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.

______

Notes.

[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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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.