Chapter 33


Basic Rules of Interpretation—Internal

[Return to the Table of Contents]
[Return to the Homepage]

How Prophets View History
Possible Discrepancies
W. C. White’s 1911 Statement
No Claim to Verbal Inspiration
Basic Rules of Interpretation
Internal evidence
Study Questions

“The work of explaining the Bible by the Bible itself is the work that should be done by all our ministers who are fully awake to the times in which we live.”1

In her personally written introduction to The Great Controversy, Ellen White recorded how “the scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and evil” had been revealed to her: “From time to time I have been permitted to behold the working, in different ages, of the great controversy between Christ . . . and Satan.”2

How Prophets View History

[Top of Document]

How did she “behold” these mighty scenes? She continued: “As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealed.”3

How much detail did she see? The evidence is that she saw the great “scenes” but that the details involving dates, perhaps even geographical sites, she did not always “see.” The same was true for Isaiah as he struggled for words to describe the throne of God (Isaiah 6) and for Daniel as he tried to describe the awesome visions of beasts and horns, etc. Ellen White saw the big picture, the basic concepts, the overall sweep of the forces of good and evil played out in human history. Her task was to “fill in” this big picture through research in the Biblical story and in common sources of historical information.

Just as God did not give Daniel words to describe the beasts of Daniel 7, so He did not give Ellen White the historical dates and events to fill in the great controversy story. Even as Luke searched out the best sources to complete his Life of Christ (Luke 1:1-4), so Mrs. White did what all prophets do when they had a message that had to be conveyed in human words and comprehended by historically oriented men and women. Thus, we look to Luke, not necessarily for historical accuracy for all statements made, but for his contribution to the big picture, the message about the ministry of Jesus.4

Possible Discrepancies

[Top of Document]

Would there be instances of possible errors? Probably. Henry Alford, the highly respected author of New Testament for English Readers, wrote: “Two men may be equally led by the Holy Spirit to record the events of our Lord’s life for our edification, though one may believe, and record, that the visit to the Gadarenes took place before the calling of Matthew, while the other places it after that event; though one in narrating it speaks of two demoniacs—the other, only of one. . . .

“And not only of the arrangement of the Evangelic history are these remarks to be understood. There are certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men, and on which, from want of that research, it is often the practice to speak vaguely and inexactly. Such are sometimes the conventionally received distances from place to place; such are the common accounts of phenomena in natural history, etc. Now in matters of this kind, the Evangelists and Apostles were not supernaturally informed, but left, in common with others, to the guidance of their natural faculties. . . . The treasure is ours, in all its richness: but it is ours as only it can be ours—in the imperfections of human speech, in the limitations of human thought, in the variety incident first to individual character, and then to manifold transcription and the lapse of ages.”5

In other words, the human phase of the divine-human communication system will be beset with occasional discrepancies—simply because of human finiteness. Stephen’s eloquent sermon (Acts 7) contains an incidental reference to the number (75) of Jacob’s family who went into Egypt to live with Joseph. However, the Genesis reference (46:27) states that 70 of Jacob’s family went into Egypt. What shall we make of this difference? If we believe that Genesis is the only historical source that Jews in the first century had for this information, then we simply understand that the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Prophecy) guided Stephen in reciting the big picture, but did not intervene on details. Prophets do not necessarily become “authorities” on historical data. Their inspirational value lies in their messages, not in some of the details that are incidental to the big picture.

W. C. White’s 1911 Statement

[Top of Document]

Addressing a General Conference Council in 1911, W. C. White gave a “statement regarding the latest English edition of ‘Great Controversy.’”6 If this 1911 statement had been more fully studied and more broadly published, it might have prevented much misunderstanding through the years regarding how prophets work with historical materials.

This statement not only explains the changes in the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy, it also reveals the mind of Ellen White as to how she, and other prophets, did their work.

W. C. White said: “Mother has never claimed to be authority on history. The things which she has written out, are descriptions of flashlight pictures and other representations given her regarding the actions of men, and the influence of these actions upon the work of God for the salvation of men, with views of past, present, and future history in its relation to this work. In connection with the writing out of these views, she has made use of good and clear historical statements to help make plain to the reader the things which she is endeavoring to present. When I was a mere boy, I heard her read D’Aubigné’s ‘History of the Reformation’ to my father. . . . She has read other histories of the Reformation. This has helped her to locate and describe many of the events and the movements presented to her in vision. This is somewhat similar to the way in which the study of the Bible helps her to locate and describe the many figurative representations given to her regarding the development of the great controversy in our day between truth and error.

No Claim to Verbal Inspiration

[Top of Document]

“Mother has never laid claim to verbal inspiration, and I do not find that my father, or Elder Bates, Andrews, Smith, or Waggoner put forth this claim. If there were verbal inspiration in writing her manuscripts, why should there be on her part the work of addition or adaptation? It is a fact that Mother often takes one of her manuscripts, and goes over it thoughtfully, making additions that develop the thought still further. . . .

“Mother’s contact with European people had brought to her mind scores of things that had been presented to her in vision during past years, some of them two or three times, and other scenes many times. Her seeing of historic places and her contact with the people refreshed her memory with reference to these things, and so she desired to add much material to the book [The Great Controversy].”7

A few months later, W. C. White wrote to S. N. Haskell, a stalwart pioneer who leaned dangerously toward a verbal-inspiration viewpoint at that time: “Regarding Mother’s writings, she has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority on the dates or details of history. When ‘Great Controversy’ was written, she oftentimes gave a partial description of some scene presented to her, and when Sister Davis made inquiry regarding time and place, Mother referred to what was already written in the books of [Uriah] Smith and in secular histories. When ‘Controversy’ was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as authority on historical dates and use it to settle controversies, and she does not now feel that it ought to be used in that way . . . .


[Top of Document]

“It seems to me that there is a danger of placing altogether too much stress upon chronology. If it had been essential to the salvation of men that he [human beings] should have a clear and harmonious understanding of the chronology of the world, the Lord would not have permitted the disagreements and discrepancies which we find in the writings of the Bible historians, and it seems to me that in these last days there ought not to be so much controversy regarding dates. . . . I believe, Brother Haskell, that there is danger of our injuring Mother’s work by claiming for it more than she claims for it, more than Father ever claimed for it, more than Elder [J. N.] Andrews, [J. H.] Waggoner, or [Uriah] Smith ever claimed for it.”8

That same day, W. C. White wrote a virtually identical letter to W. W. Eastman, publishing director at the Southern Publishing Association. But in closing the letter, he added: “I have overwhelming evidence and conviction that they are the descriptions and delineation of what God has revealed to her in vision, and where she has followed the description[s] of historians or the expositions of Adventist writers, I believe that God has given her discernment to use that which is correct and in harmony with truth regarding all matters essential to salvation. If it should be found by faithful study that she has followed some exposition of prophecy which in some detail regarding dates we cannot harmonize with our understanding of secular history, it does not influence my confidence in her writings as a whole any more than my confidence in the Bible is influenced by the fact that I cannot harmonize many of the [Biblical] statements regarding chronology.”9

In summary, for verbal inspirationists Ellen White’s writings, unfortunately, have become an authority on historical dates and places. For thought inspirationists, that would be an unwarranted use of a prophet’s work. Thought inspirationists focus on the big picture, the message; possible discrepancies in historical detail are considered incidental to the message, and of minor importance.

Basic Rules of Interpretation

[Top of Document]

Everyone wants to be understood. Often misunderstandings arise when a statement has been lifted out of context. Thus, everyone who has been misunderstood appeals to fairness and asks that the context be considered. Context includes both internal and external clues that will establish the truth about any statement under consideration.

Internally, we usually get a clear picture of “what” an author meant by reading the words, sentences, paragraphs, even chapters, surrounding a puzzling statement. Externally, we ask further questions that may help us to understand, such as when? where? why? and perhaps how? “Time,” “place,” and “circumstances” apply to the external context as we shall soon see.

Internal evidence:

[Top of Document]

· Rule One: Recognize that the Bible and the writings of Ellen White were the product of thought inspiration, not verbal inspiration—as described in the previous chapter.

· Rule Two: Recognize that some word-definitions may change as time passes. For example, hundreds of words in the King James Version (1611) of the Bible have changed in meaning or have acquired such new meanings that they no longer convey the meaning that the King James translators intended to convey. Casual readers would surely misunderstand certain Bible texts if they were not aware of these serious changes in word meanings.10

Word-change definitions have already occurred in the writings of Ellen White. How often have readers been confused with: “It is the nicest work ever assumed by men and women to deal with youthful minds”?11 When Mrs. White used these words later in another setting, she saw the problem and elaborated: “This work is the nicest, the most difficult, ever committed to human beings.”12 What was going on? In the nineteenth century, “nice” was often used, as the dictionary indicates, to mean “exacting in requirements or standards . . . marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision and delicacy.”13

Another word that has assumed a definition today that was not primary in the nineteenth century is “intercourse.” For hundreds of years “intercourse” meant “dealings between people,” or “the exchange of thoughts and feelings.” Today it is most frequently used in reference to sexual contact, a use that was never meant in the hundreds of occasions Ellen White employed this word.14

· Rule Three: Understand the use of hyperbole. Hyperbole is the use of obvious exaggeration to make a point. John used hyperbole when he said that if all the acts of Jesus were written, “the world itself could not contain the books” (John 21:25). Hyperbole is a literary device used throughout the Bible.15

Ellen White used the ratio 1 in 20 at least five times, and 1 in 100 at least twenty-one times. She did not say 1 in 13 or 1 in 99, etc. She may have used hyperbole when she wrote: “It is a solemn statement that I make to the church, that not one in twenty whose names are registered upon the church books are prepared to close their earthly history, and would be as verily without God and without hope in the world as the common sinner.”16

· Rule Four: Understand the meaning of the phrase in which a word is used. In 1862 Ellen White wrote that Satan works through the channels of phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism.17 But does this mean that all psychology is evil? Obviously not, because in 1897 she pointed out that “the true principles of psychology are found in the Holy Scriptures.”18 Similarly, we might note that television can be a channel through which Satan works, but Satan’s use of television does not make television evil. Psychology, the study of the human mind and how it matures, is a proper study for Christians—if the presuppositions are Biblical and not humanistic.

· Rule Five: Recognize the possibility of imprecise expressions. In 1861 Ellen White penned a thought that seems inconsistent with later statements on the same subject: “Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.”19 In an 1884 Signs article, she wrote: “The sciences which treat of the human mind are very much exalted. They are good in their place; but they are seized upon by Satan as his powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.”20

Obviously, in this 1884 statement we have an editorial correction in the thought that Ellen White wanted conveyed regarding “the sciences which treat of the human mind.” Possibly the 1861 statement referring to phrenology and mesmerism was a printer’s error. More probably it was a general statement, corrected later, that reflected the commonly used terms for psychology in the mid-nineteenth century. Many books dealing with physical and mental health included chapters devoted to phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism, or advertised other works that focused on these modalities.

· Rule Six: Look carefully at the immediate context (that is, the same paragraph or page) for clarification of a statement that seems, at first glance, to be troublesome. For example, some people are confused about Ellen White’s admonition that we “should never be taught to say, or feel, that they are saved.”21 This caution was meant to warn of the erroneous doctrine of “once saved, always saved” that was, and is, prevalent among most evangelical Christians.

But this warning was given within the larger context of explaining Peter’s self-confidence that led to His tragic denial of his Lord on that Thursday night. She wrote: “Never can we safely put confidence in self, or feel, this side of heaven, that we are secure against temptation. [Then comes the often misunderstood statement] This is misleading. Everyone should be taught to cherish hope and faith; but even when we give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us, we are not beyond the reach of temptation. . . . Our only safety is in constant distrust of self, and dependence on Christ.”22

Another example of the importance of context is found in Ellen White’s assertion that “God’s servants today could not work by means of miracles, because spurious works of healing, claiming to be divine, will be wrought.”23 This statement seems at variance with the Adventist position that “all” of the spiritual gifts given to the Christian church (1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4) will continue to the end of time (1 Cor. 1:7). Further, this statement seems to contradict Ellen White’s own comments that in the last days “miracles will be wrought, the sick will be healed, and signs and wonders will follow the believers.”24 How do we understand all this?

The seeming contradiction arises when one does not read the whole page carefully.25 Ellen White made two points: First, she spoke to present conditions specifically: In referring to “miraculous works of healing,” she said that “we cannot now work in this way” (emphasis supplied). Further, “God’s servants today could not work by means of miracles” (emphasis supplied).

Secondly, she was setting forth the Lord’s instruction for the present time: The “work of physical healing, combined with the teaching of the word” would be best done in the establishment of “sanitariums” where “workers . . . will carry forward genuine medical missionary work. . . . This is the provision the Lord has made whereby gospel medical missionary work is to be done for many souls.”26 In other words, at the present time, distinguished by many instances of false miracles of healing, God’s work of healing can best be done within the sanitarium program of intelligent teaching regarding the cause and cure of disease.

Another “misquote” asserts that it is a “sin to laugh,” using the quotation, “Christ often wept but never was known to laugh. . . . Imitate the divine, unerring Pattern.” From what we know of Jesus in the Bible, that statement sounds strange. After all, why would children surround Him enthusiastically! Then we notice the ellipse. Something is missing.

We check the passage and the context. Here Ellen White is counseling a church member who “has not seen the necessity of educating herself in carefulness of words and acts. . . . My sister, you talk too much. . . . your tongue has done much mischief. . . . Your tongue has kindled a fire, and you have enjoyed the conflagration. . . .You sport and joke and enter into hilarity and glee. . . . Christ is our example. Do you imitate the great Exemplar? Christ often wept but never was known to laugh. I do not say it is a sin to laugh on any occasion, but we cannot go astray if we imitate the divine, unerring Pattern. . . . Christian cheerfulness is not condemned by the Scriptures, but reckless talking is censured.” “As we view the world bound in darkness and trammeled by Satan, how can we engage in levity, glee, careless, reckless words, speaking at random, laughing, jesting, and joking?”27

Here we note that the context puts a new cast on the misquote. “Laugh” in this context meant inappropriate recklessness of speech and behavior, a jesting and joking that had “shown a lack of wisdom in using the truth in a manner to raise opposition, arouse combativeness, and make war instead of possessing a spirit of peace and true humbleness of mind.”28 Ellen White was not condemning appropriate laughter, as she clearly noted, but she put her counsel in a balanced perspective.

· Rule Seven: Recognize that the meaning of a word can change when it is used in a new context. The term “shut door” meant several things to ex-Millerite Adventists. To Ellen White it meant something different. James White and Joseph Bates redefined their use of the term between 1844 and 1852.29

Other words that Ellen White used may seem obsolete today, such as “office,” which most often referred to the administrative offices of the publishing house, but sometimes to the General Conference headquarters.30

· Rule Eight: Recognize that the challenge of semantics resides in all communication. Words mean different things to different people, because of personal differences such as education, age level, spiritual experiences, geographic location, and gender. Ellen White spoke to this problem: “There are many who interpret that which I write in the light of their own preconceived opinions. . . . A division in understanding and diverse opinions is the sure result. How to write in a way to be understood by those to whom I address important matter is a problem I cannot solve. When I see that I am misunderstood by my brethren who know me best, I am assured that I must take more time in carefully expressing my thoughts upon paper, for the Lord gives me light which I dare not do otherwise than communicate; and a great burden is upon me.”31 For a writer, the task of avoiding misunderstanding is more difficult than merely trying to be understood, because the writer must consciously be aware of semantic problems.


[Top of Document]

1. Letter 276, 1907, cited in Lift Him Up, p. 115.

2. The Great Controversy, p. x.

3. Ibid., p. xi.

4. For a study of various differences between Luke’s story of Christ’s ministry and those of Matthew and Mark, see George Rice, Luke, a Plagiarist? (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1983.)

5. Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (London: Rivingtons, 1863, vol. 1), pp. 23-27.

6. This lengthy statement is found as Appendix A of Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 433-440. The statement was approved by Ellen White as presenting “the matter correctly and well.”—Letter to F. M. Wilcox, July 25, 1911, cited in Wilcox, The Testimony of Jesus, p. 115.

7. Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 437, 438.

8. Jerry Allen Moon, W. C. White and Ellen G. White, The Relationship Between the Prophet and Her Son (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1993), pp. 431, 432. At the end of this letter Ellen White penned in her own handwriting, “I approve of the remarks made in this letter.”

9. Ibid., p. 433. In a 1915 letter to F. M. Wilcox, editor of the church paper, White clarified the issue regarding his mother’s being a historian or theologian: “Sister White, as a teacher of sacred truth, has not been led to a technical treatment of theological questions, but has [been] given such views of the love of God and the plan of salvation, and of man’s duty to God and to his fellow men, that when presented to the people, arouse the conscience, and impress upon the hearer the saving truths of the Word of God. She says, ‘The written testimonies are not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed.’

“In the technical sense of the word, Sister White is not a historian. She has not been a systematic student of history and chronology, and she has never intended that her works should be used to settle controversies over historical dates. But as one who relates history, one ‘in whose work the character and spirit of an age is exhibited in miniature’ [Macauley’s Essays], she is a historian whose works teach valuable lessons from the past for the present and the future.”—Ibid., p. 434.

10. Examples comparing KJV with NKJV include: abroad—outside (Deut. 24:11), allege—demonstrate (Acts 17:3), anon—immediately or at once (Mark 1:30), bowels—heart (Gen. 43:40), by and by—immediately (Mark 6:25), charity—love (1 Cor. 13), communicate—share (Gal. 6:6), conversation—conduct (1 Pet. 3:1, 2), feeble-minded—fainthearted (1 Thess. 5:14), forwardness—willingness (2 Cor. 9:2), let—hindered (Rom. 1:13), meat—food (Matt. 6:25), nephew—grandsons (Judges 12:14), outlandish women—pagan women (Neh. 13:26), peculiar—special (Tit. 2:14), reins—hearts (Ps. 7:9), suffer—let (Matt. 19:14), vain—worthless (Judges 9:4), virtue—power (Luke 6:19), witty inventions—discretion (Prov. 8:12).

11. Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 73, emphasis added.

12. Education, p. 292.

13. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., Publishers, 1983).

14. “The disciples prayed with intense earnestness for a fitness to meet men and in their daily intercourse to speak words that would lead sinners to Christ.”— The Acts of the Apostles, p. 37. “By social intercourse acquaintances are formed and friendships contracted which result in a unity of heart and an atmosphere of love which is pleasing in the sight of heaven.”—The Adventist Home, p. 45.

15. Compare Ex. 9:6 with Isa. 19. The frequent use of “all” is often an example of Hebrew hyperbole.

16. Christian Service, p. 41 (1893).

17. Review and Herald, Feb. 18, 1862.

18. My Life Today, p. 176.

19. Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 296.

20. Signs of the Times, Nov. 6, 1884.

21. Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 155.

22. Ibid. See also Selected Messages, book 1, p. 314.

23. Medical Ministry, p. 14.

24. The Great Controversy, p. 612; see also Early Writings, p. 278; Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 126.

25. Medical Ministry, p. 14.

26. Ibid.

27. Ms 11, 1868, cited in MR, vol. 18, pp. 368-370.

28. Ibid., p. 369.

29. See pp. 554-565 for a study of the “shut door” issue.

30. See Volume 3 of the Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, pp. 3185-3188, for “Glossary of Obsolete and Little Used Words and Terms with Altered Meanings.”

31. Selected Messages, book, 3, p. 79.

Study Questions

[Top of Document]

1. How do you account for discrepancies in prophetic writings, such as differences in numbers and dates, or misquotations?

2. What are eight rules of interpretation from the standpoint of internal evidence that will aid in understanding a prophet’s message?

3. Compare how Biblical writers and Ellen White utilized information drawn from secular, non-vision sources?

4. What makes such writings with non-vision materials sacred?

[Top of Document]
[Return to the Homepage]