Characteristics Shared by Biblical Writers
and Ellen White“Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.”1
In early 1903 Ellen White, burdened about the decline in colporteur work (literature evangelism), wrote an article for the Review. In that article she expressed appreciation for the successful promotion of Christ’s Object Lessons.2 She also wrote: “Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her life-work God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given His servant to be given to the world.”
Then she amplified this connection between God’s light and her writings: “The Lord has sent His people much instruction, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little. Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.”3
No one can question that Ellen White regarded the Bible as the “greater light.” Numerous are the references, from her earliest days to her last, that exalted the Bible, such as: “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.”4
She saw clearly the relationship of her writings to the Bible. They were not only to exalt the Bible, they were to “attract minds to it,” to call “attention to the words of inspiration which you have neglected to obey,” to “impress vividly upon the heart the truths . . . already revealed,” “to awaken and impress the mind . . . that all may be left without excuse,” “to bring out general principles,” and to “come down to the minutiae of life, keeping the feeble faith from dying.”5
Three Metaphors That Illustrate “Lesser Light”
What did she mean by saying her writings were a “lesser light”? Three metaphors have been used in past years:
· The “testing instrument” and “that which is tested.” Displayed in the National Bureau of Standards at Gaithersburg, Maryland, is the National Prototype Meter No. 27 which was the national reference for line measurement from 1893 until 1960. It is made of 90 percent platinum and 10 percent iridium. Today the national standard is measured by an even more accurate method involving light emitted by electrically excited atoms of krypton-86. If anyone is unsure about his “yardstick,” he or she may take it to the national standard for comparative analysis.
The application is obvious: the national standard is the “greater light.” Copies of this national standard (called “working standards”) or industrial tools requiring exact precision and accuracy that meet the standard of the “greater light,” would be “lesser lights.” Yet, for all practical purposes, these “copies” function as well as the standard. A prototype standard (“greater light”) exists by which all other measures (“lesser lights”) are tested—but the local hardware yardstick (“lesser light”) is no less faithful to its task than the “greater light,” if it has passed the “test.” Thus, the reliability of the yardstick is, for all practical purposes, the same as the platinum-iridium bar in Gaithersburg, Maryland.6
· The comparison of forty candles with one candle. The analogy here is that the Bible was written by about forty authors—forty candles; Ellen White is one candle. Thus, the Bible is the “greater light.”7 Both the “greater light” and the “lesser light” give sufficient light to dispel darkness. The quality of light in the “greater light” is the same as that of the “lesser light.”
· National map and the state maps. Many road atlases have a two-page map of the forty-eight contiguous states followed by the state maps. The national map with its coast-to-coast display of the Interstate highway system is the “greater light”; the state maps, though possessing more detail, are the “lesser light.” Each has its special function. Both the “greater” and the “lesser” lights have equal authority in presenting truth.
The telescope analogy. Mrs. S. M. I. Henry, well-known in the late nineteenth century as a leader in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, became a Seventh-day Adventist while a patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. She and Ellen White soon developed a close friendship, largely because of their common life experiences. One of Mrs. Henry’s challenges was to present the Sabbath truth to her friends in the W.C.T.U., especially because they were often the leaders in promoting Sunday legislation.
However, accepting a prophet in the Adventist Church was not easy for Mrs. Henry. After close study, she saw the role of Ellen White to be akin to a telescope through which to look at the Bible. Mrs. Henry described her new insight in an article for the January 1898 issue of Good Health: “Everything depends upon our relation to it [telescope] and the use which we make of it. In itself it is only a glass through which to look; but in the hand of the divine Director, properly mounted, set at the right angle and adjusted to the eye of the observer, with a field, clear of clouds, it will reveal truth such as will quicken the blood, gladden the heart, and open a wide door of expectations. It will reduce nebulae to constellations; faraway points of light to planets of the first magnitude. . . . The failure has been in understanding what the Testimonies are and how to use them. They are not the heavens, palpitating with countless orbs of truth, but they do lead the eye and give it power to penetrate into the glories of the mysterious living word of God.”
Ellen White saw this article and asked permission to have it republished in Australia. She thought that Mrs. Henry had captured the relationship between the Bible and her work “as clearly and as accurately as anyone could ever put into words.”8 For Mrs. White, the Bible was always the “greater” light from which she derived her theological principles.
No Difference in Degrees of Inspiration
At least eight prophets mentioned in the Bible wrote for their times but their works were not included in the canon.9 The Biblical story not only does not hint of any difference in the quality of their inspiration, it describes their work as of equal authority with the canonical prophets. We find no difference in how they received their messages or in how they communicated them and how their contemporaries responded to them. Noncanonical prophets spoke for God and were regarded as God’s spokesmen by their contemporaries.
With the suggestion that some prophets were granted a higher degree of revelation/inspiration than other prophets, comes the inescapable question: Who will decide? Can an uninspired person sit in judgment on a prophet’s work and decide whether he or she is a first-, second-, or third-degree prophet? The gift of prophecy, as other spiritual gifts, is given to men and women “according to His own will” (Heb. 2:4), not man’s will.
In 1884 the president of the General Conference, George I. Butler, attempted to contribute to a clearer understanding of this subject by authoring ten articles for the church paper. In these articles he discussed “differences in degrees” of inspiration.10
Ellen White waited five years to respond, hoping that he would catch his own mistake. But when others began to pick up on Butler’s point of view and teach it in Battle Creek College, she wrote: “Both in the [Battle Creek] Tabernacle and in the college the subject of inspiration has been taught, and finite men have taken it upon themselves to say that some things in the Scriptures were inspired and some were not. I was shown that the Lord did not inspire the articles on inspiration published in the Review, neither did He approve their endorsement before our youth in the college. When men venture to criticize the Word of God, they venture on sacred, holy ground, and had better fear and tremble and hide their wisdom as foolishness. God sets no man to pronounce judgment on His Word, selecting some things as inspired and discrediting others as uninspired. The testimonies have been treated in the same way, but God is not in this.”11
Writings are the product of inspiration or they are not. Prophets are genuine or they are impostors.12 Other than the difference between the common and the sacred, which should be obvious to everyone, no one is able to divide a prophet’s writings into the inspired and the less inspired. As soon as one tries, the final arbiter is human reason. Each person then believes that his own reason is more dependable than anyone else’s.
Through the years some have suggested that Ellen White’s articles in periodicals were not as inspired as her books. Or that her letters were not inspired, only her published books. In 1882 she wrote a candid letter on “slighting the Testimonies,” to be read in the Battle Creek, Michigan, church: “Now when I send you a testimony of warning and reproof, many of you declare it to be merely the opinion of Sister White. You have thereby insulted the Spirit of God. You know how the Lord has manifested Himself through the Spirit of prophecy. . . .This has been my work for many years. A power has impelled me to reprove and rebuke wrongs that I had not thought of. Is this work of the last thirty-six years from above, or from beneath?
“When I went to Colorado, I was so burdened for you, that, in my weakness, I wrote many pages to be read at your camp meeting. Weak and trembling I arose at three o’clock in the morning to write to you. God was speaking through clay. You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision—the precious rays of light shining from the throne.”13
No Differences in Authority Between Canonical and Noncanonical Prophets
The suggestion that prophets can be categorized by degrees of authority is similar to the previous discussion of differences in degrees of inspiration. Such appeals to categories of inspiration and authority would reduce some prophets to merely an inspirational, pastoral role or function, without divine authority.
Sometimes this proposed categorizing of prophets rests on the difference between canonical and noncanonical prophets. Noncanonical prophets are considered pastoral/inspirational; canonical prophets are considered authoritative.
Try out that reasoning in the Bible story. How much authority did David believe Nathan had? And how did Nathan understand his role—inspirational or authoritative? “The Lord sent Nathan to David. . .” (2 Sam. 12:1). Later David (a canonical prophet) had a similar experience with another noncanonical prophet —Gad, “David’s seer” (1 Chron. 21:9). Again, the noncanonical prophet was conscious of his authority: “Gad came to David and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord . . .’” (1 Chron. 21:11). Further, “So David went up at the word of Gad, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord” (1 Chron. 2:19).14
In his last sermon, the late associate Review editor Don F. Neufeld said: “Through His witness to the New Testament prophets, Jesus predicted that prophetic activity, as one of many spiritual gifts, would continue in the church. In other words, the testimony of Jesus to His people was not to cease once the books that make up our present canon of Scripture would be written. Prophetic activity would continue beyond the close of the canon.
“This brings us to an important question. If in all prophetic activity it is Jesus who is speaking, whether in Old Testament times, in New Testament times, or in post-New Testament times, can we logically draw a distinction and say that what Jesus said in any one period is more or less authoritative than what He said in any other period?. . .
“For example, could something that Jesus said in the first century A.D. be more or less authoritative than what He said in the 19th century A.D.? The answer, I think, is obvious. It doesn’t make any sense to argue for degrees of inspiration, as if what Jesus (through the Spirit of prophecy) said in one generation was more inspired than what He said in another.”15
When Josiah (621 B.C.) recognized the long-lost Scriptures (probably Deuteronomy, see 2 Chron. 34:14), he trembled at the impending judgments foretold on God’s people as a consequence of apostasy. He was perplexed as to whether he and his leaders had enough time to institute national reform. His loyal religious leaders—Shaphan, the scholar, Hilkiah, the high priest, and many teaching Levites—were equally troubled. They all wanted to know the meaning of the Scriptures that promised both doom and blessing. Where did they turn for counsel? To the prophetess, Huldah!16
Josiah appreciated and respected his committed scholars and religious counselors. These trusted leaders were illuminated by the Spirit of God. But they, too, with Josiah, needed a higher authority to explain what these Scriptures had meant in Moses’ day and what they should mean in their day. For that authority they turned to the prophetess.
Josiah and his counselors recognized that “the authority of a message is derived from its source.” They perceived the “same divine Source in both the Bible . . . and in the message of a contemporary prophet.” In comparing Huldah and Ellen White, we note that both “intensified” the importance of the written Word, both focused the Word on the current situation, both “exalted” the Scriptures, and both “attracted” the people to apply the Bible to their lives, leading to reform.17
Common Literary Characteristics—Errors of Facts and Grammar
All prophets use their own language, imperfect as all human language is and always will be. Prophets use the language of their own family, community, and time. As the years go by, through study and travel, they improve their ability to understand and present God’s messages. This growth in perception and communicative skills makes their prophetic role even more effective.
But prophets are not perfect; they make mistakes. Sometimes they have faulty memories; sometimes they make a slip of the tongue (lapsus linguae); sometimes they misuse grammar. When Matthew wrote “Jeremiah” instead of “Zechariah” when he found an Old Testament analogy to Judas’s thirty pieces of silver (Matt. 27:9, 10; Jer. 32:6-9; Zech. 11:12), he made a mistake of memory or lapse of thought. In a similar fashion, Ellen White attributed to Peter the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:14: “‘The love of Christ constraineth us,’ the apostle Peter declared. This was the motive that impelled the zealous disciple in his arduous labors in the cause of the gospel.”18
The Holy Spirit corrects the prophets when their counsel, for whatever reason, may adversely affect their work. Note how Nathan was told to change his counsel to David (2 Sam. 7) and when Ellen White changed her counsel regarding the closing of the Southern Publishing Association.19
But the Holy Spirit does not correct the prophets’ human finiteness in the use of their communication skills.20
Biblical Models of Inspiration Correlate with Ellen White’s Ministry
Revelation is the work of God as He “speaks” to the prophet. Inspiration describes the many ways God works through His prophets in conveying His message to people. Biblical prophets and Ellen White have used at least six “models”of inspiration.21
Visionary Model. Most often we connect prophets with visions and dreams.22 But God also has revealed Himself in what we call “theophanies,” in which the actual presence of a heavenly being is seen or heard. We think of Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and Joshua before Jericho (Josh. 5:13-15). On another occasion, “the Lord opened the eyes of the young man [Elisha’s associate] and he saw . . . the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6:15-17).
Often visions and dreams are so graphic that the prophet has difficulty distinguishing them from normal reality.23 Isaiah confidently could say, “I saw the Lord. . . . I heard the voice of the Lord” (Isa. 6:1, 8).
Ellen White had many visions and dreams where the “reality” of the dream/vision experience overwhelmed her, as it did for Daniel or Ezekiel.24
Witness Model. God, at times, prompted certain Biblical writers to give their own account of what they had seen and heard. John exemplified this model when he wrote 1 John 1:1-3: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled. . . . These things we write to you that your joy may be full.” The Gospels of Matthew and John are examples of the witness model—they did not need a vision to write out their messages. Here the Holy Spirit was using a different kind of model of inspiration, in addition to the vision/dream model.
Ellen White wrote many pages reflecting this witness model. Her words in such a mode are as qualitatively inspired as her writings that were prompted by a dream or vision.
Historian model. Luke and Mark did not write their Gospels after receiving dreams and visions. Neither were they witnesses to the revelation as Matthew and John. Mark, it is generally agreed, depended largely on Peter’s “witness.” But Mark was not an “eyewitness”; he was a faithful historian.
Luke candidly describes his method of telling the gospel story in his preface addressed to Theophilus: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which are most surely believed among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:1-4.)
Thus, in the historian model God expects His messengers to use all pertinent historical records, oral or written, to fill out the message. God provides the message and helps the messengers find suitable material to make the message understandable to their readers. As we discovered in earlier pages,25 certain parts of the New Testament were imported from extraBiblical sources. These secular and nonBiblical sources became part of the “inspired” message.
Ellen White, at times, reflected the historian model, especially in the Conflict of the Ages Series.26
Counselor model. Some of Paul’s letters, such as those to Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and portions of the Corinthian letters, are classic letters of Christian counsel. None of these letters is solely theological. In 1 Corinthians 7 we find a mix of vision truth and inspired counsel. In verse 7 Paul said: “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband.” In verse 25 he followed with his counsel: “Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy.” In verse 40 he reminded the church that the wife “is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God.”
If someone would suggest that vision counsel is inspired and non-vision counsel is not, we would be dividing what Paul never did. What part of the Timothy letters is more inspired than other parts? Paul would say, “I have the Spirit of God.”
A large part of Ellen White’s Testimonies would be classified as counsel from one who had “the Spirit of God.” Whoever she was writing to, whether parents, children, teachers, medical workers, administrators, or ministers, she used the words, “I saw.” This does not always mean that she had a special vision for specific counsel. In her years of receiving visions, she had developed a keen sense of rightness and propriety. Her collected inspired wisdom gave her a rich store from which to draw, even as Paul would do in writing his counsel to individuals and to churches. Whether transmitting judgments derived from a vision or counsel based on years of listening to God, both communications came from one mind inspired by the same Spirit.
Epistolary Model. Letters to congregations and individuals was the most common method used by New Testament writers. Some of the letters were private; others were meant to be read publicly. It seems most probable that Paul never thought that his letters to Philemon, Timothy, and Titus would become public. But we are all thankful that they did. In these letters we see a mix of common matters with obviously spiritual counsel and instruction. These New Testament letters help us understand better how to relate to Ellen White’s many letters that often were private and frequently mixed the common with the sacred.
If the Lord permitted Paul’s private letters to be included in the canon for universal distribution, it would be appropriate to believe that the letters of His modern prophet might also bring encouragement and corrective counsel to those who do not have the benefit of her personal ministry.
Literary model. The Bible contains portions such as the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes where the writer expresses his most intimate feelings through poetry and prose. Again, it seems improbable that David or the other psalmists thought that their songs would eventually be in print and circulated the world over. Their deepest emotions, elation as well as anxiety, flow like an artesian well. In God’s wisdom these human emotions were meant to be preserved for the benefit of all who struggle in their daily lives.
Although Ellen White was not a poet, she also expressed her keenest emotions in thousands of diary pages. We are reminded of the apostle’s words in Hebrews 1:1 that God has “at various times and in different ways” spoken to us throughout human history. In listening to David or Ellen White, we often hear our own cries of anxiety, even discouragement, as well as our joy.
God has indeed spoken to us “in different ways.” Through visions and dreams, through those who witness of their own account of things seen and heard, through those who are inspired by the Spirit to research the providences of God, through those who are gifted to counsel God’s people regarding His will for them, through letters of instruction and correction, and through the vehicle of emotional expression of one’s deepest thoughts—through these “different ways” God has spoken to the heads and hearts of men and women “at various times.”
Thus, we can see that not all prophets had visions nor did all write letters. Some prophets laid their hearts bare to others while others were more objective in witnessing to what they had seen in the lives of others—or in recording the providences of God—as they did historical research. Some foretold the future, others were forth-tellers of God’s will in their time.
In four ways Jesus is the best example of how true prophets perform their responsibilities:
- He is the Messenger, the Revealer, of the mind of God.27
- He amplified the meaning of previously written Scripture.28
- He applied the Scripture to current circumstances.29
- He clarified the meaning of previously written Scripture.30
1.Selected Messages, book 3, p. 30.
2.The royalties for that volume were donated by Ellen White to removing the debt on educational institutions. See Bio., vol. 5, p. 92.
3.Review and Herald, Jan. 20, 1903. Here Mrs. White used the comparison in Genesis 1:16: "God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night."
4.The Great Controversy, p. vii.
5.Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 654-691. See Jemison, A Prophet Among You, pp. 364-374.
6.Carlyle B. Haynes promoted this metaphor in many evangelistic meetings in the first half of the twentieth century. See Roger Coon, "Inspiration/Revelation: What It Is and How It Works," The Journal of Adventist Education, Feb-Mar, 1982.
7.M. L. Venden, Sr., popularized this illustration for many years in his evangelistic campaigns. See Coon, Ibid.
8.Arthur White, Bio., vol. 4, pp. 346-348; Denton Rebok, Believe His Prophets (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1956), pp. 171-181.
9.Jasher (Joshua 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18), Nathan (1 Chron. 29:29; 2 Chron. 9:29; 29:25), Gad (1 Chron. 21:9; 2 Chron. 29:25), Ahijah (1 Kings 1:29; 14:2-18; 2 Chron. 9:29), Shemaiah (2 Chron. 12:15), Iddo (2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 13:22), Jehu (1 Kings 16:1, 7; 2 Chron. 19:2; 20:34), Elijah (2 Chron. 21:12-15).
10. Review and Herald, Jan. 8-June 3, 1884.
11. Selected Messages, book 1, p. 23. "Men should let God take care of His own Book, His living oracles, as He has done for ages. They begin to question some parts of revelation, and pick flaws in the apparent inconsistencies of this statement and that statement. Beginning at Genesis, they give up that which they deem questionable, and their minds lead on, for Satan will lead to any length they may follow in their criticism, and they see something to doubt in the whole Scriptures. Their faculties of criticism become sharpened by exercise, and they can rest on nothing with a certainty. You try to reason with these men, but your time is lost. They will exercise their power of ridicule even upon the Bible. . . . Brethren, cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost. . . . We thank God that the Bible is prepared for the poor man as well as for the learned man. It is fitted for all ages and all classes."—Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 17, 18.
12. Compare Matt. 12:22-32; "God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work . . . bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil."—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 671.
13. Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 64-67.
14. See Coon, "Inspiration/Revelation," The Journal of Adventist Education, Feb-Mar, 1982.
15. Sermon manuscript, "When Jesus Speaks," preached at the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, Feb. 2, 1980. Italics supplied. See also Kenneth H. Wood, "Toward An Understanding of the Prophetic Office," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Spring, 1991, p. 28.
16. 2 Chron. 34:21, 22; Neh. 9:30.
17. Eric Livingston, "Inquire of the Lord," Ministry, April, 1981. Ellen White wrote of her own prophetic duty when she noted that she was "not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed [intensification]. . . . God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given [focused] . . . . The Testimonies are not to belittle the Word of God, but to exalt it and attract minds to it [exaltation and attraction]."—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 665.
18. Review and Herald, Oct. 30, 1913.
19. Bio., vol. 5, pp. 191-194.
20. "The treasure [God’s message] was entrusted to earthen vessels, yet it is, none the less, from Heaven. The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it is the testimony of God."—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 26.
21. Juan Carlos Viera, "The Dynamics of Inspiration," Adventist Review, May 30, 1996, pp. 22-28.
22. See pp. 9, 10.
23. 2 Cor. 12:1-4.
24. See Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 34-47 for descriptions of various occasions when Ellen White received a vision or a dream.
25. See p. 378.
26. "In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject."—The Great Controversy, p. xii.
27. "Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works" (John 14:9-10)
.28. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ . . . But I say to you. . . ." (Matt. 5:21-48).
29. "And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. . . . Then He closed the book and . . . began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’" (Luke 4:17-22).
30. "And He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). Juan Carlos Viera set forth these four points in a 1995 presentation.
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