The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism by Brian Neumann

Blogging Through “The White Elephant” No.3

Rethinking standards for testing prophets

Author of the four gospels
Ps. Weiers Coetser
Devil's Advocate
Devil’s Advocate

 

 

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:

“[1]The aspects of the physical signs while in vision; [2] the example of the prophet’s life (integrity etc.), [3] whether their teaching is in accord with the ‘law and the testimony’/the scriptures (Isaiah 8:20) and [4] 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:

  1. Agree with Scripture, be
  2. Accurate in predictions, and
  3. 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.


Commenting on standards for testing a prophet
Devil’s Advocate

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.


Update:

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:

Response to No. 3 by brianneumann on Scribd


We invite you to share your views on this topic in the ‘comments’ block below or on our Facebook page. Please remember to “like” our page and to share this article with any of your friends who may also be interested in an review and assessment of Brian Neumann’s “The White Elephant”.

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  • Weiers Coetser

    Hi Stefan, These debates can sometimes be little different from a rugby or football match where fans come to support their team with pre-decided loyalties. A good match needs a good referee. But even then, players and supporters try to get the referee on their side. And of course as the game continues, supporters will often support their team regardless of the referee’s decision. Often one decision in the context of a match can be critical. Other times it is just the way things pan out at that moment and there more is required to decide the day.

    So, maybe, let’s keep the conversation going and see how it develops. In this chapter, I think Brian is making an attempt to set the discussion up so that the referee (he calls it the standard) will tend to make decisions in his favour. I’m just pointing out that we might be able to find alternative perspectives. But I’m not quite willing to claim that this will make an overall difference in the outcome of the discussion. I think there is more at stake, and more to consider, in the big picture of things.

    Your point about Adventist arrogance is well taken. I hope you will challenge me when I display such arrogance. My own sense is that it is very difficult to be arrogant when you take a serious look at the history and reality of how faith expresses itself in the life of the Church that I’ve grown up in and served in. I hope that when you read the content of the articles on this site, you will find less arrogance, and more genuine searching exploration and questions.

    • Stefan Smith

      Weiers

      Well i must admit there is a lot less arrogance on this site than the rest.
      If i post controversial Links on other sites they block me and delete my posts

      I also hope that this discussion can bear some fruit.
      How would you answer me if i put this statement to you just like this

      Jesus will return on the 16 August 2019

      • Stephan, your question is hypothetical and lacks context. Perhaps you could elaborate somewhat on why you would ask such a question, and, I suppose, what kind of response you would would be expecting.

        • Stefan Smith

          Matthew 24:36New King James Version (NKJV)

          No One Knows the Day or Hour.
          36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven,[a] but My Father only.

          That is the response that should be given by a Christian. And if there is anything more to that question that needs a different answer then I can’t see it been biblical

          And if I get a following from my 16 August prediction and it fails. But then justify the false predictions by any means in today’s world no one will buy into that. Would you today start following some guy that makes false predictions with dates for the second coming of Christ. But it failed. Would you carry in following that movement today. … No I will also not do that.

          The gospel is simple.

          The foundations is flawed

          • Thanks Stephan, now I understand the context and reason for your hypothetical question. Your answer is good and I support your reasoning. The matter around Ellen White, however, is not so simple and cannot be dismissed in a few sentences. However, stay with us there will be some more blogs on this issue and especially around Brian Neumann’s recent book “The White Elephant”.

          • Stefan Smith

            Paul

            I will stay around for the other blogs for sure.
            To say that my answer is right but EW is not so simple i don’t agree with.
            The church was born out of false predictions and that is the fact.
            And also not you, me or any Christian would follow a movement based on false predictions in 2017
            The foundations is flawed, and to complicate things by justifying and contextualizing it the way its been done for many years does NOT fix the flawed foundations.
            It is comlicating it for the SDA members and us the family members having to deal with those with the typical arguments like … WELL EW IS DIFFERENT.
            No she is not, she was a human like everyone else. And making false claims is false.

  • Two wrongs do not make a right. If people quoted the Bible out of context to prove that Ellen White was a prophet (and they often did) it does not mean that those who do not accept her as an inspired prophet should quote the Bible “out of context” to prove their point. Truth is strong enough to ‘stand on its own feet’ without having to use ‘untruth’ to prove it!

    • Stefan Smith

      Paul

      Can you please give me the examples of where they quoted the bible out of context to prove EW as a prophet.
      Because that is really the first time i heard someone from SDA admit that they made a mistake

  • Stefan Smith

    I just find it interesting that while people are taking scripture to DISPROVE something they preached for so long they are called to be out of context all the time. The same people that use the bible in the context given and prescribed by the leaders and most of all EW they are on the right track. But as soon as they question those prescribed contexts and doctrine which is the foundation of the church they are wrong.

    Well maybe stop the arrogance that SDA has the only truth and realize that ANYONE can be wrong. And that is what Brian and the rest is actually willing to admit. But you critiques don’t want to admit that maybe she was NOT a prophet and her writings was NOT inspired.
    But because of years and years of indoctrination to only use HER interpretations SDA members is to blind and arrogant to put facts on the table like Desmond Ford, Brian Neumann and so many others , to prove with the bible that she is NOT the infallible interpreter and that she is NOT an ongoing authority!!!

    Well done Brian , That is what happens when the HOLY SPIRIT gives you wisdom.
    Wisdom is NOT in EW writings and interpretations , you can learn and know all her writings and the bible word for word, it will not gives you wisdom because wisdom comes from GOD AND HIS SPIRIT!!