Paul Coetser: Co-editor and Devil’s Advocate
Weiers is a pastor in Northern Ireland and co-editor of the Adventist Soapbox website and blog.
We’re blogging our way through Brian Neumann’s book, The White Elephant in Adventism. In a previous post, Weiers was pondering the bigger interpretive context of the debate. Today he asks some questions about the assumptions that underlie Brian Neumann’s standards for testing prophets in Chapter One: The Standard, (pages 37 to 58).
Brian spent many years of his life as an Adventist evangelist. Chapter One: The Standard, brings out his evangelistic colors beautifully. I can see him standing on a stage, hardly taking a breath before he launches into his presentation with gusto and persuasive power.
The task that he sets out to accomplish is to establish a standard by which one could evaluate the work of any extra-biblical prophet. It comes as no surprise that he expects any prophetic claim to be measured by the strictest Scriptural standard.
He lists four of these standards:
“The aspects of the physical signs while in vision;  the example of the prophet’s life (integrity etc.),  whether their teaching is in accord with the ‘law and the testimony’/the scriptures (Isaiah 8:20) and  whether their work truly edified and brought about unity of faith, all need to be examined.”
He invites his readers to study these prophets in depth in order to establish how the prophetic gift manifests itself. After discussing the prophetic ministry of a number of Biblical prophets, he refers to the fact that prophets could lose their way with God (p.40), and he states: “No doubt for this very reason, God gave specific tests that the calling and labour of those who claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf could be verified and tested.” He goes on to state that these tests would apply to all who profess to be a prophet, including modern day prophets.
A statement like this always makes me sit upright and pay attention. It comes across as very authoritative and clear cut. The implication is that the Bible has been written and put together with the purpose of helping us make a decision on the veracity or authenticity of any prophet, and especially Ellen White, a 19th century prophet who lived nearly 2000 years later.
I do not object to applying Biblical principles, to evaluate a prophetic ministry, but I do want to challenge the way in which Brian chooses these principles and attempts to make it appear that it was hard coded into the Bible from the beginning.
Let’s look at the texts that he quotes one after another to make his argument:
- Isaiah 8:20 in the KJV says “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
This is the main text that Brian repeatedly refers to as a key text to evaluate the prophetic ministry of Ellen White. I want to evaluate if this text is really such a sound text to use for this purpose.
There is an important principle in Biblical interpretation that demands that we should always interpret a text within the larger textual context that it appears in.
The context of this text (the whole of Isaiah Chapter 8) is that Isaiah was bringing a message that was quite unpopular to his audience at the time. It was a radical message of judgement and destruction. At the beginning of the chapter, the Lord tells Isaiah to write his prophecy in a large scroll (vs 1). Isaiah takes two witnesses and he begins to write the prophecy of doom (vs 2).
It might have taken some time to write this prophecy. In the process Isaiah even conceived a child with his wife and gave the child a name that conveyed this judgement, saying that before the child could call his father’s name, the destruction would have arrived upon Israel (vs 3,4). (John Calvin’s commentary on this text speculates that it did not really happen, but that the birth of the child and the naming of the child might have been a vision that God had given to Isaiah for illustrative purposes.)
The prophecy continues with several more warnings and pronouncements.
In verse Isaiah 8:16, Isaiah then commands that this prophecy that has now been written on a scroll needs to be sealed up: “ Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples” (KJV). Isaiah repeats the fact that he and his child are the signs of what God’s plans are for Israel (vs 18.).
He then warns against consulting false gods and spirits who might bring alternative soothing messages. (Isaiah 8:19). The translation of these verses are quite difficult because at least one of the words in these verses don’t appear in its particular form anywhere else in the Bible.
Modern translations of the Bible, like the New Revised Standard version actually says:
19 Now if people say to you, “Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, 20 for teaching and for instruction?” surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! .
The King James translation says “20 To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
It seems clear to me that Isaiah is saying in this text that it is his message, his testimony, that is authoritative, and it would be wrong to follow any alternative prophecy. His prophecy comes from God. Whichever translation one chooses to use, it is doubtful that this verse sets up a test that is relevant for all prophets and that this test refers to the whole of scripture.
I think we do the text a disservice if we pull it out of its original context and then apply it for our own purposes in an argument that the original text never envisioned. It also makes the case that we are trying to build a little less secure.
I would challenge Brian and his readers to also re-study the other texts that he lists in that same section.
- Brian refers to Luke 24:44 to show that Jesus advocated adherence to the writings of the Old Testament as a test for the authenticity of a prophet. But when we read Luke 24:44 in context it becomes clear that Jesus is merely saying that He (Jesus) is the the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. There is no suggestion that he implies in his words a standard for testing a prophet.
- Isaiah 28:10 is quoted to prove that a prophet needs to be true to the whole Bible.
“For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (KJV)
But when one studies the chapter carefully and reads the commentaries one finds that most everybody agrees that Isaiah 28:9 and 10 is in fact a mocking mimicry of the people of Ephraim upon whom a judgement is being spoken. Adventist apologists have for years mistakenly used this verse out of context to prove that the Bible needs to be read as a whole.
- Deuteronomy 19:15 is the next verse in Brian’s arsenal of proof texts. This verse demands that there must be three witnesses to bring evidence against an accused in order for him to be found guilty. Brian once again takes this verse out of its context to prove what he wants it to say. In the way Brian uses it, it is no longer a person who witnesses in a trial, but Scripture that must become proof or evidence for a prophet’s claims.
I think there are sufficient grounds here to step back and re-evaluate whether we agree with where Brian might be heading. If his proofs for a prophet are based on inadequate evidence, they become assumptions and there is a very real danger that he might come to the wrong conclusion when he begins to evaluate a prophet’s work based on these assumptions.
In this first chapter, Brian rightly argues that those who supported Ellen White’s ministry from the start used many of these same tests for a prophet to defend her ministry.
As the chapter continues Brian modifies his list of tests for a prophet slightly (compared to the first list). He wants a prophet to:
- Agree with Scripture, be
- Accurate in predictions, and
- The physical phenomena associated with receiving visions should be similar to the experiences of Biblical prophets. (He does seem to give a hint that he disagrees with this test, but this is not yet explicitly clear in this chapter. He uses eight pages to explore what the Bible says about prophets’ experiences in vision.)
Right now I am not taking issue with these items. However, I am skeptical of a methodology that is based on a proof text method.
I think that item one: “Agreeing with Scripture” needs to be developed on a more careful and nuanced Biblical foundation. It seems to me that we need a more complete theology of the function and role of Biblical prophets rather than to reduce their work to prediction of the future, or seeing visions, or even holding them to a narrow view of how to interpret scripture.
I therefore ask the question: At the end of this chapter – has Brian really succeeded in defining trustworthy and dependable standards for testing prophets by which we can or should evaluate the prophetic ministry of Ellen White?
I am also concerned with what might be left out of the list, that should possibly also be included.
I hope to explore this concern further in a future blog.
Weiers, I agree essentially with your assessment of Brian’s arguments. One should keep in mind that this is the introductory chapter of a book in which Brian sets out to “prove” that Ellen White is a false prophet. Brian claims here that he will be ‘objective’ and that he will apply his standards for testing a prophet strictly according to Scriptural principles. I am troubled, however, by his ‘hermeneutic’. It seems quite evident to me that at the foundation of his arguments lies a very ‘verbal’ view of Biblical inspiration. This, in my opinion, does not build confidence with regard to ‘evidences’ that he may present in future chapters. Let me point the reader to another blog on this website where the same topic is being discussed but with a much ‘healthier’ foundational hermeneutic.
Brian Neumann wrote a response to this blog post. When he published it, we had already started work on Blog 4 and 5. We will however soon reflect on Brian’s response.
In the meantime we link to the document below:
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