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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Six

The Humanity of Christ and Salvation After 1888:
Part II: Important Terms Defined

Christ's Nature Called "Fallen"

As in the pre-1888 era, Ellen White continued to use the word "fallen" as a description of Christ's "condition." It was qualified, however, with the expression of uniqueness that though He took "the nature of man in His fallen condition.... He did not take the taint of sin" (MS 93, 1893). 1 Thus "fallen" here does not have to do with "the taint of sin."

The Words "Passion," "Propensity," "Tendency," and "Inclination" 

She continued to employ the word "passion" to express Christ's identity: "He had all the strength of the passion of humanity" (ST, Nov. 21, 1892). What we have here is a morally nonqualified use of "passion." What do I mean by this? Such terminology is extremely critical to our understanding of Ellen White's Christology, and I urge the reader to follow patiently the analysis in the following paragraphs.

In previous presentations she had used expressions that went like this: Christ did not possess "the passions of our human, fallen natures" (2T 509, written in 1870), and though He is "a brother in our infirmities," He did not possess "like passions" (2T 202, written in 1869). Such expressions were morally qualified, and she clearly contrasted Christ's passion with what she called "the passions of our fallen natures" and distinguished them from our "like passions." She went on in Testimonies for the


Church, volume 2, page 202, to emphasize His uniqueness by morally qualifying His nature: she declared Him to be the "sinless One," and said that "His nature recoiled from evil."

Thus it is clear from previous usage that the phrase "all the strength of the passion of humanity" employed in the Signs of November 21, 1892, probably referred to normal human desires, appetites, feelings, or emotions rather than perverted desires that naturally tend to break over the bounds of lawful expression.

It seems wise to pause at this point to further clarify the meaning of the expressions "passion" and "propensities."

Larson has offered some helpful comments on the words "passion," "propensities," and "susceptibilities." After citing numerous usages in Ellen White's writings (Larson 22-25), he offers the following perceptive conclusions:

"In one usage, both words, passions and propensities, are used to describe something that Christians must control, but that by the very nature of things, they must retain and cannot eliminate from their experience. In this usage she tends to link the word propensity with such descriptive terms as animal, human, natural, etc....

"In other usage, both words, passions and propensities, are used to describe something that Christians need not retain but must eliminate. Here control is not an adequate solution to the problem. In this usage she tends to link the word propensity with such descriptive terms as evil, sinful, lustful, etc....

"In her references to Christ, she indicates that He had one class of passions and propensities, but did not have the other" (26).

Larson then illustrates his final point by comparing the two different Ellen White usages of "passion." He contrasts the statement "though He had all the strength of passion of humanity, never did He yield to temptation to do one single act which was not pure and elevating and noble" (undated MS 73; cf. IHP 155) with the declaration that "He was a mighty petitioner, not possessing the passions of our human fallen nature, but compassed with infirmities, tempted in all points like as we are" (2T 509).


It is quite evident that such expressions as "propensity," "passion," and "susceptibility," along with the little-used words "tendency"2 and "inclination,"3 all meant essentially the same thing, except when she qualified them with adjectives or adverbs freighted with moral distinctions. It seems clear that these expressions convey the idea that one has a proneness to do something, not an actual doing (either good or bad). Christ, however, did not possess a sinful proneness even though He had normal passions, tendencies, and propensities.

A Recent Study Helps to Clarify Terms

In the early 1980s an important study of Ellen White's use of literary sources shed some light on the meaning of the expressions "propensities" and "infirmities."

Ronald Graybill, Warren Johns, and Tim Poirier have shown that Ellen White used the sermons of Anglican minister Henry Melvill (17981871) in writing on the nature of Christ. They were able to do this important study because the White Estate possesses Ellen White's personal marked copy of Melvill's published sermons (Melvill's Sermons, 3rd ed.). These careful researchers have demonstrated some instructive parallels between White's and Melvill's use of terminology. It is clear that Ellen White drew upon one of Melvill's sermons entitled "The Humiliation of the Man Christ Jesus" while she prepared an article entitled "Christ Man's Example" (RH, July 5, 1887). 4

Not surprisingly, this sermon discusses Christ's humanity. Eric Webster gives us a helpful summation of Melvill's usage. "For Melvill there are two primary consequences of the fall: (1) `innocent infirmities,' and (2) `sinful propensities.' `From both was Adam's humanity free before, and with both was it endowed after, transgression' (Melvill 47). By `innocent infirmities' Melvill understands such characteristics as hunger, pain, weakness, sorrow and death. `There are consequences on guilt which are perfectly guiltless. Sin introduced pain, but pain itself is not sin' (ibid.). By `sinful propensities' Melvill refers to the proneness or tendency to sin.


"In his summary of the discussion, Melvill makes it clear that, in his view, Adam had neither `innocent infirmities' nor `sinful propensities;' we are born with both, and Christ took the first but not the second' (127, 128). Melvill plainly says that Christ had a humanity that was `not prone to offend' (cited in Webster 128)."

Tim Poirier has "suggested that while Ellen White did not quote the words [of Melvill] (such as `innocent infirmities,' `sinful propensities' and `prone to offend') the sentiments of Melvill could very well reflect Ellen White's own conviction' (ibid.)" (see Poirier).

"It is suggested that the apparent conflict found in Ellen White's statements on the humanity of Christ can be resolved in the context of Melvill's discussion. Could it be that when Ellen White states that Christ took upon Himself man's `fallen and sinful nature' she is thinking of those `innocent infirmities' that brought Christ to man's level, and that when she speaks of the sinlessness of Christ's humanity she is thinking of the fact that Christ did not possess `sinful propensities'?" (Webster 128, 129).

Summation of the 1889-1895 Period

While the theme of the fully human Christ as the helper of "fallen man" against temptation continued as the dominant emphasis of this era, it is quite significant that the theme of the fully human and fully divine Christ who made a sinless sacrifice to justify penitent sinners came into full focus.

Ellen White's pre-1888 balance between Christ's full humanity and full deity continued to unfold and develop. But the justification application of His sinless humanity became fully explicit alongside the already well-developed theme (from the previous era) of the fully human and sinless Christ who can assist believers in the battle against temptation. 

This period saw no crucial advances either in the expression of Christ's human identity or His uniqueness. By 1895 we can clearly say that she would make no further developments in the way she expressed Christ's identity. There would be further clarification during the next seven years, but only the uniqueness of Christ received additional illumination.


1 Though Larson lists this statement as found in an undated MS 73, it was taken from Letter 27, May 29, 1892.
The verbatim published version appears in The Signs of the Times, Nov. 21, 1892.[back] {top]


She never applies the expression "tendency to sin" to Christ, but often to other humans. [back] {top]

3 Ellen White applied this expression to Christ at least three times. In the first two instances she clearly declared that He had no "inclination to corruption" (letter 8, 1895, to W.L.H. Baker) and that "His inclination to right was a constant gratification to His parents" (YI, Sept. 8, 1898). I address the third usage of the expression here only because Robert Wieland has chosen to interject it into the discussion of the Christological meaning of "inclination" ("The Golden Chain" 68).

First of all the reference: "Christ was put to the closest test, requiring the strength of all His faculties to resist the inclination when in danger, to use His power to deliver Himself from peril, and triumph over the power of the prince of darkness" (originally published in RH, Apr. 1, 1875; and cited in 7BC 930).

Wieland seems to imply that inclination, as used in this statement, means that Christ was tempted through such an "inclination" to commit an act of actual sin. If this is all that Wieland is implying, he is correct. But we must point out that here Ellen White is using "inclination" only in the sense that Christ had the natural human tendency (not "evil," "sinful," or "lustful") to use the advantage of His inherent divine power. This, however, is a far cry from the corrupt tendencies, propensities, and inclinations that all the rest of humanity are born with. Thus it is clear that she (in this instance) employs "tendency" only in a morally neutral way. In the first two instances cited above, however, she applied the term in clearly morally qualified senses: the first statement refers to an "inclination to corruption" (clearly sinful and never used to describe Christ), and the second statement speaks of "His inclination to right" (clearly something unique to Christ and morally positive and good).[back] {top]

4 The results of this study appear in a 98-page document entitled Henry Melvill and Ellen G. White: A Study of Literary and Theological Relationships (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1982)[back] {top]

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