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Trinity in SDA History



The Trinity in Seventh-day Adventist History

Merlin Burt

E. G. White Estate Branch Office

Andrews University

The last decade has seen increased anti-Trinitarian activity within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Though significant, anti-Trinitarianism has remained at the margins of the movement. Four reasons for this activity should be mentioned. (1) There is the availability of information through the internet. (2) Several other Adventist groups, that emerged from the Millerite movement, continue to hold to an anti-Trinitarian perspective. (3) Some Adventists think that the doctrine of the Trinity comes from Catholic theology and therefore must be false. What many have not realized is that the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity differs from the Seventh-day Adventist biblical doctrine of the Trinity. This includes eternal generation of the Son and divine impassability, which are influenced by Greek philosophy. (4) Perhaps most significant, over the last few decades some Seventh-day Adventists have thought to return to the early historical Adventist faith, or what might be called neo-restorationism.

Some have failed to recognize the dynamic nature of Seventh-day Adventist theology. Adventists have always sought a clearer understanding of Bible truth. Historically, their doctrines have developed in the context of the original distinctive core of the Three Angel’s Message and kindred concepts. A small though significant and growing segment of “historic” Adventists are advocating a return to an anti-Trinitarian stance. Seventh-day Adventists have always been Bible-centered in their theology and doctrine. They have rejected a static creed and have ever sought to study, understand, and follow the Bible as the source of doctrine and the guide for experience. Consequently, it should not be surprising that Adventist doctrine has developed over time building upon previous and new Bible study.

As Sabbatarian Adventism emerged during the late 1840s, it brought various Christian truths and placed them in the framework of fulfilled prophecy and ongoing discovery of biblical teachings. A cluster of biblical teachings explained what had happened in 1844 and why Jesus had not come. The heavenly sanctuary, the end-time ministry of Jesus in the Most Holy Place, and the Sabbath as the seal of God were a particular focus. Adventist understanding of various theological perspectives continued to develop and improve over time. Two examples are the Sabbath and tithing. Early Adventists initially concluded that the Sabbath should begin and end at 6:00 p.m. It was in 1855, nearly a decade after the initial Sabbath emphasis, that J. N. Andrews’ biblical and historical presentation influenced believers to adopt sundown as the correct time to begin and end the Sabbath. Tithing first began in 1859 as “Systematic Benevolence” and had little or no link to the Biblical teaching of ten percent. It was not until the 1870s that a careful restudy of the topic led Seventh-day Adventists to adopt the tithing framework we practice today. A similar process is evident in the Adventist understanding of the nature of God and the Trinity.

The purpose of this article is to briefly outline the historical development of the view of the Trinity for Seventh-day Adventists from its beginning to the present day.

Up to 1890: Anti-Trinitarian Period

Until near the turn of the twentieth century Seventh-day Adventist literature was almost unanimous in opposing the eternal deity of Jesus and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. During the earlier years some even held the view that Christ was created. It is very important to understand that Adventist views were not homogeneous. Theological tension within Adventism began during the Millerite movement and is illustrated by the two principal leaders, William Miller and Joshua V. Himes.

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Miller, being a Baptist, was a Trinitarian. He wrote, “I believe in one living and true God, and that there are three persons in the Godhead. . . . The three persons of the Triune God are connected.”1 Himes, a close associate of William Miller, was of the Christian Connection persuasion. The northeastern branch of the Christian Church rejected the Trinitarian doctrine as unscriptural.2 It is important to note that Millerite Adventists were focused on the soon coming of Jesus and did not consider it necessary to argue on the subject of the Trinity.

Two of the principal founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Joseph Bates and James White, like Himes, had been members of the Christian Connection and rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Joseph Bates wrote of his views, “Respecting the trinity, I concluded that it was an impossibility for me to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, was also the Almighty God.”3 James White wrote: “Here we might mention the Trinity, which does away [with] the personality of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ.”4 Both Bates and White were anxious to maintain the separate personalities of the Father and the Son. This concern was caused, in part, by the strong spiritualizing influence among Bridegroom Adventists during 1845 and 1846. A similar problem would resurface around the turn of the twentieth century with the de-personalizing of God and J. H. Kellogg’s pantheistic views.5

Though James White rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, he did believe in the three great powers in heaven. This is reflected in his first hymn book.6 Though opposed to the Trinity he did not believe that Christ was inferior to the Father. In 1877 he wrote, “The inexplicable trinity that makes the godhead three in one and one in three, is bad enough; but the ultra Unitarianism that makes Christ inferior to the Father is worse.”7

Not all agreed with James White on the equality of Father and Son. During the 1860s Uriah Smith, long time editor of the Review and Herald, believed that Jesus was “the first created being.”8 By 1881, he had changed to the belief that Jesus was “begotten” and not created.9

A selective list of Adventists who either spoke against the Trinity and/or rejected the eternal deity of Christ include J. B. Frisbie, J. N. Loughborough, R. F. Cottrell, J. N. Andrews, D. M. Canright, J. H. Waggoner, and C. W. Stone.10 W. A. Spicer at one point told A. W. Spalding that his father, after becoming a Seventh-day Adventist (he was formerly a Seventh Day Baptist minister), “grew so offended at the anti-Trinitarian atmosphere in Battle Creek that he ceased preaching.”11

In surveying the writings of various pioneers, certain concerns frequently appear. In rejecting the Trinity, some saw the “orthodox” Christian view as pagan tri-theism. Others argued that the Trinity degraded the personhood of Christ and the Father by blurring the distinction between them. While the early positions on the Trinity and deity of Christ were flawed, there was a sincere attempt to oppose certain legitimate errors.

By about 1890, Adventists had come to a more-or-less harmonious position that viewed Jesus as the “begotten” or originated divine Son of God. He was seen as the divine Creator with the Father. The nature of the Holy Spirit was lightly discussed though He was generally considered to be the omnipresent influence from the Father or the Son rather than a person.

From 1890 to 1900: Emergence of Trinitarian Sentiment

As the 1890’s began, two of the key thinkers on each side of the righteousness by faith/law in Galatians issue agreed on the derived divinity of Jesus. E. J. Waggoner wrote in his 1890 Christ and His Righteousness, “There was a time when Christ proceeded forth and came from God . . . but that time was so far back in the days of eternity that to finite comprehension it was practically without beginning.”12 In 1898 Uriah Smith wrote in Looking Unto Jesus, “God alone is without beginning. At the earliest epoch when a beginning could be,--a period so remote that to finite minds it is essentially eternity,--appeared the Word.”13

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The period after the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference saw a new emphasis on Jesus and the plan of salvation. This naturally led to a consideration of His deity and what it meant for the redemption of humanity. A. T. Jones was among the first (with the significant exception of Ellen White) to suggest that Christ was eternally pre-existent. Jones emphasized Colossians 2:9 and the idea that in Christ was the “fullness of the Godhead bodily.” He also described Christ as “the eternal Word.”14 Though he avoided the word “Trinity,” in 1899 he wrote: “God is one. Jesus Christ is one. The Holy Spirit is one. And these three are one: there is no dissent nor division among them.”15

Ellen White played a prophetic role in confirming the eternal deity of Jesus and the three-person Godhead. As early as 1878, she referred to Jesus as the “eternal Son of God.”16 In Desire of Ages she wrote: “[Christ] announced Himself to be the self-existent One” and “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.”17 She wrote of the Holy Spirit as the “Third Person of the Godhead.”18 Ellen White played an important role in urging the church toward a biblical Trinitarian position. However, for years after the publication of Desire of Ages, the church generally avoided these and other statements. While she never used the term “Trinity” in her published writings, she repeatedly conveyed the concept.

M. L. Andreasen questioned whether Ellen White had actually written some of her statements in Desire of Ages and other books. During 1909, Andreasen spent three months at Elmshaven, California, and was convinced of the accuracy of her published position.19

From 1900 to 1931: Transition and Conflict

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the church remained divided in its position on the deity of Christ. The use of the word “Trinity” in print continued to be avoided. W. W. Prescott and F. M. Wilcox, both editors of the Review and Herald, were key supporters of the full and eternal deity of Jesus. During the 1890s Prescott was slower than Jones to accept the new view. But after 1900, as editor of the Review and Herald, he published articles on the personhood, and eternal nature of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.20 Still Prescott believed that Jesus had a derived existence from God the Father. At the 1919 Bible Conference he presented a series of eight devotionals for the conference titled “The Person of Christ” that expressed this view. Careful discussion at this conference showed that there were varying opinions.21

The early twentieth century saw Adventists and Protestant Fundamentalists battling higher criticism and the “new modernism” growing in Christianity. Liberalism rejected the deity of Jesus and His virgin birth. Adventist articles defending the biblical view began to appear more frequently in church papers. Irrespective of individual differences on details, Adventist ministers pulled into line against dangerous liberal views. Naturally, those who rejected the eternal pre-existence of Christ did not want to speak of His beginning and weaken the argument against higher criticism. Even articles on the Trinity were tolerated.22 The result was an increased appreciation of the full deity of the Son of God.

From 1931 to 1957: Acceptance of the Trinitarian View

F. M. Wilcox was crucial in facilitating the final transition to an accepted Seventh-day Adventist view on the Trinity through his guidance in the 1931 Statement of Fundamental Beliefs and his articles in the Review and Herald.23 Doctrinal summaries were carefully avoided during the first decades of the twentieth century due in part to the conflict on the Trinity. According to L. E. Froom, Wilcox was “respected by all parties for his soundness, integrity, and loyalty to the Advent Faith—and to the Spirit of Prophecy—he, as editor of the Review, did what probably no other man could have done to achieve unity in acceptance.”24 It was not until 1946 that the General Conference Session officially voted a Statement of Fundamental Beliefs.25

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During the 1940s an ever-increasing majority of the church believed in the eternal underived deity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit, yet there were some who held back and even actively resisted the change. These were mainly comprised of a few older ministers and Bible teachers. In 1944 Uriah Smith’s Daniel and the Revelation was revised and his comments on the derived nature of Christ’s divinity were removed.26

In 1957, the book Questions on Doctrine anchored the doctrine of the Trinity or Godhead for Adventists. While the book produced theological conflict in other areas, there was virtually no dissent on the book’s clear teaching of the Trinity.27 The current unambiguous statement on the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs was revised and voted at the 1980 General Conference Session.

The process of adopting the Trinity continued from 1900 to 1950. Key influences in the change were: (1) Repeated published biblical studies on the topic; (2) Ellen White’s clear statements; (3) Adventist response to the attacks of “modern liberalism” on the deity of Christ and his virgin birth; and (4) F. M. Wilcox’s statement of “Fundamental Beliefs” and his Review and Herald editorials.

We may learn several lessons from the history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist church. First, we must acknowledge that the development of Adventist biblical theology has usually been progressive and corrective. This is clearly illustrated in the doctrine of the Trinity. The leading of the Holy Spirit is dynamic and not static. Other doctrinal concepts like the time to begin the Sabbath (1855) and tithing (1878) developed in a similar manner. This development never supposed a paradigm shift that contradicted the clear Biblical teaching of the heavenly sanctuary ministry of Jesus and the prophetic foundation of the Church. Second, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity demonstrates that doctrinal change sometimes requires the passing of a previous generation. For Seventh-day Adventists it took over 50 years for the doctrine of the Trinity to become normative. Third, the gift of prophecy helped the church to have confidence and biblical unity on the Trinity. Ellen White’s unambiguous statements subdued controversy and provided confidence in the transition to our current view. Finally, Adventist theology is always supremely dependent upon Scripture. The Bible tells us that the “path of the just [is] as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”28 Hebrews 2:1 reads: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard.” It was ultimately the Bible that led Seventh-day Adventists to adopt their present position on the Godhead or Trinity.

1Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1853), 77-78.

2Joshua V. Himes, “Christian Connection,” in Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. J. Newton Brown (Brattleboro, VT: Brattleboro Typographic, 1838), 363.

3Joseph Bates, Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist, 1868), 205.

4James White, Review and Herald, December 11, 1855, 85.

5See J. H. Kellogg, The Living Temple (Battle Creek, MI: Good Health, 1903), 26-36, 396-398, 450-460, 484-486.

6Arthur L. White to Hedy Jemison, July 2, 1969; James White, comp., Hymns for God’s Peculiar People (Oswego, NY: Richard Oliphant, 1849), 47.

7James White, Review and Herald, November 29, 1877, 72.

8Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist, 1865), 59.

9Smith, Thoughts, 1881, 74.

10J. B. Frisbie, Review and Herald, March 7, 1854, 50; J. N. Loughborough, Review and Herald, November 5, 1861, 184; R. F. Cottrell, Review and Herald, July 6, 1869, 10-11; [J. N. Andrews], Review and Herald, September 7, 1869, 84; D. M. Canright, Review and Herald, August 29, 1878, 73-74; September 5, 1878, 81-82; September 12, 1878, 89-90; September 19, 1878, 97; J. H. Waggoner, The Atonement (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1884), 164-179; C. W. Stone, The Captain of our Salvation (Battle Creak, MI: n.p., 1886), 15-20.

11A. W. Spalding to H. C. Lacey, June 2, 1947.

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12E. J. Waggoner, Christ and His Righteousness (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1890), 21-22.

13Uriah Smith, Looking Unto Jesus (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1898), 10.

14A. T. Jones, General Conference Bulletin, February 25, 1895, 332; idem, General Conference Bulletin, February 27, 1895, 382.

15A. T. Jones, Review and Herald, January 10, 1899, 24.

16Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, August 8, 1878, 49, 50.

17Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1898), 530.

18White, Desire of Ages, 671.

19M. L. Andreasen, “Testimony of M. L. Andreasen,” October 15, 1953, 3.

20W. W. Prescott, Review and Herald, April 4, 1896, 232; General Conference Committee Minutes for February 15, 1902, cited in Gilbert Valentine, William Warren Prescott (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1982), 351; W. W. Prescott, Review and Herald, September 2, 1902, 4; idem, Review and Herald, September 23, 1902, 6; idem, Review and Herald, December 23, 1902, 4; idem, Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly, first quarter, 1921, 2, 9, 20; idem, The Doctrine of Christ (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1920), 3, 20, 21.

21Donald E. Mansell, “How the 1919 Bible Conference Transcript Was Found,” White Document File, July 6, 1975.

22Stemple White, Canadian Watchman, September 1923, 18; C. P. Bollman, Review and Herald, March 15, 1923, 4; Lyle C. Shepard, Canadian Watchman, September 1927, 12.

23F. M. Wilcox, Review and Herald, March 23, 1944, 2; idem, Review and Herald, January 3, 1945, 5-6.

24L. E. Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1971), 413, 415.

25Robert Olson and Bert Haloviak, “Who Decides What Adventists Believe: A Chronological Survey of Sources, 1844-1977,” February 24, 1977.

26Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing, 1941), 400; idem, The Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing, 1944), 391.

27Questions on Doctrine (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1957), 30, 31, 36.

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