Adventists & Trinity-
How God Guided His Church!
By Dr Paul Petersen, Field Secretary, South Pacific Division
The Seventh day Adventist Church today is a Trinitarian Church. While not believing everything that has been said about the Trinity throughout history, we have clearly expressed as our fundamental belief that there is "one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons."
Other Christians who read that sentence understand Adventists to be Trinitarians. They may themselves belong to traditions where they express their faith in creeds and with expressions from history. Some of these are unknown to most Adventist, and some of these creeds do not agree with Adventist understanding, but our own statement definitely is perceived as a belief in the Trinity.
To many it is a surprise that a large portion of our pioneers of the 19th century did not hold to this belief. To some it is a worry. Several of our pioneers spoke strongly against the teaching of the Trinity as they understood it. Is it really possible for me as a Seventh-day Adventist today to claim to be the heir to their hope and faith if I do not share their belief on this point?
My answer to this question is a strong affirmation, not just a vague "yes." The development of this doctrine illustrates in my view how God has led the Church, and in reaching our present understanding we build on a fundamental principle laid down by our pioneers. In this article I intend briefly to describe the development of our Adventist understanding from a historical perspective, but let me first highlight that principle.
The Foundation for Doctrine: the Basic Principle and Its Implications
In the late 1880's R. A. Underwood, an associate secretary of the General Conference, wrote a series for Review & Herald entitled "Christ and His Work", the first of the articles published in August 1889. Discussing whether Christ was created and had a beginning in time, Underwood himself seemed to believe that Jesus as the "firstborn" had a beginning. Nevertheless he did not want to be too dogmatic about it, but left it to the readers to come to their own conclusion. To facilitate such conclusion Underwood simply quoted the biblical texts and referred to the best of contemporary scholarly biblical lexicons on the meaning of words like "firstborn."
Underwood would most likely be characterized as a "semi-Arian." Seventh-day Adventists today disagree with his conclusion. Underwood also wanted to base it on detailed study of the Word of God, and with that Adventists today fully agree.
The present Adventist belief in the doctrine of the Trinity is different from what many of the pioneers believed, but it follows the principle they held to be foundational. We are part of a movement. Just as the pioneers we want to build our doctrines on the Bible and the Bible only. What we know about God, we know from his own self-revelation in Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Bible. We have stated that clearly in our fundamental beliefs.
The Bible, not the views of our pioneers, is our authority. They would themselves have been truly horrified if they saw how many today in misperceived loyalty and conservatism use their statements as authoritative and their positions as binding. Just as the pioneers, we believe that we from the Bible are able to receive new light which will not threaten the pillars of our faith, but enhance their significance in light of a deeper understanding of God.
The Concept of the Godhead not One of the Foundational Pillars
No specific view on the Trinity and the Godhead was regarded by the pioneers as one of the foundational pillars of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The fact that we have gained more insight from Scripture and therefore in this area hold a different view indicates that we belong to a movement, but not that we have left the foundation. This conclusion is confirmed by a number of observations. Let me mention some of them.
First, the topic of the Trinity is actually never a major point of discussion in the early Adventist movement. Today, it is possible via computer to gather what seems when viewed in totality an impressive amount of anti-Trinitarian quotes from the period 1844-1888, but when read in their historical context along with all the other issues debated by the pioneers, Trinitarian issues quickly disappear from our radar. During that period, they did not occupy a major place in the minds of the pioneers.
Second, even some of the most open critics of Trinitarian beliefs changed their own position over the years. This holds true for influential leaders like Uriah Smith and James White. Uriah Smith first believed Jesus to be created, but changed his view to think that the Son was "born, but not made." James White who in 1846 spoke harshly about the "the old unscriptural trinitarian creed" in 1876-77 in a comparison of our beliefs with the Seventh-day Baptists stated that "Adventists hold the divinity of Christ so nearly with the trinitarian, that we apprehend no trial [controversy] here." The pioneers themselves moved. Though James White changed position, he did not become a Trinitarian, and the statements about Jesus in his later years fluctuated between equality and subordination.
Third, new members of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in these years came from many different denominations, most of them Trinitarian. These new members were not in general asked to make any changes in their Trinitarian beliefs, and most became members without being challenged in that area. When baptized, they were asked to confess their belief in the Second Coming and the prophecies, the sanctuary, the Sabbath, and the nature of man, but not to confess any specific position for or against the Trinity.
That meant that some members coming from a Trinitarian background continued to believe the Trinity as they understood it at the time. The Danish-American pioneer John Matteson who brought the Advent message to Scandinavia grew up in the Lutheran church. As a teen-ager and young man he sang in the church choir in his local church, confessing through song the Nicene Creed and every Sunday reciting the Apostolic creed with its three parts confessing the belief in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Accordingly, when Ellen White at a later stage responds to the fear that new ideas might overthrow the pillars or landmarks of our beliefs, she speaks in favor of both progressive openness and healthy conservatism, but she very clearly does not include a specific view of the Godhead among the distinctive pillars of our faith.
"The passing of the time in 1844 was a period of great events, opening to our astonished eyes the cleansing of the sanctuary transpiring in heaven, and having decided relation to God's people upon the earth, [also] the first and second angels' messages and the third, unfurling the banner on which was inscribed, "The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." One of the landmarks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the law of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God's law. The non-immortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks."
Our move towards a Trinitarian understanding is thus based on the principle of biblical authority and on openness to new light as arising from the study of Scripture. Furthermore, as Trinitarian we are in my view walking in the footsteps of our pioneers because we continue in the direction they followed in the early period of our Church's journey. This becomes evident when you a look at the development of our understanding.
How God Moved the Church!
How did the change come about? What were the concerns that led the Adventist movement to reflect on various aspects of the Trinity and by close attention to the biblical testimony reach our present position. Let me highlight three episodes in our early history which pointed us that direction.
1. 1844-1855: Battle with "Spiritualizers"
In the years following the great disappointments in 1844, many areas were studied afresh. The pioneers had been kicked out of the Christian communities in which they grew up, and they were naturally skeptical towards established authorities. In their struggle to make biblical sense of their experience the concept of the heavenly sanctuary created a new revolution in thinking, confirming their hope in the Second Coming and opening their eyes for the Sabbath.
One of their major challenges came from the so-called spiritualizers who in their description of God broke down the distinction between the Father and the Son as two different personalities. These people presented the Father and the Son as one and the same person, a so-called modalist position.
Faced with such belief which many of our pioneers mistakenly took to represent the official Trinitarian doctrine of the major churches, James and Ellen White, among others, spoke out. If accepted, this view would have done away with the teaching of the Second Coming as a truly historical event and with the newly found doctrine of a sanctuary in heaven. Led by God our pioneers denounced the modalist heresy and upheld the distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son. Doing so they created the first building block of which our Trinitarian doctrine today is made.
You may well ask how the view that Jesus and the Father are one and the same person, could be perceived as a Trinitarian belief? First, we actually regularly encounter the same misconception among Jehovah's Witnesses today. But secondly, both the period in history and the environment in America in which the Advent pioneers lived were conducive to such ignorance. For centuries theologians had paid little attention to the doctrine of the Trinity. It is only in the last four decades that the issue once again has come to occupy a major place in theological thinking in general. One Australian scholar has labeled these years of neglect "the exile of the Trinity."
2. 1888: Focus on Christ
The following period saw little immediate development in the understanding of the Godhead. The distinction between the Father and Jesus was clearly established, but the exact relation between the two received little treatment. Ellen White would begin to highlight Christ's eternal pre-existence, but many issues engaged the growing church, such as organization, health reform, the move towards world mission, and, of course, events on the world scene as they related to prophetic interpretation.
The Bible Conference in conjunction with the General Conference in Minneapolis in 1888, however, brought Jesus into major focus. Of the two main presenters of the topic of righteousness by faith, not least Waggoner in his description of Jesus repeatedly used expressions taken from the Nicene Creed, such as "born/begotten, not made" and Jesus as "light of light" and "God of God." This was in a sense quite natural as many new members would be familiar with such expressions from the churches they left and had taken their belief with them as they became Adventists. John Matteson, for instance, who established the first non-English speaking Adventist Church, brought the message to Scandinavia, and organized the first non-English speaking Adventist conference, did not hesitate to express the Adventist faith in the context of the Apostolic Creed and claimed that Adventists agreed with Martin Luther in the three articles of faith in his catechism-which would imply a Trinitarian belief.
Underwood's series in Record, therefore, highlights how Adventists now began to discuss how to understand the divinity of Jesus and the true relationship between the Father and the Son, including the meaning of such terms as "firstborn", "born/begotten" etc. Bible studies and discussions would go on for several decades and linger on far into the 20th century.
While never deciding the issue, Ellen White's Christ centered writings were significant in pointing out the direction for our movement. Not least her identification of Jesus with Jahveh/Jehovah, the great "I AM" of the Old Testament, the first and the last, the eternal God, published most widely in the book Desire of Ages in 1898, became an eye opener for many Adventists. In the context of the discussion whether the pre-existence of Jesus was eternal and Jesus was without a beginning, statements like "in Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived" had tremendous impact.
A young minister who would become one of the most influential Adventist theologians of the 20th century, M. L. Andreasen, decided to check for himself whether Ellen White had really herself written words like these. He travelled to California, spent 3 months with Ellen White, and brought a clear message back to the Adventist community in Battle Creek. The expressions were genuine. She wrote words like "underived" with her own pen.
Ellen White's continuous exaltation of Jesus, evident in her early teen-age love for her Savior, strongly expressed in the testimony "The Sufferings of Christ" in 1869, and reaching maturity in her old age in works like the Desire of Ages, helped the growing Adventist movement to realize that only if Jesus is "God essentially, and in the highest sense", "possessing the attributes of God," and being "co-equal with God," atonement is truly possible.
In our study of the biblical texts about the divinity of Jesus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has arrived at the belief in the eternal pre-existence of Jesus and thus clarified the relationship between the Father and the Son. This forms the second major building block of our present Trinitarian doctrine.
It is important to underline that the Church has reached its position by studying the biblical texts. Many argue today against our present doctrine by pointing out that if it were really true, Ellen White should far earlier and far more directly and forcefully have told the brethren! But this line of argumentation is based on a total misunderstanding of the purpose of the spiritual gifts, the gift of prophecy included.
Our beliefs are not built upon Ellen White, but on Scripture and God did not lead her to establish doctrine. Only when studies were made, Ellen White would speak to support or to point in the right direction. This was how other doctrines of our Church were formed. The establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity is no exception. The Bible alone is our foundation for doctrine, and God wants us to do our own Bible study, independent of the gift of prophecy.
3. 1901: Kellogg Crisis and Pantheistic Controversy
At the turn of the century another major battle shook the Adventist movement. The mighty leader of one of the foremost health institutions in the world, the Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Harvey Kellogg, the internationally most famous Seventh-day Adventist, developed views of God based on certain health inspired philosophies rather than on God's self revelation in Jesus.
Inspired by pseudo-scientific views of his time, Kellogg understood God to be like a substance present in all elements of nature. Ellen White saw in his teaching a re-awakening of the heresies rejected during the earlier battle with the "spiritualizers." If Kellogg's views of God became the teaching of the Church, the distinction between the persons of the Godhead would once again disappear.
In comparison with the previous theological struggle, two new aspects had become significant elements of the discussion, the atonement of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White was shown that if God is a substance in everything, he is in me too, and I no longer need Christ as my Savior and the cross for atonement. Further, Kellogg's description not only blurred the distinction between the Father and the Son, it also destroyed the newly won understanding of the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit.
It is against this background that the many references by Ellen White to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person during this period must be seen. Her expressions used about the Holy Spirit are reminiscent of her statements about the distinct personalities of Father and Son.
The oneness existing between the Father and the Son does not affect the distinct personality of each. And though believers are to be one with Christ, their identity and personality are recognized through the whole of this prayer (referring to John 17).
The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, in Christ's name. He personifies Christ, yet is a distinct personality.
The Holy Spirit is a person, for He beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God.. . . . The Holy Spirit has a personality, else He could not bear witness to our spirits and with our spirits that we are the children of God. He must also be a divine person, else He could not search out the secrets which lie hidden in the mind of God. "For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God."
Consequently, the Holy Spirit is to be understood as a distinct person in a manner similar to the distinction upheld between Father and Son. This is the third major building block of the Seventh-day Adventist teaching on the Trinity.
Kellogg tried to save his position by claiming it simply to be Trinitarian. It was not, and no classical Trinitarian would ever be able to accept his views. But his attempt to justify his views by making such claim a clearly showed that the tide was changing. He pretended to believe in the Trinity because he thought that to be the prevailing view of the Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders and Ellen G White, and that his position, therefore, would be met with approval. However, the concept of the Trinity embraced by the Church was based on God's self-revelation in Scripture, not on philosophical speculation.
This is important because the history of the Christian Church all too clearly show the danger if human philosophy or human social structures become the starting point for knowing God. At the time of the early Church, some Christians inherited concepts from pagan philosophy and attempted to define God on that basis. Today, some people presuppose certain structures in human society and impose them upon the Godhead. As Adventist we begin with God's revelation as a person in Christ as the Holy Spirit has portrayed him in Scripture.
Ellen White herself never used the term "trinity", yet her clear and unambiguous support of the threeness of the one God is evident from her numerous references to the three distinct persons of the Godhead. By using the word "three", "third", and "trio", she explicitly and clearly rejected any position which would make the Spirit completely identical with the Father and/or the Son or just an impersonal power or influence. The following brief quotes are representative of her consistent mentioning of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three, not two-or four!
There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-those who receive Christ by living faith are baptized, and these powers will co-operate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.
Our sanctification is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is the fulfilment of the covenant that God has made with those who bind themselves up with Him, to stand with Him, with His Son, and with His Spirit in holy fellowship. Have you been born again? Have you become a new being in Christ Jesus? Then co-operate with the three great powers of heaven who are working in your behalf.
The eternal heavenly dignitaries-God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit- . . . would advance with them to the work and convince the world of sin.
We are to co-operate with the three highest powers in heaven,-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,-and these powers will work through us, making us workers together with God.
While Ellen White did not use the word "Trinity", the term was, however used by other prominent Seventh-day Adventists, such as the editor of Review & Herald, F. Wilcox, who always worked closely with Ellen White, and who in 1913 in a description of the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventists proclaimed that . . . ". . . We shall state that Seventh-day Adventists believe, - In the divine Trinity. This Trinity consists of the eternal Father . . . , of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the eternal Father, . . . , the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead , . . .
The exact implications of that belief have then been the focus of major study and reflection throughout the subsequent almost 100 years. In 1931 the annually published yearbook included a statement of 22 fundamental beliefs, the first of these confessing the Trinity. This statement was voted by the General Conference in session in 1946, and in 1980 a more exact formulation of our Trinitarian understanding was included in the then 27 Fundamental Beliefs.
The journey of the Seventh-day Adventist Church towards a Trinitarian belief in many ways mirrors the experience of the Early Christian Church. We have struggled with pagan based philosophies; we have tried to refrain from claiming more about God than the Bible tells, thus upholding the uniqueness, majesty, and mystery of God. Continuously we seek to describe God on the basis of his self revelation in Jesus as presented by the Spirit in the Scripture. Yet, there are also differences. Though being Trinitarian, the Adventist Church has not bound itself by historical, creedal expressions.
The understanding is growing that to know God is to know the crucified Savior, and that true theology takes the God on Calvary as its starting point. If you want to know who and what God is, you have to look at the person dying on the cross. Our Trinitarian belief further underlines that only because the Holy Spirit has portrayed the crucified through the Bible and comes to our aid when we kneel at the foot of the cross to meditate on the sacrifice of God we are truly able to know God.
Could it even be that this journey of the Adventist movement is a fulfillment of prophecy? As Adventists we have for more than hundred years believed that the final appeal to the world to worship God as Creator and follow the Lamb will focus on Jesus Christ and lift up Calvary. We have called it the "loud cry" with an expression taken from Revelation 18:2, and we have understood that this message will "fill the earth with the glory" of the crucified Savior. Our journey as a people towards a biblical based understanding of the Trinity represents more than anything in history such a renewed focus on the cross.
It is my belief that God Himself has guided our Church in this journey. He helped the pioneers to maintain the distinction between the Father and the Son; He guided us in our study of the Bible to understand the eternal divinity of the Son and his relationship as "co-equal" with the Father; He has helped to better understand the distinct and personal nature of the Holy Spirit and through the Spirit to focus on the cross and the atonement as the basis for our theology. I trust and pray that He will still be leading as we move ahead and continue to learn more about Him.