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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Ten

To "Historic Adventism": 
A Proposal for Dialogue and Reconciliation1

During the past few years individuals and groups that have reacted strongly to a range of questions facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church have used the expression "historic Adventism" to identify their particular understanding of these issues. The issues in question include the atonement, the humanity of Christ, 2 the emphasis on justification by faith, 1888 and its meaning, the Desmond Ford crisis (and other threats to the sanctuary doctrine), Walter Rea and challenges to the authority and integrity of Ellen White, styles of worship, and Adventist lifestyle concerns. They use "historic Adventism" to imply strongly that the "historical" interpretation is the "orthodox" and "traditional" brand of standard Adventism.3  

The comments in this chapter dealing with historic Adventism's claims regarding Adventist doctrinal orthodoxy will largely be restricted to the nature of Christ, especially His humanity. But before we begin our examination of the relationship of the nature of Christ to the central truths that have historically defined Adventist theology, I would first of all like to confess my convictions regarding the absolute centrality of Christ.

Adventist theology has confessed Christ's full divinity (as the second person of the divine Trinity) and His full humanity. The issue that has divided the church, especially in the past 40 years, has to do with just how closely Christ "identified" with humanity.


The so-called historic Adventists have wanted to elevate their distinctive views on the humanity of Christ to the level of a "pillar" or plank in the "platform of present truth." Is there evidence from Ellen White and the Adventist history of doctrinal development to support such a claim?

Certainly confessing the full humanity of Christ has become a part of the Adventist doctrinal heritage and absolutely central to a full understanding of how God goes about redeeming the lost. But can we raise the particular understandings and teachings of the "historics" (or any Adventists) to the same status?

Clarification of Terminology

Instead of "historic" or "traditional Adventism," I would suggest the following: "Christian, or eternal, verities" for basic doctrines embraced by Adventists and held by most other Christians, 4 "essential Adventism" for that which is distinctively Adventist, "processive Adventism" for those issues that are important but still unsettled, and "nonessential Adventism"5 to describe that which is interesting, but not central to Adventist self-understanding.

In view of the terms I have suggested as the framework for the discussion to follow, I would suggest that we see the confession of Christ's full deity and humanity as a part of the "Christian, or eternal, verities"

that Adventism confesses with the larger Christian tradition. As to the issue of just how identical His full humanity is to our sinful nature, I would tentatively suggest that we place this question in the category of  "processive Adventism" rather than "essential Adventism." Is there evidence from both Ellen White and Adventist history to support the classifications I have suggested? Before answering this question, let's take a closer look at the expression "historic Adventism."

Historic Adventism: The Perplexing History

In addition to the divisive and polemical connotations of such expressions as "historic Adventism," I would suggest some historical reasons for regarding the term as of questionable value in Adventist theological discussion and development.


One does not have to study very far into Adventist history before discovering numerous theological wrecks lying on the Adventist doctrinal highway. They certainly qualify as historic, but they have not stood the test of time and theological scrutiny. 6 The semi-Arianism of many of our most prominent pioneers is a theological dead letter today (Schwarz 167, 168, 395ff.).7 I have not met an Adventist Arian in my lifetime! Yet Arianism is part of Adventist history and could qualify historically as historic Adventism! We could say the same of early views about when the Sabbath should begin, early understandings of Systematic Benevolence, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and the shut door. Could it be that some views presently held as very near and dear to historic (and other) Adventists will go the way of Arianism?

We should also mention that such issues as the human nature of Christ, the interpretation of 1888, and the meaning of Christian perfection have always had differing interpretations in the Adventist doctrinal tradition. It is becoming clearer to this writer, a self-confessed former post-Fall perfectionist, that advancing research suggests that the so-called historic Adventists have no corner on any orthodox understanding of these issues.

Christ's Humanity: A Brief Interpretive History

While Ralph Larson has demonstrated (in The Word Was Made Flesh) that a rather strong consensus on a post-Fall view existed until the middle 1950s, George Knight has also shown that there was provocative opposition to the post-Fall view of none other than A. T. Jones in the mid-1890s (Knight 132-150).

I would also submit that the interpretation of 1888 that holds that the key emphases generated by that crisis were the post-Fall view of Christ's humanity and the issue of perfection is becoming more suspect
with advancing research (Knight 36ff.). While it is true that Jones and Waggoner were strong proponents of the post-Fall view of Christ's humanity and perfection, one searches the 1888 comments of Ellen White in vain for any statements that emphasize the humanity of Christ and perfection as major Minneapolis issues.8 To the contrary, it is becoming


clearer that 1888 represented a theological crisis and was, in the thinking of Ellen White, primarily a crisis brought on by a misunderstanding of justification by faith and a lack of charity in theological discourse.9

"Essential Adventism" Further Clarified Historically

As mentioned above, I am proposing the expression "essential Adventism"10as a more inclusive, workable term in seeking to resolve what we mean by distinctive Adventism. I am suggesting that it would include doctrines and issues that have (1) achieved wide consensus and (2) given Adventism its distinctive theological and practical flavor, as opposed to what I have called "processive" issues.

Consider a few of the following historical precedents and some of the implications they suggest:

1. Adventism and Creeds—Adventism has always taken a rather dim view of creeds, and it seems as though the persons who use such expressions as historic Adventism would very much like to see Adventism go a strongly creedal route-the implication being that if you don't see it our way, you are not a sound Adventist and are opening up a Pandora's box of compromise, sin, and degenerate apostasy. Such attitudes do not seem to fit the mold of the anticreedal, broader Adventist theological framework.

2. The Tension Between the "Pillars" and "New Light"—A tension has always existed between the "pillars" of present truth and "new light." An essential conservatism in Adventist theological formation has always pulled back when new light has been proposed, but there has also been a clear understanding that "we have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn" (CWE 37; also see Schwarz 393, 394).

So while we have things to conserve, we also have things to let go of and new things to pick up on. If we get too tight and too specific, we may frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing forth fresh insights from the Word of God.

Adventism's "Essential" Doctrinal Framework

What should be the Christian and "essential" framework of Adventist theological discourse?


First the broadly Christian. Adventism is primarily Christian in the sense of upholding the great verities of the faith. We strongly affirm such doctrines as the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the Lord's Supper.

In a more focused way, we are thoroughly Protestant in that we take biblical authority as the court of last resort in matters of faith and practice (as opposed to tradition, ecclesiastical authority, and even postbiblical prophets or revelations) and emphasize justification by faith, not human works, as the basis of salvation.

I would further suggest that we have appropriated important strands from (1) Wesleyanism/Arminianism, especially in our form of church governance, God's respect for the integrity of human choice, and emphasis on the importance of sanctification; (2) Restorationism, with its emphasis on seeking to restore the primitive simplicity of the New Testament church, building "the old waste places," repairing "the breach," and restoring "paths to dwell in" (Isa. 58:12); and (3) the Baptist tradition, with its emphasis on believers' baptism by immersion and religious freedom.

We are thus broadly in agreement with the basic orthodoxy of the Christian tradition and we are thoroughly Protestant. All of this is certainly essential to our Christian self-understanding. Adventism, how ever, has a more distinctive, essential cast that goes beyond the great eternal verities of our Christian and Protestant heritages.

Before we venture a suggestion as to what the distinctive essentials of Adventism might be, we should first ask what constitutes the theological essentials of a given tradition. It seems that theological essentials consist of doctrines and practices that a tradition could not do without and still retain its unique identity. Such a tradition might share numerous theological commonalities with other traditions, but such distinctive essentials would be what give it its special identity.

Perhaps we can best illustrate this distinctiveness by a brief comparison of Adventism with Confessional Lutheranism.

Adventists want to affirm justification by faith and the "presence" of Jesus in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Adventism, however,


has not been comfortable with the Confessional Lutheran emphasis on "faith alone" that has tended to exclude an emphasis on sanctification. Neither have we accepted the liturgical, literalistic understanding of "presence" in the Lord's Supper. As Adventists we have tended to see the elements as more symbolic, while affirming the spiritual power and effects of the ceremony. Yet it is this more rigorous "faith alone" understanding of justification and the literal presence of Jesus in the Lord's Supper that give Lutheranism its distinctiveness (Dayton and Johnston, 222-244).

"Adventist Essentials" Identified—What gives Adventism its special, distinctive flavor? What are those essentials that, if one took them away, would leave Adventism theologically emasculated? What are those doctrines that, taken together, have given us our theological identity?

I would suggest the following: the second coming of Jesus as literal, visible, cataclysmic, imminent, posttribulation, and premillennial; the millennium as a distinct period coming between the Second Coming and the final executionary judgment of the wicked and the setting up of the everlasting earthly kingdom; the application of "historicist" as opposed to "preterist" and "futurist" principles of prophetic interpretation (especially in the study of the books of Daniel and Revelation); the eternal and universal authority of the law of God; the seventh-day Sabbath as a moral requirement for New Testament Christians and the eschatological sign of trusting and obedient Christians in the last days; the sanctuary and pre-Advent judgment teaching, with its emphasis on Christ as our high priestly advocate, judge, justifier, and sanctifier; the understanding of human nature, especially as this interpretation points to the importance of physical health, the conditional nature of immortality, and the utter annihilation of the wicked; and the "formative"11 theological influence of Ellen White as an authoritative prophet of God. These, I would suggest, are the distinctive essentials of Adventism.

They are the truths that have stood the test of time and been expounded with a strong consensus in our journals and books, have been proclaimed by our pastors and evangelists, and are supported by Ellen White.


Ellen White and the Essentials

In reference to Ellen White, I would suggest that she supported all of the above-listed essentials. She, however, advocated an even more limited listing of the essentials, or landmarks.

In the crisis-laden atmosphere of 1888, facing the charge that the new emphasis on justification by faith would do away with the landmarks, Ellen White gave a rather terse definition of distinctive Adventism. Referring to "the cleansing of the sanctuary in heaven," its "decided relation to God's people on the earth," and the three angels' messages, she declared that "one of the landmarks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the law of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God's law. The nonimmortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks. All this cry about changing the old landmarks is all imaginary" (CWE 30, 31).

I find it instructive that when Ellen White found herself in a crisis atmosphere regarding the issues of righteousness by faith, facing charges that the justificationist emphasis was endangering the pillars and the landmarks, she could in response only suggest a few issues that were the distinctive essentials of Adventism. She was even more succinct in her listing of landmarks than I have been in suggesting the essentials.

The Implications for Historic Adventism

Would it be fair to conclude that when we get into disagreements about righteousness by faith (and closely related issues such as the humanity of Christ), we need to be cautious about questioning the legitimacy of the Adventist credentials of any person who might have a differing perspective?

Taken as a whole, these essentials have given Adventism a clearly identifiable theological cast that is uniquely its own. Some of these points we share with others, some are quite uniquely our own, but taken together they make Seventh-day Adventism "essentially" Adventist!


Is it asking too much to agree that all who affirm these essentials can be called Adventist despite differing perspectives on issues related to righteousness by faith and the more distinctive understandings of Christ's humanity? I would suggest that within this suggested framework of essential Adventism, standing on the platform of the great eternal verities that we share with most Bible-affirming Christians (especially Protestants), we have plenty of room to move and develop theologically without having to engage in divisive doctrinal jousts.

If one affirms these essentials, it would seem that there ought to be room enough to discuss, even vigorously dialogue about, controverted "processive" issues.

The Humanity of Christ: A Suggested Approach

How, then, should we approach such an issue as the humanity of Christ?

I would suggest that we should begin with a realistic hope that the issue can be resolved! With the history of how we have come to clarity over the Arian issue, the time to commence the Sabbath, the "law in Galatians," and Systematic Benevolence, we can be at least moderately optimistic about finding resolution on this processive issue. Such resolution will not come, though, unless we are willing to grant some breathing room within the framework of essential Adventism.

Before offering some questions about and tentative solutions to the issues of Christology, I would like to remind us of some simple procedural methods that should prove helpful in resolving theological disagreements."12

Procedural Methods—First, we need to cultivate a prayerful, humble, and teachable spirit; be willing to give up a cherished opinion, esteeming others better than ourselves; and have a spirit of openness to God's unfolding light.

Second, we should listen carefully and charitably to what our partners in theological dialogue are saying.

Third, we should state any position clearly, but humbly, seeking to give partners in dialogue every respect for their position.


And last, partners in theological dialogue should find agreement on as many points as possible. Let's seek the common ground before moving into controverted quicksand.

Basic Suggestions and Questions to Ponder—What I am suggesting in the following paragraphs is a preliminary theological agenda for earnest dialogue aimed at reconciling some of the divisions within Adventism. It is not meant to be an exhaustive or final treatment of the issues themselves. Clearly Christology and perfection (and their deep interrelatedness) are the undergirding issues that drive most doctrinal discussions that deeply concern historic Adventists. Essential Adventists of every hue should affirm historic Adventism's desire to exalt the humanity of Jesus and its emphasis on His identity with fallen sinners. Historic Adventists have been correct in giving this aspect of Christology an emphasis it so richly deserves and in recognizing that both the Bible and Ellen White give this theme due attention, attention often sadly lacking in the Christian tradition. We can heartily affirm that Jesus has a profound identity with our fallen humanity and has certainly experienced our "infirmities."

Other sincere Adventists, however, have had some deep reservations about the so-called post-Fall position because it has raised some troubling questions in their minds.

Some Questions for "Historics" to Ponder—In all of the zeal to emphasize His identity, has there not been a tendency to seek simplistic and dogmatic expressions of mysteries that have challenged Christian thinkers for 2,000 years? Has there not been a tendency to neglect the understanding that, from birth, Jesus had to be sinless in nature as well as in actions if He is to be both a victorious helper and a fully sinless and effective substitute? Can Jesus really be our justifying substitute if He is just like us in nature? Could Jesus, who never sinned once, be exactly like us, when we have engaged in all sorts of "habitual" sin? Does not repetitive sin deepen its hold on us to a greater extent than it does over a person who has never once indulged?

Could it be that the view of sin espoused by the post-Fall advocates is too superficial? Is not sin more than just bad actions and poor choices? Isn't it also the fruit of a profoundly deranged nature steeped in a selfishness that "is inwrought in our very being" and that "has come to us as


an inheritance" (HS 138, 139)? If Jesus was just like us, are we prepared to declare that He was "naturally depraved" and "born with inherent propensities of disobedience," both expressions Ellen White applies to sinners but never to Jesus (IHP 163; 5BC 1128)? Again I ask: Could Jesus really be just like us in nature and still be our sinless substitute?

What of the epochal Baker letter? Are we really to believe that when Ellen White says that we are never to "leave the slightest impression upon human minds that a taint of, or inclination to, corruption rested upon Christ" (QOD 652) she means only that He did not give in to temptation? What does she mean when she admonishes that "every human being be warned from the ground of making Christ altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be" (ibid.)? Has there not been a tendency to ignore, even twist, the obvious meaning of contrary evidence from the writings of Ellen White?

In the light of such evidence from the Bible and the pen of Ellen White that appears problematic to the post-Fall position, would it be possible for one to hold a post-Fall view as a matter of processive opinion and not absolutely essential Adventist orthodoxy? Could we all apply the following to ourselves?

"God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed" (CWE 37).

Nobody is asking anyone to give up any views because of coercion, but could they be held as sincere personal opinion without being divisive and judgmental?

Would it be enough to profess something like the following?

Jesus was sufficiently like us in nature (a deep identity) to really be able to identify with our struggles in temptation and give us every victory needed to make it through to the kingdom, and yet also is sufficiently unlike us (a profound uniqueness) to be sinless enough in nature and performance to be our fully satisfactory, sinless substitute.


Again, I must emphasize that I have not attempted to be thorough or comprehensive in addressing the nature of Christ, but this is the type of questioning dialogue that I would suggest could help us out of the present impasse. We should say much more about issues that trouble sincere historic Adventists, but I trust that we have only just begun.

How Shall We Proceed?

First, I would urge that we start with all charity and patience by seeking to be as affirming of one another as we possibly can. With firmness of conviction, tempered with much listening and deep sympathy, progress can be made.

Second, I would urge that the expression "historic Adventism" has become so controversial that we need new expressions and a more inclusive theological framework and atmosphere if we are to find some resolution to the present, divisive impasse.

I would therefore urge that we lay aside such phrases as "historic Adventism," "traditional Adventism," and anew theology" 13as divisive buzzwords and needless red flags that bring neither constructive doctrinal resolution nor accurate historical insight.

Is it possible to lay aside such derogatory expressions now, seek the common ground of essential Adventism, and proceed with all humility, charity, and honesty to the dialogue on processive Adventism? One of my deepest longings is that historic Adventists will answer my appeal affirmatively and that believers who do not share their particular burdens will be open, charitable, accepting, and patient in Christian respect. In the grace of Jesus I am optimistic that this impasse can be broken and that the Advent movement can more efficiently and unitedly get on with its mission!


1  This chapter is an edited version of an article that appeared in the October 1993 Ministry entitled "Essential Adventism or Historic Adventism?"[back] [top]

2  These persons especially see the treatment of these issues in the publication of Questions on Doctrine as taking a tragically sinister and compromising direction. [back] [top]

3  For a recent example of the use of such terminology, see Our Firm Foundation 7, No. 3 (1992): 2-7. [back] [top]

4  See Questions on Doctrine, pp. 21-25 [back] [top]

5  See Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 169-175. Because of the limited space and their relative lack of importance, 1 will not include a discussion of nonessentials. [back] [top]

6  For more background on Adventist doctrinal development, see Schwarz's Light Bearers to the Remnant, especially pp. 166-182. [back] [top]


7  Professor C. Mervyn Maxwell also has an excellent discussion of Adventist Arianism in A. V. Wallenkampf and W. Richard Lesher's The Sanctuary and the Atonement, pp. 530-533. [back] [top]

8  The reader is urged [o ponder carefully the wonderful facsimile collection of Ellen White's comments on 1888 in the four volumes of The Ellen White 1888 Materials [back] [top]

9  For further background and discussion of this issue, see Whidden, Ellen White on Salvation, pp. 87-98. [back] [top]

10  I am indebted to Richard Schwarz for these terms. See his discussion in Light Bearers, pp. 393-407. [back] [top]

11  I am using the expression "formative" quite technically in relationship to the more final and authoritative technical expression "normative." Adventism has always held to the Bible and the Bible alone as the ultimate normative standard of faith and practice, but it has also affirmed that Ellen White's counsels and theological insights have pointed the way and confirmed biblical truth. Yet we have always held that her definitions must ultimately be subject to biblical evidence. This use of Ellen White is in marked contrast to the Mormon altitude toward the writings of Joseph Smith or Christian Science's use of Mary Baker Eddy.  [back] [top]

12  See Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 29-54, for the basic source of the following suggestions. [back] [top]

13  In a quick look at the published writings of Ellen G. White on compact disc, I was unable to locate a single instance in which she employed them as terms. [back] [top]

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