At Issue Index   Table of Contents  Previous   Next

Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Five

The Humanity of Christ and Salvation After 1888: 
Part 1: The Years 1889-1895

In this chapter and the next we will give an overview of important statements in Ellen White's unfolding understanding of the nature of Christ and the ways she employed them during the most important period of her expositions on issues related to salvation (the six years following the Minneapolis General Conference session).

What is rather shocking about the formation of her perspective is that she made no really striking or pathbreaking developments in her teaching on Christology during this crucial period. I refer to this lack of development as shocking in the sense that there has been so much debate about the impact of her Christology on her teachings about salvation.

The simple fact is that further developments in her understanding of Christ's humanity played no markedly significant role in her great emphasis on justification and sanctification in the years following 1888.

The reader might therefore wonder why we even need these chapters. I would suggest two reasons for the following study:

1. Further attention will help clarify her usage of Christ's humanity in her powerful initiative to emphasize the centrality and primacy of a balanced presentation on salvation.

2. An examination of her most important statements will confirm that the post-1888 statements on the nature of Christ were only further elaborations of what she had already clearly stated before 1888. I do this very consciously in light of the claims of those individuals who have tried


to convince us that Christology was one of the central issues involved in Ellen White's great emphasis on salvation coming out of the Minneapolis General Conference session. In fact, I invite the reader to carefully go through The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials. What you will discover is that she has little to say about Christology (in the sense of technical theological discourse) in all her comments on Minneapolis and its aftermath.

Christology is most certainly always at the base of Ellen White's teachings on salvation, but serious theological emphasis on the nature of Christ (both His deity and humanity) was not the major salvation feature that fed into or arose out of the Minneapolis crisis.

Developments From 1889 to 1895

About the only notable impact that Ellen White's unfolding understanding of the nature of Christ made on her great presentations about salvation after 1888 occurs in the following theme: She vigorously presented Christ's nature as a mysterious blending, or union, of humanity and deity, a blending deemed essential to Christ's uniquely saving work. In other words, this significant development arises more out of a sharpening emphasis on the significance of His deity than of just His humanity! This development is nothing new, but the emphasis placed upon it certainly sharpens (cf. above, page 31).

In a sermon given on June 19, 1889 (7BC 904), she proclaimed that "Christ could have done nothing during His earthly ministry in saving fallen man if the divine had not been blended with the human." She further stated that "man cannot define this wonderful mystery-the blending of the two natures.... It can never be explained." This declaration that a union of humanity and deity was essential to the atonement became a frequently repeated theme for the balance of her ministry.

It should come as no surprise to us that this theme emphasized the importance of His deity and His sinless humanity as essential to His role as justifying Saviour. Only Jesus "could have paid the penalty of sin" and borne" the sins of every sinner; for all transgressions were imputed unto Him" (RH, Dec. 20, 1892). Thus she stressed the uniqueness of Jesus not just in


terms of His sinlessness, but also in the blending of the human and divine. The rest of this section (developments after 1888) will divide into two convenient parts, reviewing important expressions of (1) uniqueness and (2) identity. Once again, however, I must emphasize that you will find no startling or pathbreaking developments. But the intense nature of the debate over the relationship of the nature of Christ to the understanding of salvation demands a review of the most important statements that she made. We will first turn our attention to developments in her expressions of uniqueness.

Christ's Unique Humanity: 1889-1895

The first significant expression of uniqueness occurs in manuscript 16, 1890: "He stood before the world, from His first entrance into it, untainted by corruption, though surrounded by it" (7BC 907). In this instance she clearly spoke of Christ being untainted by corruption from His first entrance into the world. The statement presents the interesting implication that His lack of corruption had to do with His human, sinless inheritance, not just His character development on the earth.

This emphasis on the sinlessness of His inherited nature stands out clearly when compared with an earlier statement (1889) that referred to human corruption: "God will be better glorified if we confess the secret, inbred corruption of the heart to Jesus alone" (5T 645; italics supplied). Sinful humans have "inbred corruption," but Jesus was "untainted by corruption."

Of the terms Ellen White used to describe Christ's humanity, she never applied "corruption," "vile," "depravity," or "pollution" to the Saviour! In fact, she plainly declared that He was neither corrupt nor polluted.

One of her most striking expressions of uniqueness appears in manuscript 57, 1890. It is such an important statement that we will cite from it extensively. The general theme is that because of Christ's humanity, He was truly tempted.

He had not taken on Him even the nature of angels, but humanity, perfectly identical with our own nature, except without the taint of sin.... "But here we must not become in our ideas common and earthly, and


in our perverted ideas we must not think that the liability of Christ to yield to Satan's temptations degraded His humanity and He possessed the same sinful, corrupt propensities as man.

"The divine nature, combined with the human, made Him capable of yielding to Satan's temptations. Here the test to Christ was far greater than that of Adam and Eve, for Christ took our nature, fallen but not corrupted, and would not be corrupted unless He received the words of Satan in the place of the words of God....

"He descended in His humiliation to be tempted as man would be tempted, and His nature was that of man, capable of yielding to temptation. His very purity and holiness were assailed by a fallen foe, the very one that became corrupted and then was ejected from heaven. How deeply and keenly must Christ have felt this humiliation.

"How do fallen angels look upon this pure and uncontaminated One, the Prince of life . . ." (italics supplied).

Please note that she explicitly says that Christ took humanity, clearly identical to our own, except without the taint of sin. She further enforces this concept by warning that despite His liability to sin, we must not say that Jesus "possessed the same sinful, corrupt propensities as man." She then accentuates her point by declaring that "Christ took our nature, fallen but not corrupted, and would not be corrupted unless He received the words of Satan in the place of the words of God." Once more I invite the reader to carefully note what Ellen White says: "our nature," which is "fallen but not corrupted," is the nature that "Christ took" at the time of His incarnation, not what He achieved in His character development.

The concepts of manuscript 57, 1890, are some of the most forceful expressions of Christ's uniqueness that Ellen White ever made. In fact, their clarity has led Adventist scholar and editor Tim Crosby to suggest that this manuscript is almost as important as the famed Baker letter in our efforts to illuminate the nature of Christ's humanity.* It is at least an anticipation of what was to come in the Baker letter and a striking confirmation of her pre-1888 statements.

Her next significant statement occurs in manuscript 6, 1892, which utilized a thought that she would more forcefully express later on, 


especially in manuscript 50, 1900: "If we do our best ... the humblest service may become a consecrated gift, made acceptable by the fragrance of His [Christ's] own merit" (PC 141). The thought here is that all that sinful humans do, even "our best," needs to be "made acceptable by the fragrance" of Christ's "own merit." Christ in His sinless humanity, combined with deity, has merit that sinful, even believing, humans don't have. Please note that while the justificationist usage of Christ's sinlessness is not surprising in this era, the concept of His sinlessness is nothing new at all.

Christ's Identity With Humanity: 1889-1895

Some important and clear expressions of His identity appear in Ellen White's writing during this period. She continued to use freely the expression "infirmities" during this entire era, but she strengthened it by declaring that "Jesus can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities" MR Oct. 1, 1889).

Christ's Example Portrayed in Our Nature

One of her most important expressions of identity showed up in numerous spirited responses to the declaration "that Christ could not have had the same nature as man, for if He had, He would have fallen under similar temptations" (see RH, Feb. 18, 1890). In a strong denial of such a concept, she repeatedly stated that it was necessary for Christ to "have man's nature" or "He could not be our example. If He was not a partaker of our nature, He could not have been tempted as man has been. If it were not possible for Him to yield to temptation, He could not be our helper." She then went on to make the usual sanctification application: "His temptation and victory tell us that humanity must copy the Pattern" (ibid.; 1SM 408).

She forcefully continued this line of thought in her more extended comments of 1892:

"But many say that Jesus was not like us, that He was not as we are in the world, that He was divine, and that we cannot overcome as He overcame." Her response was to quote Hebrews 2:16, 17: "Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren" (RH, Apr. 1, 1892).


In manuscript 1, written on November 13, 1892 (3SM 136-141), she replied to Satan's claim "that no man could keep the law of God after the disobedience of Adam." She did so by contending that Christ "passed over the ground where Adam fell, and endured the temptation in the wilderness, which was a hundredfold stronger than was or ever will be brought to bear upon the human race." Ellen White then said that Christ's overcoming "the temptations of Satan as a man" testified "to all the unfallen worlds and to fallen humanity that man could keep the commandments of God through the divine power granted to him of heaven."

Christ was "not only ... a sacrifice for sin but" He came "to be an example to man in all things, a holy, human character." She forcefully highlighted the theme by the straightforward declaration that "the obedience of Christ by itself " was not "something for which He was particularly adapted, by His particular divine nature."

"If Christ had a special power which it is not the privilege of man to have, Satan would have made capital of this matter....

"Bear in mind that Christ's overcoming and obedience is that of a true human being.... When we give to His human nature a power that it is not possible for man to have in his conflicts with Satan, we destroy the completeness of His humanity."

It is very clear in Ellen White's thought that Christ had no advantages in "His human nature," and this identity exalted "the completeness of His humanity."

This powerful identity statement "He came not to our world to give the obedience of a lesser God to a greater, but as a man to obey God's Holy Law, and in this way He is our example....

"The Lord Jesus came to our world, not to reveal what a God could do, but what a man could do, through faith in God's power to help in every emergency....

"Jesus, the world's Redeemer, could only keep the commandments of God in the same way that humanity can keep them."


Clearly Ellen White viewed Christ as giving the obedience of a man, which made Him the example for "what a man could do, through faith in God's power." Thus Jesus, as an example, keeps "the commandments of God in the same way that humanity can keep them."

The life of Christ was clear evidence that obedience is possible, as He was not "particularly adapted" either by "His particular divine nature" or a uniquely empowered human nature in obeying the will of God.

It should be apparent to us that whatever she understood the uniqueness of Christ's sinless human nature to be, it gave Him no particular advantage in dealing with temptation. His identity with humanity is complete enough to forestall any accusation of unfair advantage.

Once more, especially with these powerful declarations of Christ's identity in mind, we need to clearly define important terms. This will be the initial burden of the next chapter.

*  This is a suggestion shared with the author in correspondence regarding the issue of Christ's humanity [back] {top]

At Issue Index   Table of Contents  Previous   Next