Different Ways That Ellen White Used the Bible (EWB 4)

When one is examining Ellen White’s use of Scripture, it is critically important to honor her intention in the use of that text. In order to do that, one has to pay close attention to the different ways she uses the Bible.

First of all, it is important to determine whether Ellen White was intending to cite a particular biblical text or was merely “echoing” the language of the text. The same procedure we apply to the Revelator’s use of the Old Testament is helpful here as well. When she merely echoes a text, she is certainly not expressing a judgment on the biblical writer’s intention for that text. She may be drawing a valid spiritual lesson when she echoes Scripture, but it is not necessarily the same lesson the biblical writer sought to impress upon his readers.

Second, where Ellen White clearly refers the reader to a Scriptural passage, one should ask how she is using the passage. Is she using it exegetically–making a statement about the original meaning of the passage in the author’s context? Is she using it theologically–discussing the implication that passage has for a larger theology based on Scripture as a whole (biblical theology)? Or does her theological use focus particularly on God’s will for the recipients of her writings (systematic theology)? Is she using it homiletically–enjoying the effectiveness of the biblical language that moves people to action in a worship setting?

To interpret a homiletical usage as though it were an exegetical statement will distort not only her intention in its use but the meaning of the biblical statement as well. While more study needs to be done on this question, it is my sense that Ellen White rarely uses Scripture exegetically (i.e. being primarily concerned with the biblical writer’s intent). A significant cluster of exegetical uses of Scripture can be found in Acts of the Apostles, which contains a number of discussions of New Testament books in their original setting. But generally, as was the case with the classical prophets of the Old Testament, her main concern in most of her writings was to speak to her contemporary situation. This would generally cause her to use Scripture theologically and homiletically rather than exegetically.

To say this is not to limit Ellen White’s authority. To the contrary, her intention in a given statement should be taken with utmost seriousness. At the same time, we must be careful not to limit the authority of the biblical writer. We should not deny a biblical writer’s intention on the basis of a later, homiletical usage of that text. What I am pleading for here is that we respect Ellen White’s own intention in her use of biblical material. Since she often uses Scripture in other than exegetical ways, statements quoting Revelation must be examined with great care before being dogmatically applied in the exegesis of the book.

Where Ellen White appears to use a biblical text exegetically, yet there is a tension between her use of the text and the apparent intent of the author’s language, two possibilities should be kept in mind. (1) It is possible that the interpreter has misunderstood the intent of either the biblical writer or Ellen White, or both. Further study may resolve the tension. But there is another possibility. (2) An later, inspired person can apply a biblical passage to his/her contemporary situation in a local sense without exhausting the ultimate intention of the original writer. Example of this in the Bible are Peter’s use of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:16-21, and Jesus’ use of Daniel 7:13-14 in Matthew 9:6.

We have so far looked at two different ways that Ellen White uses Scripture as part of her argument. There are several more factors to consider in a future blog.

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