A Conference of this nature is somewhat encouraging in my opinion. I could wish it had been attended by a wider spectrum of Adventist scholars. And that those attending had seen fit to release their 423 word statement which for some unknown reason remains hidden.
It is for each believer to reposition the influence of Ellen White in their individual spiritual experience by reading, studying and heeding her messages.
I believe that we would grossly misunderstand her divinely intended role if we understand that role as chiefly that of historical and devotional interest and without asserting her ‘prophetic insight’ for our contemporary situation.
I believe that a fruitful and very accurate way of understanding Ellen White’s role among Adventists is to see her as a ‘practical theologian’ with prophetic insight. In the last fifty years or so ‘practical theology’ has come to designate a respected theological genre.
This particular theological genre seeks to understand the true nature of theology as it was first practiced in the early centuries of the Christian era. Theology in that era was not so much an academic enterprise done in an ivory tower by academics for academics. Instead it was an occasional enterprise, for the most part, best seen in hymns, treatises, letters, sermons, and pastoral commentaries on the Scriptures. It was done by elders, bishops and church fathers.
Robert Maddox, an American Methodist theologian, in his book Redeeming Grace seeks to illustrate how John Wesley did such ‘practical theology.’ John Wesley’s theological output was mostly occasional pieces of exhortation and insight designed for the needs of his growing bands of Methodists. It’s important and wholly practical function was to norm and form the worldview of Methodist believers.
In this way, Maddox has aided the cause of the relevance of John Wesley’s theology. It has often been rejected as nothing more than ‘folk theology’ or at least minimised in academic circles. But if Wesley’s theology be read in terms of this freshly understood theological genre of ‘practical theology’ there just may be a renewed appreciation of Ellen White’s work were it read in similar terms. It may give us a renewed appreciation for her writings.
Afterall, like Wesley and many within the early Christian centuries, Ellen White wrote occasional pieces such as testimonies, pamphlets, magazine articles and sermons. And all while she sought to norm and form the worldview of Adventist believers.
One large question suggests itself at this juncture. How were and how are such occasional pieces of ‘practical theology’ to achieve coherence and consistency with the great volume of her literary output. Robert Maddox suggested an answer for this question in the experience of John Wesley in his book Redeeming Grace. Maddox suggests that such theological coherence and consistency is ensured by Wesley’s adoption of an ‘orienting concern.’ Further he seeks to demonstrate that ‘redeeming grace’ was Wesley’s orienting concern in his book by that name. This means that all of John Wesley’s literary output was shaped and oriented toward illuminating that central concern.
In a similar way, Ellen White also adopted an orienting concern. Her orienting concern was that of the Great Controversy worldview. All her literary output was shaped by and oriented toward illuminating that central concern of hers.
I do believe that the language of the Fundamental Belief, the ‘Gift of Prophecy’ can be improved. The term ‘remnant church’ is not helpful in my thinking. Adventists are a movement within the universal church. The emphasis here should not be on the institutional scaffolding, however important that may be. For many years now I have attempting to avoid speaking and writing of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I note with interest that the General Conference if officially the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Unfortunately, some other Adventist entities have embraced the more institutional sounding language. The emphasis should be on an organic movement of Adventist believers and the remnant message for the world that they are tasked to share.
In addition to this, I would much prefer to speak of biblical authority and Ellen White’s prophetic insight. This highlights to me the supreme role the Scriptures have in the life of the Adventist believer, while at the same time affirming the prophetic origin of Ellen White’s writings.