The Humanity of Christ Before 1888:
deal here with only the major expressions and important, pathbreaking
statements of the pre-1888 era. We could cite many more,1 but these
examples should be sufficient to help us grasp Ellen White's
understanding as she approached Minneapolis and its watershed crisis.
Early Significant Statements
The first significant theological statement
regarding the humanity of Christ does not come until 1858, when she
clearly spoke of Him as taking "man's fallen nature" (1SG
25).2 She employed this expression regularly during the
balance of her prophetic career.
In 1863 she declared that He "knows our
infirmities," but she was clear to qualify
"infirmities" as not involving "sin" (RH, Jan. 20,
1863). The expression "infirmities" was one of her
favorites. In fact, "infirmities," "fallen
nature," and "weakness(es)" (or "weakened")
were far and away her most preferred ways of describing Christ's identity
In 1869 she made the following statement that so richly expresses
her profoundly tensioned balance between identity and
is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions.
As the sinless One, His nature recoiled from evil" (2T 202).
Christ is infirm, and yet His passions are distinctly different from
ours as His nature was "sinless," since it "recoiled
A Key Issue in Terminology
Our discussion really cannot proceed further without
some clarification of Ellen White's intended meaning when she used such
words as "sinless" and "sinful." As we discuss the
humanity of Christ, we must ad dress issues of terminology with some
care. If we are not relatively precise in our usage, we might just be
talking past one another in our search for consensus.
Ralph Larson, a well-known writer on the issue of Ellen
White's Christology, has tried to resolve the issue of what she taught
about the humanity of Christ by making some rather forced and strained
distinctions between nominal, adjectival, and adverbial usages of such
expressions as "sinful" and "sinless" (Larson 16,
Note carefully Larson's claim about the adjectival
form "sinful": "Ellen White consistently uses this term,
sinful, to describe the flesh (nature) in which Christ made His earthly
tabernacle. She saw His flesh (nature) as having the same tendencies
(natural propensities, not evil propensities) that our flesh (nature)
has" (ibid. 16).
He contends, however, that the word
"sinfulness" has the meaning of "a state of being."
"This is far beyond a tendency toward. It must involve the actual
practice of sinning. Ellen White applies this term to humans, but never
to Christ, lest she be understood as saying that Christ sinned.... She
did not equate sinful with sinfulness" (ibid.).
Larson takes the same tack with the word
"sinless" by declaring that she "applies the term
sinlessness to the human nature of Christ, but not the term
sinless" (ibid. 17; italics supplied).
What are we to make of Larson's interpretations?
The first thing we must note about his suggestions is
a lack of consistency. One would think that there would be some sort of
consistent pattern in the use of adjective and noun versions of the same
word. But in one place he claims that the noun "sinfulness"
cannot apply to Christ, but when it comes to the noun
"sinlessness," it can be. It is immediately apparent that such
arbitrary applications should alert us to the forced, artificial nature
of his method of doing theology by "dictionary."
Any dictionary will say that "sinless" is
only the adjectival form of the noun "sinlessness," and "sinlessly"
is the adverbial form. One is not comparing "sinless" apples
with "sinful" oranges, but the different uses to which the
"sin" apple is put.
We must carefully consider each word in its context to
discern its meaning and usage in any given setting. It is clear that the
nominal, adjectival, or adverbial forms do not make that much difference
in the thinking of Ellen White (or, for that matter, any
English-speaking person's use of the variations of the word
Also, we must candidly point out that Larson's
contention that Ellen White does not apply "sinless" to the
human nature of Christ is simply not supported by the following
clear-cut evidence: "Christ is a perfect representation of God on
the one hand, and a perfect specimen of sinless humanity on the other
hand" (7BC 907; italics supplied).
Important Statements in 1872
The year 1872 witnessed some very important comments by
Ellen White that further clarified her understanding of Jesus' sinless
uniqueness. She made it clear that "man could not atone for
man," as "his sinful, fallen condition would constitute him an
imperfect offering" (RH, Dec. 17, 1872). This indicated that whatever
she meant by the expression "fallen nature" or
"condition," when applied to Christ, was essentially different
for Him than it was when used to describe "sinful, fallen" human
beings. Otherwise, any human who performed sinlessly could be a possible
But sinless perfection, even that which was Adam's before
the Fall, was not the only requirement to be a Saviour. She went on to
state that "there could be no sacrifice acceptable to God for him
[fallen human beings], unless the offering made should in value be
superior to man as he was in his state of perfection and innocency.
"The divine Son of God was the only sacrifice of
sufficient value to fully satisfy the claims of God's perfect law."
She thus declared Christ to be "perfect, and undefiled by
sin" (ibid.). We should note that the passage was her first definite
discussion of the humanity of Christ in relationship to His role as a
substitute. It is clear that humans could not produce
an obedience that had saving merit. The meritorious deficiency in human
obedience was because of not only their "sinful, fallen
condition," but also their humanity itself-as "there could be no
sacrifice acceptable to God for him, unless the offering made should in
value be superior to man as he was in his
state of perfection and innocency" (ibid.; italics
humans: the famous phrase of Romans 8:3"in the likeness of sinful
flesh" (RH, Dec. 24, 1872). She employed this terminology quite
frequently during the following years, with the most numerous usages
coming in 1895 and 1896. But her most profound expression of identity
would come two years later. It is to this important and
foundational statement that we now turn attention.
In the thought of Ellen White a valid, saving sacrifice
required not only the sinlessness of Christ's human nature and character,
but also divinity. This year, 1872, also marked the first use of another
expression of Christ's
1 The reader is encouraged to consult Appendix B at the
end of this book.[back]
2 For Ellen White, "nature" usually refers
to a person's inheritance, or what he or she is "naturally"
born with. "Character" refers more to what a person
develops either because of, or in spite of, his or her natural inheritance.