Ellen G. White and Sola Scriptura
Seventh-day Adventists believe that Ellen G. White had received the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10) and that God appointed her as a special messenger to draw attention to the Holy Scriptures. “From the time she was 17 years old until she died 70 years later, God gave her an estimated 2,000 visions and dreams. The visions varied in length from less than a minute to nearly four hours. The knowledge and counsel received through these revelations she wrote out to be shared with others.”1
This editorial considers the relationship between the writings of Ellen White and Scripture. The pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventists had to deal with this question soon after Ellen White received visions from God. James White accepted the visions from the beginning. Regarding their relationship to the Bible he said: “The Bible is a perfect and complete revelation. It is our only rule of faith and practice. But this is no reason, why God may not show the past, present, and future fulfillment of His word, in these last days, by dreams and visions, according to Peter’s testimony. True visions are given to lead us to God, and His written word; but those that are given for a new rule of faith and practice, separate from the Bible, cannot be from God, and should be rejected.”2
When the argument “The Bible and the Bible alone” was put forward in opposition to Ellen White’s ministry, Uriah Smith stated, “When we claim to stand on the Bible and the Bible alone, we bind ourselves to receive, unequivocally and fully, all that the Bible teaches.”3 He then quoted Joel 2:28—”‘And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.’”4 This, said Smith, began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. And following the outpouring of the Spirit, Joel predicted, “‘your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’” (vs. 28), to which Smith commented: “The very next announcement after the fact that the Spirit was to be given, is that the gift of prophecy will be exercised. Now just so sure as one part of the prophecy is fulfilled, and God grants His Spirit to His people, just so sure the other part will be fulfilled, and prophesyings, dreams, and visions, will be manifested in their midst; for they are connected together, one and inseparable.”5
In Revelation 12, John sketched the history of the Christian Church from the time of Jesus, the Child in verse 5, to the time of the end in verse 17. There we are told, “the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (KJV). According to this prophecy, the remnant church of prophecy will be recognized by two specific marks: (1) they keep the commandments of God; (2) they have the testimony of Jesus
Whatever commandments we may want to include in the first mark, we must certainly include the Ten Commandments. Thus, the first identifying sign of the remnant church is its loyalty to God’s commandments—all His commandments, including the fourth, the Sabbath commandment. In other words, God in Revelation 12:17 says, “‘At the end of time I will have a visible church—the remnant church—which will be recognized by the fact that they keep the commandments as I have given them in the beginning, including the Sabbath commandment.” In the time of the apostles, or the early church, this would not have been a special sign, because they all kept the Sabbath; but today, when most Christians keep Sunday, the Sabbath has indeed become a distinguishing mark.
The second identifying mark is “the testimony of Jesus.” But what does this phrase mean? The expression “testimony of Jesus” (marturia Iesou) occurs six times in the Book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10 [twice]; 20:4). Two grammatically possible explanations concerning its meaning have been put forward. The first view takes marturia Iesou as an objective genitive and interprets it as humanity’s witness to Christ. The second view takes marturia Iesou as a subjective genitive and understands the testimony of Jesus as the self-revelation of Jesus—His own testimony.6 A study of the word marturia in the Johannine literature, where it occurs 21 times, indicates that the “testimony of Jesus” is clearly a subjective genitive—it refers to Jesus’ own testimony, not people’s testimony about Him.
Thus, when we claim to stand on the Bible and the Bible alone, we must accept what the Bible prophesied concerning the endtime remnant church. Uriah Smith illustrated this with the parable of the ship and its crew: “Suppose we are about to start upon a voyage. The owner of the vessel gives us a book of directions, telling us that it contains instructions sufficient for our whole journey, and if we will heed them, we shall reach in safety our port of destination. Setting sail, we open the book to learn its contents. We find that its author lays down general principles to govern us in our voyage, and instruct us as far as practicable, touching the various contingencies that may arise, till the end, but he also tells us that the latter part of our journey will be especially perilous; that the features of the coast are ever changing by reason of quicksand and tempests; ‘but for this part of the journey,’ says he, ‘I have provided you a pilot, who will meet you, and give you such directions as the surrounding circumstances and dangers may require; and to him you must give heed.’ With these directions we reach the perilous time specified, and the pilot, according to the promise, appears. But as he offers his services, some of the crew rise up against him. ‘We have the original book of directions,’ they say, ‘and it is enough for us. We stand upon that, and that alone; we want nothing of you.’ Who now heeded that original book of directions? Those who rejected the pilot, or those who received him, as the book instructed? Judge ye.”7
Ellen White’s Position
Ellen White was well aware of the sola scriptura principle. Her writings “contain the phrase ‘the Bible and the Bible only’ forty-five times and the ‘Bible and the Bible alone’ forty-seven times.”8 For example, “There is need of a return to the great Protestant principle—the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty.”9 Counseling Sabbath school teachers, she wrote, “Do not make the Sabbath school lessons dry and spiritless. Leave the impression upon the mind that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our rule of faith, and that the sayings and doings of men are not to be a criterion for our doctrines or actions.”10
While Ellen White was certain that God had communicated with her in dreams and visions, she encouraged her readers to judge her writings by the Scriptures. She told them, “If the Testimonies speak not according to the word of God, reject them. Christ and Belial cannot be united.”11 Clearly, this indicated that she “valued the authority of the Bible above any other authority, including her own prophetic ministry.”12
Alberto Timm, from the Ellen G. White Estate, distinguishes between authorial authority and functional authority. From the perspective of divine authorship, he sees no distinction between the biblical writings and the writings of Ellen White, because both were inspired by the Holy Spirit, “but the functional authority of Ellen White’s writings is not the same as that of the Scriptures.”13 The reason for this is that the 66 books of the biblical canon were put together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. With the addition of the Book of Revelation, these books became the closed canon of Scripture to which no other inspired books could be added. If, next month, archaeologists found the book of Nathan the prophet (1 Chron. 29:29), his book would not be added to the canon. It would be considered an inspired book outside of the Bible. The biblical canon is the standard by which all other inspired writings have to be evaluated.
This distinction between the functional authority of the writings of Ellen G. White and the authority of Scripture “helps us to avoid both (1) the artificial dichotomy between canonical and noncanonical prophets, and (2) the false generalization of granting canonical status to all true prophets, including Ellen White.”14 This differentiation would also explain Ellen White’s reluctance to put her writings to the front, “In public labor do not make prominent, and quote that which Sister White has written, as authority to sustain your positions. To do this will not increase faith in the testimonies. Bring your evidences, clear and plain, from the Word of God.”15 She clearly did not want her writings to take the place of God’s Word, as God “has not given any additional light to take the place of His Word.”16
The prophetic gift in the life and work of Ellen G. White has been a tremendous blessing in the life of the Adventist Church. The 70 years of her ministry showed that God used her repeatedly to guide this church though many dangers and difficulties.
The Scripture is God’s message for all time, and for all people in all places. It is the measuring rod, the yard stick, against which everything else must be measured. It is the supreme guideline for every Christian. The writings of Ellen G. White, on the other hand, are God’s messages for His remnant church in the time of the end. Her writings are not a new or additional standard of doctrine, but a help for the church in the time of the end. Hence, her writings have a different purpose from Scripture; they are “a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light”17 that is Scripture.
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