Friday, August 28, 2009

How Ellen White Is Like The Pope (And His Bishops)

In my last post I wrote about the four theological sources that an Adventist Quadrilateral has in common with the Wesleyian Quadrilateral. I concluded that these four sources work fine on their own unless you want to have Christians united in some sort of church or denomination or movement that transcends individual disagreements over points of doctrine. In other words, I suggest church history shows that if we want to be the church of Ephesians 4:13, we need to have one more source in our quadrilateral.

I have called this second-tier element, for lack of a better term, a theological mediator. A theological mediator may be a person (living or dead), an institution, or even a spiritual practice. And to the best of my knowledge every Christian church/denomination/movement in history has had one.

Generally speaking, a theological mediator unites believers by doing two things:
  1. Applying (or "mediating") Scripture in a message that is particularly applicable to their current circumstances.
  2. Demonstrating supernatural confirmation that this message is from God.
Defined in this way, all the Biblical prophets, including Jesus and the apostles, were theological mediators. If we accept that this definition of theological mediators is biblical and that the Holy Spirit is still active in the church, then we should conclude that God can use theological mediators in the church today. Adventists should be able to see that this definition of a theological mediator includes the classic Adventist understanding of the Holy Spirit's (as in, the Spirit of Prophecy) work through Ellen White—a prophet who confirms "present truth" but does not replace the need for scripture (see "A Word to the Little Flock," 21).

But this definition of theological mediator must not exclude those in other churches who fulfill similar roles. For example, Protestant churches recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in generating the reformers messages, and thus Wesley functions as a theological mediator for Methodists, Calvin for Calvinists, etc. Granted, they do not recognize as strong a supernatural confirmation in the experience of their reformers as Adventists see in Ellen White, and perhaps this is one reason why their churches are less organizationally unified.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is very organizationally unified, and has developed a theological mediator with a supernatural confirmation of prophetic proportions. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Pope, when he makes certain proclamations (ex cathedra), and his bishops, when they all get together and make proclamations, are infallible in matters of doctrine and practice (Section 891). This is accomplished by means of a spiritual gift, "the charism of infallibility," and has a "prophetic" function in the Church (Sections 2035-6).

So when critics of Adventism say that Ellen White is like the Pope, in a certain sense, they are correct. But if they stop there and do not acknowledge certain key differences between the way the pope functions as a theological mediator and the way Ellen White functions as a theological mediator (especially their relationship to scripture), they are not doing justice to either. But the conflation of Ellen White and the Pope serves to illuminate the underlying issue with these critics ignore, which is that they prefer their theological mediators (such as Luther) on the lower end of the supernatural confirmation spectrum.

I hope by now it is clear that, on a practical level, the question is not so much whether we will have theological mediators, but who or what we will allow to occupy that position in the theology of our faith community. I believe that ideally each individual should make up their own mind based on Scripture in light of tradition, reason, and experience. In reality, few Christians ever undertake such a radical questioning of their belief system of their own accord.

One final note for Adventists: I have "Spirit of Prophecy" in the chart and not "Ellen White" for a reason. If we limit the Spirit of Prophecy the institution of Ellen White's writings, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of a living prophet, and the relevance of our message will eventually pass beyond the horizon of relevance in our changing world. I'm not asking us to accept every Ernie Knoll that comes along, but we must be open to the larger fulfillment of Joel 2 if we want to be the remnant of Revelation 12.


  1. "I hope by now it is clear that, on a practical level, the question is not so much whether we will have theological mediators, but who or what we will allow to occupy that position in our theology."

    Also, what relationship does that mediator take in relation to scripture. Does the mediator allow the Bible to have the final say (as I believe Ellen White did, lesser light idea)or does the mediator judge scripture as Luther did, choosing what part of the Bible contained the "true" gospel and also the Pope, who claims to have the final say about interpretation of scripture while putting secular philosophy (natural theology) above the word of God. Recognizing this difference is an essential part of determining whether a mediator is legitimate or not.

  2. You bring up a key point, Eric. My only quibble would be with your language describing Scripture as having the "final say." In the model I'm proposing, neither Scripture nor the Spirit of Prophecy gets to speak last. Rather, the are in a cycle of conversation, where Scripture judges the Spirit of Prophecy and the Spirit of Prophecy interprets Scripture. A word from one elicits a response from the other.

    Luther, as you point out, got this cycle reversed on occasion. And the Catholic system seems to have obliterated it by, in effect, putting the Pope and his bishops on the same level with Scripture. This essentially gives the last word to Ecumenical Counsels. (The Vatican has never said which Papal proclamations are infallible and which aren't, although there are two that are generally considered to be ex cathedra. So, practically speaking, we should say the the Pope alone gets the last word.)

  3. Thanks, I appreciate how you put that. I tend to agree. Thus we have the concepts of Progressive Revelation and Present Truth which I believe continue to bless us with continually deepening understandings of God, ourselves, and our role in the world.

  4. Hi David,

    How would you relate this to "sola Scriptura"? Do you still use those terms? Maybe with a modifed understanding? Or do you hold only to prima scriptura? Or something else. Interested in your thoughts.


  5. ant:

    I don't see sola and prima scriptura as necessarily in conflict. Sola scriptura means "by scripture alone" and stands along with the other 'solas' of the protestant reformation (sola fide, "by faith alone" and sola gratia, "by grace alone") as a statement about how we are saved. Sola scriptura affirms that scripture alone contains all of God's revelation which is necessary for salvation.

    On the other hand, prima scriptura recognizes that while scripture is the highest authority, according to scripture, scripture is not the only source of divine revelation. While these other sources do not have the same authority as Scripture and are not sufficient for salvation on their own, they nevertheless need to be taken into consideration.

    Does this make sense to you?

  6. I am intrigued and encouraged by this article David. You suggest two things which I have never heard from another Adventist. First is your suggestion, quote: " But the definition of theological mediator must not exclude those in other churches who fulfill similar roles". I appreciate that historically within the paradigm of the reformation, this was indeed applicable to the likes of Luther, Calvin et al, but what of the Christian church today? While not teaching as' full' revelation of truth as revealed to Adventism , there are some who are teaching/evangelising with great power such as Paul Washer for example. Would you include such as they in the category of 'theological mediators'.
    Secondly, is your suggestion that within todays Adventist church there can be those who have the Spirit of Prophecy. I have no argument with this, although I believe there may be some reluctance on the part of the church to fully accept this. As we are not yet come to the fulness of what Christ would have us to be, there surely must be a need for all the gifts to be active and working, as servants of God to todays remnant people. The times we are living in are a long way removed from the mid to late 19th century, yet I do not discount EGW's ministry as being any way irrelevant to todays searchers for truth.