A research paper on the history of the trinity doctrine within the early Christian Church and within Seventh-day Adventism
Within our own (Seventh-day Adventist) publications, there is found the admittance that during the time period of Ellen White’s ministry, we were a decidedly non-trinitarian denomination. This we have duly noted in previous sections (see section ten in particular).
In spite of this
confession, there are amongst us today some who would like us to believe that
during this same time period (meaning during the ministry of Ellen White),
there were those who were trinitarian and that trinitarianism was acceptably
taught within our denomination. There is also the continuing thought that after
the 1888 General Conference session at
Whilst it must be admitted that there may have been those who were dissatisfied with our non-trinitarianism (every church has its dissenters), this never came to the fore, at least not during the time of Ellen White’s ministry although as we have seen in section twenty-five, Kellogg did say in 1903 (15 years after the Minneapolis Conference) that he had come to believe in the trinity doctrine. This helps to show that even then (1903), trinitarianism was not the accepted teaching in our church. Important to remember here is that this had nothing to do with Kellogg being dissatisfied with how our church portrayed the divinity of Christ (our non-trinitarianism) but was for the reason of justifying what he had written in his much-debated book ‘The Living Temple’. This is very important to bear in mind, else it could cause confusion. I have found nothing in our history to suggest that Kellogg had any grievance with the church regarding the way that Christ’s Godhead was portrayed. Kellogg’s ‘conversion’ to trinitarianism was just for the purpose of justifying himself for what he had written,
Evidence or not evidence
In an attempt to ‘prove’ (establish) that trinitarianism was being taught within Seventh-day Adventism, also that our solid wall of non-trinitarianism was being broken down whilst Ellen White was alive, some have produced certain ‘evidence’ which, as we shall see in both this and the next section, is not all that it first seems to be. In other words, this ‘evidence’ does not hold up under investigation, hence the title of these sections, ‘Refuted evidences of trinitarianism within early Seventh-day Adventism’.
We need to remember here that in the previous sections we have discovered that not everything our church has published concerning the history of the trinity doctrine within our church has been in harmony with the facts. We also need to remember that misinformation will often be the cause of very serious misunderstandings and confusion.
Regarding the alleged existence of trinitarianism within Seventh-day Adventism whilst Ellen White was alive, I do believe that if no ‘concrete’ evidence can be produced in support of this claim, then it is only reasonable to believe that it did not exist.
It must also be said that it is only reasonable to believe that if during Ellen White’s ministry there could be found trinitarianism within our publications, then the various commentators who have attempted to have us believe that it did exist would have produced the trinitarian statements to prove it. As it is, no such statements have ever been produced (at least I have not encountered them) therefore I can only assume that no trinitarianism has ever been found within our publications. To think otherwise is to deny everything that can be properly termed common sense and reason.
In other words, if we cannot find the evidence that whilst Ellen White was alive there was trinitarianism within Seventh-day Adventism, then it should not be believed that it existed. This is only ‘reasonable thinking’. Why believe trinitarianism did exist but no evidence can be found for it? This would not make sense.
The Spear article of 1889
In an attempt to show that ‘some’ Seventh-day Adventists were trinitarian and that trinitarianism was acceptable to be taught within Seventh-day Adventism, some have used as so-called ‘proof’ an article that was published on the 14th November 1889 in a religious journal called the ‘New York Independent’. This was the year following the Minneapolis Conference. This same article, written by Samuel Spear who was not a Seventh-day Adventist, was later, with certain modifications, included as No. 90 in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Students Library. This was in 1892. You can read the entire article by clicking here.
For those who are unaware of what the Bible Student’s Library was, also why it existed, we will allow Gerhard Pfandl to explain (Gerhard Pfandl is Associate Director of the Bible Research Institute).
“The Bible Students' Library was "a series of pamphlets, designed for the public, containing brief and pointed essays on Bible doctrines, the fulfillment of prophecy, and other aspects of SDA teachings.” (Gerhard Pfandl research paper ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity among Adventists’, page 4 June 1999)
It should be needless to say that whatever was included in this “series of pamphlets”, it was obviously that which was ‘officially’ believed by Seventh-day Adventists (the preponderant faith of the church as a whole). This shows that whatever was said by Spear in his article regarding the Godhead, in 1892 it was what was believed and taught by Seventh-day Adventists. This again is only reasonable to believe.
There is also something else that is important to note here. That is that when this article was first published in the New York Independent, it had as its title ‘The Subordination of Christ’. It was also called the same when it was republished in the Signs in the Times over two weeks in 1891. This was on December 7th and December 14th of that year. Interestingly, when it was reprinted by the Pacific Press in tract form and included as No. 90 in our Bible Students Library, it was called ‘The Bible Doctrine of the trinity.
Max Hatton, a retired Australian Seventh-day Adventist minister, also author of the Seventh-day Adventist publication ‘Understanding the Trinity’, makes the following observation regarding Spear’s article
“The pamphlet is defective in some of its statements but this is not the important point. What is important to note is that an Adventist Publisher in 1892 could include an item on the Trinity as one of its publications. Certainly, this must indicate that the doctrine was quite acceptable to at least many Seventh-day Adventists at that time.” (Max Hatton website article ‘Ellen G. White and the Trinity’)
“In the formative years of our Church we had no statement of beliefs but it gradually became apparent that such a statement was necessary. Some of our leading pioneers were quite vocally non-Trinitarian. They came from a group that did not believe in the doctrine. They were initially quite Arian in their belief but gradually moved to semi-Arianism and as the Church matured and settled down it became very clearly Trinitarian.” (Max Hatton, Website article, ‘The Checkered History of the Trinity Doctrine’)
The term “formative years” is an open ended statement, meaning that it could convey any length of time but what we do know is that as a denomination on quite a number of occasions, we did issue a statement of our beliefs.
If you remember we covered this in section forty-five. This is where we noted that in 1872 we issued a statement of beliefs in pamphlet form, then in 1874 (June 4th) and 1878 (February 21st) in the ‘Signs of the Times’, then in 1889 it was included in our yearbook, also in our 1905 Yearbook. It was also published in our yearbooks from 1907 through to 1914. In the meanwhile it was also published in the Review and Herald of 1912 (August 22nd). We can assume therefore that when Hatton says “In the formative years of our Church we had no statement of beliefs” he was making reference to pre 1872. I say this because it is reasonably obvious from that year onwards we did have a published statement of beliefs.
Admittedly a small handful of our pioneers did come from “a group” that did not accept the trinity doctrine but to use this as a reason for the entire Seventh-day Adventist Church for so many years (even up to after Ellen White had died) to be non-trinitarian is not a reasonable conclusion to draw. Most (if not all) were Sunday keepers but God did not leave us in this condition. Instead He gave us the truth concerning the seventh-day Sabbath.
The above mentioned published statements of beliefs were all strictly non-trinitarian. It must also be remembered that for this length of time (1844-1915) we were under the auspices of God’s messenger to the remnant, namely Ellen G. White. It is not reasonable to believe therefore that throughout this time period, Seventh-day Adventists were non-trinitarian simply because a few of our original pioneers came from a non-trinitarian group. This is pushing the limits of credibility to the point of absurdity.
is difficult to assess what is meant by “Arian”
and “semi-Arianism” but what we do know for
sure is that since its inception, the
If ‘Arian’ means a literally created Christ, then this has never been the preponderant belief of Seventh-day Adventists. They have always believed that Christ was the literal Son of God, begotten of the Father in eternity. This established Him as divine and equal with God, also a separate person from the eternal God, at least in terms of personages. In other words, God the Father and Christ were always regarded as two separate personages although both were regarded as being God. Never in the time period of Ellen White’s ministry (1844-1915) were God and Christ regarded as having ‘one being’ as purported by the trinity doctrine.
Concerning Hatton’s statement that as our church “settled down it became very clearly Trinitarian”, we need to remember that it did not become an established trinitarian denomination until well into the 1950’s. This is obviously quite a long ‘settling down’ period. By reading Hatton’s statement it could be reasoned that we became a trinitarian denomination very much earlier, even perhaps whilst Ellen White was alive. This of course would be error.
Hatton continues in his article
there were still many Arians in the Church it was nevertheless moving
into Trinitarianism in the late 1800’s but the matter was not settled
in all minds. Samuel Spear, a non-Seventh-day Adventist had an article, Bible
Doctrine of the Trinity published in the
There is an error here but it is understandable. Although when Spear’s article was included in the Bible Students Library it did have the title ‘The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’, when it was originally published in the New York Independent it was called ‘The Subordination of Christ’.
Hatton then says concerning what Spear wrote
“The pamphlet is defective in some of its statements but this is not the important point. Obviously, to publish the pamphlet would be unthinkable if Trinitarianism was not acceptable among Adventists at the time.” (Ibid)
If the title alone of Spear’s article (as when a tract in the Bible Students Library) is accepted as being the only proof that the trinity was acceptable to many Seventh-day Adventists, then this would indeed be a very superficial conclusion to draw but would it be a correct one? Conversely of course it may also be asked (possibly by the trinitarians), if we were a ‘non-trinitarian’ denomination, then why at that time (1892), was this article (namely ‘The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’) accepted into the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Students Library?
These are very good questions and they do deserve an answer. We shall undertake to do this now!
The truth concerning Spear’s ‘trinity’ article
The truth of the matter is that Spear’s article, whether it is termed ‘The Subordination of Christ’ or ‘The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’, regardless of the claims that the publication of it by our denomination is proof that trinitarianism was acceptable to many Seventh-day Adventists, actually proves exactly the opposite. I say this because this article shows that Samuel Spear was just as much against the extreme speculations of the trinity doctrine as were the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism. In other words, what Spear wrote in his article was what was then believed by Seventh-day Adventists. This is why it was included in our publications.
Spear wrote his article to show that with respect to certain of its concepts, the trinity doctrine was nothing more than just the mere speculations of men (remember we noted in section four that the trinity doctrine was only an assumed teaching). In other words, Spear’s article was written with the intent of speaking ‘against’ the trinity doctrine, not in favour of it. This is obviously why Hatton draws the conclusion that the pamphlet “is defective in some of its statements”. Obviously it would be seen this way (defective) if read by a trinitarian because after all, it was anti-trinitarian, meaning that it denied as being true the very basics that makes any teaching concerning God, Christ and the Holy Spirit essentially trinitarian.
One of the trinitarian basics that Spear denies is that the Son is ‘eternally begotten’ of the Father (this is in contrast to the orthodox trinity doctrine). He also denies that all three personalities (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are all of ‘one indivisible substance’, which as all trinitarians will confess is the most important aspect of any trinity teaching. It is this latter concept (the one substance part of this doctrine) that makes this teaching ‘trinitarian’. In other words, if this ‘one substance’ concept is not accepted, then however it is explained, any belief concerning the three personalities of the Godhead cannot be said to be trinitarian. This is why Spear’s article was non-trinitarian. He did say that there was a unity of the persons of the Godhead but not as the trinity doctrine purports, therefore he fell far short of expressing the doctrine of the trinity.
The fact that Hatton makes the observation that the leaflet “is defective in some of its statements” leads one to assume that he has read it but we must now ask ourselves - how relevant is his claim that this ‘defectiveness’ is “not the important point”.
I believe that after realising that the article was actually non-trinitarian (even anti-trinitarian), these so-called ‘defects’ are the important point and that they are indeed very relevant, particularly to our studies. It was obviously why it was acceptable to Seventh-day Adventists. Certainly it does not prove that at that time (1890’s) trinitarianism was acceptable in our ranks.
As we shall now see, Spear’s pamphlet was in complete
harmony with that which in 1892 the
This is also the reason why this article cannot be used as ‘evidence’ that the doctrine of ‘the trinity’ was, as Max Hatton puts it, “quite acceptable to at least many Seventh-day Adventists at that time”. In fact as far as I am concerned, it only serves to prove exactly the opposite.
Samuel Spear’s article (please note again the emphasis that is placed on the title), ‘The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’, agrees with the reasoning that the only things that we should believe about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit is what the Bible says about them. I would reason that this was the whole point of our church calling it ‘The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’ and not just ‘The Trinity’. In other words, the article concerns what the Bible alone has to say concerning the three personalities of the Godhead, meaning without the speculations of the trinity doctrine.
In 1894, an explanation of this tract was given in the Signs of the Times.
Under the sub-heading “No.90. The Bible Doctrine of the trinity” it said
“This tract of 16 pages is a reprint of an article in the New York Independent, by the late Samuel Spear, D.D. It presents the Bible view of the doctrine of the Trinity in the terms used in the Bible, and therefore avoids all philosophical discussion and foolish speculation.” (Signs of the Times, 28th May 1894, Bible Students Library, No.90, The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’)
Note here very importantly the emphasis. It is on the fact, according to our church, that Spear did not get himself involved with “philosophical discussion and foolish speculation”. This is obviously with reference to the philosophical concepts and the speculations of the trinity doctrine. This is what our pioneers and our church was very much against.
If you remember, we did note in section four that whichever version is accepted, meaning either the version known as orthodoxy or the one held by Seventh-day Adventists, the conclusion is the same. This is because both are based on speculation. This is why at that time (1892), Spear’s article was so acceptable to Seventh-day Adventists. It was totally devoid of such reasoning and employed only “terms used in the Bible”. This is why it was non-trinitarian. As we have also noted previously, if the ‘Bible only’ is used then any teaching of the Godhead must be non-trinitarian. This is because there is not found in either the Old or New Testament the concept of God being a trinity. The latter is purely a man made teaching.
This write-up of Spear’s article concluded
“It is a tract worthy of reading.” (Ibid)
To this I would wholeheartedly agree.
Two years previously (this was when the tract was first introduced to the Bible Students’ Library) it said in the Signs of the Times
“No. 90 is entitled “The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity,” by the late Samuel T. Spear, D.D., and is reprinted from the New York Independent.” (Signs of the Times, April 4th 1892, Volume 18, No. 22, page 352)
It then added
“While there may be minor thoughts in this worthy number which we might wish to express differently, on the whole we believe that it sets forth the Bible doctrine of the trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with a devout adherence to the words of Scripture, in the best brief way we ever saw it presented.” (Ibid)
I would ask you to note here that this write up did not say that Spear’s article “sets forth the doctrine of the trinity” but said that it “sets forth the Bible doctrine of the trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Rather than alluding to the trinity doctrine itself, it is with reference to the trinity of (meaning three) personalities.
To the accolade given in this write-up, I would give my unreserved support. Without question, Spear’s article is the finest article that I have ever seen published regarding the three personalities of the Godhead.
It did say that there was certain “minor faults” in Spear’s article but they must have been considered so small that they obviously did not matter. It does leave one to wonder though what they were.
When this article was first published in the Signs of the Times (this was under its original title), this was said of it
“We call attention to the article entitled “The Subordination of Christ,” by the late Samuel T. Spear, taken from the Independent. It was so long that we found it necessary to divide it. We trust that this candid setting forth of the Trinity will be read with care.” (Signs of the Times, December 7th 1891)
The next week when publishing the second part of Spear’s article it said
“In this number is included Dr. Spear’s article on the “Subordination of Christ”. To this candid setting forth of the Trinity we believe that no Bible student will object. It is worthy of careful reading, not only for the subject matter it contains but for the way in which it presented.” (Signs of the Times, December 14th 1891)
To the latter I would agree. Spear’s article is a brilliant rendering of what the Bible says concerning the three personalities of the Godhead. I cannot see how anyone who is seeking the truth can find fault with it.
A very interesting observation
I would now like to point out something very interesting. It is also very relevant to our studies, particularly in respect of what was believed by Seventh-day Adventists as the 20th century approached.
I am now going to quote a portion of Spear’s article. This is as it was printed in No. 90 of our Bible Students Library. I would ask you to note the ellipsis. It denotes that something has not been quoted that was there originally. I am then going to quote it as it was in Spear’s original article in the New York Independent. In this quote I am going to highlight in blue what was removed when it was made into tract form for the Bible Students Library. You will see it is very significant.
Here is the quote as it was in No. 90 in the Bible Student’s Library (note the ellipsis)
distinction thus revealed in the Bible is the basis of the doctrine of the tri-personal God.
… This doctrine, as held and stated by those who adopt it, is not a system of tri-theism, or the doctrine of three Gods, but is the doctrine of one God
subsisting and acting in three persons, with the qualification that the term
“person,” though perhaps the best that can be used, is not, when used in this
relation, to be understood in any sense that would make it inconsistent with
the unity of the Godhead, and hence not to be understood in the ordinary sense
when applied to men. Bible trinitarians are not tritheists. They simply seek to state, in the best way in
which they can, what they regard the Bible as teaching.” (Samuel T. Spear, D. D., published in the
Now take a look at it as it was originally in the New York Independent (highlighted in blue is what was omitted when it was reproduced in tract form)
“The distinction thus revealed in the Bible is the basis of the doctrine of the tri-personal God or tri-une God, which has so long been the faith of the Christian Church.”(Samuel T. Spear, D. D., as published in the New York Independent on November 14th 1889 as ‘The Subordination of Christ’)
It was the reference to the “tri-une God” being “the faith of the Christian Church” that was removed. This was not in keeping with what Seventh-day Adventists then believed. It appears that in their tracts to the general public they did not wish to be identified with this statement so these words were omitted. Even more interesting to note is that these words were the only ones that were omitted. The rest of the article was left as Spear had written it. When this article was reproduced in the Signs of the Times of December 7th and 14th of 1891, the entirety of Spear’s article was published. It then carried the title of ‘The Subordination of Christ’.
Does this tell us anything about the trinity doctrine and Seventh-day Adventism in the 1890’s? It certainly should do so. Along with what we shall see in the remainder of this section regarding Spear’s article, it tells us that trinitarianism was not acceptable to be taught within Seventh-day Adventism, in the 1890’s, meaning as the 20th Century approached.
Samuel Spear and the doctrine of the trinity
In his ‘trinity’ article, Samuel Spear lists a number of observations as to why he personally believes that the trinity doctrine is nothing more than mere speculation and therefore should not be taught within Christianity. He also relates that everything the Bible says concerning the three personalities of the Godhead should be taken just as it is and no more added.
“These facts — namely, the
absolute unity of the Godhead, excluding all multiplicity of gods, the
absolute divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the subordination of Christ in
some respect to God the Father — when taken together, have led Biblical
scholars to consider the question which relates to the method of harmonizing
them. What shall be said on this point?” (Samuel T. Spear, D.
D., published in the
In support of the principle of believing only what the Bible says (remember here that Spear was not a Seventh-day Adventist), he says in observation No. 2 of the facts (he lists 7 observations in total)
“So the matter stands in the word of God; and if Christians were to confine their thoughts to simply what that word says, they would never raise any serious questions in regard to the subject, which is, perhaps, on the whole, the best course to pursue” (Ibid)
This was also the views of the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism.
Spear also goes on to say in his article (observation No. 3)
“It is not necessary, for the practical purposes of godliness and salvation, to speculate on the point at all, or know what biblical scholars have thought and said in regards to it. It is enough to take the Bible just as it reads, to believe what it says, and stop where it stops.” (Ibid)
In this we can see that Samuel Spear maintains that we should only believe what the Bible tells us - no more and certainly no less. He also says that it is not necessary to know the thoughts and words of “biblical scholars”.
Speculation therefore, according to Samuel Spear, was something that was totally unnecessary.
If you remember, it was said in section four that the trinity doctrine is built on nothing less than speculation. Spear agrees with this in his article. In fact this is his whole point.
In observation No. 4 Spear wrote
“All the statements of the Bible must be accepted as true with whatever qualifications they mutually impose on one another. The whole truth lies in them all when taken collectively” (Ibid)
This is a very well worded and very true.
In another observation in which Spear speaks of and denies ‘tri-theism’ (three separate Gods) he says
“Bible trinitarians are not tritheists. They simply seek to state, in the best possible way in which they can, what they regard as Bible teaching.” (Ibid)
As we all know, the Bible only speaks of three personalities of the Godhead. It does not say anything about them partaking of one indivisible substance (of one being as in the trinity doctrine). Spear concludes therefore that just to speak of these three personalities as portrayed in the Bible alone, even though they are not spoken of in one triune unit, is not tritheism (three Gods).
As we have seen in previous sections, Ellen White maintained that there were three personalities of the Godhead but never once did she say anything about them as subsisting in one being (of the one and the same indivisible substance) as portrayed in the trinity doctrine.
Spear’s conclusion therefore is a view that according to some people, would simply amount to ‘tri-theism’ (three Gods) but here he is making the point that this is just not so. He simply says that all that the Bible reveals is that these three divine persons make up the Godhead and that is where we should leave it.
Spear also said in observation No. 5
“The subordination of Christ, as revealed in the Bible, is not adequately explained by referring it simply to His human nature. It is true that, in that nature, He was a created and dependent being, and in this respect like the race whose nature He assumed; and yet the Bible statement of His subordination extends to His divine as well as his human nature.” (Ibid)
This was exactly what was believed, in the 1890’s by Seventh-day Adventists.
“Paul tells us that God ‘‘created all things by Jesus Christ,’’ and that He is the person, or agent,” by whom also He [God] made the worlds.” Eph. 3:9; Heb. 1:2. Neither of these statements can have any relation to the humanity of Christ, and yet in both God is represented is acting in and through Christ, and the latter represented as the medium of such action. So, also, God is described as sending forth His Son into the worId, as giving “His only begotten Son” for human salvation, and as not sparing “His own Son” but delivering “him up for us all.” Gal 4: 4; John 3:16; Rom 8:32.” (Ibid)
Spear then said
“These statements imply that this Son who is none other than Christ Himself, existed prior to his incarnation, and that, as thus existing, He was sent forth, given, not spared, but delivered up, by God the Father. The act assigned to God the Father in thus devoting “His own Son” to the work of human redemption, relates to Him as he was before He assumed our nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and supposes in the Father some kind of primacy in making this devotement.” (Ibid)
All of these things were exactly as was believed at that time by Seventh-day Adventists. This is obviously why we included Spear’s article as No. 90 in the ‘Bible Students’ Library’ (1892). Note that the latter was 4 years following the 1888 Minneapolis Conference. This shows that this ‘begotten Son’ concept (Christ a literal Son) was still in 1892 the beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists. This had remained the same since their beginnings.
Samuel Spear wrote his article in contrast to (and in opposition to) the speculations found in the trinity doctrine or, to put it another way, because the trinity doctrine includes concepts that cannot be supported by scripture, Spear spoke out against it. Hence his reasoning that we should believe only what the Bible says concerning the ‘three personalities’ of the Godhead and not include speculation (things that God has not revealed).
Spear’s views on the trinity doctrine
Concerning the trinity doctrine itself, Spear opened the reasoning in his article by saying
“The Bible, while not giving a metaphysical definition of the spiritual unity of God, teaches His essential oneness in opposition to all forms of polytheism, and also assumes man’s capacity to apprehend the idea sufficiently for all the purposes of worship and obedience.” (Ibid)
Here we can see Spear denying the ‘indivisible oneness’ as it is portrayed in the trinity doctrine but he does not deny that Christ is God in every sense.
He says next
“The same Bible as
clearly teaches that the adorable Person therein known as Jesus Christ, when considered in his whole nature,
truly divine and truly God in the most absolute sense. John 1:1-18; 1
He also says in opposition to the trinity teaching (at least to the original trinity doctrine, the one that I term orthodox)
“The theory of the eternal generation of the Son by the Father, with the cognate theory of the eternal procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father, or from the Father and the Son, while difficult even to comprehend, and while at best a mystical speculation, is an effort to be wise, not only above what is written, but also beyond the possibilities of human knowledge.” (Ibid)
As can be clearly seen, Spear was decidedly against the speculations of the doctrine of the trinity (“eternal generation” or eternal begetting). We can also see here clearly the very reason why this article came to be accepted into the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Students Library. This article was definitely in keeping with the non-trinitarian faith of 1890’s Seventh-day Adventism. The latter believed that Christ was begotten (came out of the Father) at a point in eternity.
In closing his article Spear says
“The simple minded Christian, when thinking of these wants, and contemplating the divine trinity, as he finds it in the Bible, has no difficulty with the doctrine” (Ibid)
Here again Spear is advocating that we should only believe that which the Bible says about the three personalities of the Godhead. This he said, in regard to “the divine trinity”, will supply all that is necessary to know.
He concludes by saying
“It is only when men speculate outside of the Bible and beyond it, and seek to be wiser than they can be, that difficulties arise; and then they do arise as the rebuke of their own folly. A glorious doctrine then becomes their perplexity, and ingulfs them in a confusion of their own creation.” (Ibid)
He then adds in confirmation of what he has said already
“What they need is to believe more and speculate less.” (Ibid)
This indeed summarises what many believe concerning the trinity doctrine. They say it is a merely man-made doctrine, based on speculation (that which God has not revealed) and that those who promote it (as Spear concludes) are trying to be wiser than they possibly can be (meaning going beyond what God has revealed).
Spear also says that these speculations are the very reasons why difficulties arise that when all is said and done only serve to be “the rebuke” of the trinitarians “own folly”. He also says that this same speculation “ingulfs” those who believe it “in a confusion of their own creation”. He concludes therefore that what they need to do is to “believe more and speculate less”. Could he be any more anti-trinitarian?
It would be quite beneficial here to read the entirety of Samuel Spear’s
article because if we did, we would then certainly see that when it was
included in our students Bible Library series in 1892, it never, in any way,
denied the non-trinitarian ‘faith’
Interesting to note here is that Samuel Spear’s
article is also against the trinity concepts as held by the
“There is, however, a sense in which the Christ of the Bible, while essentially divine, is, nevertheless, in some respects distinct from and subordinate to God the Father. He is spoken of, and frequently speaks of Himself, as the Son of God, as the only-begotten of the Father, as being sent by God the Father into this world, and as doing the will of the Father. He is never confounded with the Father, and never takes His place.” (Ibid)
Spear also said
“There is no difficulty in finding in His ministry abundant references to God the Father as in some respects distinct from and superior to Himself, and, hence, involving the idea of His own subordination.” (Ibid)
Spear’s reasoning is exactly the same as that of R. F. Cottrell.
He once said when writing about the trinity doctrine
“But if I am asked what I think of Jesus Christ, my reply is, I believe all that the Scriptures say of him. If the testimony represents him as being in glory with the Father before the world was, I believe it. If it is said that he was in the beginning with God, that he was God, that all things were made by him and for him, and that without him was not anything made that was made, I believe it. If the Scriptures say he is the Son of God, I believe it. If it is declared that the Father sent his son into the world, I believe he had a son to send.” (R. F. Cottrell Review and Herald 1st June 1869 ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity’)
Cottrell’s comment, “I believe all that the Scriptures say of him” is exactly the same as Samuel Spear’s attitude. Regarding this there is no difference.
Now that it is explained what Spear’s article was actually all about, it can now be understood and appreciated just why in 1892 it was that the Seventh-day Adventist Church included it as No. 90 in the Bible Students Library series. The article was totally non-trinitarian. This is also obviously why Max Hatton, a trinitarian, says that Spear’s pamphlet “is defective in some of its statements”.
If you remember he does say in his website article
“The pamphlet is defective in some of its statements but this is not the important point. What is important to note is that an Adventist Publisher in 1892 could include an item on the Trinity as one of its publications. Certainly, this must indicate that the doctrine was quite acceptable to at least many Seventh-day Adventists at that time.” (Max Hatton article ‘Ellen G. White and the Trinity)
He also said in his other article on the trinity
“Obviously, to publish the pamphlet would be unthinkable if Trinitarianism was not acceptable among Adventists at the time.” (Max Hatton, Website article, ‘The Checkered History of the Trinity Doctrine’)
Just like everyone else in this world, Max Hatton is entitled to believe as he sees fit. This is his God-given prerogative. Whether his conclusion that the so-called trinity ‘defects’ in this pamphlet “is not the important point” I will leave for you to decide but the way that I reason things through, it appears to be the entire point. I will also leave you to decide whether Spear’s article being included in the Bible Students’ Library shows that trinitarianism was “quite acceptable to at least many Seventh-day Adventists at that time”. To me it shows exactly the opposite.
Froom’s use of the Spear pamphlet
We have now seen why Samuel Spear’s pamphlet was included in our Bible Students library in 1892. As a denomination we obviously had no argument with it. As far as we were concerned, in relation to what the Scriptures reveal, it was a valid and acceptable view of the Godhead. Certainly it was non-trinitarian or as some might even say (particularly the trinitarians), anti-trinitarian.
In his book ‘Movement of Destiny’, LeRoy Froom appears to leave his readers with the impression that Samuel Spear’s article was in favour of the trinity doctrine.
First he makes reference to what he obviously sees as the outcome of the Minneapolis Conference in 1888.
“When once the sublime truth of
Deity of Christ as “all the fullness of the Godhead” was affirmed by a
growing number at and after the
Again this must be regarded as a very misleading statement. Froom makes it appear that it was only from Minneapolis onwards that we came to accept the full deity of Christ but as our denominational history shows, our pioneers have always stressed it but it was from a non-trinitarian standpoint, not one that was trinitarian (see section twenty-one and section twenty-two). In other words, our pioneers used only divine revelation to support their beliefs concerning Christ and did not resort to using the extreme speculations of the trinity doctrine. Note that Froom does not identify this “growing number”.
Waggoner’s message at
Froom then says
“Thus the truth of the Trinity
was set forth in tract form by the Pacific Press – where E. J. Waggoner was
editor – in February, 1892. This was just three and a half years after
To say the very least, Froom’s statement that Spear’s article depicted “the truth of the trinity” is extremely misleading but it is not exactly a lie. This is because in his article Spear did actually state what the trinity doctrine teaches but what Froom fails to point out is that Spear said he did not believe it. This was because it was merely the speculations of men. It is on this point of ‘silence’ where Froom’s remarks are extremely misleading.
Froom then adds (remember he is here referring to 1892)
“The fact is, we had nothing in print at the time.” (Ibid)
Now this really is a very interesting remark. I say this because as we have seen in section fifty-two, in his ‘Movement of Destiny’, Froom maintained that the majority of our pioneers were trinitarian, giving the idea that our denominational stance was trinitarian. If this was the case, which as we know it was not, then why didn’t we, at the time that Spear’s article being accepted by our church, have anything “in print” on the question of the trinity? Obvious to relate, if we had been a trinitarian denomination, we would have had plenty in print concerning it. That much again is only reasonable to conclude. Interesting really isn’t it?
The answer to all of this of course is that the
Here is another question to ponder. Why didn’t Froom, as
proof that our denomination was then trinitarian, quote from any articles in
our publications supporting the trinity doctrine? The answer to that question
is for the very same reason that no one else can quote them. They simply do not
exist. We, the
Froom then says on page 323 regarding the Spear pamphlet
“This sound and helpful tract by Spear – The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity (1892) – necessarily deals with the complete deity of Christ” (Ibid)
Here again, Froom makes it appear that Spear’s article is being said to support the trinity doctrine when in fact it was speaking out against it.
Froom follows this by listing all the points in Samuel Spear’s tract that were in keeping with the orthodox trinity doctrine but nowhere does he mention that Spear does not accept them all as being true. Froom certainly does not mention the fact that Spear believed that the trinity doctrine contains non-Biblical “mystical speculation” (see Spear’s remarks above).
Froom also says of Spear’s article
“It [Spear’s article] notes the "diversity in offices, relations, and actions toward men" on the part of the Godhead (p. 9), and how "Trinitarians are not tritheists" (p. 9). (Ibid)
I would ask you here to note here the final part of this statement because Froom completely misquotes Samuel Spear.
Spear had actually said
“Bible trinitarians are not tritheists. They simply seek to state, in the best way in which they can, what they regard the Bible as teaching.”
As can be seen, Froom omits to say “Bible trinitarians” but says instead “Trinitarians”, making it look as though Spear was referring to those who believe in the trinity doctrine. Spear though was making a contrast between the speculations of the trinitarians to what the Bible says. Note also the change of case (Froom says “Trinitarians” making it look like a beginning of a sentence when it was not)
Now note the next sentence.
“It [Spear’s article’] touches on the one all-encompassing "name" (singular) in the baptismal formula, and the " 'one Spirit,' " " 'one Lord,' " and " 'one God and Father of all' " (p. 10) — the " 'divine Trinity' " (p. 14).
Notice how Froom takes certain very small amounts of words and makes it look as though Spear was in favour of the trinity doctrine. This is an appalling way to quote someone.
Notice particularly the words “divine Trinity”.
Spear had actually said
“The simple-minded Christian, when thinking of these wants, and contemplating the divine Trinity, as he finds it in the Bible, has no difficulty with the doctrine.”
Again Froom makes it look as though Spear’s words were with respect to the trinity doctrine when in fact Spear was speaking of what the Bible alone says concerning the three personalities of the Godhead. As Spear said of this, “as he [“The simple-minded Christian”] finds it in the Bible”.
So it was that these ‘trinitarian’ phrases were taken completely out of the context of Spear’s reasoning, making it appear as though they are meant by him to uphold the original trinity doctrine, which obviously was not his intention.
Froom then says about Spear’s article
“It was simple, but adequate, as the first step in recognition and declaration. It was the logical aftermath of 1888” (LeRoy Froom, ‘Movement of Destiny’ page 323)
As we have seen, the acceptance of Spear’s article was
certainly not as Froom says “the first step”
towards the acceptance of the trinity doctrine within Seventh-day Adventism and
it was certainly not “the logical aftermath of 1888”.
This is because Spear’s article was decidedly non-trinitarian,
just like Waggoner’s message at
If you would like to see why Waggoner’s message at
Minneapolis was non-trinitarian, then please click here and review what he said in his book ‘Christ and
His Righteousness’. This is the book that he maintained depicted his message at
Erwin Gane and Spear’s article
Erwin Gane, in his master thesis on the doctrine of the
trinity within Seventh-day Adventism, also refers to the Spear article as
suggesting ‘evidence’ that trinitarianism was gaining acceptance in the
publication in 1892, by the Pacific Press, of a Trinitarian article,
written by a non-Adventist writer, would seem
to indicate a growing acceptance of this doctrine in the
Note that Erwin
Gane calls Spear’s article “a Trinitarian article”
thus giving the impression that it was written in favour of the trinity
doctrine. He also says that the acceptance of it did “seem
to indicate a growing acceptance of this doctrine in the
Gane then relates
“The Spear article clearly defines the Trinitarian position as teaching the unity of the Godhead consisting of three persons.” (Ibid)
As we have already noted, Spear did definitely define how the trinity doctrine explains the unity of the Godhead but Erwin Gane fails to mention that Spear did not accept this teaching.
By omitting certain sentences from the Spear article, Gane then makes it appear that Spear is upholding the trinity doctrine.
This he does by quoting Spear as saying
“This doctrine, as held and stated by those who adopt it, is not a system of tri-theism, or the doctrine of three Gods, but it is the doctrine of one God subsisting and acting in three persons, with the qualification that the term "person", though perhaps the best that can be used, is not, when used in this relation, to be understood in any sense that would make it inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead, and hence not to be understood in the ordinary sense when applied to men.” (Ibid)
We have noted before that trinitarians do not see the three personalities of the Godhead as personal beings as we are (see section six) so we will not comment again here.
Gane makes it look as though by saying “This doctrine”, Spear was referring to the trinity doctrine but this is not true. What Spear was referring to was what the Bible says concerning the three personalities of the God as opposed to the trinity doctrine.
How Gane achieved this was by not quoting the first and last two sentences of the paragraph. If these sentences had been included then it would have been obvious that Spear was referring to what the Bible says about Father, Son and Holy Spirit and not the trinity doctrine.
What we shall look at now is the paragraph as Spear originally wrote it. Note that the three missing sentences are in blue.
in the Bible is the basis of the doctrine of the tri-personal God. … This doctrine, as held and stated by those who adopt it, is not a system of tri-theism,
or the doctrine of
three Gods, but is the doctrine of one God subsisting and acting in three
persons, with the qualification that the term “person,” though perhaps the
best that can be used, is not, when used in this relation, to be understood in
any sense that would make it inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead, and
hence not to be understood in the ordinary sense when applied to men. Bible trinitarians are not tritheists. They
simply seek to state, in the best way in which they can, what they regard the
Bible as teaching.” (Samuel T. Spear, D. D., published in the
As can be seen, if this whole paragraph is read as Spear wrote it and not as Gane quoted it (missing out sentences) then it would have been obvious that Spear was referring to what the Bible says concerning the three personalities of the Godhead and not giving support to the trinity doctrine. It is the omitting of the sentences that causes this misrepresentation.
Spear, in this paragraph, is justifying those who believe only what the Bible says. This is in opposition to the speculations of the trinity doctrine that say that all three personalities subsist in the one indivisible substance (the one being) of God.
Exactly the same was said by Jerry Moon in the Seventh-day Adventist publication ‘The Trinity’.
After saying that a statement made by D. T. Bourdeau in 1890 showed that anti-trinitarianism in Seventh-day Adventism was “showing some cracks” (we shall be taking a look at Bourdeau’s statement in the next section), he wrote
“Further evidence that it was the case appeared two years later, in 1892, when Pacific Press published a pamphlet titled "The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity," by Samuel T. Spear. The pamphlet corrected two prevailing misconceptions of the Trinity doctrine, showing that it "is not a system of tri-theism, or the doctrine of three Gods, but it is the doctrine of one God subsisting and acting in three persons, with the qualification that the term 'person' . . . is not, when used in this relation, to be understood in any sense that would make it inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead." (Jerry Moon, The Trinity, Chapter 13, Trinity and anti-Trinitarianism in Seventh-day Adventist History, pages 195-196, 2002)
Here again Spear is being misquoted. His words that it is “not a system of tri-theism” are with respect to what the Bible says concerning the three personalities of the Godhead without the oneness speculations of the trinity doctrine. By omitting sentences that came before and after this statement, Moon, like Gane, makes it look as though Spear is referring to the trinity doctrine when he is not.
Those who refuse to say that all three personalities are of one substance (trinity speculation) are normally called “tritheists”.
This is why Spear said (these are two of the missing sentences)
“Bible trinitarians are not tritheists. They
simply seek to state, in the best way in which they can, what they regard the Bible as
T. Spear, D. D., published in the
As has been said so many times before, this was said by Spear in opposition to the speculations of the trinity doctrine not in favour of it.
In just the same way as Spear explained the three personalities of the Godhead, this was also the way it was with Seventh-day Adventists whilst Ellen White was alive. They spoke of the three personalities of the Godhead but did not imbibe in ‘trinity’ speculations that cannot be found in the Scriptures.
Spear’s words as found in his article fitted perfectly into the non-trinitarian 1890’s beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists. What they believed could never have led people to call them tritheistic. They did believe in the one God who is the Father. They also believed that Christ (God’s Son) was a separate personality from God and that He was God essentially. They also believed that the Holy Spirit was a personality but not in the same way as they regarded the Father and the Son as personal individual beings.
Admittedly Gane makes reference to the fact that Spear regarded the view of the ‘eternal generation’ of the Son as being that which is only ‘mystical speculation’ but again he fails, as did others, to say specifically that Spear wrote his article against this particular aspect of the trinity doctrine.
Here we see again (in Gane’s article) that our acceptance
of the Spear pamphlet is incorrectly used to suggest that at that time in 1892,
‘trinitarianism’ was acceptable to Seventh-day Adventists or as Gane put it, “would seem to indicate a growing acceptance of this
doctrine in the
Gerhard Pfandl and Spear’s article
Another person to comment on the ‘Spear article’ is Gerhard Pfandl (Associate Director of the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Centre). This he did in a research paper in 1999 called ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity among Adventists’.
On page 4 of his paper he says
“The first positive reference to the Trinity in Adventist literature appeared in the Bible Students' Library series in 1892. The Bible Students' Library was "a series of pamphlets, designed for the public, containing brief and pointed essays on Bible doctrines, the fulfillment of prophecy, and other aspects of SDA teachings." Pamphlet number 90 was entitled "The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity." What is significant is the fact that the author, Samuel Spear, was not an Adventist. The pamphlet was a reprint of an article from the New York Independent of November 14, 1889.” (Gerhard Pfandl research paper ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity among Adventists’, page 4 June 1999)
Pfandl makes much the same claim as does the others we have just noted, saying that in 1892, the publication of Spear’s article was “The first positive reference to the Trinity in Adventist literature”. This we have seen is not a correct understanding of this matter therefore it is a very misleading statement to make. As we have noted, Spear’s design in his article was to speak out against the speculations of the trinity doctrine not to have people believe them.
Pfandl concluded with reference to what Spear had written
“Although this pamphlet was certainly an improvement on previous positions it still fell short of the true picture of the Trinity. Nevertheless, the fact that it was printed by Pacific Press indicates that the concept of the Trinity was beginning to be accepted by the church.” (Ibid)
Again we see someone saying that Spear’s article (as Pfandl puts it) “fell short of the true picture of the trinity”. This is not surprising when it is realized that the article was written with the intention to oppose this teaching. This is why the Pacific Press chose to publish it. Certainly it does not show as Pfandl says that “the concept of the Trinity was beginning to be accepted” within Seventh-day Adventism. In reality it does exactly the opposite therefore as far as the author of these notes is concerned, Pfandl’s remarks are very misleading.
In his article, Spear only concluded to be true what the Bible reveals concerning God, Christ and the Holy Spirit (remember here that Spear was not a Seventh-day Adventist therefore it is more than likely that he did not take into account that which Ellen White had written).
Spear’s article did not, as does the trinity doctrine, involve itself with speculation (that which makes it trinitarian). This is obviously the main reason why, as Pfandl says, that it “fell short of the true picture of the trinity”.
C. M. Taylor and Spear’s article
In a thesis presented to the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Society in 1953 (this was in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Divinity). Christy Mathewson Taylor wrote
“The most striking acknowledgement of Trinitarianism [within the Seventh-day Adventist Church] was made when the denomination published a fourteen page pamphlet entitled “The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity” as one of the numbers in the Bible Student’s Library.” (Christy Mathewson Taylor, A Thesis presented to the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Society, August 1953, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Divinity, page 35)
“This tract, issued in 1892, was a reprint of an article written in 1889 by Samuel T. Spear, D.D., a Baptist and a Trinitarian. Spear took a very forthright position concerning the Trinity.” (Ibid, page 36)
To the best of my knowledge, Samuel Spear was a Presbyterian not a Baptist and what we have seen is that he did take “a very forthright position concerning the Trinity”. He opposed its extreme speculations.
“No Adventist writer had, up to this time, declared himself freely upon the doctrine, but the Pacific Press Publishing Association, a denominational publishing house, reached out in 1892 beyond previous denominational doctrinal expressions, and made use of a thoroughly Trinitarian paper in its leading series of pamphlets.
Spear’s article was not “thoroughly trinitarian” no more than is the paper you are now reading.
“One must conclude from these circumstances that Trinitarian thinking had come to predominate in the staff of the Pacific Press Publishing Association by this time. It is not known what personalities were concerned in approving the publication of the Spear’s document. Wilcox was still editor of the Signs of the Times, which was also published at the Pacific Press. Statements from his writings quoted in a previous chapter show that he had not accepted Trinitarianism at this time.” (Ibid, page 37)
That chapter concluded with the thought
“The use of the Spear article was very significant. It indicates a changing view on the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Ibid, page 39)
article did not indicate anything of the sort. The
Merlin Burt and Spear’s article
One person who portrayed Samuel Spear’s article almost correctly is Merlin Burt whom we have previously mentioned in this study.
He said in his 1996 research paper
“Samuel Spear on the Trinity. The first positive reference to the term
“trinity” in Adventist literature was by Samuel Spear, a non-Adventist,
in a reprint from the
This was much the same wording as Gerhard Pfandl’s (see above).
As has been said already, Merlin Burt, to a great degree, summarises Samuel Spear’s article correctly but he does say (again quite misleadingly) that this article was “The first positive reference to the term “trinity” in Adventist literature”. Why I say ‘misleading’ is because in reality, this article was against the doctrine of the trinity, particularly its man made speculations. Certainly it cannot be said to be “positive” in favour of it.
Burt then quite correctly says
“The title, Bible Doctrine of the Trinity, implied that the work would be sympathetic to the doctrine of the trinity. Upon reading the tract, one finds almost nothing which nineteenth-century Adventists would have found objectionable.” (Ibid)
Burt has caught the picture perfectly. This is because, as we
have noted over and over again, Spear’s article was non-trinitarian. In other
words it was in keeping with that which the
Before we leave Samuel Spear’s article I would like to make one more observation. This is in reference to Merlin Burt’s statement,
“Spear also argued against the idea of tritheism, and for the separate personalities of the Father and Son, both important concepts in Adventist literature up to 1892.” (Merlin Burt, ‘Demise of Semi-Arianism and anti-trinitarianism in Adventist Theology, 1888-1957’, pages 5-6, December 1996)
This really is a very important statement. It is simply telling us that up to 1892 (this was when Spear’s tract was included in the Students Bible Library series), the concept of “the separate personalities” of the Father and Son (God and Christ) was very important to Seventh-day Adventists.
The reason why I have drawn your attention to this fact is that even after 1892, this very same concept was still extremely important to this denomination. This was especially so in the early 1900’s when concerning our beliefs regarding the personalities of the Godhead, a crisis came about within Seventh-day Adventism. This is the crisis that led Ellen White to repeatedly emphasis, even many years after ‘The Desire of Ages’ was published, that God was one personality whilst Christ was another personality, meaning that they were two separate and distinct personages. This is why the concept that the Father and Son were of ‘one indivisible substance’ as part of a triune God was just as ‘foreign’ to Ellen White as it was to the other pioneers. As we have seen, it was not until long after her death that this particular concept was introduced into Seventh-day Adventism.
Interesting to note here is that I can find Spear’s article advertised in our publications up to the year 1911. This was in the ‘Review and Herald and the ‘Signs of the Times’ etc. It was also advertised for many years leading up to and including 1900 in our Sabbath School Quarterlies. The 1900 quarterly was on ‘The Life of Christ’.
If you would like to read about how in the early 1900’s Ellen White did repeatedly emphasise that God and Christ are two separate personalities, then please click here.
Before we leave Samuel Spear’s article, it would only be right to mention again that he was not a Seventh-day Adventist. This would mean that He probably did not have the same knowledge of the writings of Ellen White as did Seventh-day Adventists (or did not accept them).
I say this because in his article, Samuel Spear makes reference to certain things that the Bible does not make quite plain whilst through Ellen White God has given further revelation. This is obviously not a criticism of Samuel Spear but simply an observation. His was simply an article on the Bible doctrine of the trinity and did not include from any other sources.
We shall now go to section 54, which is part two of this study on the refuted evidences of trinitarianism within early Seventh-day Adventism. This is where we shall see again that this ‘evidence’ is not all that it seems.
Initial publication – 4th August 2008
Last edited – 31st December 2011
© T. M. Hill 2008 England