Dr. George Knight, retired Seventh-day Adventist historian, has just published Prophets in Conflict. Dr. Knight is the author, contributor, and editor of about 150 books. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Knight about his new book.
Question: Your new landmark book, Prophets in Conflict: Issues in Authority, begins by comparing and contrasting the life and work of Joseph Smith and Ellen White who emerged about the same time. What do you see as some of the essential differences between the two?
Answer: Well, they both claimed to be prophets. They both helped found religious movements. But the major difference is in how they viewed the relationship of the modern gift of prophecy to the authority of Scripture. Joseph Smith clearly saw the Bible as God’s Word only as far as it was preserved and translated correctly. To him, it was a flawed document with many errors. For Ellen White, the Bible was the key document, the authority, when it came to doctrine and salvation. In addition, Smith claimed canonicity for his writings, a position that was anathema to Ellen White.
That is a powerful difference.
Yes, and it goes further, because for Latter-day Saints the highest authority on religious matters is continuing revelation from God given through the living apostles and prophets of the church. Ellen White took the opposite position — that we must have biblical authority for every doctrine and practice.
You talk in the book about “the Mormon Temptation.” What do you mean by that, and how does it play into our Adventist thinking today?
The Mormon Temptation is the temptation to use inspired material in the wrong way. Basically, it is the temptation to do theology and to read the Bible through the eyes of a modern prophet. Adventists have tended to want to do theology through Ellen White and use her as a divine commentary. She rejected both of these approaches in her own lifetime. I messed up when I neglected to title the book Prophets in Conflict and the Mormon Temptation: Issues in Authority.
As Seventh-day Adventists, where do we find our authority?
I can tell you where we ought to find our authority — in the Word of God. But as I look at Adventism, I see tradition as being probably our most authoritative approach. Second is Ellen White. Third is church authority. And fourth is the Bible. No Adventist will admit that, but if you watch how we make decisions and operate and how many do theology, I think you’ll find that tradition, Ellen White, and church authority generally have superiority over Scripture itself. If we are deciding how to interpret the Bible, we will read it through Adventist tradition, Ellen White’s writings, or lately, even church authority. That’s a generalization, and it’s not true in every case, of course. But it’s kind of frightening.
I have said that according to many Adventist views of Ellen White and the origin of Adventist theology there is something like a pipeline that runs from the throne of God to planet Earth connecting to the top of Ellen White's head and running out through her fingers where it all came out fully developed and inerrant!
Can you give an example of how that has played out in the everyday life of the church?
One illustration I use in the book is the issue of the human nature of Christ. We have battled over that issue through Ellen White quotations, because the Bible simply doesn’t adequately address the questions we are asking. We’ve fought over that issue and printed a multitude of articles and books on it. And in the end, we’ve settled nothing, because it’s not a Bible topic. Too often we get involved in side issues that wander away from the clear teachings of Scripture, looking for new light or some reason why Jesus hasn't come yet.
What do you see as the most common misperception in the church today regarding Ellen White and her writings?
Probably the most common misperception of Ellen White herself is that she was flawless and perfect. And as a result, we feel inadequate. Adventists tend to see her as an unblemished example. But the real Ellen White didn’t always get along with her husband or her children. She could be difficult. She had problems — just like everyone else. We have this idea that a prophet can never intentionally do something wrong. But that’s not biblical. None of the heroes of the Bible were flawless. Why should Ellen White have to be better than they were? Viewing Ellen White this way tends to be discouraging. We have this perfect example that we can never quite live up to. And on top of that many of us have a perfectionistic theology. No wonder some decide it’s better to just leave.
In terms of her writings, the misperceptions have been very serious. The critics all the way from Dudley Canright up to the present time have generally held that Ellen White couldn't make a serious error, that her words are verbally inspired, that her books and writings should be used as a divine commentary by which to interpret Scripture. They saw her writings as something to be used to do theology and to extend that theology in new directions. Then, when they discovered problems with these views of her writings, they lost faith in her and threw it all out. “She changes her words around, therefore she can’t be verbally inspired; therefore, she can’t be a prophet.” Interestingly, Ellen White herself rejected all these misperceptions of her writings. Unfortunately, these false impressions have been sanctified by Adventist tradition.
In your book, Prophets in Conflict: Issues in Authority, you talk about Ellen White and change. You point out three types of changes — contradictory changes, progressive changes, and clarifying changes. How does this help in the process of understanding the gift of prophecy?
Whether it’s a critic attacking Ellen White or the White Estate preparing a compilation of her writings, we tend to group her statements together without defining the different kinds of changes they may represent. Ellen White was involved in all three of these kinds of changes. We need to recognize that. She even changed on some important theological topics as time went on. But, she never left the foundation of what she called the pillar truths. The sanctuary, the Sabbath, the Second Coming, the state of the dead — for her these things were the foundation upon which Adventism was built in the context of the three angels' messages in the flow of history.
One of the valuable parts of this book is your discussion of compilations. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the compilations of Ellen White’s writings?
There are two chapters in the book dealing with compilations. One points out that Ellen White provided for compilations to be made and that actually they had begun during her lifetime. Unfortunately, the White Estate never really got significantly involved in compilations of unpublished materials until the late 1940s. In other words, they didn't develop criteria soon enough, thus some of the compilations begun in the 1920s and published in the 1930s and early 1940s have serious challenges because significant safeguards were not in place.
The second chapter on this topic is titled, “Making Ellen White Say What She Never Said.” There I show how during her own lifetime she was very frustrated by people independently making compilations to prove some particular point and thus gain her authority for that view — much the same way that Mormons use the authority of Joseph Smith. There is huge power in developing compilations in such a way as to get the authority of the Adventist prophet on your side.
Compilations necessarily require selection. What is selected is very important — as is what is not selected. Another factor is the headings that are provided. These can definitely slant things one way or another. And then you have to put the selected quotations in some kind of sequence. By the time you have all three of these elements in place, you can create a certain theology. You can create a certain lifestyle or ecclesiology. Selection, labeling, and sequence are the foundations of both healthy and unhealthy compilations.
We need to take a hard look at compilations. My own view is that some early compilations done under the supervision of church departments and individuals were not carefully supervised or examined before being brought into the official corpus of Ellen White compilations. Those done by the White Estate since the late 1940s are much more balanced. Since then the White Estate has taken this responsibility very seriously, and I congratulate them on that. Meanwhile, we struggle with some difficult problems in some of the earlier compilations. The book provides some important examples.
Before moving away from the subject, I should note that the greatest contribution of a well-constructed compilation is the preservation of her most essential counsel on a topic in one place.
Did Ellen White give some counsel regarding the use of compilations?
In Selected Messages, vol. 3, pages 283-288 Ellen White gives strong counsel regarding the proper use of testimonies on health reform that also applies to other topics:
“We see those who will select from the testimonies the strongest expressions and, without bringing in or making any account of the circumstances under which the cautions and warnings are given, make them of force in every case. Thus they produce unhealthy impressions upon the minds of the people. There are always those who are ready to grasp anything of a character which they can use to rein up people to a close, severe test, and who will work elements of their own characters into the reforms. This, at the very outset, raises the combativeness of the very ones they might help if they dealt carefully, bearing a healthful influence which would carry the people with them. They will go at the work, making a raid upon the people. Picking out some things in the testimonies they drive them upon every one, and disgust rather than win souls. They make divisions when they might and should make peace.”
She says they “disgust rather than win souls.” Pastors, leaders, and Adventists in general need to read this chapter frequently.
Earlier you mentioned the danger of emphasizing the prophetic role over the person. Is there a danger of going the other direction — so emphasizing her humanity that we lose sight of her prophetic role? How do we keep those in balance?
That's always a tricky business — particularly because in many ways we've managed to distort both her prophetic role and her person. If we lose sight of the fact that Ellen White was truly a prophet, I think we've lost something extremely important as a church. Her divine counsel for the church is absolutely essential. But we need to understand why that counsel was given. It was not given as a divine commentary on the Bible. It was not given to establish doctrine. It was given to point us to Jesus, to understand Him better, to point us to the Bible, and to highlight principles in Scripture that we need to apply to our own lives.
Ellen White was not a theoretician; she was a missiologist. She was a person who was dealing in practical things. Her purpose was to guide the Adventist Church in the proclamation of the three angels’ messages to the ends of the earth. And part of that was just helping people to get back to Scripture and to get back to Jesus.
Do you see any other significant issues today in the study of Ellen White and her writings?
More and more the study of her and her writings is being done on the computer by word searches. Word searches are the worst thing that ever happened to Ellen White. You just can’t get what she really believed by word searches. Word searches will not help you understand the conceptual Ellen White. But they fit nicely with the Adventist mentality that numbers are everything. “How many times does she use a particular word?” I often told my classes that the worst thing that ever happened to Adventists is when they learned to count. We count everything, yet the things that are most important can't be counted. They're qualitative.
You have spent much of your life thinking seriously about the prophetic gift and its manifestation in the life of Ellen White and the Adventist Church. Can you distill your thinking into a few sentences?
I've come to the conclusion that the sign of a true prophet is that they point us to Jesus and they point us to the Bible. I'm a firm believer in Ellen White, because of those two “tests.” I’ve never had anybody point me more firmly back to Scripture and back to Jesus.
Prophets in Conflict: Issues in Authority is available from the Adventist Book Center and Amazon.com in paperback. Call the ABC (1-800-765-6955) or visit their website to order. The ebook is available from Amazon.com for Kindle and Barnes & Noble for Nook.
Dale E. Galusha is president of the Pacific Press Publishing Association. This interview was provided by Pacific Press.
Book cover image courtesy of Pacific Press Publishing Association.
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