Not too recently, I went to the Creation bookstore in London and saw the pamphlet on sale that expounded on why Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs) are considered a cult rather than as Christians. Apart from a belief in the Seventh-day Sabbath and the argument that SDAs believe in a different Jesus, the argument that was most worthy of my reflection was the argument of the role of Mrs. White and her writings in the SDA denomination. The concern raised by my Christian friends in the pamphlet is that the SDA community gives Mrs. White's writings equal authority as the Holy Scriptures.
It is easy to see how this concern is justified. On reading some of Mrs. White's writings to my family, my eldest daughter began to call it 'Daddy's Bible', perhaps because the book, like the Bible contained events, as well as a whole lot of moral instructions. (I stop reading the book to the family after that). Also, it is true that from my experience of the SDA community that there are many members that are so inclined to see Mrs. White's writings as equally as inspired as the Bible. The denomination's official statistics show that 75% of the community believe in Mrs. White's prophetic gift. Today, I present my own views on the matter.
It is complicated if one believes in the Bible to not believe that God will continue to have prophets and to reveal things to believers. For me, I do not discount people having a claim to seeing visions. The Bible itself establishes that one of the ways that God speaks to us is through dreams and visions (Job 33:14-18). I am sure my Pentecostal brethren will agree with this. In fact, before the Pentecostal movement, which my Pentecostal brethren trace back to Azusa street revival (1906), Ellen White experienced seeing visions and even speaking words of wisdom. In fact, a defence of the perpetuity of spiritual gifts can actually be found in early Adventist literature. James White, Mrs. White's husband, in his introduction entitled 'Spiritual Gifts in Spiritual Gifts Vol. III makes a defence of the perpetuity of spiritual gift doctrine that sounds similar to any Pentecostal minister (White, 1945).
I myself have seen visions or received a word in my spirit though not as frequent as I would like. Hence I am not going to debate the authenticity of people getting revelations or visions from God. However there are 3 things that I raise opposition to:
- that all of Mrs. White's writings are complete and there is no need for new revelations
- that all of Mrs. White's writings are wholly inspiration and wholly prophetic
- that Mrs. White is a false prophet.
Mrs. White's writings are incomplete and we still need further prophetic revelation for today
My thesis on the matter is that while Mrs. White did see visions and receive revelations from God, what she saw was incomplete partial and sometimes interpreted by familiar theological lens. Going back to Job 33:14-18 it states in the NIV Bible:
though no one perceives it.
15 In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on people
as they slumber in their beds,
16 he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warnings,
17 to turn them from wrongdoing
and keep them from pride,
18 to preserve them from the pit,
their lives from perishing by the sword
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.In my paraphrase, even when we see visions or have dreams, even the interpretation is into very clear or the knowledge of the application is not so definitive. Daniel received visions which he did not understand and had to wait for further revelations to clarify the meaning of what he saw (Daniel 8:27). Apostle Peter also saw a vision in the story of Cornelius (Acts 10), which he did not understand until events unfolded before his eyes. Peter on seeing the vision doubted what he saw, until later he interpreted based on his lived experience what God meant in showing him the vision (Acts 10:28).
Giving these examples, brings me to my next point, that while Mrs White got visions and heard from heaven, sometimes she had to interpret and make sense of what she saw or heard. This might have meant drawing on human resources. language and understanding to communicate what she saw to others.
Not all of Mrs. White's writings are wholly inspiration and wholly prophetic
We must understand that Mrs. White was informally educated and as such got most of her words, education and knowledge through informal education of reading many spiritual and theological books. Hence while sometimes she documents what she saw or heard, at other times she dilutes these visions and revelation with interpretation and moral instruction. To understand this, one only needs to examine theories of organizational and personal storytelling.
Central to a story is an event that takes place or an experience that one has (Benjamin, ). However during the telling of the story, sometimes the narrator inserts material that was or is not a part of the original event or experience. On some occasions, the narrator tries to make sense of the event or experience using their understanding of the world and how it works or is supposed to work. At other times, the narrator extracts from the event or experience some wisdom that they believe others should learn or some moral of the story or event. This is what I am afraid happens in some if not all of Mrs. White's writings.
Mrs. White is not a false prophet/prophetess
If one undermines Mrs. White's gift of receiving revelations or visions from God, one is in danger of undermining a gift that the Bible authentically promises believers. Didn't God say in Joel 2:28 in the New International Version that:
"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
Further, some of my other Non-SDA Sabbatharian Sabbatarian friends would argue that Mrs. White cannot be a true prophetess wholly on the issue of gender. They said that because she is female, her claims to hearing from God must be dismissed. They would cite that the Bible says that no woman must teach using 1 Cor. 14:34. However didn't we just read that God would equally pour out his spirit on 'sons' and 'daughters'? Further, Apostle Peter quoting from the same book of Joel also reinforces that 'your daughters' will 'prophesy' (Acts 2:17).
So it is my thesis that while Mrs. White did see visions and receive revelations from God, what she saw was incomplete, partial and sometimes interpreted by familiar theological lens. Some of it may have been revealed for specific situations or settings in which she and the early Advent movement found themselves in, and might not fully be applicable in our present reality. For example I raised in a previous blog post how while Mrs. White received no revelation about the rebirth of the nation of Israel, one of her contemporaries predicted that this would take place.
On the other hand, that does not discount that all her writings and prophecies are to be disregarded. The only way to know if they are applicable is to read them and interpret them with a historical perspective. We need to know what took place in the past that gave context to her vision or revelation. Further, we need in our times new revelation from God about our circumstances and reality. A God of the past, present and future, should not be a God that has ceased speaking and revealing to us what he is doing in the present to attain the future that he has promised.
Finally, if one argues that Mrs. White is a false prophetess, then the next question to ask is how do you know that any prophet is a true one? Further does one also do this by invalidating the very Bible that tells us that prophecy is a gift to the church? After all, the Bible promises us that God does speak to us and the church in this way.
Garcia, E. M. (2013, Oct. 17). Landmark survey reveals in-depth beliefs, perceptions of Adventist members. Adventist News Network. Retrieved from http://news.adventist.org/all-news/news/go/2013-10-17/landmark-survey-reveals-in-depth-beliefs-perceptions-of-adventist-members/
White, E. (1945). Spiritual gifts. Vol 3 & 4.Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association.