Ellen G. White Writings

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Basic Rules of Interpretation-Internal and External, Page 1

Basic Rules of Interpretation—Internal and External

By Herbert E. Douglass

Table of Contents

1. Rules of Interpretation—Internal2
   How Prophets View History2
   Possible Discrepancies2
   W. C. White’s 1911 Statement3
   No Claim to Verbal Inspiration3
   Chronology4
   Basic Rules of Interpretation4
   Internal evidence:5
2. Rules of Interpretation—External9
   Little Said on Some Subjects10

Rules of Interpretation—Internal

“The work of explaining the Bible by the Bible itself is the work that should be done by all our ministers who are fully awake to the times in which we live.” 1Letter 276, 1907, cited in Lift Him Up, 115.

In her personally written introduction to The Great Controversy, Ellen White recorded how “the scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and evil” had been revealed to her: “From time to time I have been permitted to behold the working, in different ages, of the great controversy between Christ ... and Satan.” 2The Great Controversy, x.

How Prophets View History

How did she “behold” these mighty scenes? She continued: “As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealed.” 3The Great Controversy, xi.

How much detail did she see? The evidence is that she saw the great “scenes” but that the details involving dates, perhaps even geographical sites, she did not always “see.” The same was true for Isaiah as he struggled for words to describe the throne of God (Isaiah 6) and for Daniel as he tried to describe the awesome visions of beasts and horns, etc. Ellen White saw the big picture, the basic concepts, the overall sweep of the forces of good and evil played out in human history. Her task was to “fill in” this big picture through research in the Biblical story and in common sources of historical information.

Just as God did not give Daniel words to describe the beasts of Daniel 7, so He did not give Ellen White the historical dates and events to fill in the great controversy story. Even as Luke searched out the best sources to complete his Life of Christ (Luke 1:1-4), so Mrs. White did what all prophets do when they had a message that had to be conveyed in human words and comprehended by historically oriented men and women. Thus, we look to Luke, not necessarily for historical accuracy for all statements made, but for his contribution to the big picture, the message about the ministry of Jesus. 4For a study of various differences between Luke’s story of Christ’s ministry and those of Matthew and Mark, see George Rice, Luke, a Plagiarist? (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1983.)

Possible Discrepancies

Would there be instances of possible errors? Probably. Henry Alford, the highly respected author of New Testament for English Readers, wrote: “Two men may be equally led by the Holy Spirit to record the events of our Lord’s life for our edification, though one may believe, and record, that the visit to the Gadarenes took place before the calling of Matthew, while the other places it after that event; though one in narrating it speaks of two demoniacs—the other, only of one....

“And not only of the arrangement of the Evangelic history are these remarks to be understood. There are certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men,

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