For the last few months, I have been in communication with a gentleman in his 80s who has been thinking about joining the Seventh-day Adventist church. Initially, our conversations were over the phone, but since the weather has turned a little nicer, we have been meeting at the church the last two weeks.
His parents were Seventh-day Adventists, and he has two siblings that were/are as well (one is still alive, the other is deceased), and he attended an Adventist academy for one year in his younger days. He has been baptized two times in the past into other denominations, but is now feeling that it is time to join a church that he, more than likely, has probably felt was God’s true church all along.
Last week, though, he pulled out this book that he wanted some help with – kind of one of the last questions he has about the whole idea. The book is a fairly well-known book called The Four Major Cults, by Anthony A. Hoekema, which I have not read. In the book, Hoekema discusses Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Christian Science church, and Seventh-day Adventists. The book was written in the 1960s, and Hoekema has allegedly removed some of those groups from the list. Of course, many others have done the same and I think that most of Christendom views Seventh-day Adventists as a Christian denomination.
However, there are still some questions in this gentleman’s mind that he wanted help with. He wanted me to read what Hoekema said about Seventh-day Adventists, so I took the book and I’ve read most of his analysis. Particulary, this gentleman was troubled by the fact that Hoekema seems to indicate that Adventists don’t really practice sola scriptura, even though we officially claim to. We supposedly place Ellen White above the Bible, and refer to her to prove many of our doctrines over and above the Bible. (I suppose most people would take this position, though, since they don’t think our doctrines are biblical! Therefore, we must rely on extra-biblical influence – ie., Ellen White – to formulate these understandings, they maintain. This is somewhat circular reasoning, though.)
That many people within our ranks utilize Ellen White more than the Bible is undeniable. But abuse doesn’t negate a legitimate use of her counsel. As a whole denomination, though, Hoekema claims that “Seventh-day Adventists quote more from Mrs. White than from any other author” (p. 105). When I read this, I couldn’t help but respond, “Has he ever talked to a Lutheran – or a Catholic, for that matter?”
This proposition is laughable. If cult-status were determined by how many times a church refers to an extra-biblical writer, then there would be many denominations who are a lot more “culty” than Adventists.
A few years ago, when I was helping out with an evangelistic series, there was one lady who we were studying with that always referred to Luther’s Catechism to determine if what we were teaching was true. If Luther agreed with what we taught, then she agreed. (Incidentally, even though we called her attention to the fact that Luther shares our views on the state of the dead, she still couldn’t give up her view of the immortal soul!)
Similarly, I meet with a small group of graduate students at Dartmouth College every week. There are Christian students from various denominational backgrounds, and we have been reading through Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. Last week, one person asked how we can maintain and foster a personal relationship with God, and the answers that were given somewhat startled me. “I like to read The Book of Common Prayer,” one person said, “It is nice to go over the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed every day,” another person offered. Not one of them hinted at reading from the Bible.
Indeed, these extra-biblical liturgies and creeds are much of Christendom’s daily bread. Instead of going to the Bible for their source of information, inspiration, or doctrinal clarity, they pick up The Book of Common Prayer or Luther’s Catechism. Yet how many books have been written about Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, etc., classifying them as cults?
This is not even to mention the Catholic church – which bases its whole existence on extra-biblical sources. If you think that Seventh-day Adventists “venerate” Ellen White, take a look at the status that Catholics have placed on Augustine.
Yet who would dare call the Catholic church a “cult”?
Granted, the aforementioned denominations are not necessarily conservative “Evangelical” churches. But Evangelicals venerate their own individuals. A healthy use of Ellen White is no worse than the deference many Evangelicals pay to the biblical exegetes, commentators, and scholars whom they rely upon for biblical interpretation. This goes for those within my own denomination who have downplayed Ellen White’s role, yet loyally follow their favorite commentator in unpacking a given biblical text.
Thus, once again I say it is laughable to portray the idea that Seventh-day Adventists are one of the only churches that rely heavily upon an extra-biblical source. Every denomination does this. That we view Ellen White’s prophetic office as being on a higher level than Luther, Calvin, Augustine, et. al, does not necessarily mean that we view her authority as over and above the Bible, or even equal to it. On the contrary, Ellen White constantly points back to the Bible, whereas many of these aforementioned people take us away from it.
I guess what I am saying is that these “cult police” – whoever they are – maintain a higher standard for Seventh-day Adventists than they hold for themselves. And I guess, in one way or the other, I am going to try to help my friend – whose wife, incidentally, is a Mormon – understand this.