Proper and Improper Use of Spiritual Gifts
At the Council of Chalcedon it was found easier to guard the doctrine of the two natures of Christ by a series of negative statements than by trying to formulate a series of affirmations. This is illustrated by the Ten Commandments. It is much simpler to state law in the form of a negative—and it gives greater freedom. A positive statement could be understood to say "You can do this and nothing else." But a negative statement means, "You can do everything but this." We therefore suggest the following series of negatives in regard to the use of spiritual gifts:
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Canonical.
A canon means a rule or norm. The books of the Bible are canonical. They constitute the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian. Moreover, the canon closed with the book of Revelation.1
Therefore, we dare not propose that Ellen G. White is in any way an addition to the canon of Scripture. She is not even a de facto addition to the canon. We have only one rule of faith and duty. Mrs. White herself subscribed to the view that the canon closed with Revelation and that the Bible is the only rule of faith and duty.2
Spiritual Gifts Are Not a De Novo Revelation.
It is fundamental to Protestantism that God gave His final revelation in Jesus Christ's person and work and in the witness of the apostles to the Christ event. This is why the canon closed with the apostles. The Bible is therefore all-sufficient. We need no new revelation in order to be saved. God can give no brighter, clearer light than He has given in His Son and in the New Testament witness to Him. While we affirm spiritual gifts, we must also affirm that they are not given as a new rule of faith. And they are not intended as de novo revelation—revelation that is entirely new. Such gifts can only point us back to the all-sufficiency of the revelation given in the Bible.
Spiritual Gifts Are Not a Test.
The pioneers, and especially James White, were adamant that Seventh-day Adventists should never make spiritual gifts a test of fellowship or a test of orthodoxy within the Adventist community.3 The Bible must remain the only rule of faith and duty. Believers must be tested by it alone. Condemnation of a member of the community either for his doctrine or his manner of life must be based on the Bible alone. It is therefore wrong to use Ellen G. White to "prove" that anyone is either a heretic or a sinner. To do so is to make Mrs. White canonical—a rule of faith and duty.
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Inerrant / Infallible.
Nowhere did Ellen G. White apply the adjectives inerrant or infallible to her own writings. But she often exalted the Word of God as alone
worthy of the title "infallible."4
It is now becoming generally known, and admitted by the Ellen G. White Trustees, that there are historical mistakes in the writings of Mrs. White.5 In writing on events in the history of the church and world, for instance, she copied the best historians available to her. In doing this, she copied some of their errors. Mrs. White is not an infallible authority on history.
Ellen G. White was not a linguist or exegete. She did not always follow the most accurate translation of the Bible. Sometimes she used a misleading rendering. Mrs. White did not use every text of Scripture in a strictly exegetical sense. Sometimes she used the same scripture in a variety of ways. We should not claim that this all represents an infallible exegesis of Scripture, nor should we stop using the tools of philology, archeology and exegesis to arrive at the correct meaning of a scripture. Neither should we hastily conclude that Mrs. White incorrectly used a certain scripture. Sometimes she used a text homiletically. Sometimes she used biblical phraseology for convenience of expression. And sometimes she reinterpreted a passage to meet circumstances not in the mind of the original author. The New Testament authors occasionally applied creative interpretations to the Old Testament. We must not imagine that a particular meaning we may derive from a text is all that that scripture is saying.
Spiritual Gifts Are Not to Overrule the Bible.
Sometimes the Bible speaks in a way that is unambiguously clear. For instance, Paul declares that we are justified by faith alone quite apart from works on our part (Rom. 1:17; 3:24-28; 4:4-6). We must not imagine that Ellen G. White can be used to qualify what this scripture says in any way. People sometimes search for stray statements— perhaps an obscure letter written to an unknown person, as if such a statement by Mrs. White could qualify or modify what Paul said.
If the Bible makes clear that the expression righteousness by faith" means justification alone, that should be the end of all controversy. If the biblical expression "within the veil" (Heb. 6:19) clearly means within the holy of holies, we must bow to what the Word says. And we must not allow anyone to overrule the Bible by saying, "But Mrs. White says . .
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Absolute Law.
Ellen G. White gave much counsel to different persons in different situations. There has been a tendency to collect all this counsel given over a period of seventy years and to make it absolute law. Not only is this terribly legalistic and idolatrous toward God's messenger, but it is contrary to Ellen G. White herself. Her counsel was given in existential situations. Mrs. White herself said, "Circumstances alter cases. "6 Vegetarianism is not absolute law. When A. G. Daniells told Mrs. White that some people in difficult places overseas were debilitated by trying to follow what she wrote on diet as if it were absolute law, she said, "Why don't the people use common sense?" Besides, some people were given quite opposite counsel.7 If we treated her counsel as absolute law, it would be easy to make Ellen G. White contradict Ellen G. White. There is absolute law—but absolutes are very few. There are the Ten Commandments. But counsels on diet, tithing, education and organizational management must be flexible to meet new and different situations. Mrs. White's counsels are not a legal "blueprint," and it is a grievous mistake to treat them as such. Some people fail to realize how adaptive, flexible and resourceful Ellen G. White was in meeting issues. She did not try to live by a rule book for every situation in life, and neither should we. In the New Testament economy we are not under the
old rule-book method of law (2 Cor. 3; Gal. 4:1-6). The Ten Commandments are now refracted to us by the Spirit through the gospel. Mrs. White exercised the freedom to give venison to her sick husband and tithe through "irregular channels" under special circumstances. In short, she used sanctified common sense. All Christians should be able to discharge the duties of life with freedom of conscience, even if they must "eat the shew bread, which is not lawful" (Mark 2:26).
Spiritual Gifts Are Not for Settling Theological
At times during Ellen G. White's lifetime, individuals involved in theological controversy appealed to her writings to settle the issue. The controversy over the "daily" of Daniel 8 is one example. Mrs. White did not approve such a course. Rather, she pointed people to the Word of God as the rule of faith and the authority to end all controversy.
Whenever a major issue has arisen in the church over the last fifty
years or so, all sides have tended to use Mrs. White to "settle" the
issue. This places her where the Bible should be.
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Static.
It is a mistake to treat the ministry of Ellen G. White as if it were a static revelation of final and absolute truth. There was a definite progression in the unfolding of light to her mind. She grew with the movement in understanding and in power of thought, clarity and expression. In her earliest days her writing shows an immature person in a very immature movement. God's gifts and leading are adapted to the human situation. God is very accommodating to human weakness and error. He does not try to correct everything at once. For a few years Ellen G. White shared the shut-door views of all the pioneers. That view was certainly limited, and in some respects, quite erroneous. Mrs. White was a child of her times. Like the pioneers, she had to develop theologically. Her views on the law in Galatians matured and even changed after 1888. After 1888 her writings had a far more evangelical tone. Some things she wrote on the death of Christ opening a way into the holiest of all might even appear to contradict, or at least go beyond, the light she had before 1888. In 1888 the older men confidently expected her to take their side of the controversy, but they did not reckon with the flexibility of Ellen G. White. There is a danger in regarding Mrs. White's ministry as static—trying to canonize it and freeze it in the nineteenth-century mold. If Mrs. White were here today, she might surprise the "traditionalists" as much as she did in 1888.
Spiritual Gifts Are Not an Inspired Commentary on the Bible.
Ellen G. White never claimed that her special ministry was to give an inspired and infallible commentary on the biblical text so that we are obliged to accept the teachings of the Bible as she interpreted them. Spiritual gifts do not relieve us of the necessity of using all the tools of proper biblical research. While a comment from Ellen G. White may be edifying and helpful, we should not think that such a comment is necessarily definitive and makes further research redundant or unnecessary. The special ministry of spiritual gifts was a prophetic voice to draw us to Christ and the Bible rather than to be an infallible expositor of the biblical text.
In many sections of the church there is a belief that the Bible is an obscure book and difficult to understand but that Ellen G. White makes the Bible understandable. This popular assumption must be challenged. First, it assumes the Roman Catholic premise that the Bible is an obscure book which requires an infallible interpreter. Catholics have the teaching office of the Roman Church, and Seventh-day Adventists have Ellen G. White—but the principle is un-Protestant. Second, Protestantism affirms that the Bible is clear in all matters necessary for salvation. Mrs. White often affirms this too.8 In fact, she says that her writings are the "lesser light" and the Bible is the "greater light."9 If this is true—and we believe it is—then the Bible, as the brighter light, is also the clearer light. There is a sharpness and clarity about the New Testament witness that is greater than Ellen G. White. The Bible possesses a grandeur and dignity not shared by any other writings. It is absolutely unique. If Seventh-day Adventists followed Mrs. White's advice and studied the Bible as they should, they would find that it really is a greater light, a brighter light and a clearer light than Ellen G. White. In this respect Mrs. White points to the Bible like John the Baptist, saying, "He must increase, but I must decrease." The "Spirit of Prophecy" is a prophetic voice designed to drive us to the Bible, not an interpreter to take the place of the Bible.
Finally, are we going to say with Rome that we have two sources of authority in faith and duty, or do we stand with Protestantism and affirm only one?
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Omni-Charismatic.
Too often Ellen G. White is treated as if she were omnicharismatic—the best writer and the greatest authority on every conceivable matter. "Mrs. White said it better" has become an Adventist cliche'. Though it may often be true, it is not always true. We must overcome the complex which regards Ellen G. White as if she were the best commentator, the best exegete, the best theologian, the best sacred biographer and the best homilist. God did not give her all the gifts. The propensity to make endless compilations makes it appear that Mrs. White was the greatest authority on all kinds of subjects—psychology, business management, music, child training and gardening. One man has even published her grocery list.
There are gifts other than the gift of "prophecy." Some have the gift of administration, which Paul declares to be another gift of the Holy Spirit. Others have the gift of evangelism. We should recognize all these gifts of the Spirit. We should be thankful for them and humbly accept their ministry. But we should not impute to any gift something broader than God intended. If we impute to the gift something God did not intend and then find that the gift does not measure with our estimation, we may lose faith in the gift—not because it does not correspond to what God intends, but because it does not correspond to our erroneous evaluation.
Finally, in regard to spiritual gifts, let us heed Paul's advice, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). We can only do this if we maintain the position that everything, even spiritual gifts, must stand under the judgment of the Word of God.
The Adventist prophetic schema views the Advent Movement as the Exodus redivivus. Ellen G. White suggested striking parallels between the Old Testament Exodus and the 1844 movement. And of course, the analogy of the Exodus is used in the book of Revelation to describe the sealing message of the last days (Rev. 7:1-4).
The Old Testament Exodus was associated with the introduction of the law under the Mosaic administration. When Paul said "until the law" (Rom. 5:13), "the law was added" (Rom 5:20, NIV) and "it was added" (Gal. 3:19), he was not referring to the mere knowledge of moral law. That existed from creation. Nor was he merely talking about Jewish ceremonies. He was discussing the Mosaic administration of law introduced at the time of the Exodus. Here a definite dispensation in salvation history began, known as the dispensation of law. The special ministration of Moses administered or mediated the covenant to the people in many statutes and judgments. We could say that this administration applied the Ten Commandments—the words of the covenant—in a way adapted to the cultural, spiritual and historical condition of the people.
Paul makes clear that this introduction of "the law [or administration] of Moses" was an emergency measure. "It was added because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19, NIV). It was necessary during Israel's spiritual "childhood" (cf. Gal. 4:1-4). Ellen G. White expressed it well when she said: "And if the descendants of Abraham had kept the covenant, . . . there would have been no necessity for it to be proclaimed from Sinai or engraved upon the tables of stone. And had the people practiced the principles of the Ten Commandments, there would have been no need of the additional directions given to Moses."10 So the law, refracted to them through Moses—"the spirit of prophecy"—was an emergency measure. Without the discipline of the Mosaic administration, Israel would have lost a true sense of sin and degenerated into a pagan society.
The Mosaic administration of law was not only an emergency measure. It was a temporary measure. "It was added because of transgressions [the emergency aspect] until the Seed.., had come [the temporary aspect]" (Gal. 3:19, NIV). During the Old Testament era Israel was in its spiritual minority. Just as a child must be protected by rather arbitrary rules and be subject to guardians, so Israel had to be disciplined and guarded until she reached the age of her majority. This is Paul's point in Galatians 4:1-5. In the unfolding of salvation history, the law as it was then administered acted as a guardian to conduct Israel to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24). "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (Gal. 3:25, NIV). The "ministration of death" has been superseded by the "ministration of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:7, 8). Instead of Moses telling us how and what it means to love or be humble or refrain from idols, the Spirit, who comes clothed in Christ's gospel, has given us a "new" definition of love and humility and true worship. The eternal law of the Ten Commandments is not removed, but the old administration of them has been superseded by the new-covenant administration. Thus, the law under Moses reached its end [telos—goal, purpose] in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4).
When the apostolic gospel was proclaimed within the Judaistic community, it was proclaimed not as the destruction of their God-given traditions, but as their fulfillment. Paul saw more clearly than anyone that the gospel of Christ was the glad tidings that all which Israel had hoped and lived for was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles was the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham—"in thy Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). Yet tragically, the majority of the "chosen people" did not see it that way. Rather than seeing the gospel as the fruition of Judaism, they saw the unleashing of the apostolic gospel as the negation and destruction of all that Judaism had hoped for. Therefore they braced themselves to resist it—from a feeling of blind loyalty to Moses.
The problem of Judaism was that they tended to regard Moses—the law—as the substance of what God had promised Abraham. More and more, the Torah itself became absolutized. The Rabbis even called it "the logos," the "bread which leads to the life of the age to come," "the light" and the "water of life." They failed to see that Moses was like John the Baptist, who pointed away from himself to the One who was the "end"—goal—of "the spirit of prophecy."
Of course, the Judaizers charged Paul and his associates with abolishing Moses—making of none effect "the spirit of prophecy." But by rejecting the gospel, the Judaizers were themselves guilty of making Moses of none effect.
The parallels between the Jewish situation at the time of Christ's
first advent and the situation of God's people today should not be
The trials of the children of Israel, and their attitude just before the first coming of Christ, have been presented before me again and again to illustrate the position of the people of God in their experience before the second coming of Christ.11
When the 1844 exodus movement took place, "the Spirit of Prophecy" was added. It was an emergency measure. If the Bible had been studied and appreciated as it should have been, the special ministry of Ellen G. White would not have been necessary. 12 Mrs. White's description of her own work as a "lesser light" to lead to the "greater light" indicates a pedagogic function of "the Spirit of Prophecy" (Gal. 3:24)—a John the Baptist type of ministry. If the spiritual gift is to lead to something higher and greater than itself, that greater thing must be the "end"—the goal or purpose—of the spiritual gift. When the people of God are led into the full light of the gospel as it shines from the Word, the spiritual gift has accomplished its highest purpose.
But is there not a danger that we might regard the mighty recovery of the apostolic gospel, which is really the fruition of all that Adventism has hoped and worked for, as the destruction of all that we hold dear. The Jews made this mistake, and it is possible for us to do the same. Is there not a danger that we might try to "absolutize" the light given us through spiritual gifts—as if that were the final revelation of light for the Advent people? Ellen G. White's ministry was a prophetic voice like that of John the Baptist. But we must remember that John the Baptist was not an end in himself.
In view of these things, we ought to carefully consider what it might mean to make the Spirit of Prophecy "of none effect." We need to remember that the Jews did this by building monuments to the prophets while opposing those who proclaimed the gospel.
1. "Seventh.day Adventists uniformly believe that the canon of Scripture closed with the book of Revelation" (Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, p. 89). This view was held by Ellen G. White. See Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (1911 ed.), p. v; idem, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1911), p. 585.
2. See White, Great Controversy (1911 ed.), pp. 204-5.
3. James White, "A Test," Review and Herald, 16 Oct. 1855, pp. 61-2.
4. "In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His word is true, and in
Him is no variableness, or shadow of turning" (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 37).
See also idem, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing Assn., 1946), p. 69;
idem, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Publishing Assn., 1946), p. 35.
5. Robert W. Olson, "Documents Relating to the Writing of the Historical Chapters of The Great Controversy" (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1978).
6. White to George F. Watson, 22 Jan. 1906.
7. It can be easily shown, for instance, that Ellen G. White sometimes counseled submission to
church authority or to leading men and at other times advised individuals to go over their
8. See Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing Assn.,
1908), pp. 89-90.
9. See White, Evangelism, p. 257; idem, Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (Mountain view,
Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1885-1909), 2:455, 605; idem, Testimonies for the Church,
10. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain view, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1913), p. 364.
11. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 406.
12. Ellen G. White, in Life Sketches of James White and Ellen G. White (Battle Creek: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assn., 1880), pp. 198-201; idem, Evangelism, p. 257; idem, Testimonies for the Church, 2:455, 605; idem, Testimonies for the Church, 5:234, 674.