It has become a tradition during a General Conference session of the Adventist Church to ask the delegates to vote on a statement regarding the church’s confidence in Ellen G. White. It is the intention that this will also happen next May when the world church holds its (postponed) world congress in Indianapolis (which may actually be, at least in part, virtual). One may ask why it is necessary to go through this quinquennial ritual of formally emphasizing the church’s continued trust in the ministry of Ellen White. Is this a sign that church leaders worry that confidence in the ministry of Ellen White is slowly eroding, and that there are concerns about the world-wide distribution of, and interest, in her extensive oeuvre?
There are a few lines in this new “Statement of Confidence in the Writings of Ellen G. White” that greatly trouble me and that actually seem to contain some serious internal contradictions: We believe that the writings of Ellen G White were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are Christ-centered and Bible-based. Rather than replacing the Bible, they uplift the normative character of Scripture and correct inaccurate interpretations imposed upon it, derived from tradition, culture, mere human wisdom, and personal experience. They also help us to overcome the human tendency to accept from the Bible what we like and distort or disregard what we do not like.
To say that the writing of Ellen G. White were “inspired” has, through the years, caused a lot of discussion, since there remain many questions as to how her “inspiration” should be defined. And recent scholarship has shown that the genesis of much of what Mrs. White wrote is not as straightforward as has long been assumed by most readers. However, let’s skip this issue for the moment. It is good to see the affirmation that the writings of Mrs. White do not replace the Bible and uplift the “normative” character of the Holy Scriptures. However, what follows seems to contradict this “normative” status of the Bible. For, we are told, that the writings of Ellen White “correct inaccurate interpretations.” I can only read this in one way: the “norm” for interpreting the Bible is found in what Ellen White has written. This, in fact, raises the authority of Ellen White to a level that supersedes even that of the biblical prophets. Is this really what I, as a Seventh-day Adventist, am supposed to believe?
Not only is this view highly questionable, but is raises some other serious questions. One of these is how we determine what Ellen actually thought and said about numerous issues. She herself repeatedly said people should not expect her to have a ready-made answer to all dogmatic topics the other leaders were wrestling with. On several issues she changed her mind as time went by. Her thinking developed and matured as she grew older. Moreover, she did not live in a timeless vacuum, but was part of 19th century American culture and carried a lot of, in particular methodist, baggage with her. So, who will determine what Ellen White’s “correct interpretations” are, and how they should be applied in today’s context? Is this the task of the church’s theologians or the church’s administrators? I rather fear that the church’s administrators, who are mostly no theological experts, increasingly feel they are the protectors of sound doctrine, and that they may well go against the majority views of the church’s prominent theologians.
We can only hope that this statement will not be accepted during the upcoming world congress of the church. It would probably be too much to hope that the document will be outright rejected. But perhaps it can, at least be referred to a committee for further study! (After all, that is also a revered Adventist tradition.)