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The Arian or Anti-Trinitarian Views Presented in Seventh-day Adventist Literature and the Ellen G. White Answer

by Erwin Roy Gane




The evidence as presented here indicates that prior to 1898 the prevailing opinion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the nature of God was anti-Trinitarian. It has been shown that a whole series of writers took this position. Those early Adventist writers who expressed themselves on the subject agreed on certain fundamental issues. Christ was consistently regarded as subordinate to the Father and the Holy Spirit as a mere influence.

Although all the Adventist Arians aimed at discounting Trinitarianism, the arguments they emphasized in opposition to it varied somewhat. Certain writers, such as Bates, Hull, Loughborough, Whitney, and Canright identified Trinitarianism with Monarchianism. As they saw it, if Christ were absolute Deity then He was the Father. Since they repudiated this position, they repudiated Trinitarianism. On the other hand same writers saw Trinitarianism as postulating the existence of three Gods. Loughborough and Dennis so viewed it. Thus the Arians opposed both extremes, Monarchianism and Tritheism. Trinitarianism, they thought, might be identified with one of these extremes, but it certainly is not the truth. To them, Arianism provided a satisfactory mediating position. There is only one supreme God, and that is the Father. There was a time when Christ did not exist, and the Holy Spirit is not a person.

Some writers particularly opposed Trinitarianism because it apparently depreciated the efficacy of the atonement. Hull, Smith, Canright and J. H. Waggoner were in this category. If Christ were absolute God in the same sense as the Father, then His divine nature could not die. Under these circumstances, the sacrifice would have been a human one. Such they regarded as an inadequate atonement for the sins of man.

Some opposed the extreme creedal positions which divested God of bodily parts and form. Hull, Whitney and Canright were particularly articulate on this point. On the other hand it is clear that the opposition by early Adventist writers to Trinitarianism was not simply a reaction to extreme forms of the doctrine. Both Hull and Loughborough opposed the decisions of Nicaea, and Whitney in becoming a Seventh-day Adventist had evidently repudiated the creedal teaching of the Congregational Church that there are three persons in one God.

Attempts have been made to demonstrate that the Arians among Seventh-day Adventists were a small but influential minority. As indicated, Uriah Smith and J. H. Waggoner are sometimes blamed for the existence of anti-Trinitarianism in the Adventist Church. The evidence suggests otherwise. Four Seventh-day Adventist writers declared themselves Arians before publication of Uriah Smith’s Thoughts Critical and Practical on the Book of Revelation in 1865. Stephenson wrote in 1854, Hull in 1859, Loughborough in 1861, and Whitney in 1862. Although Joseph Bates did not write his autobiography until 1868, in it he clearly demonstrates that he had been an Arian since 1827. The views of such a prominent pioneer were undoubtedly influential. Even Smith’s extreme statement in 1865 to the effect that Christ was a created being finds its antecedent in a similar statement by Stephenson in 1854. By the same token the views expressed by J. H. Waggoner in 1884 were by no means original with himself. His anti-Trinitarianism and his limited view of the atonement were shared by a considerable stream of writers who preceded him.

The Whitney article proves that in 1862 it was not unusual for a new convert to be inducted into the Arian belief. Evidently by 1890, when Bourdeau deprecated the prevailing diversity of opinion on the subject, the situation had changed in that other views were being seriously considered. The reprinting of the Spear article would indicate that they were. But these other views were not expressed by Adventist writers, with the exception of Ellen G. White, until 1898 and following. Jones’ statement on the Holy Spirit back in 1895 was at best only an approximation to the Trinitarian view.

Why was Arianism the prevailing doctrine up to 1898? As has been demonstrated, some of the pioneers were influenced by the Christian Connection which was opposed to Trinitarianism. To what precise extent the religious background of these few influenced the positions of later writers would be difficult to determine. The Adventists, coming as they did from diversified denominational backgrounds, rejected many of the major beliefs of their former communions. It would appear that Trinitarianism became associated in their thinking with other theological views they thought unscriptural and pagan. Sunday observance was introduced by the papacy, but so was Trinitarianism. Were not the decisions of Nicea and Chalcedon largely the result of papal influence? And was not papal dogma leavened by pagan error? Then whatever the Bible teaches it could not possibly teach pagan-papal Trinitarianism. So reasoned the pioneers of the Adventist Church.

It appears that what the Bible does actually teach on this subject was not seriously considered in the early years of Seventh-day Adventism. Immediately after the disappointment of 1844 the founding fathers of the Church were occupied with what was termed "present truth." Of course the primary emphasis was on the second coming of Christ. Since a correct understanding of the cleansing of the sanctuary explained the mistake of 1844, the emphasis on the Scriptural teaching of the sanctuary service became a vital issue. The Bible was studied with new zest and as new beliefs developed Ellen G. White confirmed them. But the subject of the nature of God did not come to the fore. This fact is underlined by the relatively few articles on the subject in the Review and Herald in the second half of the nineteenth century, by comparison with the huge volume of material published on the distinctive Seventh-day Adventist doctrines. Whenever an Adventist writer declared himself on the nature of God the declaration was anti-Trinitarian. This indicates a prevailing conception, but it does not prove that this view was the fixed and uniform belief of the Church. Seventh-day Adventists have no creed. This is why the prevailing belief on the doctrine of God could change.

It would appear that the early Seventh-day Adventist writers were to some extent influenced by the nineteenth century Arminian, Unitarian and Socinian reaction to the Calvinstic theology of certain leading Protestant denominations. Trinitarianism was a tenet of Calvinism. Had not Calvin burned Servetus for his anti-Trinitarian declarations? Therefore the Arminian, Unitarian and Socinian reaction to predestinarianism, and other aspects of Calvinism, became associated with anti-Trinitarianism. It would have been unusual if the early Adventists had not been influenced to some extent by this movement. They rejected predestinarianism and many of them came out of well established Calvinistic communions.

What changed the prevailing Seventh-day Adventist view from Arianism to Trinitarianism? The evidence would indicate that it was the publication of the Trinitarian declarations of Ellen G. White in the last decades of the nineteenth century that initiated the change. It would appear that she wrote little before the early 1890s which could have led to serious questioning of the prevailing Arian view. Most of her statements which appeared before 1890 could have been interpreted to agree with the Arian doctrine. But from the early 1890s on, Ellen G. White produced increasingly unequivocal Trinitarian statements. She did not contradict any position she had formerly taken. She exalted as the eternally pre-existent, self-existent Son, who at every stage of His existence was absolutely equal with the Father. The Holy Spirit she depicted as a Person in as real a sense as Christ and the Father are Persons. She speaks of him as the third Person of the Godhead. The whole tenor of her teaching on the nature of God is one of exaltation of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Why were Ellen G. White’s statements on the subject so relatively late in appearing? Had they appeared in the early phase of denominational history they might well have been the subject of considerable division. The Church needed to be firmly established before such difficult and controversial matters could be introduced. When Ellen G. White wrote on the nature of God it was her intent not only to answer Arianism but also to answer the pantheistic conceptions which were being propagated by J. H. Kellogg. But this pantheistic threat did not seriously arise until late in the nineteenth century. It was a more serious danger to the stabi1ity of the developing movement than Arianism. The Arians were not so militant, they were loyal to the denomination and, as subsequent events proved, many of them were quite open to conviction on the subject.

No doubt the enlarging missions program of the Church late in the nineteenth century emphasized the need of careful statement of faith. If an attempt to correct Arianism were unwise in the earliest period, it would have been even more unwise to wait until this doctrine was held by thousands of Seventh-day Adventists the world around.

Finally, it must be borne in mind that the Adventist Arians never repudiated the divinity of Christ as Creator, Redeemer and Mediator, nor did they underestimate the importance of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In fairness to the Arian pioneers of Adventism it must be said that they were great men of God and honest seekers for truth. No doubt this is one reason the Arian doctrine was held for so long. There was a loyal repetition of the views of certain founding fathers. Washburn’s article gives this impression. It is characteristic of religious movements, of which Seventh-day Adventism is an example, that because of the spiritual calibre of the pioneers, the views of these men are cherished. This is a source of strength and unity, but it can become a source of weakness when the Church refuses to advance with increasing light. Truth is not static, but dynamic, as the history of Seventh-day Adventism amply testifies.

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