Seventh Day Adventism: Who Is Telling the Truth? – Program 3

By: Dr. William Johnsson, Dr. Walter Martin; ©1985
Mrs. White claimed to be a prophet, and that her writings were inspired by God. Have scholars who study her writings reached the same conclusion?

Is Ellen G. White a True Prophet from God?

Ankerberg: Welcome! We’re having as guests tonight Dr. William Johnsson, the editor of the Adventist Review, the official organ of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, and Dr. Walter Martin, director of the Christian Research Institute. Our topic tonight: Was Ellen G. White a true prophet? Did she plagiarize her writings? There’s a turmoil that has developed in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination concerning the authority as well as what it means for Ellen G. White to have the Spirit of Prophecy. I think that tonight I’d like you to go with me and, gentlemen, I’d like you to look at the monitor here. We’re going back to a prior program where Walter Rea, a man that has done a lot of investigation on the writings of Ellen G. White; Des Ford, one of your key theologians at one time, said that he probably knows more and has probably written more about Ellen G. White than any other living person and even in the past; they had an argument about the writings of Ellen G. White and I’d like you to listen to that conversation:
      • [excerpt from Seventh-day Adventism at the Crossroads]
Ford: We have had a superstitious view about her as Adventists. And Walter is right, we have engaged in a type of idolatry which is being deleterious to Adventist Christian experience.
Rea: The problem I find with this, John, is that she,… for example, it’s all right for someone to copy. The problem was not copying. Mrs. White claimed to be inspired; she claimed to be a prophet; and she also really denied her borrowing. Now let me read the Ministry magazine saying that, “Did Mrs. White make any attempt to conceal from Adventists? The answer is, ‘No.’ She even urged some [as Des said] to read.” I would like to let you see what kind of books she urged them to see. It wasn’t the total one she copied from. But notice what they say on the next page. “On the other hand she did not generally draw particular attention to her use of other authors.” I wish she had. I wish the church could produce one definitive statement ever in the life of Ellen G. White, or James, where she admitted openly that she was using someone else for that particular statement. If she had just said, “Now Edersheim says,” or “Ferrar says,” but you see, she never did that. So I think this is the problem.
Ford: She did in her Health Journal.
Rea: I do agree, yes, but now we are beginning to put space between the Health Journal and we are saying, “Well, it is possible that in her Health Journals now—because some of the statements were ridiculous—she wasn’t speaking as a prophet, she was speaking as an editor. And Arthur White is now saying this revolutionary idea, Des—it’s on tape—and Bob Olson is saying, “Well, perhaps we are going to have to distinguish between when she was speaking as a prophet and when she was speaking as a compiler or an author.” Amen, let’s keep going.
Ford: Here we are shifting from the superstitious view.
Rea: Of course, the thing that puzzles me there is that we claim—and he has read it from Questions on Doctrine—we do not make Mrs. White canonical, but in every case we go back to the Bible to prove Mrs. White. I thought it was the other way around. We were to prove Mrs. White by the Bible and instead, if Mrs. White says it then, “Oh,” we say, “well, the Bible does that too, you see.”
Ankerberg: What would you say is the majority view of people concerning the Bible and Mrs. White?
Rea: The majority view as a pastor of this church is unequivocally that Mrs. White is the authority and if there is a question on biblical interpretation in our church it is settled by the statements of Ellen G. White, not by the interpretation of the Bible.
Ford: That’s North America, not Europe.
Rea: That’s why Des is out, that’s why I am out.

Ankerberg: Dr. Johnsson, after you’ve seen and heard this discussion, let me ask you this. In practical, everyday matters—we have been reading from the doctrinal statements in weeks gone past—the denomination is saying one thing in the doctrinal beliefs. Is Walter Rea correct that the people down below, in practical, everyday, nitty-gritty things, the interpretation comes from Ellen G. White, she’s the authority when you get right down to it?
Johnsson: I don’t think he is, John. Now, my perspective is a world perspective. I grew up in Australia. I worked in India fifteen years. Good night, in most of the world the church doesn’t have the Ellen White books. Only 15% of our membership is in North America, out of a church of about five million. It is true that for some Adventists, especially in North America, they will go to Ellen White as sort of the final authority. But worldwide I don’t think his statement is true. I don’t think it is true across North America, also. I could show you our Sabbath School Quarterly, as we call it—most Adventists go to Sabbath School. The typical Sabbath School lesson has a day-by-day study. It starts off with a question. The answer will be a text of scripture. There will be more questions, text of scripture. There may be comments. There may be quotations. You may find a quotation from Ellen White or you may not. Any Sabbath School Quarterly will reflect this.
Ankerberg: Alright, let me just throw this in to you from your Sabbath School Quarterly, page 92, April-June, 1976. “How advantaged the SDA Church is to have a modern, inspired interpreter of both the Old and New Testaments. Surely there is every logical reason to give the inspired interpretations top priority in arriving at our understanding of the Word today.”
Johnsson: Alright, that is one statement. You asked for the practice. Here, I got it, a Quarterly here. I invite you to look it over. You will just see the way it functions. “Jesus Our Mediator,” this is what the church is studying. Here we are. December “Christ Our Representative, Mediator and Judge.” Text of scripture; statement; comment; occasional quotations from Ellen White. This is the church at study. We put the scripture first.
Ankerberg: Walter?
Martin: Brother, you just a minute ago started out quoting the Sabbath School Quarterly, okay? John quotes the Sabbath School Quarterly to you that says the direct opposite and establishes Mrs. White as the inspired interpreter, and you take the Sabbath School Quarterly and go right back to where you were before. What he said came out of that same Sabbath School Quarterly.
Johnsson: It was one statement.
Martin: But what you just gave us is one statement too.
Johnsson: Well, I’m just saying if you look over the whole Quarterly you see the way… you asked me for practice, now I’m saying go by the week-by-week practice of the church.
Ankerberg: Let me come back then. Why is it that we find—because you’re saying that that’s not the case—I’m saying, why do you sneak in these little statements from time to time? Why aren’t they just banished? Why don’t you say the opposite, that she’s not the inspired interpreter?
Johnsson: Well, I suppose you have individuals,… remember the lessons are written by individuals and their stamp is put on them. Occasionally statements get in that in fact are not accurate in terms of stated beliefs.
Ankerberg: Why is it that the leadership, why is it that you cannot agree in terms of that which is taught to the denomination then?
Johnsson: The Adventist Church is not a monolithic structure. We have no pope and no cardinals. You find a spectrum and a wide variety and diversity in the church.
Ankerberg: Walter, you want to talk to that?
Martin: “The General Conference when it is in session is the highest constituted authority on earth.”
Johnsson: “In session.” And it’s the session that gives the fundamental beliefs.
Martin: Wait, let me finish. “When in session,” okay? But your theology, your authority for your publications, everything that’s done by the denomination is done with the approval of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. You are copping out on responsibility. Let me illustrate what I’m talking about, so there won’t be any mistake about it. “Insofar as Ellen White’s role in the church is concerned, whether pastoral or canonical, I think we must here give pause and re-think the acceptance with ease of Desmond Ford’s proposition.” Ford, of course, had suggested Mrs. White as a pastoral commentator, not as an infallible interpreter.
He goes on to say, “The scripture indicated, however, that prophets have a gift of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White had that gift. She was canonical insofar as doctrinal interpretational authority is concerned,” D.A. Delafield, a trustee of the Ellen G. White Estate. Here is a trustee of the Ellen White Estate speaking authoritatively and saying, “Mrs. White’s gift was canonical insofar as doctrinal interpretation is concerned.” I have a statement here which absolutely contradicts this quote: “We do not regard the writings of Ellen G. White as an addition to the sacred canon of scripture.” Of course not, you don’t need to. You have an infallible, canonical interpreter—Pope—who tells you exactly what the text says. And the moment you disagree with it, like Desmond Ford or anybody else, you’re out.
Let me ask you a question. If tonight you or any Seventh-day Adventist said, “Mrs. White was wrong in her interpretation of the Investigative Judgment, the sanctuary, unclean foods, something of that nature, she’s wrong and we disagree with her and here’s some scripture to back it up. We don’t take that position,” what do you think would happen to you?
Johnsson: The same as would happen, I presume, if a Baptist minister stood up and said, “I don’t believe baptism is a significant doctrine.”
Martin: Ah, then you are admitting that Mrs. White is a test of faith. She’s a test of faith. If she’s wrong, you’re out.
Johnsson: No, I’m not admitting that at all. I’m saying that…
Martin: You just did.
Johnsson: The superiors of that minister would come and say, “Let’s sit down and study this together and see the….”
Martin: Let’s stop the in-between steps. The final bottom line is: You disagree with Mrs. White; you’re out.
Johnsson: No, the bottom line is the 27 Fundamentals of Belief. You’ve talked about the General Conference in session. It is only the General Conference in session, which is a large gathering from around the world, that can change in any way the fundamental beliefs of this church.
Ankerberg: It sounds to me, Walter, that Dr. Johnsson is advocating a new view and I’d like to push him a little on that view. And that is…
Johnsson: I’m not advocating a new view.
Ankerberg: The view that I hear is that we can disagree with Ellen White and that is of no consequence.
Martin: That’s what we’re hearing. That’s what I’m hearing.
Johnsson: It happens in practice in certain parts of the world.
Ankerberg: But that’s the one illustration we bring up. It seems in practice that that’s the only thing we can see against a guy like Des Ford, Walter Rea.
Johnsson: No, John, please let me back up there. Desmond Ford’s teachings were tested against the scripture and the Glacier View group testing them against the scriptures did not see light in his view. It’s out of that context, not against Ellen White.
Martin: Because they judged Desmond Ford at the Glacier View Conference by Ellen White. That’s exactly why he isn’t there anymore. Whenever it came at that conference to a point of disagreement on what Desmond Ford was saying, the appeal on the part of the Adventists judging him was not to Holy Scripture but to what Mrs. White’s interpretation of scripture was. That’s why Ford is not there.
Johnsson: Walter, I’m very interested to hear this because I was there. I didn’t see you there. I was with Desmond Ford for six months on a committee that worked with large manuscripts. I was present and I took part in writing the consensus statement for Glacier View. I think I know the dynamics of Glacier View, and frankly I disagree with you as one who was there.
Martin: Well, I talked to people who were there, too, including Desmond. He has a little different view than you and he was the guy in the hot seat, not you. He was the guy that paid for his convictions by leaving the denomination, not you.
Johnsson: Let me just say, he is still a member of this church. He has not been disfellowshipped—let’s be quite clear on that—as Walter Rea has not been disfellowshipped. The term disfellowshipped was used earlier.
Martin: They took away his pension, took away his security, took away his reputation, and discriminated against him publicly, and held him up to ridicule, but “we haven’t disfellowshipped him”.
Johnsson: His pension was not taken way, excuse me.
Martin: He was going to sue you, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?
Johnsson: I’m not sure. I haven’t heard that.
Martin: I’m sure. He told me he was going to sue you. That’s why they didn’t take it away. Otherwise, you’re going to take his pension away from him. ‘Cause I know, I talked to Walter personally.
Johnsson: Church policy is, John, that no matter what a person believes they get their pension. Even if they become an atheist they get their pension. The question of suing did not arise.
Martin: Well, maybe not with you, but Walter was suggesting that that was what he was going to do if they took his pension away.
Johnsson: I suggest that we go to the actual people who can give us the facts.
Martin: I do too. Walter’s actual. He’s the guy that was in this. Let me bring a point out, John, which I think is terribly important. The real issue is this: “There is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written,” Ellen G. White, letter 329-A, 1905.
Ankerberg: Dr. Johnsson, there have been so many things that have been written about the latest findings concerning Ellen G. White and her writings. Right here I’ve got a manuscript concerning The Great Controversy, where people have gone back and they have placed the manuscript of The Great Controversy next to some of the people that were around Ellen G. White and some of the books that were in her library shelf. It looks from this that many times she took whole pages and just changed the words around a little bit, but it’s thought by thought, right straight through, another man’s commentary. In fact, what has been suggested at the conclusion of this is that there is nothing that Ellen G. White actually had to get in vision from God, that all of it was said before she ever wrote a thing, in somebody else’s writing, and they have listed all of the writings of those men paragraph by paragraph right straight through her books. What has this done to the reputation of Ellen G. White? What has this done toward the view of the Spirit of Prophecy that you hold concerning Ellen G. White today?
Johnsson: Okay, John, first of all let’s say that it’s become obvious over the last few years, especially as a result of Walter Rea’s research, that Ellen White borrowed much more material than people had realized. It had been known for years that she did borrow material, especially in Great Controversy and Sketches From the Life of Paul. This had been known for years. Walter Rea has shown that it’s greater in extent in terms of the number of books—in fact, it seems to range across the scope of her books—and also in the amount. Now in terms of the exact amount, that really is up for grabs. Great Controversy is probably the book that would have the largest percentage. Right there, in the General Conference there is an ongoing study. Any parallel that is brought to light by Walter Rea or anyone that comes to our attention, it’s underlined in that book. Direct quotation or even sort of a paraphrase, it’s marked.
Ankerberg: What can the people in the denomination, the little people down below that are waiting for a word from the top here, what would you advise them concerning Ellen White now, in light of this?
Johnsson: Let me just say on that amount, the amounts are ranging one percent, two percent, three percent. Controversy is the highest. It’s probably 19 percent in Great Controversy. How has this affected the little people? Let’s be frank, it has shaken some little people. Many of them had a view of her writing as coming directly from God, dictated by God. When they were faced by obvious parallels, some of them have said, “Hey, this has to be a false prophet, or what have you.”
Ankerberg: Didn’t she herself claim that?
Johnsson: Well, she did make a number of claims, you know, that God spoke through her. So this has shaken some. The church has been trying to help people understand the way her writings came about. I feel we have a duty to be open and honest with the church.
Ankerberg: Let me ask you a real hard question. How would you, if we were examining Mormonism and you had Joseph Smith right at the time of Ellen G. White; you had Mrs. Eddy right at the time of Ellen G. White, they, too, said they were speaking for God, how would you as a biblical Christian help us to judge when a person is a false prophet?
Johnsson: Well, I would, of course, apply the tests of scripture itself. I would look first of all to their relationship to Jesus. Do they set forth the full eternal deity of Jesus? If they don’t, then forget about their claims or writings. Jesus is central. Do they set forth the cross as the consummation of the ages, the only means of our salvation? If they don’t, forget about it, regardless of their claims. These are the first things. Do they uplift the scripture as the test of all other writings?
Ankerberg: How about Deuteronomy 18?
Johnsson: What is that one about?
Ankerberg: When the prophet says he’s speaking for Jehovah and the things that he speaks in the name of Jehovah do not come true, what does the scripture say? “Do not listen because the word that he has spoken is not from Jehovah. Do not be afraid of him.”
Martin: “Do not respect him anymore.”
Johnsson: I think a parallel test would be the test of Matthew 7 where Jesus talks about prophets and false prophets and he says, “By their fruits you will know them.” And what you said is sort of an example of that. What is the fruit: Do these predictions come to pass? Are the counsels given such as would lead people in the upward path? Does the prophet in fact tend to exalt himself or herself, or exalt the Lord? In this overall question about Ellen White and her writings, while this latest research that has shown the greater extent of her borrowing has been a problem and has shaken many, we also have to take that larger perspective, and I have. Let me deal with it as I have tried to…
Ankerberg: Okay.
Johnsson: ..on two points. First of all, John, my background is New Testament scholarship. I have made intensive study of the scripture. I’m not saying that her writings are on a par with scripture, but it is a fact that biblical writers used sources. In the gospels in particular—Matthew, Mark, Luke—there is a heavy use of sources. The most likely reconstruction is that Mark wrote first and Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark, okay, that is one thing. Now, that’s in terms of the source thing. In terms of the overall tests and the fruitage,…
Ankerberg: If she’s right. If she says something that doesn’t come true, it’s dead wrong?
Johnsson: Alright. I have to stand back and say, “What has been the effect of this woman’s ministry and writings on the Seventh-day Adventist Church?”
Ankerberg: But will we do that for Mormonism? Because they would say, “The effect has been five million members,” just as much as you’ve got….
Johnsson: I’m talking about specifics now. You see, the distinctness of Adventism have really come out of the counsel given by Ellen White. I’m not talking about doctrinal distinctives now, but about the way of life in the world. The health aspect that we… you know, we have a chain of hospitals worldwide. We promote a healthy lifestyle. Adventists live on average seven years longer than the average Californian. We have the largest… That was a California study I mean.
Martin: You’ve got me worried now.
Johnsson: We’ve got the largest Protestant system in the world, publishing houses. I have to say, while there are some problems in the writings—I’ll admit them frankly, some things she wrote I don’t understand; I’m not going to try and justify everything—but my estimate is that the overall fruitage of this woman’s counsel has been a blessing to the church and to the world, and so I think she meets the test.
Ankerberg: Okay, Walter, you’ve got a book where you constantly have to deal with how do you judge a person, is this a prophet of God or is this a false prophet? How would you evaluate Ellen G. White? Tough question.
Martin: When we get to the problem of Mrs. White, we are dealing with the problem in Matthew 7, since you raised it. The first part of the passage says, “The false prophets can call Jesus Lord. The false prophets can prophesy and preach in Jesus’ name. The false prophets can work miracles in Jesus’ name.” And Jesus said, “When I meet them”—they can even cast out demons in his name—“I will say, ‘leave me; I never knew you, workers of iniquity.’” Despite what they did in his name, they abused his name and misled people. So false prophets can look just like the real article. You’ve got to test them very carefully. If it doesn’t come to pass according to what they say, then you reject it as contrary to the Word of God.
Now, where Mrs. White is concerned, Mrs. White borrowed extensively. You’ve already admitted this. She drew upon numerous sources. I would like to ask you a question. It’s not a trap; it’s just a question, and I really would like an answer. Bob Spangler has asked the same question, and I’m fascinated by his answer and I would be interested in yours. “Does unbelief suggest that what Mrs. White writes in her personal testimonies has been learned from others? We inquire: What time has she had to learn all these facts? And who for a moment can regard her as a Christian woman if she gives her ear to gossip, then writes it out as a vision from God? If Mrs. White has gathered the facts from a human mind in a single case, she has in thousands of cases, and God has not shown her these things but she has written these in her personal testimonies. The case is a clear one.”
Now that’s a very clear cut, honest, forthright statement. The author is Mrs. White’s husband, James White, who says, “If she borrowed from just one, she borrowed from everybody else. Who can trust her as a Christian woman if she says it came from God and it came from other sources?”

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