Basic Rules of Interpretation--Internal

[Excerpt from Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: the Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1998), pp. 388-392. Notes, indicated in brackets, are numbered as in the original text.]

Basic Rules of Interpretation

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" [p. 389] apply to the external context, as we shall soon see.

Internal evidence:

¤ 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 [p. 390] 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 [p. 391] 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.


[p. 392]

[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, Mass.: 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 Manuscript Releases, 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.

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