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Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II



Chapter Eleven

"The Lower and Higher Natures:
The Key to Resolving the
Adventist Christology Debate"

by Kevin Paulson

Woodrow Whidden claims at one point that "for Ellen White, `nature' usually refers to a person's inheritance, or what he or she is `naturally' born with" (p. 34). Here is a serious understatement, but nevertheless one that touches the key by which we can settle this entire controversy.

The Bible is clear that both lower and higher forces exist in human nature. Jesus declared, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). Paul spoke of bringing his body into subjection (1 Cor.9:27). Contrary to what some have alleged, this has nothing to do with the body/soul dualism of Greek or popular Christian thought, nor is it related in any way to what happens to people when they die. While Seventh-day Adventists teach a wholistic view of human nature, we cannot deny the inspired truth that different forces exist within human beings.

Ellen White clearly makes this distinction: "The will is not the taste or the inclination, but it is the deciding power" (5T 513). In numerous statements she describes the need for the lower passions to remain subject to the higher powers of the being (MH 130; CH 41, 42; 5T 335; COL 354; RH, Dec. 1, 1896; AH 127,128; MYP 237).

In one of the above statements she makes it clear that the lower, fleshly nature is of itself not capable of sinning: "The lower passions have


their seat in the body and work through it. The words `flesh' or `fleshly' or `carnal lusts' embrace the lower, corrupt nature; the flesh of itself cannot act contrary to the will of God. We are commanded to crucify the flesh, with the affections and lusts" (AH 127, 128).

Once we understand this distinction between the lower and higher natures, we can better understand the two types of Ellen White statements on passions and propensities relative to human beings, as well as the two types of statements relative to the humanity of Christ.

Whidden quotes a number of Ellen White statements that say Jesus did not possess the same passions and propensities (tendencies) to sin as we ourselves (2T 201, 202, 509; 5BC 1128; 16MR 182), as well as others that say clearly that He did (Ms. 73, 1892 [partially cited in IHP 155]; ST, Apr. 9, 1896; Oct. 17, 1900). He claims that the passions described in the latter group of statements "probably referred to normal human desires, appetites, feelings, or emotions rather than perverted desires that naturally tend to break over the bounds of lawful expression" (pp. 53, 54).

But a careful look at the statements, both on the surface and in context, makes it clear that his interpretation is not possible. Ironically, Whidden quotes enough of the context of the statement from manuscript 73, 1892, to demolish his own argument. Listen to Ellen White's words: "If you indulge in a nasty spirit, and give utterance to passionate words and foolish talk, you bring forth from the treasure of the heart evil things."

Then she says of Christ: "Though He had all the strength and passion of humanity, never did He yield to temptation to do one single act which was not pure and elevating and ennobling" (ibid.).

Elsewhere she comments: "The words of Christ encourage parents to bring their little ones to Jesus. They may be wayward, and possess passions like those of humanity, but this should not deter us from bringing them to Christ. He blessed children that were possessed of passions like His own" (ST, Apr. 9, 1896; italics supplied).

It is utterly impossible for Whidden to explain away these statements as referring to "normal human desires" rather than "perverted desires" (pp. 53, 54). We read here of the spirit of hastiness, evil things concealed


in the treasure of the heart (in this case the lower nature), and that while Jesus had all the strength of such passions, He never yielded to the temptation to do anything impure, degrading, or ignoble. When she speaks of children blessed by Jesus possessing passions "like His own," and in the previous sentence talks about our children being "wayward" with "passions like those of humanity," what kind of passions could she possibly be referring to except perverted ones? Would the sinless, unperverted passions of Adam and Eve in our children be likely to deter us from bringing them to Christ?

How, then, do we harmonize these statements with those that clearly deny that Jesus had our passions and propensities to sin? By understanding the principle we have already established from Scripture and Ellen White-that of the lower and higher natures. When Ellen White says He had our passions, she is talking about the lower nature, which of itself cannot sin (AH 127). But when she says He did not have our passions, she is referring to the higher nature, which involves the will and behavioral choices.

This is more clearly explained when we find statements that speak of the need to "cast out" evil passions (DA 305); that "as we partake of the divine nature, hereditary and cultivated tendencies to wrong are cut away from the character"; and that "we need not retain one sinful propensity" (7BC 943; see also TM 171, 172; MYP 42). Notice that she describes these tendencies as being cut away from the character (higher nature), not from the flesh (lower nature). Clearly, when she speaks of evil passions cast out and sinful propensities not retained, she is not teaching "holy flesh," since we read elsewhere, "Appetite and passion must be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. There is no end to the warfare this side of eternity" (CT 20).

In his effort to prove that our inherited sinful nature is the same as sin itself, Whidden repeatedly cites one of the most commonly distorted Ellen White statements in the current Adventist salvation controversy, from Selected Messages, book 1, page 344 (see also FW 23, 24; Whidden cites this on pages 23, 24, 64, 65, 88, 89). In these statements Ellen White says the words and deeds even of true believers are so defiled by


their corrupt human channels that they need purification by Christ's blood. Whidden implies that this is a forensic purification thrown over our actions as soon as they arrive in the heavenly sanctuary, since original sin has supposedly polluted even sanctified behavior.  

But other Ellen White statements using the same or similar language as Selected Messages, book 1, page 344, make it clear that this is not a forensic purification applied to the books of heaven, but an internal purification directed from heaven but taking place in the heart and life. She states that "man's obedience can be made perfect only by the incense of Christ's righteousness, which fills with divine fragrance every act of obedience" (AA 532; italics supplied; see also 7BC 909; ChS 263; IHP 72).

Quite obviously, the process here described is not forensic, but internal. Our prayers and praise and obedience ascend through the corrupt channels of our fallen natures to the heavenly sanctuary, but it is while they ascend through those channels-not when they get to heaven that they receive purification.

Twice Whidden asks whether Jesus could be our saving, sacrificial substitute and still be called "depraved," corrupt, and be characterized as having natural propensities and tendencies to sin-a "bent" to evil (p. 22; see also pp. 87, 88). Whidden firmly answers no! (pp. 22, 89). But Ellen White firmly answers yes (Ms. 73, 1892; ST, Apr. 9, 1896; Oct. 17, 1900; 4BC 1147). Such tendencies and passions remained confined to His lower, fleshly nature, which of itself is incapable of sin (AH 127). He never permitted the lower passions and propensities to possess His higher nature. And the glorious truth of Scripture and Ellen White, enshrined at the heart of classic Adventism, is that through His power the fleshly nature may be subdued in us, as it was in Him (Rom. 8:3, 4), and His sinless life reproduced in ours. In closing:

"The Saviour is wounded afresh and put to open shame when His people pay no need to His word. He came to this world and lived a sinless life, that in His power His people might also live lives of sinlessness" (RH, April 1, 1902).


Reply to Paulson

Kevin Paulson has raised a very important issue in his proposed distinction between the "lower and higher natures" of Christ. His interpretation clearly maintains that Christ had a "lower" nature that included "perverted desires." He claims that it is "utterly impossible ... to explain away" the statements I cite as referring only to "normal human desires." I, however, find his interpretation hanging on a very thin thread of evidence.

I must confess that part of the problem with one of Paulson's key pieces of evidence is how I originally cited the statement from manuscript 73, 1892, in Appendix B of the original manuscript draft of this book. When I found a copy of the original manuscript 73, 1892, in its full context, I discovered the following:

The first part of the statement that speaks of a "hasty spirit," giving "utterance to passionate words and foolish talk," and bringing "from the treasure of the heart evil things" (1) is not explicitly applied to Christ and (2) is separated contextually by more than a page from the statement that declares that Christ "had all the strength and passion of humanity." When we read these statements in the context of the total flow of the manuscript, it is certainly stretching it to imply (and it is only an implication) that Jesus had "the spirit of hastiness, foolishness, [and] evil things concealed in the treasure of the heart."1
Paulson's second piece of evidence, taken from Signs of the Times, April 9, 1896, is a bit more persuasive; but once again, his interpretation is also only an implication. The statement is not explicit in declaring that Jesus possessed "passions like those of humanity" (and Paulson implies that Christ's passions were just "like" or exactly identical to ours). Furthermore, if I used the same interpretive method for this passage as Paulson does, I could imply that Jesus' passions made Him "wayward." Now, I do not impute this interpretation to Paulson, since we both know that there are too many Ellen White statements denying that Jesus was in any instance "wayward." All I am suggesting is that Ellen White also has some clear statements that reject the idea that Jesus' passions were just like or exactly identical to ours—as Paulson wants to suggest by implication from the passage in question.


The manner in which Paulson (or anyone, myself included) draws implications about the nature of Christ needs to be employed very judiciously, and we must take the whole of what Ellen White says into account. This is especially necessary in interpreting the statement in question. In other more explicit statements she declared that "it is not correct to say, as many writers have said, that Christ was like all children. He was not like all children." In the same paragraph she then went on to say that "His inclination to right was a constant gratification to His parents." Three paragraphs later she said that "no one, looking upon the childlike countenance, shining with animation, could say that Christ was just like other children" (YI, Sept. 8, 1898).

If I applied Paulson's implied interpretive methods to the apostle Paul's statement in Romans 8:3 that God sent Jesus "in the likeness of sinful flesh," I could easily come up with the following interpretation: Since the context of the immediately preceding Romans 7 speaks of someone who is "carnal, sold under sin"—who does not do what they know they should do and then actually does what they "hate"—I could conclude that Jesus, in the "likeness of sinful flesh," was actually "sold under sin" in the sense of neglecting the good and doing what He "hated." Do we really want to interpret Scripture and Ellen White to imply such things about Jesus? I think not.

I would suggest that a better interpretation of Jesus' "higher and lower natures" appears on pages 48-51 in this book. The "lower nature" of Jesus included normal passions and appetites that were weakened by the effects of sin, but not infected with such sin that made them perverted, inherently evil, and corrupt. Certainly the "higher nature" of Jesus included His "will and behavioral choices," but it also involved a lack of infective perversion.

Paulson's treatment of the quotation from Selected Messages, book 1, page 344, is interesting, but disregards the statement's clear declaration that the righteous acts "ascend from true believers ... to the heavenly sanctuary.... They ascend not in spotless purity," but are purified by "the Intercessor, who is at God's right hand." This "Intercessor," who is "before the Father," gathers into the "censer of His own merits" the righteous acts of "true believers." "Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's 


propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable" (italics supplied). It is very clear from the context that all of this purification takes place in heaven, and is not "an internal purification. . . taking place in the heart and life."

What Paulson has done is go to other Ellen White statements dealing with sanctification in believers; and since a number of these statements use such expressions as "the incense of Christ's righteousness,"

Paulson then makes the facile assumption that such "sanctificationist" applications must then explain every other Ellen White usage of such expressions. This is not good interpretation.

Ellen White does use the terminology of Selected Messages, book 1, page 344, in sanctificationist, perfectionist settings, but that does not deny the clear application of this terminology to the justificationist, intercessory work of Christ for "true believers"-in heaven (a similar, forceful example of this appears in the Review and Herald, of Mar. 1, 1892). It is not one application swallowing up another, but both expressing different though essential effects of the "incense of Christ's righteousness."

I am clear that Paulson understands that forensic righteousness covers the sins of the past for penitent sinners. But Paulson's interpretation of Selected Messages, book 1, page 344, certainly causes one to question whether his Christology has driven him to deny almost totally any forensic, objective, justifying ministry by Christ in heaven to atone for the corrupting influences of believers' sinful natures on their "sanctified successes."2 Maybe the question could be put another way: after initial forgiveness, is the basis or ground of our acceptance with God some sort of good works produced by divinely infused merit?3

—Woodrow Whidden III


1  Furthermore, it should be noted that manuscript 73, 1892, is a portion of a letter to Edson White (letter 27, 1892). The letter and its first published version (in ST, Nov. 21, 1892) read "If you indulge in slang phrases and foolish talk" rather than in indulging in "a hasty spirit" and giving "utterance to passionate words." In other words, Ellen White added the expression "passionate words" to the manuscript. Manuscript 73, 1892, as revised by Ellen White, is what 1 have cited in Appendix B of this book."[back] [top]

2  This expression, "sanctified successes," is Paulson's own, used in personal correspondence with me on this issue. . [back] [top]

3  I wonder what the reader's answer to this question might be. In his personal correspondence with me Paulson has been forthright in his answer to this very question: "On the basis of both Scripture and Ellen White, the answer is an emphatic yes! And down into a grave of dishonor goes a cherished icon of contemporary Adventism!" 1 wonder how other post-Fall partisans feel about the conclusions that Paulson's Christology has led him to. Could it be that Paulson has followed his post-Fall presuppositions on the nature of Christ to their logical implications? [back] [top]

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