Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book: Escape From The Flames

Escape From the Flames: How Ellen White grew from fear to joy--and helped me do it too is the latest offering on the topic of inspiration by the sometimes controversial Adventist scholar, Alden Thompson. In this book he approaches the topic from the questions surrounding the writings of the Adventist prophet Ellen White and his own experience with them and those about scripture. I emailed Thompson and asked him for an interview about his book, and he was kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me this morning.

DH: So should I call you Dr. Thompson, Alden...Mr. T.?
AT: Whatever you feel comfortable with.
DH: I still remember the conservative uproar over Inspiration: Hard questions, honest answers from my college days. What has been the reaction to Escape From the Flames?
AT: At this point, I have heard no negatives. Of course that could be because the Adventist sub-culture that is not good at disagreeing openly. There were a couple of comments that came out of advance readers copies that were encouraging. Retired secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate, Bob Olsen, said he wished he'd read the book 40 years ago. But in general, it is amazing how much mail I don't get.
DH: Your books that I've read (Who's Afraid of the Old Testament God, and Escape from the Flames) have a strong autobiographical component, especially Escape From the Flames. Why did you decide to include so much of your personal experience in this book?
AT: I'm hoping that it will make it possible for some of the ideas to be more palatable. The German translator of Inspiration said he was hoping to read a book about Ellen White but instead read a book about Alden Thompson. But Americans seem to appreciate that style.
DH: The main question the critics of your ideas seem to have is How can I retain the authority of inspired writings in my life while applying the casebook approach? That approach, as I read it in Escape from the Flames, sees scripture as primarily descriptive as opposed to prescriptive.
AT: I see The one [law of love], The two [greatest commandments: love God; love your neighbor], and The ten [commandments] as the umbilical cord. That's where the line is drawn in Deuteronomy 4:13,14. The enormous change I would like to see take place is recognition that the whole purpose of scripture is practical application. The law is our anchor, Jesus is the wind in our sails, and the rest are illustrations that point us toward the kingdom.
DH: When negotiating moral dilemmas with the help of scripture and spirit of prophecy, should we look to those cases which represent the highest possible standard or those that best fit our current context?
AT: What I would like to see is that we consult all the cases that have possible application; this gives us parameters and data. Identify the ideal, and then you plot a course from where you are. Acts 15:28 provides a model where the apostles say, "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us that...", so community needs to be involved in the process.
DH: Escape From the Flames seems to build on the ideas presented in Inspiration. How can someone who missed the boat the first time around get a copy of that book?
AT: The Review Publishing Association decided not to reprint it, even though it has gone as high as $135 for sale on the internet. But they took a lot of flack for that book. I am hoping another publisher will pick it up.
DH: Are you working on any other projects that we can look forward too?
AT: Escape is the first in a four-part series on Ellen White. The proposed title of the next one is "Small Bonnets, white bread, and strong cravings: Ellen White and the Adventist Life Style". After that will be one about Ellen White and scripture called "But Sister White Says..." And the final book will be about Ellen White and doctrinal development.
Escape From the Flames is a valuable contribution to the current Adventist debate about how inspiration works and the kind of writings it produces. Thompson articulates a theology of inspiration that can withstand critical attacks on scripture, while keeping it relevant to the church. I would not recommend this book to someone who is not yet asking the questions it addresses, because many have lost faith over these issues. But for those who do have serious questions about scripture or Ellen White it is not to be missed.

UPDATE (2-27-06): Corrected the proposed title of Thompson's next book. The post originally read: "I'm next one will be on Adventist lifestyle, and the title will probably be 'Tight Bonnets, White Bread, and Strong Cravings'." Apologies to Alden for butchering the title and his articulate diction.


  1. Had AT as a professor at Walla Walla. Nice man. Called me when I was in the hospital and let me redo an incomplete. Too bad I only skated by with a D-. I thought he was hard to follow.

  2. Dr. Alden Thompson is interesting in that he seems to be integrating the Historical Critical Method of Biblical Interpretation into Adventism...I would be interested in what he thought of the various Post-Modern and Post-Colonial interpretative methodologies that seek to dethrone the Historical Critical method from its place of prominence in academic circles...

  3. Thompson defenately approaches scripture from modern worldview (which is where we get the historical-critical and fundamentalist interpritive methods). He would probably say that's because he is just as much a product of his time and culture as the inspired writers were. What I admire about Thompson is that he seems to be trying to navigate a path between the two extremes.

    I am not one who thinks that we should dispense with either one of the modern interpritive methods. Both have made valuable (and destructive) contributions to our understanding of scripture. And I believe as post-modernism was built on modernism scholars of our generation must build on modern understandings to realize the full potential of post-modern interpritive methods.

  4. I hear you and largely agree...I was just wondering what he thought of the postmodern methods...My guess is that he would probably think better of them than many of those who have attacked his position, but I don't know, some historical critical scholars cannot make room for these methods while others accept and use them...

    By the way thanks for the me ideas for my own blog...

  5. I had Thompson as a professor for several classes, and one thing that particularly impressed me about this book was that all the illustrations were new to me. Now there's the mark of a good writer.

    This book and the Ellen White series (Meeting Ellen White, Reading Ellen White, etc.) by George Knight are essential reading for anyone wanting to understand early Adventism and doctrinal development.

  6. Thanks for a good interview with Alden Thompson. I'm the publisher of "Who's Afraid of the Old Testament God?" It would be wonderful to have another edition of "Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers." I'll certainly be considering adding that to our catalog.

  7. Henry, I very much hope that someone will republish Inspiration. You already have me as an interested customer! The book is about the inspiration of Ellen White as well as the biblical authors - not sure how non-Adventists might take that. However he is a progressive thinker, and it might help that well respected (if controversial) evangelical Clark Pinnock gave the book a very favourable review.