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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Three

The Humanity of Christ Before 1888:
Part 1

We will 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 with humanity.

In 1869 she made the following statement that so richly expresses her profoundly tensioned balance between identity and uniqueness: "He 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 from evil."


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, 17).

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 "sin").

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 Saviour.

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 sinless, justifying 


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 supplied).

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
identity with sinful 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.

1  The reader is encouraged to consult Appendix B at the end of this book.[back] [top]

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. [back] [top]

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