Post 87, A Christmas Thought by Dr Norman Young

So it’s Christmas again, and that surely is a fitting time to think about the birth of Jesus. The words of the messenger Gabriel to Mary are quite staggering really, especially when one considers her lowly estate: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1.31-33). Many of the terms used to declare Jesus’ status were also used for Caesar—Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace, and Saviour of the World etcetera. But one title that Caesar avoided, Jesus accepted; at least when it’s rightly understood, and that title was “King” (that is, Christ or Messiah). Of course, Caesar’s avoidance of the title did not mean he eschewed the role, and in Asia Minor his subjects had no hesitation in giving him the royal title. Like most modern dictators (for example, Mohammed Morsi), Caesar purportedly only took absolute power for the benefit of the people. Given the Christian claims about Jesus, it was inevitable that his movement would clash with the Roman Empire, and clash it did—beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus.

But what kind of King, Lord or Son of God was Jesus? And what kind of Kingdom did he reign over? Well he was a servant king: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). “Son of Man” by the way is a divine title from Daniel 7.13. His kingdom was one to which the poor belonged (Luke 6.20), in which the persecuted found a place (Matthew 5.10), and into which the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind were invited to sit at the King’s table (Luke 14.13-21). His is a kingdom not after the models of this world (which fight over gold and silver with weapons of bronze and iron—Daniel 2); his is one where God’s will is done as it is in heaven; it’s characterised by the power of love rather than the love of power. One enters it with humility, which is the precondition of accepting the grace or the gift of God–and that gift is Jesus (2 Corinthians 9.15). Let’s pray that this kingdom of reversals, this antidote to human pride, is truly a “kingdom without end,” as Gabriel declared at the conception of Jesus.

Note: Within my lifetime of ministry, Adventists have changed from being dismissive about Christmas to being enclosed by (all too often) the tinsel that Western culture wraps around it. Dr Young (see the section about him in Post 86) is one of my most cherished New Testament exegetes. His brief paragraphs (above) express one way that a New Testament scholar helps us understand the meaning of this special time of the year.

Arthur Patrick, 18 December 2012

Posted in SDA theology

Post 86, Senior scholars contribute to Avondale’s research output

Avondale College of Higher Education from time to time confers the status of Honorary Senior Research Fellow on active researchers who have retired from full-time employment. The arrangement maintains their association with the College and encourages continued publication, contributing to Avondale’s research profile. This article surveys some highlights of the scholarly careers of three of Avondale’s most published Honorary Senior Research Fellows.

Dr Bryan Ball

Dr Bryan Ball, principal of Avondale from 1984 to 1990, has published prolifically in the fields of ecclesiastical history and theological thought. His first book, A Great Expectation: Eschatological Thought in English Protestantism to 1660 (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1975) documents the thinking of Protestant English writers on themes associated with the second coming of Christ, demonstrating that belief in Christ’s return was in the mainstream of English Reformation thought.

The English Connection: The Puritan Roots of Seventh-day Adventist Belief (James Clarke & Co., Cambridge, 1981), traces the influence of English Puritanism on later religious movements, particularly Seventh-day Adventism, investigating Puritan thinking on such matters as Scripture, salvation by faith in Christ, baptism, gospel obedience, Christ as our high priest, the seventh-day Sabbath, prophecy, the second coming and the new earth.

The Seventh-day Men: Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600-1800 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994) shows that observance of the seventh day was a significant minority practice in English Nonconformity, and that many Sabbatarians exercised considerable influence on the religious life of the period. A revised and expanded edition was published in 2009 (James Clarke & Co., Cambridge).

The Soul Sleepers: Christian Mortalism from Wycliffe to Priestley (James Clarke & Co, Cambridge, 2008) studies the rise and development of the doctrine of conditional immortality in England during the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, demonstrating that this view of humankind’s essential nature and ultimate destiny was held across a wide theological spectrum in English thought for at least three centuries.

Dr Bryan Ball contributed articles on six Puritan and Nonconformist preachers and writers to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004). He is also a contributor to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

His scholarly works for a more popular readership include The Essential Jesus: the Man, His Message, His Mission, co-edited with William Johnsson (Pacific Press, Boise ID, 2002); and Can We Still Believe the Bible? And Does It Really Matter? (Signs Publishing Co., Warburton, 2007), a book subsequently published in Latvian and Spanish. A revised and enlarged edition appeared in 2011.

Bryan Ball’s latest book, In the Beginning (Pacific Press, Nampa ID, 2012) is an edited collection of scholarly essays exploring issues relating to origins. Eleven chapters discuss origins from biblical and theological perspectives, six from scientific viewpoints, and one is a critique of social Darwinism. The book contains significant essays on the origin and reliability of Genesis, its theological themes, its importance in the rest of scripture, and its utilisation by Christ and New Testament writers. The discussions about design and the limits of neo-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms are offered at greater depth than in most previous Adventist books.

Dr Arthur Patrick 

With degrees in history, biblical studies, theology and ministry, Dr Arthur Patrick brings a broad spectrum of knowledge to his scholarship. While he has published in all the above fields, he has developed a special interest in the history of religion and in Adventist studies, writing on Adventist history in relation to its broader historical and cultural contexts.

Patrick’s Master of Letters (MLitt) thesis was entitled “Ellen Gould White and the Australian Woman, 1891-1900” (University of New England, 1984). His PhD thesis expanded the scope further: “Christianity and Culture in Colonial Australia: Selected Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan and Adventist Perspectives, 1891-1900” (University of Newcastle, 1992).

Patrick’s mastery of Adventist studies is evident from his bibliographical survey of the published literature in this field, which he prepared in 2006 as a guide for doctoral students. See He had previously published a review of sources on Adventist history in the South Pacific in the refereed Journal of Religious History (1987).

Patrick’s extensive publications include articles in refereed journals and in publications such as Ministry, Adventist Review, Spectrum and Adventist Today. A number of his papers have also been published online at and on the Avondale website under ResearchOnline@Avondale.

Since retiring from full-time employment he has continued to write prolifically. In 2003 he authored the centenary history of the Sydney Adventist Hospital (The San: 100 Years of Christian Caring 1903-2003); and in 2004 he wrote a chapter on the history of Adventists in Australia for the electronic resource Australia’s Religious Communities (Christian Research Association, Nunawading, Victoria).

His 2009 paper “The Re-parenting of Seventh-day Adventists? Reflections on the Historical Development, Substance and Potential of Ellen G White Studies” (ResearchOnline@Avondale) surveys the historical development of Ellen G White studies, documents literature published on Ellen White, and provides insights into White’s authorial methods. A refereed article in the Journal of Religious History (2010) contextualises the struggles of recent decades between continuity and change in Adventism, documenting three possible stances in relation to traditional Adventist thought: reversion, alienation and transformation. The article urges the importance of effective internal and external dialogue. A refereed article in Lucas: an Evangelical History Review, co-authored with Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud, traces the maturation of Seventh-day Adventist historiography from the early days of the movement to the era of professionally trained historians, and evaluates the significance of that development for the church’s view its own history.

Patrick has presented numerous papers at scholarly conferences, many of which have been published. These include “Re-visioning the Role of Ellen White for Seventh-day Adventists Beyond 2000” (Adventist Society for Religious Studies, San Francisco, 1997, published at; “Learning from Ellen White’s Perception and Use of Scripture: Toward an Adventist Hermeneutic for the 21st Century” (South Pacific Division Theological Conference, 2003, published at; and a paper at the 2007 conference at Andrews University marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the controversial book Questions on Doctrine. Patrick’s paper analyses the historical context of the publication of Questions of Doctrine in 1957, the conflicting subsequent perceptions of the book, and the impact of this controversy on the church. The paper, which was published in the Conference Proceedings, seeks to provide an interpretative framework to help the church move constructively beyond these tensions.

In 2009 Patrick delivered a paper on Ellen White as author at a conference in Portland, Maine, USA, which Patrick considers one of the most significant events in the history of Ellen White scholarship. The conference, organised by Professor Gary Land of Andrews University and others, brought together 66 scholars, one-third of non-Adventist background, to discuss the life, work and significance of Ellen White in the context of nineteenth-century America. Many of the participants were well-known authors in the field of American religious history. Two scholars, one Adventist, the other non-Adventist, were invited to present responses to each paper. Patrick saw the conference as “a fresh opportunity to foster a mature, sustainable understanding of Ellen White amongst believers and the wider community.”

Dr Norman Young

Dr Norman Young has established an international reputation for research and scholarship in New Testament studies, publishing an impressive array of articles in refereed scholarly journals, and presenting many papers at national and international conferences and other scholarly meetings.

His publications include the book Rebuke and Challenge: the Point of Jesus’ Parables (Review and Herald, Washington DC, 1985), and a supplement to John Wenham’s widely used Elements of New Testament Greek (revised edition, Cambridge University Press, 2001). He has also published a significant book documenting the fight to free Lindy Chamberlain (Innocence Regained, Federation Press, 1989). His scholarly publications include articles in leading international journals such as the Journal of Biblical Literature, New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, and Biblical Archaeologist. He has also published extensively in Seventh-day Adventist literature.

Since his retirement from full-time employment Young has continued to present papers at scholarly conferences and to publish in peer-reviewed journals. His conference paper “The Founding Fathers and the Fledgling Church According to the Epistle of Hebrews” (Macquarie University, Sydney, 2004) was published in the Society for the Study of Early Christianity Newsletter (2005). His paper at the Chamberlain Case Symposium (Macquarie University, 2005) was published in The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory (Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne, 2009). In 2008 he presented a paper investigating passages from Romans and Colossians in their social context at the 63rd General Meeting of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, Lund, Sweden. In 2009 he presented an analysis of Romans 14:5-6 at the New Perspectives on Christianity Conference at Avondale, a paper subsequently published in The International Journal of New Perspectives on Christianity. In 2011 he contributed a paper on irony in the writings of the apostle John at the 66th Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas Conference in New York.

In retirement Young has also written book reviews in the fields of New Testament studies and theology for the peer reviewed journals Biblical Interpretation (2005) and Pacifica (2007). In 2008 he published an article in Wartime, the peer reviewed journal of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, on his father’s involvement in the Second World War in New Guinea.

Avondale greatly appreciates the continuing contribution of its honorary senior research fellows to the College’s research profile.

Posted (with permission from Dr John Cox who wrote the article as editor and published it in Reflections 24:2, Summer 2012), 19 December 2012

Posted in SDA theology

Post 85, Symbolising the Writings of Ellen White

A note for the reader: Any investigation of publications such as Adventist Review, Ministry and Record is likely to lead the researcher to conclude that, by 1982, the tidal wave of new information that began to rise in 1970 was about at its peak. Constantly ministers, teachers and members were dealing with qualitatively new data about the history and thought of the Seventh-day Adventist church, as well as the life and writings of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915).

I set about the task of creating symbols that would both embrace and apply the new information about Ellen White in a simple way, for general readers of Adventist magazines. It was deeply encouraging when Adventist Review published one of my short pieces under the title “Landmarks and Landscape” (27 October 1983, page 4), and rather surprising when Australasian Record reprinted the said piece is its 31 March 1984 issue, page 12. My intent was to offer an accurate understanding of both Ellen White’s inspiration and the specific limitations to what Adventists may expect from her writings. The words are my own, except for one sentence that was pressed upon me by a church leader: “On occasion she gives a ‘surface exploration’ account.” Here is the text; it will make more sense if it is read after Post 84.

 IN APRIL 1982, I again flew across the United States. For the first time in my flying experience there, visibility was excellent. From the warm sky above Los Angeles I saw the serene Pacific Ocean and the vast sprawl of the City of the Angels hugged by mountains. I saw marks of human effort and the panorama of nature, a vast continent spread below me.

If you asked me to draw a street map of Las Vegas, state the depth of the Grand Canyon, or give the location of the John Hancock Centre in Chicago, mistakes would mar my response. You may ask a thousand other simple questions about the continental United States that I could not answer. You may discount my claim that I saw a panorama of a great country beyond the vision of a surface traveller. Through the miracle of jet transport I was shown a useful vista of landmarks and now can interpret better a vast landscape.

To the benefit of Seventh-day Adventists, Ellen White was given a jet-aircraft vision of crucial realities in an age of spiritual surface travel. She saw landmark truths: God as the one whom to know is to love; health as the right arm of the third angel’s message; education dealing with the whole person throughout the whole period of existence possible to humanity; history as moving toward a supreme confrontation between good and evil, all to climax in the universal declaration that God is love; and many other distinctive features of faith precious to Seventh-day Adventists. She was shown such landmarks so she could encourage and guide the Advent people.

Some are tempted to claim either too much or too little for Ellen White’s ministry. Those who would require her to give the equivalent of a detailed surface survey have difficulty with certain statements in her writings. Those who deny her spiritual gift, assessing her to be a fraud or a false prophet, miss the enduring value of her prophetic vision. Either of these options can lead to conflict and disillusionment.

Ellen White wrote from an attitude of urgency, sensing an imminent end to all things earthly. Since her death, Seventh-day Adventists have benefitted from surface advances into the historical background of Scripture, aspects of science, causes of certain diseases, details of Christian history, and so forth.

In responding to detailed insights of painstaking investigation, we must remember the abiding usefulness of Ellen White’s direction-setting, panoramic vision. On occasion she gives a “surface exploration” account. To deny a role for either her panorama or our detailed investigation is to reject part of God’s gift of knowledge to humanity.

Arthur Patrick, posted 13 December 2012

Posted in SDA theology

Post 84, Eight Years in the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre That Serves the South Pacific Division: Some Random Recollections

I felt enormously privileged in 1976 when I was appointed as the founding curator (the title was soon changed to that of director) of the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre opened at Avondale College to serve the (then) Australasian Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Such a task was beyond my expectations and even my dreams: I was charged with superintending, gathering, sharing and interpreting the primary and secondary sources relating to four important areas: Adventist history and thought, as well as the life and writings of Ellen G. White.

Probably there were several reasons why I was appointed to this particular role. It was known that I was raised in a family that had specific, detailed memories of Ellen White as friend, neighbor and prophetic witness.  During 1898 Ellen White met with my widowed paternal grandmother (Amelia Patrick) at the Brisbane camp meeting and advised her to bring her three sons to Cooranbong, where the Avondale School for Christian Workers was being carved from the bush. My maternal grandfather (John Pocock) had years of contact with Ellen White before she provided him accommodation at Sunnyside for about seven months while he worked on the Avondale School project and then, in 1899, Ellen White insisted that Pocock bring his family to Cooranbong to continue working with the developing Adventist ventures there.

So, having a family with positive attitudes toward Adventism and its prophet, I graduated from the Australasian Missionary College (now Avondale College of Higher Education) in November 1957, just in time to soak up the contents of Pastor Arthur White’s “Prophetic Guidance” lectures at Australasia’s first Seminary Extension School, December 1957-January 1958. Already, as a Theology student in 1955, Pastor LeRoy Edwin Froom, fresh from writing his four volumes entitled Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, had inspired me with new vistas of Adventism: “diamonds from Daniel, pearls from Paul, and rubies from the Revelation,” he declared. In my mind, I awarded Arthur White a doctorate for the quality of his two months of presentations, and determined to pursue similar investigations when our family had saved enough money to travel to and study at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, part of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States of America. While there (1970-1972) I was befriended by Mrs Hedwig Jemison who, as the key person in the White Estate Branch Office at Andrews, seemed convinced that articles and papers that I wrote were appropriate, an opinion that I believe she shared with Pastor White as Secretary of Ellen G. White Estate, Inc. These and related factors may well have influenced my appointment to the Research Centre.

Back in September 1973, when I returned to Australia and was after five days called to Avondale, I carried a Diploma of Theology and Teaching (Avondale, 1956), a Bachelor of Arts (Theology, Avondale, 1957), a Master of Arts (Cum Laude, Systematic Theology, Andrews, 1972), a Master of Divinity (Andrews, 1972), and a Doctor of Ministry (Biblical Studies and Clinical Pastoral Education, Christian Theological Seminary, 1973). With the practical experience of a dozen years of pastoral evangelism (1958-1970) behind me, my teaching career at Avondale seemed promising. In 1976 I was also told that my appointment to the Research Centre was approved by White Estate (primarily) and the South Pacific Division (secondarily) as being like marriage, for life. The 22-point job description that was meant to guide me seemed a godsend. I was now half time in the Department of Theology and half time in the Research Centre, being paid for doing work that I loved. After all the celebration with Elder Paul Gordon and Mrs Jemison setting up and opening the Centre during February 1976 (see Milton Hook, “U.S. Research Worker in Australasia,” A.S. Jorgensen, “Ellen G. White Estate Secretary to Visit,” Alfred S. Jorgensen, “The Ellen G. White S.D.A. Research Centre,” “Research Centre Opened at Avondale,” Australasian Record, 16 February 1976, 1; 23 February 1976, 2; 3 May 1976, 8-9) the early years of my service were irenic but stimulating. So many Adventists seemed excited about the Research Centre and its possibilities.

I chose as the Centre’s secretary Mrs Eleanor Scale whose diligence and loyalty to her task and mine was impeccable. We valiantly tried to embrace the tens-of-thousand of pages of original materials under our care in print, photocopies and microform. The tens-of-thousands of pages of Ellen White letters and manuscripts were the most cherished resource, the Question and Answer File was valuable, as were the thousands of Document Files, except that soon a battery of new questions were being asked of us in person, by telephone and in letters. But even as significant a publication as Ronald Numbers Prophetess of Health (1976) seemed manageable. I went to the 1978 workshop in Washington, D.C., convened for White Estate headquarters staff and Research Centre directors, only to be further awed by the richness of Adventist heritage. While at the workshop we were told that a pastor in California was alleging that Ellen White used sources in her writing of The Desire of Ages (1898). Such a thing was “known” to be so impossible that our group passed the idea off as a figment of an irresponsible imagination.

All was not calm in the Australasian Church, however. By 1974 the battle lines were being drawn between loyalists who later dubbed themselves “Concerned Brethren” and Dr Desmond Ford, a friend of mine since 1950, now my departmental chairperson. I was a member of the South Pacific Division Biblical Research Committee that listened to the spirited exchange of two opposing sets of ideas about Righteousness by Faith: those fostered by Dr John Clifford and the Drs Russell and Colin Standish on the one hand, and those of Dr Ford on the other. Our verdict in support of Ford failed to endear us to the reactionary forces that were against him. The Palmdale Conference in California (1976) had real potential for solving the growing conflict, except it also seemed to lean toward Ford’s position on Righteousness by Faith and thus evoked more controversy. Always threatening for the church at the time were the effervescent activities of Robert D. Brinsmead. However, Ford’s transfer to Pacific Union College in California during the first half of 1977 was perceived by our Division president as a hopeful solution to Australasia’s problem: Ford would no longer seem like a big fish in a small pond.

By 1979 the Division officers were both concerned and optimistic; they decided to publish a book on the historical and theological issues under discussion that would put disputed matters to rest. Pastor Keith Parmenter, as president of the Division and chair of the Research Centre supervisory committee, had me appointed to write a chapter for the forthcoming book; it was to tell church members what they needed to know about Ellen White in terms of the contemporary discussion about her life and writings.

I had little time to work on the chapter before the end of the college year, and then I had a series of presentations to give in Fiji, for ministers. However, by devoting most of my holidays to the task, the first draft of my assignment was passed in at the nominated time, March 1980. The paper was entitled “Ellen White in the Eighties,” and it can be readily accessed (along with many of my papers, some of which are listed by date in “Ellen White and South Pacific Adventism: Retrospect and Prospect,” a paper presented at the Ellen White Summit, 2-5 February 2004, see pages 19-23), catalogued in the Document Files of the Research Centre and, in many cases, available on the CDs produced by the Centre.

I was quietly amazed that my chapter was not acknowledged, and the publishing project was abandoned without comment. Meanwhile, Desmond Ford had delivered his memorable 27 October 1979 Adventist Forum address at Pacific Union College and transferred to the church’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to write his Glacier View document. I decided my task was to understand Ellen White in view of the swelling tide of new information that daily inundated my desk, so I wrote papers of various types that tried to locate her life and writings within a factual but constructive frame of reference. Ford had simply provided the spark that lit tinder-dry issues of the time; the consequent inferno in places like Australia and New Zealand seemed all-encompassing, for Ellen White as well as the Sanctuary doctrine.

Between 1976 and March 1980 the halo that Hedwig Jemison and Arthur White had placed on my head seemed secure, but thereafter it began slipping, increasingly. The chairperson of my supervisory committee was unable to spend even an hour digesting resources that were taking me years to understand, but he and his closest associate, Division secretary Ron Taylor confided they had a problem. The church’s ministers, teachers and members wrote to me for answers to their questions, and they wrote to the Division brethren for the same purpose. But the answers they received were not the same, in the eyes of the Division officers. I pointed out that the church had entrusted me with its memories and that I must be faithful to what the primary and other sources disclosed. Probably such an answer was inadequate; certainly it fuelled my leaders’ concerns.

The year 1982 filled me with new hope for a brighter future. Appointed as one of two South Pacific Division delegates to attend in Washington, D.C., the first International Prophetic Guidance Workshop, I felt that at last the Workshop had placed the essential data on the Adventist corporate desk. There is no need to repeat here the reports that I have written about this landmark event (see, for instance, issue), except to underline my deep disappointment when I was instructed from the Division office not to share its recorded discussions, written documents or my initial reports of the Workshop (note the diluted report, Arthur N. Patrick and Arthur N. Duffy, “Prophetic Guidance Workshop,” Australasian Record, 28 June 1982, 13). However, I felt a new surge of optimism when I was given about five hours to address the Victorian Conference ministers, Trans-Australian Union office personnel and others. An affirmative report (G.E. G[arne], “Understanding the Prophetic Gift More Fully,” Australasian Record, 16 October 1982, 3) seemed to indicate that it was possible to be both honest and affirmative with reference to Ellen White; at least that was the burden of the document from which I spoke, entitled “The Minister and the Ministry of Ellen White in 1982.” Pastor Robert Parr, president of the Greater Sydney Conference, reported to me that he had heard good reports of the September event in Victoria and wanted that repeated in Sydney during October. I did my best in the two hours allocated, but the last “Amen” was scarcely said before the telephones in Gordon and Wahroonga were ringing, reporting to the Trans-Tasman Union Conference and the South Pacific Division that my stance was unorthodox.

Earlier, the South Pacific Division had set up a small committee under the chairmanship of Pastor Ron Taylor to assess and approve papers that I wrote, but the only item that I recall being approved was a relatively short list of documents held by the Research Centre. I had also proposed that a Spirit of Prophecy Resource Committee be appointed to vet and pass on useful information to the church, and I was appointed as a member of the said committee. However, the task proved to be too delicate to handle effectively; a paper that I wrote took many weeks to be acknowledged and more valuable time to study and discuss. I was overjoyed when at last consensus was reached that the document was accurate. But, immediately that decision was made unanimously by the committee, a union president rose to his feet and in a forthright speech convinced the committee of peril, should these ideas become known by others than the members of the committee.[1] It was immediately agreed that only members of the committee would have access to the paper. (Eight years later, the essential ideas were summarised in my article, “Does our past embarrass us?” Ministry, April 1991, 7-10, currently available on the Avondale College website. Subsequently, a letter to the editor from Elder Joe Crews indicated that he had “never read a more dangerous and deceptive article in one of our magazines” during his 44 years in the ministry, see Ministry, August 1991, 2.)

Way back in May 1980 I had been a guest speaker at the Townsville (North Queensland) camp meeting, and was assigned to preach on the topic of the Sanctuary for the final Sabbath sermon. I accepted the task as a wonderful opportunity to draw a divided congregation together on the essentials of this great theme. The next week I was called to the Division office for extended questioning, focused not on what I had said but on what I had failed to say. By 1983, I had become rather accustomed to many hours of such interrogation in Wahroonga, often accompanied by urgings to resign. Therefore, it was hardly a surprise when Avondale’s principal, Dr James Cox asked me to be the College Registrar, beginning with the 1984 academic year. Sensing that a change of responsibilities was inevitable, I had already completed a Master of Literature in Australian religious history at the University of New England, thereby qualifying for PhD study in the same discipline at the University of Newcastle. The next thirty years would see my research and writing focus more particularly upon the field of Adventist Studies, in particular the life and writings of Ellen White.

Looking back, I remember the eight years, 1976-1983, as filled with exciting discoveries and escalating tensions. It was a huge disappointment at the end of 1983 to be ejected from a task that I fully accepted as being like marriage, for life. My principal regret is that my efforts to protect ministers, teachers and members threatened by termination of employment or disruption of fellowship were only sometimes successful, in part due to my inability to effectively share both data and the viable interpretation of information. The files of the Research Centre provide a rather diary-like account of how information surfaced, what its essentials were, and how the facts were perceived. Three potential responses are writ large in the story of Seventh-day Adventism in the South Pacific Division: neither reversion to the church’s tradition nor alienation from its heritage are indicated; only transformation of its tradition delivers an adequate response as fresh information is received and incorporated into the life and witness of believers. Hence, I cherish the contemporary (2012) climate of relative openness and comparative maturity that characterises the church that I love deeply and serve gladly.[2]

Arthur Patrick, 29 November 2012


[1] My impression, during the years of crisis, was that the idea new information relating to Ellen White’s life and writings required some adjustment of Adventist thought and practice was particularly threatening, especially for some administrators. For instance, I developed seven statements that indicated what the church was saying prior to 1970 and what it must say (to have integrity, on the basis of newly-available information) after 1970. Each sentence was examined intensely and approved by the Spirit of Prophecy Resource Committee, albeit un-willingly, on the basis of unmistakable evidence, before being restricted specifically to the members of the SPRC. The wording, as published eight years later (Ministry, April 1991, 9), was as follows: “For example, prior to 1970 most believers accepted the following statements with little or no hesitation: 1. Ellen White’s writings make a striking appeal to timeless truth. 2. They contain certain unique elements. 3. Her writings on health placed Seventh-day Adventists on vantage ground by relating bodily health to basic spiritual well-being and by pointing out numerous paths to right living. 4. She made effective use of the Bible in her writings. 5. She often helped the church develop and express its theology. 6. She retained control over her literary output. 7. Her writings reveal a remarkable literary beauty.” Then the article suggested “some change or modification to the above statements, somewhat along the following lines. 1. Ellen White’s writings make a striking appeal to timeless truth even though they are historically conditioned to a significant degree. 2. They contain certain unique elements even though they are related in an evident way to both Adventist and non-Adventist literature of her time. 3. Her writings on health placed Seventh-day Adventists on vantage ground by relating bodily health to basic spiritual well-being and by pointing out numerous paths to right living, even though she reflected some of the ideas of her Adventist and non-Adventist contemporaries. 4. She made effective use of the Bible in her writings, even though she employed Scripture in a variety of ways, not all of which express the meaning and intent of the Bible. 5. While she often helped the church develop and express its theology, her doctrinal understandings underwent both growth and change during her lifetime of ministry. 6. She retained a position of control over her literary output, but her literary assistants and advisors did have more than a minor mechanical role in the preparation of her writings for publication. 7. Her writings reveal a remarkable literary beauty, but her use of sources and the role she assigned her assistants/advisors indicate that this literary beauty should not be used as proof of her divine inspiration.” Of course, to be well understood, any such article needs to be read in the light of the sources that it cites.

[2] I explicate such thinking in recent conference presentations and articles that are on the Avondale College website or available on the website; see especially “The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Historiography: Idealisation, Conflict and Maturation,” a paper presented (with Daniel Reynaud) at the “Divining the Past” conference of the Evangelical History Association, 23 July 2010, Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University, now available on the Avondale College website, and “Contextualising Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism: ‘A Constant Process of Struggle and Rebirth’?” Journal of Religious History 34:3 (September 2010), 272-288. The original draft of the latter paper (before it was refereed) is also available on the Avondale website.

Posted in SDA theology

Post 83, The Relevance of Ellen White’s Writings for Contemporary[1] Adventist Life, Thought, Identity and Mission

“When memories exceed dreams, the end is near” (Thomas L. Friedman).

Abstract Ellen White Studies is a subset of the emerging discipline of Adventist Studies; it seeks to understand the life and writings of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915) in terms of all the known and potential data. Ellen White’s historic contribution to Seventh-day Adventism is being better understood since about 1970 when fresh questions began to be asked by researchers with increasing access to primary sources in addition to a growing number of secondary studies. This process replaced the certitude of the 1950s with the uncertainty of the 1970s and the conflict of the 1980s, until a new consensus began to develop during the 1990s. Currently, Adventists have an attractive opportunity to explore and express the relevance that Ellen White’s writings have for their lifestyle, teachings, identity and mission in Century 21.

Richard Osborn, president of Pacific Union College, writing in Adventist Review’s last issuefor 2007, cited “one of the most discussed books of the twenty-first century” and its view of “the flattened earth” that “empowers individuals through the synergy of the personal computer, the microprocessor, the Internet, and fibre optics.” The church of the future, Osborn suggests, will be increasingly “a flat church,” one that is “less vertical, more horizontal and collaborative in relationships.” It will demand leadership that adopts effectively “the role of a servant” and models “the way Jesus related to people.” Osborn applies his message with the help of Thomas Friedman’s warning: “In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward.” Hence the arresting question: “Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?”[2]

Osborn asks, “What can we imagine for the future?” It is about the Adventist future that he enquires with this pertinent question. Segments of our church have developed a profound interest in specific aspects of the past. Note the energetic ministry of Glad Tidings Publishers (, the devoted efforts of the Adventist Pioneer Library project (, the commitments of various “Historic Adventist” groups and the Standish brothers, the anti-Trinitarian and other impulses that effervesce in various parts of the world. The church we love is impacted by both constructive insights and recycled heresies such as Arianism and even panentheism. Far be it from any would-be Adventist historian to disparage the study of the history. But every emphasis on the past needs to be evaluated coherently in the light of all the available information.

An Altered Context

The church in Century 21 must perform this challenging evaluation within a context that has changed radically in just four decades. Until about 1970, the church’s leaders had a significant measure of control over the primary sources relating to Adventist heritage in general and the life and writings of Ellen White in particular. The major questions about Ellen White posed during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century are well illustrated by two volumes. The first of these was written by Uriah Smith and trialled as articles in the Review and Herald before being published as a book (1868) that James White distributed widely. The second—a much larger tome—was written by Francis D. Nichol (1951).[3] Remarkably, spurred by a cluster of contributing factors from 1970 onward, it took only twelve years (that is, until 1982) to undermine the credibility of Nichol’s book. A huge volume of information, dumped unceremoniously on the church’s corporate desk, demonstrated the inadequacy of Nichol’s research. The mass of essentially fresh data was acknowledged as significant by the church at its first International Prophetic Guidance Workshop (1982), but the worldwide Adventist community is still in the process of fully embracing its implications.[4] Whereas before 1970 the processes that were developing Adventist theology could rely rather much on controlled documentation, now the earth is “flat” (to use Osborn’s term), with most of the essential information available to everyone at the press of a few computer buttons. Because of this, the Adventist future will be distinctly different from even the recent past, and a call for a fresh expression of servant leadership is appropriate.

Perhaps there is a need to be quite specific in contrasting the present state of Ellen White Studies with the way things were when many older Adventists were students at Avondale College. Back in 1950 and 1951 at the Australasian Missionary College, Russell and Colin Standish were two of my fellow students. A few months ago I completed an article (“Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism,” available on the Avondale College website) that Russell Standish kindly read in draft form; he wrote to me about it on 27 February 2008, saying (in part): “I frequently pray for you that you will see that your present course has taken you far from the faith of your youth and far from the inspired words of both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy.”

I have nothing but gratitude for the prayers of both the Standish brothers up to the time of Russell’s tragic death. But I find it instructive to meditate on “the faith of my youth” with respect to the inspired writings of both Scripture and Ellen White. Of course today’s presentation gives attention only to the “red books,” since the development of biblical hermeneutics within Adventism is a related but separate subject.

The Ellen White of the SDA church at the beginning of the third quarter of the twentieth century is Russell and Colin Standish’s Ellen White still, but not mine. She offered an absolutely constant voice in a fast changing world. She was largely uninfluenced by the wider culture of her time and even (mostly) uninfluenced by her Adventist contemporaries. Hers was the definitive word on biblical history and chronology. Her writings gave Adventists the only fully reliable harmony of the four gospels. She told us the true history of the crust of the earth in a definitive manner, including the source of volcanoes. Her health writings, unlike those of all others, needed no revision. She used very few literary sources; what sources she did use were selected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and thus were as authoritative as the visions that she recorded—in many pages spiced with numerous “I saw” statements. The literary beauty of her writings provided compelling evidence that she received direct, Divine inspiration. Her theology was without a flaw, despite the fact that growth and change characterised the movement with which she had a symbiotic relationship. In a word, Ellen White’s writings were what the Standish brothers identify as “inerrant in the autographs.”[5]

Not one of the statements in that last paragraph is sustainable in 2009 in the manner of the 1950s. My paper entitled “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White” (Part 2) notes five of the many potential examples of how documented evidence requires us to adjust the orthodoxy of the 1950s (see The substantive question is, therefore, a very simple one: Will we tell the truth about Ellen White or will we seek to sustain the Ellen White of The Greatest of All the Prophets (2004), albeit in some modified form. I have wrestled long with the essence of that task, ever since it was overtly assigned to me by the leadership of the South Pacific Division in a letter written during the latter half of 1979. Initially that request from the church’s headquarters created a paper entitled Ellen White in the 80s; scores of other articles and papers have followed, seeking to detail the evidence and off sustainable interpretive comment.

Truth for Today

It may be helpful, therefore, to reflect on how we might “improve our light” (Ellen White’s term) in order to maintain the essentials of the faith of yesterday as “present truth” for today. There are some fundamental “givens” that undergird the process of understanding and applying Seventh-day Adventist faith. Seven of them may be worth listing at this point.

1. Jesus as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, NIV) is the prime focus of everything Adventist.

2. Scripture, the word of God, is truth (John 17:3) and our “only rule of faith and practice.”

3. At its core, Seventh-day Adventism is a quest to understand, apply and share the message of Scripture, “the truth as it is in Jesus.” Ellen White uses that expression 740 times (according to the index on the White Estate 2005 CD) and she does so in a variety of settings. We need to note the fact that (as is always the case) quite a number of the 740 statements are used more than once; that is, an identical statement may be repeated in more than one publication. But the import of this mass of statements is arresting indeed.

4. This truth grows in clarity as the church and individuals “walk with the Lord/In the light of His word” (“Trust and Obey” is how Hymn 590 describes the process). Rolf Pöhler has written a masterful study (the best, by far, but only the solo of our chorus) showing how that phenomenon operates in Christianity and Adventism.[6]

5. A central purpose of truth is to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15). This point is so misunderstood that we might well pause on it for a moment.

The “science of salvation” relies upon revealed truth; its focus is upon Deity (God/Christ/Holy Spirit) in relation to humanity (our origin, nature and destiny). This revealed truth is at the centre of the message that the inspired Ellen White seeks to convey to us. Non-salvific truth is also important, but it relies principally upon the capacities that God has given us whereby human beings (made in the image of God) discover the realities that they classify (for instance) as mathematics, physics, geology, astronomy and a host of other branches of science. Where saving truth and human knowledge intersect, we often need supernatural assistance to define the relationships accurately. For instance, revelation discloses to us the reality of God as Creator; the purpose of God for human well-being; the conflict between good and evil, and so on. It is in such areas that Ellen White’s prophetic role has some of its greatest importance and most direct applicability to Adventist identity and mission.

6. Biblical truth is always understood and applied in a specific context; thus it is illumined by historical experience (as in Ellen White’s expression of the Great Controversy Theme or in her writings on education, health, mission, etc.).

7. Therefore, SDAs are called to be faithful to “present truth,” a term that Ellen White employs in 1,911 of the 38,963 times she uses the word “truth” in her published writings.

More About “Present Truth”

One of the remarkable aspects of Ellen White’s literary corpus is the way it creates a balancing tension between the past and the future. Take a statement that she wrote during the turbulent 1860s, the decade in which Adventists selected their denominational name, organised conferences and their General Conference, began more fully to “hear” the message of health reform and, with the American nation, experienced the horrors of Civil War.

Greater light shines upon us than shone upon our fathers. We cannot be accepted or honored of God in rendering the same service, or doing the same works, that our fathers did. In order to be accepted and blessed of God as they were, we must imitate their faithfulness and zeal,—improve our light as they improved theirs,—and do as they would have done had they lived in our day. We must walk in the light which shines upon us, otherwise that light will become darkness. Testimonies, vol. 1, 262.

Statements such as this could be multiplied readily, especially by the inclusion of those that advocate faithfulness to the concept of “present truth.” A seminal article by a New Testament exegete suggests that “the most striking characteristic of Adventism” is its quest for truth.[7] For Ellen White, our understandings must be continually honed in terms of fresh evidence and the ongoing guidance of God as we search the Scriptures. This is a demanding process that involves both unlearning and learning. It will never be complete on this earth and it will continue throughout eternity.[8]

Ellen White in the Adventist Past

This paper assumes at least a nodding acquaintance with but a sustained interest in Adventist history. Historically, Ellen White helped us coalesce after the Great Disappointment, identify and declare the four other landmark ideas that go with the Second Advent, structure our community, affirm practical emphases on health, education and world mission, better focus on Christ (both Advents, not just the Second), and avoid tempting aberrations (like holy flesh, pantheism and even panentheism—in the notable experience of Ellet J. Waggoner).[9] Her work is greatly illumined in terms of her relation to the Bible over against the patterns within other religious movements that sprang up in nineteenth-century North America. For instance, Joseph Smith offered new scriptures; Mary Baker Eddy gave her followers a “key” to the Scriptures; Charles Taze Russell’s movement flourished under the authority of two other leaders before it developed the teaching magisterium now known as the Watchtower Society. In contrast with each of these patterns of authority, Ellen White claimed she was simply “a lesser light” to lead us to “the greater light,” the Bible. Bert Haloviak’s paper on demonstrates the peril of requiring Ellen White to exercise exegetical control over Scripture. Recently George Knight described the constant temptation for Adventists to expect this exegetical authority from Ellen White.[10] By contrast, Gilbert Valentine describes the real Ellen White as one who valued the interaction of her spiritual gift with the spiritual gifts of the Adventist community, a matter so well illustrated by Prescott’s contribution. Alden Thompson applies the evidence together fruitfully on his voluminous website.[11]

So, we can summarise the big picture along the following lines. A symbiotic relationship developed between Ellen White (1827-1915) and Sabbatarian Adventism during the first seventy years after the Great Disappointment of 22 October 1844. Several recent studies (by Michael Campbell, Mark Pearce and Gilbert Valentine) infer the creativity yet complexity of the church’s ongoing relationship with Ellen White’s literary legacy during the early decades after her death.[12] By the middle of the twentieth century it was evident that she had helped Seventh-day Adventism develop from a tiny minority of Millerism that, after 1844, was suffused by great uncertainties, into a coherent movement that exemplified great assurance. However, the optimism of Adventism’s golden age of apologetics was eroded from 1970 as scholars and members asked fresh questions about Ellen White’s life and writings, and delved into newly-available archival resources to find the answers. The resulting controversy moderated during the 1990s; indeed, by 1999 the South Pacific Division (SPD) was able to create a strategy document that moved beyond the by-then-diminishing conflict of thirty years, implying the possibility of a more cohesive future.

An example of the fresh approaches trialled during the 1990s is a Trans-Tasman Union Conference initiative that explored the appropriate use of Ellen White’s writings.[13] Within the first decade of Century 21, there have been frequent indications that the church recognises it is essential to build a fresh appreciation for the relevance of Ellen White’s writings. Sabbatarian Adventism, birthed in the nineteenth-century, has become a world faith that is acutely conscious of an enormous task: heralding “the everlasting gospel” to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (see Revelation 14:6-7, KJV).[14] Now that we are under worldwide scrutiny by both religious and secular thinkers, a coherent sense of identity is even more crucial for the realisation of this demanding mission.

The Summit and the Coordinating Committee

The issue of relevance[15] lay behind the Ellen White Summit of 2004[16] and has influenced the agenda of the Ellen G. White Coordinating Committees that convene twice each year at the headquarters of the SPD. The minutes of the most-recent meetings (held 22 July 2008 and 18 February 2009) illustrate the committee’s ongoing attention to “a major challenge” that was aptly described during 2007:

The issue of the present and ongoing relevance of Ellen White’s writings and ministry is a major challenge for the Church. It was discussed at our recent meeting in the Ellen G. White Coordinating Committee, and the committee decided “to ask a small group of John Skrzypaszek (chair), Ray Roennfeldt, and Sally Hall to write a 2-3 pages succinct summary of the role of Ellen White today, containing points of contact with present culture” (E-mails, John Skrzypaszek to Arthur Patrick, 6 September and 8 November 2007).

The committee’s initiatives currently include the efforts of Sally Hall, a pastor in Coffs Harbour who is working in cooperation with the Field Secretary and the Adventist Media Network. Hall is listening to young people in her congregation and seeking to develop DVDs that address their interests. This process illustrates one of the many ways that the issue of Ellen White’s relevance is being addressed currently on various continents. It needs to be explicitly stated that all the observations made in this paper merely reflect aspects of a pervasive conversation that is occurring within the global Adventist community.[17]

Ellen White and “Present Culture”

A basic issue that we should address is the nature of “present culture.” The SPD initiatives embrace Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific. Needs in the first two arenas are apparent; however, recent events in two island regions of the Pacific suggest that the dilemmas impacting the homelands since the 1980s are already appearing in the mission fields. Nor should we assume that even Australian and New Zealand cultures are the same in all respects.

Present culture in both Australia and New Zealand is multi-faceted, not least because of its growing ethnic diversity,[18] a matter that Ronald Lawson has explored well in Europe and the United States, and reported in cogent journal articles. It may be helpful to identify the many important characteristics of contemporary culture, perhaps noting salient features such as the following:

1. There is a passion for family history.

2. There is an unprecedented focus on health and physical well-being.

3. There is a sustained interest in personalities.

We might, then, apply these and other segmented but powerful impulses to the task in hand. Some Adventists can be interested in Ellen White through the narrative of her role in the Adventist family. An article, “Ellen White: Mother of the Church in the South Pacific,” Adventist Heritage 16:3 (Spring 1993), 30-40 illustrates this approach in a limited way. Further possibilities along this line are many and they are attractive.

For Ellen White’s role in Adventist health or lifestyle, we need to adopt a very studied but non-traditional approach if we are to connect with present culture. A few of the many ways in which we might proceed are intimated in my sdanet/atissue article, “Ellen White: Pioneer of Adventist Health Emphases” that is currently being revised under the stimulus of many e-mail communications between Don McMahon (Melbourne) and T. Joe Willey (Loma Linda). This task is part of my broader preparation for a conference in Maine and several presentations that will be delivered in West Coast locations during October and November 2009.[19]

The Ellen White Summit (2004) spawned a series of articles by well-known Adventists, reflecting upon their personal journeys with Ellen White—a theme that John Skrzypaszek is reapplying with increasing success. These personalised narratives have not yet made it into print. It is still my hope that the benefits of this initiative will be made widely available, at least in an electronic form. The effectiveness of such approaches may well be determined by the accuracy of our perceptions of present culture and the variety of ways we apply such insights. Culture is so pluralistic that it challenges us to be creative in finding ways to interact with various age groups, educational levels, employment types, and so on. One size does not fit all.

Now that the church has such effective Internet options at the level of the SPD and its various entities (see, for instance, “RECORD website receives virtual makeover,” Record, 21 February 2009, 7), we can more realistically address the needs and interests of various groups within our community of faith. A cluster of Record articles seem to indicate a serious interest in research relating to Ellen White in the context of Adventist history. Rick Ferret’s doctoral thesis (“Exploring the Adventist journey,” 3 March 2007, 11-12) is a case in point; more recently Record has noticed major studies by Michael Campbell and Woodrow Whidden (24 January and 7 February 2009). But our “Official Paper” can only be expected to achieve a very small part of what is needed or what is possible. Perhaps it may be fruitful to select a small group of qualified volunteers to referee articles for a dedicated section of the church’s website that could function as a stimulating resource for Adventist ministers, teachers and members. While any specific interest-group will be relatively small, over time the initiative could have an important trickle-down effect.

Relevance: Some Further Options

A cluster of rather random suggestions may be worth considering. Probably the most important mistake the South Pacific Division made during the Ellen White crisis that began in 1970 (and required much of two decades to move beyond destructive controversy) was to fear, curtail, condemn or ignore serious research. As a case in point Ronald Numbers, the first trained historian to seriously explore Ellen White as a health reformer, received few accolades from his community of faith. The church was aghast that his research showed we could not provide him, at that stage, with a viable concept of Ellen White’s inspiration, in view of his findings. So, we ejected him from fellowship. However, thirty-two years later, with the publication of a third edition of his book (2008), an extensive literature illustrates the fact that Numbers, more than any other author, has “not only contributed to a reevaluation of White within Adventism but elevated her from a virtually unknown historical actor to a minor star on the stage of American religious history.”[20]  In the light of this experience, the church needs to foster a relationship with graduate students and PhD candidates at Avondale and other South Pacific institutions. We can now read with pleasure and profit the thesis by Mark Pearce contextualising issues that effervesced in the years immediately after Ellen White’s death; a number of other relevant studies are in process.

Conferences on a Division-wide level are expensive. But the church has personnel able to travel to local conferences, city or regional events that could be innovative and beneficial. The Questions on Doctrine conference at Andrews University (2007) was conceived and birthed by volunteers; presenters and attendees mostly paid their own way (over 200 of them). Aspects of that venture indicate possibilities the church might tap in terms of its present agenda.

The church needs to think strategically and grasp opportunities in a timely fashion. For instance, Graeme Bradford was able to identify and express (in three books) a towering need to present the real Ellen White.  There have been cautions from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) of the General Conference, Ellen G. White Estate, individual Andrews University professors and Ministry. But, with the recent completion of Michael Campbell’s dissertation, the church has a new opportunity to move forward in understanding. Of course some details in Bradford’s three books required detailed assessment. It is one of the roles of effective publishing to expose data and potential interpretations for careful analysis by the community at large. Undue delay in any such process may militate against the effectiveness of the outcome: intensified apathy on the part of many believers is likely to impact the thought and mission of the church even more profoundly than actual controversy.  This lesson was writ large in the wake of the 1982 International Prophetic Guidance Workshop, a matter that I address briefly in the two papers entitled “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White” published on

We might fruitfully ask a series of what if questions. What if we engaged young people more intentionally in the task, as in the Redbooks drama produced recently at Pacific Union College? Or, with less risk: What if we intentionally listened to larger numbers of representative young people, building on Sally Hall’s initiative? What if we engaged other groups, in line with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers? What if we digested and applied Pastor Gary McCary’s sermon from 22 September 2007 entitled “Ellen,” tracing “his experience in understanding EGW—from Sister White, to Mrs. White, and now to Ellen—affirming that she made a major contribution in establishing the SDA church but that she was human, very human, neither inerrant nor infallible” (AAF Newsletter, San Diego Chapter, November 2007, 2). What if we produced a single feature article or pamphlet (like the South Pacific and North American Signs series on Wycliffe, Huss, Luther and Tyndale, 2007) to present Ellen White briefly but winsomely?

Any short presentation such as this can suggest only a very few of the significant opportunities available to us in the present tense. Our initiatives may well be enhanced and even multiplied if we discuss Ellen White as relevant in terms of both who for (touched on briefly, above)and what for.

Relevant for what? Selected examples

At the heart of Seventh-day Adventism are teachings that seek to articulate major biblical themes, such as those expressed in the church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs. The long history of these doctrines offers fruitful insights into their contemporary significance.[21]

The doctrine of the Trinity is a case in point. We can now see clearly why so many of Adventism’s co-founders and pioneers were at least semi-Arian in the beliefs, and why it took almost a century for an Adventist form of Trinitarianism to prevail.  The same data help us to be aware of the reasons why currently there is worldwide opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as to discern how this divisive impulse may be counteracted.

The evidence suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity illustrates aptly Ellen White’s role in relation to Adventist teachings. Scripture for Adventists in Century 21 is exactly as it was defined in A Word to the ‘Little Flock’” on30 May 1847: “our only rule of faith and practice.” In recent years, sociologists have helped us better understand Ellen White’s role in legitimising doctrinal change.[22] About three decades ago, Ron Graybill initiated a discussion of Ellen White’s role in such matters, employing the Scriptures as “normative” and her role as “formative.” Her writings are highly relevant for any minister who wants to lead her/his flock beyond destructive conflict in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The development of the Adventist understanding of mission again illustrates the ongoing relevance of Ellen White’s writings. When the broadside “TO THE LITTLE REMNANT SCATTERED ABROAD” was published in Portland (Maine) on 6 April 1846, anti-mission was still the stance of “Little Flock” who deemed that “all the wicked world” was rejected by God. By 1851 this “Shut Door” doctrine was being replaced by an “Open Door” that first invited the children of Millerites, then those who had not heard Miller’s message, and then representatives of other nations resident in the United States—to heed the Advent message. Further development during the 1860s laid a basis for John Nevins Andrews in 1874 to be the first official overseas missionary of the young movement. Gottfried Oosterwal suggests that 1950 marks a point at which Adventists were asking a fresh question: Why should some people hear the gospel twice when so many have never heard it once? Many of us remember when the term “Global Mission” arrested our attention during the 1980s. To make sense of this development from anti-mission to Global Mission in connection with the role of Ellen White is to remove obstacles from the path of effective understanding.

Although the centennial history of Sydney Adventist Hospital (2003) is a coffee-table book, serious historical research lies back of its popular-level narrative. One of the convictions that descended upon me as I read the primary documentation was that Ellen White was able to open her spiritual family intelligently to the benefits of scientific medicine, contrasting with the pattern of another nineteenth-century health reformer, Mary Baker Eddy. This laid an ideological basis for the 168 sanitariums and hospitals, plus 442 clinics and dispensaries that now offer their services to million of patients each year. Elsewhere I have suggested that in a similar way Ellen White opened Adventism to the challenges and rewards of accredited education. Studies of our worldwide health-care and educational systems demonstrate Ellen White’s dual relevance as a founder (in the there-and-then) and sustainer (in the here-and-now).[23]

The doctrine of revelation/inspiration is crucial for the future of Christianity in general as well as for the denominated church we love and serve. We are a hundred years past the rise of Fundamentalism in its current form. When new information deluges a community of faith, especially when uncertainty prevails in the surrounding culture, the fearful carry what Morris West describes aptly as “a heavy load of unexamined certainties.” For some, faithfulness to received understandings of the past (reversion) is the norm, irrespective of any evidence that may be newly available. (I explore these matters at some length in a paper delivered at the Questions on Doctrine conference last October and in the Journal of Religious History article mentioned above.) Perhaps we should clearly state the fact that reversionists are God’s people facing the stress of uncertainty.

Many reversionists that I know are deeply sincere. Colin Standish is one of the most committed of them. During January 2008 I spent a couple of hours with him, just before he flew back to Hartland. I had wondered if there was something that I had missed during our 58 years of interaction. So I asked many questions. His reflections demonstrated clearly to me, yet again, that he has almost no knowledge of what church leaders have given the Adventist world in the chain of Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centres that serve the various geographical sections of the planet. He is honestly and deeply committed to the 1950s Ellen White, a construct of pious imagination. This Ellen White is about as historically accurate as the Catholic picture of Mary. She is not the Ellen White of Arthur G. Daniells, W.W. Prescott, William Clarence White, William A. Spicer, H. Camden Lacey and a host of more recent, careful students who have tried to embrace all the evidence that is now so freely available. Such dedicated believers as the Standish brothers have sacrificed millions of Adventist dollars to their cause and are “heartbroken” (Russell’s term) by reason of their perception of what they identify as “the ills of God’s Church.”

For other Adventists, cognitive dissonance is so painful that they reject the faith of the community whenever the dissonance becomes acute. There are many of these folk in Australia and New Zealand but they are both more in number and more visible in the United States. Both these responses (reversion and alienation) can be tabulated unmistakably as powerful impulses that have been operative within our church, during the past forty years in particular.

By contrast, the transformationist response beckons us winsomely. Note the five examples cited in “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White” (Part 2), taken together (many others might be added fruitfully), point toward answers to some of the most persistent questions currently on the Adventist corporate desk, such as: How did Ellen White do her work? How does this historical understanding show the ways in which she experienced growth and change? How did she relate to history (note the insights of “Willie” White, Robinson, Peterson, Harder, Graybill, McAdams and many others)? What does the demonstration of the ways she used the writings of others teach us about her inspiration (note the instructive input of Bryan Ball when, as a faculty member at Newbold College, he explored the literary context of Ellen White’s writings while she was in Britain/Europe)? Again in this context, what does the way she valued her literary assistants teach us? And the way she engaged specialists like Prescott to help clarify issues and revise her books? Further: What were the ways in which she related to Scripture? Cherished the spiritual gifts of the community of faith within which she worshipped and ministered? And so on.[24]


Ellen White’s relevance for contemporary Adventist life and thought emerges naturally from an accurate understanding of her life and writings. She does not need defending, she simply needs accurate understanding in the light of all the evidence: biblical, historical, theological, sociological and so on.

When, during the 1920s, Seventh-day Adventists retreated into the Fundamentalist camp, they longed for the continued security Ellen White had helped them develop after the Great Disappointment. So, gradually but increasingly, they elevated Ellen White’s writings to a very high position as the all-inclusive, authoritative encyclopedia of Adventist faith and practice. With a lot of help from other sterling leaders, Australian Francis Nichol reshaped Uriah Smith’s 1868 apologetic for Ellen White and put to flight the alien armies of her critics (1951). But the ink was scarcely dry on Nichol’s tome before new evidence eroded the foundations of the defensive wall he built so painstakingly; his work is now an Adventist equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Ellen White is to be understood, first of all, as a Christian with a deep interest in the called people of God that we refer to as Jews. As a Christian, she nurtured a lifetime engagement with the formation, de-formation, re-formation, and consummation of the church. Next she was a Methodist with an abiding concern for John Wesley’s New Testament (primitive) Christianity, evangelicalism, and health reform. But Ellen White is also a Millerite, with a distinctive interest in the Second Advent. Finally, she is an archetypical Adventist of the nineteenth century, meaning her ultimate passion was for “the truth as it is in Jesus” that she expressed so well in the series of books published during her “decade of Christ,” following the 1888 General Conference.

It may seem trite to quote yet again what may be Ellen White’s best-known sentence: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Life Sketches, 196).The history of Seventh-day Adventism demonstrates that we have done quite a bit of forgetting and that such memory-loss has brought dire consequences. In an article that is due for publication in the near future, Fritz Guy (see footnote 8, above) includes an appendix that demonstrates Ellen White’s attitude to both the un-learning and the learning processes with which the church must engage, constantly. This paper suggests that the continuing relevance of her writings might be explored fruitfully in terms of the part-paragraph cited above, from the first volume of Testimonies for the Church. Its simple message is that we should diligently “improve our light,” now.

Appendix: Notes for Further Consideration

A few suggestions may be appropriate for the church and its ministry to discuss, as potential action steps in the near future.

1. Consider again the value of a mature focus on Adventist history and the light this discipline throws on present dilemmas (for example, note the significance of the 1919 and 1982 conferences), in terms of the 1999 “strategy” and the essence of the presentations given at the 2004 Ellen White Summit.

2. Offer our ministers, teachers, and members a short, illustrated, accurate overview of Ellen White’s life and writings. (If we can do that in the Australian and the American Signs for major Christian reformers in 1,500 words, we ought to be able to do it for Ellen White in less than three thousand words!)

3. Study and apply George Knight’s and Gilbert Valentine’s recent articles that further explicate the Adventist struggle to be true to Scripture and Ellen White’s inspiration. Then we must move from the consideration of historical understanding to a focus on present duty and continuing opportunity. The reflective stance of Alden Thompson is helpful in this context.

4. Identify how an enhanced use of the Internet may better present Adventist history in general, and Ellen White’s life and writings, in particular. Note, for example, for the text of illustrative papers and note how the editors enhance some of them with links to relevant sources.

5. Engage the range of disciplines and specialists implied in the 1980 Biblical Research Institute/White Estate vision statement as we move into the immediate future.

6. Ask the church’s educational administrators how they might need support as they lead the teachers in the three levels of Adventist education who meet daily the scientific challenges that still too often cause shipwreck of faith.

7. Think laterally about how we might embrace, again, at least some of those individuals who were ejected from our communion by the centrifugal forces that operated so powerfully in earlier times, such as the 1980s.

By 1982, the main body of evidence that now enables Adventists to understand coherently the life and writings of Ellen White was already on the Adventist corporate desk. Currently we can better understand the forces that opted for reversion and alienation before, during and after that time. We cannot for a moment afford to deny evidence; we must faithfully interpret it, remembering well “the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”

Probably all the above is rather well known to most leaders and ministers.  We might consider its implications fruitfully in relation to a cluster of matters that are on the corporate Adventist desk. A frame of reference is provided by the studies cited in the “Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” article (cited above). The intent will be to rejoice in the fruitage of Ellen White’s spiritual gift as we engage the spiritual gifts of the community that we cherish. The church might discuss such matters as the following (each of which needs a separate article to unpack its full potential).

1. Health. Let’s take the use of salt, as one of a thousand examples. Cf. Fraser (a New Zealander at Loma Lind University), Terry Butler and ARI, along with “Does Salt Affect Blood Pressure?” Adventist Review, 24 January 2008, 16.

2. Christian history. Note the content of Paul Landa’s teaching and the emphasis of the series he fostered “Great Disappointment, Greater Hope.”

3. Millerism. Note Gary Land on Everett Dick. Ellen White was a participant in Millerism. The study of the movement has gone through three stages. We now see the issues far more clearly, not least in the light of Kai Arasola’s dissertation.

4. Technology. See the Osborn AR article cited above.

5. The interpretation of Genesis. Laurence Turner (the text), Fritz Guy (theological meaning), Lynden Rogers (science). Cf. “Disagreeing Faithfully,” Adventist Review, 28 June 2007, 8-11.

6. The interpretation of Leviticus: Roy Gane, note Jenkins.

7. The interpretation of Hebrews: Young, Johnsson, Thiele. Not an Adventist tract but a New Testament one, with a profound message for Adventism.

8. The interpretation of Revelation: Jon Paulien and Graeme Bradford.

9. The doctrine of inspiration. Don McAdams, Bert Haloviak, Gilbert Valentine, Alden Thompson, Ray Roennfeldt and many others re Ellen White.

9. Adventist identity: the Bible in the end-times. Contrast the three religious movements noted above, the seven-volume SDA Bible Commentary, and the Ellen White who was open to the spiritual gifts of the community she served.

To follow along these lines will engage us with the Ellen White who helped Adventists  move from the limiting Shut Door concept toward that of Global Mission, who embraced the possibilities of the new translation of the Bible that occurred in her day, utilised the new-fangled technology of calligraphs (typewriters) when they became available, travelled by car after a lifetime using horse-drawn vehicles (see AR 17 January 2008, 23-25). But, most of important of all, we will be in tune with the Ellen White who directed us to the Bible in terms of “present truth.”

My wife of fifty years makes the best apple bread in the world. She goes to the same supermarket as others to buy ground grain, sweetening, apples and spices. The eggs are from her own free-range hens. But in the insightful mixing and cooking, the ingredients are transformed into a nourishing, tasteful loaf.

Adventism is a “loaf” with which the Lord wants to nourish Christianity and facilitate its mission in these last days. Adventists use the same essential ingredients (especially the Scriptures) as other Christians do. We also have a distinctive flavouring: the specific ministry of one who directed us not to herself, but to the light of Scripture. There are powerful impulses within our church that press us to make Ellen White’s writings into a new scripture. Others want her to be a “key” to the Scriptures. Others demand a teaching magisterium that will interpret for all the rest of us both the Bible and her writings (in contrast to Osborn’s concept of flatness that the Protestant Reformers described as “the priesthood of all believers”). The integrity of Adventism in the Western world now (as will soon be the case in the rest of the world also) depends considerably on the faithfulness and maturity of the church’s response (servant leadership) in view of these complex challenges.

Arthur Patrick, 10 March 2009, posted 29 November 2012

This paper was prepared for a group of about thirty associate degree students who were undertaking the subject “Seventh-day Adventist History and Ministry of Ellen White.” Since it was written in late February and early March 2009, for inclusion on a CD of reference materials that the students would use, it lacked the usual level of scrutiny that my papers receive before they become public. If any matter is unclear or if further documentation is needed, the reader is invited to contact me by e-mail: The entire paper should be read as a footnote to the pamphlet “Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students,” May 2006, revised and re-titled in 2009 and placed on the Avondale College website.

[1] The word “contemporary” in the title of this paper is an important descriptor. During the turbulence of an earlier era, I wrote a much longer paper entitled “The Minister and the Ministry of Ellen White in 1982” that also attempted to meet the strictures of being “contemporary.” While little within the 1982 paper requires revision in 2009 and its content offers data that inform the present discussion of Ellen White, the two papers are vastly different. It is important to recognise that this presentation assumes an understanding of previous history rather than restating that history in detail. Therefore, the reader may choose to consult a number of the articles and papers listed in “Ellen White and South Pacific Adventism: Retrospect and Prospect,” 5 February 2004, the paper I presented at the Ellen White Summit, available on the CD: “Adventist Heritage Lecture Notes, Database and Resources,” see “Section E – Important Documents, Patrick-Arthur Papers,” Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre, Avondale College. An earlier article, “Does our past embarrass us?” Ministry, April 1991, 7-10, offers a brief historical overview that was updated by “Ellen White in the 1990s,” a summary article available on issue.

 [2] Richard Osborn, “Is the Church Flat?” Adventist Review, 27 December, 2007, 9-13.

[3] Uriah Smith, The Visions of Mrs E.G. White: a manifestation of spiritual gifts according to the Scriptures  (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1868); Francis D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics; An answer to the major charges that critics have brought against Mrs. Ellen G. White (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, c. 1951).

[4] While I was writing this paper, earnest friends from overseas urged me to examine the websites of Sydney Cleveland (; cf other sites about his book White- Washed) and Ronald Parmele, a fourth-generation (but now former) Seventh-day Adventist: The Internet sites that present pro and con arguments relating to Ellen White are prolific; see, for instance. On 4 March 2009 I typed the name “Ellen White” into GOOGLE and in thirteen seconds I was notified of 7,310,000 options, including my brief article “Surfing the Ellen White Information Wave in 2006.” So I typed in “Arthur Patrick: Re Ellen White,” and, within 0.18 of a second, 211,000 options were offered. The volume of information is confusing for the uninitiated; hence the need for the church to provide succinct, reliable pointers toward sustainable interpretive options.

[5] Russell R. and Colin D. Standish, The Greatest Of All the Prophets (Narbethong, Vic: Highwood Books, 2004).

[6] Pöhler’s 1995 Andrews University doctoral dissertation has developed into articles and books, including Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching: A Case Study in Doctrinal Development (Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

[7] Robert M. Johnston, “A search for truth,” Adventist Review 160:37, 6-8

[8] Cf. The Great Controversy, 678, with the article by Fritz Guy, entitled “Change, Scripture, and Science: good news for Adventist thinking in the twenty-furst century,” Spectrum 37 (Summer2009), 50-55.

[9] See my review, “Revisiting Waggoner and 1888,” Record, 7 February 2009, 10.

[10] George R. Knight, “Visions and the Word: The Authority of Ellen White in Relation to the Authority of Scripture in the Seventh-day Adventist Movement—Part 1,” Adventist Today 15:5 (September/October 2007), 22-25; “Part 2,” Adventist Today 15:6 (November /December 2007), 19-22.

[11] Dr Alden Thompson teaches at Walla Walla University: his website is available at

[12] Note my reviews of Michael Campbell’s lectures at Avondale College during November 2008 in terms of the content of his dissertation: and my article, “Lectures share research on 1919 conference,” Record, 24 January 2009, 7. See also Gilbert M. Valentine, “The Church ‘Drifting toward a Crisis”: Prescott’s 1915 Letter to William White,” Catalyst 2:1 (November 2007), 32-94, also on The thesis by Mark Pearce (2007) is available in the Ellen G, White/SDA Research Centre at Avondale, along with all the other items cited in this paper (and much other data relevant to the subject in hand).

[13] Note, for example, the articles by Gerhard Pfandl and Arthur Patrick in Adventist Professional 7:2 (Winter 1995), as contextualised by the editorial “About this issue,” 3.

[14] Observe how this concern is reflected in Adventist World, the magazinethat replaces the regular issues of Adventist Review and Record once each month.

 [15] While the word “relevance” does not occur in the index of Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1998), the wide-ranging content of the book creates an effective framework for the present discussion.

 [16] See Nathan Brown, “Ellen White book launched at summit,” and Nathan Brown and Bruce Manners, “Church leaders reassess Ellen White,” Record, 21 February 2004, 1, 5. Cf. the series by Bruce Manners and Arthur Patrick, “Ellen White for today,” Record, 7 February 2004, 9-10; 14 February 2004, 3-4; 21 February 2004, 9-10; 28 February 2004, 10-11. Note the editorial “An Ellen White reality check,” Record, 7 February 2004, 2, plus the long series of letters that these Record articles evoked.

 [17] Roger W. Coon, “Anthology of Recently Published Articles on Selected Issues in Prophetic Guidance (1981-1985)” is 190 pages in length (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, 1986). Coon’s anthology illustrates the fact that during the first half of the 1980s, the matter of relevance was present but largely submerged beneath historical, literary and theological issues.

 [18] For Australia, the output of the Christian Research Association offers useful perspectives: see, in particular, Australia’s Religious Communities: A Multimedia Exploration (2000).

 [19] For a context relating to this endeavour, see my paper entitled “Religious History in Century 21: Reflections on the Demand for Credible Historiography,” 16 January 2009, since made available on the Avondale College website.

 [20] “Religious History In Century 21,” 7. At the present time there is fruitful work being done on the subject of health reform and its history that is validating the historical research of Ron Numbers and helping us to better contextualise the efforts of Don McMahon. The input of T. Joe Willey is important in this process; I contextualise this process more adequately in the “Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” article.

 [21] See, for instance, my paper entitled “The Investigative Judgment: A short, Documented History of an Adventist Teaching,” 1 November 2008. While a paper of similar length might be written about the historical development of each fundamental teaching, as well as many related themes, the framework-of-understanding provided by Rolf Pöhler (see footnote 6, above) is essential.

 [22] See the thesis and subsequent book (2008) by Rick Ferret as profiled in my forthcoming article in Journal of Religious History. The article isalready available on the Avondale College website as“Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism.”

 [23] This brief paper leaves many potential topics unexplored. Perhaps the most important of these is the way in which Ellen White’s “decade of Christ” writings (SC, MB, DA, COL in particular) shaped and continue to influence the Adventist understanding of Jesus.

[24] Note the insightful list of topics that the Biblical Research Institute and White Estate agreed upon in 1980.

Posted in SDA theology

Post 82, The Whole of Scripture and Adventism: An Enormous Challenge

For the past year, Signs of the Times monthly magazines in Australia and the United States have been running articlcs on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and the Beatitudes, the “blessings” with which Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). My task has been to write very short analyses of exactly how each Commandment or Beatitude fits into the patterns of biblical thought.

There is no need to post these series of articles on this website, since with the help of Google my name and Signs can be accessed readily. However, below is my short meditation on the Sixth Commandment, one example of the many that try to indicate exactly what the Bible says.

That is the Adventist task: to focus on what the Bible said in the there and then before we make any attempt to ask what the Bible means in the here and now. In other words exegesis precedes interpretation, always.

To exegete a passage of Scripture is to lead out its meaning. It help to give attention to the original languages in which the text was written (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), to closely examine the syntax, the context and the history that surrounds the text and its interpretation. Then we do well to explore what the rest of the Bible says on this same theme. Such processes get us ready to construct an understanding of what God wants to say to us in our time and place. The enormous challenge is for us to do that, seriously, for every verse from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.

So here is one short attempt, but remember that you can easily find many others.

“Thou shalt not kill,” the four words many Christians learned as Exodus 20:13 from the King James Version of the Bible are better translated in such versions as the New International: “You shall not murder.” Even a modern dictionary aids our understanding; for instance The Macquarie Dictionary offers a legal definition of murder as “the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought.”

The Old Testament regarded human life as so sacred that, in instances where it was ruthlessly taken, capital punishment was appropriate. In fact, God demands of each of us “an accounting for the life” of other persons. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:5,6).

However, in the teachings of Jesus, the Sixth Commandment is vastly extended. In his best-known discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared: “You have heard that is was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21).

The tragic consequences of anger and “malicious forethought” are writ large in the Scriptures, beginning with the story of Cain, the first murderer (Genesis 4:2-12). But God wants us to do more than cherish the physical lives of other persons; he wants us to foster effective relationships. If we love even our enemies (see Matthew 5:44), there will never be a reason for violence.

Christianity cherishes “the word of God” that “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Such an exacting standard must ever be interpreted in the light of the Good News that Jesus Christ offers the only remedy for human frailty: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Arthur Patrick, 4 November 2012


Posted in SDA theology

Post 81, Keepers of the Flame or Preservers of the Ashes?

To Be Faithful to the Past Means to

Move Forward in the Spirit of Our Predecessors

Rolf J. Pöhler

Seventh-day Adventists like to see themselves as heirs of the Protestant Reformation. What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of the Reformers? Will the spiritual and doctrinal renewal of the church ever be completed? What implications does the ecclesia semper reformanda have for us today?[1]


Five hundred years ago, on the 18th of October in the year 1502, the University of Wittenberg was founded by Frederick III, called the Wise, elector of Saxony. He named it ‘Leucorea,’ which means ‘White Mountain.’ It was here that fifteen years later a young university professor by the name of Martin Luther started a public debate on some controversial religious issues, which threw the small town of Wittenberg into the spotlight of world history. There is hardly an event that has shaped the history of Europe to a larger extent than the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Within a century the ‘Alma Mater Vitebergensis’ became the largest university in Germany, a champion of modernity known under the names of ‘Humanism’ and ‘Renaissance,’ and the intellectual and spiritual centre of European Protestantism. With fewer than 5,000 citizens, the 2,000-3,000 students who were coming to Wittenberg each year made up a third of the population—an unprecedented ratio.

What was it that made Wittenberg such an attractive place? What were the ideas that inspired so many German youth to choose this place as their academic home and future alma mater? What is the genius of Protestantism that inspires us even today to study the Reformation and its impact on the contemporary church? What makes the short (5 ft. 4 in. or 162 cm) and depressed monk-turned-rebel so fascinating? What does he have to tell us today?

The question to be asked is this: Can Seventh-day Adventist Christians, particularly young believers, walk in the footsteps of the Reformers? What does the 16th-century Reformation mean to us today? Can, should, or must we share their beliefs, imitate their behaviour, copy their attitudes? The question I am raising in this essay is even somewhat more narrowly focussed: Are we as Seventh-day Adventists true heirs of the Reformers or are we simply paying lip service to them? Do we merely claim their name or are we, indeed, moved by their spirit? In other words: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?

The Adventist claim revisited

Seventh-day Adventists see themselves as heirs of the Reformers, continuing and completing what they had begun. There is hardly an evangelistic series during in which it is not intimated that Adventists are rightly wearing the cloak of the Reformers. The story usually goes like this: All Protestant churches began as genuine reformation movements. However, in the course of time, they became satisfied with their beliefs, stopped advancing in understanding, codified their doctrines, and ceased to grow in faith. When new, genuine reformation movements arose, they resisted and opposed them. In this way, they became traditionalists and lost their high claim to be genuine reformers. They declined spiritually as well as morally and became part of apocalyptic Babylon.

Then the Seventh-day Adventists came onto the scene. They too started as a small but genuine renewal movement. They preached the neglected Advent message, restored the biblical Sabbath, discovered the true sanctuary in heaven, and founded the remnant church having the spirit of prophecy in their midst. At this point the story usually ends. The lecture is finished, the altar call is given: Come and join the Adventists, the true reformation movement of today!

But there are some questions that need to be addressed: What has happened to Seventh-day Adventists since the time of the birth of their movement? How is our record as a reformation movement? Are we still on track, do we continue the Reformation with vigour and zeal? Or have we perhaps already completed it, having reached the culmination point after which there is no more truth to be discovered, no more doctrine to be reformed, no more behaviour to be changed? Or—allow me to ask this somewhat disturbing question—do we follow in the footsteps of our predecessors by resting satisfied with what we have achieved, stifling further growth, resisting the advance of truth, becoming dull traditionalists ourselves? Are we perhaps promising more than we can actually deliver? Are we keepers of the flame or just preservers of the ashes?

The paradox of reformation movements

There seems to be a certain paradox involved in the history of all reformation movements. Usually they begin with the firm determination to return to the Scriptures and to be faithful to all of its teachings. This sound and admirable attitude allows them to discover biblical truths that had been neglected or forgotten. Their new exegetical and doctrinal insights are then passed on to the following generations, sooner or later in some codified form (like in creeds or statements of faith). Valuable as they are, these truths are highly prized and carefully protected. Any deviation from them is regarded as a denial of biblical truth and branded as error or heresy. New insights are shunned, doctrinal change is regarded as a betrayal of truth, and those claiming to have new insights are treated as heretics. Strange as it may seem, it is exactly by trying to preserve their valuable tradition that the would-be reformers of ecclesiastical traditions have become stiff traditionalists themselves.

Are Adventists an exception to this? Or are there indications that this paradoxical turn of events applies even to us? Imagine for a moment that we as Adventists had not yet discovered the biblical truth about the Sabbath, or had not yet resumed the practice of footwashing at the communion service. Suppose your pastor would preach a sermon on Isaiah 58:12, claiming that Adventists are called to be the ‘repairers of the breach.’ He would then argue from Scripture that Saturday, not Sunday, is the seventh day of the week to be kept holy as a day of rest, and that we should also practice footwashing before celebrating communion.

How would we react to this? Would we be ready to accept these biblical teachings and reform our practices? Would we perhaps start a Bible study group in order to find out whether the pastor is right or not? Would we refer this issue to the General Conference for further study and decision? Or would we tell him: ‘Come on, pastor, who do you think you are? There is nothing in our doctrinal tradition to support your views. If God wanted the church to accept these ideas, he would have given these insights to our pioneers long ago. Do you really think that God wants the remnant church to change its beliefs and practices at this late hour of earth’s history? And, by the way, nowhere in the writings of Ellen White do we find support for your strange views. They are not found in our fundamental beliefs. Besides, it is unrealistic to expect our church members to jeopardize their jobs in order to keep the Sabbath. Neither do we see light in washing one another’s feet; we serve each other in love and humility—isn’t this the true meaning of footwashing, after all? No, brother, forget it. We have never done this, and we are not ready to do so now. This is no time to change our beliefs and practices; rather we should preach the truths we have and call people out of the Babel of false teachings to the true remnant church proclaiming the last message for this world.’

Honestly, I suspect that my church—and I myself—would rather search for arguments to oppose such challenging ideas than welcome and accept these insights. True, there is in our own tradition the strong impulse to accept truth whatever it may cost and wherever it may lead. For example, in 1849 John Nevins Andrews, who later became the first missionary sent by the Seventh-day Adventist church to Europe, exclaimed: ‘I would exchange a thousand errors for one truth.’[2] I am wondering, would we be willing today to change ten errors for one truth, or perhaps five, or even a single one? Is the radical and idealistic attitude of young John (he was only 20 years of age at the time) still representative of us Adventists? Do we still share the naiveté and optimism of our pioneers? Or have we become realists shunning such high-flying dreams? Have we matured, have we come of age, or have we just become traditionalists ourselves? Are we still keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?

The true spirit of the Reformers

What, then, is the true spirit of the Reformers that should inspire us today, challenge our thinking and guide our actions? Let me give you two examples of what I think represents the true spirit of the Reformation—and of the Adventist spirit as well.

a. The early reformer Jan Hus (c. 1372-1415) wrote late in his life, ‘From the beginning of my studies I have made it a rule that whenever I come to know a sounder opinion on an issue, I will gladly and humbly give up the first opinion knowing that what we know is very little in comparison to what we do not know.’[3] This attitude had made him a worthy chancellor of the University of Prague. It was the same attitude, however, that would cost him his life when he refused to deny his biblical convictions at the Diet of Constance in 1414.

For many years I have quoted this statement to my theology students at Friedensau Adventist University; was I right in doing so? I have also repeatedly asked Adventist congregations whether they thought it proper for me to challenge my students in this way. Invariably they have agreed that this attitude represents Adventism at its best! Former General Conference President Neal C. Wilson once wrote, ‘No serious student of Adventist history can study our past without noting that one constant factor in Adventism has been its willingness to change.’[4]

b. When in 1521 Martin Luther was challenged at the Diet of Worms in no uncertain terms to renounce his views or face excommunication and possibly even death, he was fearful to take a clear stand and asked for some time to reconsider his views before giving a final answer. After a night of intense inner struggle, he faced the assembled authorities of state and church, courageously giving what was unquestionably his most famous testimony. After pointing out that even church councils can err and have, in fact, erred in the past—a truth which his opponents did not want to hear but could not deny—he added, ‘My conscience is bound in the Word of God; therefore, I cannot and will not retract, as it is neither safe nor upright to act against one’s conscience.’[5] The criterion used by Luther in evaluating claims of religious truth was his conscience, bound by the Scriptures and enlightened by human reason (ratione evidente). As a contemporary and representative of the spirit of Humanism, he regarded reason and conscience, shaped by faith in God’s Word, as proper judge of church teachings.

Centuries later Ellen G. White, the most important of the early Adventist reformer-pioneers, reflected this view when she wrote, ‘In matters of conscience the soul must be left untrammelled. No one is to control another’s mind, to judge for another, or to prescribe his duty. God gives to every soul freedom to think, and to follow his own convictions.’[6]

W. C. White, Ellen White’s son and companion during her later years, once wrote, ‘Seventh-day Adventists claim to be different from all other denominations in this: That they are willing to receive new light.’ Then he hesitated and added, ‘Is this so?’[7] Today, we still have reason to ask ourselves: Are we still keepers of the flame or merely preservers of the ashes?

The human limitations of the Reformers

The Reformers were humans, not superhuman saints. They shared in the finiteness of all humanity. They were neither inerrant in their views nor infallible in their behaviour. We should not claim more for them, nor for any other messenger or prophet sent by God to guide his church through perilous times. To turn these saintly men and women into superhuman heroes, to ignore their intellectual, moral and spiritual limitations, to treat them as the final authority on each and every issue faced by the church today, is to misuse what God has given to them and to us.

To illustrate this, let me give a few examples from the lives and times of the 16th-century Reformers.

a. There is, for example, Luther’s well-known attitude towards the peasants who were yearning, not only for spiritual freedom, but also for liberation from earthly oppression, hoping for social justice. When he realized that the cause of the Reformation was seriously threatened by the peasants’ uprising, Luther turned strongly against them and advised the political authorities in no uncertain terms to use all available means to stop it. Kill them! was his clear-cut advice. When the East German socialist regime in the 1980s tried to use the popular sympathies for the Reformer for their own political ends, they clearly overstated their case. Luther was no social reformer, no champion of human rights, and no pre-democratic freedom fighter.

b. Then there is Luther’s anti-Semitic language and thinking, which was in harmony with the spirit of the time. If you visit the town of Wittenberg and take a tour of the city, you will be shown at the outside wall of the city church the so-called Jewish pig (‘Judensau’), a sculpture mocking Jewish religious scruples and dietary restrictions. It was already there in Luther’s time, and apparently no one thought of removing it because of its slanderous nature. After all, even the great Reformer obviously didn’t mind.

c. You may also have heard of Luther’s strong language used in dealing with some of his opponents. These were at times true invectives (‘Schimpfkanonaden’). We would hardly consider it acceptable for a sincere Christian today to use such insulting language.

d. In addition, Luther was not exactly a model representative of Christian, let alone Adventist, temperance and health reform. For example, he liked to drink beer and even had a brewery in his own house.

e. Last but not least, there is the shocking intolerance of John Calvin, the Reformer at Geneva, who even had one fellow Protestant preacher burned at the stake because he was rejecting infant baptism and questioning the doctrine of the Trinity. (I suspect we would have to burn quite a few church members if we followed his example today.)

Would we today be justified in holding similar views or in behaving in like manner? Can we turn our backs on the burning social issues of our societies, claiming to be in harmony with Luther himself? Is there any justification in harbouring anti-Semitic ideas or using anti-Semitic language, even in seemingly harmless jokes, by pointing to the Reformers’ example? Is it morally kosher to denounce one’s opponents—be they Roman Catholics or confessing Adventists—in abusive language by referring to the professor from Wittenberg? Should we abandon the concept of health reform because the Reformers were oblivious to it? And is it acceptable to treat those within the church who hold differing views on some doctrinal points as hopeless heretics? In other words: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?

Ecclesia semper reformanda

One of the famous Latin phrases characterizing the Protestant Reformation was the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, meaning that the church of Christ is constantly and permanently in need of change and reform. Spiritual renewal, liturgical adjustment, organizational restructuring, and doctrinal change are never just a thing of the past or of the future, but also of the present. There is always a need for aggiornamento, the improvement of the church, the upgrading of its heritage, the reformulation of its belief, and the deepening of its faith. This is one of the most basic and important insights of the Reformers.

The 95 theses that Martin Luther posted on the door of the palace church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 were an attempt by a young university professor to get a scholarly debate going on the letters of indulgences (Ablasshandel) that enraged the conscience of Luther who was about to discover the biblical gospel of grace. In the first of his theses, the author expressed a biblical truth that is so important that it became foundational to the Protestant Reformation as a whole—and to any true reformation at that. I believe it should guide all of our thinking even today. It reads: ‘As our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says, ‘Repent’ etc. (Mat 4:17), he wanted that the whole life of the believers should be repentance.’

Applying this basic insight to the church as a whole, the Reformers were fully convinced that the Christian church is in constant need of reformation: ecclesia semper reformanda. Do we still believe this? Does our Adventist view of the church as God’s last-day remnant leave enough room for true repentance, confession of denominational sins, and the genuine desire to change for the better? Or have we become so self-assured that we no longer feel the need to change our thinking, to critically review our teachings, and to revise our actions? In other words: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?

What about our Protestant heritage?

The lasting influence of the 16th-century Reformers, particularly of Martin Luther, can be felt even today–and rightly so. As the towering figure of the Reformation, he remains important to us as exegete and theologian, Bible translator and hymn writer, university professor and confessing Christian. His deep insight into the radical nature of human failure and sin, his liberating discovery of the divine way—and the assurance—of salvation, his high regard for the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God, his courage in the face of stiff opposition, his firm eschatological hope—all this and more can and should inspire us to become better Christians, to grow into a better church, and to build a better society.

At the same time, we should not try merely to copy the Reformers’ views, to imitate their behaviour, or to duplicate their words and deeds. Not everything they believed and did is exemplary, or even normative, for us living today. We need to make sound and informed judgements with regard to the lasting aspects of our Protestant heritage, proving everything, holding fast to what is good, while discarding that which belongs on the trash heap of history (1 Thess 5:19-22). This task requires spiritual discernment, intellectual rigour and moral strength. In the face of this challenging and risky task of distinguishing the outstanding from the outworn, differentiating the time-proven from the time-conditioned, and selecting the valuables from the basket of tradition, I suggest that we should apply the following guiding principles.

Firstly, we should strive to emulate the spirit (Gesinnung) of the Reformers. Their undivided heart wholly given to God, their determination to follow the Word and will of God, their loyalty to his church on earth, their zeal and dedication—these are truly admirable and inspiring. We have every reason to follow them in this respect, to develop the same attitudes in our own lives.

Secondly, we should uphold the basic principles (Grundsätze) which guided the Reformers in their times. The fourfold sola of Reformation theology (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus) is a lasting contribution to the church of all ages. It has also become foundational to Adventist thinking and we should take pains that it will remain so in the future.

Thirdly, we should learn from the experience (Erfahrungen) of the Reformers, applying their insights to our own times and cultural contexts. Just as following Jesus does not require us to wear sandals or beards, so following in the steps of the Reformers does not imply that we think and act exactly as they did.

In short, we should always bear the question in mind: Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?

What about our own Adventist tradition?

In the context of the intense debate preceding and following the General Conference of 1888, Ellen G. White made a number of highly significant statements that have not lost their urgency and appeal a century and more later. Here are some of them:

‘The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light. . . . No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation. . . . This light [of present truth] should lead us to a diligent study of the Scriptures, and a most critical examination of the positions which we hold. God would have all the bearings and positions of truth thoroughly and perseveringly searched, with prayer and fasting. Believers are not to rest in suppositions and ill-defined ideas of what constitutes truth. . . . It is important that in defending the doctrines which we consider fundamental articles of faith, we should never allow ourselves to employ arguments that are not wholly sound. . . . We should present sound arguments, that will . . . bear the closest and most searching scrutiny.’[8]

Here the prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is challenging her fellow believers to study their doctrinal and other ecclesiastical traditions, to review their adequacy, to grow in their theological understanding, and even to revise their teachings, if necessary. The Preamble of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, voted at the General Conference Session in 1980 and enlarged in 2005, is an impressive contemporary reflection on these inspired quotations. Recent studies in Adventist theological history, undertaken by authors like George Knight[9] and myself[10], have demonstrated that Adventists have improved and adjusted their theology repeatedly in the course of time. It can be expected that we will also do so in the future—unless we stop growing in faith and refuse to advance in our beliefs. In this case we would become traditionalists, just like others about whom we have spoken critically.

There is, then, a crucial difference between esteeming one’s own tradition, on the one hand, and revering it in an almost idolatrous manner to the detriment of the church and its advancement, on the other. Containing the richness of the experiences and insights of our spiritual predecessors (warps and woofs included), tradition is an invaluable source of information, inspiration and motivation. However, it should never be used to prevent deeper studies into the truth, to stifle the intellectual progress of believers, or to hamper the doctrinal growth of the church. Tradition is like the rails on an Autobahn, allowing cars of all shapes and sizes to travel safely at an appropriate speed. Or, to use a nautical term, tradition is like an anchor used by sailors to move a vessel stuck in a sandbar into deeper waters. This process of using an anchor to move a ship ahead, not to tie it in place, is called kedging. In this sense we should use our tradition as a kedge, i.e., as a proper means to move forward, not to stay put or even move backward. As Richard O. Stenbakken wrote: ‘We can use the past to assist our progress into the future. Anchors can help us live from the past rather than in the past. Kedging keeps us sailing ahead, keeps us salient, current, and futuristic. Without values and virtues we are, literally, dangerously adrift.’[11]

Thus, while we should respect and revere our tradition, we should beware of traditionalism. One cannot be a Christian without having a high regard for the past. After all, Scripture is an ancient book, and our salvation was accomplished by Christ many centuries ago. In fact, to believe in Christ means accepting the testimony of others who have lived long before us. However, in order to have a living faith, it is mandatory for us personally and individually to share the faith that is alive in the church of Christ. In the words of church historian Jaroslav Pelikan: ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.’[12]

This also holds true for Seventh-day Adventism. One can hardly be an informed Adventist without realizing how much good has come to us from our denominational past. At the same time, one cannot help but realize that Adventist church history also saw its share of errant doctrinal views and outworn practices. Some in the church attempt to restore the past, trying to lead us back to an earlier level of theological understanding. Claiming to be ‘historic Adventists,’ they have become champions of a fossilized faith, wooing our children and youth with their siren songs. Do we really want to follow them? Are we keepers of the flame or preservers of the ashes?

So what about us today?

Samuele Bacchiocchi, the widely-read Adventist author and lecturer who was known for his conservative views on issues of ethics and lifestyle, once wrote in an e-mail message, ‘We need to be open minded and be willing to re-examine our beliefs. I have changed my thinking on numerous issues, as my books show. One day I may write a book on my theological development. The issue is not age but the capacity to think critically and to have the courage to change our thinking, when confronted with compelling facts.’[13] Is this view typical of Seventh-day Adventists? Or does it rather sound as if it’s coming from the schismatic or heretical fringes of Adventism?

Ellen White once wrote this challenging statement: ‘Ignorance does not increase the humility or spirituality of any professed follower of Christ. The truths of the divine word can be best appreciated by an intellectualChristian. Christ can be best glorified by those who serve him intelligently.’[14] Do we believe this? Are we indeed striving to be intellectual Christians, capable of giving a logical and convincing exposition of our faith? Is it our personal priority to serve God intelligently, to truly understand the Scriptures, to discover its deeper meaning which requires much time and effort? Or are we satisfied by a mediocre theological understanding? Are we still keepers of the flame or merely preservers of the ashes?

Summary and Conclusion

Seventh-day Adventists like to see themselves as true heirs of the Protestant Reformation. In this essay, we have repeatedly asked ourselves the intriguing question: What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of the Reformers? Do we actually honour, or rather betray, their cause by codifying their religious and theological insights? What implications does the ecclesia semper reformanda have for us today? How can we honour our Protestant (and Adventist) tradition without becoming traditionalists? The answer I have suggested can be summarized like this:

To be faithful to the past means to move forward in the spirit of our predecessors. This is to say that we should emulate their attitude, uphold their principles, and learn from their experiences while, at the same time, constantly advancing in the understanding and appreciation of revealed truth. Or, in the words of Jean Juares: ‘Take from the altar of the past the fire, not the ashes!’

[1]           This essay was originally presented at the Second European Congress of the Students’ Association of the Euro-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists, held in Eisenberg, Germany, November 1-3, 2002.

[2]             Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1915), 127.

[3]           John Hus, ‘Defensio liberi De Trinitate Magistri Joannis Wiclif’, presented in Prague on 27 July 1410.

[4]           Quoted in the Adventist Review, 9 July 1981.

[5]           ‘Mein Gewissen ist gefangen in Gottes Wort; daher kann und will ich nichts widerrufen, da es weder sicher noch recht ist, gegen das Gewissen zu handeln.’ (WA 7, 838, 4-8)

[6]             Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1940), 550.

[7]              W. C. White to F. E. Belden, 9 February 1888.

[8]              Ellen G. White, ‘Attitude to New Light’, in: Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1946), 33-42.

[9]           George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000).

[10]          Rolf J. Poehler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching: A Case Study in Doctrinal Development, Friedensauer Schriftenreihe, Series A: Theologie, vol. 3 (Frankfurt, New York, Oxford etc.: Lang, 2000).

[11]          Richard O. Stenbakken, ‘Kedging the future’, College and University Dialogue, 14:1 (2002), 3.

[12]          Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 5 vols. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971-1989), 1:9.

[13]          Samuele Bacchiocchi, Email to <> 20 April 2000.

[14]          Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students Regarding Christian Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association), 361.

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