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«Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/1 (Spring 2006): 140–20. Article copyright © 2006 by Jerry Moon. The Quest for a Biblical ...»

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Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/1 (Spring 2006): 140–20.

Article copyright © 2006 by Jerry Moon.

The Quest for a Biblical Trinity: Ellen

White’s “Heavenly Trio” Compared to the

Traditional Doctrine1

Jerry Moon

Andrews University Theological Seminary

In 1846, James White dismissed the traditional doctrine of the Trinity as “the old unscriptural trinitarian creed.”2 A century later, at the 1946

world session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the denomination that James White co-founded voted official endorsement of a Fundamental Beliefs statement that explicitly professed belief in the “Trinity.”3 During the sixty years that have passed since that action, a trinitarian view of God has remained dominant among Seventh-day Adventists—despite the general awareness since E. R. Gane’s M.A. thesis in 1963 that most of the earliest Adventist leaders were non-trinitarian.4 Paper presented to the Trinity Symposium, Southern Adventist University, April 1, 2006.

James White, Day-Star, January 24, 1846, 25.

“Fifteenth Meeting,” General Conference Report No. 8, Review and Herald, June 14, 1946, 197. The 1946 GC session met in Washington, D.C. For a discussion of the historical context, see Jerry Moon, “The Adventist Trinity Debate, Part 1: Historical Overview,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41 (Spring 2003): 122–123.

Erwin R. Gane, “The Arian or Anti-Trinitarian Views Presented in Seventh-day Adventist Literature and the Ellen G. White Answer” (M.A. thesis, Andrews University, 1963); Russell Holt, “The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination: Its Rejection and Acceptance” (term paper, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1969); Le Roy Edwin Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington: Review and Herald, 1971), 148–180—although Froom’s pleading on the basis of Millerite statistics that a “majority” of the Adventist founders were trinitarian (ibid., 147) has not been supported by the evidence; Merlin Burt, “Demise of Semi-Arianism and Anti-Trinitarianism in Adventist Theology, 1888–1957” (term paper, Andrews University, 1996); Woodrow


What is now debated by some is Gane’s second conclusion that Ellen G. White, Adventist co-founder and prophetic voice, was “a trinitarian monotheist.”5 The view that Ellen White was a trinitarian has recently come under attack from a few writers who advocate a return to the semiArian position of some early Adventist leaders. While not agreed on all details, these new antitrinitarians generally seem to believe: (1) that Ellen White agreed with every aspect of the pioneers’ antitrinitarian view of God; (2) that Ellen White’s view never changed (she was antitrinitarian at the beginning and always remained so)6; therefore, (3) her later writings that seem to express a trinitarian view are not to be taken at face value: they are either “unclear” statements to be read through the lens of her earlier writings, or they are inauthentic statements produced not by her, but by others who tampered with her writings.7 The new antitrinitarians further reason (4) that if the current Adventist doctrine of the Trinity is the same doctrine that early Adventists, including Ellen White, rejected, then the current Adventist doctrine of the Trinity is a heresy based on extrabiblical tradition, hence an apostasy from the church’s biblical foundations.8 These are serious charges indeed—if they could be W. Whidden, “Salvation Pilgrimage: The Adventist Journey into Justification by Faith and Trinitarianism,” Ministry, April 1998, 5–7; Fernando L. Canale, “Doctrine of God,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen, Commentary Reference Series, vol. 12 (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2000): 117–150; and Woodrow Whidden, Jerry Moon, and John W. Reeve, The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation, and Christian Relationships (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2002), 190–220.

Gane, 67–79.

For example, John Kiesz, an antitrinitarian of the Church of God (Seventh Day), speculates that Ellen White was a “closet trinitarian” who kept that view to herself for half a century until in the 1890s she suddenly broke her silence to challenge the then majority view of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination (“History of the Trinity Doctrine,” Study No. 132, http://www.giveshare.org/BibleStudy/132.trinityhistory.html, accessed January 2001).

Tim Poirier has provided the most direct and substantial refutation of the charge that Ellen White’s trinitarian statements were forged. He takes several of the most important examples and shows that they still exist in Ellen White’s handwriting or in typed documents bearing her signature and other handwritten annotations (T. Poirier, “Ellen White’s Trinitarian Statements: What Did She Actually Write?” presentation to the Symposium on Ellen White and Current Issues, Andrews University, April 3, 2006, publication forthcoming from the Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan).

See, e.g., [Fred Allaback], “The Doctrine of the Trinity in Adventist History,” Liberty Review [5250 Johnstown Road, Mt. Vernon, Ohio], October 1989, 4–5, 7–8;


substantiated. But I argue that every premise of this syllogism is false, though some of them may appear plausible at first glance.

In previous research I have traced the development of the Adventist doctrine of God from opposition to the Trinity doctrine as traditionally formulated to acceptance of the biblical concept of one God in three persons.9 I have also traced the clear progression in Ellen White’s visions from 1850 onward, showing that her visions gradually formed her concept of God until by 1898, when she published Desire of Ages, she held a trinitarian concept.10 This research has shown that: (1) Ellen White agreed with some aspects, but not with every aspect of the antitrinitarian views of other early Adventists. (2) Ellen White’s view did change—she was raised trinitarian, came to doubt some aspects of the trinitarianism she was raised on, and eventually came to a different trinitarian view from the traditional one. (3) There is a basic harmony between Ellen White’s earliest statements and her latest ones. Even on internal evidence, there is no reason to question the validity of her later, more trinitarian writings. They are completely consistent with the trajectory of her developing understanding of the Godhead, and there is every evidence that they represent her own thought. In her earliest writings she differed from some aspects of traditional trinitarianism and in her latest writings she still strongly opposed some aspects of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (4) It appears, therefore, that the trinitarian teaching of Ellen White’s later writings is not the same doctrine that the early Adventists rejected.11 Rather, Lynnford Beachy, “Adventist Review Perpetuates the Omega,” Old Paths [Smyrna Gospel Ministries, HC64, Box 128–B, Welch, WV; website www.smyrna.org], 8/7 (July 1999), 1–14; David Clayton, “The Omega of Deadly Heresies,” n.p., n.d. [ca. 2000], in my files; idem, “Some Facts Concerning the Omega Heresy,” www.restorationministry.com/Open_Face/html/2000/open_face_ oct_2000.htm; accessed Mar. 10, 2003; and Bob Diener, The Alpha and the Omega (Creal Springs: Bible Truth Productions, [ca. 1998]), videocassette.

Jerry Moon, “The Adventist Trinity Debate, Part 1,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41 (Spring 2003): 113–129.

Jerry Moon, “The Adventist Trinity Debate, Part 2: The Role of Ellen G. White,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41/2 (Autumn 2003): 275–292. See also chapters 11–14 (161–238) in The Trinity by Whidden, Moon, and Reeve.

11 Ellen White’s later trinitarianism contains some elements that some of the early leaders had rejected, such as the eternal pre-existence of Christ and the full Deity and Personality of the Holy Spirit; but these are clearly taught in Scripture, are fully in harmony with the early Adventists’ methods of biblical interpretation, and are completely consistent with the progressive unfolding of Scripture among the early Adventists and in


her writings describe two contrasting forms of trinitarian belief, one of which she always opposed, and another that she eventually endorsed.

The purpose of the present article is to clarify more fully the similarities and differences between Ellen White’s view of the “heavenly trio” and the traditional doctrine of the Trinity in order to discover her position in relation to the current debate among Adventists. The scope of this article will not permit consideration of recent Adventist writings on the Trinity, such as those by Raoul Dederen, Fernando Canale, Rick Rice, Fritz Guy, Woodrow Whidden, and others.12 However, the unique position of Ellen White in the Adventist church justifies taking her as an authentic representative of Adventist theology. Furthermore, those who advocate a return to antitrinitarianism have interacted more directly with her position than they have with more recent Adventist thought on the nature of God.

Two Different Concepts of the Trinity The conceptual key that unlocks the puzzle of Ellen White’s developmental process regarding the Godhead is the discovery that her writings describe at least two distinct varieties of trinitarian belief, one based on Scripture alone, and one based on Scripture as interpreted through the lens of Greek philosophy—the same hermeneutic that brought the immortality of the soul into Christian theology. The concept of God that is explicit in her later writings portrays the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three eternal Persons of intellect, will, and emotions who are united in character, purpose, and love. There is no conflict among them, no working at cross-purposes, no competition, not even disagreement. Thus, they are not three gods (as in polytheism or tritheism), but One. Furthermore, the writings of Ellen White. Therefore, I am convinced that to the extent that the current Adventist belief in the Trinity can be completely based on Scripture alone, independent of traditional creeds or ancient church Councils, that doctrine represents the biblical truth about God, however imperfectly it may be understood or expressed.

Raoul Dederen, “Reflections on the Doctrine of the Trinity,” AUSS 8 (1970): 1– 22; Fernando Luis Canale, A Criticism of Theological Reason: Time and Timelessness as Primordial Presuppositions, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, vol. 10 (Berrien Springs: Andrews UP, 1983), 359; 402, n. 1; F. L. Canale, “Doctrine of God,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen, Commentary Reference Series, vol. 12 (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2000): esp. 117–150; Richard Rice, The Reign of God, 2d ed. (Berrien Springs: Andrews UP, 1985), 60–61; Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs: Andrews UP, 1999), 130, also 70, 88, 151, and their notes; Whidden, Moon, and Reeve, The Trinity.


their unity is not a mathematical paradox, but a relational unity, analogous to the unity seen in a good marriage, where husband and wife are united in an ever-growing oneness, but without negating their individuality.13 Thus, her concept is in harmony with the biblical witness of both the OT and NT.14 After God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26–27), God proceeded to create humans in a plurality of forms that were capable of becoming one. In Genesis 2:24 God explained His purpose in this—so that these diverse creatures bearing His “image” could “become one.” The Hebrew word translated “one” in Gen 2:24 is }ehΩaœd —not a monolithic singleness [for which Moses could have used yaœhΩˆîd, “one” or “only”], but a unity formed from multiple components. The same word occurs in Deut 6:4, “Hear O Israel: Yahweh is our God;

Yahweh is one [}ehΩaœd].”15 The concept of plurality of persons in unity of relationship becomes more explicit in the NT. For example, Christ prayed that believers in Him may “all” be “one” as He and the Father “are one” (John 17:20–22).

Ellen White quotes this passage as proof of the “personality of the Father and the Son,” and an explanation of “the unity that exists between Them.” She wrote: “The unity that exists between Christ and His disciples does not destroy the personality of either. They are one in purpose, in mind, in character, but not in person. It is thus that God and Christ are one.”16 In the same year (1905) she wrote elsewhere, “There are three living persons of the heavenly trio... the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”17 Her concept of the “heavenly trio” differs from the traditional Trinity in that it is based on simple biblical reasoning and biblical presuppositions. It could be called a “biblical” view of the Trinity, and it The dictum of Gen 2:24, “the two shall become one flesh,” is not a mathematical paradox, but a statement of relational unity. The fact that Scripture has much more to say about the relational unity of God (see, e.g., John 14–17) does not preclude God’s ontological unity, but the ontological unity is certainly less explicit in Scripture.

See Whidden, “The Biblical Evidence for the Full Deity of Christ, the Personality of the Holy Spirit, and the Unity and Oneness of the Godhead,” in The Trinity, Whidden, Moon, and Reeve, 7–117.

Whidden, The Trinity, 33–34.

E. G. White, Ministry of Healing (Mt. View: Pacific Press, 1905), 421–422.

E. G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B, no. 7 (Sanitarium: n.p., 1905), 62–63, emphasis supplied.


became clearer and clearer in her mind and writings as the years passed and the revelations to her accumulated.

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