Salvation pilgrimage

The Adventist journey into justification by faith and Trinitarianism

Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

In the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church, the Minneapolis General Conference and 1888 have become synonymous with the primacy of justification by faith. In the doctrinal teaching of the church, this event marks a revival of genu ine interest in the question of "righteousness by faith." The key advocates of this remark able revival were Ellen G. White and two young Adventist editors based in California: E. J. Waggoner (1855-1916) and A. T. Jones (1850-1923).

Opposing them was an established "old guard" at the church headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan: Uriah Smith (1832- 1903), the editor of the church's official magazine, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, and George I. Butler (1834-1918), the president of the General Conference. Though no action was taken at Minneapolis, the opposition to Waggoner and Jones was so severe that Ellen White teamed up with Jones and Waggoner, mounting an intense campaign of revivals across North America. During the next three years they toured widely, emphasizing the primacy of justification by faith alone as the bedrock of any vibrant Christian experience.

One indicator of such an emphasis is that roughly 40 percent of all that Ellen White ever said about justification by faith and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, she said and wrote during the four years that followed Minneapolis. What is significant is not just the amount of material that flowed from her lips and pen but the quality and remarkable clarity of the material. 1 This period is distinctive because of Mrs. White's emphasis on Paul's and Luther's expressions of justification by faith.

Corresponding Christological and Trinitarian developments

Prior to this time, Arianism had been quite pervasive in the writings of early Seventh-day Adventism. Interestingly, Arianism (which owes its origin to Arius [d. 336], who denied the divinity of Christ and held that Christ was a created being), has had a natural attraction for religious movements that concentrate on personal obedience while neglecting the importance of justification by faith in the Christian salvation experience.

By the time of the Minneapolis revivals, Jones was forthrightly Trinitarian, emphasizing the full deity of Christ. However, E. J. Waggoner, like many Adventists of his day, had moved from a predominant Arianism to a semi-Arian position.2 By the late 1880s Ellen White was unequivocally Trinitarian in the expression of her convictions regarding the full deity of Christ. This is truly remarkable, given the strongly Arian and semi-Arian views that were so dominant in the Adventism of that time, and given the fact that even her strong-minded, forthright husband, James White, held such views until relatively late in his life.

Furthermore, Uriah Smith, the main opposer of the soteriological initiatives of Waggoner, Jones, and Ellen White, had been decidedly Arian. He then developed a semi- Arian view which he maintained until death. Smith never fully embraced a clear doctrine of objective justification by faith alone. Thus, the main opponent of the soteriological healing within Adventism was clearly semi-Arian and never gave evidence of being fully convinced of the new soteriology.

Early emergence from legalism and Arianism

What then is to be made of Adventism's simultaneous emergence from both unwitting legalism and a rather strongly held Arian stance? What, if any, causal relation ships existed between emerging Trinitarian impulses and the healing of legalistic soteriological trends in the church? Clear-cut answers aren't easy, but the following factors seem to have affected this shift in early Adventism:

1. The obvious spiritual needs of the membership. Here both James and Ellen White, later supported by Jones and Waggoner, took the lead. We have no evidence of a sud den discovery by them that Arianism was destroying the Seventh-day Adventist people with legalistic attitudes that were leading to a destructive spiritual condition in the churches. Instead, it seems that they, sensing the severe dangers inherent in the obviously legalistic trends within the movement, began to study the causes of the condition and then saw the need for a more Trinitarian soteriology.

This basic phenomenon is especially evident in Ellen White. There do not seem to be any instances where she consciously set out to reflect on the soteriological implications of the full deity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. She was, however, able to draw not only from Scripture but also from her Methodist roots, which were clearly the baseline of her ministry from the start. This is especially true of her attempts to keep a balance between justification by faith and holiness of heart and life. The same might be said for the Trinitarian consciousness-raising power of her Wesleyan/Methodist background.

2. The church's worship, especially its hymns. As the "Advent movement" began to take on the trappings of a denomination, it had to develop the resources for ecclesiastical order, such as formal organization, a statement of belief, ministerial credentials, and a hymnal. Even though Arianism was widespread, when the early Adventists began to plan for worship, they included Trinitarian hymns in their early hymnals. The first hymnal of 1849, compiled by James White, contains the doxology and its closing words, "Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." 

A reaching out. When early Advent ism emerged from its "shut door" phase, the movement began to reach out to other Christians. This audience, at first, was mainly defined as North American church goers. This new outreach, which began in the early 1850s, resulted in a growing in flux of Trinitarians from other evangelical bodies into Adventism. These converts were attracted to the prophetic teachings and other strongly biblical doctrines and practices of Adventism; they, however, were not prepared to give up their Trinitarian beliefs.

However widespread, Arianism was never formally or officially adopted by the church, something that can be best understood as one remembers the early movement's strong anticreedal stance. Because of their vivid memories of the ill-treatment they received from the creedal churches of "Babylon" in the heated last stages of Millerism, many early Adventists developed an intense "live and let live" attitude on a number of doctrinal is sues. In other words, there was strong resistance to any creed. Thus any new convert could be a Seventh-day Adventist and Trinitarian. Perhaps this growing number of Trinitarians were simply making their presence felt.

4. The intercessory ministry of Jesus. An other factor was the continuing emphasis by Ellen White on Christ as the believer's constantly interceding mediator. This emphasis in her unfolding soteriology was accompanied by careful reflections on the substitutionary meaning of Christ's death and its implications for justification by faith alone. The more she reflected on Christ's death as a sacrificial atonement and His closely related office of High Priest, the more Mrs. White sensed the necessity of a sacrifice and intercession given by One fully divine ministries a semi- or demi-god could not do.

This appreciation of Christ's full deity in early Adventism seems to replicate the Christological developments that had occurred in the early Christian church. It was no mere historical happenstance that Athanasius (d. 373) opposed Arius. "In his anti-Arian treatises," wrote J. N. D. Kelley, "Athanasius was to deploy a triple onslaught based on the Church's living faith and ex perience. First, he argued that Arianism undermined the Christian doctrine of God by presupposing that the divine Triad is not eternal and by virtually reintroducing poly theism. Secondly it made nonsense of the established liturgical customs of baptizing in the Son's name as well as the Father's, and of addressing prayers to the Son. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it undermined the Christian idea of redemption in Christ, since only if the Mediator was Himself divine could humanity hope to re-establish fellowship with God."3 Similar understandings began to influence early Adventism.

Dynamics of theology, evangelism, and worship

While it is difficult to be dogmatic about the cause/effect relationships between the Adventist shift from Arian and anti-Trinitarian expressions and the accompanying soteriological emphasis, there are a number of factors that seem to come into play.

First, it doesn't seem that a lot of conscious theological reflection transpired in any systematic way but rather that these developments were ad hoc and definitely "providential." The Whites took the lead and drew their theological cues from concern over the low spiritual experience of the members. Seeing that legalism had obscured the primacy of Christ as atoning sacrifice and justifying Saviour, they sought to bring the movement back into a greater emphasis on the centrality of Christ and His sacrifice. In other words, it was practical/ theological concern, primarily regarding an out-of-balance theology, that seemed to draw them to a more critical reflection of the full deity of Christ.

This trend became especially evident in the thought of Ellen White, who gave more sustained attention to justification by faith alone and the office of Christ as High Priest. Such a priestly Intercessor not only reckons the faithful as forgiven for the sins of the past but ministers that reckoning moment by moment before a righteous and holy God. Again, such a justifying accomplishment could be made effectual only by One who was fully divine. Here, Mrs. White definitely paralleled the classic opposition of Athanasius to Arius: Not only was the theology similar, but so was the method of arriving at it. Both were dealing with the practical impact of heresy in the setting of worship and the personal experience of salvation.

Finally, the acts of worship, especially in the hymnody mentioned above, seemed to provide an interesting theological tutorial for a somewhat unwitting company of worshipers.

From the perspective of more than a hundred years later, this period feels very much like the unfolding of theology hammered out in the ebb and flow of a burgeoning evangelistic movement that badly needed both its soteriological and Trinitarian perspectives brought into a more classic and evangelical balance. It is in the setting of revival, outreach, sustained study of biblical themes and worship that the movement was drawn toward a Nicean orthodoxy in the theological integration of these great verities of the faith. Whatever the ultimate causes, this revival, spear headed by the Whites, Waggoner, and Jones after the 1888 Minneapolis conference, changed the face of Adventism, a change whose impact is definitely felt today.

Divinity of Christ and salvation experience

While we have briefly hinted at some of the implications for the experience of salvation that seem to inhere in a Trinitarian recovery from Arian influences, I would like to close this article with some further reflections on how grasping the full deity of Christ can aid the healing of our under standing and experiencing of salvation.

First, I would suggest that it was no accident that Ellen White, as the chief theological influence for the full deity of Christ, seems to have put the emphasis on the full deity of Christ as she reflected directly on the theme of Christ as the sinners' constantly available and effectually justifying intercessor. As Athanasius argued against Arius, Ellen White held out that an Arian Jesus would prove to be a weak and ineffectual intercessor.

Second, there can be no power failure in One who is fully divine. Indeed, such a power deficiency is only possible in a Christ with a derived deity, not in the fully divine Christ of the Trinity who is the justifying Saviour and the transforming Lord. When we come to Christ in any time of need, only a fully divine Christ has the power to make us more than conquerors. If, however, we perceive some deficiency in Him, we are tempted to think that He needs assistance from us via some good works on our part!

Third, only One who is wholly divine in nature could make a complete atonement to meet the claims of the broken law. Only the Creator who gave the law could offer a sacrifice of sufficient value to satisfy the justice of divinity.4

Fourth, only One who has life original, unborrowed, and underived could impart life to the believing, trusting soul. Some one who had life in some derived sense would only be able to impart some kind of spiritual "half-life"!

Last, I would suggest that the theme of divine love provides a powerful evidence for the need for a fully divine Christ. "Christ was with God. He was one with God, equal with Him.... He alone, the Creator of man, could be his Saviour. No angel of heaven could reveal the Father to the sinner, and win him back to allegiance to God. But Christ could manifest the Father's love."5 If love was to be effectively manifest, it could only be manifest by One who was, by divine nature, infinite in love. Only divine love could creatively beget a loving response, as opposed to a work response that seeks to purchase love. When the infinite love of God is freely given to us through Christ, it becomes apparent that there is only one response surrender and acceptance. There can be no purchase bargain through which we contribute either a pitiful two cents or all that we have.

1. These somewhat startling (at least to the Adventist ears of that period) and marked expressions of objective justification can be most readily found in the books Faith and Works (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assoc, 1979) and Selected Messages, Book One (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assoc., 1958), 300-400. Probably the most forceful expression of this more Pauline/Lutheran understanding of justification by faith alone came in her Manuscript 36,1890 (here cited from Faith and Works, 19, 20): "Let the subject be made distinct and plain that it is not possible to effect anything in our standing before God or in the gift of God to us through creature merit. Should faith and works purchase the gift of salvation for anyone, then the Creator is under obligation to the creature. Here is an opportunity for falsehood to be accepted as truth. If any man can merit salvation by anything he may do, then he is in the same position as the Catholic to do penance for his sins. Salvation, then, is partly of debt, that maybe earned as wages. If man can not, by any of his good works, merit salvation, then it must be wholly of grace, received by man as a sinner because he receives and believes in Jesus. It is wholly a free gift. Justification by faith is placed beyond controversy."

2. Waggoner came to the very borders of a more Trinitarian Christology. There is, however, no compelling evidence that he ever fully abandoned his semi-Arian position. He came close enough that he should be called a semi-Arian, with a small "s".

3. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 233.

4. Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,1877), 9, 10.

5. Ellen G. White, That I May Know Him (Hagerstown, Md: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.), 18.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

April 1998

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Small groups in evangelism

Small group ministries along with evangelism can create more lasting results and more mature disciples

When children are grieving

Ministry to children in grief

Growing churches is like growing trees

Principles of church growth drawn from the natural world

Waiting for the right moment

Wisely presenting the controversial aspects of Adventism

Proclaiming the message fearlessly

Faithfully presenting the controversial aspects of Adventism

Preach Christ!

If there was only one sermon to preach...

Is your church senior-sensitive?

Age sensitiveness and responsive care of mature age groups in the church

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)