The Controversial Background
The so-called Baker letter was a rather lengthy
epistle Ellen White sent to a certain W.L.H. Baker. Baker had an extensive
editorial career, but at the time he received his letter in early 1896
he was doing pastoral-evangelistic work on the island of Tasmania. The
importance of the letter certainly doesn't derive from Baker's
prominence in Adventist ministerial or editorial activities or the
length of the document. Its basic significance arises out of five
paragraphs discussing the humanity of Christ. Some further background on
this letter's place in the history of Adventist discussions about
Christology might prove helpful.
The discovery and initial publication of this letter in the mid-1950s
was a wake-up call to the discussion of Christology. As already pointed
out in chapter l, until its publication there really had not been a
significant pre-Fall versus post-Fall debate in Adventism. Its
discovery was the main cause for the appearance of the pre-Fall school
of thought and provoked a rather marked raising of consciousness about
the many statements of Ellen White emphasizing Christ's sinless uniqueness.
The lively, often contentious debate the
letter sparked has yet to be fully resolved. Both the pre-Fall and
post-Fall camps have made strenuous efforts to explain the document.
The arguments of both groups have been somewhat heated and forced,
but it appears that the letter definitely has tilted the consensus of
Adventist thinking in the direction of those who would emphasize the
sinless uniqueness of
While the Baker letter has made a most important
contribution to this debate, it is by no means absolutely essential to
the establishment of Ellen White's position. Evidence already presented
in previous chapters should make it clear that both camps in the debate have
probably erred by not paying enough attention to the profoundly balanced
tensions between the elements of "sinfulness" and
"sinlessness" in Ellen White's thought.
Once again I invite the reader's closest attention to
the following analysis and interpretation of the Baker letter. If for no
other reason than its importance in sparking the present debate about
Ellen White's understanding of Christology, this letter demands our
careful examination. I also think the reader will be doctrinally and
devotionally blessed by the carefully worded counsels of Ellen White on
this critical subject.
As already mentioned, at the time he received his
letter from Ellen White, Baker was pastoring and doing evangelism in
Tasmania. Previous to this he had spent a number of years working at the
Pacific Press in California and then had joined the newly founded Echo
Publishing House in Australia. He had apparently found the transition
from the more scholarly task of editing to pastoral-evangelistic
ministry quite difficult. It was in these circumstances that Ellen White
wrote him a lengthy letter of encouragement and counsel (Larson 310,
It is readily apparent from the five critical
paragraphs on the nature of Christ that Baker's thinking was not
balanced. Apparently he was teaching that Christ had "inclinations
Lyell V. Heise has argued that Baker most likely
received his views (especially the concept that Christ had
"inclinations to corruption") from prominent, contemporary
Seventh-day Adventist writers (Heise 8-20). Such men clearly denied that Christ sinned by
act, but they did proclaim the "mystery" that He had a
"flesh laden with sin and with all the tendencies to sin, such as
ours is" (italics supplied). This last quotation features the
words of prominent Seventh-day Adventist editor and revivalist A. T.
Jones (BE, Nov. 30, 1896).
Heise has also suggested that Ellen White was rebuking
Baker for a Christology that reflected the views of prominent
Seventh-day Adventist preachers such as E. J. Waggoner and W. W.
Prescott (Heise 16, 19, 20). A. Leroy Moore opposed Heise's suggestion
with the contention that it "would . . . have been totally out of
character for White to rebuke an obscure ... young minister . . . to
correct the errors of ... prominent denominational theologians"
The evidence is not really compelling on these issues
one way or the other. I would suggest that what is clear is that Baker's
understanding of the humanity of Christ was very similar to that of A.
T. Jones, E. J. Waggoner, and W. W. Prescott. As to whether Ellen
White would seek to rebuke them by writing a letter to the obscure Baker
is really questionable. Ellen White seldom ever theologically corrected
any prominent ministers. Often she would affirm the basic thrust of a
man's ministry and overlook error in his teachings.
2 About the only
exception to this rule was when she perceived that individuals were
teaching concepts threatening one of the planks in the platform of
"present truth. "3
What, then, can we say about issues of context? On
balance, it is apparent that all efforts to clarify the context have
done little to shed any conclusive light on the meaning of the letter
itself. It therefore seems that the document's Christology must stand on its own
merits, and its doctrinal counsel is sufficiently clear in the immediate
The Letter's Major Burden
What is doctrinally clear is that the burden of the
Baker letter had to do with distorted views of Christ's humanity, not
His deity. Webster is quite correct when he argues that "a careful
analysis of the context of the five paragraphs reveals clearly that the burden of Ellen
White's thought is the humanity of Christ and not His divine
Analysis and Interpretation
I note some of the partisan arguments that this
letter has inspired, but I would also remind the reader that our main
effort here is to grasp what the letter contributes to a fuller
understanding of Ellen White's Christology. While we simply
cannot avoid such controversies, we will
strive to be as objective as possible. It is quite
probable that here, as in no other writing of Ellen White, we need to
lay a contentious spirit aside and carefully search out the meaning of
Interpretation of the Christological Paragraphs
As stated above, it is clear from the content of
the letter that the major burden of the five key paragraphs on
Christology was the humanity of Christ. After warning Baker to be
"careful, exceedingly careful" in his teaching on the "human nature of
Christ" (italics supplied), she warned him not to set Jesus
"before the people as a man with the propensities of sin."
This was in clear contrast to Adam's posterity, who were "born
with inherent propensities of disobedience." Later in this same
paragraph, after comparing Christ with the unfallen Adam, she
reinforced her point with the phrase that "not for one moment was
there in Him an evil propensity."
What Is an "Evil Propensity"?—One of the key
issues in interpreting the letter is the meaning of the word
The identity advocates have made
strenuous efforts to make it appear that "propensity implies a
`response to gravity,' `a definite hanging
down,' instead of resistance. It definitely connotes actual
participation in sin, and Ellen White used the word in its finest
English connotation" (Wieland, The 1888 Message 62).
First of all, Wieland's suggested interpretation of
"propensity" goes against the usual and common everyday
sense in which people use the word. One is curious as to what
dictionary or thesaurus Wieland consulted that enables him to justify
his suggestion that
the term "propensity" implies an "actual participation
Wieland has proposed that "propensities of
sin," an "evil propensity," or "inclination to
corruption" only imply that Christ actually "yielded to
corruption." He denies that such expressions refer to
proclivities, or a proneness, to sin.
In other words, by equating "propensity to
sin" with actual acts of yielding to sin, Wieland takes away
the clear intent of Ellen White's message, which goes something like
the following: When she says Christ had
no propensity or proclivity to sin, she only meant
that He did not participate in actual acts of sin. Thus Christ,
according to Wieland, did have, just like sinful humans, proclivities to
sin—He simply did not yield to them.
It seems clear to this writer that Ellen White was
saying to Baker that Christ had neither sinful propensities in His human
nature nor actual acts of sin in His life record.
Second, Wieland ignores the way Ellen White used
"propensity" in the immediate literary context of the letter.
She spoke of Adam's posterity being "born with inherent
propensities of disobedience." Eric C. Webster has persuasively
maintained that "if one is born with such a propensity one would
question Wieland's definition of `propensity"' as "`actual
participation in sin"' (Webster 132).
Certainly Ellen White's own usage of the term should
determine its meaning in this context. It seems clear that
"propensities of sin," "inherent propensities of
disobedience," and "an evil propensity" are all expressions
describing what Adam's children are born with, not their
character development. The obvious implication, however, is that Christ
was not born with such natural inclinations to sin.
The Adam/Christ Comparison Continued—She declared that
"Adam was created a pure, sinless being, without a taint of sin
upon him." Then two paragraphs later she plainly admonished Baker
to "never, in any way, leave the slightest impression upon human minds that a
taint of or inclination to corruption rested upon Christ."
Again, the context of the Christ/Adam comparison
strongly suggests that her expression that Christ was "without a
taint of sin" refers to His natural inheritance as comparable
to (not contrasted with) the "pure,
sinless" "first Adam," whom God "created ...
without a taint of sin upon him." Thus it seems fair to conclude
that the phrase no "taint of or inclination to corruption"
refers to the human nature that Christ naturally came into the world
with-in clear contrast to what corrupt humans are born with.
Also, the close association of the expressions "inclination to
corruption" (which Christ did not have) and "a taint of ...
corruption" (which Christ also did not have) strongly suggests that
the two expressions were equivalent in meaning.
Furthermore, it seems most obvious that the meaning
of the word "inclination" is here equivalent to
"propensity." As noted earlier in this chapter (especially
footnote 5), a quick glance at any dictionary or thesaurus of the English
language (either contemporary
to Ellen White or from our time) clearly demonstrates that
"propensity" is equated with "tendency."
Furthermore, not one of the dictionary entries comes close to suggesting
that the terms "propensity" and "inclination" (or
any of their synonyms) imply an "actual participation in sin."
Thus it is quite evident that these expressions referred to natural
tendencies, leanings, or a bent toward sin. Christ did not possess them,
and this was clearly in contrast to Adam's posterity, who did!
An Important Consideration—The key sentence referred
to in the previous two paragraphs needs some further analysis. She
plainly admonished Baker: "Never, in any way, leave the slightest
impression upon human minds that a taint of or inclination to corruption
rested upon Christ, or that He in any way yielded to corruption."
Her obvious intent was to warn Baker to present
Christ as one who was sinless both in nature (in the sense that no
"taint of or inclination to corruption rested upon Christ")
and actions (He never "in any way yielded to corruption"). She
did not equate the
expression "a taint of or inclination to corruption" with the
expression "yielded to corruption." This point rejects
Wieland contends that "Ellen White equated the
idea of `a taint of, or inclination to, corruption' resting on Christ as
the same as His yielding to `corruption"' (Wieland, An Introduction
In other words, he sees "a taint of or inclination
to corruption" as
being explained or defined by the expression "He ... never ... in
any way yielded to corruption."
It is apparent that Wieland's interpretation has distorted her
meaning in this sentence. Ellen White obviously meant to express the
thought that Christ was sinless in the sense that He had neither an
"inclination to corruption" nor a
personal history in which He actually "yielded to corruption."
"Inclination to" and "yield[ing] to" are two closely
related but definitely distinguishable concepts. I respectfully submit
that Wieland's theological agenda has forced an equation of meanings in
which a distinction is clearly the intentional message Ellen White
sought to convey.
Uniqueness Further Clarified—The Baker letter has
some further expressions of uniqueness. She referred to Christ as
"that holy thing" and then proceeded to express the
"mystery that is left unexplained that Christ could be tempted in
all points like as we are, and yet be without sin."
Ellen White saw a "mystery" in the fact
that Christ was "without sin" and that this sinlessness of
Christ (in not yielding to temptation) is a part of the larger mystery
of the "incarnation of Christ [that] has ever been, and will ever
remain a mystery." She did not
attempt to explain this mystery, but simply declared the unique fact
that (for whatever reasons) Christ did not yield to sin.
It is interesting that she then advised Baker to
"let every human being be warned from the ground of making Christ
altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be."
As stated earlier, it is quite possible that Baker
was presenting Christ as having both "inclinations to" and an
actual "yielding to" corruption. Ellen White understood the
mystery of His uniqueness as
precluding both. Whatever his views were, it is clear that she
opposed the views that Christ either sinned by actual acts of
transgression (yielding to corruption) or had inclinations to
While the Baker letter has not decisively settled the
debate about the nature of Christ, it has played an important role. It
has certainly been a compelling statement in support of the so-called
pre-Fall position, and the supporters of the post-Fall
7 teaching have
struggled with it valiantly. But as the dust has begun to settle in this
lengthy theological debate, it seems that the message of the Baker
letter clearly weighs in on the "preFall" side. Its
terminology obviously seems to point to a profoundly sinless uniqueness
in the nature of Christ.
It is tempting at this point to weigh in with my own
personal understanding of Ellen White's overall view on Christology. I
have certainly given some strong hints as to my own views of her
teaching, but a fuller
statement of my interpretation has to await the final
section of this work. It is to this interpretive section that we now
turn our attention.
The Ellen G. White Estate has listed this document
as letter 8, 1895, and it appears in volume 5 of The Seventh, day Adventist
(pp. 1128, 1129). Although it is dated 1895, Lyell Heise, in "The
Christology of Ellen G. White Letter 8, 1895," has presented
evidence that it was actually written in 1896.
Probably the best examples of this were the numerous
persons who held Arian positions on the nature of Christ, but received
no rebuke for their Arian thinking (here Uriah Smith immediately comes
to mind).[back] [top]
Prime examples of such rebukes were her strong
testimonies given to Dr.). H. Kellogg and Albion F. Ballenger. Both men
held views that she felt subtly undermined the Adventist position on the
sanctuary doctrine.[back] [top]
For a detailed discussion of Ellen White's use of the
word "propensity,' we urge the reader to review the discussion in
chapter 6.[back] [top]
Although Wieland does refer to the Oxford English
Dictionary as defining the meaning of propensity to be "to hang or
lean forward or downward,' nothing was discovered in any of the standard
dictionaries (including the Oxford English Dictionary) that comes even
close to supporting Wieland's suggestion that "propensity' be
understood to imply" a 'response to gravity,' `a definite hanging
down,' instead of resistance." Wieland then goes on to claim that
propensity "definitely connotes actual participation in sin, and
Ellen White used the word in its finest English connotation" (Wieland,
The 1888 Message, p.
62). The following standard dictionaries fail to support Wieland's
suggested definition of "propensity": Funk and Wagnalls New
Standard Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Funk and
Wagnalls, 1945); Webster's New International
Dictionary of the
English Language, second ed., unabridged (Springfield, Mass.: G. &
C. Merriam Co., 1934); Oxford Universal English Dictionary on Historical
Principles (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936, Vol. VII); A
New English Dictionary on Historical Principles
(popularly known as Oxford English Dictionary) (Oxford: The Clarendon
Press, 1909 Vol. VII); The American Heritage Dictionary of the English
Language (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1969);
Encyclopaedic Dictionary, new revised (Boston: Newspaper Syndicate,
Wieland seems to suggest the same interpretation of
this portion of the Baker letter in "The Golden Chain," pp. 68,69.
1 want the reader to understand that I use the expressions pre-Fall
and post-Fall in this context as only a concession to the unhappy
history that we are talking about. I have tried to use my suggested
terms—identity and uniqueness—and
will continue to do so except when I have to speak of history.