Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Friday, January 09, 2009

Ellen White's view of Inspiration contrasted to Stowe

As this quarter our Lesson Study guide is largely dealing with inspiration with particular emphasis upon Ellen White. Today I will look at perhaps Ellen White’s most famous and certainly most popular quote on inspiration.


Ellen G. White
Manuscript 24, 1886    
 

It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.-- Manuscript 24, 1886 (written in Europe in 1886). {1SM 21.2}


I did not realize till just now that this quote was never published in her lifetime. It was not published until the book Selected Messages volume 1 was published in 1958. Only recently did I learn that her statement above is substantially borrowed from Calvin E. Stowe’s book Origins and History of the Books of the Bible (1867) Thanks to an article on the internet entitled: The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Denis Fortin & Jerry Moon, co-editors, publication forthcoming in 2006, Review and Herald) we have the comparison of Ellen White and Stowe’s words. The underlined words are the ones which Ellen White borrowed.


 

It is not the words of the Bible that were inspired, it is not the thoughts of the Bible that were inspired; it is the men who wrote the Bible that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words, not on the man’s thoughts, but on the man himself; so that he, by his own spontaneity, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, conceives certain thoughts and give utterance to them in certain words, both the words and the thoughts receiving the peculiar impress of the mind which conceived and uttered them, and being in fact just as really his own, as they could have been if there had been no inspiration at all in the case. . . . Inspiration generally is a purifying and an elevation, and an intensification of the human intellect subjectively, rather than an objective suggestion and communication; though suggestion and communication are not excluded. The Divine mind is, as it were, so diffused through the human, and the human mind is so interpenetrated with the Divine, that for the time being the utterances of the man are the word of God. (19-20)


The site which offered the comparison when on to say:

A second example compares Ellen White’s thought on the doctrine of inspiration in her Manuscript 24, 1886 (published in 1SM 19-21), a manuscript that Seventh-day Adventists have referred to extensively to understand her view of her inspiration, and Calvin E. Stowe’s Origin and History of the Books of the Bible, Both the Canonical and the Apocryphal, Designed to Show What the Bible Is Not, What It Is, and How to Use It (Hartford, Ct: Hartford Pub., 1867), 13-20. In this case one critic has argued that she did not simply take fine language and historical information from other authors, but ideas as well (Spectrum, Autumn 1971, 73-84). However, a careful comparison between White and Stowe reveals a different perspective. “We have evidence of her writing most of the ideas which are common to her and Dr. Stowe at a time prior to the writing of this manuscript. Indeed, some of these references antedate any possible awareness on her part of Dr. Stowe’s book. In addition to the common theological material, there are several points at which the two authors diverge or have distinctively different emphases” (David Neff, “Ellen White’s Alleged Literary and Theological Indebtedness to Calvin Stowe,” [unpublished paper, Andrews University, 1979, CAR], 25).


In this second example, much more than in the first one which dealt mainly with historical information and background, Ellen White’s thought and theology are clearly different from Stowe’s on the concept of inspiration. Note that at the end of the passage Ellen White leaves out key words from Stowe’s text which would have pointed her theology of inspiration in a different direction.


What I found interesting here is that because Ellen White is less specific for some reason that is interpreted as meaning that she was going in a different direction then Stowe. In the article ELLEN WHITE AS A THEOLOGIAN by Gerhard Pfandl offers a similar thought when he says:


Although using largely Stowe’s wording Ellen White’s theology is significantly different. She understood inspiration to apply to the thoughts of the writers, which Calvin Stowe denied. Ellen White believed only the words receive the impress of the human mind, Calvin Stow taught that the thoughts also receive the impress of the human mind.


David Neff, who has made an extensive study of the parallels between the Ellen G. White material and Calvin Stowe’s book, came to the conclusion that “there are significant differences between the theories of revelation presented by Dr. Stowe and Mrs. White” and that “there is sufficient evidence to conclude that in this manuscript Mrs. White was not appropriating another man’s ideas.”1


When you read Stowe’s quote it is not so easy to say that Stowe denied inspiration to the thoughts of the writers. In fact I would say it is a completely false statement. I don’t know how they must interpret the statement: “under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, conceives certain thoughts and give utterance to them in certain words…” David Neff is cited as a source but it is from an unpublished manuscript entitled “Ellen White’s Theological and Literary Indebtedness to Calvin Stowe” (Unpublished manuscript, Ellen G. White Estate, DF 389-C). Though it is referred to by both articles linked above it is not available so it is hard to say if it has merit or not. David Neff is now an Editor in Chief at Christianity Today, looking at his blog I don’t expect he is any longer a Seventh-day Adventist, I would expect if he was he would be pretty famous in Adventism.


I don’t know if the significant differences between Ellen White and Stowe were presented in the 29 page paper and unfortunately even in this age when such texts could be readily supplied on the internet the White Estate does not post much information.


Since I don’t care too much about the borrowing issue since most Adventists already know that she borrowed pretty extensively I am more concerned with how Adventists think Ellen White really differed from the more specific source from which she drew.


Referring back to the Moon and Fortin article they write:

Assigning levels of literary dependency to this example is difficult because although the words are the same, the theological thought is not. What is striking in this example are Stowe's words and thoughts she left out. Had Ellen White simply copied Stowe’s words without thinking carefully through their ramifications, she might have adopted a theology of inspiration similar to that later developed by theologians such as Karl Barth or Emil Brunner. Stowe advocated a theory of inspiration in which the subjective elements of the prophet are predominant and in which inspiration is an encounter between the divine and the human. There is no actual transmission of objective information between God and the prophet.


If you look up what Karl Barth thoughts on inspiration you see just how complex these things are. You can read about Barth’s view of inspiration here.


What troubles me about all this is that it appears that because Ellen White was less specific than Stowe people feel free to interpret what she meant however they want. The “they” in most of these cases is going to be the leadership of the Adventist church.


I like Stowe’s explanation how else can we explain why prophets can be so off the mark some of the time. What they say is sometimes inspired and sometimes simply what they think. It is up to God’s Spirit to influence the hearer on the other side of inspiration to determine what is inspired from what is not. (read the article on Barth and inspiration to understand that dynamic a bit more).


This leads me to the question of how does our church leadership differentiate Ellen White’s view from Stowe’s and yet feel completely free to take sections from Ellen White’s personal letters and unpublished materials and make compilations out of them as if they are meant to address the larger community. Stowe says that the inspiration is subjective and the Adventist leadership is saying the inspiration is objective yet they take subjective material from personal letters and compile it and call it objective. Something is not quite right there.


Sorry this got so long, it will certainly supply you with enough material for an interesting Sabbath.


Update: Thanks to David Neff he has supplied us with his paper ELLEN WHITES THEOLOGICAL AND LITERARY INDEBTEDNESS TO CALVIN STOWE




Since his paper seems to be meant as a response to a paper in Spectrum I have included the link to the spectrum article since Spectrum has done us the great service of placing their old articles online. The article "Ellen White's Literary Indebtedness by William S. Peterson"






8 comments:

rlf said...

I believe you are mis-reading Stowe.

He clearly is ruling OUT (in most cases) thought (as well as word level) content and specifically claiming mostly ONLY a subjective experience.

EGW clearly by her choice of what to omit insists on objective content at the thought level. She supplies her own words “imbued with” for thought level content, and omits Stowe’s “not on man’s thoughts.”

It is very clear that while she is borrowing Stowe’s language she chose not to follow him all the way theologically, stopping short of denying for the most part objective thought level content and specifically insisting on “imbued” (a whole lot more objective then Stowe’s “impulse”) thoughts expressed in the recipients own words.

This is a critical difference and while the passage does demonstrate unequivocal plagiarism of Stowe’s words at the same time it demonstes her actively rejecting the full extent of his conclusions. Scold her for the first, but do not deny her credit for the latter. Got to be fair.


PS: Did you realize that Stowe was the husband (after 1st wife died) of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln’s "little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!” with her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

Ron Corson said...

There are a number of problems with RLF’s objections:

First RLF says:
--
He clearly is ruling OUT (in most cases) thought (as well as word level) content and specifically claiming mostly ONLY a subjective experience. EGW clearly by her choice of what to omit insists on objective content at the thought level. She supplies her own words “imbued with” for thought level content, and omits Stowe’s “not on man’s thoughts.”
--

A person does not rule out something merely by omitting content. At best all it does is leave the content the same as quoted from the original (in this case Stowe) and leave the reader to surmise what they want from the material left. Which is why I said her statement is more vague than Stowe’s statement. Her statement does not deny something of the original it simply omits them. That would not be a denial it would be an argument from silence which is a logical fallacy.

Second RLF says:
--
It is very clear that while she is borrowing Stowe’s language she chose not to follow him all the way theologically, stopping short of denying for the most part objective thought level content as specifically insisting on “imbued” (a whole lot more objective then Stowe’s “impulse”) thoughts expressed in the recipients own words.
--

What is clear is that she did not quote all of Stowe, that does not affirm or deny agreement with his quote. “under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts.” As for imbued let’s compare it to Stowe:

"Inspiration acts not on the man’s words, not on the man’s thoughts, but on the man himself; so that he, by his own spontaneity, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, conceives certain thoughts and give utterance to them in certain words, both the words and the thoughts receiving the peculiar impress of the mind which conceived and uttered them..."

In other words the thoughts are not the product of the man himself. The first line is used to show that the man is acted upon by God and that the thoughts are not simply a product of the man. If he meant that the man’s thoughts were not subject to inspiration then he would not have continued by saying “under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, conceives certain thoughts…” If he did his statement would contradict itself in the one sentence. EGW’s use of imbued is merely a repetition of Stowe’s word “conceive” because that is the meaning of imbued, “To inspire or influence thoroughly, to saturate or impregnate with” something. So either admit that Stowe believed in conceived (imbued) thoughts or that Ellen White denied imbued (conceived) thoughts. You can’t really have it both ways.

David Neff said...

Just to clarify the facts for curious minds: No, I am not today a Seventh-day Adventist, nor have I been since 1981. Those who want to read my paper comparing Calvin Stowe and Ellen White on inspiration can do so at http://www.box.net/shared/qjdpj0kqx0.

rlf said...

You are, I believe, clinging to a conclusion reached a priori - that EGW could not possibly have done something creative and thus remain blind to that which any common reading of the material would see.

Stowe's "conceive" refers to the action of the MANs mind conceiving - it is an active process of the HUMAN mind. EGWs "imbued" is a passive process of receiving content from outside. Stowe's "impulse", so as NOT to contradict the clear intent of his passage is here meaning only to "prod" to "initiate" to "stimulate" the thought process of the MAN -- again, NOT to supply those thoughts. EGW only brings in mans active role when he must put GOD's thoughts into words, idioms and speech patterns of his day. One can reasonably add world view to that list, though not necessarily addressed.

Even her partial following of Stowe is substantial progress over the fundamentalists and the inerrantists that would soon hold sway in conservative Christianity.

I believe on the basis of her active editing of Snow's words using them as her toolbox to build what SHE wanted - and only what she wanted - (still, an ethically suspect activity - but that is a different subject) lends weight to the assessment that she actually did carefully adopt a theological stance on inspiration MORE liberal then many of her contemporaries.

I believe she would have laughed at a much later Harold Lindsel (a predecessor to Neff as editor of Christianity Today) fabricating SIX denials of Peter so as to accommodate the different numbering and timing of the cock's crowing between the gospel narratives ("Battle for the Bible").

And while she very much wanted her church and various individuals to take HER words very seriously, she would similarly have scolded those who build whole eschatological, theological, or behavioral constructs on a snippet here and a snippet there of her own corpus.

She WAS flawed. Humans tend to be. But, let her have SOME credit, and SOME utility in the formation of our Church, and in this case protection of that church from the idolization of the Bible (at the expense of their representation of God) so prevalent in some evangelical circles.

PS: Thank you David Neff for sharing your paper, that diligent googling does not bring up unaided. I suspect it will in the future.

Ron Corson said...

RLF said:
--
You are, I believe, clinging to a conclusion reached a priori - that EGW could not possibly have done something creative and thus remain blind to that which any common reading of the material would see.
--

No this has nothing to do with her creativity. If you read the first chapters of Patriarchs and Prophets you realize she is very capable of taking Christian tradition and running away with it.

Probably in my next post I will examine her statements a little farther as it seems this particular one which gives her a more liberal view of inspiration is contradicted by others which take a far more inerrant and maybe even verbalist view. Statements about none of the writing being her opinions and it being either all from God or all from the devil. So yes in those cases she is definitely taking the more objective position of inspiration. Probably to the determent of herself and to the Bible.

9:24 AM

rlf said...

I have no doubt that one can amass a substantial number of EGW statements that state or at least imply a verbal sounding process of inspiration. That was (and is) a prevalent understanding outside of the centers of critical thought. EGW would be expected to casually appropriate that understanding. The vital point here is that when she actually sat down to seriously consider the matter, late in her career, she actively chose to follow a more liberal line (but only so far). One serious essay intended to address the subject at hand is more revealing of an author’s carefully considered opinion then scores of incidental (if not careless) references elsewhere in their work.

Ron Corson said...

I don't know about that, considering she never published the essay. Written nearly 20 years before she died yet not published though she had plenty of things published during that time, but not this leads me to think that she did not think it near as important as those who frequently quote it.

So when it comes to comparing what she published with what she did not publish I give higher importance to the material published. Particularly things she had a hand in publishing over compilations made well after her death. In this case about 40 years after her death.

djconklin said...

For a side-by-comparison of EGW with Calvin Stowe see http://www.andrews.edu/%7Efortind/EGWWhite-Conybeare.htm (near the bottom of the page). Since David Neff did a "line by line and word by word" analysis of the two quotes I see no reason to question his conclusion.

For those who are still bothered by the literary similarity I suggest reading David Neff's study which is obtainable from the White Estate. And from an outside, scholarly POV to the literary practices in nineteenth century literaure see Robert Macfarlane's 2007 study Original Copy in which he looks at plagiarism and originality through the works of six authors of the time.