The Theology of Ellen G. White
As editor of Present Truth Magazine, I have, over the last four years, written reviews on three great sections of the Christian church—Romanism, Pentecostalism and evangelicalism. This has been done in the light of the great central doctrine of justification by faith. With Luther, I believe that this is the article of the standing and falling church. I also agree with T. F. Torrance, who said that justification by faith must call all systems, churches, creeds and practices into question.
So we have published material on justification by faith and Romanism, justification by faith and the charismatic movement, justification by faith and the holiness movement, justification by faith and the current religious scene, etc. It seemed inevitable, therefore, that I should get around to justification by faith and Adventism.
Adventism stands somewhat apart from the rest of conservative Christianity. Though numerically not very great (about three million strong), the Seventh-day Adventist Church is nevertheless a strong body with far-flung mission stations, impressive institutions, indeed an organizational apparatus which dwarfs that of most Protestant churches many times larger.
Adventism is a real theological system. I feel that critics have not been as effective as they might have wished because they have picked up a few doctrinal points here and there while failing to get to the roots of that system.
Adventism is best represented by Ellen G. White.1 Although Mrs. White did not write a systematic theology, there is no doubt but that she wrote in the framework of a theological system. She herself frequently referred to Adventism as a "system of truth."
Surprisingly, no one, either apologist or critic, has heretofore published a systematic analysis of Ellen White's theology. Apologists have defended her visions, lauded her contributions in the field of health (which are quite considerable, too), and justified certain predictions, etc. Critics have written on snatches of her teachings here and there. But to date there has not been a publication which has really grappled with her theology in a systematic way. That is the purpose of this publication.
I can claim some qualification for the task at hand. For several years I have gathered material for this work, not only by reviewing the theology of Ellen White, but by carefully relating every doctrinal point to the major theological controversies in the history of the church.
Plan of Approach
The reader should be appraised of my plan of approach:
1. To begin with, if the reader is interested in cheap polemics, he will be very disappointed. I am not interested in that sorry business.
2. Book 1 is neither a criticism nor a defense of Ellen White's theology. Our first task is to understand the system. And may I say quite pointedly, If any person is not interested in understanding Ellen White's theology, he should not be interested in criticizing it either! Irresponsible criticism does more harm than good, and oftentimes it harms most the very people we are trying to set straight.
Our first task, therefore, is to lay the entire theological system right out so that we can really understand its problem areas. Having done that, we can attempt in Book 2 An Evangelical Reflection.
3. Truth, justice and charity demand that we look at a person's theology in its best light. What a lesson Hans Kung, the great Catholic theologian, gives us in his book on Karl Barth (Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection)! In the first half of the book Kung presents a digest of Barth's doctrine of salvation. Does he put Barth in his very worst light? No. Rather, he presents his theology in its best light, holding up its strongest points just as if he were in Barth's shoes. He does the task so well that Barth himself congratulates Kung for presenting such an accurate reflection of his theology.
Should any less be expected of us? I therefore invite the reader—especially the one who wants to be a responsible critic—to come with me on an honest-to-goodness survey of Ellen White's theology. Don't be afraid to acknowledge anything good. Don't be disappointed if you find that she is even orthodox on some points on which you were sure she was heterodox. (Love rejoices in the truth. It is ready to believe the best of everyone.) Mrs. White was, after all, the most prolific woman writer of all time (about sixty books, or thirty million words), and very few men have ever written as much. Her works even attain a high degree of literary excellence.
Therefore my task in Book 1 is to present an outline of Ellen White's doctrinal system from beginning to end. Utmost care has been taken not to distort. Truth demands frank admission where the theology is orthodox or where it is heterodox. Let us not shrink the slightest from looking the strongest points of this theology straight in the eye.
Method of Procedure
The reader should also be appraised of the intended procedure:
1. This book will not be concerned with periphery issues such as Mrs. White's personality, charismatic phenomena, and various other things which people haggle about to no profit. Our approach with the charismatic movement has been the same. Tongues, miracles, spiritual gifts—these are no issue. Who is to say what the Holy Spirit might do or not do with any human being? When Paul had problems arise in Galatia, did he waste time arguing about ceremonies as such? Did he not go directly to the eternal verities of the Christian faith? Therefore we must ask, Where did Mrs. White really stand on these eternal verities—the Godhead, the Trinity, Christology, the blood atonement, the finished work of Christ, and above all, justification by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith?
2. We shall survey Mrs. White's theology in a systematic way, covering epistemology (Bible), theology (God), anthropology (man), Christology (Christ's Person and work), soteriology (law and gospel, justification, sanctification), ecclesiology (church) and eschatology (last things).
3. We shall frequently pause to see where Mrs. White's theology stands in the great stream of church history. Particular note will be taken of where she stands in relation to the great Christological and soteriological controversies in that history. How does this point or that point compare with the teachings of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Arminius, Pelagius and so on?
4. I have made it my business to try to read all that Mrs. White has said about a certain subject before attempting a digest of her viewpoint.
Any responsible critic knows the hazard of building a case on an incidental statement. Greatest weight must always be given to passages where a particular matter is treated in a systematic way. It is shameful to erect straw men out of isolated statements. We also need to be aware of the fact that Mrs. White did not try to be a theologian in the classical sense of the word. She had no formal theological education. In fact, due to a childhood misfortune, she only obtained a third grade education. Most of her literature is of a very practical nature, written in the context of concrete situations which arose in her own church. These things are not pointed out so that the reader will expect to review theology of "one candle power" mentality. Mrs. White was clearly a religious phenomenon and literary genius in her own right. But for all that, we must make allowances for the way she expressed theology in her own unsophisticated style. Our task is to get to the content and not to haggle over isolated expressions.
5. The reader needs to exercise some patience, because the points of real controversy in the Adventist system are in the last chapter (eschatology). Many make the mistake of trying to criticize Adventist eschatology before they understand Adventist soteriology. This is a mistake. Let us first take a little time to examine the roots of the system.
6. I have tried to be thorough in presenting the outline of the following chapters without being too tedious. The reader will have to judge how well I have succeeded.
Book 1 simply attempts to faithfully portray The Theology of Ellen G. White. No effort is made to defend. No effort is made to refute.
Come, let us reason together!
1 Mrs. Ellen G. White (1827-1915), along with her husband James, was among those who founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the middle of the last century. For a period of seventy years of public ministry, she was the authoritative spokesman of the church's aims, outlook and beliefs.
Although she led Adventists in establishing a very thorough church organization having duly appointed leaders, Mrs. White herself held no administrative position in the church. Her overwhelming influence in the Advent movement stemmed from her unusual gifts as a charismatic leader. Seventh-day Adventists recognized her as "the Lord's messenger," who gave, as they believed, the Lord's counsel and guidance to the fledgling church.