Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church that states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error “When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”
Protestant comes from the word protest, and one of the main things that Protestants protest was the authority claimed by the Pope. Thirty-two of Martin Luther’s 95 theses directly address the authority–or lack of it. And to be truthful, we often scoff at the notion of Papal infallibility, that somehow the Pope speaks for God. But notice how strictly that supposed infallibility is limited. Only when exercising his office, he defines doctrine concerning faith or morals, does the Catholic church consider him infallible.
I find that fascinating. It turns out that the Catholic church considers the Pope’s words infallible–you might even say, authoritative–under certain very specific circumstances. Could it be that when it comes to the writings of Ellen White, some of us are more Catholic than the Pope?! Do we consider everything Ellen White ever wrote or said to be authoritative?
Not only is this contrary to her own teaching on the matter, it eventually leads either to disillusionment or fanaticism. Many of the critics of Ellen White exhibit this disillusionment. Having believed in verbal inspiration–that every single word she wrote was divinely inspired–all it takes is discovering a single instance where there is error or inconsistency. Or even contamination.
Her son, Willie, told of an episode which I find explains her gift very well.
On one occasion W. C. White recounted an enlightening experience in Basel:
“One Sabbath, at Basel, as I was reading Wylie’s History of Protestantism, telling about the experience of the Roman armies coming against the Hungarians [Bohemians], and how a large body of persecutors would see a little body of Protestants, and become frightened, and beat a hasty retreat. As I read it to Mother, she interrupted me, and told me a lot of things in the pages ahead, and told me many things not in the book at all. She said, ‘I never read about it, but that scene has been presented to me over and over again. I have seen the papal armies, and sometimes before they had come in sight of the Protestants, the angels of God would give them a representation of large armies, that would make them flee.’
“I said, ‘Why did you not put it into your book? [Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4]. She said, ‘I did not know where to put it.’”
~W. C. White talk at Takoma Hall, Takoma Park, Maryland, December 17, 1905. Quoted in The Ellen G. White Writings, p. 126.
Imagine yourself, with limited education, watching videos of historical events. Sometimes there is commentary supplied, sometimes just the video. Where would you put what you saw? How would you organize it? Probably the way she did. She read histories, and when she found episodes she recognized from her visions, she relied on the historical details provided in the book, but missing from her vision.
For example, concerning the ringing of a bell to signal the beginning of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. In an early edition of The Great Controversy, she wrote that it was the great bell of the Palace of Justice. In a later edition, she amended it to the bell of St. Germain l’Auxerois. If you insist on verbal inspiration, then this invalidates her authority. Really?
In vision she heard the tolling of a bell, giving the signal, and she saw what followed. When she wrote the account of the massacre, she relied on a historical account claiming the bell to be the one at the Palace of Justice. Later research found a more credible account claiming it was the bell of St. Germain l’Auxerois. This detail made absolutely no difference in the significance of the events. So why include it? Because, as every serious writer understands, specific details help bring the story to life, make it more interesting, more memorable. She did her human best to communicate effectively what she had been given. Sometimes the non-essential details were incorrect. Sometimes she “did not know where to put” what she had been shown.
It should be clear by now that verbal inspiration just is not how the process works. As in almost everything, God gives human beings a part to play. Without Him we cannot; without us he will not. So claiming, as some have, that “either her writings are authoritative or they are not” just won’t work. And if we insist that everything she wrote is equally authoritative, then we are, in fact, more Catholic than the Pope; we are making claims for Ellen White which even the Pope does not make.
Notice how carefully the statement on Papal infallibility is: “When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” (emphasis mine).
Adapting this for our situation, we might put it this way: Ellen White’s writings are authoritative “When, in the exercise of her office as the Lord’s messenger*, she defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals for the Adventist Church.”
Now, I’m not claiming that is a comprehensive statement on her authority. But as a working definition it makes a lot of sense. Ellen White made it clear that many of her words were misused in her own day. Without her here to correct us, we need to be very careful. We need to determine if the circumstances into which she spoke a certain counsel are the same as where we intend to apply it today. God wants us to use our heads; it is He who says, “Let us reason together.”
There is much of great worth in the writings of Ellen White. But like any powerful tool, they can do a lot of good, or a lot of damage. Just as we need to learn to drive safely, or use power tools or a firearm safely, we need to learn to use all the gifts of the Spirit safely as well. Especially the gift of prophecy.
Next time: What about literary assistants? Did they contaminate the inspired message?
*Ellen White’s preferred designation for herself.