At Issue Index   Webster Index  Previous  Next

Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology

by Claude Webster


III. Ellen White's Christology

The material forming the substance of Ellen White's Christology lies scattered throughout her writings. It is our task to discover the dominant themes and tendencies in her thought. Is there any progression in her Christological views from the earliest times to her mature years? Is there general harmony in her ideas or is there contradiction in the mass of material? Does she approach Christology 'from above' or 'from below'? Would she find herself comfortable in the ontological, the functional or some other classification of Christology?

Because the main focus of this dissertation is on the Incarnation it was felt best to concentrate on this area of Christology in our description of Ellen White's position. This in itself is a broad field and offers much scope for the student of Ellen White. After careful research and analysis it was decided to present three sections on the Incarnation, namely, Incarnation and Nature, Incarnation and Sin and Incarnation and Grace. The first will deal with the Person of Christ, the second with the relationship between Christ and sin and the third with the work of Christ. To give perspective we will present Ellen White's views of the pre-existence of Christ before we tackle the Incarnation and then will close with a picture of Christ in the future. Let us commence with her views regarding Christ's preexistence.

A. The Pre-existence of Christ

Ellen White always professed the pre-existence of Christ and in her later writings came out clearly in support of the eternity of Christ and His equality with the Father in nature and essence. Note her declaration in 189215 on the essential equality of Christ with the Father in His pre-existent state: "The only way in which the fallen race could be restored was through the gift of His Son, equal with Himself, possessing the attributes of God."16 To actually possess the attributes of God would place Christ on an essential equality with the Father. In 1897 Ellen White said of Christ: "He is the eternal self-existent Son."17 Here she is clear that Christ had no beginning but is eternal. In her book, The Desire of Ages, written in 1898, she states on His eternity: "From the days of eternity the Lord Jesus Christ was one with the Father; He was 'the image of God', the image of His greatness and majesty, 'the outshining of His glory.?"18 In a very important article in the Review and Herald in 1906 these concepts regarding the pre-existence, the eternity and the equality of Christ with the Father were penned:

"But while God's Word speaks of the humanity of Christ when upon this earth, it also speaks decidedly regarding His pre-existence. The Word existed as a divine being, even as the eternal Son of God, in union and oneness with His Father. From everlasting He was the Mediator of the covenant,...Christ was God essentially, and in the highest sense. He was with God from all eternity, God over all, blessed forevermore."19

We now wish to look back and note chronologically whether there was any development in the clarity of thought and expression in Ellen White regarding the equality of Christ with the Father and the question of His eternity in His pre-existent state. In order to examine the evidence, we will compare comparative sections in the three books, Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1 (1858), Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 1 (1870) and Patriarchs and Prophets (1890).

The first chapter in Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1 entitled "The Fall of Satan" is foundational. The first chapter in Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 1 has the same title and amplifies the chapter in Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1. The first chapter in Patriarchs and Prophets entitled "Why Was Sin Permitted?" is a further amplification of the first chapter in the two earlier works.

We first quote from Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1 (1858):

"The Lord has shown me that Satan was once an honored angel in heaven, next to Jesus Christ ..And I saw that when God said to his Son, Let us make man in our image, Satan was jealous of Jesus. He wished to be consulted concerning the formation of man...He wished to be the highest in heaven, next to God, and receive the highest honors... Satan was insinuating against the government of God, ambitious to exalt himself, and unwilling to submit to the authority of Jesus. Some of the angels sympathized with Satan in his rebellion, and others strongly contended for the honor and wisdom of God in giving authority to his Son...Satan and his affected ones...wished to look into his unsearchable wisdom to ascertain his purpose in exalting Jesus, and endowing him with such unlimited power and command. They rebelled against the authority of the Son of God,..."20

In the first sentence above it would almost appear as if there is a graded position between God the Father, Jesus Christ and the angels. That Ellen White did not mean by this that Jesus Christ was an angel is made clear in chapter III, "The Plan of Salvation" of the same book: "The angels prostrated themselves before him. They offered their lives. Jesus said to them that he should by his death save many; that the life of an angel could not pay the debt. His life alone could be accepted of his Father as a ransom for man."21

In the remainder of the passage in Spiritual Gifts the suggestion is made that the Father gave authority to His Son, exalted Him and endowed Him with unlimited power and command. This is, of course, in connection with the coming creation of man but it does sound as if the position of Christ was in doubt and as if God the Father bestowed the authority on Christ which was not His inherently. It sounds in this passage as if the Son is subordinate to the Father.

We move on to the comparative section as it appeared in The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 1, of 1870:

"Satan in Heaven, before his rebellion, was a high and exalted angel, next in honor to God's dear Son...He [Christ] was one with the Father before the angels were created. Satan was envious of Christ, and gradually assumed command which devolved on Christ alone. The great Creator assembled the heavenly host, that he might in the presence of all the angels confer special honor upon His Son...The Father then made known that it was ordained by himself that Christ, his Son, should be equal with himself; so that wherever was the presence of his Son, it was as his own presence. The word of the Son was to be obeyed as readily as the word of the Father. His Son he had invested with authority to command the heavenly host...Satan was envious and jealous of Jesus Christ...But Christ was acknowledged sovereign of Heaven, his power and authority to be the same as that of God himself...They [Satan and his sympathizers were discontented and unhappy because they could not look into his [God's] unsearchable wisdom and ascertain his purposes in exalting his Son Jesus, and endowing him with such unlimited power and command. They rebelled against the authority of the Son...They [loyal angels] justified the act of God in conferring honor upon Jesus Christ....They clearly set forth that Jesus was the Son of God, existing with him before the angels were created; and that he had ever stood at the right hand of God,...22

The above is similar in sentiment but more expansive than the 1858 presentation. Once again there is the jealousy on the part of Satan over the exaltation and endowment of Jesus Christ and the conferring of honor upon Him. There is the additional thought in the 1870 material on the oneness of Christ with the Father and their equality. Note, "He [Christ] was one with the Father before the angels were was ordained by himself that Christ, his Son, should be equal with himself."23 The unity of the Father and the Son is stated, a unity which reaches back before the creation of the angels. Christ is declared to be the Son of God existing before the angelic creation and that he had ever stood at the right hand of God. However, it is not clear whether this unity is an eternal one or whether the equality of Christ with the Father is a delegated equality or an inherent one of nature. It must also be said that the passage of 1870 sounds clearer than the one of 1858, indicating that the unity of the Son and the Father had been of long standing and the special exaltation and endowment of Christ was a special act in view of the participation of Christ in the creation of man.

We now finally look at Patriarchs and Prophets, written in 1890, and compare the section covering the same ground as in the previous two works:

"Christ, the Word, the only begotten of God, was one with the eternal Father - one in nature, in character, in purpose - the only being that could enter into all the counsels and purposes of God. 'His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, The Prince of peace'...The Father wrought by his Son in the creation of all heavenly beings...Sin originated with him, who, next to Christ, had been most honored of God, and was highest in power and glory among the inhabitants of heaven...And coveting the glory with which the infinite Father had invested his Son, this prince of angels aspired to power that was the prerogative of Christ alone ...Lucifer allowed his jealousy of Christ to prevail, and became the more determined...The King of the universe summoned the heavenly hosts before him, that in their presence he might set forth the true position of his Son, and show the relation he sustained to all created beings. The Son of God shared the Father's throne, and the glory of the eternal, self-existent One encircled both...The exaltation of the Son of God as equal with the Father was represented as an injustice to Lucifer...There had been no change in the position or authority of Christ. Lucifer's envy and misrepresentation, and his claims to equality with Christ, had made necessary a statement of the true position of the Son of God; but this had been the same from the beginning". 24

Here there is still further progression of thought in stating that Christ's equality with the Father is one of nature as well as character and purpose. The glory of the eternal, self-existent One encircles both the Father and the Son. Here it is clearly indicated that Christ's equality with the Father had ever been such, but that Satan's jealousy over Christ concerning his participation in the creation of man had made a declaration of the position necessary.

This writer submits that in comparing these three works over the period 1858 to 1890 there is a progressive clarity in enunciating the Christology of Ellen White with relation to the nature and person of the pre-existent Christ. We would suggest that what we are dealing with here is not contradiction. The earlier work did contain the germinal thought which was expanded and refined through the years. While never clearly adopting an Arian position, Ellen White was surrounded with some Adventist leaders who thought in this line and she, no doubt, worked in the theological milieu of her time. It is quite remarkable that while a form of semi-Arianism was evident in Adventism up to the end of the 19th century that Ellen White was able to avoid the pitfall.25 No doubt her own thinking and understanding of the subject also grew and hence her language and expression became clearer.26

It is important to note that well before the appearance of Patriarchs and Prophets in 1890,Ellen White was already using terms such as 'eternal' and 'everlasting' in relation to Christ. In 1878 she contrasts the unworthiness, weakness and inefficiency of man with 'the eternal Son of God'.27 In 1881 when she described the price Christ paid on Calvary, she says: "His throne is from everlasting, and his kingdom shall have no end."28 It is helpful to remember Ellen White's ascription of Christ as eternal and everlasting in 1878 and 1881 in giving consideration to the previously from Patriarchs and Prophets it simply states the position of Christ same from the beginning.29

It is also of interest to note that Ellen White said in 1874 that the sentence of death would be borne by a substitute of greater value than the law of God: 'But a plan was devised that the sentence of death should rest upon a substitute of superior value to the law of God.'30 To many Christians this statement might appear banal but it should be remembered that for Seventh-day Adventist who place such emphasis on the moral law of God as the standard of righteousness and as a transcript of the character of God, the statement is significant for the person of Christ.

After 1890 Ellen White's thoughts on the eternity and the equality of the Son with the Father in Christ's pre-existent state are clearly and forcefully enunciated. Could it be that the Minneapolis Conference of 1888 sharpened her focus on the greater need to enunciate her Christology with greater clarity for the benefit of the church? Her writings after 1890 become a gold-mine of Christological truth.31   


15 While we commence here with a declaration in 1892 please note that in the ensuing discussion (pp.67-74) we devote attention to Ellen White's position on Christ relative to the Father in her earlier period. [back]

16 E. G. White, "Imperative Necessity of Searching for Truth," Review and Herald, November 8, 1892. See also Review and Herald, April 5, 1906; and The Great Controversy, p.493: "Christ...was one with the eternal Father, - one in nature, in character, and in purpose." The reader will notice that certain words of Ellen White are underlined for emphasis. This is my own emphasis and will be occurring throughout this chapter. If at any point the emphasis is Ellen White's own this will be stated. [back]

17 E. G. White, Manuscript 101, 1897 (Cited in Evangelism, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1946, p.615). For further references on Ellen White's view of Christ's eternity see Questions on Doctrine, pp.644,645. Here twelve references are given. [back]

18 E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898, p.19. [back]

19 E. G. White, "The Word Made Flesh," Review and Herald, April 5, 1906 (Cited in Questions on Doctrine, pp.645,642). [back]

20 E. G. White, Spiritual Gifts, The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels, and Satan and His Angels, Vol. 1, Battle Creek, Michigan: Published by James White, 1858, pp.17,18. [back]

21  Ibid., p.24. Here Ellen White clearly differentiates between the Son of God and the angels. Evidently, her intention is to convey the thought that angels are part of creation and hence their lives would be insufficient for the atonement. She is implying that Christ's life stood apart from creation. [back]

22 E. G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels and Satan and His Angels, Vol. 1, Battle Creek, Michigan: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1870, pp.17,18,19.[back]

23  Ibid., p.17. [back]

24 E. G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, the Conflict of the Ages Illustrated in the Lives of Holy Men of Old, Mountain View California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1980, pp. 34-38. [back]

25 Leroy E. Froom has given evidence of some Arian and semi-Arian views in early Adventism (see Movement of Destiny, revised edition, 1978, pp.148-187) Erwin Roy Gane believes that these views were strong and more pervasive than Froom would suggest (see his thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Michigan, U S A, entitled, The Arian or Anti-Trinitarian Views Presented in Seventh-day Adventist Literature and the Ellen G White Answer, 1963). While Gane comes out in strong support of Ellen White's anti-Arian views against this background it should be noted that his evidence is taken mainly from the period 1890 and beyond (see Ibid., pp.67-101). Gane has also compared Ellen White's presentation of Christ in The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 1 (1870) with that in Patriarchs and Prophets (1890) as we have done in this dissertation. But it should be noted that Gane overlooked the germinal statement of 1858 in Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1. [back]

26 We wish to take up this question of theological growth in Ellen White's thinking in the evaluation. [back]

27 E G White, Review and Herald, August 8, 1878. It should be noted that in future many references will be made to Ellen White statements in periodicals such as the Review and Herald, Signs of the Times or Youth's Instructor. The name of the article will not always be given. Standard Adventist procedure is to quote the periodical and the issue by year, month and day. As Ellen White usually only had one article in each issue it is easy to locate the statement or thought. In the bibliography the full title of articles and the page numbers in the relevant periodical will be given. [back]

28 E. G. White, Review and Herald, August 2, 1881. See also Ibid., October 27, 1885: "Jesus laid aside his robes of royalty, stepped down from his eternal throne..." See similar thought in Ibid., December 1, 1885. [back]

29 A significant title which Ellen White applies to Christ in His pre-existence as well as during His Incarnation is 'Majesty of heaven.' It appears to be used first in the Review and Herald, December 17, 1872. In the periodicals of the Review and Herald alone it is used over 80 times up to 1915. Some selected references to this usage are: Review and Herald, February 24, 1874; December 6,1881; May 26,1885; February 18, 1890; January 21, 1909; April 13, 1911. There is a consistent use of this title over a span of many years. This is an indication of the importance of the person of Christ for Ellen White. [back]

30 E. G. White, Review and Herald, March 3, 1874. See also Ibid., January 9, 1883: "Christ alone was free from the claims of the law to undertake the redemption of the sinful race. He had power to lay down His life and to take it up again." [back]

31 This can be established by a critical examination of the following books written by Ellen White after this date: 1890 Patriarchs and Prophets; 1892 Gospel Workers; 1892 Steps to Christ; 1896 Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing; 1898 The Desire of Ages; 1900 Christ's Object Lessons; 1900-1909 Testimonies, Vols. 6,7,8,9; 1903 Education; 1905 The Ministry of Healing; 1911 The Acts of the Apostles; 1913 Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students; 1915 Gospel Workers (new edition); 1917 Prophets and Kings. [back]

At Issue Index   Webster Index   Previous  Next