Prophets In Conflict by George Knight — Book Review

Prophets In Conflict: Issues in Authority, by George R. Knight, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2020, pgs. 208).

George R. Knight (1941) is one of the most prolific Adventist authors of recent decades. Since he published his first book in 1982 (Issues and Alternatives in Educational Philosophy), Knight has written over 40 books and edited or contributed essays to some 60 other books. It would seem that this enormous productivity across different disciplines led the editors of the Festschrift in honor of George Knight (2015) to refer to him on the cover as an “Adventist Maverick.”

As a historian of Adventism, Knight has produced several outstanding studies of significant persons, of important events and trends in Adventism, in particular about the Millerite Movement. He wrote the, probably definitive, biography of pioneer Joseph Bates. In addition, his books about the 1888 conference, its key-players and its aftermath, deserve special mention. Since 2002, Knight has increasingly written on theological issues and also authored commentaries on a number of Bible books.

During most of his career the person and ministry of Ellen White has fascinated Knight and inspired him to produce a series of books about her, with Prophets in Conflict being the most recent one. Whether it will be his “final major contribution to Ellen White studies” about her, as he claims in his Foreword (8), remains to be seen!

One of the major contributions of George Knight to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination has been his role in providing Adventists around the world with a balanced portrait of Ellen White. His books have done much to dispel persistent myths about the church’s prophet, to place her in the context of her time and to picture her as a “normal” human being. He has made a consistent effort to correct inadequate views of her inspiration, and has helped large numbers of people around the world to read Ellen White’s writings as they were intended. This has been a remarkable achievement, the more so since his publications often were in tension with the opinions of prominent thought leaders in the denomination, who frequently tended to promote a different kind of prophet. Somehow, Knight mastered the art of daring to be controversial, and of voicing his (well-founded) opinions, without losing the possibility to teach and publish within the confines of official institutional Adventism (except when, for a short period in 2017, his books were banned in the Michigan Conference).

It should come as no surprise when a prolific author such as George Knight repeats himself from time to time as new books come off the press. Some of his books are, in fact, a rewrite of earlier publications, e.g. his Sin and Salvation: God’s Work for and in Us (2008), which is based on his earlier Pharisee’s Guide to Perfect Holiness (1992), and The Cross of Christ: God’s Work for Us (2008) which appeared earlier as My Gripe with God (1990). To a large extent this present book fits this pattern of recycling earlier material. Of the 14 chapters in all, except one, have been published earlier. But the majority of church members will not have most of the original sources at their disposal, and this collection of essays therefore provides a welcome overview of many of the issues around the person and the work of Ellen White.

The title “Prophets in Conflict” has special reference to Part 1 (chapters 1 and 2) which contrast Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism, with Ellen White, the prophet of Adventism. The subtitle “Issues in Authority” zooms in on the crucial difference between the two. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) the authority of their modern prophets (Smith and his successors) and their non-biblical prophetic writings supersede the authority of the Bible. For Adventists, the official view is that the modern prophet and her writings are always subject to the Bible. However, the Adventist Church always faces — and sometimes succumbs to — the “Mormon temptation,” i.e. using the non-biblical writings as the ultimate authority for the interpretation of the Bible. “Flirting” with the “Mormon temptation” continues to be an ever-present danger, especially at the fringes of the church. “The perfectionistic, fundamentalistic subdenominations within the church still largely rely on Ellen White for their distinctive theology and generally have no problem viewing her as an infallible commentary on the Bible” (43).

Unfortunately, the church at large is also vulnerable at this point. The General Conference leadership recently developed a new statement about the continued trust in the Spirit of Prophecy, with the intention of having it endorsed by the 2020 Annual Council, and then to submit it to the 2021 General Conference for approval by the delegates from around the world. The statement that the AC delegates were originally asked to endorse contained the following statement:

“We believe that the writings of Ellen G White were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are Christ-centered and Bible-based. Rather than replacing the Bible, they uplift the normative character of Scripture and correct inaccurate interpretations imposed upon it…”

After receiving concerns from several Executive Committee members, this wording was replaced by words that were deemed more acceptable. It now states that the Ellen G. White writings “safeguard the church ‘from every wind of doctrine’” and offer “an inspired guide to Bible passages without exhausting their meaning or preventing further study.” It would appear to me that the drafters of this revised statement are still sailing close to the wind of “the Mormon temptation.”

Part 2 (chapters 3–8) is devoted to a “Framework for Understanding Ellen White’s Prophetic Authority.” Although much of the material in this segment is quite readily accessible in recent books by the author, many readers may profit from this systematic presentation of key factors for a good understanding of what to expect and what not to expect from her writings. Chapters 5 and 7 are particularly useful.

Chapter 5 deals with “the myth of the inflexible prophet” and explains how the prophet was much more flexible in her standpoints, and far more responsive to changing circumstances, than many of her inflexible followers were in her own time, and also are in our present time.

Chapter 7 follows up on this theme of flexibility and underlines that Ellen White did in certain instances adjust her opinion by providing further clarification, as some of her views developed over the years (e.g. regarding the Trinity, the eternity of Christ, and the personhood of the Holy Spirit). However, such change could also go beyond a mere development of certain beliefs and could be a reversal of earlier held views, as for instance with regard to the “shut door” theory and the consumption of pork (105-107).

Chapter 8 is a short but important note regarding the controversial question of whether Ellen White was in her writings “inerrant” with regard to historical details. Knight shows clearly that the claims of many of her followers have gone much further than the claims she made herself for her writings.

Part 3 (chapters 9 and 10) touch upon the authority of the many compilations of Ellen G. White material. Many readers of the writings of Ellen White do not realize that, in actual fact, she did not sit down to write any book from scratch, but that all her books (even her popular Steps to Christ) were compilations of material she had written earlier (123), often in the form of articles or letters. Some of the topical compilations date from when she was still alive, and were composed under her supervision. But, as she intended, the work of making compilations continued after her death. Knight argues that in some cases these compilations can be misleading, because of the way in which the content is selected, labeled under suggestive headings, and ordered. His criticism targets especially three books that were compiled by General Conference departmental personnel: Counsels on Diet and Food, Messages to Young People, and Country Living. This latter book, Knight believes, has, due to its definite anti-urban bias, been detrimental to a healthy approach to mission to the cities. Moreover, its few pages with quotes about labor unions are extremely one-sided and, thereby, misleading. Knight further argues that the collection of statements about the human nature of Christ that was assembled by the authors of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine gave proof of a serious “selective bias” (131).

Part 4 (chapters 11 and 12) zero in on proper and improper uses of Ellen White’s authority. Some have become very skilled in making Ellen White say things she never did say. The improper use of Ellen White’s authority by those who defend the post-Fall sinful human nature of Christ is particularly relevant, as the unbiblical, but widely accepted Last Generation Theology, with its legalistic and perfectionist leanings, can only be supported by a very selective use of statements from the pen of Ellen White, while ignoring many other statements that do not support the LGT arguments (149-161).

Part 5 (chapters 13 and 14) offers some closing thoughts and guidance on how to apply Ellen White’s counsels, in our personal life and in our relationships with others. Interestingly, Knight quotes M. L. Andreasen (whom he otherwise sharply criticizes for his role in resurrecting and promoting Last Generation Theology) to underline an important principle: “I believe, friends, that we ought to give heed to the messages God has given [through Ellen White], apply them to ourselves and not to judge others. Oh, the intolerance of some who think they are right! Let them be right. But do not judge others” (195).

This (final?) book by George Knight about the person and work of Ellen White is a very useful capstone of his important contributions toward improving the understanding of church members around the globe of the role of the modern prophet. Perhaps one could argue that the subtitle covers the over-all theme of the book better than the title (“Prophets in Conflict”). The title seems to apply only to the first two chapters, whereas the substance of the subtitle (“Issues in Authority”) is reflected throughout the book. Nonetheless, I warmly recommend this book to our global membership. It certainly also deserves to be translated into many other languages, since the education of church members in non-English speaking areas with regard to Ellen White’s role in Adventism is even more urgent than in the English-speaking world.

 

Further Reading:

Author Interview with George Knight about “Prophets In Conflict”

 

Prophets In Conflict: Issues in Authority is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, or from the Adventist Book Center.

 

Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from Newbold College and a Master’s degree from Andrews University, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. He recently interrupted his retirement to serve as the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxemburg. He has authored more than twenty books, in Dutch and English, and a large number of articles. He has also translated various theological books from Dutch into English.

Book cover image courtesy of Pacific Press.

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10854
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this really is the crux of the egw conundrum in our church: we either believe she was inspired, or we don’t…on the one hand, if we believe egw was inspired, there are a number of logical consequences attending this belief, none of which relegate her to a lesser authority than any of the bible writers, whom we also believe are inspired, and in no way relegated to some kind of hierarchy of inspiration or authority among themselves (we haven’t generally tried to relegate inspiration or authority between canonical prophets and so-called non-canonical prophets, which certainly begs the question of why anyone feels the need to do so with the non-canonical egw)…and we certainly don’t insist that our biblical interpretations can have the same weight as hers, or that we can say that what she wrote is flexible, anymore than we can do so with NT commentary on the OT, or on what, in the NT or OT, seems to us unscientific…

using the premise that inspiration is inspiration, wherever it is found, i believe it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that egw should be a part of our bible, and that the only reason she isn’t is because the biblical canon has been artificially closed, not by any pronouncement by god, or even angels, but by a clergy who did so for well-known political reasons…let’s understand that it is a relatively straightforward proposition to dispense with egw’s claim of lesser light status, given paul’s claim of lesser apostolic status…that is, we don’t understand it literally…we place these claims in the context of some of their other claims that basically consign to damnation anyone or anything that disagrees with them…

on the other hand, if we don’t accept egw’s claim of inspiration, our set of logical consequences are equally straightforward: we read her for historical interest, if we have any, and accept her founding role in the history of our past, with an emphasis on the word “past”…by way of consistency, we can also note that we have no way to accept that the bible as a whole, or even in part, is inspired, or that the bible writers had anything to say outside of their time and circumstances, given the limited, isolated, texts that claim timeless inspiration, none of which are dispositive…of course we can choose to embrace those parts of the bible we personally agree with, and accept that we have no real rationale for doing so, or that there is any need for any such rationale…but because, outside of collective tradition, our primary voice articulating the inspiration, value, purpose, timelessness and internal harmony of the bible is egw, any claim for the inspiration of the bible that attenuates her authority is a bit pointless…

i don’t see that so-called third options, such as desmond ford’s pastoral prophet status for egw, veers substantially from this option of outright rejection…we all know that none of ford’s followers have any time for egw…but logically, why should we read anything she wrote when we can easily consult more recent religious writers, like ford, for encouragement and enlightenment (this inherent conflict is the main reason pronouncements by theologians on the place of egw can have so little weight)…for that matter, why read religious writers at all if our object is subjective pursuits like encouragement and enlightenment…

probably the bigger question to consider with respect to this egw conundrum is the role and place of the gift of prophecy in our church…that is, does it still exist…is it a gift god still uses, as he promised he would more than 2700 yrs ago through the prophet Amos, or was that promise, linking divine action to enlightenment through a prophet, limited to the ministry of Amos…does the gift of prophecy today play the same supreme role it did with editions of the church in ages past, or is it the case that because we now have a complete bible that chronicles, through discrepancies, the life of christ on earth, the gift of prophecy is no longer a functional part of our ethos, much less part of the remnant identity we’ve traditionally claimed…related to this, of course, is the question of whether a future prophet can arise, or whether such a development must always be looked at suspiciously, and skeptically…

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Sounds like, to me, this is another book of apologetics, creating Saint Ellen. I suspect that if the church could, she would be canonized. The book gives no acceptance/justification to those who have experienced EGW from a different perspective and experience. This book sounds like there is a good reason for everything the EGW wrote, regarded as wrong or mistaken. All can be explained or justified away. Is there a book that gives a balanced picture?

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Not that it would ever happen, but the church offering an articulation of what the terms, “inspired” and “inspiration” actually mean would helpful.

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The SDA church will likely never solve the EGW problem. On one hand, to avoid the embarrassment of admitting error, EGW cannot be renounce. First there is a minority of fanatical EGW worshipers who would yell to high heaven that the church is apostazising, and then there is the large silent majority who believe in EGW only because they have never read her writings - their faith in the movement would be shaken since they can’t believe the church would be wrong on such a point.
However, intellectual honesty requires one to recognize that EGW’s writings contain a plethora of factual errors and that her writings often contradict the narrative in the canonical Bible. Neither of these statements of fact are fatal to her writings - the biblical writers also contradict each other and the canonical Bible also contains errors of fact.
The Bible and EGW are both inspired, provided that we recognize “inspired” doesn’t mean inerrant.

(and to avoid alienating a large portion of the membership)

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Good idea. A thorough study would be great. But most are gun shy about all the “false” ones it never gets anywhere. It’ll be like herding cats.
I think each person should think and study for themselves, allowing the HS and their personal walk with God dictate their belief on this. I tend to see a broader view. That inspiration is all around us and comes in bits and fragments and it’s up to us to walk thru them and piece them together as the HS leads.

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and if they are both inspired, “inspired” can’t mean original, either…this is probably the larger concern, given the relatively unique modern preoccupation with plagiarism and copyright infringement, and the fact that egw detractors have tended to make her plagiarism the central thesis of their case…

Well, I do not discuss her opinion about vinegar, I just take the Bible .
Some decades ago Gerhard Pfandl at a Ministers meetig in Bogenhofen - “our” national SDA School,
displaying the details to be found in the NT hat Jesus was at least two times ( a fist time by the Woman sinner inthe house uof Simon the pharisee (Luke7), the other time by Maria of Bethany - -) (maybe also on other occsions too) - - but then declared : Mrs White only describes ONE anointment, Woman sinner = Maria Magdalene = Maria in Bethany SO WE BELIEVE ONLY IN ONE ANOINTMENT. Period.

On preparing an Easter Sermon I reconstructed Jesus last week before Golgatha. The Children - then in my Sermon - got real genuine spikenard (Myra nardou ) on their hands - - the next Sabbath the sweet odour was still present in our church - St. John 11 : 3 ! - - - and I also sought for myrrha Matth. 27 : 34 - oinon meta cholhs memigmenon - / Mark 15 24 - esmyrnismenon oinon), Jesus refused to drink of : Tinctura myrrhae from the Pharmacy is extremely bitter - you just cannot swallow it ! And as a demnstartion I swallowed a handful ( ! ) daily dosages of capsules filled with myrrhae - (those prescribed by some physicians for digestive disorders, tasteless) and did not experience any anaesthetic effect ! Then I learned of a nearly twothousand years old myth : Wealthy ladies of Jerusalem should have taken care of providing an anaesthetic drink for the one to be crucified - Jesus, exhausted after a night of trial, , dehydrated, did refuse to drink somethink undrinkable, just refused to drink what just was good to fool ad deride , not at all refusing a drink that should anaethesize him - one or two pints at least necessary, be it for the effec of alcohol ! WELL, SEE WHAT THE INSPIRED VENERATED AUTHOR MAKES OF THIS INCIDENT !

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I mean, most of the first group is yelling that about the church anyway.

But yeah, there’s very little more frustrating than Sabbath School classes with the “expert” who always quote Ellen White. Never the Bible, always Ellen White. And because they quote her, the large silent majority in the class defer to the “expert” every single time. They have no idea what she actually wrote, or the context she wrote in, but it must be true because someone quoted her.

The church itself is mostly to blame for it, of course. How many Adventist Review articles make sure to insert some “precious gem” from EGW? How many times have the Sabbath School quarterlies just listed Bible verses, to make space for quoting multiple paragraphs from her writings? Too many to count. (And I’ve always been curious if it’s the authors doing that, or the editors after the fact.)

Nearly every Friday in the quarterlies are just a bunch of EGW quotes (or “recommended reading” from her writings), but rarely recommend reading the Bible itself. We won’t see it the other way around anytime soon, but it sure would be nice.

(I know somebody’s gonna reply and say “we don’t use the quarterlies in our class,” which is cool. But the large silent majority Pierrepaul mentioned generally do, and they’re the ones I’m thinking about.)

have you looked into whether maria magdalene was in fact maria of bethany…

well, what is it that you think she’s saying…

Why would it not be “the central thesis?” If she claims to “have been shown,” why reach out to someone’s writing to describe what she and only she has been shown? By doing so, she dilutes the authenticity of “being shown” and diminishes her credibility.

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because that person’s writing expressed things in a way that she believed captured effectively what she was trying to say…egw believed that all truth originated with christ, whether the person who articulated that truth believed in christ or not…and so, as christ’s spokesperson, she felt free to help herself to words that expressed what she believed was christ’s truth wherever she found it…she wasn’t concerned with copyright infringement in the way we are…

egw’s claims weren’t about being shown things that no-one had thought of, or articulated before, although it is true that much of her output is substantially original…in reality, egw was as much an arranger as she was an originator…her inspiration was about a progressive understanding of what was true, and what wasn’t, and so much of her work did have to do with identifying what around her was true…in her extensive use of sources in her library, and presumably elsewhere, there is a scattering of concepts she lifted - using the words, sentences and phrases supplied - but there is much more that is left untouched…it isn’t the case, at all, the egw copied blindly…she clearly understood the material she used, as well as the much larger amount of material she didn’t…

in reality egw’s plagiarism boils down to whether her mind was empty when she turned to sources around her, or whether her mind was filled with concepts and ideas that she used others’ words to express…there is also the question of whether she was impressed with what was true as she was reading, searching and studying, and whether those impressions would have occurred had she not read, searched or studied…i don’t think either question can be settled definitively, mainly because we have no way to read egw’s mind contextually, or retroactively…compounding the problem is egw’s view of inspiration as a cooperation between divine and human effort and action…in fact the phenomenon of inspiration itself is so rare, we really have no way to comprehend it academically…we have no standard we can compare it to, or measure it with…

what we do know is that plagiarism and attributing sources was a learning curve with egw…she ended her life treating this question substantially differently from the way she’d treated it earlier…this suggests we wouldn’t be looking at a plagiarism question in the output of egw were she operating in our time…

I feelsomehow uneasy about the term “plagiarism” that is something for attoreys, Even if I can boast saying that Numbers did not show me anything new for me - he only provided more in quantity, but just in local libraries here I found what N Numbers years later published in his first book. I even found one he does not quote : Sweetser, Mental Hygiene , around 1850 :" Mind - Body Relationship : "When one is afflicted, the other symapthizes - "

Far more worth the discussion is the "I was shown - " : lfiting up some everyday opinions and remarks into the clouds of infallibility, so in “Appeal to Mothers” and “Solemn Appeal” - - -(That poor mans fate with his cerebellospinal ataxy, leading to an early death - she was shown that - - : He was living a slowly progressive suicidal life because of his masturbation , the cause of his suffering and will not pollute Heavenly Jerusalem - -

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This is probably pure heresy, and I’m sure not original, but what if her brain injury was what opened her ability to this inspiration?

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i don’t think we know enough about this particular case to be able to pass any kind of judgement on egw’s counsel…for instance, was the individual in question clinically mentally ill, in a way that wouldn’t have been understood at the time, and was excessive masturbation a potential tipping point for him…that is, was this an example of specific counsel for specific circumstances, or was it intended to be more general…also, do we we know whether or not people will be masturbating in heaven…

this category of counsel, in which so many unknowables are in play, is best left unresolved in my view…it’s kind of like paul’s inference that baptism for the dead has value, or jesus’ parable about the after-life, in which the rich man endures agony in hell, while lazarus enjoys paradise…we don’t know enough about the context or circumstances to infer anything beyond generalities that can be gleaned elsewhere…i’m not sure we can even know whether the written record in these cases is accurate…

one tendency i do see quite a lot with individuals who misinterpret both egw and the bible is a misplaced emphasis on material that seems incomplete, or cryptic…meanwhile what is complete and perfectly clear is glossed over, and given little weight…there seems to be a mental inability at work, in addition to an unwillingness to conform to the written standard…discussions of egw absolutely always devolve into the subject of masturbation…it’s as if her entire ministry revolved around it…i don’t think it did…

There is some evidence that temporal lobe epilepsy contributes to religious experiences.

Many experiences and phenomena that once were attributed to angels and daemons and now better understood. Just as there likely is no such thing as daemon possession, it’s unlikely that EGW’s visions were supernatural.
In the physical world, just about every naturally occurring event was once attributed to the gods - from sunrise to sunset to the seasons, to the rain and sunshine, to the rainbow, earthquakes, meteor showers, eclipses, etc. We now know that these phenomena occur based on physics.
It’s likely that one day we will understand the mind, and the tricks that the mind can play.

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Ok, thanks. I can dig that. That’s pretty much accepted fact.
Let’s step outside the box. For fun:
I assume by your presence here you accept basic tenets of the faith.
God reveals Himself thru various means.
Nature
Thoughts
Experience

Suppose part of the problem with inspiration is our ability to “pick up” the messages.
What if the injury somehow opened up a “line” of communication?

I’m sure others have pondered this way before me.

Isn’t it a curiosity to find that there seems to be a common thread that ties “brain injury” to religiosity? Ezekiel, Paul, Martin Luther and EGW among many are examples. It is now known that a region of the brain when stimulated is known to experience closeness to God. Among healthy individuals, the most effective way to experience closeness to God is meditation. However, meditation is not the only pathway to this brain region. Brain injuries and seizures are also pathways to this particular brain region and you are right that perhaps EGW’s inspiration was triggered by her brain injury as a child.

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It doesn’t seem to be a huge step to see the possibility.
Thanks.

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Have you encountered evidence that correlates personality or temperament to spiritual tendencies?

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