In the most recent Proclamation I wrote an article examining the SDA Fundamental Belief about the Trinity. The space limitation of the print format required that I leave out even more information than I included. Rather than repeat that article, this post is a companion piece covering the information that I didn’t get a chance to discuss in print.
I didn’t question the SDA view of the Trinity until well after I had left Adventism. The Fundamental Beliefs say that they believe in the Trinity, and the topic simply isn’t discussed that much within Adventism. When I first heard critics say that Adventism was tri-theistic rather than truly Trinitarian, I thought that they were overreacting and splitting hairs. Now, several years later, I find that I have come to the same conclusion. I have reached this conclusion from discussions on the subject with SDA apologists across two different discussion boards.
The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity
As I discussed in the article, the term Trinity is directly related to the theology of the church. The word didn’t exist previously but was created by the church to describe their belief. Therefore the word itself isn’t subject to varying interpretations and understanding. The word was created with one, and only one, very specific meaning. It is a theological term that means three in one. The understanding is that while God exists as three distinct persons, God is still One Being. This description of both the three persons and the one being are critically important in accurately using the term. The errors on the two sides of this truth are tritheism- the idea that god is three distinct beings, and modalism- the idea that there is one person of God who has revealed himself in different modes or forms. It is technically an oversimplification to simply group these into two camps, as there are many variations of these heresies throughout history. However, to keep the discussion focused on how Adventism differs from Orthodox Christian teaching, this summary is sufficient.
Central to the doctrine of the Christian Trinity, and highly controversial at the height of the Arian heresy, is the concept that the persons of the Trinity are one in substance. The term “homoousios” was used to distinguish the one in substance from the Arian doctrines that include being similar in substance. The more familiar modern term is consubstantial which comes from the latin definition. And it is the consubstantial term and concept that is missing from the SDA definition of the Trinity.
The Seventh-day Adventist “Trinity”
Many SDAs have created a slightly different definition of Trinity. According to this view, God is not One “Being” but rather One in purpose or One in agreement. God is One in the same manner that man and wife are one. This is a very different doctrine that the Christian Trinity, and I believe rightly called tri-theism by SDA critics (regardless of what SDAs themselves say about it). Dr. Jerry Moon, a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Michigan, describes the Adventist understanding of “Trinity” in this way “Unlike the multiple gods of polytheism, the three persons of the biblical Godhead are profoundly ‘one in purpose, in mind, in character, but not in person.’ Thus, despite their individuality, they are never divided, never in conflict, and thus constitute not three gods, but one God.” The quote within this statement is directly from Ellen White. This is not a description that I can find used outside of Adventism. As an interesting aside for those who claim that SDAs don’t use Ellen White to define doctrine, here is a clear case where she is being used to define an important doctrine.
Dr. Moon is probably the most prominent SDA theologian on the subject of the Trinity yet look closely at his definition of what being “one” is in this description of SDA belief. The SDA doctrine is essentially the same as the Mormon teaching on the subject!
Consider these Mormon teachings on the Godhead:
- “These three beings (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) make up the Godhead.[i]“
- “Each member of the Godhead is an independent personage, separate and distinct from the other two, the three being in perfect unity and harmony with each other[ii]“
- [This one particularly stood out to me] “If by ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ one means the New Testament teaching that there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost, all three of whom are fully divine, then Latter-day Saints believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. It is as simple as that. The Latter-day Saints’ first article of faith, written by Joseph Smith in 1842, states, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost……However, if by ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ one means the doctrine formulated by the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon and elaborated upon by subsequent theologians and councils–that God is three coequal persons in one substance or essence–then Latter-day Saints do not believe it.[iii]”
Foundations of Adventism are Arianist
The founders and early leaders of SDAism were not Trinitarian. In fact, they outright rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. The core of Seventh-day Adventism, including all of their unique doctrinal beliefs, is based on an Arianist theological foundation.
In 1855, J. N. Andrews, the namesake for the university that houses the SDA theological seminary, wrote, “The doctrine of the Trinity… was established in the church by the council of Nice, A. D. 325. This doctrine 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.”
But even here, some defenders of Adventism have tried to whitewash this history. These anti-Trinitarian teachings are described at times as correctly rejecting the popular understanding (Dr. Moon stated, “”Since the traditional doctrine of the Trinity clearly contained unscriptural elements, they rejected it.”).
James White plainly expressed that he did not believe that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father. “”the old unscriptural trinitarian creed, viz., that Jesus is the eternal God.” The Day-Star, January 24, 1846, 25
In 1854, J. M. Stevenson wrote “If the inspired writers had wishes to convey the idea of the co-etaneous existence, and eternity of the Father and the Son, they could not possibly have used more incompatible terms.”
In 1865 Uriah Smith referred to Christ as ““the first created being”
In 1869 J. N. Andrews stated “And as to the Son of God, he would be excluded also, for he had God for his Father, and did, at some point in the eternity of the past, have a beginning of days.”
As late as the 1919 Bible Conference L. L. Caviness stated “It (Divine glory) was not something he (Jesus) had all through eternity, but the Father had some time given to him the glory of God. He is divine, but he is the divine Son. I cannot explain further than that, but I cannot believe the so called Trinitarian doctrine of the three persons always existing.
At this same conference “W. T. Knox suggested that Christ was the eternal Son in the same sense that Levi was in the loins of Abraham. He said, ‘There came a time—in a way we cannot comprehend nor the time that we cannot comprehend, when by God’s mysterious operation the Son sprung from the bosom of his Father and had a separate existence.'”
In defending the eternal nature of Christ at this same 1919 conference Prescott states “we have used terms in that accommodating sense that are not really in harmony with Scriptural teaching. We believed a long time that Christ was a created being, inspite of what the Scripture says. I say this that passing over the experience I have passed over myself in this matter—this accommodating use of terms which makes the Deity without eternity, is not my conception now of the gospel of Christ. I think it falls short of the whole idea expressed in the Scriptures, and leaves us not with the kind of Savior I believe in now, but a sort of human view—a semihuman being. As I view it, the deity involves eternity. The very expression involves it. You cannot read the Scripture and have the idea of deity without eternity.”
This plainly shows that the debate over the eternal nature of Christ was still an issue within SDA leadership as late as 1919.
Early SDA leaders also questioned the equality of Jesus with the Father. For example L. L. Caviness also stated “I cannot believe that the two persons of the Godhead are equal”
Perhaps because of these early questions, SDAs have come to conclude that the view that Christ is co-eternal with the Father and equal to the Father is Trinitarianism. While it is certainly a step forward from SDA history, it still falls short of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. See for example this less than glowing endorsement of the actual Trinity doctrine: “While the Trinity is a divine mystery, and no mortal man will ever be able to understand it fully, the Scriptural evidence clearly indicates the equality and eternal co-existence of the three persons in the Godhead.[iv]
This doctrine of Adventism that they refer to as the “Trinity” is not the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. This SDA doctrine redefines the word “Trinity”. I seriously have to question whether the SDA church can honestly refer to itself as Trinitarian.
[iii] Stephen Robinson (1998) Are Mormons Christians? Bookcraft. http://www.amazon.com/Are-Mormons-Christians-Stephen-Robinson/dp/1570084092
[iv] Gerhard Pfandl, The Doctrine of the Trinity Among Seventh-day Adventists, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/1 (Spring 2006): 160–179