Some folks have asked how I could re-embrace Adventism after having some very specific disagreements with it–for example, regarding the role of Ellen White. Well, I must say that here is a good example of how my years in the Catholic Church helped me to better understand and appreciate some aspects of Seventh-day Adventist teaching.
First, here is the official statement of Adventist belief:
18. The Gift of Prophecy:
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen. G. White . As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. (Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10.)
For basic background information about Ellen White herself, see the short biography provided on the webpage of the Ellen G. White Estate. Note here, though, the role her writings play: “provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction,” while making “clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.”
I think the Catholic tradition can provide us some terminology that can be helpful in articulating this with more clarity. We’ll look at the distinction between “public” and “private” revelation, and then at the rise of distinctive spiritualities in history.
The first area to consider is the distinction made in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) between “public” and “private” revelation. Public revelation is that which is meant for all people in all times, was progressive through the Old Testament, and reached its completion and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. But God hasn’t left his people alone, and the Holy Spirit still inspires people through history whose role is not to add to Scripture, but to help people live more faithfully in a particular time and place.
Here’s the full citation from the Catechism:
III. Christ Jesus — “Mediator and Fullness of All Revelation”25
God has said everything in his Word
65 “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”26 Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one. St. John of the Cross, among others, commented strikingly on Hebrews 1:1-2:
In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say. . . because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behaviour but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.27
There will be no further Revelation
66 “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”28 Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations”.
This distinction between “private” and “public” revelation might be useful to Seventh-day Adventists seeking better ways to articulate our understanding of the ministry exercised by Ellen G. White, and how it relates to Scripture. While public revelation is “complete,” private revelations assist in making it “completely explicit” and assisting Christians “to grasp its full significance.” It is not the role of private revelations “to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.”
I think that’s entirely consistent with the statement in the SDA Fundamental Beliefs that Ellen White’s writings “provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction,” while making “clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.” I think it’s also consistent with what Ellen White herself said, as in the introduction to The Great Controversy: “The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience.” The Spirit through history has been given “to open the word to His servants, to illuminate and apply its teachings,” “to enlighten, warn, and comfort the children of God.”
The Spirit was not given–nor can it ever be bestowed– to supersede the Bible; for the Scriptures explicitly state that the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. [NB–this phrase has been carried over into the Fundamental Beliefs]
Jesus promised His disciples, “The Comforter which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” “When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: . . . and He will show you things to come.” John 14:26; 16:13. Scripture plainly teaches that these promises, so far from being limited to apostolic days, extend to the church of Christ in all ages. The Saviour assures His followers, “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” Matthew 28:20. And Paul declares that the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit were set in the church “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:12, 13.
Further statements from Ellen White on her role in relationship to the Bible may be found in Selected Messages, vol. 3, pages 29-31, as cited by the Ellen G. White Estate:
Relation of E. G. White Writings to the Bible Recognized in First Book. I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice. By that Word we are to be judged. God has, in that Word, promised to give visions in the “last days”; not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth. Thus God dealt with Peter when He was about to send him to preach to the Gentiles. (A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White, p. 64 . Reprinted in Early Writings, p. 78.)
Not to Take the Place of the Word. The Lord desires you to study your Bibles. He has not given any additional light to take the place of His Word. … (Letter 130, 1901.)
Get Proofs From the Bible. 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. A “Thus saith the Lord” is the strongest testimony you can possibly present to the people. Let none be educated to look to Sister White, but to the mighty God, who gives instruction to Sister White. (Letter 11, 1894.) . . .
Relationship of E. G. White Writings to Bible–The Lesser Light. Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light. (The Review and Herald, Jan. 20, 1903. Quoted in Colporteur Ministry, p. 125.) . . .
Not for the Purpose of Giving New Light. Brother J would confuse the mind by seeking to make it appear that the light God has given through the Testimonies is an addition to the Word of God, but in this he presents the matter in a false light. God has seen fit in this manner to bring the minds of His people to His Word, to give them a clearer understanding of it.
The Word of God is sufficient to enlighten the most beclouded mind, and may be understood by those who have any desire to understand it. But notwithstanding all this, some who profess to make the Word of God their study are found living in direct opposition to its plainest teachings. Then, to leave men and women without excuse, God gives plain and pointed testimonies, bringing them back to the Word that they have neglected to follow.
The Word of God abounds in general principles for the formation of correct habits of living, and the testimonies, general and personal, have been calculated to call their attention more especially to these principles. (Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 663, 664.)
Testimonies to Bring Plain Lessons From the Word. In the Scriptures God has set forth practical lessons to govern the life and conduct of all; but though He has given minute particulars in regard to our character, conversation, and conduct, yet in a large measure, His lessons are disregarded and ignored. Besides the instruction in His Word, the Lord has given special testimonies to His people, not as a new revelation, but that He may set before us the plain lessons of His Word, that errors may be corrected, that the right way may be pointed out, that every soul may be without excuse. (Letter 63, 1893.) (See Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 665.)
She therefore makes clear that 1) the Bible alone is “infallible” and 2) her writings are not “a new revelation.” Her ministry was intended to direct people to the Bible and for specific guidance to the Seventh-day Adventist church at this period in history, and only the Bible is to be the foundation for teaching.
Two other categories from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that could be useful in understanding the role of Ellen White can be found in the discussion of schools of spirituality in the section on prayer.
2684 In the communion of saints, many and varied spiritualities have been developed throughout the history of the churches. The personal charism of some witnesses to God’s love for men has been handed on, like “the spirit” of Elijah to Elisha and John the Baptist, so that their followers may have a share in this spirit.43 A distinct spirituality can also arise at the point of convergence of liturgical and theological currents, bearing witness to the integration of the faith into a particular human environment and its history. The different schools of Christian spirituality share in the living tradition of prayer and are essential guides for the faithful. In their rich diversity they are refractions of the one pure light of the Holy Spirit. …
2690 The Holy Spirit gives to certain of the faithful the gifts of wisdom, faith and discernment for the sake of this common good which is prayer (spiritual direction). Men and women so endowed are true servants of the living tradition of prayer.
Using this language, we could speak of the role that Ellen White played as spiritual director for the fledgling church (see her many volumes of “testimonies” written to specific individuals). We could also say that she embodied in a unique way the spirit of the Advent movement; that “charism” still lives in her writings, “bearing witness to the integration of the faith into a particular human environment and its history.”
Ellen White has been too often compared to other American visionaries of the 19th century such as Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy. The contrasts are greater than the similarities. These produced writings that they and their followers saw as supplementing the Bible, whereas Ellen White consistently rejected such a role. The Bible and the Bible alone is infallible, and it is the standard by which all teaching is to be judged; it alone is to be the foundation for our beliefs and the evidence for our positions.
To whom shall we compare her, then? I’d suggest we compare her to the those in the Catholic tradition associated with distinctive schools of spirituality–men and women such as Dominic of Guzman, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross. These were charismatic figures who spoke prophetically to their day, who gave inspiration to reform movements, and whose guidance is still authoritative for members of their own communities and treasured by even more outside. Or we could compare her to visionaries such as Bernadette Soubirous, Faustina Kowalska, Margaret Mary Alacoque, Anne Catherine Emmerich, or the Fatima children, Lucia de Jesus Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Marto, whose visions and writings are seen by Catholics as providing divine insight to help Christians live more faithfully in particular periods of history. Or to charismatic spiritual directors like Padre Pio and John Vianney who reportedly had great insight into the hearts of those who sought their counsel.
Some Adventist theologians in the 1970s and 1980s tried to distinguish between doctrinal authority and pastoral authority (thus relativizing her authority, much like some Catholics who seek to weaken the authority of Vatican 2 by calling it a merely “pastoral” council), but the Adventist Church as a whole rejected that distinction as inadequate. I think the distinctions and categories proposed here might be more useful, as they provide terminology (already in use in another context) for distinctions that may be seen already present in White’s writings and in official Adventist teaching, and provide a broader context of religious history in which to view the role that Ellen White has played in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.