October 17, 2012

When the Prophet is Silent

I heard it intimated years ago that you had light concerning the added law [referenced in Galatians 3], to the effect that it related to the remedial system rather than the moral law,” wrote G. I. Butler, General Conference president in 1886. “I think this question ought in some way to be set at rest.” “I do think that we have presented a divided front long enough on this question.”1

It was a time of theological division. At stake were the church’s fundamentals—at least what some viewed as its fundamentals. Further controversy could be avoided if only Ellen White would settle the matter by declaring who held the right view. But the General Conference president’s appeal did not bring the desired testimony. The debate waged on, culminating in a contentious conference in Minneapolis two years later.

2012 1528CalledTogether INBOXThe early Christian church was also not without its share of controversy. But as we learn from the experience recorded in Acts 15, although the prophetic gift may be active among God’s people, it is no guarantee that God would choose to resolve such disagreements through special revelation—even on matters as critical as the mission of the church. So what are some approaches to avoid when facing divisive issues and when all we seem to find through inspired sources is silence or ambiguity?

Looking for Answers
Often we try to fill that lack by constructing our own “thus saith the Lord.” This is easiest to do when we think we already know what that word of the Lord is. Ellen White wrote of those who “study the Scriptures for the purpose of proving their own ideas to be correct. They change the meaning of God’s Word to suit their own opinions. And thus they do also with the testimonies that He sends. They quote half a sentence, leaving out the other half, which, if quoted, would show their reasoning to be false.”2

Others construct faulty bridges by taking comments Ellen White made in one context and turning them into generalized principles. During discussions in the 1980s over the integrity of our sanctuary truth, some cited Ellen White’s refusal in 1910 to settle the controversy over the meaning of “the daily” in Daniel’s prophecies as evidence that her writings should hold no special place in reviewing prophetic or theological interpretations.

However, before extrapolating too much from her silence, we must take into account that she also stated at the time, “I have had no instruction on the point under discussion.”3 Is it fair to make such a generalization in matters in which she did claim to have received divine instruction?

By contrast, only a few years earlier, when a prominent worker espoused variant views on the heavenly sanctuary, Ellen White wrote plainly: “I am bidden to say in the name of the Lord that Elder [A. F.] Ballenger is following a false light. The Lord has not given him the message that he is bearing regarding the sanctuary service.”4

Other examples of generalizing context-specific statements are found in the aftermath of the Kellogg crisis, and A. T. Jones’s errant views on church organization. Ellen White found it necessary to correct publicly the misuse that some were making of her earlier statements that she had not regarded the decisions of the General Conference as the voice of God. She pointed out the difference in authority between decisions made by “a small group of men” at headquarters and those of “a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field.”5

Arguing From Silence
A further danger arises when some assume Ellen White endorsed views that she did not specifically denounce. The reasoning goes like this: “My position on the topic in question is the same as that held by one of Ellen White’s closest contemporaries. Since she said nothing against that person’s views, she must have agreed with them.” Such people take the absence of any direct corrective counsel as approval.

2012 1529 page26There are those who, following that logic, seek to find support for their views regarding the nature of the Godhead or Christ’s deity because there is no record of Ellen White’s challenging certain published statements by some of our pioneers. Similar arguments from silence are also advanced to recruit Ellen White’s support of methodologies adopted or decisions made at meetings she may or may not have attended, though we do not actually know her own views of the question.

It is natural to grasp at any thread of possible support for one’s position when the debate is intense and definitive inspired instruction is lacking. But arguments based on such approaches as those outlined above do more than a disservice to the gift that has blessed this movement. They can also portray Ellen White as advocating positions she may never have held, or falsely depicting her counsels as self-contradictory and thus of having no reasonable bearing on the topic at all.

Not having that conclusive chapter and verse (or book and page) calls us to dig deeper, to grasp broader principles, and humbly to respect the viewpoints of others who don’t see things as we currently do. At the same time it calls us to ask ourselves whether we have left room for the Holy Spirit to correct our own thinking, or to move us together as brothers and sisters in a direction that none of us would have expected.

While we are challenged where there is silence, we are blessed by the light already received. Ellen White wrote: “God has permitted the clear light of His truth to shine upon His people. He has provided grace for every hour of trial, strength for their weakness, and wisdom for their ignorance. He has not only promised guidance and protection all along the path of life, but He declares that as we follow in its rays, the light which now shines upon us shall increase ‘more and more unto the perfect day.’ ”6

1 G. I. Butler to E. G. White, June 20, 1886, and Aug. 23, 1886.
2 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 3, p. 82.
3 Ibid., book 1, p. 164.
4 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1981), vol. 5, p. 412.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn. 1948), vol. 9, pp. 260, 261.
6 In Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 23, 1888.

Tim Poirier is vice director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference. This article was published October 18, 2012.