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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Seven

The Humanity of Christ and Salvation After 1888: 
Part 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 Christology—When 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 Lessons (1900).


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 worth" (
ibid. 117).

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
Identity—Ellen 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 71).1 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 Uniqueness—This 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" (7BC 907).


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 (1SM 340-344).2

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 corruption."

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 humanity."

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]

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