I am amazed that you have so quickly transferred your allegiance from him who called you in the grace of Christ to another “Gospel”!

Galatians 1:6, Phillips

Most of the epistles in the New Testament are what we call “occasional writings.” That means that they were written in response to some occasion, most often a problem or challenge faced by the church in question. Sometimes the problem is obvious, as in the passage from Galatians above. A thorough reading of Galatians makes it clear that some false teaching had become widely accepted by that group. Paul wrote in response. Different challenges demand different responses. In theory, that seems pretty obvious, and simple.

In practice, however, it sometimes becomes more difficult. Christians agree that the New Testament was inspired, and the letter to the Galatians is part of the New Testament. Paul’s advice to the Galatians, who had become legalistic, was quite different than his counsel to the Corinthians, who had fallen into some pretty outrageous behaviors. That’s why just throwing texts at a situation doesn’t help. It’s our responsibility to apply the counsel to similar situations. That’s part of understanding the context.

But this can be confusing to those who simply say, “the text means what it says,” and then apply it identically to all situations. And it causes difficulty to many whose faith is weak or nonexistent when they find that Paul’s–or Christ’s, for that matter–teaching in one situation seems to contradict a teaching given in another situation. But we can demonstrate how this works from a very secular example.

Legendary golf teacher Harvey Penick had two pupils. He told one of them, “Just relax. Don’t work too hard. Enjoy the game.” To the other, he said, “Keep at it every day. Don’t let up. Outwork the other guys.” The first was Ben Crenshaw, someone immensely gifted, quite emotional, and who easily got down on himself. The other was Tom Kite, who had far less native talent than Crenshaw but was a born “grinder”–a competitor who never let things get to him.

Both golfers won major golf tournaments. Both gave lots of credit to their teacher, Harvey Penick. Taken strictly word-for-word, Penick’s advice to Crenshaw seems to contradict his advice to Kite. But, as noted, Crenshaw and Kite were very different golfers. The physically talented Crenshaw needed emotional stability, which he lost when concentrating on details which could never be perfect. Kite, with less physical talent but more rugged psyche, didn’t get discouraged when perfection eluded him; rather, that was motivation for him to try harder.

Penick wisely diagnosed the differences and gave them almost opposite coaching, producing excellence in both. That’s the way occasional writings work at their best. Taken in isolation, they may seem chaotic or contradictory. But when seen in reference to accomplishing a common purpose in a particular occasion, they can be brilliant.

You may already recognize where this is going. Probably as a matter of simple word count, we have more of Ellen White’s counsels to individuals, groups, congregations, committees, and personal correspondence than all of her formally published works (books, articles, etc.) combined. In other words, most of what we have are “occasional writings,” things written in response to some challenge or problem. Essentially, this includes all of the Testimonies. Yes, they include messages from God to individuals and groups, but these messages were occasioned, often by some dangerous situation.

Just like the epistles, we can easily find what appears to be conflicting counsels among these. But as we have seen, they may in fact be quite harmonious when we understand the situation they were written for. Just like golf-coach Penick’s contradictory advice to Crenshaw and Kite, when seen in reference to accomplishing a common purpose in a particular occasion, we can recognize this harmony.

It’s easy to simply grab a quote that seems to support our pet cause, and use it for every situation. But that is a misuse. As psychologist Carl Rogers said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” We have all experienced this. Someone grabs a quote, and proceeds to hammer everyone with it, without regard to their circumstances.

The problem with so many of Ellen White’s occasional writings is that we do not know, and without considerable effort may not be able to know, the context in which the counsel was given. Taking that counsel and applying it to a different set of circumstances may be disastrous. That does not falsify the counsel; it should simply serve as a caution, a damper on sometimes too great enthusiasm for correcting others.

I remember a very confident Seminary student asking a professor about a particular counsel of Ellen White. “Does it still apply?” I asked (yes, it was me), thinking I had found the clinching quote.

“Yes, if the same circumstances into which she gave the counsel exist in a given situation.”

I was somewhat deflated (all in all, a healthy thing–God gives grace to the humble), but I quickly realized he was precisely correct.

So what about all this? Valuable as the Testimonies and other similar writings can be, we need to be cautious in universalizing any one quote. We need to recognize, as God clearly does, that different circumstances require different solutions. That which has worked so well for us, may be counterproductive for some one else. We can find much value there. Let us cherish it, but not attempt to impose it on others. Saul’s armor doesn’t fit David.

There is a famous saying about the Bible, and it applies especially well to passages in the Testimonies. “Apply yourself wholly to the text; and apply the text wholly to yourself.” Before deciding just what a certain bit of counsel means, apply all your resources to understanding the circumstances into which it was written: Apply yourself wholly. And whatever conclusion you come to, implement it yourself: apply it wholly to yourself. Then, and only then, in the context of “I have found this helpful for my personal life,” should we venture to recommend it to–not urge it upon–others.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.