The Humanity of Christ and Salvation After 1888:
III: Developments From 1896 to 1902
Ellen White made some elaboration and clarification of
Christ's humanity between 1896 and 1902. But it was His uniqueness
that received most of her attention and
special clarification, especially in the now-famous Baker letter written
in late 1895 or early 1896. This letter has had such an important
influence on the discussions about the meaning of Ellen White's
Christology that I have placed a rather full discussion of it in the
next chapter. She did, however, make other notable statements on the
humanity of Christ during this period.
As in the two previous chapters, we will again use
the general headings of identity and uniqueness.
Let's first turn our attention to the
statements about Christ's identity.
Christ's Identity With Humanity: 1896-1902
The Desire of Ages and ChristologyWhen it comes to
Ellen White's expression of Christ's profound unity or identity with
human nature, we find few new developments during this important
period of her writing career.
This fact might seem strange, even a bit shocking,
when one considers that it was during these years that she completed
her "Life of Christ" project with the publication of such
books as Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (1896), The
Desire of Ages (1898), and Christ's Object
While The Desire of Ages is her most comprehensive work on the person of Christ and contains important statements
about His humanity, it is crucial to realize that most of her
statements about Christ's humanity in this much-revered work did not
first appear in The Desire of Ages.
The simple fact is that in this work she mainly drew
on her previous writings to express concepts that present Christ as
profoundly identified with our humanity.
Though we have already mentioned it, it bears
repeating that her most important gleaning from past publications was
the obvious usage of the important and foundational article published
in the Review of July 28, 1874. There she
spoke of Christ taking "man's nature" after "the race
had been weakened by four thousand years of sin" (DA 49),
"decreasing in physical strength, in mental power, and in moral
I do not in any way want to diminish the importance of
the book The Desire of Ages. It is
certainly the apex of her spiritual writing and is probably her most
revered work. But for our purposes, it really contributes nothing original to the way she explains Christ's
nature and the role that His humanity plays in our redemption.
Other Expressions of IdentityEllen
White also employed the rather sobering expression "sinful
nature" to describe Christ's humanity (RH, Dec. 15, 1896). She
used the term sparingly, with the Review statement
of December 15, 1896, being republished several times (RH, Aug. 22,
1907; ST, July 30, 1902). Then she used it in a letter in 1902:
"He took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature, that He might
know how to succor those that are tempted" (letter 67, 1902;
found in MM 181).
Although this expression "sinful nature"
seems a bit shocking when applied to Christ's humanity, it seems clear
that she meant it to convey the same idea as "fallen
nature," "weakness," "degeneracy," and "infirmities." When this use of the term "sinful
nature" is applied to Christ in this statement and compared with
her use of a similar expression, "sinful, fallen condition"
(a condition that would make Christ's atoning sacrifice unacceptable),
it immediately becomes apparent that Ellen White can employ the
expression "sinful nature" or "condition" in
different ways. If a "sinful condition" can make His
sacrifice ineffectual, it is obvious that this is an aspect of human
nature that is considerably more viral and
sinister than the meaning she gives to the expression
"sinful nature" used in the present statement under
consideration. In other words, it is one thing to be "affected by
sin" and have a "sinful nature" but quite another
matter to be "infected with sin" and have such an infection
nullify the effectual nature of His sacrifice. If we do not see this
distinction, we have put Ellen White in a gross contradiction.
Manuscript 166, dated December 15, 1898, deserves
further attention because of its contribution to her expression of
Christ's identity: "Christ did in reality unite the
offending nature of man with His own sin less nature,
because by this act of condescension, He would be enabled to pour out
His blood in behalf of the fallen race" (later published in RH,
July 17, 1900; italics supplied).
This somewhat unusual expression, "offending
nature of man," seems, in context, to be equivalent to "the
fallen race." By "offending nature" she could not
possibly have in mind a nature that was actively sinning, as
(whatever it meant) it was united to "His own sinless
nature." It could refer to a nature that had the possibility of
committing "offenses." What its precise meaning was is less
clear than what it didn't indicate.
Christ's Unique Humanity: 1896-1902
While the book The Desire of Ages
strongly emphasized Christ's identity, it did present some expressions
of uniqueness. "Jesus Himself was
free from physical deformity.... His physical structure was not marred
by any defect; His body was strong and healthy" (50). In
manuscript 18, 1898, she declared that "He was pure and
uncontaminated by any disease." In the thought of Ellen White,
Christ was a first-century Jew, but despite His "weakness"
and "infirmity," He had no physical defects. This is not
true of all other human beings.
"He was a child ... and spoke as a child; but no trace of sin
marred the image of God within Him.... It was necessary for Him to be
constantly on guard in order to preserve His purity" (DA
The expressions "no trace of sin marred the image of God within
Him" and that "His purity" was preserved imply a
different nature than humans naturally possess.
Other Important Statements of UniquenessThis period
contributed six other notable affirmations of Christ's uniqueness:
1. "It is not correct to say, as many writers
have said, that Christ was like all children. He was not like all
children" (YI, Sept. 8, 1898). She then declared later in the
same paragraph: "His inclination to right was a constant
gratification to His parents" (ibid.; italics supplied). The next
paragraph continued in the same vein. "No one, looking upon the
childlike countenance, shining with animation, could say that Christ
was just like other children" (ibid.).
I find this statement to be one of Ellen White's most
forceful and unequivocal declarations of Christ's uniquely sinless,
human nature. The phrase "His inclination to right" is very
compelling! Do you know any other human being who came into the world
with an "inclination to right"?
2. "He was born without a taint of sin, but came
into the world in like manner as the human family" (7BC 925).
Here Ellen White was very clear that "without a taint of
sin" referred to what He was born with-an obvious reference to
His sinless nature. It does not seem to have primary reference to His
history of flawless performance.
3. "Christ did in reality unite the offending
nature of man with His own sinless nature, because by this act of
condescension, He would be enabled to pour out His blood in behalf of
the fallen race" (MS 166, 1898; later published in RH, July 17,
1900). The reader should note that we have already examined this
statement from the perspective of its contribution to our
understanding of Christ's identity. But it also makes an interesting
comment on His uniqueness. It is clear that she had the beginning of
the Incarnation in focus, as she referred to the union of the
"offending nature of man" with "His own sinless
nature." So "sinless nature" definitely referred to His
heritage, not character development.
That the expression "His own sinless nature"
alludes to the sinlessness of His human nature, not His divine nature,
receives strong support from another statement published in the same
year: "Christ is a perfect representation of God on the one hand,
and a perfect specimen of sinless humanity on the other hand"
4. The thought that the best that humans (including "true
believers") can do must be made "acceptable to
God" by Christ's "own merit, which has no taint of earthly
corruption," found fully matured expression in manuscript 50, 1900
Ellen White declared that "the religious services,
the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true
believers" to the heavenly sanctuary. But since they pass through
"the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless
purified by blood, they can never be of value with God." Jesus,
however, as "the Intercessor, who is at God's right hand, presents
and purifies all by His righteousness." She then made this important
declaration: "All incense from earthly tabernacles" needs to be
cleansed with the "drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the
Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly
As was pointed out in chapter 2, this thought was but a
further expression of the implications of the intercessory ministry of
Christ in heaven. But what is particularly relevant to Christology was the
contention that even the best that believing humans can produce is
tainted by earthly corruption. This is in clear contrast to the merits of
Christ, which had no taint of earthly corruption. Sinful, believing humans
need intercession, but Christ's sinless humanity does not.
5. "He was to take His position at the head of
humanity by taking the nature but not the sinfulness of man" (ST, May
29, 1901). Note that this nature without "the sinfulness of man"
was what He took and not what He developed. In other words, the strong
implication was that a nature without sinfulness was His inheritance, not
His character improvement.
6. "In Him was no guile or sinfulness; He was ever
pure and undefiled; yet He took upon Him our sinful nature" (ST, July
30, 1902). Ellen White had expressed the same thought in a letter about
three months earlier: "He took upon His sinless nature our sinful
nature" (letter 67, 1902). Again the thought was what Christ took,
not what He formed in character.
These last two statements offer a fitting opportunity to bring this
developmental survey to a preliminary conclusion. Fitting in the sense
that the balanced, conversational tension of sinlessness and sinfulness
was most simply expressed in these 1902 expressions. She declared the
Redeemer to be both "sinless" and
"sinful" in nature, a delicate redemptive balance that she had
made evident since 1868.
The 1896-1902 Period Summation
As in the previous period, this one also demonstrated very
little new expression of Christ's identity with "fallen
It was in the area of expressing uniqueness that Ellen
White's thought reached full maturity. This maturity, however, manifested
itself in further clarification of expression rather than in stating
entirely new concepts.
Certainly the year 1898 is the key year of full maturity
in Ellen White's thinking on the humanity of Christ. To the already mature
expressions of identity (which had arrived by 1893) came further
clarifications of His uniqueness as the one without "evil
propensities" and "inclinations" to corruption, born
"without a taint of sin" in a "sinless nature."
Reflections on the 1889-1902 Era
First of all, we must again emphasize that the
Christology of Ellen White reached its fully mature expression by the year
1888. About the only important development that took place afterward had
to do with the concept of the blending of full, sinless humanity with
complete deity (as necessary to an effectual, atoning sacrifice). This
concept only came to a complete expression around 1890. While it had been
foreshadowed in the earlier era, it does seem significant that its
clearest statement came during the period of Ellen White's greatest
emphasis on justification by faith in the death of Christ, our substitute.
Second, we must point out that after 1893 she made no
further significant developments in her expression of identity.
The expressions of uniqueness did find further
elaboration, but no really marked development came during this entire era.
One of the important questions that we need to ask at this
juncture is why the important book The Desire of Ages mainly emphasized
His identity. As was noted previously in this chapter, uniqueness was
there, but the overwhelming expression was Christ's likeness to fallen
humanity so that He could succor3 in temptation. At the same
time her other
writings (letters, unpublished manuscripts, and
periodical articles) continued to clearly express the uniqueness of His
humanity. How are we to interpret this situation?
What appears to be going on is that, aside from the
emphasis on the blending of His deity and humanity, there is simply no
marked cause/effect relationship between her Christological expressions
after 1888 and the remarkable developments that took place in her
teachings on salvation. It is quite apparent that the Christological
foundations of her thought had been clearly laid before 1888.
At the time (between 1888 and 1892) when she was giving
her greatest accent to forgiveness and justification by faith in the
merits of Jesus, she continued to emphasize Christ's identity with sinful
humanity. And during the period when her published works gave great accent
to the importance of sanctification and character perfection (1896-1902),
she presented some of her most forceful expressions of the sinless
uniqueness of Christ's humanity.
On balance, there seems to be no consistent evidence to
demonstrate any sort of relationship between developments in Christology
and salvation after 1888.
Ellen White's Unique Use of Christology
It might be of some interest to the reader to know that
the forceful way Ellen White employed the humanity of Christ to express
His role as one who can succor in temptation was unique in the American
nineteenth-century religious revival of "holiness." No other
individual promoting sanctification and the life of victory over sin
appropriated the humanity of Christ as Ellen White did.
Such usage of the humanity of Christ found its most
controversial expression, however, in her now-famous letter to W.L.H.
Baker written in early 1896. The historical importance of this letter
provides a most fitting juncture at which we can complete our historical
survey in the next chapter.
1 The theme of Christ's pure and sinless childhood found expression as
early as the Signs of April 5, 1883: "The unsullied purity of the
childhood, youth, and manhood of Christ, which Satan could not taint,
annoyed him exceedingly." But it received its most forceful
expression in the Youth's Instructor, Sept. 8, 1898. [back] [top]
2 Once again we have come
face-to-face with this important statement introduced in the final
paragraphs of chapter 2 (which dealt with Ellen White's definition of
sin). This statement contains a theme that had been developing
since the 1870s, but that had become more explicit in the 1889-1892
period. [back] [top]
3 This word is an old expression that simply means to
give aid or help. [back] [top]