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Great Controversy Errors Exposed

Analysis of the errors reported by SDA Theologian, Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D.

Great Controversy chapters 3, 4, 15, 25, and 35

Editor's Note: In this article Brother Anderson analyzes the errors found in Ellen White's Great Controversy as reported by former professor of theology and church history, Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D. These errors were reported in Dr. Bacchiocchi's electronic newsletter, Endtime Issues, which is sent via e-mail primarily to Adventists, but also to some non-Adventist subscribers. The issue we will be focusing on is Endtime Issues number 87, "A Reply to Criticisms Part I 'The Use of Ellen White's Writings in Interpreting Scripture'" (August 1, 2002).

Dr. Bacchiocchi provided the SDA sect a great service in exposing a number of serious historical errors in Ellen White's Great Controversy. In his newsletter, Dr. Bacchiocchi, former professor at Andrews University, describes himself as a "committed Adventist" with a "deep respect" for Ellen White's writings. In spite of this, he has chosen to break ranks with traditional SDA thinking by proposing a different interpretation of the 1260-day prophecy. In so doing, he has exposed a number of errors in The Great Controversy. We will be examining those errors below:

ERROR #1 - Papacy Established in 538 A.D.

In the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy Mrs. White wrote:

"The 1260 years of papal supremacy began with the establishment of the papacy in A. D. 538, and would therefore terminate on 1798." (p. 266)

"This period, as stated in the preceding chapters, began with the establishment of the papacy, A. D. 538, and terminated in 1798. At that time, when the papacy was abolished and the pope was made captive by the French army, the papal power received its deadly wound, and the prediction was fulfilled, 'He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity." (p. 439)

While the 1888 version speaks of the "establishment" of the papacy in 538 A.D., the 1911 edition tones down the wording somewhat, speaking of the "supremacy" initiating in 538 A.D.:

"The 1260 years of papal supremacy began in A. D. 538, and would terminate in 1798." (page 266)

"This period, as stated in preceding chapters, began with the supremacy of the papacy, A. D. 538, and terminated in 1798. At that time, the pope was made captive by the French army, the papal power received its deadly wound, and the prediction was fulfilled,' He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity.'" (p. 439)

In his newsletter Dr. Bacchiochi points out that the supremacy of the papacy was actually established centuries prior to 538 A.D.:
"In my dissertation [From Sabbath to Sunday] I have shown that the development of the papal primacy began already in the second century, when the Pope exercised his ecumenical authority by imposing on Christian churches at large Easter-Sunday, weekly Sunday, and by condemning various movements like the Montanists."
Dr. Bacchiocchi is certainly not the first Adventist historian to question the 538 date. For years Adventist historians and theologians have searched in vain for any evidence that anything significant happened to the papacy in 538. In fact, up to this point in time, not a single significant historical event has ever been found that would substantiate that date. However, one thing is certain: the papacy was not established in 538.

When did the supremacy of the papacy begin? Dr. Bacchiochhi writes:

"The development of the 'supremacy of the papacy' began long before 538. In his book on The History of the Christian Church--which has served for many years as the standard text book for church history classes--Williston Walker devotes chapter 6 to the 'Growth of the Papacy' during the fourth and fifth centuries. He points out that during this period there were influential popes like Damasus (366-384), Innocent I (402-417), and Leo I, called 'the Great' (440-461), who greatly advanced both the spiritual and temporal power of the papacy.

"For example, the last Pope mentioned, Leo I, known as 'Leo the Great,' greatly increased the political prestige of the papacy by threatening with hell fire Attila the Hun, when he was approaching Rome in 451 with his terrifying soldiers. Attila obeyed the Pope and withdrew beyond the Danube. Later Pope Leo secured concessions from the Vandals when they took Rome in 452. He is called 'Leo the Great' for advancing and consolidating the power of the papacy.

"The development of the supremacy of the papacy is a gradual process that can hardly be dated from 538. The process began already in the second century as the primacy of Bishop of Rome was widely recognized and accepted."

Dr. Bacchoicchi goes on to point out that the papacy did not achieve temporal sovereignty until 756 when the pope acquired the territories of Central Italy. The papacy controlled these territories until 1870 when the king of Sardinia took over the papal territories.

In addition to the rise of the papacy, another reason that 538 is considered to be a fulfillment of prophecy by Adventists is because of the supposed overthrow of the "three horns" on the head of the fourth beast by the "little horn" power (Dan. 7:8). Adventists identify the three horns as the Arian tribes of the Herulis, the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, the last of which was said to be uprooted in 538. In the previous issue of Endtime Issues (#86), Dr. Bacchiochi casts doubt on this theory:

"The first problem is the questionable significance of 538. We noted earlier that Justinian's triumph over the Ostrogoths in 538 was short-lived, because under their new leader, Totila, the Ostrogoths quickly captured most of their lost territories. In other words, this event did not significantly boost the power of the Papacy, which still faced constant harassment from various rulers for centuries to come."
On this point Dr. Bacchiocchi agrees with the best of historical scholarship regarding this time period. The Ostrogoths did suffer military setbacks during the period beginning with a Byzantine invasion of Italy in 535 and ending in 540 with the fall of the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna. However, during the period of 541 through 548 the Ostrogoths regained the upper hand, went on the offensive and recaptured a good part of their former territory including Rome. The war continued until 561 when the last Ostrogoth leader was captured and put to death. "With that final defeat, the Ostrogothic name wholly died." (Wikipedia) So, to be accurate, the Ostrogoths were not fully uprooted until the early 560s.

Dr. Bacchiocchi describes yet another problem with the 538 - 1798 prophetic period, which is that the persecution of the church does not correlate with these years:

"The second problem with the traditional interpretation is its failure to account for the basic meaning of this prophetic period. The persecution and protection of the church did not begin in 538, nor did it end in 1798. These are realities that have characterized the whole history of God's church throughout the centuries. Some of the most bloody persecutions by Roman emperors occurred during the first four centuries."

Dr. Bacchoichi has shown convincingly that the 538 date corresponds to no significant event in history and that the supremacy of the Papacy actually began centuries earlier. Now, what about the ending date of the 1260-day prophecy? Was the papacy abolished in 1798? On page 579 of the 1888 Great Controversy Ellen White writes:

"The infliction of the deadly wound points to the abolition of the papacy in 1798."
Again, the wording is toned down in the 1911 edition:
"The infliction of the deadly wound points to the downfall of the papacy in 1798."
Unlike 538, the year of 1798 actually has some significance for the papacy. However, the events of that year certainly do not indicate the "abolition" or even the "downfall" of the papacy. In 1798, when Pope Pius VI was taken prisoner by the French General Berthier, the papacy suffered humiliation, but it would be a gross exaggeration to describe this event as the "downfall" of the papacy.

In his newsletter Dr. Bacchiocchi explains what happened after the pope was captured in 1798:

"The imprisonment of Pope Paul VI was condemned by Russia and Austria. Both nations decided to join forces to restore the Pope to his Pontifical throne in Rome. When the French government was confronted with this new coalition and with popular uprisings, it decided to transfer the Pope to Valence, in France, where he died 40 days later, on August 29, 1799.

"The death of Pius VI can hardly be seen as the 'abolishment' or 'the downfall of the Papacy.' It was simply a temporary humiliation of the prestige of the Papacy. In fact, Pius VI was able to give directives for the election of his successor. Few months after his death, the Cardinals met in Venice on December 8, 1799, and elected Barnaba Chiaramonti, who took the name of Pious VII, in deference to his predecessor.

"The new Pope was able to negotiate with Napoleon the Concordat in 1801 and the Organic Articles in 1802. These treatises restored to the Pope some of the territories of the States of the Church and regulated the extent of the Papal authority in France.

"The following years marked, not the downfall, but the resurgence of papal authority, especially under the Pontificate of Pius IX (1846-1878). In 1854, Pius IX promulgated the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. ...

"The crowning event of Pius IX's pontificate was the convening of the First Vatican Council on December 8, 1869. It had a remarkable large attendance from all over the Roman world and on July 18, 1870, the Council promulgated the dogma of Papal Infallibility. This dogma has greatly enhanced the authority of the Pope, and discredits any attempt to attribute to 1798 the downfall of the papacy."

Anyone who has studied Christian history can verify that the dates of 538 and 1798 do not accurately mark the beginning and ending dates of the period of papal supremacy. The Bishop of Rome was consolidating power centuries before 538, and the papacy continued to grow and thrive even after the temporary setback of 1798. These dates were concocted by Adventists because they were convenient. These dates fit nicely into the prophetic jigsaw puzzle they were building. The dates were picked because they fit in the puzzle, not because they actually delineated the years of papal supremacy.

ERROR #2 - The Origin of Sunday Worship

On pages 52-53 of The Great Controversy Mrs. White wrote:

"In the first centuries the true Sabbath had been kept by all Christians. They were jealous for the honor of God, and believing that His law is immutable, they zealously guarded the sacredness of its precepts."
Notice here that the word "centuries" is plural. This indicates that for a minimum of two centuries the Sabbath was observed by "all Christians." Mrs. White seems to have believed that all Christians observed the Sabbath until "the early part of the fourth century [when] the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public festival throughout the Roman Empire." (p. 53)

Dr. Bacchiocchi writes in his newsletter:

"What is problematic is the impression many people get from EGW's statements that the Sabbath was observed 'by all Christians . . . in the first centuries' until 'the early part of the fourth century [when] the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public holiday.' (pp. 52-53) ...

"The earliest documents mentioning Sunday worship go back to Barnabas in 135 and Justin Martyr in 150. Thus, it is evident that Sunday worship was already established by the middle of the second century. This means that to be historically accurate the term 'centuries' should be changed to the singular 'century'."

Dr. Bacchoichi's book, From Sabbath to Sunday, provides substantial evidence that Sunday worship started much earlier than Mrs. White claimed.

ERROR #3 - The Change of Sabbath to Sunday

Yet another inaccuracy is found in chapter 25 of The Great Controversy. Ellen White claims that the change of the Sabbath to Sunday was accomplished by the Pope with the "power of the state":

"It was on behalf of Sunday that popery first asserted its arrogant claims; and its first resort to the power of the state was to compel the observance of Sunday as 'the Lord's Day.'" (page 447)
She makes another similar statement later in the book:
"Royal edicts, general councils, and church ordinances sustained by secular power were the steps by which the pagan festival [day of the Sun] attained its position of honor in the Christian world." (page 574)
Before we read Dr. Bacchoicchi's assessment of these quotes, let me remind the reader that Dr. Bacchiocchi is still widely regarded as the SDA theologian who was the most knowledgeable person in the entire sect on church history pertaining to Sabbath-Sunday issues. There was simply no one in the church more qualified to assess Ellen White's statements than Dr. Bacchiocchi. Here is his assessment:
"Both statements just cited are inaccurate, because the secular power of the state did not influence or compel Christians to adopt Sunday during the second and third centuries. At that time the Roman emperors were rather hostile toward Christianity. They were more interested to suppress Christianity than to support church leaders in their promotion of Sunday worship. The bishop of Rome could not have resorted to 'the power of the state to compel the observance of Sunday as the Lord's Day.' Eventually, beginning with the fourth century, some Roman emperors actively supported the agenda of the church, but this was long after the establishment of Sunday observance.

"In my dissertation FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY I have shown that the Bishop of Rome did indeed pioneer the change in the day of worship, but he did it without the help of the Roman government. What precipitated the need to change the Sabbath to Sunday, was the anti-Jewish and anti-Sabbath legislation promulgated in 135 by the Emperor Hadrian.

"After suppressing the Second Jewish revolt, known as the Barkokoba revolt (132-135), which caused many casualties, the Emperor Hadrian decided to deal with the Jewish problem in a radical way by suppressing the Jewish religion. Hitler was determined to liquidate the Jews as a people and Hadrian was committed to suppress Judaism as a religion. To accomplish this objective Hadrian outlawed in 135 the Jewish religion in general and Sabbathkeeping in particular.

"It was at this critical moment that the Bishop of Rome took the initiative to change the Sabbath to Sunday in order to show to the Roman government the Christians' separation from the Jews and their identification with the cycles of the Roman society. But, at this time the Bishop of Rome could not call upon 'the power of the state to compel the observance of Sunday as the Lord's Day,' because in the eyes of the Romans Christianity was still a suspect religion to be suppressed, rather than to be supported."

It is clear from Dr. Bacchiochi's assessment that the pope did not resort to the power of the state, as Mrs. White wrote. Rather, the Roman Bishop instituted Sunday worship without any assistance from the state.

ERROR #4 - Sabbath Condemned by Ecumenical Councils

Mrs. White wrote in The Great Controversy of "vast councils" that supposedly attempted to "press down" the Sabbath in order to exalt Sunday in its place. She writes:

"Vast councils were held from time to time, in which the dignitaries of the church were convened from all the world. In nearly every council the Sabbath which God had instituted was pressed down a little lower, while the Sunday was correspondently exalted." (page 53)
There were seven church councils held (Nicaea I in 325, Constantinople I in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451, Constantinople II in 553, Constantinople III in 680, and Nicaea II in 787). However, Mrs. White was wrong about the Sabbath being an issue in any of those councils. Dr. Bacchiocchi writes:
"The problem is with the second part of the statement which speaks of the Sabbath as being 'pressed down a little lower' in almost every general council. In all my reading of the seven ecumenical councils, I have not found a reference to the Sabbath/Sunday question being debated in such councils. Presumably the reason is that Sunday observance was no longer a debated question--it had become widely accepted by Christians."
How could the Sabbath have been "pressed down" a little lower in these councils when it was not even discussed? This is simply another case of Mrs. White inventing history in her writings, and then claiming it was inspiration from God!

ERROR #5 - The Waldenses

Mrs. White would have us believe the Waldenses observed the Sabbath:

"Through ages of darkness and apostasy there were Waldenses who denied the supremacy of Rome, who rejected image worship as idolatry, and who kept the true Sabbath. Under the fiercest tempests of oppositions they maintained their faith." (page 65)

"Some of whom [Waldenses] were observers of the Sabbath." (page 577)

Dr. Bacchiocchi probably did more research on the Sabbath than any human being who has ever lived. In all of his years of research, even having access to restricted areas of the Vatican library, did he ever find any evidence that some of the Waldenses observed the Sabbath?
"I spent several hours searching for an answer in the two scholarly volumes Storia dei Valdesi--(History of the Waldenses), authored by Amedeo Molnar and Augusto Hugon. These two books were published in 1974 by the Claudiana, which is the official Italian Waldensian publishing house. They are regarded as the most comprehensive history of the Waldenses. To my regret I found no allusion whatsoever to Sabbathkeeping among the Waldenses."
Dr. Bacchiocchi is not the first Adventist to search in vain for evidence of the Waldenses keeping the Sabbath. The only thing researchers have found thus far are some documents which refer to the Waldenses by their nickname, "insabbati." Unfortunately for Mrs. White, the term has nothing to do with the Sabbath. It refers to the sandals the Waldenses were known to wear. The Latin word for sandals is sabbatum. Thus, the Waldenses were insabbati--"sandal wearers."

A Waldensian minister in Italy was contacted and asked if the Waldenses ever kept the Sabbath. Here is his response:

"The Waldensians did not keep the Sabbath and were not guardians of the 'Sabbath Truth' as you call it. ... We can therefore say very clearly that the Waldensians were not Seventh-day Sabbath keepers and they were not persecuted for keeping Saturday as the Sabbath!" (click here to read the entire letter)

Apparently Mrs. White wanted to have a line of unbroken Sabbath-keeping, from the time of the Apostles, to the Waldenses in the mountains of Europe, all the way through to the time of the Seventh-day Adventists. Unfortunately, such a continuum does not exist. Sunday-keeping began much earlier than Mrs. White realized, and the Waldenses never kept the Sabbath at all.

Another inaccurate statement Mrs. White made about the Waldenses is:

"Behind the lofty bulwarks of the mountains . .. the Waldenses found a hiding place. Here the light of truth was kept burning amid the darkness of the Middle Ages. Here for a thousand years, witnesses for the truth maintained the ancient faith." (pp. 65-66)
The Waldensian movement was established by Peter Valdes around 1176. The Waldenses were not excommunicated from the church until 1184. Therefore, the move to the mountains could not have taken place until after 1184, and the persecution of the Waldenses had subsided by the late 1600s. Therefore, it would be impossible for the Waldenses to have kept the light of truth burning for "a thousand years" during the Middle Ages. 500 years is a more likely number.

Conclusion

The Great Controversy has been portrayed as a book that was written out by Ellen White from her heaven-sent visions. Thanks to Dr. Bacchiochi, and others, it can be clearly seen that her writings did not originate in heaven at all, but rather were based upon the sometimes faulty information that was readily available to her, and the authors she plagiarized from, at the time of its writing.

Read Dr. Bacchiocchi's Response to this article


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