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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Eight

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 nature."

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.


Study Objectives

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. Arianism 1 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 1895—About the only notable impact that Ellen White's unfolding understanding of the nature of Christ made


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 mystery—the 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 Christology—The 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 Misunderstanding
The 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 faith?

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 about


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 "post-Fall" terms.

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 me.

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 recognition


of a mysteriously balanced tension: Gil G. Fernandez speaks of "ambiguities" (29), and A. Leroy Moore uses the expression "paradoxical dimensions" (249).

Furthermore, it does not seem to be accidental that their expressions come close to Eric C. Webster (a forceful defender of the sinlessly uniqueness position—essentially 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.

1 This teaching was given its classic expression by (and named after) Arius, a third-century theologian from Alexandria, Egypt. [back] [top]

2 For further discussion about the theological roots and fruitage of Minneapolis, see chapters 10 and 11. [back] [top]

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