Prophets in Conflict: Issues in Authority — Author Interview

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 bookProphets in Conflict: Issues in Authoritybegins 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 Authorityyou 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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10605
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This dose not fully represent the writing of EGW–but is a revisionist view. Just reading through Gospel Workers or Desires of Ages there are many references to obtaining victory over ever sin. Perfectionism is alive and well in EGW in-spite of what Dr. Knight teaches.

"Christ came to the world to counteract Satan’s falsehood that God had made a law which men could not keep. Taking humanity upon Himself, He came to this earth, and by a life of obedience showed that God has not made a law that man cannot keep. He showed that it is possible for man perfectly to obey the law." 1893

“They will need to cling close to the One who gave His life for them, that they might have power to become the sons of God, power to obtain the victory over sin. They are to live the Christ-life, revealing purity and holiness. Never are they to gloss over sin. Never are they to have perverted appetites and passions. These appetites and passions are to be uprooted and cast away. The children of God are not to be slaves of passion.” 1905

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One cannot be a prophet without a belief in (God) Jesus and a firm belief in the Bible, his word. The tests of a prophet goes beyond these two, – that they speak and write according “To the law and to the testimony”, and they are honest in not adding or diminishing from the word of God.

Are we to suppose that she were the only loyal Christian to point us to the bible? I know there were 100s of God-fearing theologians and ministers who did so centuries before her, they include early church fathers. I never felt directed to the Bible when I read her account of the fall of Satan, fall of man and the biographical narratives from her works because they are extra-biblical in nature. I found the fall of Satan and man well portrayed in paradise lost; biographies in Edersheim, Daniel march, John Ross MacDuff and many others. Let us give due importance to non-adventist inspired writers too.

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  1. Her counsel ‘absolutely essential?’ when we have the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, and the word of God as a lamp and a light guide us? This means that we are more dependant upon her than God’s word and his Spirit.
  2. Not given as a divine commentary on the Bible? Let us see what our leaders and the church have been saying:
    "But, of course, we believe that she was a prophet and we regard her writings as an inspired commentary on the Holy Scriptures " ( D. A. Delafield (1913-2003), Associate Secretary, Ellen G. White Publications – Ellen G. White Estate – Question and Answer File Number 4-D-20, April 23, 1968

“Accept the Spirit of Prophecy as one of the greatest gifts given to the Seventh-day Adventist Church not just for the past but even more importantly for the future,” he said. “While the Bible is paramount in our estimation as the ultimate authority and final arbiter of truth, the Spirit of Prophecy provides clear, inspired council to aid our application of Bible truth. It is a heaven-sent guide to instruct the church in how to carry out its mission. It is a reliable theological expositor of the Scriptures.” The Spirit of Prophecy is to be read, believed, applied and promoted” – Ted N. C. Wilson’s July 3, 2010 sermon, Atlanta, Georgia, United States.
Who are we to believe?

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Just as it is in the Catholic Church. Our church has not changed to this day in this respect.
According to Roderick S. Owen:
"Thus Protestants have always claimed that the Bible is its own interpreter. Perhaps it is better to say the spirit of prophecy (we use the term here as synonymous with the gift of prophecy), or testimony of Jesus, is its own interpreter ”.

“The Bible is an infallible guide, but it needs to be infallibly interpreted to avoid confusion and division”.

“The spirit of prophecy is superior to the reason and judgment of any council of men that can be called”

“Because in it would be found the source of final appeal in the church , to wit, the spirit of prophecy…When will the people of God cease trusting their own wisdom? When will they come to the place where they will cease to measure, construe, and interpret, by their own reason, what God says to them through His appointed channel ? When we come to the place where we place no trust in man nor in the wisdom of men, but unquestionably accept of and act upon what God says through this gift, then will the spirit of prophecy, as set before us in the Bible and as witnessed in the present manifestations of this gift be confirmed among us and become, in fact, the counselor, guide, and final court of appeal among God’s people . Under the leadership of Christ, through this gift, the cause of God will move forward with mighty strides to final victory” (Review and Herald, June 3, 1971).

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Very much a revisionist view. I grew up in Adventism and went to grade school and Academy and never once heard this idea that Ellen White was perfect, or even a perfect example.

I also doubt that can

I have my doubts about Canright holding to verbal inspiration. Certainly in his book he deals with specific theological errors in his critique.

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"…and never once heard this idea that Ellen White was perfect, or even a perfect example."

You didn’t have to “hear” it because it was an “accepted” belief. I am glad that you apparently missed this indoctrination of EGW’s supposed infallibility.

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That maybe the times. those were the 1970’s I think some time around the mid 1980’s they started writing books about life and stories about her. That may have changed things. Perfect and infallibility are different things.

I have heard from those who knew the 20s through the 60s…and EGW was presented the same. I doubt that in nearly any time period of Adventism (after her death) that it was much different.

"Perfect and infallibility are different things."

No, both terms have been interchangeable within Adventism in regards to Ellen. You may draw a distinction however.

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The more I think about the more certain I am that it did not happen. At least at that time people knew very little about EGW’s personal life. They knew stories of the raised bible and going to visit and preach but not much else to do with her personal daily life. These were written about later for the popular adventist press In 1978 six-volume work called “Ellen G. White: A Biography” written by her grandson, [Arthur L. White] started to come out 1 a year. So pretty sure it was in the 1980’s that people started getting the stories to even consider the idea of her perfection.

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As you already said…this is what you recall. Hard to say that you didn’t. :laughing:

Well that and I have never met any Adventist that told me EGW was perfect. That is pretty good evidence as well. Lots of people believed in her as a prophet but they never said she was perfect. I do wonder what specifically you remember hearing. Anything a teacher said that let you to think EGW was perfect. Actually it wasn’t until maybe 10 years ago at most that I heard the argument that we should not be thinking that EGW was perfect. Always seemed kind of self serving when you can’t remember anyone saying she was perfect. If it was going on you would think that someone would have written down in a publication some where.

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"Perfect and infallibility are different things."

No, both terms have been interchangeable within Adventism in regards to Ellen. You may draw a distinction however.

Ron, let’s just say that we don’t agree…will save a lot of time. Done.

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More reason to stay active with Spectrum’s conversation. They do not outright declare EGW perfect but defend her words even against prevailing evidence in-spite of having credible educational accomplishments and professional experience.

@cincerity

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@JohnCarson

Just a follow-up. Did Harry @harryallen ever respond to your inquiry about unborn children shown in ultrasound images stimulating themselves as lusting while still in the womb?

LOL!

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That’s a big “No.”

He engaged in an argument of distraction by diverting the question and asking one of his own.

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It was vintage skeet shooting with the target in constant motion. Amazing…

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Well of course there is a distinction. Adventist know it well because of their anti-catholic tradition of the Pope who is infallible when speaking Ex-catherda. So right there you will not find any pro EGW person using the world infallible for her. But yes I do draw a distinction because…well you know I have a dictionary!

That’s a first on this site…actually quite stunning really.

Just when you think that you have heard all of the unscientific (ignorant) comments regarding sex and gender possible. Someone comes up with yet another preposterous statement!

I suppose the most revealing question is whether or not he really BELIEVES his own comment! :weary:

@elmer_cupino

Thanks, @elmer_cupino.

You said:

I said:

:thinking:

He said:

In response:

Let’s look at the evidence.

:face_with_monocle:

This sub-thread began with a question from @JohnCarson:

I replied:

Of course, I was, because these were the developmentally significant periods you’d identified, @elmer_cupino.

You’d said:

and

There: Early adulthood and children. Nothing about unborn children; ones in utero. The informational document that you forwarded said nothing about this, either.

Yet, oddly, you now seemed to think that @JohnCarson’s query was relevant:

Then, @JohnCarson and I had these exchanges….

Then, you, @elmer_cupino….

:cricket:
:cricket:
:cricket:
:cricket:
:cricket:

Then, @JohnCarson came in with this zinger:

Sadly, that was @JohnCarson’s final response. I saw it after the session had closed. So, his reply to you is not really generous to me.

You see, had the session remained open, I would have told him that, since he wasn’t really sure if the unborn can sin, the next, logical course of action would be to determine IF the unborn can sin, since it would be pointless to ask if they’re sinning, having not resolved that question, first.

Now, by his uncertain response, he affirms the difficulty of settling the issue. Yet, bizarrely, he calls mine “an argument of distraction,” foisted “by diverting the question and asking one of his own.” (You refer to this, cynically, as “skeet shooting.”)

This is absurd, and it’s silly; the last loud gasp of a drowning man. The thread proves this.

What I repeatedly say to you white people is that the best way to respond to me is to quote me. :smiley:

Trying to badly summarize my answers, reduce them, or mischaracterize them, as @JohnCarson tried to do, is a fool’s errand. It isn’t going to work on me, or in a medium that finalizes, documents, and links responses, like this one. :wink:

Go in peace!

HA

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