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Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology

by Claude Webster


III. A Reflection on the Overall Christology of our Four Theologians with a View to the Challenge of the Future

In this section we will firstly attempt to simply categorize the overall Christology of each representative in terms of the five basic types set forth in the first chapter. Secondly, we will attempt to reflect on the overall strengths and weaknesses of the theologians we have dealt with, thus exposing some of the challenges which have emerged.

A. Christologies Classified

In our first chapter we classified Christology into five different categories, namely, ontological, speculative, 'history of Jesus', existential and functional Christologies. The question may well be asked as to how we see our four Adventist representatives in this regard. We would suggest that as far as Ellen White and Edward Heppenstall are concerned, they would best fit into the category of ontological Christology. And then in the ontological camp both of these theologians would find themselves amongst those approaching their Christology 'from above'. We have seen that this approach does not mean a lessening of the reality of the humanity of Jesus Christ.

While Waggoner initially would have fitted comfortably into the ontological camp, we suggest that in his later years he gradually shifted into a speculative school of Christology where the emphasis on a blending of the infinite and the finite is more pronounced. As far as Herbert Douglass is concerned, we raise the question as to whether his Christological emphasis is not more characteristic of the functional Christologists than of the ontological school. Douglass' aversion to the Chalcedonian language of 'nature' and 'substance' seems to support this suggestion.

B. A Reflection on Overall Strengths and Weaknesses

We have previously evaluated each author's Christology in depth. We have also suggested underlying motivations which appear to undergird each Christology and we have summarized and compared the central features of their thought. What remains is to attempt to reflect on the overall thrust of their Christologies, assessing those features which are most illuminating and promising for the future of Adventist Christology, and isolating those elements which best should be avoided.

1. Richness Without Ambiguity

The one overriding impression gained from the analysis of Ellen White's Christology is the great freedom in which she brings together different metaphors, thought-forms and models in presenting the person and work of Christ, sometimes even within the same passage. This approach ensures a richer perspective and safeguards against the absolutising of any single way of expressing the complex meaning of the person and work of Christ. This is no small contribution in the light of the tendency to become one-sided in the approach to Christology. Now, as is so often the case, in this very strength of Ellen White there also lies a weakness. This consists in the fact that the diversity of her Christology can present such a variegated pattern as to appear unclear or even contradictory. Here lies a happy hunting ground for the unwary and for the over-enthusiastic compiler of quotations. Such a presentation as Ellen White's, requires a proper hermeneutic.

2. Paradox Without Confusion

Another positive contribution arising from Ellen White's Christology was her willingness to hold together a presentation of Christ's active use of His divine attributes with the full functioning of His genuine humanity. For Ellen White this in no way implies a contradiction, but is precisely what is meant by speaking of 'vere Deus' and 'vere homo'. It would seem that Ellen White is correct in implying that only if we hold to some active use of His divinity can we speak meaningfully of Jesus being fully God. In whatever way we might wish to present the concept of an active divinity, the necessity of doing so remains as a challenge for future Adventist theologians.

In our chapter on Waggoner we found that he followed the same direction on the question of the use of Christ's divinity. We have suggested that this was a dominant feature of Waggoner's whole Christology. For him it was Christ's inherent divinity which was the source of the power which flowed into the lives of others for healing, restoration, forgiveness and salvation. Here again we can see that in this way of presenting Christ, one can actually specify in what way Jesus was more than a man. The divinity of Christ has taken on some significance and has a particular role in the work of Christ. Without some presentation of this nature, the divinity of Christ threatens to be no more than an unsupported assertion. 8ut neither for Ellen White or Waggoner does the stress on Christ's active use of His divinity ever become docetic, because it was counter-balanced by an equally strong presentation of Christ's humanity.

However, even in this approach certain dangers must be recognized. The first one which we have already mentioned is Docetism. Certainly Docetism must be avoided, not because it is out of step with the humanism of the modern world, but because it would negate the accessibility of revelation, the reality of the reconciliation and the actuality of "God with us." Another danger in the presenting of both a functioning divinity and a functioning humanity is that if presented without care, it could degenerate into an absurd contradiction. Therefore, the divine mystery of the union of divinity and humanity must always be offered from God's 'given', rather than by mere rational speculation.

Finally, we would want to avoid another danger into which Waggoner himself eventually stumbled. That is, because in Christ we have a unity of the infinite and the finite, we must never suppose that this unity should be transposed into all men and nature in general, for this would dissolve Christology into pantheism.

3. Participation Without Corruption

One of the dominant features of Douglass' Christology which is a significant contribution, is his attempt take the Incarnation with absolute seriousness. This means that Jesus Christ is not to be thought of as merely appearing among us as someone alien, remote and unaffected our lot, but as One who was really with us in our situation of alienation, suffering and sin. This is a valid Biblical emphasis. The problem, however, is that in order to achieve this, Douglass implicated Christ in the corruption of sin by suggesting that He partook of man's tendencies to sin. This is not an entirely new concept, for he could well maintain that he is following in the footsteps of Waggoner. But it should be noted that Waggoner's presentation is considerably more nuanced, as can be seen in his initial conviction that it was impossible for Christ to sin because of His divinity. And furthermore, even while Waggoner made much of the sinful nature of Christ, its implication for man's full imitation of Christ's earthly life was qualified by his strong emphasis on an active divinity in Christ. The particular significance of Waggoner's presentation of the Incarnation and its relation to sin was that while occasionally drew ethical implications from it, his primary emphasis was that Christ was "made sin" for us vicariously', primarily for man's salvation rather than for his emulation. Thus while we would maintain that the intention of both Douglass and Waggoner to bring Christ close to man was valid, Waggoner's presentation the sinful nature of Christ precipitated problems at in Douglass have resulted in his making the sinful nature of Christ the pre-supposition of his entire soteriology.

It was precisely these soteriological dangers accompanying the concept of the sinful nature of Christ, which Heppenstall recognized and consistently resisted. Heppenstall's insistence that Christ should never be equated with man's inherent corruption and depravity is of continuing significance and relevance to the Seventh-day Adventist church. Furthermore, his clear distinction between the relative perfection of man and Christ's absolute perfection is a particular strength. This is so because it ensures that our salvation remains rooted in the person of Christ rather than in the efforts of man. Christ remains our Substitute and not merely our Forerunner.

Once again we find Ellen White's position on this point to be particularly fruitful, for we discover that she evidenced the same concern for the reality of the Incarnation that was later displayed by both Waggoner and Douglass. At the same time, she showed a concern similar to that of Heppenstall in keeping Christ separate from sinful tendencies, propensities and corruption. The major contribution of Ellen White in this regard was her ability to distinguish between sin understood in the sense of an inner bent or bias to evil, and sin understood as the general condition, consequences and situation of the fallen world. Thus in this latter sense she can speak of the sinful nature of Christ without in any way implying the former. The real condescension of God to man's actual level is safeguarded in Ellen White's position that Christ came in man's post-fall nature. Thus because Christ tasted fully of the limitations, trials and sufferings and death of man, there can be no ground to accuse God of withholding Himself from man's lot. But on the other hand, Ellen White is very careful to insist that this identification with fallen man never in any way compromises the absolute holiness, righteousness and purity of Christ. Ellen White clearly rejects the idea that Christ possessed inherent tendencies to evil.

4. Christocentrism Without Objectivism

Another contribution emerging from this study which is of considerable importance for the future of Adventist Christology, is Heppenstall's great emphasis on the priority of the objective and historical salvation wrought in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, over against the subjective, existential realization of such salvation in the life of the believer. Only in this way can the doctrine of assurance be safeguarded. And while we would grant that Waggoner's later increasing emphasis on the subjective experience of the believer should never be eliminated, it cannot be allowed to eclipse the priority of the historical vents of salvation. Douglass' overriding anthropological focus could also result in a blurring of the importance of these events. Adventist Christology must remain rooted and grounded in the actual historical person of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps one of the most important contributions that has emerged is the necessity of making Jesus Christ the center of one's whole theology. We noted repeatedly that for Ellen White Jesus Christ is always central. But it was Heppenstall who, as a systematic theologian, consistently tried to ground his whole theology in Christ. He did not do this by merely multiplying references to Christ, but rather by attempting to think through each aspect of theology from a Christocentric perspective. On the other hand, the theological pilgrimage of Waggoner and the soteriological aberrations of Douglass are perennial reminders of the dangers of what happens when the central focus shifts from Christ to man. It is imperative for Adventist Christology to make Jesus Christ the center and circumference of all truth, for He is the chain upon which all the jewels of doctrine are linked. In Him is found the complete system of truth.

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