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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter One

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 itself.

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 mystery—the 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 "post-Fall,"


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 "post-Fall" groups.

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" Adventism. 7

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 nature."

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 Christ.

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 never indulged.

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 prove helpful.

"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. [back] [top]

2  See Knights interesting discussion in the chapter "The Nature of Christ," pp. 132-150 in his From 1888 to Apostasy.[back] [top]

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] [top]

4    Virginia Steinweg has sympathetically traced Andreasen's life in her Without Fear or Favor.[back] [top]

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] [top]

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] [top]

7  Such issues will be explored in chapter 10.[back] [top]

8  This teaching was given its classic expression by and is named after Arius, a third-century theologian from Alexandria, Egypt[back] [top]

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