The Doctrine of the Trinity Among Adventists: A Review

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The Doctrine of the Trinity Among Adventists: A Review

Most Christians believe that God is a Trinity, as do most Seventh-day Adventists. Beyond the fact that it is a mystery how God can be Three in One (as are many other things concerning God), the doctrine has had much support for centuries, though not without significant controversy. Some controversy exists even in our church as people embrace different views, and you may be surprised to learn that disagreement on this doctrine in the Adventist church is as old as the denomination itself.


In “The Doctrine of the Trinity Among Adventists,” Gerhard Pfandl provides a good summary of the historical development on the Trinity in our church, and in this review of his article, I will highlight some of the key points.

RELATED LINK: Unity in the Book of Acts

Arianism in Adventist History

From as early as the 1890s, the Arian or semi-Arian view was embraced by a significant number of SDA pioneers. In short, they believed that God the Father was superior to Jesus, who was created. The power of Jesus was delegated by the Father, and the Holy Spirit was simply the spirit of God the Father. The term Arianism stems from an Alexandrian heresy of the fourth century (whose main advocate was Arius), which held that Jesus was created and was not of the same substance with the Father.

Semi-Arianism accepts the same substance between the Father and Son but still holds to Christ’s subordination. By contrast, Trinitarianism upholds the Godhead as a unity of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) of the same substance, equal in power, and existing since eternity.


Among the prominent pioneers who initially rejected the Trinity were Joseph Bates, James White, J. N. Loughborough, R. F. Cottrell, J. N. Andrews, and Uriah Smith. Bates and White retained an anti-Trinitarians view from the Christian Connection Church from which they emerged. Bates’ own confession in 1868 was that “it was impossible for [him] to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, was also the Almighty God, the Father, one and the same being,”[1] and James White wrote against the doctrine in the Review and Herald in1855. For Loughborough, this doctrine was “contrary to common sense, … contrary to scripture,” and of pagan origin,[2] and Cottrell condemned it for its Catholic roots and its relation to the rice of the papacy.


Moving to the exegetical arguments, J. N. Andrews interpreted “having neither beginning of days” in Hebrews 7:3 as symbolic, since none but the Father were eternal, Jesus Himself having had “at some point in the eternity of the past …a beginning of days.”[3] In 1865 Uriah Smith believed that Christ was “the first created being.”[4] Expressions like “firstborn over all creation”[5] and “only begotten Son”[6] were taken in a literal sense, contributing to the idea that Christ was subordinated to the Father.


Ellen White struggled with this doctrine initially but later put forth some clear statements in favor of the Trinity. In 1897/8, she stated in “Christ the Life-giver” and The Desire of Ages that in Christ “was life, original, unborrowed, underived,”[7] and that Christ was “equal with God, infinite and omnipotent … the eternal self-existing Son.”[8] She recognized that in the “I AM” spoken to Moses, Christ was declaring his self-existence since eternity.[9]


In 1905, during the Kellogg crisis, she wrote:


The Father is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight. The Son is all the fullness of the Godhead manifest…. The Comforter that Christ promised to send after He ascended to heaven, is the Spirit in all the fullness of the Godhead, making manifest the power of divine grace to all who receive and believe in Christ as a personal Savior. 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.[10]


However, no matter how clear Ellen White’s views by 1900 were, the acceptance of the Trinity was bound to take time. A significant step was the distribution in the Adventist church in 1892 of a pamphlet authored by the non-SDA Samuel Spear, entitled “The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity” and upholding the three divine persons (with the Son being eternally subordinated to the Father).


Some leaders, like Uriah Smith (editor of the Review and Herald), held anti-Trinitarian views until his death, and others continued to promote Arian or semi-Arian views. At a 1919 Bible Conference, L. L. Caviness said:


I cannot believe that the two persons of the Godhead are equal, the Father and the Son…I cannot believe the so called Trinitarian doctrine of the three persons always existing.[11]


W.W. Prescott pushed back on this by asking if the deity of Christ was connected to His eternity, and the answers were split, W. T. Knox proposing that His deity was warranted by the fact that He proceeded from the Father. Thus, two decades after White’s statements on Christ’s eternal self-existence, the church still debated it.


Trinitarianism in Adventism


The next stage in settling the controversy arose from a request of African administrators that the church would issue an official statement of Adventist beliefs. Thus was born the first “Statement of Fundamental Beliefs,”, issued in 1931, including 22 points, and being drafted by M. E. Kern, E. R. Palmer, C. H. Watson, F. M. Wilcox. The statements on the Godhead read:


That the Godhead, or Trinity, consists of the Eternal Father, a personal, spiritual Being, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, infinite in wisdom and love; the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, through whom all things were created and through whom the salvation of the redeemed hosts will be accomplished; the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, the great regenerating power in the work of redemption. Matt. 28:19. That Jesus Christ is very God, being of the same nature and essence as the Eternal Father. While retaining His divine nature He took upon Himself the nature of the human family, lived on the earth as a man, exemplified in His life as our Example the principles of righteousness, attested His relationship to God by many mighty miracles, died for our sins on the cross, was raised from the dead, and ascended to the Father where He ever lives to make intercession for us. John 1:1, 14; Heb. 2:9-18; 8:1,2; 4:14-16; 7:25.[12]


A subsequent Statement of Fundamental Beliefs was issued before the 1980 General Conference and included 27 beliefs, among which the following on the Trinity:


There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons. God is immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present. He is infinite and beyond human comprehension, yet known through His self-revelation. He is forever worthy of worship, adoration, and service by the whole creation.[13]


In these fundamental beliefs, Jesus was described as “[f]orever truly God, [who] became also truly man,”[14] and the Holy Spirit was depicted as “God the eternal Spirit” which “was active with the Father and the Son in Creation, incarnation, and redemption.”[15] The statements of fundamental beliefs supported fully, both in 1931 and in 1980, a doctrine of Trinity wherein the Three Persons of the Godhead were equal and self-existing since eternity.


Recent Anti-Trinitarianism


Anti-Trinitarianism has resurfaced in our church recently with publications such as Fred Allaback’s No new leaders … No new Gods!,  Lynnford Beachy’s, Did They Believe in the Trinity, Rachel Cory-Kuehl’s The Persons of God, Allen Stump’s The Foundation of Our Faith, etc. They insisted that the Adventist church had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity but adopted it after Ellen White’s death, and they call for a return to the teachings of the pioneers, relying primarily on historical rather than biblical arguments.


However, historical records indicate that, while initially many pioneers were anti-Trinitarians, they changed their views. Thus, if in 1846 James White described the old Trinitarian creed as “unscriptural,”[16]  in 1876 he stated: “S. D. Adventists hold the divinity of Christ so nearly with the Trinitarians, that we apprehend no trial here.”[17] He also condemned the views that “makes Christ inferior to the Father.”[18] In 1896 W. W. Prescott believed that Christ was born of the Father, in 1919 he declared the following:


[W]e have used terms in that accommodating sense that are not really in harmony with Scriptural teaching. We believed a long time that Christ was a created being, In spite of what the Scripture says. I say this, that passing over the experience I have passed over myself in this matter — this accommodating use of terms which makes the Deity without eternity, is not my conception now of the gospel of Christ. I think it falls short of the whole idea expressed in the Scriptures, and leaves us not with the kind of Savior I believe in now, but a sort of human view — a semi-human being. As I view it, the deity involves eternity. The very expression involves it. You cannot read the Scripture and have the idea of deity without eternity.[19]


Concerning the idea that the Trinitarian views were adopted after Ellen White’s death, Pfandl argues that it simply contradicts historical records, as shown above. A further proof that Ellen White accepted the Trinity is M. L. Andreasen’s reaction:


I remember how astonished we were when Desire of Ages was first published, for it contained some things that we believed were unbelievable; among other things the doctrine of the trinity which was not generally accepted by Adventists then.[20]


When Andreasen had the opportunity to see her manuscript, he wrote:


In her own handwriting I saw the statements which I was sure she had not written — could not have written. Especially was I struck with the now familiar quotation in Desire of Ages, page 530: ‘In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.’ This statement at that time was revolutionary and compelled a complete revision of my former view — and that of the denomination — on the deity of Christ.[21]


RELATED LINK: Why So Much Fuss About the Trinity


As for the claim that the Trinity has pagan (Catholic) origins, again, historical documents show that the Trinity was first adopted at Nicaea in 325 in answer to the Arian crisis. This was an ecumenical, not a Catholic council, and it was formed by 318 bishops of which only 8 came from Rome. Of course, ultimately, the biblical foundation is the strongest argument in favor of this doctrine.



[1] Joseph Bates, Autobiography (Battle Creek, MI: Review & Herald, 1868), p. 205.

[2] Review and Herald, Nov. 5, 1861.

[3] Review and Herald, Sept. 7, 1869.

[4] Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation (Battle Creek, 1865), 59.

[5] Colossians 1:15.

[6] John 3:16.

[7] Quoted in Selected Messages, 1:296. The Desire of Ages, 530.

[8] Manuscript 101, 1897; Manuscript Release, 12:395.

[9] The Desire of Ages, p. 469-470.

[10] Evangelism, 614-615.

[11] 1919 Bible Conference Transcripts, July 6, 1919, 57.

[12] Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, 1931.

[13] Seventh-day Adventists Believe, p. 16.

[14] Ibid., p. 36.

[15] Ibid., p. 58.

[16] The Day-Star, January 21, 1846.

[17] Review and Herald, October 12, 1876.

[18] Ibid., November 29, 1877, p. 72.

[19] 1919 Bible Conference Transcripts, July 6, 1919, p. 62.

[20] Quoted in Russell Holt, “The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination” (Term Paper, Andrews University, 1969), p. 20.

[21] Testimony of M. L. Andreasen, October 15, 1953, DF 961.

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.

  • Phillip Brantley

    Nice essay. The recent history of anti-Trinitarianism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church includes the rise of Eternal Functional Subordinationism, otherwise known as neo-subordinationism, otherwise known as the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity. This heresy was created in 1977 for the purpose of bolstering belief that women are eternally subordinate to men and ushered into Seventh-day Adventist discourse in 1987 for the purpose of bolstering opposition to women’s ordination. Seventh-day Adventist opposition to women’s ordination has been monolithically neo-subordinationist; no Seventh-day Adventist opponent of women’s ordination has ever publicly and unequivocally denounced the heresy. Indeed, many such opponents of women’s ordination are identified in the scholarly Seventh-day Adventist literature as proponents of the heresy, including, ironically enough, Gerhard Pfandl. (He is a signatory of the neo-subordinationist Letter of Appeal, which quarrels with the Seminary’s Statement about Christ being the Head of the Church). But Ted Wilson’s recent comments about the Trinity at Pioneer Memorial Church are encouraging. His comments distance himself from the heresy. He delinks the heresy from male headship and women’s ordination, but that incoherence is understandable because people are complicated and need time to sort things out. He looks like he is about 39 years old, so he still has plenty of time. We can hope that his comments are the beginning of a season of recanting and repenting in our faith community with respect to neo-subordinationism, similar to the recanting and repenting of evangelical and Reformed complementarians with respect to neo-subordinationism that began during the summer of 2016. Let me add just one brief comment about the origins of neo-subordinationism. Yes, the heresy was invented in 1977 and is a small tweak of the teachings of Arius, who hierarchically ordered the immanent Trinity and eternally subordinated the Son to the Father. But the heresy actually goes all the way back to Lucifer. The sin of Lucifer was his subordination of the Son to the Father, done for the purpose of exalting himself. Seventh-day Adventists should be taking the lead in Christian discussions about the Trinity, given our comparative advantage in our understanding of the Great Controversy. We have not lead. We have not been strong defenders of our precious Lord and Savior. That neo-subordinationism could have obtained such a strong foothold in our faith community, culminating in the disgraceful San Antonio vote in 2015 that was informed by the neo-subordinationist argument, is a humiliation we need to rectify and overcome. We will do so, because God is still in control.

    • Adelina Alexe

      Hello, Philip.
      Thank you for reading and commenting on this review, and for unfolding some valuable insights about the connection between neo-subordinationism and women’s ordination. I agree that Wilson’s recent comments during the Q&A at PMC are hopeful and I am curious to see how the church will sort out these interconnected issues. I also appreciate your thoughts on Lucifer as the first Arian, it seems that a case could be made for it… Quite fascinating, if I may say – I haven’t thought of it that way before. Thank you again for sharing!

    • Richard Sheppard

      Hi Phillip,

      Please provide evidence that “Arius … hierarchically ordered the immanent Trinity and eternally subordinated the Son to the Father.” Arius rejected the Trinity by rejecting the consubstantial unity between the Father and the Son (“Arius,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Online. Accessed April 9, 2019).

      You also boldly claim that “[t]he sin of Lucifer was his subordination of the Son to the Father, done for the purpose of exalting himself.” You hereby attribute the work of the Father and the Son to Lucifer in his insubordination against the government of God in heaven. The Father created all things by the Son (Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; cf., John 1:3), not the other way around.

      • Phillip Brantley

        It is common knowledge that Arius was a subordinationist.

        I see from your comment and your other comment above that you are a neo-subordinationist. Neo-subordinationism is fundamentally a denial of the divinity of the Son, irrespective of whether one might expressly state that the Son is divine, eternal, and consubstantial with the Father. [1] If the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then the Son does not possess all of the attributes of divinity that the Father possesses, namely omnipotence and sovereignty. If the Son does not possess all of the attributes of divinity, then the Son is not divine. [2] Neo-subordinationism is also an implicit denial of the Son’s eternality, because only God is eternal, and if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, then the Son is not God and is therefore not eternal. Accordingly, if the immanent Trinity is hierarchically ordered, it most certainly is chronologically ordered. [3] Neo-subordinationism is also a denial of the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father, because neither the Son nor the Father can be dichotomized into essence and function. Such dichotomization is a philosophical parlor trick that does not persuade. Accordingly, if the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in the functional sense, the Son is also eternally subordinate in essence.

        I hope you realize that your bald assertions–that the Son is divine, is eternal, and is consubstantial with the Father–are not credible or persuasive if you adhere to neo-subordinationism, because neo-subordinationism is a denial of these bald assertions. I give no credence to bald assertions when they are denied in this profound way.

        Neo-subordinationism also implies that the Triune God possesses three divided wills. That is Tritheism. It is absurd to suggest that there is subordinationism in the Triune God, a frog, or any other singular entity. There is only one God. Accordingly, as a neo-subordinationist you are necessarily a Tritheist.

        In sum, there is really not a dime’s worth of difference between neo-subordinationism and Arianism (or Semi-Arianism). Arians are just more honest, coherent, and explicit about what they believe. I don’t write all of this to make you feel bad. I just want you to be put on notice about how evil I perceive neo-subordinationism to be. This heresy is the sin of Lucifer and the principal end-time deception of the counterfeit trinity.

        • Richard Sheppard

          You claimed that “Arius … hierarchically ordered the immanent Trinity and eternally subordinated the Son to the Father,” for which you have provided no evidence. Arius rejected the Trinity.

          Contrary to the implication of your assertions (and the extended elaboration), I did not confess neo-subordinationism in my comment on this article or in my reply to yours. Neo-subordinationism is synonymous with the doctrine of Eternal Functional Subordination, which I did not confess. I wrote (in my comment), “There are texts which indicate that the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ did exercise subordination to the Father’s will in the creation of the universe (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; cf., Patriarchs and Prophets, 36).” Emphasis added.

          • Phillip Brantley

            I’m sorry, but if you believe that the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ exercised subordination to the Father’s will in the creation of the universe, then you are a neo-subordinationist, an adherent of Eternal Functional Subordinationism.

            If your rhetorical point in your first paragraph is that hierarchically ordering the immanent Trinity and eternally subordinating the Son to the Father is fundamentally a rejection of the Trinity, I agree. If your rhetorical point is that Arius could not have hierarchically ordered the immanent Trinity and eternally subordinated the Son to the Father because he rejected the Trinity, that’s slippery nonsense. It is common knowledge that Arius did all of this. I recommend this nice tutorial written by Kevin Giles:

          • Richard Sheppard

            Thank you for recommending me that article.

            I don’t understand how you could assert that I believe in Eternal Functional Subordination on the basis of (a) post(s) in which I asserted nothing about the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.

  • Richard Sheppard

    Thank you for the article. It is very historically insightful. I do want to make a critique, however. In the fourth paragraph of your article, you state the following:

    Semi-Arianism accepts the same substance between the Father and Son but still holds to Christ’s subordination.

    According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Semi-Arianism “modified the extreme position of Arianism, [while] it still fell short of the church’s orthodox teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same substance. … Semi-Arians … admitted that the Son is ‘of similar substance’ (homoiousios) with the Father but not of one substance (homoousios) with him” (“Semi-Arianism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Online. Accessed April 9, 2019). Emphasis added. (I think that Seventh-day Adventist scholars, as a rule, put to little emphasis on the consubstantial nature of the Trinity. The consubstantial nature of the Trinity is a defence against tritheism. Tritheism teaches three (separate and distinct) gods; trinitarians believe in one eternal God, existing eternally as three distinct persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19; I John 5:7, K.J.V.].)

    There are texts which indicate that the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ did exercise subordination to the Father’s will in the creation of the universe (John 1:3, 10; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; cf. Patriarchs and Prophets, 36). Yet this does not deny the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures that Jesus Christ is eternal God, consubstantial with the Father (John 1:1-3; 10:30; Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 1:8-12). These two beliefs together are not Semi-Arian.

  • This is a very nice article, well done by Adelina. Whenever we study theological issues that historically have generated differences of opinion among scholars and astute laity, it is perhaps wise to remember the words of King Solomon as recorded in Holy Writ: “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him” (Proverbs 18:17 NIV).

    If pastor Arius of Alexandria was alive today, I wonder what questions he would ask that may perhaps impress upon us a somewhat different perspective on the biblical Trinity than the traditional view as defined by the Athanasian Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith? Is it possible that Arius presented biblical truth in some of his arguments, but in other arguments he presented error? Do we as mere mortals have a grasp of all the truth there is to know pertaining to the Godhead? Or is there still more to learn?