Ellen White and Adventist theology

Ellen G. White and the Seventh-day Adventist Church are as integrated as the union of the Anglo-Saxon languages in the formation of English speech. Others have observed that Ellen White, "during a long life span,... exerted the most powerful single influence on Seventh-day Adventist believers."1 "Mrs. White was the acknowledged inspiration of the movement.... Her ideas established the world of Adventism in its medical, educational, and missionary work around the world."2

James White, her husband, was the remarkably resilient institutional developer and church organizer. Ellen, by his side, emboldened with holy candor and steely commitment, encouraged the emerging Adventist movement with her visions. Her unrelenting optimism and encouragement became the rallying center for an international work that surpasses, in some respects, all other religious affiliations today.

Yet, this administrator/prophet team did their work without appealing to fear or favor. They built up a world church, not a personal empire of power or wealth. Neither claimed reward or earthly comforts.

On the one hand, they fearlessly denounced evils in the social order; on the other, they led tens of thousands to catch a picture of how the gospel brings spiritual and physical restoration in this life. Out of this twin emphasis emerged a worldwide network of healthcare and educational institutions, supported by scores of publishing houses and a worldwide mission outreach. But this twofold emphasis was subsumed under the compelling motivation that they were preparing a people for the soon return of the Lord.

Ellen White, the indisputable guiding force behind this worldwide program, is considered to be the second most-translated author in history and the most-translated U.S.A. author, male or female. During her 70-year ministry, she wrote approximately 25 million words and 100,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts (60,000 typewritten pages) that include letters, diaries, periodical articles, and books.

Seventh-day Adventists have sought her counsel on about every issue facing the church. Her voluminous writings, well organized and indexed, are read and discussed to a much greater degree than Methodists quote John Wesley or Lutherans the writings of Martin Luther.

The Great Controversy theme

What makes Ellen White the central figure in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the foremost contributor to Adventism's uniqueness? Adventist doctrine does not derive from Ellen White; the Bible is its undeniable wellspring. The uniqueness of the Adventist message, however, rests on the integrating, organizing thought of Ellen White. Much that is distinctively Adventist in its rich, systematically developed message indeed derives from Ellen White's overarching view of the Bible as expressed in her emphasis on the Great Controversy theme. From this integrating principle flows the Adventist linkage of Bible study and piety, the special emphasis on the relationship between physical health and spirituality, and the concept of wholeness in developing educational principles.

What do we mean by the Great Controversy Theme (GCT)? As every student knows, any significant theology or philosophy has an organizing principle. This principle, or paradigm, is fleshed out in its unique theology or philosophy. Ellen White's GCT provided the organizing, integrating principle for her teachings in health, education, history, and science.

For Ellen White, "the central theme of the Bible, the theme about which every other in the whole book clusters, is . . . the restoration in the human soul of the image of God. ... He who grasps this thought has before him an infinite field for study. He has the key that will unlock to him the whole treasure house of God's word."3 The uniqueness of Adventism is not to be located in some particular element of its theology, but in the overall understanding of this "central theme of the Bible."

The cosmic conflict between God and Satan (the first of God's creation) beggars the mind that such an event could have been contemplated, never mind implemented. The fundamental question remains to this day: Whose plan is best for the universe? God's appeal to angel/human responsibility, or Satan's theory of individual autonomy?

The heart of the conflict

The heart of this conflict focuses on the character of God. Satan has charged that God is unfair, unforgiving, arbitrary, and supremely selfish. God's defense has been both passive and active— passive in that He has allowed time to proceed so that Satan's principles could be seen for all their suicidal destructiveness; active in that He has revealed His character and trustworthiness so that all inhabitants throughout the universe could make up their minds as to who has been right and wrong in the controversy.4

Ellen White caught the larger view of the controversy when she wrote: "The plan of salvation had a yet broader and 14
deeper purpose than the salvation of man. It was not for this alone that Christ came to the earth; it was not merely that the inhabitants of this little world might regard the law of God as it should be regarded; but it was to vindicate the character of God before the universe."5

The essence of God's response to Satan's charges has been to demonstrate the fruitage of His plan—"the very essence of the gospel is restoration."6 Restoration, not only forgiveness! God's plan (what we know as the "gospel"), shows how serious God is about working sin out of the universe, one person at a time, restoring rebels into grateful, trustworthy sons and daughters.

In clarifying the "everlasting gospel" that the world needs to hear in these last days (Revelation 14:6, 7), the message of Seventh-day Adventists would have to transcend the age-old controversies that deeply divide Christianity. Further, the "everlasting gospel" would have to be stated in such a way that hundreds of millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others could grasp the freshness and simplicity of Christianity.

Ellen White's GCT transcends these traditional tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions. Contending theologies and philosophies are like two circles of partial truths, neither circle knowing how to unite itself with the other into a coherent, elliptical whole. The GCT changes those opposing circles into an ellipse. By using the principle of the ellipse, each circle finds its treasured truths safely preserved, even greatly enhanced. In the ellipse, truth is united in such a way that all of its parts, once in conflict, are seen as needed for mutual survival.

Components of truth

Truth is not the sum of paradoxes. Truth is the union of components, in such a way that when one component is not connected to the other, something
serious has happened to truth. For example, H^O is another way of saying, "water." Hydrogen or oxygen by itself is very important. But without their proper union, water does not exist. The question of whether hydrogen or oxygen is more important becomes meaningless— if one wants water to drink! The same logic applies to the components in the ellipse of truth.

In philosophy and theology, the two circles are generally known as "objectivism" and "subjectivism." Towering theological and philosophical thinkers can be catalogued in either circle. For example, within epistemological subjectivism (immanence—"truth" is found in reason, feeling, research, etc.) we would expect to see Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Hartshorne, etc. In epistemological objectivism (transcendence—"truth" coming from outside men and women) we find God's self-communication in the Bible and Jesus, and we can think of advocates in Luther, Calvin, Barth, etc. The history of the Christian Church is the story of which circle is predominant at the moment. Oscillation between the two occurs as one tries to rectify the deficiencies of the other. Overemphasis on transcendence (leading to cold orthodoxy untempered by relevance) invariably awakens the overemphasis on immanence (leading to the hot autonomy of reason and feeling, untempered by revelation).

Today we often refer to the objectivist circle as "conservative," and the other, "liberal." Each circle is emphasizing something correct and timely. Key words for conservatives are: transcendence, authority, rootage, law, structure, security, and grace—all good words to hold on to. The historic weakness of objectivism, or conservatism, is often a misunderstanding of the character of God (e.g. Calvin and his sovereign God leading to predestination, eternal hell, etc.) which, in turn, leads to a misunderstanding of "faith". When faith is misunderstood, "only believe" is heard in some form, leading to human passivity, to "correct doctrine" and the suppression of relevance.

Key words for liberals are: immanence, responsibility, reason, flexibility, meaning, relevance, and faith—also good words to hold on to. The historic weakness of liberalism lies in its subjectivity. Pietists, mystics, rationalists, charismatics (and whoever else puts human autonomy "in front" of divinely revealed truths) base their security on reason, intuition, or historical research. Absolutes are rarely appealed to. Faith again is misunderstood, and it describes religious feeling leading to autonomous tests of truth.

Ellen White understood this historic standoff between these two circles: "The progress of reform depends upon a clear recognition of fundamental truth. While, on the one hand, danger lurks in a narrow philosophy and a hard, cold orthodoxy, on the other hand, there is great danger in a careless liberalism. The foundation of all enduring reform is the law of God. We are to present in clear, distinct lines the need for obeying this law."7 Here again Ellen White allows the GCT to determine her transcending solution to the age-old controversy between God's plan and Satan's rebellion.

Truth in elliptical form

"Hard, cold orthodoxy" and "careless liberalism" are the end results of letting truth remain in two circles rather than letting truth be truth in its elliptical form. Ellen White transcends these two circles by uniting authority and responsibility, doctrinal security and heart assurance, so that the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not need to fall back into the theological arguments that divide all other churches. The ellipse of truth shows how important positions, traditionally in conflict, are joined by the holy and—either spoken or implied.

Ellen White's GCT became the elliptical framework by which she was able to transcend the either/or arguments that have separated thoughtful Christians for centuries. In the following examples, note the ellipse of truth that joins twin truths as securely as hydrogen bonds with oxygen to make water:

The relationship between Christ's work on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit: "The Spirit was to be given as a regenerating agent, and without this the sacrifice of Christ would have been of no avail.... It is the Spirit that makes effectual what has been wrought out by the world's Redeemer."8

The relationship between Christ's role as Sacrifice/Saviour and as High Priest/Mediator: "Satan invents unnumbered schemes to occupy our minds, that they may not dwell upon the very work with which we ought to be best acquainted. The arch-deceiver hates the great truths that bring to view an atoning sacrifice and an all-powerful mediator. He knows that with him everything depends on his diverting minds from Jesus and His truth."9

The relationship between believing in Christ and abiding in Him: "It is not enough that the sinner believe in Christ for the pardon of sin; he must, by faith and obedience, abide in Him."10

The relationship between Christ's free gift of remission of sins and His free gift of His attributes in the development of the Christian character: "[Christ's] life stands for the life of men. Thus they have remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. More than this, Christ imbues men with the attributes of God. He builds up the human character after the similitude of the divine character, a goodly fabric of spiritual strength and beauty. Thus the very righteousness of the law is fulfilled in the believer in Christ."11

The relationship between imputed and imparted righteousness: "Our only ground of hope is in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and in that wrought by His Spirit working in and through us."12

The relationship between objective authority and subjective responsibility in the faith experience: "Faith in Christ as the world's Redeemer calls for an acknowledgment of the enlightened intellect, controlled by a heart that can discern and appreciate the heavenly treasure. This faith is inseparable from repentance and transformation of character. To have faith means to find and accept the gospel treasure, with all the obligations which it imposes."13

The relationship between God's work and our work in the salvation process: "God works and cooperates with the gifts He has imparted to man, and man, by being a partaker of the divine nature and doing the work of Christ, may be an overcomer and win eternal life. The Lord does not propose to do the work He has given man powers to do. Man's part must be done. He must be a laborer together with God, yoking up with Christ.... God is the all-controlling power. He bestows the gifts; man receives them and acts with the power of the grace of Christ as a living agent.... Divine power and the human agency combined will be a complete success, for Christ's righteousness accomplishes everything."14

White's transcending breakthrough

Because of her grasp of the GCT as it helped her to transcend conventional theological impasses, Ellen White was able to keep the denomination together during the 1888 General Conference Session and the years following. She was able to lift the sights of Adventists as she helped them rise above both objectivists (with their undue emphasis on doctrine), and subjectivists (with their undue emphasis on feeling and human autonomy).

Note how Ellen White contributed to this transcending breakthrough: "While one class pervert the doctrine of justification by faith and neglect to comply with the conditions laid down in the Word of God—'If ye love Me, keep My commandments'—there is fully as great an error on the part of those who claim to believe and obey the commandments of God but who place themselves in opposition to the precious rays of light— new to them—reflected from the cross of Calvary. The first class do not see the wondrous things in the law of God for all who are doers of His Word. The others cavil over trivialities and neglect the weightier matters, mercy and the love of God. . . .

"Many have lost very much in that they have not opened the eyes of their understanding to discern the wondrous things in the law of God. On the other hand, religionists generally have divorced the law and the gospel, while we have, on the other hand, almost done the same from another standpoint. We have not held up before the people the righteousness of Christ and the full significance of His great plan of redemption. We have left out Christ and His matchless love, brought in theories and reasonings, and preached argumentative discourses."15

Theology does matter. Correct theology matters most. Ellen White became the reason for the Adventist distinctives that join long-separated truths into the coherent, intellectually satisfying, heart-affirming statement that John saw as "the everlasting gospel" in the last days.

Herbert E. Douglass (Th.D., Pacific School of Theology) has authored 11 books and many articles. His latest book, Messenger of the Lord, to be published by Pacific Press, focuses on Ellen G. White as a theological conceptualizer.

Notes and references

  1. Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XX, p. 99.
  2. "The Story of Religions in America—Seventh-day Adventists," Look XXII (June 24, 1958), p. 79.
  3. Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1952), pp. 125, 126; see also p. 154. All references from now on are from books authored by Ellen G. White.
  4. Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), pp. 11, 12.
  5. Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1913), p. 68.
  6. The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 824.
  7. The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1942), p.129.
  8. The Desire of Ages, p. 671.
  9. The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), p.488.
  10. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 517. Italics in original.
  11. The Desire of Ages, p. 762.
  12. Steps to Christ, p. 63.
  13. Christ's Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1941), p. 112; see also The Desire of Ages, p. 347.
  14. Faith and Works (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publ. Assn., 1979), pp. 26, 27.
  15. Ibid., pp. 15, 16.