The Gift of Prophecy

Ellen G. White Uses the Sola Scriptura Principle16 in Biblical Interpretation

Ellen G. White upheld the great Protestant principle that Scripture is best interpreted by Scripture itself: “If there is a point of truth that you do not understand, upon which you do not agree, investigate, compare scripture with scripture, sink the shaft of truth down deep into the mine of God’s word. You must lay yourselves and your opinions on the altar of God, put away your preconceived ideas, and let the Spirit of heaven guide into all truth.” 17 To apply the Scripture principle means, for Ellen G. White, that scripture has to be compared with scripture, where different texts or passages speaking on the same topic should be brought together to provide a complete picture of what the Bible teaches. This is accomplished not “by occasional or disconnected study” and cannot “be discerned by the careless or hasty reader. Many of its treasures lie far beneath the surface, and can be obtained only by diligent research and continuous effort.” 18 GOP 303.1

In 1906 Ellen G. White wrote a series of 20 short articles for The Signs of the Times entitled “Our Great Treasure-House,” in which, in some articles, she refers to the way that the Bible should be studied. 19 Several thoughts reoccur repeatedly in these articles: (1) the Bible is its own interpreter and Scripture should be carefully compared with Scripture (Signs of the Times, Mar. 21; Sept. 5; Sept. 19; Oct. 3, 1906); (2) we should study one text or passage until its meaning is clear, rather than read many chapters with no definite purpose in view (Signs of the Times, Mar. 26; Oct. 3, 1906); (3) the Bible must be studied prayerfully and with reverence (Signs of the Times, Mar. 21; June 6; Sept. 19; Oct. 3, 1906). GOP 303.2

For her the sola Scriptura principle also encompassed the idea that all other sources of theology, such as tradition, science, reason, or experience, are subordinated to Scripture. In the classic words of Ellen G. White, this will be the case until the end of earth’s history: GOP 304.1

But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines, and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority—not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain “Thus saith the Lord” in its support. 20 GOP 304.2

Neither does Ellen G. White elevate herself to a position where she with her prophetic giftedness is perceived as the authoritative source for the interpretation of Scripture. Rather, she time and again affirms the great Protestant principle: “The Bible is its own expositor. One passage will prove to be a key that will unlock other passages, and this way light will be shed upon the hidden meaning of the word. By comparing different texts treating on the same subject, viewing their bearing on every side, the true meaning of the Scriptures will be made evident.” 21 She repeatedly affirms: “The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts.” 22 GOP 304.3

It also means that close attention should be given to the meaning of words and symbols in order to understand their “deep spiritual meanings.” 23 For Ellen White “the language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed.” 24 This historical and definite meaning of the text of Scripture lead her to embrace and to endorse the fundamental hermeneutical principles that William Miller had previously advocated. Rather than endorsing an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, Ellen G. White follows a literal interpretation of the Bible. For her, real facts, real people, and real events are reported in the Bible and should be interpreted accordingly, unless the biblical context affirms a symbolic interpretation or indicates that it is a parable. GOP 304.4

She states: GOP 304.5

Those who are engaged in proclaiming the third angel’s message are searching the Scriptures upon the same plan that Father Miller adopted. In the little book entitled “Views of the Prophecies and Prophetic Chronology,” Father Miller gives the following simple but intelligent and important rules for Bible study and interpretation:— GOP 305.1

“1. Every word must have its proper bearing on the subject presented in the Bible; 2. All Scripture is necessary, and may be understood by diligent application and study; 3. Nothing revealed in Scripture can or will be hid from those who ask in faith, not wavering; 4.To understand doctrine, bring all the scriptures together on the subject you wish to know, then let every word have its proper influence; and if you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in error; 5. Scripture must be its own expositor, since it is a rule of itself. If I depend on a teacher to expound to me, and he should guess at its meaning, or desire to have it so on account of his sectarian creed, or to be thought wise, then his guessing, desire, creed, or wisdom is my rule, and not the Bible.” GOP 305.2

The above is a portion of these rules; and in our study of the Bible we shall all do well to heed the principles set forth. 25 GOP 305.3

Ellen G. White not only affirms the sola Scriptura principle—she uses the Bible accordingly. She consistently explains the meaning of Scripture through Scripture. We find her constantly appealing to study the Scriptures for ourselves 26 to learn from Scripture the true meaning of the Word of God. When there were theological controversies, Ellen G. White urged the Adventist pioneers not to use her writings to settle doctrinal conflict. Even in the earliest part of her ministry, particularly during the Bible Conferences of 1848 to 1850, she described her mind as being closed, but during vision she took a stance confirming certain positions after they were taken, or sometimes pointing the parties to further scriptural texts that should be examined. 27 Thus, for all practical purposes Ellen G. White confirmed in her personal dealing with Scripture that Scripture alone is the proper interpreter of Scripture. She did not assume the role of being the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, but encouraged others to be diligent students of Scripture themselves. 28 GOP 305.4

According to Ellen G. White, God calls for “a diligent study of the Scriptures, and a most critical examination of the positions we hold. God would have all the bearings and positions of truth thoroughly and perseveringly searched, with prayer and fasting.” 29 Thus, “if there is a point of truth that you do not understand, upon which you do not agree, investigate, compare scripture with scripture.” 30 Statements like these show that for Ellen G. White “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.” 31 She urged that “in our time . . . there is need of a return to the great Protestant principle—the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty.” 32 GOP 306.1

The significance of the priority and supreme authority of Scripture in Ellen G. White becomes evident in yet another correlated aspect of her use of the Bible: she uses and employs all of Scripture (tota Scriptura). GOP 306.2

Ellen G. White Uses All of Scripture

In her established praxis of comparing Scripture with Scripture Ellen G. White uses all of Scripture. Rather than giving priority to only some parts of Scripture, thereby neglecting other parts, Ellen G. White affirms that all of Scripture is to be taken into consideration for a proper understanding. She does not elevate the New Testament over the Old Testament, but affirms the trustworthiness of all Scripture. For her, all of Scripture is inspired by God, hence everything that the Bible states should be taken into consideration when studying a given topic. “Make the Bible its own expositor, bringing together all that is said concerning a given subject at different times and under varied circumstances.” 33 Thus, it has aptly been stated that “at the outset it is important to observe that [Ellen G.] White made a concerted attempt to understand, employ and apply the whole of Scripture.” 34 GOP 306.3

Her affirmation of all of Scripture is also illustrated by another rather obvious fact in her writings. A glance at the Ellen G. White Scripture index on the Ellen G. White CD-ROM (cf. also the Ellen G. White Scripture index in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary) reveals that she refers to or quotes not just a few favorite books but every single book of the Bible. More than that, Ellen G. White refers to virtually every chapter of each biblical book. Thus she practiced what she affirmed. GOP 307.1

The prime role of Scripture in Ellen G. White’s thoughts becomes obvious in yet another important area of her use of the Bible: the priority of Scripture over God’s general revelation in nature. GOP 307.2

Ellen G. White Acknowledges the Priority of Scripture Over the General Revelation in Nature

Unlike nature, God’s second instruction book that provides a general revelation of God, for Ellen G. White Scripture is the inspired Word of God and has priority over nature. 35 For Ellen G. White nature and the Bible have the same Author, and therefore one can expect harmony between them. “Rightly understood, science and the written word agree, and each sheds light on the other.” 36 For her the revealed Word of God and the natural world will be in agreement “for all truth, whether in nature or in revelation, is consistent with itself in all its manifestations.” 37 Nevertheless, she held that the special revelation recorded in the Bible takes precedence over God’s general revelation in nature. Nature, as it exists today, is distorted by sin. Nature is not inspired, but Scripture bears the quality of inspiration. Scripture therefore provides the lens that helps one to gain a reliable and correct understanding of the Creator’s book of nature. GOP 307.3

Ellen G. White was keenly aware that such harmony is not possible when modern science is conducted independent of the God hypothesis or in opposition to God’s Word. She writes: “I have been warned that henceforth we shall have a constant contest. Science, so-called, and religion will be placed in opposition to each other, because finite men do not comprehend the power and the greatness of God.” 38 This science, falsely so called, is based on conceptions and theories of men to the exclusion of the wisdom of God as revealed in His written Word. She warned that “when professedly scientific men treat upon these subjects from a merely human point of view, they will assuredly come to wrong conclusions. . . . The greatest minds, if not guided by the word of God in their research, become bewildered in their attempts to trace the relationship of science and revelation.” 39 Her use of Scripture in this area becomes evident and significant when, for instance, she accepts the biblical record of the creation of this world in six literal days or when, among other things, she talks about the age of the earth 40 and the historicity of the Flood. GOP 307.4

The special role and superior authority of Scripture in Ellen White’s thinking becomes manifest in another facet of her use of Scripture—when she repeatedly displays implicit trust in the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible. GOP 308.1

Ellen G. White Acknowledges the Historicity and Cultural Context of the Bible

Ellen G. White recognized that “an understanding of the customs of those who lived in Bible times, of the location and time of events, is practical knowledge; for it aids in making clear the figures of the Bible and in bringing out the force of Christ’s lessons.” 41 She was also sensitive to the fact that it is important for the interpreter to understand what meaning the text had for the original recipients: “Understanding what the words of Jesus meant to those who heard them, we may discern in them a new vividness and beauty, and may also gather for ourselves their deeper lessons.” 42 GOP 308.2

For Ellen G. White “the Bible is the most ancient and most comprehensive history that men possess. It came fresh from the fountain of eternal truth, and throughout the ages a divine hand has preserved its purity.” 43 Unlike modern critical scholarship, which largely questions the historicity and existence of many biblical figures and events, Ellen G. White repeatedly affirms the historical existence of all the biblical persons listed in the Bible. For her they are not mythical or mystical figures, but describe real persons. In her view the Bible functions as a historical report of people and events that are real and not in any way fictional. She unambiguously states: “The lives recorded in the Bible are authentic histories of actual individuals. From Adam down through successive generations to the times of the apostles, we have a plain, unvarnished account of what actually occurred and the genuine experience of real characters.” 44 The way she writes about biblical people affirms her strong conviction that the biblical characters were real historical persons. GOP 308.3

In a similar manner Ellen G. White affirms the historicity of historical events, such as the creation of this world and the worldwide flood in Noah’s time. 45 She uses the Bible and quotes Scripture in such a way that one gets the distinct impression that Ellen White believed that what Scripture states did take place and is a trustworthy report of historical facts. GOP 308.4

The authentic histories of biblical individuals and the historical nature of major events tell us important things about God and His mighty power and wisdom to act in history, Ellen White concluded. God was not just active in the distant past, but is the same powerful God to save and act today. For her to diminish the historicity of actual individuals and events in the Bible would diminish the ability of God to do similar things today and in the future. GOP 308.5

Ellen G. White also affirms the prophetic nature of Scripture. In fact, she uses the Bible in such a way that it is imminently evident that she believed predictions about future events up to the end of earth’s history that were made therein. The prophecies of the Messiah as well as prophecies about future nations and religious powers, particularly as they are described in the apocalyptic books Daniel and Revelation, foretell what will take place in the future. They are not statements that were written after the author had information about the events to come that he described (no vaticinia ex eventu). The fulfillment of biblical prophecies confirms, for her, the reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture. GOP 309.1

This positive stance toward the reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture is not restricted to its prophetic message. Ellen G. White also values the divinely revealed and inspired content of all of Scripture. GOP 309.2

Ellen G. White Uses Scripture as Propositional Revelation

Throughout her entire life Ellen G. White in her writings “envisioned concrete historical, spatio- temporal truths and assumed God’s providence within the spatiotemporal flux of concrete human freedom and history.” 46 For her, Scripture is not culturally conditioned47 and hence relative, but is culturally constituted through God’s process of revelation and inspiration and therefore normative and authoritative. Thus she consistently uses Scripture in a way that affirms its objective, culture-transcending, propositional truth. For Ellen G. White the God of the Bible knows everything. He has revealed some things in a reliable and trustworthy manner so that we can know a small part of what God truly and exhaustively knows. The Bible, for her, is a guidebook through which God speaks, so that we can specifically know His will and can be led to the right way. “We all need a guide through the many strait places in life as much as the sailor needs a pilot over the sandy bar or up the rocky river, and where is this guide to be found? We point you . . . to the Bible.” 48 Ellen White wrote that “the Lord has preserved this Holy Book by His own miraculous power in its present shape—a chart or guidebook to the human family to show them the way to heaven.” 49 Thus, for her “the Bible is a chart, showing us the waymarks of truth. Those who are acquainted with this chart will be enabled to tread with certainty in the path of duty, wherever they may be called to go.” 50 Ellen G. White herself continually endeavored to found what she was saying upon what was written in the Bible. This she could do because she affirmed the unity of Scripture. GOP 309.3

Ellen G. White Affirms the Unity of Scripture

Ellen G. White believed that the message of Scripture is so unified that it is legitimate to interpret one passage in the light of another. In an inconsistent, uninspired document, this principle would not work. She recognizes that “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. And as several writers present a subject under varied aspects and relations, there may appear, to the superficial, careless, or prejudiced reader, to be discrepancy or contradiction, where the thoughtful, reverent student, with clearer insight, discerns the underlying harmony.” 51 This vital unity underlying the diversity in subjects in Scripture is also expressed in the following statement: “The word of God, as a whole, is a perfect chain, one portion linking into and explaining another.” 52 GOP 310.1

This marvelous unity in Scripture53 is derived from its divine inspiration, Ellen White contended. This unity manifests itself in a harmonious view of the many diverse parts of Scripture— one part buttressing another, another part illuminating some other. That Scripture can be compared with Scripture requires another characteristic of Ellen G. White’s use of the Bible: the clarity of the Word. GOP 310.2

Ellen G. White Affirms the Clarity of Scripture

Ellen G. White was convinced that the Bible can be read and understood by all, not just the educated and specialized theologians. 54 Scripture is sufficiently clear or self-evident in its meaning that it can be understood by every honest seeker. The Scripture, she contended, is clear, not because all of Scripture is perfectly perspicuous and all readers understand absolutely everything the text says. Rather, she believed that Scripture is sufficiently clear or self-evident in its meaning to function as a guide to those passages that appear less clear. 55 For Ellen G. White the meaning of Scripture is not polyvalent, and it is not the reader who determines the meaning of the text but Scripture that interprets itself. While Scripture does not give an exhaustive knowledge of God, it nevertheless does provide a true knowledge of God, and we can truly come to a correct understanding of God and His will for us. GOP 310.3

The clarity (and unity) of Scripture enables Ellen G. White to use Scripture to confront false teachings and to promote it as a book that can be understood by men and women, boys and girls of every stripe and socioeconomic class, irrespective of their formal education. It empowers and ennobles every reader. The clarity of Scripture also entails the following important aspect: God in Scripture so discloses Himself that He provides us with a unique, grand metanarrative that provides us with a unique perspective of life and history. GOP 311.1

Ellen G. White Affirms a Divine Metanarrative That Is Disclosed in Scripture

It has been recognized that there is a unique linkage between the Bible, character development, and the metanarrative of the great controversy theme in Ellen G. White’s writings. 56 Indeed, her use of Scripture is characterized by the presence of a divine metanarrative that serves as a framework for reading various parts of Scripture and providing a unique perspective on life and history. It is the “grand theme of redemption,” 57 the “plan of salvation,” 58 that is expressed in the cosmic metanarrative of the “great controversy.” 59 The movement from Creation through the Fall to God’s ultimate re-creation; His divine plan of redemption that climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary; His second coming in glory; and the creation of the new earth—all of these subthemes have received extensive attention in Ellen G. White’s writings. In fact, her great controversy theme offers a cosmic conflict theodicy and divine metanarrative that is more thoroughly presented than that of anyone in church history. 60 It has been aptly said that “the controversy between Christ and his angels and Satan and his angels is the most comprehensive framework for her entire corpus.” 61 According to Ellen G. White, GOP 311.2

the student should learn to view the word [the Bible] as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working. . . . He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the other of the two antagonistic motives; and how, whether he will nor not, he is even now deciding upon which side of the controversy he will be found. 62 GOP 312.1

In this great controversy between good and evil, the love of God for humanity and God’s willingness to do all He can to redeem us from sin is one of her major theological themes. The other is faithfulness to Scripture. 63 GOP 312.2

While Jesus is central in this metanarrative and in her theology and plays a prominent role in her exposition of Scripture, she does not use Christ as a hermeneutical key with which to judge what parts of Scripture are acceptable and which parts are not. 64 She does not criticize Scripture—not even in the name of Christ—but affirms Jesus as the Christ of the Bible and all of Scripture as His binding word. 65 GOP 312.3

Beyond these foundational aspects of Ellen G. White’s use of Scripture one can detect a variety of other specific uses of Scripture in her writings. The complexity of her use of Scripture deserves a more comprehensive treatment than the narrow limits of this paper allow. 66 It seems a gross oversimplification, however, to categorize her use of Scripture as simply exegetical, theological, and homiletical, 67 because many other uses are discernible in her writings. GOP 312.4

In the remaining part of the paper I will attempt to give a brief overview of some other aspects of her use of Scripture that can be discerned in her writings. GOP 313.1