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
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-
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"