A research paper on the history of the trinity doctrine within the early Christian Church and within Seventh-day Adventism
The early 1900’s crisis - Ellen White condemns trinity three-in-one illustrations of God
As we noted in the two previous sections, John Harvey Kellogg, one of the most famous names in Seventh-day Adventism, said in 1903 that he had come to believe in the trinity doctrine. This means that he had come to believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (the trinity confession).
Ellen White consistently repudiated his understanding of the Godhead. Even before he openly made this trinity ‘confession’ she said to him
“You are not definitely clear on the personality of God, which is everything to us as a people. You have virtually destroyed the Lord God Himself.” (Ellen G. White to John Harvey Kellogg, Letter 300, March 16th 1903)”
This statement was a part of a letter that just previous to the 1903 General Conference session Ellen White had sent to Kellogg but during the conference itself, she did send him at least two others, both of which condemned ‘The Living Temple’. Ellen White could not have told Kellogg more clearly that by his teachings he was virtually destroying God as a personal being.
Note very importantly here that there is no record of Ellen White either commending or directly condemning Kellogg for coming to believe in the trinity doctrine although as we shall see now she did, when reproving what he had written in his book, condemn all illustrations that depicted God as three-in-one. Obvious to relate, she did this for a very good reason. She also said in a number of different testimonies that in all of this, Kellogg was being led astray by the devil. This should be telling us something very important.
Three-in-one illustrations of God condemned
Obvious to relate, Kellogg’s thinking was not, in 1903, in harmony with the Seventh-day Adventist faith. This was because it now involved a certain theology of which our denomination did not approve. It was also a theology that Ellen White herself condemned, even naming it the ‘alpha of heresies’ and saying that by it Kellogg had “virtually destroyed the Lord God Himself”.
From a personal perspective, I would say that it is evident that Ellen White did know of Kellogg’s trinitarian theology. I say this because it is only reasonable to believe that apart from any other way she may have come to this knowledge, her Son, W. C. White, must have told her. This was after Daniells had written to him saying that Kellogg had told him that he (Kellogg) had now come to believe in the trinity and that this explained what he had written in his ‘Living temple’ (see previous section)
Kellogg’s defection from ‘the faith’ was not a small thing within Seventh-day Adventism. It was a massive issue. He was our chief physician and a leading light. This is why Ellen White wrote so many testimonies concerning this crisis.
In one such testimony she wrote (this was with respect to Kellogg’s book ‘The Living Temple’).
“I am instructed to say, The sentiments of those who are searching for advanced scientific ideas are not to be trusted.” (Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B, No. 7, page 62 ‘Come out and be separate’)
She then said
“Such representations as the following are made: "The Father is as the light invisible; the Son is as the light embodied; the Spirit is the light shed abroad." "The Father is like the dew, invisible vapor; the Son is like the dew gathered in beauteous form; the Spirit is like the dew fallen to the seat of life." Another representation: "The Father is like the invisible vapor; the Son is like the leaden cloud; the Spirit is rain fallen and working in refreshing power." (Ibid)
As the vast majority of Christians will undoubtedly realize, all the illustrations listed here, along with other illustrations that are very similar in nature, are those that trinitarians use in an attempt to describe God as being three-in-one, meaning their trinity or triune concept of God. This undoubtedly shows us that Ellen White was making reference here to the doctrine of the trinity.
White was not the author of these illustrations. We know this because as they
are written here, they can also be found in a book written in 1858 by a pastor
and teacher named the Rev. William Boardman. The book was titled ‘The
Higher Christian Life’ and was a worldwide success. In fact the 1870’s ‘Higher
Life’ movement in
Boardman used these three-in-one illustrations to help explain the relationship between the three personalities of the Godhead, particularly how the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in each of them. These were the personalities that he said (using his words) comprised “the living” and “triune God” (see below), meaning the trinity God.
He actually wrote concerning the three-in-one illustrations (in his book these were all in upper case)
“The Father is as the light invisible. The Son is as the light embodied. The Spirit is as the light shed down.” (W. Boardman, The Higher Christian life, part 2, chapter 1, page 101, ‘For me: what then must I do?)
“The Father is like the dew in invisible vapor. The Son is like the dew gathered in beauteous form. The Spirit is like the dew fallen to the seat of life.” (Ibid page 102)
He continued on the following page
“The Father is like to the invisible vapor. The Son is as the laden cloud and palling rain. The Spirit is the rain — fallen and working in refreshing power.” (Ibid page 103)
As can be seen, there is very little difference in the way that Ellen White wrote these illustrations (see above).
With reference to these illustrations Boardman said
“These likenings are all imperfect. They rather hide than illustrate the tri-personality of the one God, for they are not persons but things, poor and earthly at best, to represent the living personalities of the living God.” (Ibid)
To a degree, as we shall soon see, Ellen White would have agreed with this statement (at least where Boardman says that these illustrations are imperfect).
Boardman then wrote
“So much they [the illustrations] may do, however, as to illustrate the official relations of each to the others and of each and all to us. And more. They may also illustrate the truth that all the fulness of Him who filleth all in all, dwells in each person of the Triune God.” (Ibid)
As can be seen, these illustrations were originally penned by Boardman to help explain the three-in-one (trinity or triune) concept of God. Whilst admitting that they were “imperfect” he did say that they do “illustrate the truth” that “all the fulness” of the Godhead dwells in each of the divine personalities.
Note that according to Boardman this “living God” was the “triune God”, meaning a composite entity. Note too he says that these illustrations do “illustrate the official relations of each to the others”.
Ellen White did not see it the same way, far from it in fact.
She said (note the very first words of this paragraph)
“I am instructed to say,” (Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B, No. 7, page 62 ‘Come out and be separate’)
This was not her own opinion she was voicing. She obviously had been instructed by God to say it.
This is when she wrote (as we noted above)
“The sentiments of those who are searching for advanced scientific ideas are not to be trusted. Such representations as the following are made: "The Father is as the light invisible; the Son is as the light embodied; the Spirit is the light shed abroad." "The Father is like the dew, invisible vapor; the Son is like the dew gathered in beauteous form; the Spirit is like the dew fallen to the seat of life." Another representation: "The Father is like the invisible vapor; the Son is like the leaden cloud; the Spirit is rain fallen and working in refreshing power."
These three-in-one illustrations are the same as what Boardman had written in his book. Note that Ellen White said that these types of ideas “are not to be trusted”.
She then condemned them by saying
“All these spiritualistic representations are simply nothingness. They are imperfect, untrue. They weaken and diminish the Majesty which no earthly likeness can be compared to. God can not be compared with the things His hands have made. These are mere earthly things, suffering under the curse of God because of the sins of man. “The Father can not be described by the things of earth.” (Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B, No. 7, page 62 ‘Come out and be separate’)
Notice first of all what Ellen White called these three-in-one illustrations (or “representations”). She called them “spiritualistic representations”. We shall come back to this point later.
By quoting more or less the exact words of the illustrations from Boardman’s book, we can see clearly here that Ellen White, as was Boardman, was making reference to the trinity doctrine (the “triune God” as Boardman called Him). We can see therefore that in 1905, Seventh-day Adventists were being told that all illustrations that attempt to make God’s being as three-in-one are wrong. In fact Ellen White says that they are all “imperfect” and “untrue”. How much more of a plain testimony could Seventh-day Adventists receive about not depicting God as being three-in-one (a trinity)?
In this Kellogg crisis therefore, as seen in this testimony concerning the ‘alpha of heresies’, it was the doctrine of the trinity that was in question. Of this there is no doubt.
Notice whom it was that Ellen White said could not be described by using the things of this earth. She said it was “the Father” (the infinite God as she so often called Him). He is the one who was believed by Seventh-day Adventists (prior to their conversion to trinitarianism) to be the source of everything in the universe. This included the Son who was believed to have been begotten or brought forth of Him (not created by Him).
By his three-in-one illustrations, Boardman was saying, as in trinity orthodoxy, that the source of the Son was the Father. On the face of it therefore, according to Seventh-day Adventist reasoning, these illustrations did appear to depict this part of their denominational belief. So what was the problem? Why did Ellen White condemn his illustrations?
It could be reasoned that the problem was either to do with the three-in-one illustration itself (its indivisible oneness|) or the depiction in it of the Holy Spirit being the same as God the Father and the Son (making its threeness), which as we have noted before is essential trinitarianism.
From my own personal studies I would say that it was both. I say this because at that time, Seventh-day Adventists did not believe that the Holy Spirit was a person like the Father and Son but was rather the personal presence of them both when they were not bodily present. There is also the reason that Ellen White always spoke of God as a personal being and not a composite entity as does the trinity doctrine. Whatever the truth of the matter, Ellen White condemned all these types of three-in-one illustrations.
The danger of false sentiments
As we noted above, Boardman’s
writings (particularly his book ‘The Higher Christian Life) helped to establish
the Keswick Conventions that began in the early 1870’s in England and are still
going strong today (2008). One source says that when the book was published
(1858), it sold 100,000 copies. It was as popular in
It is more than likely that this was one of the books to which Ellen White was referring when she said in the early 1900’s (this was under the sub-heading of “Dangers of speculative study”)
“There is danger that the false sentiments expressed in the books that they have been reading will sometimes be interwoven by our ministers, teachers, and editors with their arguments, discourses, and publications, under the belief that they are the same in principle as the teachings of the Spirit of truth.” (Ellen G. White, 9th Volume Testimonies, page 68 1909, ‘Literature in service”, see also Review and Herald 6th August 1908 ‘Circulate the publications No. 1)
She then added
“The book Living Temple is an illustration of this work, the writer of which declared in its support that its teachings were the same as those found in the writings of Mrs. White. Again and again we shall be called to meet the influence of men who are studying sciences of satanic origin, through which Satan is working to make a nonentity of God and of Christ.” (Ibid)
As we noted in the previous section, Kellogg did say that he had thought he had avoided in his book anything that could be considered trinitarian theology but obviously Ellen White did not see it this way. We can also see here that in condemning Kellogg’s reasoning, she condemned all three-in-one illustrations of the trinity.
We shall return our thoughts to this in a later section.
A most comprehensive statement
In his book ‘The Higher Christian Life’ and following on from his three-in-one illustrations of God, Boardman made this statement (note the capitalised words are as they are in Boardman’s book)
“The Father is all the fulness of the Godhead INVISIBLE.
The Son is all the fulness of the Godhead MANIFESTED.
The Spirit is all the fulness of the Godhead MAKING MANIFEST.”
(William Boardman, The Higher Christian Life, part ii ‘How attained, chapter 1,page 105 ‘For me: then what must I do?)
Ellen White in similar fashion said (this was following on from her condemnation of Boardman’s three-in-one illustrations)
“The Father is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight.
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.
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.” (Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies Series B No.7, page 62 1906 ‘Come out and be Separate’)
Here we can see that Ellen White used Boardman’s statements as a basis for what she herself wrote. In doing she expanded, modified and elaborated on them.
Boardman concluded in his book
“The persons are not mere offices, or modes of revelation, but living persons of the living God.” (William Boardman, the Higher Christian Life, part II ‘How Attained, chapter I, ‘For me: then what must I do?)
This has now become a trinitarian statement. To the three “living persons” has now been added the oneness of “the living God”.
Ellen White concluded in similar fashion (but note the very important modification to Boardman’s words)
“There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-those who receive Christ by living faith are baptised, and these powers will co-operate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.” (Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies Series B No.7, page 62 1906 ‘Come out and be Separate’)
The way that Ellen White modified Boardman’s statement is extremely important for us to note. It is also highly significant in the present trinity debate within Seventh-day Adventism.
Boardman had said that the three personalities were “living persons of the living God” whilst Ellen White said that they were “living persons of the heavenly trio”.
What is the difference? The difference is that Boardman’s is a trinitarian statement whilst Ellen White’s statement is non-trinitarian. Boardman spoke of God as being three-in-one whilst Ellen White did not. She just said that the three made up the Godhead not that they made up God as was said by Boardman. This really is very, very important.
Here then, from the pen of Ellen White, which Seventh-day Adventists believe was motivated by the leading of God’s Spirit, was an all-encompassing and very important statement regarding the Godhead. Obviously it also depicted what Seventh-day Adventists then believed. This was in 1906. It was still non-trinitarianism.
Some have used this statement to try and prove that Ellen White was a trinitarian but this cannot be done. This is because she does not say that all three personalities are all united into one indivisible God (essential trinitarianism) as Boardman was saying but is a trio of divine personalities. In fact as we have seen in this testimony, she condemned the three-in-one illustrations that made Him look triune. If you wish to read the entire testimony please click here. It is called ‘Come out and be Separate’.
It must be recognised here that Ellen White took what many would say was a genuine (authentic) trinitarian statement and turned it into one that was non-trinitarian. Here therefore is a question.
If Ellen White was a trinitarian (remember this testimony was initially written in 1905 and reproduced in the testimonies in 1906 which was 8 years after the publication of ‘The Desire of Ages’), then why did she do it. In other words, if she was a trinitarian, then why, when using Boardman’s statement, did she remove the trinitarianism from it and make it non-trinitarian? She must have had a very good reason for doing so or she would have used it as it was written by Boardman. This is only reasonable to believe.
Quite obviously, Ellen White removed the trinitarianism because it was not in keeping with what God had shown her. This was in keeping with her condemnation of the three-in-one illustrations used by Boardman. In other words, Ellen White removed the trinitarian oneness.
Essential yet incomprehensible oneness
In 1906, in the midst of the Godhead crisis within Seventh-day Adventism (this is with reference to the ‘alpha’ of heresies as we noted in the preface to this study), Ellen White wrote (note this was the same year as the special testimony we have just spoken of above was published)
“There are light and glory in the truth that Christ was one with the Father before the foundation of the world was laid. This is the light shining in a dark place, making it resplendent with divine, original glory.” (Ellen G. White, Review & Herald 5th April 1906 ‘The Word made Flesh’)
Here we are told that prior to the creation of our world there was a certain ‘oneness’ between the Father and Christ. Here therefore Ellen White is addressing trinity issues. Notice very importantly that she does not include the Holy Spirit in this oneness. This is more than likely because during the time of her ministry, Seventh-day Adventists did not regard the Holy Spirit as a personal being like they regarded God and Christ as personal beings. We shall see more of this as we go along. Note too that Ellen White did not say that Kellogg was making the Holy Spirit a non-entity, only that he was doing this to God and Christ.
Ellen White then adds (and this really is very important so please note it well)
“This truth [the pre-existent oneness that Christ had with God His Father], infinitely mysterious in itself, explains other mysterious and otherwise unexplainable truths, while it is enshrined in light, unapproachable and incomprehensible.” (Ibid)
Here we are told that whatever constituted this pre-existent ‘oneness’ between the Father and the Son (and we must stress here that Ellen White did say it existed), it is something that is “enshrined in light, unapproachable and incomprehensible.”
Obviously, this “incomprehensible” is with regards to the possibility of the human mind to understand it. This is where Seventh-day Adventists should leave it – as something not revealed and beyond our ability to understand. This is why the oneness as portrayed in the trinity doctrine is only an assumed oneness. Certainly it is not something that can be proven from Scripture. Neither, as we can see from this statement from Ellen White, has God revealed it through her.
It should also be obvious that Ellen White was not referring here to the oneness that God and Christ had with regards to their desire to save humanity, neither was it to do with their oneness in eternal purposes in the salvation of mankind. We can also say that this oneness was not with respect to the love that they both have for humanity or their oneness in personal characters. This is because none of these things would be “incomprehensible” to us but would easily be understood.
Certainly none of these things could be termed “unapproachable”. It must be accepted therefore that this oneness Ellen White speaks of here must be to do with the eternal ontological existence of Christ with the Father (their divine being or the way that they exist), something that is not spoken of in Scripture. This I believe is only reasonable to conclude. As has been said, she was addressing trinity issues but she certainly was not promoting God as a trinity.
From my own personal studies, I have drawn the conclusion that Ellen White wrote this entire article with reference to the trinity doctrine. I say this because as we have already seen both in the previous section and here, this is obviously what the concern was in the early 1900’s crisis within Seventh-day Adventism.
Ignoring the testimonies
Strange as it may seem, by using very similar three-in-one illustrations that were so clearly condemned by Ellen White (see above), God is today being described in Seventh-day Adventists publications as a trinity.
glaring example of this is in our recent
In attempting to describe God as three-in-one, the lesson author asks Seventh-day Adventists throughout the world
“What analogies—such as a triangle or a three-pronged fork — can help someone understand the idea of how one God can be composed of three equal Persons?” (The Seventh-day Adventist Lesson quarterly, 2nd quarter 2006 Sunday March 26th page 7)
To describe God this way I believe is denigrating. Never should we describe His being as like “a three-pronged fork”. We have the testimony of the spirit of prophecy on this one. This is worse than the denigration (disparagement) of the three-in-one illustrations that was condemned (see above).
If this was not enough the same author then asks
“What other examples might help us better understand this deep truth?” (Ibid)
can see that in 2006 and throughout the world, Seventh-day Adventists were
being asked to illustrate (to liken) God by the use of “a
triangle” and a “three-pronged fork”.
They are then asked, what “other examples” they
can think of to show “this deep truth” that God
is three-in-one. Needless to say, in their
for Seventh-day Adventists, the
All that they did was to partly quote Ellen White by saying
“The Father is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight. The Son is all the fullness of the Godhead manifested. The Word of God declares Him to be ‘the express image of His person.’ . . . 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. There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—those who receive Christ by living faith are baptized, and these powers will co-operate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.”—Ellen G. White, Evangelism, pp. 614, 615.” (Ibid)
This quote is not complete. Even though it may at first glance look as though that it has been taken from one paragraph it is in fact an extract from three separate paragraphs. It is these three paragraphs that we have noted above where Ellen White condemns three-in-one illustrations and gives what I have termed her most comprehensive statement regarding the Godhead.
The first paragraph actually says (this was with reference to the three-in-one trinity illustrations in the previous paragraph)
“All these spiritualistic representations are simply nothingness. They are imperfect, untrue. They weaken and diminish the Majesty which no earthly likeness can be compared to. God can not be compared with the things His hands have made. These are mere earthly things, suffering under the curse of God because of the sins of man. The Father can not be described by the things of earth. The Father is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight.” (Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B, No. 7, page 62 ‘Come out and be separate’)
The second paragraph originally said
“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)
In the quote in the
The third paragraph was quoted correctly.
This one said
“The Comforter that Christ promised to send after He ascended to heaven, is the Spirit in all the fulness of the Godhead, making manifest the power of divine grace to all who receive and believe in Christ as a personal Saviour. There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-- those who receive Christ by living faith are baptized, and these powers will co-operate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.” (Ibid)
again to relate, this depicting of God as three-in-one in our Sabbath School
lessons is going totally contrary to the testimony from God that we have just
read where Ellen White said that Seventh-day Adventists are not to use
three-in-one illustrations to describe God. This therefore must be seen as open
rebellion against the testimonies unless of course this testimony is
unknown which cannot be said concerning those who authored the
Undoubtedly, Kellogg’s views did concern the doctrine of the trinity else Ellen White would not have written what she did with respect of ‘The Living Temple’ in this testimony.
We shall return our thoughts to this testimony in later sections. This is where we shall discover what Ellen White really did believe concerning God and Christ.
In this testimony above, Ellen White did not just condemn three-in-one illustrations of God. She did in fact make what the author of these notes believes is her most comprehensive statement concerning the Godhead. As we have seen though, it did ‘fall short’ of a trinity view although some do use this statement today to try to show that Ellen White did believe that God is a trinity (it was this part that was quoted in the Sabbath School lesson study).
This early 1900’s crisis within Seventh-day Adventism therefore had everything to do with the doctrine of the trinity. Remember too that Kellogg’s views were also that which Ellen White referred to as containing the ‘alpha’ of heresies.
In the previous section, we noted that to arrive at his beliefs, Kellogg had to ‘think differently’ about the Holy Spirit than did Seventh-day Adventists at that time (1903). So too, to arrive at the place where they could inculcate the trinity doctrine into their denomination, the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church had to somehow change the denominational view of the Holy Spirit. How this came about is detailed in section forty-four.
We shall now go to section twenty-eight. This is where we shall be asking if the trinity doctrine is ‘the omega’ that Ellen White warned Seventh-day Adventists was on its way into Seventh-day Adventism. Following that we shall be taking a look at some of the things that Ellen White said to the delegates at the 1905 General Conference concerning the early 1900’s Godhead crisis within Seventh-day Adventism. This was the first General Conference following the publication of Kellogg’s ‘Living Temple’. It was also where Ellen White repeatedly stressed that God and Christ were two separate personal beings. Obviously she did this for a very good reason. In the author’s opinion it was to allay ideas of trinitarianism.
Initial publication – 22nd May 2008
Last edited – 31st December 2011
© T. M. Hill 2008 England