“The Great Controversy” Shackles Adventist Theology

E. G. White’s(EGW)Great Controversy (GC) is, by all accounts, the most important Adventist publication. And for the same reason it poses grave problems for the church if concerns that limit its influence are not addressed. Our church spends more to publish and circulate this book than any other, because, in the GC, many distinctive Adventist positions are compellingly advocated. These include: explanations for the 1844 Great Disappointment, Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary, the Investigative Judgment and the Universal Sunday Law/Mark of the Beast,.

Billed as a “cosmic” story of how the controversy between Christ and Satan began and how it will end, the GC could be divided into two broad sections. The first part is an “historical” overview of how God led his faithful followers, beginning with the early Christian church through the Protestant Reformation, leading to the post-1844 Adventist Movement of Ellen White’s experience. The second part is a foretelling of how God will lead his elect, the remnant, through the various Times of Trouble that culminate in the Parousia, the literal appearance of Jesus through the clouds at his second advent.

When she was alive, she saw the book through four editions and three revisions. First published in 1858 with an approximate word count of 48,000, each succeeding revision (discounting the 1888 version) took about 26 years. The 1884 edition, the second, tripled the word count of its predecessor to almost 137,000. The last revision, which occurred in 1911, four years before EGW’s death, has a word count of 241,000. Information about revision dates and word counts are provided to make two points. First, EGW never considered this book as a finished product. She kept working at it, revising it four times in 57 years. Second, while she left out material from previous editions, she always added more. The difference between the first and last editions was a staggering 193,000 words, an 80% increase.

Since the 1911 edition over a 100 years ago, it has not been updated in any form. Thus the book that historically had been the pace-setter for Adventist theology has become dormant, effectively freezing Adventist theology in its tracks. What this situation has fostered is a perpetuation, and in some instances codification, of many 19th and early 20th century EGW understandings of our world and our place in it, which some believe should not be “disturbed”. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the book’s subject and viewpoints beg for engagement, both inside and outside the church. There are several issues arising from the GC that have defied, and continue to defy, settlement within the church, periodically erupting into open conflicts.

One such question is our apocalyptical dating system that gets us to 1844. The disquiet about this led to Glacier View in 1980 during Neal Wilson’s presidency. Desmond Ford dared to question our teaching about Christ’s Heavenly Ministry and the Investigative Judgment and ended up losing his teaching job as well as his ministerial license. Among Dr. Ford’s many concerns was our interpretation of Dan 8:14. The case for arriving at 1844 through Dan 8:14 has always enjoyed healthy skepticism among Adventist theologians because it can succeed only by using the KJV. In no other reputable translation – not the NIV, RSV, NJB, NEB – is the period rendered 2300 “days” as the KJV does. All others use the more correct “2300 evenings and mornings,” analogous to the “evening and morning” phraseology in early Genesis. The inconvenient fact is that “2300 evenings and mornings” do not add up to the KJV’s mistranslated “2300 days,” just as the “evenings and mornings” that set apart successive days of creation week do not add up to 14 days. In Dan 8:14 the sum in days is 1250, a number which damages our case to arrive at 1844 – and everything connected to it. So we continue to infer that, apart from the KJV, all other translations of this “exclusive Adventist” verse are wrong. But this position comes with risks, one being that our young, the church’s future, do not read the KJV.

Another contentious issue given credence in the GC is our current Young Earth Creation (YEC) posture found in Fundamental Beliefs (FB) # 6. This view contends that the Earth was created only about six thousand years ago. EGW, like many of her contemporaries, bought into this now discredited chronology based on calculations by Bishop Ussher, using a literal reading of the Torah. His methodology was also used in arriving at the conclusion that Christ would return in 2000.

In her voluminous writings, EGW made forty-two 6000-year known statements in primary sources, always in affirmation. The following quote is typical. As she brings the great controversy story to a close, she invokes, as a fait accompli, this chronology reminding us of Satan’s ills: For six thousand years he has wrought his will, filling the earth with woe and causing grief throughout the universe… Now God’s creatures are forever delivered from his presence and temptation. (GC. p 381) This is the most specific time forecast about Christ’s return since the 1844 prediction – and harbors potential embarrassment for the church if time continues beyond the 6000 years and Christ has not come.

As Fundamental Beliefs go, # 6 (Creation) is a recent addition. For 50 years, from 1931 when our initial 22 Fundamental Principles were published, until 1980, the church did not have an official belief statement on “Creation.” It was not until the General Conference session in 1980, with approval of a list of 27 FB that, for the first time, we introduced our Creation belief. This maiden Creation statement was purposefully non-specific, thanks to the influence of the Andrews University Seminary committee tasked with the final editing. Mindful of the diverse constituencies and understandings within the church about dating origins, especially within the academic scientific community, the seminary committee produced a statement with a “big tent” appeal.

This amorphous statement apparently served adequately for 30 years, until 2010, when the newly elected president of the General Conference, Ted Wilson, motioned for a revision aimed at tightening the wording of FB #6. The GC statement alluded to above and others by EGW were referenced by President Wilson and his supporters to justify this move. So, since 2010, the word “recent,” and the phrase, “literal six-day creation,” have become an official part of Adventists’ YEC lexicon.

In the meantime our church schools continue to educate young minds, who are instructed from K through 8, that the universe is very young, a mere 6000 years. Then, as soon as they enter ninth grade, we flip the template. From high school onwards, because we want our young students to succeed in the unforgivingly scientific/empiricist marketplace, we jettison the sheltering denominational textbooks. Their new ones introduce them to stupendous new Earth-age figures, orders of magnitude from their former pre-high school 6000-year anchor. This produces a budding crisis of what to believe: empirical data or faith-based ideas?

Using church retention to measure success, we don’t seem to be doing well. Even with youth raised in Adventist homes and educated entirely in Adventist schools, the higher their educational attainment, the more likelihood that they will leave the church. The problem is not education per se, but more likely the church’s inability or unwillingness to update its “truths.”

A final limitation I see with the GC is its restricted audience appeal. Contemporary readers notice that the assumed historical “cosmic” story in the first part of the book is no more than an apologetic flavored recitation of known Catholic and Reformation history that played out in Europe and America. Certainly the exploits of God’s faithful followers were not limited to Europe and America. Those with different heritage who read this book are left wondering where they fit into the GC canvass. Where, for instance, is any place in my native Africa on these pages if this indeed is a “cosmic” portrait? Where is China? India? Latin America? When whole chapters are devoted to what in hindsight seem ordinary events in one European country or another – Belgium, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden – it doesn’t seem too trivial to inquire about God’s faithful others in far-flung nations. Neither is it impertinent to question the near complete absence of commentary on other world religions like Islam and Hinduism, which together, have more adherents than Christianity and are as impactful in our world today.

The risk to the GC’s credibility is not only that it is too vitriolic against Catholicism or too Euro and America-centric. The real risk is that it is too exclusionary in its focus. By telling a purported universal story and prophesying largely through the narrow prism of her known universe, EGW unwittingly “otherizes” a big slice of the world, who may, in trying to read the book, promptly ignore it.

For over a hundred years since the GC was last revised, many remarkable events have happened in the larger world. We have, for example, gone through two world wars, which together have informed our understanding of who we are as humans. These wars revealed our capacity to be inhuman to each other on a formerly unimaginable scale. The unbridled savagery unleashed, as instigated by European Christian nations, helps explain why Europe has retreated from Christianity and more frequently embraced secularism. The Europe EGW writes about in the GC bears little resemblance to the contemporary landscape.

So how do we make the book better and relevant? We revise – as often as needed. And in our revisions we should never be afraid of correcting where previous editions made claims that are erroneous or unkind. Above all, future revisions should expand the tent. But I’m afraid these are pipe dreams because this is the very thing we will not consider, certainly not by our current leadership.

But why not?

Part of our predicament, as I see it, is our unwillingness (or is it timidity?) to re-examine positions once adopted. The roots for this goes back to our founding, when we refused to concede that we had been wrong about our prediction that Jesus would return in October 1844. Instead, we recalibrated and found a new application of our prediction in the Heavenly Sanctuary and Investigative Judgment doctrines.

It comes down to whether we can imagine uncoupling the church from demonstrable errors if those errors were at some point in our past endorsed by Ellen White. Does the fact that a “belief” has become a dogma and has the backing of a prophetess make it untouchable even confronted by demonstrable error?

No teaching – recognizing that all biblical teachings are based on textual interpretations – should be deemed untouchable for all time, if found to be flawed. We should constantly validate all our teachings (“examine them carefully,” is Paul’s admonition). If in the process we find that some have no standing, we should set them aside and adopt the better good. It was through such re-examinations that our forebears repudiated slavery, even though scripture seemed to endorse it, and the practice was once firmly believed. The Catholic Inquisition condemned Galileo for refuting the Creation dogma that “God fixed the Earth upon its foundations, not to be moved forever.” He was forced to recant his findings that the Earth moves around the sun. It took 350 years for the church to finally concede that he was right. We should not make the same mistake in supporting error, and certainly not wait as long to concede we erred.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Image Credit: Rich Hannon/Spectrum Magazine

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8772

Let the Debate begin…


Denial at times can be healthy and adaptive. For instance in medicine when someone is confronted with terminal illness, the initial adjustment phase is characterized with denial and it is never confronted nor broken down (it is holy ground) until the person has developed enough courage to face the inevitable.

So it is with our church as she faces uncertainty and doubts.


Where is the point at which one has to conclude that the church has canonized so much error that you show more integrity in leaving than in remaining?

Is it reasonable to think that the church will change substantial doctrines?

Possibly, one reason for educated SDAs to leave the church is their realization that several of its teachings are foreign to the Bible. For more on this: http://archives.adventistreview.org/article/6144/archives/issue-2013-1508/beyond-belief


Ellen White would be in favor of any improvements, changes, updates that would enhance her writings and her ministry and further the Gospel (CW35, 6T142, 5T708, 1SM404). Few persons realize that she agreed for an entire chapter to be added and published to the Great Controversy in the Spanish edition that is not in the English edition. The explanation given can be found in the EGW Estate web page.

“Readers comparing the Spanish edition of The Great Controversy to the English original may be surprised to learn that the Spanish version contains an additional chapter—chapter 13. The origin of this chapter is explained in The Later Elmshaven Years, [vol. 6 of the Ellen G. White Biography series,] p. 377, as follows:
As the work of the church was broadening to take in many countries and many languages, steps were taken to translate the new book so that the peoples of many tongues might read. One of the first was the Spanish, undertaken almost immediately. As this work was entered upon, it was observed that no place had been given to the reformation in Spain. As counsel was taken with Ellen White, it was decided it would be well if in the Spanish printing, a supplementary chapter compiled by competent writers could be added. Thus, the Spanish Great Controversy carries forty-three chapters in place of the forty-two in other printings. Chapter thirteen in that book, titled The Awakening in Spain, is clearly designated as a work of “collaboration” and has a footnote stating: This chapter was compiled by C. C. Crisler and H. H. Hall, and was inserted in this book with the approval of the author.–Page 252. Consequently, there has never been any missing chapter from The Great Controversy. This non-Ellen White material has always been available in the Spanish edition, and it was never intended by her to be a part of the original English edition.”

The idea that revisions and additions cannot be made to any of her works demonstrates a case of either lazy stagnant theology or lack of faith that the same God who led her to write great books will not lead us to advance in the present age.


Elmer, I need your professional input:
I am considering to use this principle as I comment on this article. Should I deny everything we learned about this book throughout the years? Just pretending ignorance with straight face?

How healthy do you think it could be? What good would it do to me to just deny even having seen it in the past?


Here is the caveat, deny until having developed enough courage to face the inevitable. Our church continues to deny the inevitable without even making provisions to address it deficiencies and contradictions.

There are two kinds of insanity. One is the breakthrough of psychosis (the loss of reality) while the second in repeating past behaviors while expecting different results (the presence of neurosis). When a church enters into denial and continues with past behaviors yet expects different results, well you can predict the future. Counseling with highly-skilled psychotherapist the likes of Dr. George Tichy.

When do we cut the ribbon to our offices next door to our highly-esteemed and fearless leader TW?


this is an interesting, entertaining article, but i think it shows how fickle egw opposition in our church has become…for starters, let’s understand that if the initial 1858 edition of GC had 48,000 words, the 241,000 word count of the 1911 edition doesn’t represent an 80% increase of that 1858 edition, but a 400% increase…this is because the 193,000 word count difference between the two editions is four times the word count in the initial edition, and the word count in the final edition represents this difference in addition to the word count in the initial edition…this five-fold word count increase necessarily represents a 400% word count increase from the original 1858 edition…

the figure of 80% represents the increased word count in the 1911 edition compared to the total word count in the 1911 edition…this is a comparative statistic that possibly sheds light on how much is new in the 1911 edition…but it has nothing to do with the word count increase from the 1858 edition…

this is probably the most fickle point in this article…one of the benefits of being able to read is to see that the evening and morning phrase used in Gen 1 always coincides with a full day, and not a half a day…this overcomes whatever longing preterists like desmond ford have in seeing a maccabean fulfillment for Dan 8:14…that is, the 2300 figure doesn’t represent an addition between evening and morning components, as this article implies…it represents the total number of evening and morning sets…we can quibble all we want over whether Dan 8:14 should be interpreted as days or evening and morning sets…but the point is that if the bible itself is allowed to do the interpreting, the 2300 figure in Daniel 8:14 represents 2300 days or evening and morning sets, and not 1250…the fact that even the NIV describes the evening and morning phrase used in Gen 1 as a day, and not a half a day, is dispositive…the KJV translation of Dan 8:14 cannot fairly be accused of taking liberties that isn’t present in the Genesis text, which we can presume daniel would have been aware of…

this is another fickle point in this article…as most people know, OEC, which is really dressed up evolution, and evolution, itself, depend on the unprovable premise of uniformitarianism, which by definition excludes catastrophism…this means YEC’s unproven and unprovable provenance is neither here nor there…if our young people are stumbling over this fact, it’s only because the question of origins isn’t being presented to them clearly and comprehensively…

as for egw’s use of the 6,000 yr figure routinely used by creationists, what of it…she obviously wasn’t suggesting, in GC:381, as given in the article (p.673 in the 1911 edition), that christ’s second coming coincided with the passage of exactly 6,000 yrs after the fall…she is simply using this phrase as a metaphor for earth’s entire history since the fall…we know from her explanation of the 40 rooms in paradise valley sanitarium, which actually had 38 rooms, that she didn’t concern herself with exact numbers beyond what she had access to outside of revelation, Ms:107, 1909…only an egw novice would suppose that she was saying, in GC:673, that she had seen a vision that christ would return to earth exactly 6,000 yrs after the fall, and hold that the value of the entire denomination is contingent on a literalistic reading of that passage…

yet another fickle point…one of the obvious premises in GC is that the papacy is the fulfillment of the little horn in Dan 8, and that in the same way it acted against god’s people in the past, it will act against god’s people again in the future…in delineating that past, egw necessarily dwells on those areas of the world in which the medieval papacy was active, which didn’t include africa, indonesia, china, india, or latin america…this fact cannot be turned into a faux pas of political incorrectness, laced with possible racial overtones, that needs to somehow be “revised” in order to appeal to a broader audience…let’s understand that the bible also overlooks africa, Indonesia, china, india and latin america, not because it is seeking to exclude people from these areas from salvation, but because its subject of israel occupied the middle east…

nor should we ever consider it…let’s leave the bible and GC alone…let’s let them teach in the way their authors designed to teach…not everything that exists must be revised to meet each and every contingency imaginable…


Yes, Jeremy you are correct! Fickle indeed!! Matthew’s pleading for wholescale theological amendation of The Great Controversy is no more or less than folly!

Yes, “The Great Controversy” shackles Adventist Theology to the Rock of Ages, to our living Saviour who lives for our salvation in the heavenly sanctuary.

Fernando Canale well discerned the effective basis for Adventist theology. He wrote, "When Christian tradition adopted the presupposition of a timeless God, it necessarily rejected the Biblical picture of a historical sequence of divine operations. Since, in the traditional view, divine activity takes place in the timelessness of God’s being, it leaves no place for a historical sequence of divine activities. The best way to conceive divine activity in the traditional view is through the “eternal instant.” “Eternity” because it gives the unchanging content of divine knowledge, and “instant” because it implies the “timeless moment” in which the eternal soul gets in touch (merges/connects) with the eternal content in God’s mind.

“Biblical writers, on the other hand, understand God as a temperal-historical reality, His acts takes place within the temporal-historical flow of His infinite analogous temporality, and from creation onward, within the flow of finite created time. Consequently, we should understand the biblical sequence of divine acts involved in the work of salvation as a historical process.”

If this is the case Adventist belief in a YEC, soul sleep, the reality of the heavenly sanctuary, the reality of the prophetic timelines etc make sense. I would not anticipate that those believing in a timeless, spaceless God would be able to make sense of these doctrines. And I fear that those Adventists who find it difficult to believe in the things listed have imbibed the teaching of a ‘timeless God,’ perhaps without realizing it.

I spent years of my life investigating the nature of the Great Controversy Theme of both Scripture and Ellen White’s writings. It is very evident that this theme is the orienting concern of Ellen White’s writings. This orienting concern forms the basis of a practical theology, designed to norm and form the worldview of believers. Notice that Ellen White’s theology was practical in intent not academic, as was the theology of the early church and also of John Wesley.

I attended a meeting with my local congregation last night. The visiting speaker was a leading bible scholar from Avondale College of Higher Education who clearly and plainly affirmed his belief in a YEC. The traditional Adventist belief in YEC is supported because of real evidence.

Jeremy has spoken well to the issue of the evenings and mornings of Dan 8:14 being days. It was Des Ford as I understand it who authored the most comprehensive examination and support for the Day-Year principle. The fact that Des has changed his mind on the subject is not sufficient reason for other bible students to do the same.

An understanding of the 2,300 days of Daniel 8:14 is founded on an understanding of the 70 weeks of years of Dan 9:24-27. In similar fashion our understanding of divine judgement of Dan 8 must be founded on the sacrifical atonement spoken of in Dan 9.


I am told the word for days in this text Daniel 8;14 is not there so the Day =Year, conversion does not exist


Archbishop Ussher’s chronology has not been discredited. It needs a few touch-ups but is as valid now as when it was written.

Some of us keep saying it. If you don’t believe the church’s teachings, you don’t have to stay. (But if you choose to stay, don’t attempt to get into any leadership or teaching position.) The church ain’t gonna change its teachings.


Nice work, Matthew. You managed to bring up a number of existential challenges to the future of the church and link them all back to the GC in a single short article. Very timely, bold, and incisive, as always. Keep up the great content.


Yes, but if you set the starting point for this prophetic period with the Granicus Battle in 334 B C, and allow for the lack of a zero point between BC and AD, you end with 1967 AD, the date Israel defeated the Arabs and the Jews gained access to the site of the Jewish Temple.

BTW, the book of Daniel was probably not written with Adventist in mind, but rather the Jewish nation. This alternative interpretation of Daniel 9 was defended by Dr.Newton, the brother is Isaac Newton several centuries ago.


I must be a bit dumb, but if in Genesis says, “so the evening and the morning were the first day” (NKJV), then, it seems to me that one evening plus one morning equal one day. Therefore 23 evenings and 23 mornings are 23 days etc. If 2300 evening mornings are only 1250 days (I make it 1150 days) then Creation must have occurred over 3 1/2 days. I have serious issues with this entire article, but they have been noted by Jeremy far better than I can do.


@nic1 when you say “yes” it infers you agree with days, and actually evenings. Not years. But then you proceed with years for a day? That’s crazy-making stuff. So what does your “yes” mean?

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Good call neighbour! Trust that all is well in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia!

there seems to be a bit of a problem with basic math in this article…perhaps the 1250 figure derives somehow from the 1260 day prophecy - 42 months; time and times and the dividing of time - in other parts of Daniel, and also in Revelation…

the boqer ereb in Dan 8:14, translated literally as mornings evenings, seems to be used interchangeably with yamim, translated literally as days, in other time prophecies in Daniel, e.g., Dan 12: 11-12…it isn’t implausible to suggest this interchangeability, given what was no doubt daniel’s knowledge of the equating of the evening and the morning phrase with day in Gen 1…

the day = year conversion, on the other hand, is a separate matter…adventists have traditionally relied on texts like Ezekiel 4:6 to make this case…

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According to Biblical Ninth Tractate of Order Kodashim in the Mishna, Tamid refers to the evening and morning burnt-offering sacrifices. These were identical but separate services. No Adventist book, sermon or lecture that I can remember calls attention to the fact that Gabriel referred the vision of Dan8 as the vision of the evening and morning sacrifices. He took the time before he left Daniel to remark that the vision of the evening and morning was true.

I have looked to the vision that he referred to for the evening and morning sacrifice details. I did a bare-bones extract of the part of Dan 8 that mentions Tamid, below.

11 … the daily sacrifice [ evening and morning sacrifices] was taken away, and the place of the sanctuary was cast down.
13 …How long shall be the vision concerning the [ evening and morning sacrifices]…?
14 And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred [ evening and morning sacrifices]; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.

26 And the vision of the evening and the morning which was told is true…
I wonder how many Adventists know that Dan 8:14 is the answer to an explicit question: When will the daily sacrifices be offered again? (Dan 8:13 CEV) Daniel hears the answer given, not in direct time units, but rather the number of scheduled sacrifices that won’t happen, namely: 2300 sacrifices. (At 2 per day that computes to 1150 days (counting from the time the altar is abominated, not from the day that Jerusalem was invaded).

Although Ellen White recommended reading the Apochrypha, we don’t, or we might realize that the culprit is Antiochus Epiphanes. (He’s the guy that Jews celebrate–negatively–as Christmas approaches. Blue and white season’s greetings for a change!

I also learned(!) that it was the Catholic Church that pulled Jesus into the picture and removed Antiochus E., whom the Jews had nominated.

(The sacrifices resumed on schedule on earth. Nobody thinks they resumed in heaven!)


In Mark 7 and Matthew 15 Jesus called some hypocrites! Furthermore, that they worshipped God in vain and nullified the Word of God! Why? Because they valued traditions more than God’s Word. Who wants to hear these words from Jesus in the final judgment?


Ben McArthur’s engaging biography of A G Daniells has an intriguing description of the 1911 update of The Great Controversy, which should challenge us in our reading and sharing of the book today. He describes how the update was undertaken by a committee at the General Conference with Ellen White’s blessing and in consultation with her son W C White as the liaison for the Whites. Their work on GC had two goals: to update and correct the historical matters in the books; and to render it less offensive to those of other religions. This was less than 30 years after the 1884 edition but the church leadership had the insight to recognise that both the study and understanding of history, and the social and religious landscape had changed in that time frame.
The committee dispatched researchers to the leading academic libraries and the Library of Congress to access the best available historical material. Which makes sense when we remember that Ellen White openly acknowledged in the GC introduction that much of the historical material was drawn from the best available material she had access to at the time of writing.
How much more has the academic disciple of history and the resources available for academic research advanced since 1911, as well as how much our sensitivity should have grown to being unnecessarily offensive to other people’s beliefs. So imagine if we were to undertake this overdue task today with these two worthy goals in mind. And, as Matthew suggests in this article, we might well become a somewhat different church in the process.
If we borrow the timeline from Ellen White, A G Daniells (who worked closely with Ellen White for most of his ministry and leadership) and their colleagues, we are now about 70 years overdue for an update. But I doubt that the collective wisdom would be that it should be any longer.
Let me recommend the chapter in A G Daniells—and the biography as a whole—for an insight into how this was conducted and perhaps how it could be done today.