
For her, ultimate reality and knowledge of truth are found in God—a personal God. It is through His self-revelation that we come to understand Him, creation, and ourselves. Any approach to nature and healing based on rationalism and/or humanism is considered to be too narrow and ultimately ineffective in bringing true healing. Only the One who created nature and who, in the context of sin, sent His Son to redeem us is capable of preserving and restoring life to the human race. True healing is always a manifestation of the power of God.
Health reform and biblical anthropology. To return to Ellen White’s statement of purpose for the health-reform program, the second theological element present is biblical anthropology. Her understanding of health reform was incontestably grounded on the biblical understanding of human nature. This deals with the object of healing—the human being. Who is this creature in need of healing?
It is impossible to develop a theology of healing or a system of healing without first understanding the nature of the person who needs healing. In the statement of purpose, this is made quite clear: “Its purpose is to secure the highest development of body and mind and soul.”10 It is assumed that humans, as created by God, are in need of development in an integrated way because they are an indivisible unity of life in bodily form (body, mind, and soul).
A. Humans as embodied potentiality. In biblical anthropology, humans were created with a potential to be developed. In a sense they came from the hands of the Creator as “unfinished” beings. Without this quality, they would have been frozen pieces of art to be admired by other creatures but lacking freedom. Perhaps it could be said that humans were beings heading to a fuller expression of their beings. At Creation, they possessed all the characteristics that defined them as human beings, and as such they were perfect. But the potentiality that also defined them constituted them into free beings that in the exercise of their freedom were becoming, in union with God, what they would want or like to become. This capacity for further development belongs to the very essence of human nature and should not be identified as a post-fallen condition. White wrote that God “would have been glorified in the work of His hands had man retained his first perfection, and had all his varied capabilities of mind and soul and body been developed so as to reach the highest possible degree of excellence.”11
Why do humans need to develop the potential they have? Ellen G. White provides a direct answer: “Our first duty toward God and our fellow beings is that of self-development. Every faculty with which the Creator has endowed us should be cultivated to the highest degree of perfection, that we may be able to do the greatest amount of good of which we are capable. Hence that time is spent to good account which is used in the establishment and preservation of physical and mental health.”13
This raises the issue of personal development to the level of a moral responsibility. Self-development is not narcissistic, neither is it an attempt to merge with the powers of nature in a pantheistic mystical rapture. This is to be done for the benefit of others. We owe it to God and to others to develop our potential as much as possible to increase the amount of good in the world. When humans look around, they tend to see the evil that is there, but Ellen White challenged us to look for and increase the good in the world.
The value of self-development is not grounded on ethical egoism, whereby the person seeks to increase personal benefits, but it is grounded on ethical universalism according to which everyone should seek the increase of good in the world for the benefit of others. Ethical decisions related to self-development are to be made in answer to the question, Would this increase the amount of good in the world? According to White, personal development enables us to increase the amount of good in a world of sickness and suffering in accordance to our personal capacities.
B. Humans as embodied life: wholistic anthropoloty. The goal of health reform, according to Ellen White, is “to secure the highest development of body and mind and soul.”16 Humans are defined by her as an indivisible unity of body, mind, and soul. According to the Scriptures, humans were created by God as a fragment of indivisible life in bodily form. Humans do not have body, mind, and soul, but they are body, mind, and soul. This biblical view provides an unshakable foundation for what Ellen White had to say about the importance of the health reform she was endorsing and promoting. Since these different dimensions of the human being are deeply interconnected in the one person, whatever damages one of them would also damage, at least to some extent, the unity of the person.
“Since the mind and the soul find expression through the body, both mental and spiritual vigor are in great degree dependent upon physical strength and activity; whatever promotes physical health, promotes the development of a strong mind and a well-balanced character. Without health, no one can as distinctly understand or as completely fulfill his obligations to himself, to his fellow beings, or to his Creator. Therefore, the health should be as faithfully guarded as the character.”17
This connection is so intimate that “There is an intimate relation between the mind and the body; they react upon each other. In order, then, to reach a high standard of moral and intellectual attainment, and to secure a strong, well-balanced character, the laws that control our physical being must be heeded; both the mental and the physical powers must be developed. Such a training will produce men of strength and solidity of character, of keen perception and sound judgment,—men who will be an honor to God and a blessing to the world.”18
Ellen White referred to the human body as a “living machinery” in which “every function is wonderfully and wisely made” and which, among the works of God in the natural world, is “the most wonderful.”19 It is a “marvelous organism.”20 It is the dwelling place of God and is to “be presented to Him a living sacrifice, fitted to render Him acceptable service.”21 In order to keep it in good health, it is important to study human physiology and to practice the laws of nature that govern it: “The Lord desires us to obey the laws of health and life. He holds each one responsible to care properly for his body, that it may be kept in health.”22
The deterioration of the reasoning powers of the mind as a result of bad eating habits and the indulgence of evil passions has done serious damage to the human race. Ellen White specifically stated: “The bad eating of many generations, the gluttonous and self-indulgent habits of the people, are filling our poorhouses, our prisons, and our insane asylums. Intemperance, in drinking tea and coffee, wine, beer, rum, and brandy, and the use of tobacco, opium, and other narcotics, has resulted in great mental and physical degeneracy, and this degeneracy is constantly increasing.”25
Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the human race is facing a pan-epidemic of mental illnesses. The violence that prevails around the world in the name of religion, political ideologies, financial concerns, or rage testifies to the fact that the human mind, as created by God, has been seriously damaged. “Mind” is at risk on the planet. Health reform is one of God’s instruments for the restoration and preservation of the human mind in a world of physical and moral depravity and degeneration. Ellen White clearly states, “Abstinence from the things that God has prohibited is the only way to prevent ruin of body and mind.”27
First, instructing the public on proper health care will destroy prejudices against the message, making people more willing to accept it. The reliability of the health message will tend to predispose people to accept the biblical reliability of the message itself. She pointed out that “when properly conducted, the health work is an entering wedge, making a way for other truths to reach the heart.”28
Second, and perhaps more important, the minds of many are so damaged that it is impossible for them to understand or perceive the beauty of the message. White stated that God “designs that the subject shall be agitated and the public mind deeply stirred to investigate it; for it is impossible for men and women, while under the power of sinful, health-destroying, brain-enervating habits, to appreciate sacred truth.”29 She went so far as to say that improper diet could lead to animalism and “A development of animalism lessens spirituality, rendering the mind incapable of understanding truth.”30
What these individuals need is not instruction about biblical teachings but instruction on the principles of health reform that will bring healing to their minds and will make them more sensitive to the work of the Spirit and the message of salvation. Thus will the inner life—the soul—be renewed and character developed into the similitude of our Lord.
Health Reform and the Value of Human Life. To return to the statement of purpose quoted at the beginning: “In teaching health principles, keep before the mind the great object of reform―that its purpose is to secure the highest development of body and mind and soul. Show that the laws of nature, being the laws of God, are designed for our good; that obedience to them promotes happiness in this life, and aids in the preparation for the life to come.”31
“When Christ saw the multitudes that gathered about Him, ‘He was moved with compassion . . .’ Christ saw the sickness, the sorrow, the want and degradation of the multitudes that thronged His steps. To Him were presented the needs and woes of humanity throughout the world. Among the high and the low, the most honored and the most degraded, He beheld souls who were longing for the very blessing He had come to bring; souls who needed only a knowledge of His grace, to become subjects of His kingdom.”36
This depressing vision of human suffering was one of the reasons for His interest in healing the sick. Humans have ruined their health through intemperate habits, and many of them tend to “feel that they are without hope either for this life or for the life to come.” “Some even speak of these erring ones as hopeless; but God looks upon them with pitying tenderness.”37 God “calls upon His people to be His helping hand in relieving their wants.”38
Health reform is not the final cure for the problem of sickness and suffering, but it contributes to alleviating and preventing suffering; thus helping the human family to enjoy a little more of the divine and precious gift of life. The holy ambition of Christians should be “to make the world better for their having lived in it. This is the work to which they are called.”39 We should teach “that health is to be secured through obedience to the laws that God has established for the good of all mankind.”40
The enjoyment of life is inseparable from the religious dimension of the human being. The experience of the divine in the human mind, soul, and body brings with it healing power. Our spiritual connection to God is not detrimental to our health but fundamental for it. “The influence of the Spirit of God is the very best medicine for disease. Heaven is all health; and the more deeply heavenly influences are realized, the more sure will be the recovery of the believing invalid. The true principles of Christianity open before all a source of inestimable happiness.”41 God wants us to be happy and to enjoy life to its fullest. The following statement establishes a direct connection between the love of God and its healing power in the totality of the human being:
“The love which Christ diffuses through the whole being is a vitalizing power. Every vital part—the brain, the heart, the nerves—it touches with healing. By it the highest energies of the being are roused to activity. It frees the soul from the guilt and sorrow, the anxiety and care, that crush the life forces. With it come serenity and composure. It implants in the soul, joy that nothing earthly can destroy,—joy in the Holy Spirit,—health-giving, life-giving joy.”42
The power of the love of God poured into our hearts is experienced not in the soul as an entity detached from the material body but on the human being as an indivisible unity—the brain, the heart, the nerves. The love of God touches the human body—the totality of the person. We could call this a spiritual-psychosomatic experience of healing. The health reform has the purpose of increasing the well-being of every human being in order for them to enjoy life as much as possible in a world that is still under the tyranny of sin.
Other Theological Concepts Associated With Health Reform
In addition to the biblical doctrines of God and humans and the divine concern for the enjoyment of life, several other biblical concepts are directly connected by Ellen White to health reform.
Soteriology. Any attempt to promote health reform should be always connected to salvation—the redemptive work of Christ on behalf of the human race—or it would lack lasting value. Without Him any possibility of true healing is simply impossible. He is “the Great Healer.”43 It should be clearly stated that “it is only through the grace of Christ that the work of restoration, physical, mental, and spiritual, can be accomplished.”44 This is possible because He did the unimaginable for us:
This statement suggests that somehow Jesus vicariously bore on Himself the diseases of those He healed. Vicariously because it is said that “he never bore disease in His own flesh” and yet He “alone was able to bear the afflictions of the many” or “He carried the sickness of others.” His healing miracles were performed in anticipation of His own suffering on the cross. In fact, we are told, that “as He witnessed the suffering of humanity, He knew that He must bear a greater pain, mingled with mockery, that He would suffer the greatest humiliation. When He raised Lazarus from the dead, He knew that for that life He must pay the ransom on the cross of Calvary.”46
Herein lies the mystery of the healing power of the cross, “In coming to the world in human form, in becoming subject to the law, in revealing to men that He bore their sickness, their sorrow, their guilt, Christ did not become a sinner. He was pure and uncontaminated by any disease. Not one stain of sin was found upon Him. He stood before the world the spotless Lamb of God.”47 Yet, He experienced in His own person and as our substitute the ultimate fate of our sickness; death. It could be said that sickness is the incursion of death in the sphere of life in order to end life. It is because the sinless One, the one in whom there was no disease, took our place that the Cross has become the place from which the healing power of God flows to suffering humanity. The One who did not need healing was wounded in order for us to be healed. Atonement is the ultimate solution to the problem sickness, suffering, and death.
What is offered here is a deeper understanding of healing. The healing power of God is manifested in this situation through His sustaining grace that enables us to carry the burden with courage and full confidence in His love. “Sickness and pain may test and try our patience and our faith, but the brightness of the Presence [the Shekinah] of the universe is with us and we must hide self behind Jesus.”50 The idea seems to be that in such cases we can find refuge in Christ, thus strengthening our relationship with Him.
Eschatology. Ellen White, as should be expected, connects health reform to end-time eschatological expectations. She counseled that “as we near the close of time, we must rise higher and still higher upon the question of health reform and Christian temperance, presenting it in a more positive and decided manner.”54 She argued that health reform will assist us in growing in holiness before the Lord by bringing into subjection our appetites and submitting the passions of the body to the mind in the power of the Spirit. It is the divine intention to preserve our bodies holy and our spirits pure in a corrupt world. At a time when the human body is abused by many, we are exhorted to understand our physical bodies in order to proclaim with the psalmist, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14, NIV). In other words, the study of human physiology as part of the health reform will result in these last days in a recognition and proclamation of God as our Creator. There is healing power in praising the Lord.
The healing miracles of Jesus healed the whole person and brought them into harmony with God’s will: “From Him [Jesus] flowed a stream of healing power, and in body and mind and soul men were made whole.”57 This, the false health reform will not be able to achieve. Jesus “made each work of healing an occasion for implanting divine principles in the mind and soul.”58 In the ministry of Jesus “deliverance from sin and the healing of disease were linked together,” and this ministry has been committed to His people.59 The new religion promoted by evil powers does not bring this type of biblical healing because it lacks the power to transform human beings. The end-time confrontation between true and false healing will test the people of God. Ellen White seems to be suggesting that it will require from them a clear understanding of the biblical teachings on health and healing that will help them distinguish between truth and falsehood.
Theodicy. Theodicy attempts to demonstrate that God is love and all powerful in spite of the fact that there is evil and suffering in the world. The problem of human suffering is complex, and only during the final judgment will we be able to gain a complete understanding of the divine interaction with it. Nevertheless, many things can be said to defend the loving nature of God and His power in the context of suffering and death. It is interesting and perhaps surprising to find Ellen White arguing in favor of the love of God in her discussions on disease, sickness, and human suffering. To a certain extent, health reform is used by her to defend the divine character and to assign responsibility for the suffering caused by sickness to others except God. Her theodicy, if you please, is offered to the reader in the form of a narrative. This is understandable because in the Bible God reveals His character within the movement of history; in His interaction with human beings.
Ellen White takes us to the moment when God created Adam and Eve; when humans came from the hand of the Lord. Then the human “faculties of mind and body were fully developed and harmoniously balanced” and human nature “was in harmony with the will of God.”60 The “appetite and passions” of the first couple were kept “in subjection to reason” and the “mind was capable of comprehending divine things.”61 In other words, God brought into existence human beings perfect in body, mind, and soul, untouched by the corrupting presence and power of evil and suffering. God established laws to regulate His creation and, since He is love, in everything He did “He had the well-being of humanity in view.”62 The theodicy begins emphasizing the original goodness of God’s creation. There was nothing in the constitution of humans that would by nature lend itself to corruption. The legitimate action of the appetites of human nature “would have prompted health and happiness.”63 The goodness of creation was a reflection of the essential goodness of the Creator.
“Diseases of every type have been developed. Thousands of poor mortals with deformed, sickly bodies and shattered nerves, are dragging out a miserable existence. The infirmities of the body affect the mind, and lead to gloom, doubt, and despair. Even infants in the cradle suffer from diseases resulting from the sins of their parents.”67
Sadly, this situation has prevailed for so long that many have concluded that this is the appointed lot of humanity, the natural condition of every human being. She responds that this is not the case. She is rejecting fatalism. Then she proceeds to exculpate God—He is not the author of disease, and it is not His desire to see His creatures suffering. She also argues that Adam’s transgression “is not the only cause of our unhappy lot. A succession of falls has occurred since Adam’s day,”68 and consequently we find ourselves in the condition in which we are now.
The enemy, who enticed Adam and Eve, has been working to deface the image of God by depraving humanity. What we witness is the success of his work “in the indulgence of depraved appetites and lustful passions, in defilement and corruption, deformity and sin.”69 The work of Satan, the fall of Adam and Eve, and the successive falls of human beings are the causes of the mental and physical degeneration of the race; and therefore, it would be wrong to attribute the present condition of the world to God’s actions. Through the indulgence of perverted appetite humans “have declined in virtue” and become weakened “through their own immoral practices and their violation of physical laws.”70 She thus placed responsibility where it belongs in order for humans to acknowledge and assume responsibility for it. The idea seems to be that one of the ways to assume responsibility is to begin to practice the principles of healthful living.
Ellen White passionately argued that the sickness that comes as a result of the violation of natural law is not a punishment from God but something that humans bring on themselves. They experience the result of violating natural law. Nature protests against any violation of the laws of life and “bears abuse as long as she can; but finally retribution comes, and the mental as well as the physical powers suffer. Nor does the punishment fall on the transgressor alone; the effects of his indulgence are seen in his offspring, and thus the evil is passed on from generation to generation.”71 She acknowledged that in the world in which we live the innocent suffer as the result of the decisions and actions of others.
Ellen White was totally aware of the complexity of human suffering caused by diseases. She identified the primary agent of suffering as Satan, Adam as the initiator of it in our world through the Fall, and its increase through the succession of falls by his descendants. The responsibility for the misery and pain that we see today is to a large extent placed by her on the shoulders of human beings who, instigated by the enemy, have chosen to violate the laws of nature. God is not responsible for this situation at all. On the contrary, He is constantly working to preserve life on the planet and to alleviate pain and suffering in anticipation of the moment when He will remove them forever from the planet.
Re-examining the Role of Health Reform
It may be good to re-examine the role that a concern for health should play in the Christian church and in the world at large. The purpose of the health-reform program promoted by Ellen White is broad and universal in scope because the problem it addresses—sickness and suffering—is also universal; no one has been able to avoid its painful sting. For her, health reform is theocentric and Christ-centered because God is the only one who can truly heal. He is the Creator of the laws of nature that govern the proper performance of the human body and the one who through these laws provides the power needed for true healing. This healing power reaches us through our Lord Jesus Christ. The health reform makes it possible for us to work harmoniously with God in the preservation of human health.
The health-reform program of Ellen White is inseparable from biblical soteriology. Without Christ there is no true healing. He took the ultimate destiny of human disease—death—upon Himself for us to enjoy freedom from it. Health reform alleviates the present suffering of humanity while they wait for the moment when Christ’s victory over sickness, suffering, and death will be consummated. Eschatology is also important in the study of health reform in Ellen White’s writings.
The forces of evil will offer their own health-reform program to the human race. They will offer human beings a new way of overcoming the predicament of sickness and human suffering without transforming the inner being of sinners. True health reform aims at unmasking this end-time deception. Ellen White emphasized in a unique way theodicy in the context of sickness and suffering. God is not the originator of this cruelty, and neither is He using it to punish the human race. The health-reform program contributes to manifest God’s loving concern for humankind.
Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D., is the former Director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh‑day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.
NOTES AND REFERENCES