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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Eight

The Baker Letter

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 1 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 Christ's humanity.


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.

The Context

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, 311).

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 to corruption."

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" (Moore 263).

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 literary context.

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 nature" (130).

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 her words.

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 "propensity."4 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 in sin."5

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's interpretation.

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 33).6 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 corruption.


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.

1  The Ellen G. White Estate has listed this document as letter 8, 1895, and it appears in volume 5 of The Seventh, day Adventist Bible Commentary (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. [back] [top]

2  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]

3  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]

4  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]

5  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, 1897).[back] [top]

6  Wieland seems to suggest the same interpretation of this portion of the Baker letter in "The Golden Chain," pp. 68,69. [back] [top]

7  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. [back] [top]

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