Where Have We Been
and How Shall We Proceed?
The unfolding of Ellen White's understanding of the
nature of Christ1
was closely bound up with her view of salvation. In
fact, to grasp her teaching on salvation it is absolutely necessary to
take into consideration her Christology. This is especially pivotal when
it comes to the way she understood the relationship between Christ's
human nature and Christian perfection.
The study of the nature of Christ is easily the most difficult and
challenging theme we could deal with in the thought of Ellen White. The
main reason for this results from the profound depths of the subject
To anyone who has ever made a concerted attempt to do an in-depth
study of the nature of Christ, the truthfulness of the following Ellen
White statement is all too obvious: "Man cannot define this
wonderful mysterythe blending of the two natures.... It can never be
explained" (7BC 904, italics supplied). But we also have the
promise that the student who persists will be richly rewarded: "The
study of the incarnation of Christ is a fruitful field, which will repay
the searcher who digs deep for hidden truth" (7-ABC 443).
A Brief History
Another reason for the difficulty of the subject is
its highly controversial history. Ralph Larson has demonstrated that
Adventism held a strong consensus on the humanity of Christ until the
middle 1950s (see Larson's The Word Was Made Flesh). We can clearly
term the consensus
that is, Christ had a human nature like that of a
person after the fall of Adam. George Knight, however, has shown that
there was some rather provocative opposition to the
"post-Fall" view of A. T. Jones in the mid1890s.2
But the controversy of the 1890s was only a briefly noted harbinger of
the divisive debate that would begin in the mid-1950s.
The major cause of the outbreak of renewed debate was
the publication of the book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on
Doctrine in 1957. The controversy has continued unabated since then, and
the church has not yet reached a satisfactory consensus on the topic.
The major figure in all this seems to be the late M. L. Andreasen.3
Andreasen had had a long and productive career as a much-respected
minister, writer, and teacher.4 But the position taken on the
humanity of Christ in Questions on Doctrine provoked him to a most
strenuous reaction-even leading to his being disfellowshipped. In the
years since 1957 Andreasen has had his strong admirers and stout
opponents, and such reactions have precipitated the lengthy and
acrimonious debate that continues to the present. The contending camps
have been rather easily identified as the "pre-Fall" and the
The post-Fall advocates 5 hold that Jesus had a nature
like ours, and His likeness to us is absolutely essential to our own
victory over sin. In other words, since He was victorious in a nature
just like ours, we can also have perfect victory over sin. The post-Fall
partisans are quick to claim that any such perfections are the results
of the Spirit imparting God's grace to the faithful. Many advocates of
the "post-Fall" view, following in the wake of Andreasen, also
hold that the perfect victory gained by the "final generation"
is absolutely essential to the vindication of God and the ushering in of
the second coming of Jesus.
The pre-Fall partisans emphasize that while Jesus possessed the
fullness of humanity, that humanity was at the same time sinless. Such
sinlessness involves not only the absence of acts of sin, but also any
inherent depravity or innate propensities and tendencies to sin.
Pre-Fall advocates tend to want to lay more emphasis on Jesus' role as
justifying substitute than they do on His example for the overcomer.
Furthermore, they want to distinguish sinful acts from sinful nature.
While both sides
speak of victory over sin through faith in the
grace of Christ, the pre-Fall writers want to qualify more carefully
the perfection that the faithful can achieve through grace.6
Probably the majority of current academics and
ministers hold to some version of the pre-Fall view. Where the
majority of laypersons stand is not entirely clear. But at least a
strong minority (both lay and ministerial) in the church care deeply about the
issue and are willing to take forthright stands for the post-Fall
position. Furthermore, the post-Fall people feel that their teachings
are extremely vital to the spiritual health and mission of the church.
In fact, they seem to want to elevate their position to the status of
a "pillar" or "landmark" testing truth that will
help to clearly define what I have called "essential"
The Basic Issue
Let's try to grasp the issue at its very core. The
more traditional post-Fall interpreters have tended to read Ellen White
as emphasizing the similarities, seeing Christ as sinful in nature
(though not in action), while the seeming majority of more recent
interpreters are pre-Fall and have emphasized the differences between
His nature and ours. Their accent falls on the uniqueness of the
sinlessness of His nature and life.
Ellen White aptly states her basic proposition in
the following quotation: "Christ reaches us where we are. He took
our nature and overcame, that we through taking His nature might
overcome. Made `in the likeness of sinful flesh' (Rom. 8:3), He lived
a sinless life" (DA 311, 312). The key question for our study is:
In the thought of Ellen White, just how much like our sinful human
nature is the human nature of Christ?
Eric C. Webster is certainly correct when he reminds
us that "almost every area of belief is influenced by one's
departure point regarding the nature of Christ" (Webster 50).
This is especially true of such important salvation issues as
justification, sanctification, the atonement, the purpose of the great
controversy theme, and the nature of sin.
Other Complicating Factors
In addition to its mystery and its controverted history, three
other factors make this subject especially challenging: (1)
the sheer bulk of Ellen White's writings and (2) her lack of a
systematic treatment of the subject in any particular article or book.
These difficulties are further complicated by (3) numerous complex
statements that give her Christology a very intricate balance or tension
between pre-Fall sinless uniqueness and
post-Fall identity with our "sinful
Depth, controversy, and complexity notwithstanding, we
should not let anything deter us in this important quest for
understanding. The issue is too central simply to ignore.
So I encourage the reader to approach it patiently, but
also prayerfully and respectfully, remembering "to heed the words
spoken by Christ to Moses at the burning bush, `Put off thy shoes from
off thy feet, for the place where on thou standest is holy ground"' (QOD
647). Truth is then best served if we take off our argumentative,
opinionated "shoes" and come "with the
humility of a learner, with a contrite heart" (ibid.).
Deity and the Trinity
While the major burden of this book is the humanity of
Christ, we should devote a few preliminary lines to Ellen White's
understanding of His deity. All discussions of Christ's humanity would
be without any real Point if we did not also see Him as fully divine. He
is truly the unique Gad-man!
Ellen White was decisively a believer in the full
deity of Christ. We cats characterize her as Trinitarian in her
convictions, even from her earliest years (7-ABC 437-442; Ev 613-617).
What is truly remarkable about her Trinitarian views is
that she held them despite the strong Arian influences in
nineteenth-century Seventh-day Adventism, especially among many of the
leading minis ten, Arianism 8 is an ancient heresy that denies that Jesus
has existed coeternally with God the Father. It
teaches that there was a time when Christ was not.
Furthermore, it is of some interest to note that these
anti-Trinitarian ministers included none other than her own husband.
James White came from the Christian Connection Church, which had strong
Arian tendencies, and some of his early statements revealed an
anti-Trinitarian bias (Webster 34).
But in spite of these strong influences, Ellen White
went on her own independent way, quite willing to go against the strong
Arianism of the Adventist ministers of her time (ibid.72).
She never attacked or directly corrected any of these
persons for their Arian views, but she became increasingly explicit in
her own forthright declarations of the full deity of Christ and clear
affirmations of the Trinity.
For the purposes of this study, we need to state
clearly that by the time of the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference
session Ellen White was forcefully affirming the full, eternal deity of
What Terminology Shall We Use?
"Pre-Fall" or "Post-Fall"?
Before we begin our study of Ellen White's unfolding
understanding of Christ's humanity, we need some further clarification
on terminology. I am suggesting that we lay aside the expressions
"pre-Fall" and "post-Fall" in this discussion. The
reason for this suggestion is twofold.
First of all, they are not very helpful, in that Jesus
was neither completely pre-Fall nor post-Fall-as such terms would imply.
On the one hand, He was pre-Fall in the sense that His humanity was not
"infected" with sinful, corrupt tendencies, or propensities to
sin, such as we are born with. On the other hand, He was post-Fall in
the sense that His humanity was "affected" by sin, in which He
Thus He was neither completely one nor the other. In a
very important sense He was both, and the all-or-nothing implications of
such expressions are not helpful.
Second, the expressions have become so freighted with
controversial overtones that some new terminology, more reflective of
the rich tension and balance residing in Ellen White's thought, might
"Identity" and "Uniqueness"
I am suggesting the terms identity and uniqueness.
The identity expressions speak to Jesus' profound similarities to
human beings with their
sinful natures, while the uniqueness expressions point to the
sinlessness of His humanity. For Jesus really to be able to
identify with us, He needed to be one with us. To be our sinless, effectual
substitute, He needed to be clearly unique and distinguished from us-not
just in actions, but also in nature! It is not one or the other, but both
that are absolutely essential to His effectual work as a complete Saviour.
Objectives of This Study
Our main initial objective is to shed light on the
lingering debate over the nature of Christ by seeking to demonstrate how
Ellen White's understanding unfolded in her ministry before and after 1888.
But the ultimate objective is to clarify how her grasp of the nature of
Christ influenced her teachings on salvation, especially in the critical
years following 1888.
Sections 2 and 3, dealing with the historical
developments, will then be followed by Section 4, in which I will lay out my
own understanding of the humanity of Christ and its implications for
salvation and the atonement. And finally I include a response to my
interpretation as well as my reply to it. In a sincere attempt to initiate a
new dialogue with the "post-Fall"
advocates, I requested written responses (for the expressed purpose of
publication in this book) from Herbert Douglass, Ralph Larson, Robert
Wieland, Dennis Priebe, and Kevin Paulson. Paulson, a self-proclaimed
"historic Adventist," was the only one to tender a response.
Herbert Douglass and Dennis Priebe were unable to do so because of the press
of other responsibilities. Ralph Larson and Robert Wieland pointedly
declined my invitation for other reasons. I do believe that Paulson's
spirited response (and my brief reply) will help to clarify the central
issues in the debate over the humanity of Christ.
The entire work will then finish with three appendixes that include (1) a
collection of statements from Ellen White on "sin" and sinful
nature (Appendix A), (2) a rather extensive collection of all the important,
essential statements that she made on the humanity of Christ (Appendix B),
and (3) a brief treatment of the recently discovered Kellogg letter of 1903
(Appendix C). Because of the developmental
nature of this study, I have listed the collection of
statements dealing with the humanity of Christ in chronological order.
It is hoped that the appendixes (especially A and B) will
enable the reader to come to a more intelligent response to my
interpretations and a fuller understanding of the breadth and depth of Ellen
White's thinking on these subjects. I do not claim to be the last word, and
therefore I put forth these collections to help facilitate the reader's
prayerful, careful, and independent reflection.
But before we begin our review of the way her understanding
of Christ's humanity unfolded, one other important preliminary consideration
cries out for attention: What did Ellen White mean when she used the
expressions "sin" and "sinful nature"? It is to this
important issue that we now turn our attention.
1 Theologians refer to the doctrine
of the person and nature of Christ as Christology.
2 See Knights interesting discussion in the chapter "The Nature of
Christ," pp. 132-150 in his From 1888 to Apostasy.[back]
3 For an excellent overview of Andreasen's thinking, see Roy Adams's The
Sanctuary Doctrine, pp. 165-230, with special attention to pp. 202-230.[back]
4 Virginia Steinweg has sympathetically traced Andreasen's life in her
Without Fear or Favor.[back]
5 The major published proponents of this position are Herbert Douglass
(and probably the editorial leadership of the Review
in the 1970s), Robert J. Wieland, Thomas Davis, C.
Mervyn Maxwell, and Ralph Larson. Dissidents such as the early Robert
Brinsmead in his "Sanctuary Awakening" movement and the current
"independent" ministries have also strongly advocated it. What
seems to be the common thread of all the post-Fall advocates has been their
admiration for and indebtedness to M. L. Andreasen.[back]
6 The major published proponents of this position have been
the anonymous authors of Questions on Doctrine (most probably R. A.
Anderson, Leroy E. Froom, and W. E. Read), Edward (Ted) Heppenstall, Hans K.
LaRondelle, Raoul Dederen, Desmond Ford, and Norman Gulley.[back]
7 Such issues will be explored in chapter 10.[back]
8 This teaching was given its classic expression by and is named
after Arius, a third-century theologian from Alexandria, Egypt[back]