The Nature of Christ and Salvation
The development of Ellen White's understanding of the
nature of Christ (theologically referred to as Christology) was closely
bound up with her understanding of salvation. In fact, for us to
understand her doctrine of salvation, it is absolutely necessary to take
into consideration her Christology. This is especially pivotal when it
comes to her understanding of the relationship between Christ's human
nature and Christian perfection.
The study of Christ's nature is easily the most difficult and
challenging theme we will deal with in this book. To anyone who has ever
made a concerted attempt at an in-depth study of the nature of Christ,
the truthfulness of the following statement is all too obvious:
"Man cannot define this wonderful mysterythe blending of the two
natures. . . . It can never be explained" (7BC 904, italics supplied).
But we also have the promise that the student who persists will be
richly rewarded: "The study of the incarnation of Christ is a
fruitful field, which will repay the searcher who digs deep for hidden
truth" (YI, Oct. 13, 1898).
Another reason for the difficulty of this subject is its very
controversial history. The controversies in Seventh-day Adventism
regarding Ellen White's understanding of Christ's humanity go back to
the 1890s, but they took on renewed vigor with the publication of the
book Seventh-day Adventists Answer
Questions on Doctrine in
1957. The debate has continued unabated since then, and a satisfactory
consensus has been very hard to achieve.
In addition to its mystery and its controverted
history, three other factors make this subject especially challenging.
First, there is the sheer bulk of Ellen White's writings, and second,
the lack of a systematic treatment of this subject in any particular
article or book. Third, these difficulties are further complicated by
numerous complex statements that give her Christology an intricate
balance between "pre-Fall" sinless "uniqueness" and
"post-Fall" "identity" with our "sinful
Depth, controversy, and complexity notwithstanding,
we should not be deterred in this important quest for understanding. The
issue is too central simply to be ignored.
So the reader is encouraged to come patiently but
also prayerfully and respectfully, remembering "to heed the words
spoken by Christ to Moses at the burning bush, `Put off thy shoes from
off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground'."
Truth is then best served if we take off our argumentative, opinionated
"shoes" and come "with the humility of a learner, with a
contrite heart" (QOD 647).
The Basic Issue
Ellen White's basic proposition is aptly summed up in
the following statement: "Christ reaches us where we are. He took
our nature and overcame, that we through taking His nature might
overcome. Made 'in the likeness of sinful flesh,' He lived a sinless
life" (DA 311, 312). The key question is: In the thought of Ellen
White, just how much like sinful human nature is
Christ's human nature?
The more traditional post-Fall interpreters have tended
to read Ellen White as emphasizing the similarities, seeing Christ as
sinful in nature (though not in action), whereas the seeming majority of
more recent interpreters are pre-Fall and have stressed the differences
the uniqueness of the sinlessness of His nature and life.
Eric C. Webster is certainly correct when he reminds us
that "almost every area of belief is influenced by one's departure
point regarding the nature of Christ" (50). This is especially true
of such important salvation issues as justification, sanctification,
the atonement, the purpose of the great controversy theme, and the
nature of sin.
Our first objective is to shed light on the lingering
debate over the nature of Christ by seeking to demonstrate how Ellen
White's understanding unfolded in her ministry before and after 1888.
But our ultimate objective will be to clarify how her understanding of
Christ's nature influenced her teachings on salvation, especially during
the critical years following 1888.
While the deity of Christ and Adventism's experience
with anti-Trinitarian views are dealt with briefly, the bulk of the space
in this chapter deals with the development of her understanding of
Christ's human nature.
Deity and the Trinity
Ellen White decisively believed in the full deity of
Christ. She can be characterized as Trinitarian in her convictions, even
from her earliest years (QOD 641-646; Ev 613-617). .
What is truly remarkable about her Trinitarian views
is that she held them at a time when many of the leading
nineteenth-century Adventist ministers had strong Arian influences.
is an ancient heresy which denies that Jesus has existed coeternally with God
the Father. It teaches that Christ was created, and thus there was a
time He did not exist.
Furthermore, it is of some interest to note that
among these anti-trinitarian ministers was none other than her own
husband. James White came from the Christian Connexion Church, which had
strong Arian tendencies, and some of his early statements revealed an
anti-Trinitarian bias (Webster 34).
But despite these strong influences, Ellen White went
on her own independent way, quite willing to go against the grain of the
Arianism that was abundantly apparent among Adventist ministers of her
time (ibid. 72).
She never reprimanded or directly corrected any of
these persons for their Arian views, but she became increasingly
explicit in her own forthright declarations of Christ's full deity and
her clear affirmations of the trinity.
For the purposes of this study, it needs to be clearly stated that by the time
of the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference session, Ellen White
was forcefully affirming the full, eternal deity of Christ.
Christology After 1888
What follows is an overview of important statements
in Ellen White's unfolding understanding of Christ's nature and the ways
she employed them in her expositions on salvation during the most
important period of her expositions on issues related to salvation.
What is rather shocking about the formation of her
understanding is that there were really no striking or path-breaking
developments in her teaching on Christology during this period. I refer
to this lack of development as "remarkable" in the sense that
there has been so much debate about the impact of her Christology on her
teachings about salvation. The simple facts are that developments in her
understanding of Christ's humanity played no appreciably significant
role in her great emphasis on justification and sanctification that came
in the years following 1888.
The reader might therefore wonder why we even need
this chapter. I would suggest two reasons for the following study: (1)
further attention will help clarify her usage of Christ's humanity in
her powerful initiative to emphasize the centrality and primacy of a
balanced presentation on salvation, and (2) attention to her most
important statements will confirm that the post-1888 statements on the
nature of Christ were only further elaborations of what was already
clearly in place before 1888. I do this consciously, over against the
claims of individuals who have tried to convince us that Christology was
the significant thing about the great emphasis on salvation coming out
of the Minneapolis General Conference session.
Christology is most certainly always at the base of
Ellen White's teachings about salvation, but serious theological
emphasis on Christology was not the major salvation feature that fed
into or arose out of the Minneapolis crisis.2
Developments From 1889 to 1895About the only notable
impact that Ellen White's unfolding understanding of the nature of
on her great presentations about salvation following
1888 is found in the following theme: Christ's nature was vigorously
presented as a mysterious blending, or union, of humanity and deity;
such a blending was deemed essential to Christ's uniquely saving work.
In other words, this significant development arises as much, if not
more, out of a sharpening emphasis on the significance of His deity, not
just His humanity!
In a sermon given on June 19, 1889 (7BC 904), she
proclaimed that "Christ could have done nothing during His earthly
ministry in saving fallen man if the divine had not been blended with
the human." She further declared that "man cannot define this
wonderful mysterythe blending of the two natures. . . . It can never be
explained." This declaration that a union of humanity and Deity was
essential to the atonement became a frequently repeated theme for the
balance of her ministry.
It should come as no surprise to us that this theme
emphasized the importance of His deity and His sinless humanity as
essential to His role as justifying Saviour. Only Jesus "could have
paid the penalty of sin" and
borne "the sins of every sinner; for all
transgressions were imputed unto him" (RH, Dec. 20, 1892). Thus the
uniqueness of Jesus
was emphasized not just in terms of His sinlessness, but also in terms
of the blending of the human and divine.
Christ's Humanity: What Does It Mean?
We find elements of mystery and seemingly irregular
features in Ellen White's view of Christ's humanity. Some have even
concluded that she was simply contradictory in her thought. I feel that
this conclusion is not only harsh, but also represents a lack of
appreciation for two key elements in her thought.
Central Factors in Ellen White's ChristologyThe first
element is the striking doctrinal consistency in her large body of
writings that was produced throughout the course of six decades by a
thinker who was not attempting to do an academic, systematic, or
technically doctrinal work.
Her comments on the nature of Christ are not contained in any one
major work but are scattered throughout her writings, often showing up
in rather surprising settings. My observation is similar to Eric C.
Webster's: "The general consistency in Ellen
White's views over a considerable span of time is a testimony to her
clarity of thought" (149). The second factor is that not only are
her views non-contradictory, but I would strongly suggest that these
seemingly irregular features are what give her thought its power and
depth. Ellen White could sound like the author of the book of Hebrews
when she discussed Christ's profound identity with humanity and
like John the Beloved (John 8:46) when she discussed His amazing uniqueness.
Causes for MisunderstandingThe problems in
understanding Ellen White have arisen when interpreters have wanted to
stress one aspect of His humanity to the neglect of the other or when
they have wanted to totally solve a mystery that cannot be solved by
human minds. If there were no mystery, what need would there be for
For Ellen White, the stress on Christ's uniqueness or
identity seemed to depend largely on what doctrinal issue she was
dealing with. When she spoke of victory over sin and Christ's power to
sustain struggling sinners, she was more likely to emphasize identity.
When she spoke of Christ as a sinless, sacrificial substitute and one
who is able to free from the guilt of sin, she would emphasize uniqueness.
Christ's Sinless Uniqueness and "Sinful Nature"Though
His "spiritual nature was free from every taint of sin" (QOD
653), He was a rather typical first-century human being. It seems best
to express the freedom of His "spiritual nature" from sin this
way: He was affected by sin but not infected with it.
Ellen White was clear that He took a "sinful
nature" (ibid. 657), but only in the sense of a lessened
capacity because of the principle of physical inheritance. He was
weak, frail, infirm, degraded, degenerate, deteriorated, wretched, and
defiled, but somehow He was not "altogether human, such an
one as ourselves; for it cannot be" (5BC 1129).
Whatever this lessened
capacity involved, it did not involve yielding to corruption
(He never sinned by an act of sin) or inclinations to corruption, a
"taint of sin," or "an evil propensity" in His
sinless "spiritual nature" (QOD 651, 653). Although Christ was
not just like fallen humans, He was enough like them to identify with
their "infirmities" in the
struggle with temptation. His nature, however, was enough unlike them
to be a sinless, substitutionary sacrifice.
The arguments of those who claim that Christ had to be just
exactly like sinful humans in order to identify with them breaks
down over one stubborn fact of human history: we have all sinned, but
Christ never did. Think about that for a moment.
The power of temptation is always strengthened by a previous
experience in sin. The temptation to commit that sin will be more
powerful for those who have succumbed than for someone who has never
indulged in it. Does this make Christ unable to help us or identify with
us in our temptations?
Eric Webster forcefully lays out the inexorable logic of the
situation: "Right here there remains a massive gap between Christ
and the sinner. At best, Christ can only face initial temptation, but He
cannot be brought down to the level of the alcoholic who faces the
temptation to indulge in strong drink for the thousandth time. . . . Christ
never knew the power of habitual sin and cannot meet fallen man on that
level," and any attempt to drag Him down fully to our level
collapses "on the bedrock of" our history of universally
"habitual sin" (419, 420).
Can Christ really identity with us?Let's face the
practical issue squarely: If Christ's identity involves no history of
habitual sin and not being born with "tendencies" and
"propensities" to sin, how, then, can He really identify with
us in our struggle with temptation? Can He really help us who are born
with such tragic histories and corrupt, depraved "tendencies"?
I would suggest that Christ did not need to be barn with either a
bent to sin or have a history of sinning to feel the power of
temptation. Upon further reflection it becomes obvious that the basis of
His temptations was not a corrupt nature or sordid history of sin, but
the possibility of using His own inherent full deity to resist the wiles
of the devil.
In other words, the key temptation for Christ was the same as it is
for all humansthe desire to go it alone and depend upon self rather
than divinely imparted power from above. The history of Adam and Eve,
along with one third of the heavenly angels, ought to give us a clue
a simple fact of human experience: having natural
tendencies to sin is not essential to being tempted. Certainly God did
not create them flawed in this way!
Morris Venden has illustrated the central dynamics involved in
temptation along the following lines: people who drive "wimpy"
cars are not tempted to "stomp it." They know that they don't
have it "under the hood." People who are most tempted to speed
are those who have what we used to refer to as "440 under the
hood"! Christ had infinite, divine power "under the
hood," and His great temptation was to depend on self rather than
the imparted power of the divine Father.
Let's Allow the Balance to Stand!
If Ellen White's finely tuned balance is allowed to
stand, her doctrine of Christ's humanity has an appealing wholeness.
When one side of the balance is lost sight of or denied, then her
thought becomes distorted and can easily be perverted into
"believe, only believe" presumption or discouragingly
self-centered, behavioristic extremes. Ellen White sought to uphold the
delicate balance, and constantly battled the extremes.
In the light of her balanced expression, I would strongly urge that the
more traditional expressions such as "pre-Fall" and
"post-Fall" are simply insufficient to get at the richness of
Ellen White's understanding of Christ's humanity. When it came to Christ
as a fully sinless, sacrificial substitute, she was
"pre-Fall," but when she spoke of His ability to sustain in
times of temptation, she stressed His identity and spoke largely in
Such a balance certainly involves some aspects of mystery. In fact, I am
suggesting the use of such technical words as "balanced
tension," "dialectic," or "paradox" to express
her profound balance between "sinful" and "sinless"
nature. But such expressions of mystery and complexity are not unique to
I found it interesting (and comforting) to discover that even writers
who argue for the strong identity, or the so-called post-Fall position,
also want to speak in terms of some tentativeness that evidences a
of a mysteriously balanced tension: Gil G. Fernandez speaks
of "ambiguities" (29), and A. Leroy Moore uses the expression
"paradoxical dimensions" (249).
1 This teaching was given its classic expression by (and named after) Arius, a third-century theologian from Alexandria, Egypt.
Furthermore, it does not seem to be accidental that their expressions
come close to Eric C. Webster (a forceful defender of the sinlessly
uniqueness positionessentially what the pre-Fall people argue for), who
wants to use such terms as dialectical (99) and paradox,
tension, and antithesis (152).
It seems that a setting of some mystery and tension, with a balanced use
of the terms uniqueness and identity placed side by side, best expresses
her meaning. This allows each concept to make its essential contribution to her very sensible and useful Christology. And the main purpose of this Christology was to serve a practical understanding of
salvation, especially the dynamics of sanctification and perfection.
2 For further discussion about the theological roots and fruitage of Minneapolis, see chapters 10 and 11. [back] [top]