The Person/Personality Problem

In Ellen White’s day, there were different definitions of “person” and “personality”. I find it interesting that people are so quick to ascribe a particular definition of “person” that suits their theology when reading her writings. Here is what J. H. Waggoner had to say about the differing ideas of the word:

“There is one question which has been much controverted in the theological world upon which we have never presumed to enter. It is that of the personality of the Spirit of God. Prevailing ideas of person are very diverse, often crude, and the word is differently understood; so that unity of opinion on this point cannot be expected until all shall be able to define precisely what they mean by the word, or until all shall agree upon one particular sense in which the word shall be used. But as this agreement does not exist, it seems that a discussion of the subject cannot be profitable, especially as it is not a question of direct revelation. We have a right to be positive in our faith and our statements only when the words of Scripture are so direct as to bring the subject within the range of positive proof.

“We are not only willing but anxious to leave it just where the word of God leaves it. From it we learn that the Spirit of God is that awful and mysterious power which proceeds from the throne of the universe, and which is the efficient actor in the work of creation and of redemption.” (The Spirit of God; Its Offices and Manifestations, pp. 8, 9. 1877)

Some people tend to only quote from Webster’s Dictionary as evidence of the meaning of Person. Here is the entry for Person and Personality which are found in volume 4 of the American Encyclopædic Dictionary, by Robert Hunter, published in 1895. This is the dictionary which was actually owned by Ellen White.

“Person.

I. Ordinary Language:

*1. That part in life which one plays.

‘No men can long put on person and act a part but his evil manners will peep through the corners of his white robe.’‐Jeremy Taylor: Apples of Sodom

¶ Archbishop Trench points out that when this old sense of the word is remembered, greatly increased force is given to the statement that God is no respecter of persons. The signification is that God cares not what part in life a person plays‐in other words, what office he fills‐but how he plays it. (Select Glossary.)

†2. A human being represented in fic􀆟on or on the stage; a character.

‘These tables Cicero pronounced, under the person of Crassus, were of more use and authority than all the books of the philosophers.’‐Baker: On Learning.

3. External appearance; bodily form or appearance.

‘If it assume my noble father’s person.’‐Shakesp.: Hamlet, i. 2.

4. Human frame; body; as, cleanly in person.

5. A human being; a being possessed of personality; a man, woman, or child; a human creature.

‘A fair person he was, and fortunate.’‐Chaucer: C, T., 10,339.

6. A human being, as distinguished from an animal, or inanimate object.

7. An individual; one; a man.

‘This was then the church which was daily increased by the addition of other persons received into it.’‐Pearson: On the Creed.

8. A term applied to each of the three beings of the Godhead.

‘The whole three persons are co‐eternal together, and co‐equal.’‐ Athanasian Creed.

*9. The parson or rector of a parish.”

“Personality

I. Ordinary Language:

1. The quality or state of being personal; direct application or applicability to a person; specific., application or applicability of remarks to the person, conduct, manners, or habits of some individual.

‘There is yet another topic, which he has been no less studious to avoid, which is personality . . . he does not mean to point at individuals.’‐ Observer, No. 86.

2. A remark reflecting on the person, conduct, manners, or habits of an individual; personal remarks.

‘He expressed regret that personalities had been introduced.’‐London Daily Chronicle

3. That which constitutes individuality; that which constitutes an individual a distinct person; existence as a thinking being.

‘These capacities constitute personality, for they imply consciousness of thought.’‐Paley:

Natural Theology, ch. xxiii.

4. Application limited to certain persons, or classes of persons.

5. Personal qualities, or characteristics.

‘Those qualities and personalities in Lovelace.’‐Richardson: Clarissa, ii. 138.

6. A personage, a person.

‘It adds to the House of Commons a distinctly original and interesting personality.’ Observer.

7. Person, body.

‘The rest of his personality . . . consisted of self‐evident cast‐off lordly clothing.’‐Harper’s Monthly, Dec. 1884, p. 76.” (p. 3077)

Ellen White has some peculiar uses for Personality, such as:

“The gospel of Christ becomes personality in those who believe, and makes them living epistles, known and read of all men.” (RH, 15‐12‐1891)

Even the quote where she speaks of the Holy Spirit divested of the “personality of humanity”, she appears to mean the bodily fixed form. Here is what her son Willie had to say on the different meanings of “personality”:

“My perplexities were lessened a little when I learned from the dictionary that one of the meanings of personality, was Characteristics. It is stated in such a way that I concluded that there might be personality without bodily form which is possessed by the Father and the Son.” (Letter to H. W. Carr, dated 30‐4‐1935)

And so, on this point of the meaning of “Person” or “Personality” we must be so very careful, for sometimes she speaks in such a way as there are two, and sometimes of three, and we must be sure that we are getting the right definition in each place and be careful to use correct hermeneutics to determine the meaning in each instance. As Ellen White said:

“The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture.” (Lt. 73, 1903; in 1SM, p. 42)

I will begin to do this now by examining some of the m
ain statements from Ellen White often taken out of context in Trinitarian discussions.

The Person/ality Statements, Part 1: “Third Person of the Godhead”

There are four such places where Ellen White uses this phrase. Each of them has a slightly different context and wording, and so we shall examine them separately.

“Christ determined that when He ascended from this earth He would bestow a gift on those who had believed on Him and those who should believe on Him. What gift could He bestow rich enough to signalize and grace His ascension to the mediatorial throne? It must be worthy of His greatness and His royalty. He determined to give His representative, the third person of the Godhead. This gift could not be excelled. He would give all gifts in one, and therefore the divine Spirit, converting, enlightening, sanctifying, would be His donation.” (ST, 1‐12‐1898)

This appears as the second paragraph in an article titled, “The Outpouring of the Spirit.” Looking at the context of the whole article, we see that the first references made to the Spirit in this article are in the possessive, speaking of “God’s Spirit” and “His Spirit.” Throughout, the Spirit is also referred to as “it,” save in the quotations from John 14‐16.

One thing that can be noticed is that the context of the paragraph contains many references to the Holy Spirit as a “gift” and finishes with the work it would do. This would be fitting with definitions 1 and 2 from the American Encyclopædic Dictionary, where ‘person’ can refer to a role or work that is done, or the person being represented.

“The prince of the power of evil can only be held in check by the power of God in the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit.” (SpTA10, p. 37, 1897)

This quote is found in a section of Special Testimonies A, titled, “Extracts From a Recent Communication,” under a subheading, “The Work of the Holy Spirit.” One of the first things she says under this subheading is that, “[t]his light has been kept before our people for years.” Ellen White is calling attention to the roots of Adventism. She does not then go on to undermine this heritage.

Immediately before the sentence above, which stands alone as a paragraph, she writes, “He [God] moves upon human forces, causing his Spirit to touch invisible chords…” Again, “His Spirit” is possessive. More importantly, Ellen White doesn’t just call it the third person of the Godhead, but attaches the words “the power of God.” So far, the only potential indicator that Ellen White was a Trinitarian from this statement is the term “third person.” We shall see this explained by her own words as we examine the next two statements. But again can be seen the context of the work which the Holy Spirit performs.

“Evil had been accumulating for centuries, and could only be restrained and resisted by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power. Another spirit must be met; for the essence of evil was working in all ways, and the submission of man to this Satanic captivity was amazing.” (Lt. 8, to my brethren in America, 6‐2‐1896; in 2MR, p. 34)

“In describing to His disciples the office work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus sought to inspire them with the joy and hope that inspired His own heart. He rejoiced because of the abundant help He had provided for His church. The Holy Spirit was the highest of all gifts that He could solicit from His Father for the exaltation of His people. The Spirit was to be given as a regenerating agent, and without this the sacrifice of Christ would have been of no avail. The power of evil had been strengthening for centuries, and the submission of men to this satanic captivity was amazing. Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power. It is the Spirit that makes effectual what has been wrought out by the world’s Redeemer. It is by the Spirit that the heart is made pure. Through the Spirit the believer becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Christ has given His Spirit as a divine power to overcome all hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil, and to impress His own character upon His church.” (DA, p. 671)

In the Desire of Ages quote, “Third Person” appears with capitals. The capitalisation was not introduced until after the 1939 edition (the last printing with lower case), years after Ellen White died. Again we see in this last quote the possessive, “His Spirit.” In these very similar quotes, we see “sin” and “evil” used interchangeably. We also see that this sin/evil was “restrained” “resisted” and “overcome” through the power of this “third person” of the Godhead. Finally, we see the word “only.”

In another statement in Desire of Ages, Ellen White identifies who this third person must be:

“The only defense against evil is the indwelling of Christ in the heart through faith in His righteousness. (ibid, p. 324)

Here we see the familiar word “only,” as well as the word “defence” which is synonymous with the verbs above (i.e. “restrained,” “resisted,” “overcome”). Instead of the term “third person of the Godhead,” we see that it is now the “indwelling of Christ” which does this. The word “only” tells us that these two terms represent the same thing. Therefore, the “third person of the Godhead” is the “indwelling of Christ,” and is “third” only in the sense of a third manifestation, ministering to each of us. See how this works:


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All four instances of the “third person” statements appear in connection with the work of the Spirit. This fact reinforces that it is a definition other than ‘individual’ which is meant, and there are no other indicators in the context to require it.

Also, Ellen White uses “third person OF the Godhead” rather than the more tritheistic or consubstantial “third person IN the Godhead” which is more commonly used.

The Person/ality Statements, Part 2: “Three Persons” and “Three Personalities”

“In the first chapter of Second Peter is presented the progressive work in the Christian life. The whole chapter is a lesson of deep importance. If man, in acquiring the Christian graces, works on the plan of addition, God has pledged Himself to work in his behalf upon the plan of multiplication. “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord.” The work is laid out before every soul that has acknowledged his faith in Jesus Christ by baptism, and has become a receiver of the pledge from the three persons‐‐the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (Ms. 57, 1900; in 6BC, p. 1074)

“There are three living persons of the heavenly trio. In the name of these three powers,‐‐the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, those who receive Christ by living faith are baptized, and these powers will cooperate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.” (Ms. 21, 1906; in SpTB07, p. 63)

The first observation about both of these statements is that they each are made in the context of baptism, referencing Matthew 28:19. Secondly, while containing the terms, “three persons,” neither defines what is meant by the term, nor do they outline the relationships between the subjects in the immediate context.

However, before the statement in Manuscript 21, 1906, Ellen White gives perhaps the clearest comparison of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit she ever penned. She describes each of them, and as will be seen, makes subtle changes in her wording when it comes to the Holy Spirit.

“The Father cannot be described by the things of earth. The Father is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight.” (ibid, p. 62)

In saying that the Father is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, she is backing up the Pioneer understanding that God has a form, however she adds that He is “invisible to mortal sight.” This specific wording shows that God is not inherently invisible, but only to sinful mortals.

“The Son is all the fullness of the Godhead manifested. The Word of God declares Him to be ‘the express image of His person.’ ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only‐begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ Here is shown the personality of the Father.” (ibid, p. 63)

Christ declared to us the character of the Father, He didn’t show the Father’s form. John 3:16, as quoted here, tells us of the Father’s love, manifest in the gift of His Son. Christ is all the fullness of the Godhead manifested and He reveals to us the personality of His Father through His life and death.

“The Comforter that Christ promised to send after He ascended to heaven, is the Spirit in all the fullness of the Godhead, making manifest the power of divine grace to all who receive and believe in Christ as a personal Saviour.” (loc. cit)

We have already looked at the identity of Christ as the Comforter. What is most interesting about this is that instead of saying that “the Spirit is all the fullness of the Godhead,” she says it “is the Spirit IN all the fullness of the Godhead.” This difference may not seem significant, but it highlights a distinction in definition and harmonizes with the traditional understanding of the Spirit as the presence and power of God. Here are some other similar statements where similar distinction in definition is given:

“Before He left them, Christ gave His followers a positive promise that after His ascension He would send them the Holy Spirit. “Go ye therefore,” He said, “and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father [a personal God] and of the Son [a personal Saviour], and of the Holy Ghost [sent from heaven to represent Christ]: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” [Matt. 28:19, 20].” (Ms. 41, 1897; in 12MR, p. 260, brackets in original)

“Those who believe the truth should remember that they are God’s little children, under His training. Let them be thankful to God for His manifold mercies and be kind to one another. They have one God and one Saviour; and one Spirit‐‐ the Spirit of Christ‐‐is to bring unity into their ranks.” (SpTB04, p. 23)

In the first of the above quotes, the Father and Son are separately personal. The fact that Ellen White describes the Spirit differently is very revealing. Again, this is in the context of Matthew 28:19, but here Ellen White describes the three relationally. In the second statement, Ellen White identifies the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. These two statements add depth to the meaning of the “heavenly trio” manuscript above and fit well with the early Adventist belief.

(For more information on “three living persons of the heavenly trio” statement see another article by this author called “Is the Heavenly Trio a Trinity?”)

The Person/ality Statements, Part 3: “Distinct Personality”

“The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, in Christ’s name. He personifies Christ, yet is a distinct personality. We may have the Holy Spirit if we ask for it and make it [a] habit to turn to and trust in God rather than in any finite human agent who may make mistakes.” (Ms. 93, 1893; in 20MR, p. 324)

Much is made of this statement, especially as it includes the term “distinct.” People point to this statement as indicative that Ellen White believed the Holy Spirit to be a separate person. However, we have seen that ‘personality’ can refer to the part played, to the work rather than the individual. If we compare this quote with some others, we shall see a harmony with the original teaching of the church.

While the pioneers understood that the Holy Spirit was a part of God, and flowed out from God and Christ, they also saw that it had distinct roles and work. In the same passage alluded to by the term “Comforter,” Christ also spoke of the Spirit as distinct (John 14:16: “another”) in terms of its work, even though He later identified it as Himself in identity, saying, “I will come to you.” (verse 18) Ellen White was also clear as to the identity of the Comforter , as seen in the following statements:

“The reason why the churches are weak and sickly and ready to die, is that the enemy has brought influences of a discouraging nature to bear upon trembling souls. He has sought to shut Jesus from their view as the Comforter, as one who reproves, who warns, who admonishes them, saying, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” Christ has all power in heaven and in earth, and he can strengthen the wavering, and set right the erring. He can inspire with confidence, with hope in God; and confidence in God always results in creating confidence in one another.” (RH, 26‐8‐1890)

“The Saviour is our Comforter. This I have proved Him to be.” (Diary 16‐7‐1892; in 8MR, p. 49)

“How essential that we have the enlightenment of the Spirit of God; for thus only can we see the glory of Christ, and by beholding become changed from character to character in and through faith in Christ. We turn from the picture of our shortcomings to behold the atonement made for us, and we rejoice as we know that we may be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. In Him all fulness dwells. He has grace and pardon for every soul. As by faith we look to Jesus, our faith pierces the shadow, and we adore God for His wondrous love in giving Jesus the Comforter.” (Diary, 26‐7‐1892; in 19MR, p. 297)

“‘But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwelleth in you.’ O how precious are these words to every bereaved soul! Christ is our Guide and Comforter, who comforts us in all our tribulations. When He gives us a bitter draught to drink, He also holds a cup of blessing to our lips. He fills the heart with submission, with joy and peace in believing, and enables us to say submissively, Not my will, but Thy will, O Lord, be done.” (Lt. 65a, to friends on Pitcairn Island, 1‐1‐1894; in 6BC, p. 1076)

“If I could see you, I would have words to speak that might be more acceptable than these traced with my pen. Christ comes as a Comforter to all who believe. He invites your confidence. He says, “Abide in me.” Surely we may trust in our loving Saviour. You can say, “Yes, my Saviour, in Thee I can and will trust. I will abide in Thee.” Then how trustfully you can work in His presence. Your works will be but the fruit of Christ working in you. You may rest in what Christ can do for you. And the energies of your soul will be awakened to cooperate with Him. He will work in you to do His good pleasure.” (Lt. 103, to Sr. Peck, 21‐11‐1898; in 8MR, p. 57)

“I urge our people to cease their criticism and evil speaking, and go to God in earnest prayer, asking him to help them to help the erring. Let them link up with one another and with Christ. Let them study the seventeenth of John, and learn how to pray and how to live the prayer of Christ. He is the Comforter. He will abide in their hearts, making their joy full. His words will be to them as the bread of life, and in the strength thus gained they will be enabled to develop characters that will be an honor to God. Perfect Christian fellowship will exist among them. There will be seen in their lives the fruit that always appears as the result of obedience to the truth.” (RH, 27‐1‐1903)

These statements are decidedly in harmony with the early position of the church and span the whole of the 1890’s through to the Kellogg crisis. The distinction, then, must be in the work that the Holy Spirit does. Christ, bodily, is in the Heavenly Sanctuary, mediating His blood on our behalf. His Spirit, on earth, does a separate, though related work in moving our hearts.

“No human reasoning of the most learned man can define the operations of the Holy Spirit upon human minds and characters; yet they can see the effects upon the life and actions. The Holy Spirit is a free, working, independent agency. The God of heaven uses his Spirit as it pleases him, and human minds and human judgment and human methods can no more set boundaries to its working, or prescribe as to the channel through which it shall operate, than they can say to the wind, “I bid you to blow in a certain direction, and to conduct yourself in such and such a manner.”” (RH, 5‐5‐1896)

“Greater works that these shall ye do; because I go unto my Father.” He would then intercede for them, and would send them his own representative, the Holy Spirit, who would attend them in their work. This representative would not appear in human form, but by faith would be seen and recognized by all who believe in Christ.” (HM, 1‐7‐1897)

Christ, our Mediator, and the Holy Spirit are constantly interceding in man’s behalf, but the Spirit pleads not for us as does Christ who presents His blood, shed from the foundation of the world; the Spirit works upon our hearts, drawing out prayers and penitence, praise and thanksgiving. The gratitude which flows from our lips is the result of the Spirit striking the cords of the soul in holy memories, awakening the music of the heart.” (Ms. 50, 1900; in 1SM, p. 344)

It can be seen here that the distinction between Christ and the Spirit is not one of individuality, but of work or role. This best fits the context of the statement and there is left no reason to demand the stricter, ‘individual’ sense of ‘person’.

The Person/ality Statements, Part 4: “As Much a Person as God is a Person”

“The Lord says this because He knows it is for our good. He would build a wall around us, to keep us from transgression, so that His blessing and love may be bestowed on us in rich measure. This is the reason we have established a school here. The Lord instructed us that this was the place in which we should locate, and we have had every reason to think that we are in the right place. We have been brought together as a school, and we need to realize that the Holy Spirit, who is as much a person as God is a person, is walking through these grounds, unseen by human eyes; that the Lord God is our Keeper and Helper. He hears every word we utter and knows every thought of the mind.” (Ms. 66, Talk given at Avondale College, 25‐3‐1899; in 2SAT, pp. 137, 138)

It should be first of all pointed out that this was a record of a sermon. It is common that people speak differently to how they write. When writing, one is more apt to be precise about one’s words. When we speak, we tend to not only be freer, but to use more poetic, figurative or common styles. The second thing to note is that Ellen White was not preaching on the ontology of God. Her sermons were more practical than this. Much has been made of this statement, certainly much more than was probably ever intended by the speaker.

Secondly, the words “as much… as” are a grammatical construct called a simile. They are figures of speech and are used to explain, make comparisons or draw contrasts. Figures of speech are not exactly reliable to draw dogmatic positions from.

Ellen White was concerned here with the fact that the same Lord who chose Avondale as a site for the college was personally present there (this understanding was allowed for by the early Adventist belief that the Holy Spirit was t
he presence of God). Because He was not distant, but was verily there, the place should be treated with reverence. Her description of the Holy Spirit walking was not indicative of it having a form, but was merely a personification, the usage of which can be seen in the following quotes:

“He walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks. Thus is symbolized the relation of Christ to his churches, and the stars are used to represent his ministers. He is represented as walking up and down among the golden candlesticks. He is in communion with his people. He knows their true state. He observes their order, their vigilance, their piety, and their devotion; and he takes pleasure in them if he sees these fruits manifest. Although Christ is mediator in the heavenly Sanctuary, yet he walks up and down in the midst of the churches on earth. He goes about from church to church, from congregation to congregation, from soul to soul. He observes their true condition,‐‐that which is neglected, that which is in disorder, and that which needs to be done. He is represented as walking, which signifies unrest, wakefulness, and unremitting vigilance. He is observing whether the light of any of his sentinels, or candlesticks, is burning dim or going out. These under‐shepherds may sleep, but He that keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. If these candlesticks were left to the charge of human powers, the flickering flame would languish and die. But He is the true watchman of the home, the sleepless warden of the temple courts. The continual watch‐care and presence and sustaining grace of Christ are the source of all light and life.” (RH, 31‐5‐1887)

The Lord Jesus standing by the side of the canvassers, walking with them, is the chief worker. If we recognize Christ as the One who is with us to prepare the way, the Holy Spirit by our side will make impressions in just the lines needed.” (MC, p. 40)

“In the message to the church at Ephesus, Christ is represented as holding the seven stars in His hand, and walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. He is represented as “walking” among them, thus illustrating His constant diligence in behalf of His church. He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. Nor does He become indifferent. These figures are to be carefully studied by the undershepherds, and faithfully applied to their own experience, that they may not lose sight of their great privilege of securing light from the Source of all light, and giving it in turn to those for whom they labor. (Lt. 4, to G. W. Reaser, 1‐1‐1908; in 7BC, p. 956)

In the above statements, we see some interesting things. Firstly, we can see that “walking” is used symbolically. Second, if we compare these statements with that of the one in question, we can equate the Holy Spirit with Christ. This is clearly shown by the second statement, which uses “Lord Jesus” and “Holy Spirit” interchangeably. We can see the same in her talk, where Ellen White uses “Holy Spirit” and “Lord God” synonymously. In fact, if we follow through the whole paragraph, we can see that “The Lord” is used as the subject throughout. The Holy Spirit as a ‘person’ might here be referring to it as the omnipotence of the person of Christ, or to its distinct work (definitions 1 and 2 in the dictionary) as God’s representative. It is not necessary for this statement to mean a third, separate individual as many claim.

(For more information on the issues involved in reading transcripts of Ellen White’s sermons versus words she penned with her hand see another paper by this author called “What did Ellen White Say? A Framework for Studying the Words of Ellen White”)

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