Upholding the Divinity of Christ

One of the main criticisms from the modern trinitarian Adventists of the pioneers’ non-trinitarian position is the idea that, if Jesus is the literal pre-incarnate begotten Son then, it would make Christ not eternal and accordingly, would denigrate the divinity of Christ. They further claim that Christ’s pre-incarnate sonship would also effectively make Christ a created being, etc. Based on some of the data, it appears that the church back then faced similar objections.

Here’s one such enquiry we find in one of the church’s flagship publication, Review and Herald dated 1883, “Scripture Question” section under “Commentary”:


Will you please favor me with those scriptures which plainly say that Christ is a created being?

Ans. You are mistaken in supposing that S. D. Adventists teach that Christ was ever created. They believe, on the contrary, that he was “begotten” of the Father, and that he can properly be called God and worshiped as such. They believe, also, that the worlds, and everything which is, was created by Christ in conjunction with the Father. They believe, however, that somewhere in the eternal ages of the past there was a point at which Christ came into existence. They think that it is necessary that God should have antedated Christ in his being, in order that Christ could have been begotten of him, and sustain to him the relation of son. They hold to the distinct personality of the Father and Son, rejecting as absurd that feature of Trinitarianism which insists that God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three persons, and yet but one person. S. D. Adventists hold that God and Christ are one in the sense that Christ prayed that his disciples might be one; i. e., one in spirit, purpose, and labor. See “Fundamental Principles of S. D. Adventists,” published at this Office.” (W. H. Littlejohn, Commentary-Scripture Questions, Review & Herald, April 17, 1883, pg. 250)

Here’s a more modern dissertation on the subject of Christ’s divinity, as it relates to the SDAs pioneers’ view:

“A survey of other Adventist writers during these years (up to 1881) reveals, that to a man, they rejected the trinity, yet, with equal unanimity they upheld the divinity of Christ. To reject the trinity is not necessarily to strip the Saviour of His divinity. Indeed, certain Adventist writers felt that it was the trinitarians who filled the role of degrading Christs divine nature.” {Russell Holt “The doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, its rejection and acceptance”, A term paper for Dr. Mervyn Maxwell 1969}

When Russell Holt says, “to a man, they rejected the trinity” he means that Adventists, “during these years” (meaning, at the very least up to 1881, based on his own research), unanimously rejected the trinity. And yet, he found that all the early Adventist pioneers also upheld the divinity of Christ. The early Adventist church was united on these points!

This seems strange to many today, since most Christians, as well as today’s Seventh-day Adventists, are under the assumption that to deny the trinity is tantamount to denying Jesus’ divinity. But the Adventist pioneers believed that it was the trinitarians who degraded Christ’s divine nature. They believed that it was the trinitarians who were robbing Christ of His real or actual divinity.

The unitarians believed that Jesus was created like all the rest of us. This kind of belief is generally regarded as Arianism, although there are some conflicting views as to what Arius actually believed and taught. Regardless, the early Adventists did NOT believe that Jesus was created and they strongly opposed unitarianism. Instead, they believed that He was begotten (in an offspring sense) prior to His incarnation, having been brought forth from God His Father, and thus befitting that He is the only begotten Son of God. Again, while they rejected the mystical teachings of trinity, they resolutely defended the divinity of Christ.

“The inexplicable Trinity that makes the Godhead three in one and one in three, is bad enough; but that ultra Unitarianism that makes Christ inferior to the Father is worse. Did God say to an inferior, “Let us make man in our image?”” (James White, November 29, 1877, Review & Herald)

“We have not as much sympathy with Unitarians that deny the divinity of Christ, as with Trinitarians who hold that the Son is the eternal Father, and talk so mistily about the three-one God. Give the Master all that divinity with which the Holy Scriptures clothe him. ..” (Jame White, Review and Herald June 6, 1871 James and Ellen White’s – Western Tour.)

Let’s look a bit at what some of the early pioneers wrote concerning God and the divinity of Christ. In 1878, a reader of the Review and Herald asked if Seventh-day Adventists were unitarians or trinitarians; answer given was:

“2. Are S. D. Adventists Unitarian or Trinitarian? -C. J. A.

“Ans. 2. Neither. We do not believe in the three-one God of the Trinitarians nor in the low views of Jesus Christ held by Unitarians. We believe that Christ was a divine being, not merely in his mission, but in his person also ; that his sufferings were penal and his death vicarious.” (“To Correspondents” Review and Herald, June 27, 1878, pg. 4)

Here’s another statement by one of the leading pioneers, J.H. Waggoner (Father of E.J. Waggoner):

Many theologians really think that the Atonement, in respect to its dignity and efficacy, rests upon the doctrine of a trinity. But we fail to see any connection between the two. To the contrary, the advocates of that doctrine really fall into the difficulty which they seem anxious to avoid. Their difficulty consists in this: They take the denial of a trinity to be equivalent to a denial of the divinity of Christ. Were that the case we should cling to the doctrine of a trinity as tenaciously as any can; but it is not the case. They who have read our remarks on the death of the Son of God know that we firmly believe in the divinity of Christ; But we cannot accept the idea of a trinity, as it is held by Trinitarians without giving up our claim on the dignity of the Sacrifice made for our redemption. {J.H. Waggoner “The Atonement in light of Nature and Revelation”, 1884 Edition, Chapter ”Doctrine of a Trinity Subversive of the Atonement”.}

It is a big issue to deny the trinity because in most people’s eyes, they are also denying that Jesus is divine. However the early Adventists realized that the dignity of the atonement was at stake. The robbing of Christ’s divinity involved His sacrifice on Calvary. Did the Son of God really die, or was it only a human form that died? Because the trinity was actually in heaven and even one part of the trinity god, according to its belief, cannot die?

In this next quote, one of two Adventists were speaking to a couple of Congregationalists. Then one of the men asked: “Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?” That was when the second Adventist entered the conversation:

“I now thought it was my turn to join in; so I replied, “Why, yes sir. We believe that Christ is all divine; that in him dwell ‘the fullness of the God-head bodily;’ That ‘he is the brightness of the Father’s glory’, ‘the express image of his person’, ‘upholding all things by the word of his power’. {R&H June 25, 1867 brother Johnston, letter to Uriah Smith}

Other Christians believed that since Adventists did not believe in the trinity that they also did not believe in the divinity of Christ, like the unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. This next quote is the response to such a question sent into the Review and Herald:

“To A.S. You are correct in saying we do not deny the divinity of Christ. If those who assert such a thing are acquainted with our faith, they know better; if they do not know they are guilty of speaking evil of the thing they know not.” {R&H July 14, 1868}

From this answer, we can understand that it should have been a well known fact that the early Adventists did not deny the divinity of Christ. If anybody knew anything about our faith back then, they would know without a shadow of a doubt that the Adventists believed in the divinity of Christ.

Here’s yet another statement defending the divinity of Christ. And as you can see, the same sort of misrepresentation and vitriol accompanied the early church for their unique doctrinal position on the pre-incarnate sonship of Christ.

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“The interest here has been peculiar from the beginning. We have had thus far to work against a strong current of prejudice, bitterness, and misrepresentation from certain quarters. One leading minister at least has not scrupled to declare before large congregations in neighboring towns that Seventh-day Adventists were a very dangerous class of people, great hypocrites, and DISBELIEVERS IN THE DIVINITY OF CHRIST. That the same things have been said to many in this city we have had every reason to believe. Hence large numbers have seemed to think the tent a most dangerous place to go to…” (G. I. Butler, Review and Herald July 17, 1894, pg. 459 – ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA.”)

In 1893 even with the church’s non-trinitarian-begotten-Son theology notwithstanding, Ellen White said there was not a people on earth who believed in the Divinity of Christ more than the Adventists.

“For instance, an effort was made to obtain the use of the hall at a village four miles from Hastings, where some of our workers proposed to present the gospel to the people; but they did not succeed in obtaining the hall, because a school-teacher there opposed the truth, and declared to the people that Seventh-day Adventists did not believe in the divinity of Christ. This man may not have known what our faith is on this point, but he was not left in ignorance. He was informed that THERE IS NOT A PEOPLE ON EARTH WHO HOLD MORE FIRMLY TO THE TRUTH OF CHRIST’S PRE-EXISTENCE THAN DO SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS. But the answer was given that they did not want that the doctrines of Seventh-day Adventists should be promulgated in that community. So the door was closed.” — RH, December 5, 1893 par. 5

In 1871, Ellen White sat with her husband in a train as he explained why they rejected the Trinity but believed in the Divinity of Christ:

“This missionary seemed very liberal in his feelings toward all Christians. But after catechizing us [James and Ellen White] upon the trinity, and finding that we were not sound upon the subject of his triune God, he became earnest in denouncing unitarianism, which takes from Christ his divinity, and leaves him but a man. Here, as far as our views were concerned, he was combating a man of straw. WE DO NOT DENY THE DIVINITY OF CHRIST. WE DELIGHT IN GIVING FULL CREDIT TO ALL THOSE STRONG EXPRESSIONS OF SCRIPTURE WHICH EXALT THE SON OF GOD. We believe him to be the divine person addressed by Jehovah in the words, ” Let us make man.” He was with the Father before the world was. He came from God, and he says, “I go to him that sent me.” The apostle speaks of Christ as he now is, our mediator, having laid aside our nature. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. —James White, RH June 6, 1871

THE SIMPLE LANGUAGE OF THE SCRIPTURES REPRESENT THE FATHER AND SON AS TWO DISTINCT PERSONS. With this view of the subject there are meaning and force to language which speaks of the Father and the Son. But to say that Jesus Christ “is the very and eternal God,” makes him his own son, and his own father, and that he came from himself, and went to himself. And when the Father sends Jesus Christ, whom the Heavens must receive till the times of restitution, it will simply be Jesus Christ, or the eternal Father sending himself. — ibid

We have not as much sympathy with Unitarians that deny the divinity of Christ, as with Trinitarians who hold that the Son is the eternal Father, and talk so mistily about the three-one God. Give the Master all that divinity with which the Holy Scriptures clothe him.” — ibid

We can see that the Adventists were constrained to the expressions of Scripture. Thus, they gave full credit to all those strong expressions in the Bible which exalt the Son of God. Adventists gave all the divinity that the Holy Scriptures had clothed him. This shows that the Adventists were willing to follow the Bible even if it meant they would have to have doctrines which are not popular.

While most modern Seventh-day Adventists deny Christ’s pre-incarnate begottenism, one should recognize the consensus view of the church back then with respect to the sonship of Christ (which was non-trinitarian while affirming the divinity of the pre-incarnate begotten sonship). Thus one should recognize that the following statement would have been understood within such framework.

“The Eternal Father, the unchangeable one, gave his only begotten Son, tore from his bosom Him who was made in the express image of his person, and sent him down to earth to reveal how greatly he loved mankind. He is willing to do more, “more than we can ask or think.” An inspired writer asks a question which should sink deep into every heart: ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’” {Ellen G. White, RH July 9, 1895, par. 13}

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