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Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology

by Claude Webster


Significance. Christology has always been the heart and centre of Christianity. From the dusty roads of Palestine when the question was first posed, "Who do people say the Son of man is?" (Matt. 16:13, N.I.V.), past the landmarks of the great ecumenical councils of the church, along the corridors of the Reformation, through the portals of the Aufklärung and on into the scientific age of modern times, Christology has maintained its vital role. Sometimes the questions have been clearly articulated and the problems have been at the centre of the debate, and at other times Christological issues have been submerged and hidden in discussions on soteriology or eschatology or ecclesiology or in involvements with social reform, liberation movements or black theology. And yet whether explicit or implicit, Christology has remained significant for the church.

The first disciples confronted the historical Jesus and in their association accepted Him as 'vere homo'. This did not prevent them from also acknowledging Him as Messiah (John 1:41). Their approach to Jesus was very much 'from below' and they were slow to perceive the full significance of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father. After the resurrection of Christ and especially beyond. Pentecost, the small band of disciples became transformed into the dynamic early church with a burning passion to proclaim the crucified and risen Christ as the Saviour of the world. Now the question of Christ would also be approached 'from above' in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures and the later Pauline and Johannine corpus of the New Testament revelation.

The early Christological controversies of the First few centuries culminating in the pronouncements of Nicea (325 A.D.) and Chalcedon (451 A.D.) are illustrative of the significance of this aspect of dogma. The subsequent development of Christology down through the centuries has often been a re-enactment or enlargement of the basic issues of the earlier period. The fluctuations between the classical formulations of ontological Thomists and scholasticists and the more scientific approaches of the functional Christologists of modern times have been intriguing and have been representative of the whole range of dogmatic development. The church's position on Christology has very often been indicative of its orthodoxy or its heretical tendency. Karl Barth has aptly stated that Christology is the touchstone of theology.1

The purpose of this dissertation will be to seek to discover the significance of Christology in the Seventh-day Adventist movement. What role has it played in the internal life and development of the church? Is Christology at the heart of Adventism or is it an appendage to an eschatological sect? Does the Christology of Adventism stand in the mainstream of historic Christianity or does it lurk in the tributaries of heretical movements? Is Adventism's Christology unified or does it find itself diversified within its own ranks? How vital is Christology in the present internal dialogue and discussion within the church? What relationship is there between the Christology of Adventism and its sense of mission and its soteriological message?

The Problem. Soon after New Testament times the early church began to realize the theological problem of Christ. Against the background of the monotheism of Judaism how should the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father be seen? Did Ebionism and the teaching of Adoptionism have the best answers? To acknowledge only the humanity of Christ and to recognize the impartation of special powers at His baptism when He was adopted by the Father would maintain the uniqueness of God Or did the answer lie in Docetism? Was the humanity of Christ simply a manifestation and an illusion? Perhaps Christ was the one God of the universe masquerading as a human being but in fact only being God. Then again for a period it appeared as if Arianism with its subordinate Christ might have the answer to the problem of Christology. However, the church at Nicea (325 A.D.) took its stand against Arianism and pronounced Christ as 'vere Deus' and 'vere homo'.

Subsequent to Nicea the church was to wrestle with the problem of the relation between God and man in the figure of Jesus Christ. Theologians grappled with the problem and set forth differing solutions. Finally, Chalcedon gave its verdict on the relationship between the two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Can Chalcedon be considered the end of the controversy or is it in some respects only the beginning of a further dialogue?

Limitation. A thorough study of all Christological development within Adventism from 1844 to the present would prove a far greater task than is possible within the scope of this dissertation. The areas of concentration will, therefore, have to be delimited.

Within Adventism there is general acceptance of the pre-existence of Christ as well as His participation in creation. There were variant views on Christ and the Trinity in early Adventism but today there is agreement that Christ is of the same nature and substance as the Father. The question of the eternity of Christ is also a settled issue and Arianism is rejected. We will, therefore, not concentrate on these areas.2

Our special field of concentration will be the incarnation. And even here the virgin birth will not detain us long. In the Incarnation was Jesus Christ truly God? How was His divinity affected by the Incarnation? What of the kenosis? What was the nature of His humanity? What of the doctrine of the two natures in one Person? How did sin affect the humanity of Christ? Is the sinlessness of Christ viewed in sinless or sinful human nature? What of Ebionism and Docetism and is Christ to be viewed 'from above' or 'from below'? The whole question of the nature of Jesus Christ in the Incarnation will demand our attention.

As the person and work of Christ should not be divorced,3  we will seek to discover how Adventism has viewed soteriology in the light of its Christology. And this latter area will be largely confined to Christ's work in His life, death and resurrection.

Methodology. This dissertation is written in the area of dogmatics with special emphasis on apologetics. The Christology of Adventism will be critically analyzed and examined while at the same time viewing it against the background of the Christian church as a whole.

A dissertation of this nature could approach the problem chronologically from 1844 to the present, or thematically, taking important themes in the Christologial field and holding them up to the light of investigation, or the problem could be studied in the light of certain selected Adventist representatives.

In this case we wish to combine these approaches. Firstly, we have selected four writers and theologians or closer scrutiny. They are Ellen G White, Ellet J. Waggoner, Edward Heppenstall and Herbert Douglass. A chapter will be devoted to each one and their Christology will be critically examined. Secondly, the chronological approach will come into play as the first two writers will occupy the latter half of the 19th century and the last two the period from 1950 to 1980. The thematic approach will also be used as we confine the research to limited themes in Christology for each writer.

In this dissertation major emphasis will be given to the presentation of evidence from primary sources. Not only will the major works of the four authors be studied, but hundreds of periodical articles written by these theologians will be used. Pamphlets and other documents, both published and unpublished, will also form a part of the evidence.

The Christology of the four writers will be compared and contrasted and will also be brought into relation with Christological views in the Christian church outside of Adventism. The great church councils of Nicea and Chalcedon will be points of reference but it should be remembered that the ultimate norm to test any Christology must be the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. While some Scriptural references will be used in presenting the Christology of our four representatives, it will not be possible in the scope of this dissertation to critically test these Christologies against this norm. Such a study awaits the attention and research of yet another seeker after truth.

1  Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, London: SCM Press, 1966, p.66:"That is why...Christology is the touchstone of all knowledge of God in the Christian sense, the touchstone of all theology." [back]

2  Evidence will be cited in the first chapter for the above assertions.  [back]

3 See G C Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 1969, pp.101-110; P T Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, 3rd edition, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, p.6; W D Jonker, Christus, die Middelaar, Pretoria: N G Kerkboekhandel, 1977, b1.173 .[back]

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