(History of Seventh-day Adventist Views on the Trinity) con’t…
During the first decades of the twentieth century, Adventists found themselves battling higher criticism and the “new modernism” growing in Christianity. Protestant Fundamentalists were resisting this trend, and Adventists often found themselves battling side by side with them against teaching evolution in public schools and against liberal efforts to undermine the authority of the Bible. Modern liberalism rejected the deity of Jesus and his virgin birth. As a result, Adventist articles defending the deity of Christ began to appear in church papers on a more frequent basis. Irrespective of individual differences on details, Adventist ministers pulled into line against dangerous liberal views.
The natural result was an increased appreciation of the full deity of the Son of God as the teaching came under attack. Quite understandably, even those who rejected the eternal pre-existence of Christ did not want to speak of His beginning and thus weaken their argument against higher criticism. Even articles on the Trinity were tolerated. The resistance against the use of the term seemed to weaken as the battle against liberalism continued.48
1931 Statement of Faith. Throughout their history, Adventists have refused to adopt any creed but the Bible. They have realized that an understanding of truth is never complete. At various times, though, summary statements of faith have been published. But until the 1946 General Conference session, these were never intended to be the official position of the church.49
Curiously, doctrinal summaries were consistently avoided during the first decades of the twentieth century, at a time when they were most needed by a rapidly growing world church. L. E. Froom wrote, “Certain of these historic variances of view [on Christ’s eternal pre -existence] still persisted. And chiefly because of these differences, no Statement of Faith or Fundamental Belief had appeared in the annual Yearbook.”50 This changed in 1931, when an “unofficial” statement of “Fundamental Beliefs” was included in the Advenist (sic) Year Book. F. M. Wilcox was the person principally responsible for the statement. He 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.”51
The second and third statements of Fundamental Beliefs in 1931 made significant progress toward the Church’s present view but were carefully crafted to leave ambiguities. They read thus:
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; 7:25.52
These statements left certain details undefined. While the Father was “eternal,” Jesus was the “Son of the Eternal Father.” A specific statement of belief about the Holy Spirit was omitted, though He was referred to as the “third person of the Godhead.” The theologically loaded couplet “very God” made Christ and the Father equally self-existent and eternal, but the vocabulary was couched in theological terms not generally understood by Adventists and functionally left room for interpretation.53 The portion of the 1931 statement of “Fundamental Beliefs” referring to the Godhead and person of Christ was reprinted unchanged in the Year Book until the 1980 General Conference Session revision and expansion of Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs.54
From 1931 to 1957: Acceptance of the Trinitarian View
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. This group was mainly comprised of a few older ministers and Bible teachers. Among the more vocal were J. S. Washburn, C. S. Longacre, and W. R. French.
In 1944 Wilcox wrote in an editorial, “When we come to the study of the Scriptures we find that Christ is the great dominating figure. The infinite Son of the infinite Father is very God in His own right. He is the great ‘I Am’ existing from everlasting to everlasting.”55 In this simple but clear statement, Wilcox presented to his readers that Christ was both eternal and intrinsically divine like the Father. Wilcox did not depend upon his own opinions in promoting his view. He made it a point to use the Bible as authority for his position and quoted from statements by Ellen White. His January 3, 1945, editorial entitled “The Eternity of Christ” is largely a collection of Bible and Ellen White quotes. 56 Wilcox’s articles encouraged Adventists to embrace the “orthodox” Christian view of the Trinity and Christ’s deity.
The residual tension regarding the Trinity and eternal deity of Christ is revealed in the differences between the official church hymnal of 1941 and the 1985 Hymnal. There were omissions and changes in the original hymns in the 1941 Church Hymnal that were corrected in 1985. At the same time, certain language that included controversial thought was included. In the 1941 hymnal the familiar hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (number 73) only had three verses. The fourth and last verse, which ends with, “God in three persons, blessed trinity,” was omitted.57 The verse was restored in the current Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, published in 1985.58 Other hymns as well were modified in the 1941 hymn to omit Trinitarian ideas but were restored to their original form or adjusted to include Trinitarian language in 1985 .59 Examples from the 1941 hymnal that preserved controversial language include “Praise Ye the Father” (number 9), which ends with the words “Praise ye the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Praise the Eternal Three!” Also the first verse of hymn number 366, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” includes the phrase, “Through His eternal Son.”60
For many, Uriah Smith’s Daniel and the Revelation held a nearly inspired status. His book had been read and studied by nearly every Adventist for over sixty years. In Smith’s discussion of the seventh church in Revelation 3, he made the following comment: “The Son came into existence in a different manner, as he is called ‘the only begotten’ of the Father. It would seem utterly inappropriate to apply this expression to any being created in the ordinary sense of that term.”61 This statement was removed in the 1944 edition. 62 Naturally, some were unhappy that Daniel and the Revelation had been tampered with.
Consideration of the final resolution of the Trinity doctrine cannot be completed without mentioning the role of the book Questions on Doctrine. It anchored the doctrine of the Trinity or Godhead.63 Questions on Doctrine affected Adventist theology in several ways. A further study of this is beyond the scope of this paper. But it must be noted that while the book produced conflict in other areas, there was virtually no dissent on the book’s clear teaching of the Trinity.
The book affirmed:
As to Christ’s place in the Godhead, we believe Him to be the second person of the heavenly Trinity —comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who are united not only in the Godhead but in the provisions of redemption. . . . Christ is one with the Eternal Father—one in nature, equal in power and authority, God in the highest sense, eternal and self-existent, with life original, unborrowed, underived; and that Christ existed from all eternity, distinct from, but united with, the Father, possessing the same glory, and all the divine attributes. 64
The lack of negative response to the book’s clear defense of the Trinity demonstrates that the church at large had accepted what had previously been known as the “new view.”
From 1900 to the 1950s the church gradually shifted to the Biblical Christian view on the trinity and deity of Christ. This change seems to be due to a collection of influences: (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.
So what can we learn 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, such as the time to begin the Sabbath (1855), the Great Controversy theme (1858), and tithing (1878) developed in a similar manner.
Second, the development of the Trinity doctrine demonstrates that sometimes doctrinal changes require the passing of a previous generation. For Seventh-day Adventists, it took over 50 years for the doctrine of the Trinity to become normative.
Finally, Adventist theology is always supremely dependant upon Scripture. It is always necessary to engage in careful Bible study. Adventist doctrinal beliefs were built on a biblical foundation during the Millerite movement, during the formative period of Sabbatarian Adventism after 1844, and continuing down to the present.
Merlin D. Burt teaches Church History at the S.D.A. Theological Seminary and is Director of the Center for Adventist Research and the Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office, Andrews University. He holds a Ph.D. in Adventist Studies from Andrews University. firstname.lastname@example.org
16 J. H. Waggoner, The Atonement: An Examination of the Remedial System in the Light of Nature and Revelation (Oakland: Pacific Press, 1884),164–179.
17 A. W. Spalding to H. C. Lacey, June 2, 1947.
18 A. T. Jones, “The Third Angel’s Message Number 17,” General Conference Bulletin, February 25, 1895, 332.
19 A. T. Jones, “The Third Angel’s Message Number 20,” General Conference Bulletin, February 27, 1895, 382.
20 A. T. Jones, editorial, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 10, 1899, 24.
21 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Washington: Review and Herald, 1898), 530. Ellen White drew the wording of this statement from John Cumming, Sabbath Evening Readings on the New Testament: St. John (London: Arthur Hall, Virtue & Co., 1857), 6.
22 Ibid., 671.
23 Tim Poirier, “Ellen White’s Trinitarian Statements: What Did She Actually Write?” paper read at “Ellen White and Current Issues” Symposium, April 3, 2006, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
24 Ellen G. White, “An Appeal to Ministers,” Review and Herald, August 8, 1878, 49, 50.
25 Ellen G. White, “Search the Scriptures, John 5:39,” Youth’s Instructor, August 31, 1887, 165.
26 Ellen G. White, “The True Sheep Respond to the Voice of the Shepherd,” Signs of the Times, November 27, 1893, 54.
27 Ellen G. White, “The True High Priest,” Manuscript 101, 1897, 9.
28 Ellen G. White, “Resistance to Light, No. 3,” Signs of the Times, August 29, 1900, 2–3.
29 Ellen G. White, “The Word Made Flesh,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 5, 1906, 8.
30 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church Containing Messages of Warning and Instruction to Seventh-day Adventists Regarding the Dangers Connected with the Medical Work, Series B. No. 7 (Published for the Author, n.p., n.d.), 62–63.
31 General Conference Committee Minutes for February 15, 1902. Cited in Gilbert Murrey Valentine, William Warren Prescott: Seventh -day Adventist Educator (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1982), 351.
32W.W. Prescott, “Studies in the Gospel Message,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 2, 1902, 4; idem, “Our Place as Sons,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 23, 1902, 6; idem, “The Eternal Purpose,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 23, 1902, 4.
33 [W. W. Prescott], Our Personal Saviour Jesus Christ,” Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly, first quarter, 1921, 2, 9, 20; idem, The Doctrine of Christ: A Series of Bible Studies for Use in Colleges and Seminaries (Washington: Review and Herald, 1920), 3, 20, 21.
34 W. W. Prescott, “The Christ for Today,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 4, 1896, 232.
35 Donald E. Mansell, “How the 1919 Bible Conference Transcript Was Found,” Unpublished Paper, Ellen G. White Estate Document File, July 6, 1975.
36 1919 Bible Conference transcript, July 2, 1919, afternoon discussions, 20.
37 Ibid., 19.
38 Ibid., 27.
39 Ibid., 30.
40 Ibid., July 6, 1919, 57.
41 Ibid., 58.
42 Ibid., 67.
43 Ibid., 68.
44 Ibid., 69.
45 W. W. Prescott, The Doctrine of Christ: A Series of Bible Studies for Use in Colleges and Seminaries (Washington: Review and Herald, 1920), 20, 21.
46 M. C. Wilcox, “Sermon,” General Conference Bulletin, April 22, 1901, 400; “Topical Bible Studies,” Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly, first quarter, 1918, 3; G. B. Starr, Bible Studies: A Series of Illustrated Readings (Melbourne: Signs Publishing, n.d.), 7.
47 O. A. Johnson, Bible Text-Book (Battle Creek: Review and Herald, 1900), 23, 41, 71; idem, Bible Doctrines: Containing 150 Lessons on Creation, Government of God, Rebellion in Heaven, Fall of Man, Redemption, Prophecies, Millennium, End of Sinners and Satan, Paradise Restored, etc., etc., 4th rev. ed., (College Place: n.p., 1917), 34. The 1921, 5 th rev. ed. has the same statements; S. N. Haskell, Bible Handbook (South Lancaster: Bible Training School, 1919), 3; idem, The Cross and Its Shadow (South Lancaster: Bible Training School, 1914), 75.
48 Stemple White, “What is Meant by the Trinity,” Canadian Watchman, September 1923, 18; C. P. Bollman, “The Deity of Christ,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 15, 1923, 4; Lyle C. Shepard, “Christ: A Divine or a Human Saviour?” Canadian Watchman, September 1927, 12.
49 Robert Olson and Bert Haloviak, “Who Decides What Adventists Believe: A Chronological Survey of Sources, 1844–1977,” Ellen G. White Estate Shelf Document, February 24, 1977. The 1946 General Conference session required any changes in the “Fundamental Beliefs” statement to be approved by a General Conference session.
50 L. E. Froom, 23 (Washington: Review and Herald, 1971), 413.
51 Ibid., 415.
52 1931 Year Book of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination, Prepared by H. E. Rogers (Washington: Review and Herald, 1931), 377.
53 T. M. French’s use of the term “very God” in the 1936 Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly. (sic)
54 “Session Actions,” Adventist Review, May 1, 1980, 23–27.
55 F. M. Wilcox, “Christ as Creator and Redeemer,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 23, 1944, 2.
56 F. M. Wilcox, “The Eternity of Christ,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 3, 1945, 5–6.
57 The Church Hymnal (Washington: Review and Herald, 1941), 59.
58 Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Washington: Review and Herald, 1985), 73.
59 The Church Hymnal, 1941, 10, 63, 487,
60 Ibid., 16,286.
61 Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation: The Response of History to the Voice of Prophecy (Nashville: Southern Publishing, 1941), 400.
62 Uriah Smith, The Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation (Nashville: Southern Publishing, 1944), 391.
63 Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington: Review and Herald, 1957), 30, 31, 36.
64 Ibid., 36.
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Copyright © 2006 by Merlin D. Burt.