The Theology of Ellen G. White


Mrs. White does not leave her readers in doubt about her estimation of the Bible. About 3,000 direct references are made to its importance, place, value, etc. Her position is basically the traditional position of conservative Christianity. The Bible is frequently referred to by such terms as "the Book of God," "the inspired record," "the holy Word," "the blessed Book," "the Supreme authority," and "the Book of books."

The Authority of the Bible

"The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His [God's) will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience."1 The entire Bible is to be accepted as infallibly reliable. By it all doctrines and opinions must be called into question—even the doctrines and opinions of Seventh-day Adventists. "There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position . . . that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error," declares Mrs. White to her own church. "The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible."2 "We cannot hold that a position once taken, an idea once advocated, is not, under any circumstances, to be relinquished. There is but One who is infallible—He who is the way, the truth, and the life."3 " . . . every position we take should be critically examined and tested by the Scriptures."4

The authority of the Bible must stand above all human experience—either the private experience of the individual or the collective experience of the church. "A 'Thus saith the Lord' is not to be set aside for a 'Thus saith the church.' . . . "5 Since the Holy Spirit has inspired the Bible, the Spirit and the Word must always agree. "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."6

The Perspicuity (clarity) of the Bible

Some portions of the Bible are difficult to understand. There are mysteries that we will never comprehend in this life. Yet all the truths necessary for salvation are plainly revealed. "The Bible was not written for the scholar alone; on the contrary, it was designed for the common people. The great truths necessary for salvation are made as clear as noonday; and none will mistake and lose their way except those who follow their own judgment instead of the plainly revealed will of God."7 ". . . the words of inspiration are so plain that the unlearned may understand them."8 ". . . there will be no excuse for any one who perishes through misapprehension of the Scriptures. . . . In the word the plan of salvation is plainly delineated."9 "Take the Bible as your study book. All can understand its instruction."10

This does not mean that man has innate ability to comprehend saving truth. Although "God desires man to exercise his reasoning powers," he cannot understand saving truth except by the gracious illumination of the Holy Spirit.11

The Sufficiency of the Bible

The canon of Scripture opens with Moses and closes with the Revelation of St. John.12 "The Bible contains all the principles that men need to understand in order to be fitted either for this life or for the life to come."13 Mrs. White quotes approvingly from the illustrious Protest of the Protestant princes at the Diet of Spires in 1529, which says:

There is no true doctrine but that which conforms to the Word of God. The Lord forbids the teaching of any other faith. The Holy Scriptures, with one text explained by other and plainer texts, are, in all things necessary for the Christian, easy to be understood, and adapted to enlighten. We are therefore resolved by divine grace to maintain the pure preaching of God's only Word, as it is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, without anything added thereto. This Word is the only truth. It is the sure rule of all doctrine and life, and can never fail or deceive us.

Mrs. White adds, ". . . there is need of a return to the great Protestant principle—the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty."14

The Inspiration of the Bible

Mrs. White does not subscribe to the mechanical view of verbal inspiration which is generally held by fundamentalists. God did not dictate to men the words that appear in the Scriptures. This is obvious from the diverse literary styles—depending upon whether the writer was a humble shepherd or fisherman, or a learned courtier or rabbi.

The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. These men were inspired of the Holy Spirit . . .

The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language. Jesus, in order to reach man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical purposes . . .

The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.

It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.15

The Creator of all ideas may impress different minds with the same thought, but each may express it in a different way, yet without contradiction.16

The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers. The truths revealed are all "given by inspiration of God;" yet they are expressed in the words of man. The Infinite One by His Holy Spirit has shed light into the minds and hearts of His servants. He has given dreams and visions, symbols and figures; and those to whom the truth was thus revealed have themselves embodied the thought in human language. . .

Written in different ages, by men who differed widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments, the books of the Bible present a wide contrast in style, as well as a diversity in the nature of the subjects unfolded. Different forms of expression are employed by different writers; often the same truth is more strikingly presented by one than by another. . . .

He [God] guided the mind in the selection of what to speak and what to write. The treasure was entrusted to earthen vessels, yet it is, nonetheless, from Heaven. The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it is the testimony of God; and the obedient, believing child of God beholds in it the glory of a divine power, full of grace and truth.17

This view of inspiration is neither fundamentalist nor liberal/neo-orthodox. It stands between the "right" and the "left."

The Two Testaments of the Bible

The Old and New Testaments are equally inspired and of equal value.18 No discord or great contrast exists between the Old and the New.19 The New does not take the place of the Old and therefore does not present a new religion.20 Rather, the New Testament is an advancement and unfolding of the Old Testament.21 The Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the Christ of the New Testament.22"The New Testament does not present a new religion; the Old Testament does not present a religion to be superseded by the New. The New Testament is only the advancement and unfolding of the Old."23

If comparison will be helpful, Mrs. White's general view seems to agree with these remarks by Dr. John Bright:

The Old Testament is, therefore, an incomplete book. . . . It is a noble building indeed—but it lacks a roof. That roof, by its own affirmation, the New Testament supplies. . . . It is impossible to set the New Testament apart and to construct a purely New Testament religion without regard to the faith of Israel. The New Testament rests on and is rooted in the Old. To ignore this fact is a serious error in method, and one that is bound to lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible message. He who commits it has disregarded the central affirmation of the New Testament gospel itself, namely that Christ has come to make actual what the Old Testament hoped for, not to destroy it and replace it with a new and better faith . . . .

For if anything is clear, it is that Christ did not come to contribute a new ethic. . . . Nor was Christ's mission to teach His people some new and loftier idea of God. . . . The New Testament, then, does not present us with a new religion we may study for itself alone . . . .

The two Testaments are organically linked to each other. The relationship between them is neither one of upward development nor of contrast; it is one of beginning and completion, of hope and fulfillment. . . . The Bible is one book.24

The Theme of the Bible

Christ is the theme of the entire Bible. Concerning the Old Testament:

In every page, whether history, or precept, or prophecy, the Old Testament Scriptures are irradiated with the glory of the Son of God. So far as it was of divine institution, the entire system of Judaism was a compacted prophecy of the gospel. To Christ "give all the prophets witness." From the promise given to Adam, down through the patriarchal line and the legal economy, heaven's glorious light made plain the footsteps of the Redeemer. Seers beheld the Star of Bethlehem, the Shiloh to come, as future things swept before them in mysterious procession. In every sacrifice Christ's death was shown. In every cloud of incense His righteousness ascended. By every jubilee trumpet His name was sounded. In the awful mystery of the holy of holies His glory dwelt.25

Concerning the New Testament:

In Christ is gathered all the glory of the Father. In Him is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. He is the brightness of the Father's glory, and the express image of His person. The glory of the attributes of God are expressed in His character. The gospel is glorious because it is made up of His righteousness. It is Christ unfolded, and Christ is the gospel embodied. Every page of the New Testament scriptures shines with His light. Every text is a diamond, touched and irradiated by the divine rays.

We are not to praise the gospel, but praise Christ. We are not to worship the gospel, but the Lord of gospel.26

Concerning the entire Bible:

Christ as manifested to the patriarchs, as symbolized in the sacrificial service, as portrayed in the law, and as revealed by the prophets, is the riches of the Old Testament. Christ in His life, His death, and His resurrection, Christ as He is manifested by the Holy Spirit, is the treasure of the New Testament. Our Saviour the outshining of the Father's glory, is both the Old and the New.27

The Study of the Bible

The Word of God is an infinite treasure that a thousand years of research could not exhaust.28 One sentence is worth more than 10,000 ideas of men.29

The word of the living God is not merely written, but spoken. The Bible is God's voice speaking to us, just as surely as though we could hear it with our ears. If we realized this, with what awe would we open God's word, and with what earnestness would we search its precepts! The reading and contemplation of the Scriptures would be regarded as an audience with the Infinite One.30

We should not put a forced, mystical or spiritualistic interpretation on the plain words of the Bible.31 They are to be taken literally and at their face value unless it is clear that a symbol is being used. A symbol must not be taken literally.32 In short, Mrs. White advocates the historical-grammatical approach.

The Bible is its own interpreter and expositor.33 We should be careful to notice the context of texts.34 And when we want to know what the Bible teaches about a given subject, we should bring together all that is said on that subject.35 One text should be explained by other and plainer texts.36

The central theme of the Bible should always be kept in view.37 Speculation should be avoided on things not clearly revealed and matters which will not help us spiritually.38 We should not major on minors, but always try to keep our views and religious experience within the bounds of the Bible.39 "Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain 'Thus saith the Lord' in its support."40

A great number of people do not search the Bible for themselves, but "accept its teachings as interpreted by the church . . . ."41 This is a warning for all—including Seventh-day Adventists.42 Yet there is need to counsel with brethren of experience before receiving or advocating new ideas.43 Mrs. White had much to say about the need for counseling together, law and order in the church, and the need to submit to the authority of the church. But if it comes to a crunch between individual conscience bound by the Scriptures and the authority of the church (any church), she is decidedly Protestant—the Word of God is above the authority of the visible church.44


One further question may persist in view of Mrs. White's claim to the charismatic gift of "the spirit of prophecy." Does this negate her own claim that the Scriptures are all-sufficient?

There are three things which she says about her writings:

1. She saw her special work as being God's "messenger" to the Advent movement. Her particular gift was not to be made an issue before the rest of the Christian church.45

2. If the Adventist people had studied and obeyed the Word of God, they would not have needed this charismatic counsel.46 One almost gets the impression that she regarded her counsels, reproofs, and appeals for radical holiness as pedagogic—a sort of disciplinary agent to lead God's people to Christ and justification by faith. If this is true, her work stands as a reproof rather than a commendation to Seventh-day Adventists.

3. Mrs. White called her writings "a lesser light" to lead her own people back to the Bible, because the very movement which she believed had a God-given mission to perform had neglected the Bible.47 She emphatically disclaimed that her "testimonies" constitute any new rule of faith. Those who are continually say, "She says, she says," while they neglect the Bible she severely reproved, as the following verbatim remarks indicate.

Lay Sister White right to one side; lay her to one side. Don't you ever quote my words again as long as you live, until you can obey the Bible. When you take the Bible and make that your food, and your meat, and your drink, and make that the elements of your character, when you can do that you will know better how to receive some counsel from God. But here is the Word, the precious Word, exalted before you today. And don't you give a rap any more what "Sister White said—Sister White said this, and Sister White said that, and Sister White said the other thing." But say, "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel," and then you do just what the Lord God of Israel does, and what He says."48

Now God wants every soul here to sharpen up. He wants every soul here to have His converting power. You need not refer, not once, to Sister White; I don't ask you to do it.49

But don't you quote Sister White. I don't want you ever to quote Sister White until you get your vantage ground where you know where you are. Quote the Bible. Talk the Bible. It is full of meat, full of fatness. Carry it right out in your life, and you will know more Bible than you know now. You will have fresh matter—O, you will have precious matter; you won't be going over and over the same ground, and you will see a world saved. You will see souls for whom Christ has died. And I ask you to put on the armor, every piece of it, and be sure that your feet are shod with the preparation of the gospel.50

It is often said that Seventh-day Adventists, in practice if not in theory, put the writings of Mrs. White on a par with the Bible and even in place of the Bible. It is clear, however, that she did not encourage them to do this.51


1 GC 7
2 CW 35
3 TM 105
4 Ev 69
5 AA 69 (cf. GC 204)
6 GC 7
7 SC 89 (cf. 5T 331)
8 GW 106
9 FCE 187
10 8T 299
11 SC 109, 110
12 GC 5; AA 585
13 Ed 123
14 GC 204, 205
15 1SM 19-21
16 1SM 22
17 GC 5-7
18 CW 26; COL 126
19 6BC 1061
20 SD 48; 6T 392
21 6T 392
22 AA 247
23 6T 392
24 John Bright, The Kingdom of God in the Bible and Church, pp. 195-200.
25 DA 211, 212
26 7BC 907
27 COL 126
28 FE 444
29 7T 71
30 6T 393
31 GC 598; 1SM 196; AA 474, 475; GW 147
32 GC 599; RH Nov. 25, 1884
33 CT 462; Ev 581; GC 521
34 Ev 358
35 CG 511
36 GC 203
37 Ed 125
38 GW 147
39 2SM 33
40 GC 595
41 GC 596
42 TM 106, 107
43 ST 293
44 GC 204
45 TM 34, 35
46 LS 198-201
47 Ev 257; 2T 455; ST 234, 674; 2T 605
48 Spalding-Magan Collection, p. 167.
49 Ibid., p. 170.
50 Ibid., p. 174.
51 Ev 256, 257

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