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Inspiration/Revelation: What It Is and How It Works - Contents
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    B. Inconsequential Errors of Minor Detail

    In inspired writings, ancient and modern, there are inconsequential errors of minor, insignificant detail. This is true of the Bible, as well as the writings of Ellen White. Such errors—indeed, all of them added up together—do not affect the direction of God’s church, the eternal destiny of one soul, or the purity of any doctrine. That the Holy Spirit could have corrected these minor mistakes, one cannot seriously challenge. He obviously chose not to do so, probably because the error wasn’t vital to the message or the purpose of inspiration.IRWHW 65.4

    Let us look first at the Bible. As we noted in part 1 of this series, the writer of the first Gospel informs us (in Matthew 27:9, 10) of a Messianic prophecy, written centuries before Christ’s birth, which declared that Christ would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. Matthew attributes that prophecy to Jeremiah.IRWHW 65.5

    Matthew slipped. The writer was not Jeremiah, but Zechariah (chap. 11:12, 13).IRWHW 65.6

    We noted also the slight discrepancies among the four Gospel writers regarding the exact wording of the superscription written by Pilate and placed upon the cross above the head of Christ. Matthew lists Christ’s miracles in a different order than does Luke, even as both writers handle the Sermon on the Mount in different ways—Matthew as a sermon outline, Luke as an evangelistic tool to demonstrate the truths taught by Jesus.IRWHW 65.7

    Mention might also be made of the fact that Hobab is described as Moses’ brother-in-law in Numbers 10:29, while he is identified as Moses’ father-in-law in Judges 4:11. The author of 1 Samuel 16:10 and 11 identifies David as the eighth son of Jesse, whereas the author of 1 Chronicles 2:15 says David was the seventh son. Luke 3:36 mentions a Cainan in the genealogy of Jesus, a person not mentioned in Genesis 11:12. Paul’s account of the ratification of the first covenant in Hebrews 9:19 is not entirely in harmony with the account in Exodus 24:3-8.IRWHW 65.8

    Nor have we exhausted the list of inconsequential errors of minor, insignificant detail. The point we make here is, simply, that the “treasure” of God’s good news is conveyed to mankind in “earthen vessels“: and that those earthen vessels—the packaging—contain mistakes, errors, discrepancies, call them what you will—that in no way deny the divine inspiration of the material nor the divine authority behind the messages.IRWHW 65.9

    Ellen White is in the same tradition with the Bible writers. The same kinds of minor errors found in Scripture also crop up here and there in her writings. A few were mentioned in the introduction to this presentation. Others could be cited.IRWHW 65.10

    Just after the turn of the century a worker in southern California attempted to justify his loss of confidence in the inspiration of the Testimonies because of an inconsistency in an Ellen G. White letter. In this letter Mrs. White spoke of the 40 rooms of the Paradise Valley Sanitarium near San Diego; in actuality there were only 38 rooms. The man apparently believed that if there were any inaccuracies in detail in any writings of one claiming prophetic inspiration, such inaccuracies negated the claim, and his confidence in Ellen White was seriously impaired.IRWHW 65.11

    In response, Mrs. White commented:IRWHW 65.12

    The information given concerning the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanatarium was given, not as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion. There has never been revealed to me the exact number of rooms in any of our sanitariums; and the knowledge I have obtained of such things I have gained by inquiring of those who were supposed to know....

    There are times when common things must be stated, common thoughts must occupy the mind, common letters must be written and information given that has passed from one to another of the workers. Such words, such information, are not given under the special inspiration of the Spirit of God. 33Ellen G. White, Ms. 107, 1909; cited in T. Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1955), pp. 394, 395.

    On June 4, 1906, Ellen White wrote a letter to a brother in the church who had written to her earlier concerning the inspiration of the Testimonies:IRWHW 65.13

    In your letter, you speak of your early training to have implicit faith in the testimonies and say, “I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the Ten Commandments.”

    My brother, you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found that I have made any such claims, neither will you find that the pioneers in our cause have made such claims. 34This letter, written from Sanitarium, California, on June 14, 1906, was subsequently published in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 30, 1906, p. 8. Cited in Selected Messages 1:24-28. Italics in original. For a helpful consideration of “How Much Was Inspired?” see Jemison, pp. 394-406.

    When writing about the St. Bartholomew Massacre in the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy, Mrs. White mentioned in passing that it was the ringing of the bell in the palace of King Charles IX in Paris that was a signal to begin the wanton destruction that cost the lives of tens of thousands of French Huguenot Protestants on August 24, 1572.IRWHW 65.14

    After that volume was in print someone questioned the accuracy of her statement, suggesting instead that it may have been the bell in the church of St. Germain, across the street from the palace. Still another said no, it was the bell in the Palace of Justice around the corner from the royal palace!IRWHW 65.15

    Ellen White, in the revised 1911 edition of the book, redrafted the statement to read simply, “A bell, tolling in the dead of night, was a signal for the slaughter.” 35The Great Controversy, 272 (1911 ed.). For a fuller account of this question, see Arthur L. White, The Ellen G. White Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1973), pp. 31-34. The identity of the bell was not the issue; it was the events of that night that were important.IRWHW 66.1

    Matthew’s mistake in attributing the messianic prophecy of 30 pieces of silver to a wrong source (Jeremiah, instead of Zechariah) was duplicated by Ellen White in a Review and Herald article less than two years before her death. She wrote: “‘The love of Christ constraineth us,’ the apostle Peter declared.” 36The Review and Herald, October 30, 1913, p. 3. Arthur L. White discusses this question at length in Inspiration and the Ellen G. White Writings, a reprint of 11 articles from the Adventist Review of 1978 and 1979. She was, of course, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:14, and the attribution should have been to Paul, not Peter.IRWHW 66.2

    Dates present unique problems. In two of her published volumes 37Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 235 (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915); and Testimonies for the Church 4:297. Mrs. White mentions joining her husband, James, at Wallings Mills, Colorado, on “Monday, August 8,” 1878. This was obviously a clerical error, for in that year Monday fell on August 5, not August 8.IRWHW 66.3

    Of potentially greater seriousness is another problem in dating, misunderstood by some, and considered by one critic to be an unassailable argument for downgrading the nature and degree of Ellen White’s inspiration.IRWHW 66.4

    In a postscript to volume 2 of Spiritual Gifts, Ellen White wrote this rather unusual statement and appeal: “A special request is made that if any find incorrect statements in this book they will immediately inform me. The edition will be completed about the first of October; therefore send before that time.” 38Spiritual Gifts 2:295.IRWHW 66.5

    Can you imagine, exclaims one critic, the apostle Paul putting a postscript on one of his epistles telling the members of that church that if they found anything wrong in the epistle that they should write back to him before it was printed and sent out to all the churches?IRWHW 66.6

    How is this unusual statement to be understood?IRWHW 66.7

    First, volume 2 of Spiritual Gifts was an autobiographical account of the experiences of James and Ellen White from 1844 to 1860. The twofold purpose in writing this work was explained in the preface to the book (and therefore was quite likely overlooked by the critic; apparently very few people read the preface of any book!):IRWHW 66.8

    1. Ellen White wished, quite simply, to refute charges of Mormonism, which had been made especially in the “west.” In March 1860, a man in Knoxville, Iowa, claimed to have known James and Ellen White 20 years earlier when they allegedly were leaders of the Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Illinois. (Twenty years earlier Ellen White was an unmarried girl of 12; she would not even meet James White for at least another five years!)

    2. Ellen White also wished to confirm the faith of the believers. Some 16 years had now elapsed since 1844. There was now fruitage evident in the lives of others as well as in the lives of James and Ellen White. The last ten pages of this particular volume are filled with personal testimonies from different Adventist believers regarding the accuracy of the statements made in the text concerning her physical condition in vision, her healings from illness, the nature of the heresies the Whites encountered in the early days, in addition to the refutation of slanders made against the leadership. 39Spiritual Gifts 2:iv.

    Further along in the preface is this clue explaining the rather odd request for reporting “incorrect statements“:IRWHW 66.9

    In preparing the following pages, I have labored under great disadvantages, as I have to depend in many instances, on memory, having kept no journal [diary] till within a few years. In several instances I have sent the manuscripts to friends who were present when the circumstances related occurred, for their examination before they were put in print. I have taken great care, and have spent much time, in endeavoring to state the simple facts as correctly as possible. 40Spiritual Gifts 2:iii.

    In writing this autobiographical account Mrs. White relied for dates largely on letters retrieved from the Stockbridge Howland family of Topsham, Maine. They had kept her child Henry for five years while Ellen journeyed with her husband James. Ellen had written the Howlands frequently as she and her husband itinerated from place to place.IRWHW 66.10

    Possible evidence that the odd request bore fruit is the fact that two dates appearing in Spiritual Gifts, volume 2, were altered in parallel historical accounts from the pen of Mrs. White in later publications:IRWHW 66.11

    In the earlier account of the first series of William Miller’s prophetic lectures in Portland, Maine, the date is given simply as 1839, and the date of the second series was given simply as 1841. 41Spiritual Gifts 2:12, 14.IRWHW 66.12

    A later parallel account, however, amends the dates for the first series to March 1840, 42Testimonies for the Church 1:14, and Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 20. and the second series to June 1842. 43Testimonies for the Church 1:21; and Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 26. The two-year interregnum is preserved in the later accounts, but the dates are adjusted by one year in each instance.IRWHW 66.13

    Ellen White certainly was not asking any reader to correct a message she had received from the Lord! It is therefore incorrect to give that impression, as some critics have done.IRWHW 66.14

    Perhaps one more example of the “earthen vessel” imperfections in the “packaging” of the prophetic message will suffice to show that Ellen White (like the Bible writers before her) was thoroughly human, and subject to simple mistakes the Holy Spirit never bothered to correct (although He easily could have):IRWHW 66.15

    Ellen White conducted a continuing correspondence with a colporteur named Walter Harper for more than a score of years. In one letter she asked to borrow one thousand dollars, offering him four to five percent interest over the period of the loan 44Letter 339, 1904, p. 2. (while banks at that time were offering only three to four percent—more evidence against the “exploitation” charge).IRWHW 66.16

    On November 9, 1906, Mrs. White wrote Brother Harper in a state of great agitation. Her embarrassment and discomfiture are all too evident; they drip from nearly every line on the page!IRWHW 67.1

    Harper had written for a copy of a testimony which Ellen White had originally sent to General Conference President George I. Butler and which apparently was already well known generally in the field. It was not uncommon for these kinds of quasi-public letters to be circulated freely among church members at large at that time.IRWHW 67.2

    After the letter had been dispatched, Mrs. White discovered to her consternation that she had sent the wrong letter! In writing to Colporteur Harper she first reminds him that what she sent him was “my special personal property,” and then she asks for its immediate return, instructing him not to make the matter public, and if it has already been seen by other eyes such individuals should be instructed in the importance of confidentiality.IRWHW 67.3

    She concludes by instructing Brother Harper not even to make a personal copy of the letter before he returns it, telling him that she has, now, the letter she originally intended to send him.IRWHW 67.4

    Although obviously embarrassed by the mistake, she does not hesitate to speak of “what I have done in mistake,” admitting (as she always did when asked directly) that she was human, and subject to the frailties of human nature. 45Letter 353, 1906, p. 1.IRWHW 67.5

    Inspiration’s “more-sureness” did not extend (as the “strait-jacket” theory would erroneously suggest) to precluding the prophet’s making of minor errors. Only when such errors would materially affect (a) the direction of God’s church, (b) the eternal destiny of one soul, or (c) the purity of a doctrine, would the Holy Spirit step in to correct the situation immediately through the prophet, so that there would be no permanent damage.IRWHW 67.6

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