The distinction between being time-conditioned and time-related is, admittedly, one of degree. The difference is best observed when a persons position is placed on a continuum with time-relatedness on the far right and time-conditioned on the far left. Everyone is on that continuum, some more to the right or left than others.
Where one is placed on that continuum usually depends on the viewers presuppositions. Presuppositions (most of the time unconsciously) determine both the questions asked and the source materials selected or ignored. Regarding Ellen White, two general, mutually exclusive viewpoints have been in conflict:
(1) Critics have tried to prove Ellen Whites very strong dependence upon her contemporaries that is, they see her far to the left on the time-conditioned side of the continuum. In so doing, they may not have fully recognized or understood how God through the centuries has chosen to reveal His messages through His prophets. They may not have fully appreciated how advanced Ellen Whites theological concepts were, that she was not a prisoner of her times and limited to the notions of her contemporaries. Further, they believe that Ellen White and her colleagues were not forthright in reviewing the 1840s; that is, they believe that Mrs. White taught Biblical error, that her visions support this charge, and that she and her colleagues maintained a positive cover-up mode through suppressed documents and anachronistic, face-saving testimonies.
(2) Affirmers have largely resisted the time-conditioned approach and placed her to the right of the continuums centerthus, recognizing her time-relatedness. However, though her advocates recognize that Ellen White was time-related, they may not have fully recognized that God does not give His prophets an immaculately conceived mind, unconnected with the language, concepts, and social conditioning of their time. (That is, some advocates have placed her so far to the right that they deny any human limitations or contemporary influence.)
When prophets convey Gods thoughts, they can process them only with the basic mental equipment they possess at the moment.1 A prophet in the nineteenth century, for example, uses nineteenth century dictionaries or encyclopedias, not those of the twentieth century. Further, the conceptual framework that prophets use is not automatically changed by revelation so that the prophet immediately sees the whole picture intended in the vision. The full understanding of the vision may take time, long or short, as the prophet assimilates the new conceptual categories implicit in the vision. Prophets may describe the vision in conversation or in print, but the full understanding of what they said or wrote may take time.
For Ellen White, the words she used to describe her vision-thoughts had to be plugged into her own time-related frame of reference, out of which she began to see the far-reaching significance of the visions implications. Such was the case when she saw in O. R. L. Crosiers article a good way to explain Biblically what she had seen in vision regarding Christs change of ministry in 1844.2
In a similar way, God used Ellen Whites earliest visions, among other purposes, to tap into the local shut-door groups led by Joseph Turner and Apollos Hale. If the vision had not used the Bridegroom analogy (a correct Biblical term then being used by Turner), she would not have found anyone, anywhere, who would have listened to her.3 The unknown must be linked to the known if there is to be meaningful communication.
In other words, affirmers must take into account that Ellen White had to speak to her contemporaries in words and concepts that they both understood, or there would have been no communication. Leading others, step by step, from one viewpoint to another takes time, tact, patienceand a clear awareness of the hearers conceptual framework.
The newer the thought, the longer it will take the prophet to understand its intent and how to convey its full message. For example, consider Ellen Whites communication challenge while she was enlarging the term shut door (which had been used since 1844 as a code word indicating the validity of the Midnight Cry/1844 message). By the middle of 1846 the Sabbath doctrine had become clear to her after intensive Bible study. By April 3, 1847, now a Sabbathkeeper, she was conceptually ready to grasp the linkage between the sanctuary truth of her earlier visions and the seventh-day Sabbath. However, we find no hint that throughout this growing period after her first vision, she understood the shut door to mean that probation closed for everyone on October 22, 1844.
Thus, there should be agreement between critics and affirmers that the prophets mental equipment, including thought categories, is in place before Gods message comes.4
Ellen White had the essential qualities (equipment) God needed whereby His thoughts could be understoodequipment such as humility, openness to light, and willingness to submit to His leading. As time went on, God kept adding information that required a constant upgrading of her database to handle larger conceptions. Her mental files began to interconnect, developing a new and fresh understanding out of the basic thought forms of her day that continually fed into her mind through reading and conversations.
Thus, any attempt to draw time-lines in the 1840s as to when Ellen White moved from a shut-door belief to open-door convictions is fruitless and misguided. Beginning with her first vision in December 1844, Mrs. White led the way in breaking out of the limited beliefs of her contemporaries. She added an enriched meaning to shared code words, always surprising her closest colleagues with fresh, expansive thoughts relative to Gods plan for this world. At the same time, we can observe her humanness, her time-related mental framework (with which she would naturally express herself) in the way she may have appeared to reflect certain aspects of the closed door that she later clarified to avoid misunderstanding. Not to use words that her hearers could identify with would have cut off all communication with those who held fast to the significance of 1844, not because she hesitated to offend them but because she had no other frame of reference with which to use language.
1.See p. 34
2.In Ellen Whites letter to Eli Curtis, April 21, 1847, she noted that the Lord shew[ed] me in vision, more than one year ago, that Brother Crosier had the true light on the cleansing of the sanctuary, &c; and that it was His will that Brother C. should write out the view which he gave us in the Day-Star, Extra, February 7, 1846, (reproduced in Knight, 1844, p. 171).
3.Damsteegt, Foundations, pp. 117-122.
4.Although not completely analogical, this would be like trying to run sophisticated software, requiring a Pentium processor, on a computer with only a 286 or 386 CPU! With many programs, progressive system enhancements will be necessary to maintain or improve performance and/or productivity levels, but only as operator skills grow, creating an awareness of the need for, and benefits of, such upgrades. A powerful, high-end computer would be vastly underutilized if used only to write an occasional letter. However, when computer users begin to deal with increasingly complex and sophisticated graphical, multi-media material, they will definitely need the optimization and enhancement of all available resources.