A research paper on the history of the trinity doctrine within the early Christian Church and within Seventh-day Adventism
As we enter into this study regarding the history and the theology of the trinity doctrine, particularly as it pertains to Seventh-day Adventism, there are a number of very important observations that need to be mentioned. Some of these are with regard to the various terminologies and expressions that are used when speaking of the trinity. If these are not clearly explained they can be very misleading.
Speaking from personal experience, I must also say I have found that many Christians, Seventh-day Adventist and otherwise, although having professed the trinity doctrine for most or all of their Christian life, do not really understand what this teaching entails. This means that just as it is with the trinity terminologies, the teaching itself (meaning the trinity concept) needs to be explained in detail.
Even before this is done we need to realise that whilst the majority of Christians regard the trinity doctrine as being the central belief of the Christian faith, the truth of the matter is that it cannot be found in the Scriptures. This means that it is only an assumed doctrine. This we shall discover in this section. It will set the scene for the observations of subsequent sections.
The trinity teaching an assumed doctrine – official Seventh-day Adventism
Most Christians will realise that the word ‘trinity’ cannot be found in the Scriptures. This is not a problem in itself because we use many non-scriptural words to define doctrine. What many may not know is that neither is found in the Scriptures, at least not explicitly stated, the trinity ‘three-in-one’ concept of God. This is a very real problem. In fact it is the problem.
Throughout the Bible, God and Christ are always spoken of as individual personages. To an extent, even the much-debated Holy Spirit is spoken of as such. Never though - as the trinity doctrine purports - are the three depicted together as one composite entity, meaning ‘three-in-one’ or ‘triune’ etc (the one God) as is suggested by the trinity doctrine. As generally stated in the trinity doctrine, this three-in-one theology is only an assumption.
Within the official ‘Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (the twelfth volume of the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopaedia) there is a section that deals with our current theology regarding God. It is called ‘The Doctrine of God”. This includes the idea of God being a trinity (three-in-one).
particular section is written by Fernando L. Canale. He is professor of
theology and philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at
On the opening page of his theology he says
“Because human philosophy is called to be subject to the Bible, and since divine philosophy is already available in the Scriptures, our understanding of God must stand free from human speculations.” (Fernando L. Canale, the Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopaedia Volume 12, page 105, ‘Doctrine of God.)
He also says
“What we can know about God must be revealed from the Scriptures.” (Ibid)
On the next page he writes in summary of his introduction
“In short, true knowledge about God can be attained only on the basis of Biblical revelation.” (Ibid page 106)
Two pages later the same author warns
“Care must be taken to avoid crossing the limit between the revealed and hidden (Deut. 29:29) facets of the mystery, particularly in discussing issues like the Trinity, foreknowledge, and eternity. (Ibid, page 108)
Having made it clear that everything that is believed about God “must stand free from human speculations” (see above), Canale later says with reference to the Scriptures where Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned together such as at the baptism of Jesus (these are such as Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:10-11, Luke 3:21-22 etc)
“The concept of the Trinity, namely the idea that the three are one, is not explicitly stated but only assumed.” (Ibid, page 138)
This is not only very
true but also very much to the point. The trinity concept regarding God is only
“assumed”. Why therefore, as a denomination, do
we make it a test of fellowship (see No. 2 of the fundamental beliefs of the
It also appears contradictory to what he has said previously (see the three previous statements)
With reference to the same scriptures Canale then says
“Consequentially, these passages cannot be taken as Trinitarian formulas but rather as references to the doctrine of the trinity.” (Ibid)
The passages of
Scripture (such as referred to above) are those that by one designation or
another include the three personalities of the Godhead but as Canale admits,
they do not express the idea that God is a trinity – at least not as purported
by the trinity doctrine. At the very best they only speak of three divine
personalities. This is why the
As do trinitarians in general, Canale professes that the trinity teaching, although only assumed, is based on everything that the Scriptures collectively say concerning the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Needless to say, the non-trinitarians would disagree. They would say that ‘certain things’ have been omitted or misunderstood, perhaps even Scripture misapplied. We shall return to this thought in later sections. Whatever else is concluded, Canale is confirming here that the trinity is only an assumed doctrine.
In 1981, in a special issue of the Review and Herald dedicated to detailing what were once our 27 fundamental beliefs (now 28), the doctrine of the trinity was given an explanation.
One particular statement said
“While no single scriptural passage states formally the doctrine of the Trinity, it is assumed as a fact by Bible writers and mentioned several times”. (Review and Herald, Special issue, Volume 158, No. 31 July 1981, ‘The Trinity)
Here again it said that the trinity doctrine is only an assumed doctrine. We can also see it said that nowhere in the Scriptures is the trinity doctrine explicitly stated. Strange to relate though, the article does say that it is “mentioned several times”.
I would not agree with where it says that the Bible writers “assumed” the trinity doctrine “as a fact”. Of this there is no evidence from the Scriptures. This is an assumption in itself, also one that has no basis in the Bible.
We must also remember that the trinity doctrine was not even formulated until late in the fourth century, so how could the Bible writers accept it as a fact? Even then, also during the centuries that followed, many Christians would not accept it. This led to very serious division in the Church. It also led to the persecution of those who would not accept it. We shall cover this in section nine.
History strongly suggests that everyone knew in the 4th century that the trinity doctrine was not expressed in Scripture. This is the reason why even then, at its very beginnings, there was such a major controversy about it. This is something else we shall see in later sections.
In the ‘Signs of the Times in 1985 Pastor Frank Holbrook wrote (this was in response to a readers question regarding the trinity)
“The Scriptures were designed by God for practical living and not for speculative theorizing. Hence, they contain no systematic exposition on the nature of the Godhead. The Christian statement regarding the Trinity is an attempt to state the biblical paradox (which Scripture never attempts to resolve) that there is one God (see Deuteronomy 6:4: James 2:19), yet existing in three Persons (see Matthew 28:19: 2 Corinthians 13:14).” (Frank Holbrook, Signs of the Times, July 1985, ‘Frank answers’)
In the special issue of the Adventist Review in 1981 spoken of above, which was published specifically to explain the fundamental beliefs held by Seventh-day Adventists, this statement can be found
“Only by faith can we accept the existence of the Trinity.” (Review and Herald, Special issue, Volume 158, No. 31 July 1981, ‘The Trinity)
Faith is spoken of here as believing something that is not explicitly revealed in the Scriptures. This is not the usual Biblical use of this word. Faith is normally said of believing something that God has actually revealed (said), not believing something that He has not even mentioned. This latter type of ‘faith’ is only another name for speculation. In other words it could easily be said that only by accepting ‘certain speculations’ as being true can we accept the doctrine of the trinity’. This is more to the truth of the matter.
Whichever way the trinity formula is expressed, there is always the need of speculation. This is because it cannot be proven from the Scriptures. This is why when drawing a conclusion we need to be very careful.
As Alister E. McGrath in his classic ‘Christian theology: An introduction’ noted
of the trinity is unquestionably one of the most perplexing aspects of Christian
theology, and requires careful discussion.” (Alister
The trinity – a speculative construction
H. Maldwyn Hughes was the very first principal of
Wesley House - a Methodist theological College at
In the chapter where he deals with the doctrine of the trinity he says
“The doctrine of the Trinity is not primarily a speculative doctrine. It is a speculative construction of materials provided by revelation and Christian experience. The definition has stood the test of time, mainly because it is believed that the Church was divinely guided in framing it.” (H. Maldwyn Hughes, M. A., D. D. Christian foundations, An introduction to Christian doctrine, page 141, fourth edition, July 1933)
This is putting a different slant on things but it is still saying that the trinity doctrine is an assumed doctrine.
By saying that the trinity is “not primarily a speculative doctrine” but “a speculative construction”, Hughes appears to be saying that albeit speculative in itself, the trinity doctrine is the inevitable conclusion of all that the Scriptures say about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is much the same as said by most trinitarians.
Whichever way this is viewed, it is still saying that the trinity doctrine is an assumed doctrine (a “speculative construction” as Hughes put it). We know that the Scriptures speak of three divine personalities but nowhere does it say that they are united in the way as expressed in the trinity doctrine (God three-in-one – a tri-unity of beings – the one indivisible being of God etc). This is only an assumption. In other words, what could be done is to just accept what the Scriptures say concerning the three personalities of the Godhead and then leave it there without the three-in-one trinity speculating. If this were done though, there would not be a trinity doctrine, at least not as we know it today.
Regarding what the Scriptures alone say concerning the three
personalities of the Godhead, an excellent article was written by the Rev.
Samuel Spear D. D. It was published in the ‘New York Independent’ (a weekly religious journal)
in 1889 whilst three years later in 1892 it was included in the
Seventh-day Adventist ‘Bible Students Library’. The latter was a series of
tracts explaining what Seventh-day Adventists believed. This reveals the faith
of Seventh-day Adventists at that time (1892) - which was four years after the
now famous 1888
Under its original title (‘The Subordination of Christ’) it was also published over two weeks (in 2 parts) in the ‘Signs of the Times’ of December 7th and 14th of December 1891. It appears therefore that the next year when it was accepted as a tract for the Bible Students Library it was thought best to give it another title. Samuel Spear was not a Seventh-day Adventist. He was a Presbyterian minister. He died in 1891.
Obvious to relate, this “speculative construction” of God being a trinity (three-in-one) is not the opinion of the non-trinitarians. They say that it disparages (belittles) the gospel. We shall see why they say this later in this study.
Notice here that Hughes says that this doctrine has existed for the time that it had because it is believed that “the Church was divinely guided in framing it”. Again the non-trinitarians would not admit to this being true but most trinitarian theologians appear to see it this way.
These remarks were obviously with reference to ‘when and where’ this
doctrine was initially formulated, meaning the 4th century
ecumenical councils of
“But the definition, in its terminology and in its description of processes in the internal life of the Godhead, goes beyond New Testament teaching. These may, of course, be legitimate developments, but it is impossible to deny the speculative elements present.” (Ibid)
The non-trinitarians would only agree to certain parts of this statement. They certainly would not agree that the trinity doctrine is born of “legitimate developments” but would say that this teaching “goes beyond New Testament teaching”. They would also agree that it contains “speculative elements”.
“For this reason there are many who, while holding firmly to the Tri-unity of God, think it best to go no further in the way of definition than the use of New Testament terms.’ (Ibid)
Our pioneers would have been the foremost amongst the “many” mentioned here. They certainly believed in a tri-unity in God but not as generally expressed by the trinity doctrine. They believed that because of its various speculations, this latter teaching goes to unnecessary extremes and so results in a perversion of the gospel. The same was reasoned by Samuel Spear (see above).
The trinity doctrine – not an Old or a New Testament teaching
In 1983, Roy Allan Anderson wrote an article for the Review and Herald called “Adventists and the Trinity”.
It had as a sub-heading
“Explicit in the New Testament, implied in the Old, the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamental to Adventist faith.” (R. Allan Anderson, Review and Herald, September 8th 1983, ‘Adventists and the trinity’)
“The doctrine of the Trinity is found in many places in the Old Testament and is prominent in the New Testament.” (Ibid)
When this was written in 1983, trinitarianism had
become established within Seventh-day Adventism but as we shall see as we
continue, not everyone would agree with
In complete contrast to
“Exegetes and theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity, even though it was customary in past dogmatic tracts on the Trinity to cite texts like Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness”(see also Gn. 3:22, 11:7, Is. 62-3) as proof of plurality in God.” (Encyclopedia of Religion, Trinity, Volume 15, page 54, 1987)
It also says later
“Further, exegetes and theologians agree that the New Testament also does not contain an explicit doctrine of the trinity.” (Ibid)
In the next a paragraph it says regarding ‘trinity language’
“In the New Testament there is no reflective consciousness of the metaphysical nature of God (“imminent trinity”), nor does the New Testament contain the technical language of later doctrine (hupostasis, ousia, substantia, subsistentia, prosopon, persona).” (Ibid)
As can be seen from the above, trinitarians certainly need to go outside of Scripture to ‘prove’ their doctrine. This is particularly with regard to their ‘trinity language’.
After saying that some theologians have said that the trinity doctrine is arbitrary, the encyclopaedia goes on to say
“While it is incontestable that the doctrine cannot be established on scriptural evidence alone, its origins may legitimately be sought in the Bible, not in the sense of “proof-texting” or of finding metaphysical principles, but because the Bible is the authoritative record of God’s redemptive relationship with humanity.” (Ibid)
The article concludes
“What the scriptures narrate as the activity of God among us, which is confessed in creeds and celebrated in liturgy, is the wellspring of later trinitarian doctrine.” (Ibid)
Again like most trinitarian viewpoints, the encyclopaedia does say that the trinity doctrine itself is assumed but says also that it does have its source in the Bible.
“The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not taught in the OT. In the NT the oldest evidence is in the Pauline epistles, especially 2 Cor 13:13 and 1 Cor 12:4-6)” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 14 page 306, ‘Trinity, Holy (in the Bible)
Here is the point blank denial of the trinity doctrine being found in the Old Testament. This is even though some trinitarians maintain that there is evidence of it there. Notice here that what is said to be found in the New Testament is not the trinity doctrine itself but “evidence” of it. As we shall now see, the same is said with regard to this teaching being found in the gospels.
The encyclopaedia continues
“In the Gospels, evidence of the trinity is found explicitly only in the baptismal statement.” (Ibid)
This is quite a remarkable statement, particularly as it was the Roman Catholic Church that made it. This is because they regard their rendition of the trinity doctrine as the central belief of their denominational faith.
Notice it says that even then it is only “evidence” that can be found in Matthew 28:19 and not the trinity doctrine itself. This is the only text in the Scriptures where it actually names Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Ghost) together as such. We can see therefore that even the Roman Catholic Church admits that the trinity teaching is only an assumed doctrine and not one that is explicitly stated in the Scriptures.
In the ‘Australasian Record’ in 1959, Harry W. Lowe, with respect to the Sabbath School lesson for July 11th of that year wrote (this was under the sub-heading of ‘The trinity in unity’)
“"Trinity" is not a Bible word, nor is any theological definition of it given in Scripture.” (Harry W. Lowe, Australasian Record, June 15th 1959, Sabbath School lesson help, ‘God's transcendent and mysterious nature’)
How very true indeed.
He then adds
“Nevertheless, the doctrine is clearly set forth. The incarnation, the virgin birth, the divine Sonship, were fundamental to Christian teaching on the Trinity.” (Ibid)
Three years later it said in the same publication regarding the three personalities of the Godhead (again this was under Sabbath School Lesson Help)
“The expression "the Godhead" is often used to refer to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as a unit. The word itself is an English term meaning "Godhood" or "divine nature," "divine essence," "Godship." Godhead is used as an equivalent of "the deity" when indicating the quality, the condition, and dignity of being God. Also the doctrine of the Godhead is sometimes referred to as the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Australasian Record, 19th March 1962, ‘Sabbath School Lesson Help)
The article then continued
“The belief in the Godhead, Trinity, is a fundamental belief of the church.” (Ibid)
The unfortunate part of this trinity debate is that as here in this statement, there is a confusion of words. This is because the words “Godhead” and “Trinity” are used as though they mean exactly the same. This is far from being correct. The word ‘trinity’ depicts the three-in-one concept of God but the various Greek words from which ‘Godhead’ (KJV) is derived do not. There is nothing in these Greek words that is suggestive of this three-in-one concept. They simply have their application to divinity and nothing else. This means that the oft used phrase ‘Godhead or trinity’ is very misleading. Click here for a more detailed discussion.
“There are certain aspects of this great subject that must remain as an unexplained part of the mystery of salvation. It is impossible for human minds to explain with finality the union of the divine and the human in Christ. Also there are mysteries involving the relationships of the Father and the Son that are beyond human comprehension. There is an eternal and absolute relationship between the two that has existed from eternity. We cannot understand it.” (Ibid)
As we shall see later in this section, much the same was said by Ellen White. We shall see that in this oneness, just as in the paragraph above, she only mentions the Father and Son.
In other words, it will be seen that in this oneness she makes no mention of the Holy Spirit. This is exactly the way that our pioneers reasoned. This is because although they came to regard the Holy Spirit as a personality, they did not regard Him as a person exactly like God and Christ. This is something else we shall realise later.
The article concluded concerning the three personalities of the Godhead
“This is a non-speculative doctrine that does not permit "private interpretation" or human deductions beyond that which is revealed. Its vital importance to the salvation of man does not permit speculation.” (Ibid)
The remark here about the trinity being a “non-speculative doctrine” is incorrect. It is purely speculative. Nowhere in the Scriptures is it stated. If it were stated there would be less of a problem. It is purely speculative and our salvation does not depend on believing it. This is why to say it is of “vital importance” to a person’s salvation is only what I would term ‘scare-mongering’ tactics. No one’s salvation is dependant upon believing it. It is only an assumed doctrine.
When he was an evangelist in the Nile Union, Wadie Farag wrote an article published in the ‘Ministry’ magazine called ‘What think ye of Christ?’ In this article he spoke much concerning the trinity. We shall quote from this article again in later sections.
After saying that a Moslem believes in the one God because he believes in the inspiration of the Koran, Farag wrote
“Similarly, those who believe in the doctrine of the Trinity do so because Inspiration teaches this doctrine.” (Wadie Farag, Ministry, November 1961, ‘What think ye of Christ’)
“We need not prove the Trinity; all we need to do is to prove the inspiration of the Bible and then accept the revealed doctrine of the Inspired Book.” (Ibid)
“It would be impossible for finite man to conclude anything about God's nature, whether He is one person or whether He is one God in three persons, without the aid of revelation.” (Ibid)
Farag obviously drew the conclusion that the Scriptures reveal God to be a trinity (three persons in one God). This is far from the belief of everyone.
Three years later in the Ministry
Magazine of November 1964, R. M. Johnston, who was then Bible teacher at the
“The term "Trinity" is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But the doctrine is there -- this conclusion is inescapable.” (R. M. Johnston, Ministry, November 1964, What Can We Know About the Holy Trinity?)
“For while it is true that no formal statement of the doctrine can be found in the most reliable Biblical manuscripts, nevertheless a comparison of Scripture with Scripture makes any contrary teaching untenable.” (Ibid)
He is saying that the trinity doctrine is concluded because
of a “comparison of Scripture with Scripture”. This
is the same way as almost all doctrines are formulated. This includes ‘Sunday
keeping’, the ‘immortality of the soul’, a ‘forever burning hell’ and the
like. In itself this statement proves
nothing. Certainly what the Scriptures say do not make any other understanding
of the Godhead “untenable”. All during the time
of Ellen White’s ministry, the
“Many an undisputed doctrine rests on less ample direct scriptural evidence than that of the Trinity. After all, in the Bible we cannot find even one single formal argument to prove the existence of God - for that we must look to the systematic theologians and philosophers. Rather, His existence is taken for granted without any formal proof being considered necessary; contrary ideas are simply dismissed as foolish, the fruit of sin. It is the same with the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Ibid)
This is a very weak argument. I
would also say that not everyone believes that a denial of the trinity doctrine
is “the fruit of sin”, neither would they
believe that “formal proof” of it was
unnecessary to believe it. Certainly the non-trinitarians would not say that
their beliefs should be “simply dismissed as foolish”,
neither would they refer to them as being “untenable”. To say that any teaching contrary to the
trinity is “untenable” - as claimed here by
Obvious to relate, not everyone
Philosophical reasoning versus the gospel
Fortman’s book is called ‘The Triune God’. As a Jesuit, he believed that the trinity doctrine is central doctrine of the Christian faith but felt that it was not as appreciated as it should be. I am sure that many trinitarians feel the same way.
In the introduction to his book, after saying that the trinity doctrine has had “an amazing history”, also that it could only have originated from “divine revelation” (but not stated in Scripture), he asks a very simple question. That question is
“What does the Old Testament tell us of God?” (Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God, Introduction, page XV, 1972)
He then wrote (of the Old Testament)
“It tells us there is one
God, a wonderful God of life and love and righteousness and power and
glory and mystery, who is the creator and lord of the whole universe, who is intensely
concerned with the tiny people of
He admits though
“But it tells us nothing explicitly or by necessary implication of a Triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Ibid)
Even as an avid supporter of the trinity doctrine, Fortman admits that nowhere in the Old Testament does it even imply that God is a trinity let alone explicitly say it.
He also says much the same regarding the New Testament Scriptures. He explains
“If we take the New Testament writers together they tell us there is only one God, the creator and lord of the universe, who is the Father of Jesus. They call Jesus the Son of God, Messiah, Lord, Savior, Word, Wisdom. They assign Him the divine functions of creation, salvation, judgment. Sometimes they call Him God explicitly.” (Ibid)
He then says of what the New Testament writers say of the Holy Spirit
“They do not speak as fully and clearly of the Holy Spirit as they do of the Son, but at times they coordinate Him with the Father and the Son and put Him on a level with them as far as divinity and personality are concerned.” (Ibid)
Again this is being very honest. This is because the Scriptures are not as informative concerning the Holy Spirit as they are of the Son. This is probably why over the centuries there have been so many disputes regarding this ‘mysterious divine personality’.
After saying that the New Testament provides what he terms “a triadic ground plan and triadic formulas” Fortman said
“They [the New Testament writers] give us no formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, no explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. But they do give us an elemental trinitarianism, the data from which such a formal doctrine of the Triune God may be formulated.” (Ibid)
Fortman agrees that in the Scriptures, there is stated no trinity doctrine. This is why it will always remain an assumed man-made teaching. He is saying though that when considered together, the information (data) in the Scriptures does lend itself to believing that God is a trinity – also that it was on this basis that the trinity doctrine was formulated. This is the usual confession of trinitarians.
As we shall see later though, it is my candid opinion that not all the information is used when formulating this teaching – whatever version of it. This is because it leaves out the possibility of the incarnate Christ sinning – and that if He had sinned He would have lost His eternal existence. This ‘risk’ is prohibited by the trinity doctrine. This is one of the reasons why the Creed at the Council of Nicaea was formulated. It was to so say ‘prove’ that it was not possible for Christ to sin and undergo change because of it. We shall see this in later sections – particularly section seven and section eight. This ‘risk’ belief is also dealt with in great length in section twelve and section thirteen.
In summary Fortman said on page 32
“There is no formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament writers, if this means an explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine beings” (Ibid, Chapter 2, ‘The New Testament Witness to God’, page 32)
Fortman also says on page 35 (this was after explaining in the first two chapters what the Scriptures say of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit)
“The Biblical witness to God, as we have seen, did not contain any formal or formulated doctrine of the trinity, any explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. Rather it contained the data from which a doctrine of this kind could be formulated.” (Ibid, ‘The Triune God in the Early Christian Church’, page 35)
“And it would take three centuries of gradual assimilation of the Biblical witness to God before the formulation of the dogma of one God in three distinct persons would be achieved.” (Ibid)
It is true that the trinity doctrine was not formulated until the 4th century AD – meaning that it was not an original belief of Christianity but one that was formulated as the established Christian Church declined into apostasy.
A glorious doctrine perverted by speculation (a non-Seventh-day Adventist perspective)
Samuel Spear can be described as a non-orthodox trinitarian. He was also a non-Seventh-day Adventist. He wrote an article regarding the folly of believing in the extreme speculations of the orthodox trinity doctrine. Click here to read it. We shall now consider some of his remarks.
Important to note is that in 1889, which was the year following the famous Minneapolis Conference, his article was printed in the ‘The New York Independent’ whilst three years later in 1892 it was included in the Seventh-day Adventist’s Bible Students Library. The latter was a series of tracts on Bible doctrines believed by Seventh-day Adventists.
The fact that Spear’s article was included in the Bible Students Library in 1892, does contribute to showing how, during this same time period, our church regarded the trinity doctrine. This is only reasonable to believe. Certainly it reveals just what it was that at that time, Seventh-day Adventists actually believed concerning the Godhead. This is because it was saying to all who would read these tracts (because it was a tract on our beliefs) ‘this is what Seventh-day Adventists believe’.
Note the title of Spear’s article. This is very important. As was said above, when it was published in the New York Independent it was called ‘The Subordination of Christ’ whilst when reprinted and included in the Bible Students Library it was called ‘The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity’. Note my emphasis. It appears to have been titled this way because it was opposed to, as held by many Christian denominations, the orthodox version of ‘the trinity doctrine’. In other words, it was a non-trinitarian article – at least as far as orthodox trinitarianism is concerned.
The fact that it was given this title shows that this article was meant to portray what the Bible alone has to say concerning the three personalities of the Godhead, meaning minus the non-biblical extreme speculations of the trinity doctrine. This is why it was reprinted and included in the Bible Students Library in 1892. It was in harmony with what was then, in the 1890’s, believed by Seventh-day Adventists. In reality, when compared with traditional trinitarian theology, it was decidedly non-trinitarian. In fact I would say that the vast majority of trinitarians would say that it was decidedly anti-trinitarian.
At the very beginning of his article Spear said
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.” (Samuel T. Spear, D. D., published in the
This is very true indeed. Nowhere in the Scriptures is given an explanation of how God exists although as Spear said, they do teach “His essential oneness”.
This is the reason why it has been said in this study that to speculate concerning this ‘oneness’, especially as is done so in the trinity doctrine, is not a very sensible thing to do. It must also in all honesty be asked, is this something really necessary to do? This is because although it may be sincerely meant, this type of speculation may be wrong and therefore lead to serious erroneous conclusions. This is particularly as it affects other aspects of the Christian faith.
As Spear said, to enable us to worship God effectually (adequately), the Scriptures do reveal enough of His “spiritual unity”.
This is very much the same as was said by a Seventh-day Adventist minister by the name of William T. Hyde. He was one of the people who contributed to the compilation of the 1966 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopaedias.
Under the sub-heading of “Essential Nature Unknown” he wrote
“The essential nature of God which corresponds to the physical nature in man -- what God is made of, how He exists, how He can be eternal -- has not been revealed.” (William T. Hyde, Theology of an Adventist, A Biblical theology, 1965)
Here the entire problem is precisely summarised because with respect of ‘divine being’ - meaning what God is and the way that He eternally exists (metaphysically or ontologically speaking) - the Scriptures are totally silent.
The author then added
“It may be that it would be beyond our finite comprehension even if it were revealed to us.” (Ibid)
Again this statement is very true.
Our understanding is very limited, especially when it comes to things of a spiritual nature. At times we have problems understanding what God has revealed, let alone the things He has chosen to keep silent upon, This is particularly as purported by the trinity doctrine.
As we shall see later in this section - and will refer to it a number of times throughout this study - these sentiments, as expressed by Hyde, were very much the same as those expressed by Ellen White although she did phrase it a little bit differently than he did here.
Returning our thoughts to Spear and his article - after showing what the Bible alone says about the three personalities of the Godhead, he continued 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.” (Samuel T. Spear, D. D., published in the
Spear is here speaking out against the extreme speculations made by the trinitarians.
He then concluded concerning the three divine personalities as revealed in the Bible (this was again in opposition to the doctrine of the trinity)
“A glorious doctrine then becomes their perplexity, and ingulfs them in a confusion of their own creation. What they need is to believe more and speculate less.” (Ibid)
This “glorious doctrine” is that which Spear says that the Bible alone (no more - no less) says concerning the three personalities of the Godhead. If everyone believed this only, then perhaps there would be far more harmony amongst Christians - particularly amongst Seventh-day Adventists.
Obvious to relate, as a non-Seventh-day Adventist, Spear probably did not take into account what Ellen White had written and said but this is understandable.
Thirty years previous to this in 1858, in a book called ‘The Higher Christian Life’, William Boardman wrote with respect to what he terms the persons of the Holy Trinity
“Upon this subject flippancy would border upon blasphemy. It is holy ground. He who ventures upon it may well tread with unshod foot, and uncovered head bowed low.” (William Boardman, the Higher Christian Life, part II ‘How Attained, page 99, chapter I, ‘For me: then what must I do?)
He then added
“Speculation here, too, is entirely out of place, unsafe, not worth the ink used in the writing.” (Ibid)
As did Spear, Boardman appears unimpressed with the speculations of the trinity doctrine although as we shall see later in this study, Ellen White did condemn the three-in-one speculations that he used in his book to describe God’s being. This should be telling us something very significant.
Boardman then said
“The lamp of human reason is a light too dim to guide us through the profound mysteries of the mode of the divine existence and the methods of the divine manifestation and working. God alone knows what God is. And God only can communicate to man what man can be made to know of God, especially of the personalities of the Godhead, and of their relations to each other and to us.” (Ibid, page 99-100)
The same author therefore concluded
“Revelation must be our guide. Beyond what God has revealed, we know nothing. The sacred Word is all the light we have in this matter” (Ibid)
As we shall now see, this is much the same as said by Ellen White.
A clear warning
In the early 1900’s when the Godhead crisis was at its height within Seventh-day Adventism (we shall cover this more fully in later sections), Ellen White wrote extensively concerning wrong views that were being expressed with regard to both God and Christ. As we shall now see, she also wrote with regard to the folly of speculating about what God, concerning His own being, has chosen to ‘keep secret’ upon.
To the delegates at the Lake Union Conference at Berrien Springs in 1904 she said
“There are some things upon which we must reason, and there are other things that we must not discuss”. (Ellen G. White, Sermons and talks Volume one, ‘The foundation of our faith’, MS 46, 1904, manuscripts Release 900)
Then, with obvious regard to what should never be spoken of, she said
In regard to God -- what He is and where He is -- silence is eloquence. When you are tempted to speak of what God is, keep silence, because as surely as you begin to speak of this, you will disparage Him.” (Ibid)
As can be seen, this is much the same as was said by Boardman (see above).
“Our ministers must be very careful not to enter into controversy in regard to the personality of God. This is a subject that they are not to touch. It is a mystery, and the enemy will surely lead astray those who enter into it. We know that Christ came in person to reveal God to the world. God is a person and Christ is a person." (Ibid)
Whatever is unknown about how God exists, the one thing that over and over again Ellen White stressed (we shall see that she emphasised this throughout the entire time of the Godhead crisis within Seventh-day Adventism) was that it should not be forgotten that “God is a person and Christ is a person”. We shall see more of why she did this in later sections.
“Christ is spoken of in the Word as "the brightness of His Father's glory, and the express image of His person” (Ibid)
This is extremely important regarding what the Scriptures reveal concerning Christ. It is with obvious reference to Hebrews 1:3.
Speculation may not always be wrong in itself but the dangers must be recognised. This is why, rather than to speculate concerning that which God has obviously chosen to keep silent upon, especially as it concerns His very being, it is so much better to stay within the boundaries of what He has chosen to reveal. It must also be recognised that to a degree, to speculate concerning things that God has not revealed, is akin to presumption.
In summary therefore, as Seventh-day Adventists, we need to be very careful indeed in what we presume to be true. As it says in the Scriptures
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29.
The trinity doctrine is not essential to salvation. If it had been then God would have revealed it. As it is, He has said nothing about Himself being a trinity of persons -only that He and Christ are two separate personalities.
As Ellen White said
“There is everything plainly revealed in God's Word which concerns the salvation of men, and if we will take that Word and comprehend it to the very best of our ability, God will help us in its comprehension.” (Ellen G. White, Sermons and Talks Volume 1, 1990, 'The Minister's Relationship to God's Word’, A sermon preached in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Des Moines, Iowa, December 1st 1888, Text 2 Timothy 4:1-11)
Speculation unnecessary and dangerous
In the midst of the Godhead crisis, also under the subheading of “A False and a True Knowledge of God - Speculative Theories”, Ellen White penned these words (this was after quoting Deuteronomy 29:29)
"The revelation of Himself that God has given in His word is for our study. This we may seek to understand. But beyond this we are not to penetrate. The highest intellect may tax itself until it is wearied out in conjectures regarding the nature of God; but the effort will be fruitless.” (Ellen G. White, 8th Volume Testimonies, page 279, ‘The essential knowledge’)
It is more than likely here that Ellen White had in mind, as well other assumptions concerning God, the speculations of the trinity doctrine. Certainly Ellen White was not ignorant of these things.
She then added
“This problem has not been given us to solve. No human mind can comprehend God. Let not finite man attempt to interpret Him. Let none indulge in speculation regarding His nature.” (Ibid)
“Here silence is eloquence. The Omniscient One is above discussion.” (Ibid)
It goes without saying that Ellen White was addressing her remarks to the speculations regarding the Godhead (or as some say the trinity) that in the early 1900’s were permeating Seventh-day Adventism.
Ellen White did realise though that between God and Christ, there was a certain ‘oneness’ - albeit she said it was something that was incomprehensible to the human mind.
This is when she said
“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. This truth, infinitely mysterious in itself, explains other mysterious and otherwise unexplainable truths, while it is enshrined in light, unapproachable and incomprehensible.” (Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, 5th April 1906, ‘The Word made flesh’)
Extremely importantly, note first of all that Ellen White did not here include the Holy Spirit in this oneness. This is more than likely because throughout the entire time of her ministry, Seventh-day Adventists did not regard the Holy Spirit as a person like God and Christ. This was even after Ellen White had stressed that in His own right, the Holy Spirit is a personality.
Our pioneers believed that the Holy Spirit was the personal presence of both God and Christ when the latter two were not bodily (physically) present. In other words, by early 1900’s Seventh-day Adventists, the Holy Spirit was believed to be God and Christ omnipresent - yet a divine personality.
Note that regarding this oneness, whatever may have constituted it, Ellen White did say that it was “unapproachable and incomprehensible”. This is obviously with respect to our human understanding of it. Note also, again very importantly, that she did say that it did explain “mysterious and otherwise unexplainable truths”. I would think that more so than anything else, this obviously included how God the Father and the Son could both be termed God. We shall return our thoughts to this statement on a number of occasions because it should go without saying that it is very important to our studies.
From the above, we can see that neither within the Scriptures or within the writings of Ellen White has God revealed anything about His being as ‘three-in-one’, at least not as purported in the trinity doctrine, therefore to believe this teaching, whichever way it is explained, is purely speculation. In an attempt to ‘prove’ it to be true, it also necessitates a never ending round of explanations.
It is to these types of explanations that I believe E. J. Waggoner was referring when in defending the non-trinitarian ‘faith’ of Seventh-day Adventists regarding the divinity of Christ he said (note this was in 1889, one year after the Minneapolis Conference and the same year that Samuel Spear’s article was published in the New York Independent)
“We have no theory to bolster up, and so, instead of stating prepositions, we shall simply quote the word of God, and accept what it says.” (E. J. Waggoner. Signs of the Times, March 25th 1889, article ‘The Divinity of Christ’)
This was exactly the same as Samuel Spear in his article said was best to do (see above).
It is unfortunate that in the Seventh-day Adventist publication ‘The Trinity’, it says under the sub-heading of ‘The Bible, Our Primary Authority’ (this was in the ‘Introduction’ to the book)
“In the spirit of the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the authors of this book firmly hold the following conviction: if we cannot support any teaching biblically, we do not want it. We humbly take up this project in the spirit of John Nevins Andrews (1829-1883), one of the most able of our pioneer scholars, who exclaimed, “I would exchange a thousand errors for one truth”. (The Trinity, Woodrow Whidden and Reeves, Introduction, ‘The Bible our Primary Authority’ page 11)
As is said here, John Nevins Andrews was indeed one of our best theologians (perhaps the best) but he was an anti-trinitarian. The reason why he rejected the trinity doctrine was because it was a teaching that he believed could not be supported from Scripture. He even said that it destroyed the personality of God. I say that it was unfortunate that the authors of ‘The Trinity’ used his statement (as above) because they did so to sustain the belief that it was Scriptural.
As J. N. Andrews said himself in 1855
“This doctrine [the trinity] destroys the personality of God and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. The infamous, measures by which it was forced upon the church which appear upon the pages of ecclesiastical history might well cause every believer in that doctrine to blush.” (J. N. Andrews, Review and Herald, March 6th 1855, ‘The Fall of Babylon’)
A confusion of words
In section seven, section eight and section nine, we shall be taking a look at the 4th century dispute that eventually led to the original formation of the trinity doctrine – particularly as to how it was made into a creed. We shall see that it was indeed a war of words – words that attempted to explain and define God.
In 1897, A.T. Jones published a series of articles called ‘How the Catholic Creed was made’. As most will realise, the trinity doctrine became the central belief of the Roman Catholic Church.
In his fifth article called ‘The Great Trinitarian Controversy’ (this was under the sub-heading of “TRYING TO PUT GOD INTO A FORMULA”) he wrote about the dispute at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). This was where it was attempted to define the ontological relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. As Jones explained, there was no doubt on either side of the debate that there was a trinity but how to explain it was the problem.
After speaking of how there was a debate over the words offered to explain whether Christ was of the same substance of the Father or a different substance - these two words being ‘Homoousion’ and ‘Homoiousion’ – Jones wrote of this confusion
“It could not possibly be otherwise, because it was an attempt of the finite to measure, to analyse, and even to dissect, the Infinite. It was an attempt to make the human superior to the Divine.” (A. T. Jones, Bible Echo, September 13th 1897, Series ‘How the Catholic Creed was made’. Article ‘The Great Trinitarian Controversy’)
He then said
“God is infinite. No finite mind can comprehend Him as He actually is. Christ is the word—the expression of the thought —of God; and none but He knows the depth of the meaning of that word. "He had a name written that no man knew but He Himself; . . . and His name is called the Word of God." Rev. 19 :12, 13.”
He followed this by saying
“Neither the nature nor the relationship of the Father and the Son can ever be measured by the mind of man. "No man knoweth the Son but the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him." Matt, 11:27.” (Ibid)
The problem is with trinitarianism is that it seeks to precisely define how God exists – which as Jones said is something that cannot be done. To do this is only human speculation. It is simply making a formula to define God. As Jones so aptly put it, the debate “was an attempt of the finite to measure, to analyse, and even to dissect, the Infinite”. This is what the trinity doctrine does. It attempts to define God by using a formula. This may satisfy the intellectual cravings of the human mind to define God but as we shall see, there are implications to this trinitarian theory that seriously denigrate the Gospel.
“Therefore, no man's conception of God can ever be fixed as the true conception of God. God will still be infinitely beyond the broadest comprehension that the mind of man can measure.” (Ibid)
We shall see in section nine how the trinity doctrine was established within Christianity – also how it became the central doctrine of the Christian church. This was as the latter rapidly declined into apostasy.
In section five we shall see that regarding the trinity doctrine there are differing concepts.
Initial publication - 7th May 2008
Last edited – 31st December 2011
© T. M. Hill 2008 England