1. A Begotten Problem
Seventh-day Adventist Trinity issues
The Begotten Series
A begotten problem
Within Seventh-day Adventism, there still exists today (2008) a major controversy concerning the trinity doctrine. This is why this ‘Begotten Series’ has been compiled. It is to help those who are interested, which in the main will probably be Seventh-day Adventists, to understand one of its major issues.
This issue is whether Christ, in His pre-existence, is the Son of God or not, which in reality is the same as asking whether He is begotten (caused to be or sourced) of God the Father or not. The two questions are synonymous.
If it is believed that Christ is begotten (caused to be or sourced) of the Father, it is also believed that He is truly the Son of God. If it is believed that Christ is not begotten (not caused to be or sourced) of the Father, then the belief must be that He is not truly the Son of God. When all is said and done, this is the issue at stake.
This first section is not in any way meant to resolve this ‘begotten’ issue. It is simply to introduce its reader to ‘the problem’. It is also to highlight the reason as to why this problem exists today within Seventh-day Adventism. As you read through this section, please bear this in mind.
A changeover in beliefs
Most who have become involved in this trinity debate will realise that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has not always been a trinitarian denomination. They will know that it was not until after Ellen White’s death that moves were ‘officially’ and ‘openly’ made to bring trinitarianism into Seventh-day Adventism. This is only another way of saying that throughout the time period of Ellen White’s ministry (1844-1915), the denominational faith of Seventh-day Adventists was strictly non-trinitarian.
Even for decades following Ellen White’s death, this same non-trinitarianism was still recognised as being the ‘common faith’ (common belief) of Seventh-day Adventists. This is covered in detail in the series ‘A research paper on the history of the trinity doctrine within the early Christian Church and within Seventh-day Adventism’.
As a matter of passing interest here, Seventh-day Adventists believe that Ellen White was gifted with the spirit of prophecy. It is because of this that they recognise her as being God’s messenger to His remnant people. If you would like to read a paper (comprising three sections) regarding her role within Seventh-day Adventism, please click here.
The author of these notes is a Seventh-day Adventist. He has been so since 1975. For a few more of his personal notes see section one of the detailed history paper above. It is under the sub-heading ‘Personal notes’.
The ‘begotten gripe’
The major ‘gripe’ that some had (and still have today) with the original faith of Seventh-day Adventism is its begotten concept of Christ. This is the belief that at some point in eternity, too far back for the human mind to even comprehend it, the Son proceeded forth of (came out of) the Father. To put this in another way, whilst Ellen White was alive, the standard faith of Seventh-day Adventism was that Christ is begotten (sourced or caused to be) of the Father. In its historical sense, an explanation of this faith can be found in later sections. We shall also return our thoughts to this history later in this section.
Very soon after the death of Ellen White, this ‘begotten non-trinitarian faith’ came under serious attack from within our denomination. So too did our faith concerning the Holy Spirit. After decades of a ‘new theology’ concerning both God and Christ being promoted amongst our membership, it eventually resulted in our now widely accepted version of the trinity doctrine.
Whilst these opening remarks have put this particular part of our denominational history into an ‘extremely small nutshell’, it is the truth as to what has happened. In other words, after Ellen White died, our denominational faith (beliefs) underwent a dramatic change. It behoves us therefore, as today’s Seventh-day Adventists, also as God’s remnant people, to discover why this changeover was made. It is also our responsibility to determine whether it was a valid change or not. As Christians, it is our God-given responsibility to seek and discover truth.
As held originally within Seventh-day Adventism, this begotten concept of Christ was also the faith of early Christianity. It continued this way throughout the centuries that followed.
History attests that during the time of the first two ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381), this same begotten faith was the predominant faith of Christianity. It was these same councils that led to the formation of the trinity doctrine. Please note that in this study from hereon, also in contrast to all other versions, this original version of the trinity doctrine will be known as orthodox or orthodoxy. This is not the version held today by Seventh - day Adventists. Theirs is different. We shall come back to this point later.
In the formation of the original (orthodox) trinity doctrine, the begotten concept of Christ was an integral part of its structure. To put this in another way, without this begotten concept of Christ, the orthodox trinity teaching would never have existed.
In the next two sections we shall be reviewing the beliefs of very early Christians regarding God and Christ. This we shall do by taking a look at the writings of some of the early church fathers. These were Christian writers who lived during and following the time period of the original apostles, the latter of whom were such as Peter, Paul, James and John etc. Following this we shall then be taking a look at this begotten concept of Christ from the viewpoint of the Scriptures. This is the place from where very early Christians would have formulated their beliefs.
We shall also be looking at the begotten concept of Christ as in the history of Seventh-day Adventism. We shall compare this with current Seventh-day Adventist theology. This should give us an overall view of this begotten dispute, also a very balanced one.
A Scriptural and historical problem
There are two very important reasons as to why this ‘begotten’ problem exists today within Seventh-day Adventism. One is from a Scriptural point of view (theology) whilst the other is from an historical standpoint (Christian/Seventh-day Adventist history). This will become much clearer as you read on. As we proceed through this series, we will consider both of these aspects in detail.
First we shall take a very brief look at the Scriptural perspective part of the problem. Then we shall briefly note the historical aspect. This will set the scene for the sections that follow.
The ‘problem’ from a Scriptural perspective
If we are talking in terms of the identification of Christ, meaning who He actually is, the ‘problem’ is the way that the New Testament writers describe Him.
You may be asking why this should be regarded as ‘a problem’. Allow me to explain.
As the opening to his gospel, John penned the words that most Christians can probably recite with ease.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. John 1:1-2
John clearly says that the Word (whom he later describes in verse 14 as becoming flesh) is God but he also adds (herein is ‘the problem’) that “the Word was “with God”. This then is ‘the problem’. What is meant is, if as Christians we are going to talk of our faith as being monotheistic, meaning having only ‘one God’, then how can we say that there are two separate divine personalities (or personages) who are called God? The latter is the objection made by other monotheistic religions like Islam and the Jewish faith.
In much the same way as John described Christ, so too did Paul the apostle (this was almost 40 years prior to John writing his gospel). He also said that the pre-existent Christ was God and was with God. Whilst everything that the apostle wrote in this respect cannot be quoted here, the following will suffice as a summary.
To the believers in Philippi he wrote
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:5-8
Just a cursory look at this Scripture tells us that Christ, in His pre-existence, was “in the form of God”. It also tells us that He was “equal with God”. Here again is the very same ‘problem’. It is how Christians can profess two divine personalities to be God yet say at the same time they are both the one and the same God.
More could be quoted here to show that the Scriptures depict the pre-existent Christ as God but perhaps if one text were to be cited that would embrace them all, also to ‘nutshell’ the problem to which we are referring here, it would be where Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy saying
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” 1 Timothy 3:16
Christ being God “manifest in the flesh” is indeed the mysteries of mysteries, also the faith of Christianity, but this does not mean that this is something that cannot be reasonably understood. I say this because through a prayerful study of the Scriptures, it must be said that each sincere seeker of truth can come to an understanding of this one aspect of the Christian faith that sets it aside from all the other religions of the world. This is that in the person of His beloved Son, our God became flesh and gave His life as atonement for sin for every person that has ever lived. This is the ongoing message of Christianity.
Not the Father but the Son
That God became flesh, dwelt amongst us and died, was resurrected for our eternal redemption, is indeed the message of Christianity but never must it be thought that it was the personage of God the Father that came to earth. It was the Word of God, meaning the Son of God that became incarnate. This was God in the person of His own Son. We shall return to this thought in section nine.
As we noted above, John the gospel writer wrote at the beginning of what is termed the prologue to his gospel (John 1:1-18)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
He then went on to say
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
The majority of Christians would agree that the personality referred to here in John 1:1 as the “God” whom the Word was with - is God the Father. In other words, most Christians would accept that it was not ‘God the Father’ that became flesh but the personality (the personage) of “the Word”. This shows us that “the Word” and the “God” (whom the Word was with) are two separate personalities. Yet as we have already noted, the mystery (and the problem) is that they are both designated God.
An additional aspect to this mystery (also an addition to the ‘problem’) is the Holy Spirit. This is because by many Christians, this divine personality is also regarded as God. This is why most will confess that the Scriptures reveal three personalities of the Godhead. This of course is the belief that initially led to the formulation of the trinity doctrine.
Whilst an explanation of the trinity doctrine is not the prime purpose of this ‘Begotten Series’, the intent is to show how Christ can truly be termed God and yet at the same time be truly the Son of God. In reality, because Christ is begotten of God then He must be God Himself begotten. This is because only God can proceed of God. Note that it is being said here that the Son is God Himself begotten, not ‘a begotten god’. The difference is crucial. The two sentiments Son of God and God begotten are synonymous.
From the above, we have touched on ‘the problem’ from a Scriptural perspective. From section four through to section nine we shall deal with this as a theology. We shall also encounter in the process Seventh-day Adventist history.
An historical perspective
Earlier in this section, it was said that there are two reasons why this ‘begotten’ problem exists today within Seventh-day Adventism. Here is the second reason. It is from the historical perspective.
The historical Christian explanation as to how Christ can be regarded as God, yet also be ‘with God’, is that in His pre-existence He is begotten of God. This means that He is sourced or caused to be of God therefore He is truly the Son of God. Whilst Ellen White was alive, this was the theology professed by Seventh-day Adventists but Seventh-day Adventism today totally rejects this reasoning. This is very clearly seen in their recent denominational literature. We shall see this in section ten.
Within Current Seventh-day Adventist theology, the concept that the pre-existent Christ is begotten (sourced or caused to be) of the Father is firmly rejected. This means that it is not accepted that Christ is truly the Son of God, at least not in His pre-existence. This is the ‘begotten problem’ as seen in its historical sense, meaning that current Seventh-day Adventist theology is out of harmony with early Christianity and with early Seventh-day Adventism.
This is the main reason why this trinity debate exists today within our denomination. It is all a question of whether the early Christians, also the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism, were correct in their understanding of Scripture or is the Seventh-day Adventist Church today correct. One thing we can be sure of is that they all cannot be correct. This is because obviously, a ‘begotten concept’ of Christ is diametrically opposed to an ‘unbegotten concept’. For this reason we need to study this subject for ourselves. We must then decide what to believe on the weight of evidence that we find.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church today says that there is nothing in Scripture to even suggest that Christ is begotten (sourced) of God the Father. We shall briefly encounter this claim later in this section. In section ten we shall take a look at it in more detail.
A nutshell explanation of the historical ‘begotten problem’
As a brief explanation of what is ‘the begotten problem’ from a perspective of history we shall now quote from a number of different sources. These sources reveal the faith of early Christianity, also the faith of early Seventh-day Adventism.
The first of these sources is a letter written by the second century martyr Ignatius. This was written more than 200 years prior to the beginning of the 4th century ‘Arian controversy’. The second source is a letter written by the Bishop of Alexandria. This was at the height of the 4th century ‘Arian controversy’. The third source is a profession of early Christian faith presented at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). This was in an attempt to resolve this Arian controversy. Overall, this will reveal the early Christian faith.
The fourth historical source is the writings of E. J. Waggoner. He was one of the main speakers at the famous 1888 Minneapolis Seventh-day Adventist General Conference session. The fifth historical source is the spirit of prophecy writings, meaning the writings of Ellen White. These latter two sources reveal the faith of early Seventh-day Adventists.
The sixth source is the ‘Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology’ (2000). This will reveal the current ‘official belief’ of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As will be seen later, this latter belief is in total contrast to the other views that are presented (early Christianity and early Seventh-day Adventism). By comparing these differing views, we will see why today within Seventh-day Adventism that this ‘begotten’ problem exists.
The begotten faith of early Christianity (Ignatius)
We shall now look at the first source of our Christian history perspective. This is a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius is believed to have been born around AD 35 (some say a little later). This was shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He lived therefore, during the time of the ‘acts of the apostles’.
Ignatius died as a martyr for his faith. Whilst the exact date is unknown, most commentators agree that it was between AD 98 and AD 110 (an oft cited date is AD 107).
It was at the Coliseum in Rome that Ignatius met his death. He was torn apart by wild beasts. Amongst other reasons for this barbaric act, the Roman authorities probably hoped that this would help deter the continuing rise of the Christian faith.
On the way to his death, Ignatius wrote a number of letters to the believers in different churches. To a great extent, these letters concerned heresies that he regarded as then being attempted to be brought into the Christian faith. To the believers in Trallies (now Aydin) in Turkey he termed those who taught such things as “Christ betrayers” (we shall see more of what he wrote in the next section).
There are a number of disputes regarding the validity of what Ignatius said in these letters (we shall also speak more of this in the next section) but what he is quoted here as saying was in complete harmony with the views of other early Christian writers. In the next two sections we shall see this very clearly. In other words, what we see written by Ignatius was the ‘standard belief’ in early Christianity.
This means that regarding Christ, the Christian church upheld the views of Ignatius. Never did the church say that his views were heretical. If his beliefs had been considered heretical, then the other early Christian writers would have spoken out against him.
To put this in another way again, it is unreasonable to say that Ignatius was believed by the church to be heretical but no literature can be found disagreeing with him. If regarding his beliefs the church had thought him wrong, then we can be sure that by now we would have found documentation to that effect from early Christian writers. As it is, none has been found. It must be accepted therefore that at that time Ignatius wrote his letters (early 2nd century), his beliefs were ‘the norm’ in Christianity.
Ignatius penned these words to the Trallians (this was with respect to those he termed ‘Christ betrayers’)
“For they alienate Christ from the Father, and the law from Christ. They also calumniate His being born of the Virgin; they are ashamed of His cross; they deny His passion; and they do not believe His resurrection. They introduce God as a Being unknown; they suppose Christ to be unbegotten; and as to the Spirit, they do not admit that He exists. Some of them say that the Son is a mere man, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but the same person, and that the creation is the work of God, not by Christ, but by some other strange power.” (Ignatius, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chap. VI)
These ‘Christ betrayers’ as Ignatius termed them (we shall see this in the next section) believed and taught what he considered were all sorts of wrong beliefs concerning the personalities of the Godhead. One of these beliefs was that Christ was not begotten. This gives us a very strong indication that at this time (the beginning of the 2nd century AD), this ‘begotten faith’ was the generally held belief of Christianity.
Note Ignatius said that these heretics “alienate Christ from the Father”, also, very interesting (especially as far as Seventh-day Adventists are concerned) that they alienate “the law from Christ”.
It is very interesting to note that Ignatius is said to have been a convert of John the gospel writer therefore he would have known John’s theology ‘first hand’ so to speak. Both Ignatius and John died around the end of the first century or early part of the second century of Christianity. We can see therefore that even in the very opening decades of the Christian era, this ‘begotten faith’ was held by Christians.
So where did Ignatius and early Christians obtain this faith? The answer must be that they obtained it from the Scriptures (divine revelation). Where else would they have gotten it?
As it says in the online Wikipedia Encyclopaedia
“Saint Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus) (ca. 35-107 ) was the third Bishop or Patriarch of Antioch and a student of the Apostle John. En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of the theology of the earliest Christians.” (Wikipedia Encyclopaedia, Ignatius of Antioch)
The begotten faith of early Christianity (the Bishop of Alexandria)
We shall now take a look at our second source of historical Christianity.
At the height of the 4th century ‘Arian controversy’, the Bishop of Alexandria wrote a letter to the Bishop of Constantinople. It was written to deny what he said were the beliefs of the heretics. It was also as an explanation of his and his follower’s beliefs.
Throughout his letter, Alexander maintains that the Scriptures say, also that the apostolic Church had always taught, that the Father alone is unbegotten and that the Son is begotten of the Father. This confirms that what Ignatius wrote regarding a begotten Christ was not a heretical viewpoint but was the standard faith of early Christianity.
Whilst there is far too much in Alexander’s letter to this effect to be quoted here (we shall see more of it later), in summary he wrote
“We have learnt that the Son is immutable and unchangeable, all-sufficient and perfect, like the Father, lacking only His “unbegotten.” He is the exact and precisely similar image of His Father. For it is clear that the image fully contains everything by which the greater likeness exists, as the Lord taught us when He said, ‘My Father is greater than I.” (The ecclesiastical history of Theodoret, Book 1, Chapter 3, page 39 ‘The Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople’)
According to Alexander, the only difference between the Father and Son is that the Son is not unbegotten meaning that the Son is begotten of the Father. Apart from this, according to Alexander’s reasoning, both of these divine personalities are exactly the same.
Notice too that this bishop says that the Father is “the greater likeness”. In other words, the Son has His source in the Father therefore in this sense only the Father is the greatest, or to put it another way again, apart from one being unbegotten and the other begotten of the unbegotten, there is no difference between the two divine personalities. This indeed was the faith of early Christianity. It was the faith that the Son of God was the express image (the exact likeness) of the Father. We shall see more of this as we go along.
When this letter was written by Alexander (early 4th century), the Arian controversy was raging. This was a dispute regarding whether the Son was ‘eternally’ (everlastingly) begotten of the Father or was He begotten at a point in eternity. It also revolved around whether the Son was of (meaning belonging to) the same substance of the Father or was He of like or similar substance. It was this dispute that led to the first ecumenical council of Nicaea being convened in AD 325.
The important thing to remember here, particularly for the purposes of our study, is that both sides in this dispute believed that the Son is begotten of God. In this 4th century Christ debate therefore, the begotten concept was not an issue (not a problem). This is because it was the common belief held within Christianity.
This same bishop then said (this was in defence of the belief that the Son was eternally begotten – not begotten at a point in eternity)
“And in accordance with this we believe that the Son always existed of the Father; for he is the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His Father’s Person.” (Ibid)
Alexander was obviously quoting from Hebrews 1:3. It is also obvious, seeing that he said that the Son is not unbegotten, that he is saying that the Son was begotten in “the express image of His Father’s person”.
This word “person” (Gr. hupostasis) is extremely important. It means ‘the under-girding – what makes something what it is. We shall return our thoughts to this in section five. This will be the second part of our theological study.
This bishop then said
“But let no one be led by the word ‘always’ to imagine that the Son is unbegotten, as is thought by some who have their intellects blinded: for to say that He was, that He has always been, and that before all ages, is not to say that He is unbegotten.” (Ibid)
Alexander is simply saying that because Christ is said to have eternally existed (this is the belief maintained in any version of the trinity doctrine), it does not mean that He is unbegotten (not sourced of the Father). In fact the bishop said that those who maintain that Christ is unbegotten (meaning not begotten/not sourced of the Father) “have their intellects blinded”. So it was that when the original (orthodox) trinitarian doctrine was formulated, it said that the Son is ‘everlastingly’ begotten of the Father. This was the concept that was depicted in the eventually accepted creed of Nicaea (AD 325). This creed later formed the basis of the original/orthodox trinity doctrine.
Important to recognise here is that like most church leaders at that time, Alexander’s language would have been Greek (Koine the common Greek tongue) therefore to understand the New Testament Scriptures (which most likely would have been originally written in the common Greek although some believe Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Hebrew) neither he nor his fellow leaders, or those in opposition to him (the Arians), needed to translate them from one language to another. In other words, these Greek speaking church leaders (bishops/parish priests etc) well understood the language of the New Testament Scriptures. Greek was the common language at that time. We shall elaborate on this in the next section.
Interesting to note here is that in another translation of this letter (as a different rendering to “having their intellects blinded”), Alexander says that those who believe that the Son is unbegotten are “deficient in intellectual power" (as quoted in A. T. Jones ‘The Two Republics’ Page 333).
From this we can see very clearly that Alexander had little regard for those who said that the Son was not begotten.
As has been said previously, it was this ‘begotten concept’ of Christ that made Him not only a true Son but also truly God. Without this concept, some might say that He was being depicted as ‘another god’. It was this begotten concept that made the Son the one and the same God as He was with, yet a separate personality from the Father (recall to mind John 1:1).
The begotten faith of early Christianity (Council of Nicaea)
Our third historical source also reveals the faith of early Christianity.
As we have already noted, the very first Christian ecumenical Council ever held was at Nicaea in AD 325. This was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine. It was an attempt by him to resolve a continuing dispute within the church regarding Christ (the Arian controversy). This began when a parish priest by the name of Arius objected to what his bishop was teaching. This bishop was the one from whose letter we have just quoted from above, namely Alexander of Alexandria. This is why Alexander wrote it. It was to confirm and expound his beliefs in opposition to the ‘Arians’.
During the early part of the 4th century, this ‘Christ dispute’ was causing a major rift within the Christian church. This is why Constantine, newly espoused to the Christian faith, attempted to resolve it.
It appears to some that this emperor regarded Christianity as a means of ‘welding together’ his ailing empire, meaning that he would have regarded this dispute as an issue that was obstructing him from achieving his purposes. After failing by various means to bring an end to this dispute (such as writing letters to Alexander and Arius) he resorted to calling this ecumenical council.
At the Council of Nicaea there were three major ‘parties’ involved. There were those whom today we normally term the ‘Arians’ (now known as the non or anti-trinitarians) and there were those who belonged to Alexander’s group (these were the up and coming trinitarians). There were also those who were ‘middle of the road’ meaning that this group did not particularly side with either of the two other parties.
This ‘middle of the road’ group was by far the largest of the three parties. In other words, the majority of the bishops at this council were not committed to the extremes of either of the two opposing factions (the Arians or the Alexandrians). This shows us that up to this time, this ‘Christ problem’ had not existed as such. It had only been brought about by the Bishop of Alexander. This was as he attempted to expound what we now know as trinitarian concepts of Christ. This is what brought about the objections from Arius and hence the dispute.
During this council, Eusebius the Bishop of Caesarea (as the spokesman for the middle of the road group) attempted to settle it by submitting a confession of faith that according to some sources was an old Palestinian confession. It seems it had been used in instructing converts to Christianity and had doubled as a baptismal confession. Eusebius obviously hoped that it would suit everyone present at the council and therefore restore harmony again. It was in fact a ‘middle of the road’, non-controversial confession of faith. The reason why I say this is because the vast majority present at this council (if not all) would have believed it.
The problem was that whilst this ‘confession’ suited the Arians and also the ‘middle of the road’ group, meaning it suited the vast majority at this council, it did not suit the ‘up and coming’ trinitarians. This is because whilst they would have believed what it said, it also allowed for the beliefs of the Arians. In other words, this confession that Eusebius presented was theologically correct but was ‘too elastic’ - too ‘all embracing’.
Whilst we will not go into any more details here, suffice to say that this was rejected and another submitted (and eventually accepted) that condemned the Arians. This formed the basis of the orthodox trinity doctrine that came later.
As far as our studies here are concerned, it is very interesting to examine the confession of faith that Eusebius presented at the council. We can read this today because in explanation of what had happened at Nicaea, He later included it in a letter to his parishioners.
He wrote to them saying
“As we have received from the Bishops who preceded us, and in our first catechizings, and when we received baptism, and as we have learned from the divine Scriptures, and as we constantly believed and taught as presbyter and bishop, so believing also at the time present, we report to you our faith, and it is this:” (Eusebius, letter to his church, as quoted in J. Stevenson’s ‘A New Eusebius’ revised by W. H. C. Frend)
Eusebius informed his parishioners that the confession of faith that he personally had presented at Nicaea was the very same faith as what he had been teaching them. He also said that it was what the other bishops before him had been teaching. This therefore had been the consistent faith of what we term today ‘early Christianity’.
Notice that Eusebius said it was the faith that they as Christian leaders had “learned from the divine Scriptures” and had “constantly believed and taught”. This faith therefore was ‘the norm’. In other words, what Eusebius said he had presented at Nicaea (the old Palestinian confession) was, at that time, the common faith of Christianity. It was not something new. Obviously, what Alexander and his group were pushing for (the up and coming trinitarians) was something new. Certainly it was not generally believed then by Christians. It was therefore to Christianity, a new theology.
Eusebius continued in his letter to his parishioners (this is the confession of faith he presented at the council)
“We believe in One God, Father Almighty, the Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in One lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, Only - begotten Son, first-born of all creation,’ before all the ages begotten from the Father, by whom also all things were made; who for our salvation was incarnate, and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again the third day, and ascended to the Father, and will come again in glory to judge living and dead. And we believe also in One Holy Spirit.” (Ibid)
This very early confession of Christian faith says that the Son is “begotten from the Father” “before all ages” (some translations say ‘before all time’ or ‘before all worlds’). This ‘begotten faith’ therefore was the common continuing faith of very early Christianity. As has been said before, everyone at this council would have agreed with it.
Whilst Ellen White was alive, this very same faith was also the faith of Seventh-day Adventists. This was also the faith, because it said Christ is begotten of God, that says He is truly the Son of God and is therefore God Himself. This was in keeping with early Christianity.
As has been said previously, the creed that was eventually submitted and accepted at Nicaea (this is the creed that later became the basis of the orthodox trinity faith) said that Christ was ‘eternally or everlastingly begotten of the Father. This was one part of the creed with which the original ‘Arians’, also the ‘old time’ pioneers of Seventh-day Adventists, did not agree. This was that the Son, as a separate personality from God the Father, had always been begotten. They believed instead that as a separate personality from God the Father (meaning as a Son) He was begotten in eternity, too far back for the human mind to even imagine it. This was like saying that He had existed from ‘the days of eternity’. We shall come back to this latter thought later.
The begotten faith of early Seventh-day Adventists
The fourth source for the summary of our historical perspective is the one-time ‘begotten faith’ of Seventh-day Adventists. This is where we shall quote from E. J. Waggoner, one of the main speakers at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference. His much read book ‘Christ and His Righteousness’ (1890) is said to depict his message. We shall quote from that book now.
On page 9 when asking the question of how we should consider Christ he penned these words
The Word was “in the beginning”. The mind of man cannot grasp the ages that are spanned in this phrase.” (E. J. Waggoner, ‘Christ and His Righteousness’, page 9, ‘How shall we consider Christ?’ 1890)
This was in keeping with the confession of faith that Eusebius of Caesarea had submitted at Nicaea (see above). In 1888, this appears to have been the common faith of Seventh-day Adventists (see section twenty, section twenty-one, section twenty-two and section twenty-three of the detailed history series)
Waggoner then said with respect to ‘how and when’ the Son of God was begotten of His Father
“It is not given to men to know when or how the Son was begotten; but we know that He was the Divine Word, not simply before He came to this earth to die, but even before the world was created.” (Ibid)
As we shall see more clearly in following sections, Waggoner’s reasoning as to ‘how’ the Son was begotten was also in keeping with early Christianity. In other words, no confession was made as to understanding the ‘mechanics’ of it.
“We know that Christ “proceeded forth and come from God” (John 8:42) but it was so far back in the ages of eternity as to be far beyond the grasp of the mind of man.” (Ibid)
On page 21 of this same book, Waggoner confirms what he had said previously.
“There was a time when Christ proceeded forth and came from God, from the bosom of the Father (John 8:42 and 1:18) but that time was so far back in the days of eternity that to finite comprehension it is practically without beginning. (Ibid, page 21-22, ‘Is Christ a created being?’)
He then added in confirmation
“But the point is that Christ is a begotten Son and not a created subject.” (Ibid page 22)
Whilst Ellen White was alive, this was the generally accepted faith of Seventh-day Adventists. It was also part and parcel of the message of Minneapolis that Ellen White endorsed.
Some may say that Ellen White did not agree with everything that Waggoner said at Minneapolis (which is very true) therefore she may not have agreed with his ‘begotten Christ’ concept. We shall see now, from her writings, that this reasoning is totally unfounded. This will constitute our fifth historical source.
The begotten faith of early Seventh-day Adventists (spirit of prophecy)
In the Signs of the Times, also in writing as to why Christ is truly the divine Son of God, Ellen White wrote in 1895 (note this was 7 years after the Minneapolis General Conference also near the completion of compiling ‘The Desire of Ages’)
“A complete offering has been made; for "God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son,"-- not a son by creation, as were the angels, nor a son by adoption, as is the forgiven sinner, but a Son begotten in the express image of the Father's person, and in all the brightness of his majesty and glory, one equal with God in authority, dignity, and divine perfection. In him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, 30th May 1895, ‘Christ our complete salvation’)
In the Scriptures, there are many who are termed ‘sons of God’. These are angels who have been created by God (Job 38:6-7) and Christians who have been adopted by God (John 1:12). Here Ellen White contrasts them with Christ by saying that He was begotten of God. Christ therefore is the unique one, the only one caused to be (begotten) of God.
It is because He is ‘the only begotten of God’ that makes Christ unique amongst all these other sons of God. In other words, these ‘others’ are not said to be begotten of God but created or adopted by Him. In contrast, Christ is the only begotten (Son) of God, or ‘the only one of His kind’. We shall see more of this in the theological sections. This is when again we shall be looking at this statement of Ellen White.
Another aspect of this statement is that a ‘created’ or an ‘adopted Christ’ were two heretical beliefs that were attempted to be brought into the early Christian faith. By saying that Christ is begotten, Ellen White was refuting both of these heresies.
Ellen White said that Christ is the Son of God because He is begotten. Note that the second time she used this word (begotten), she was not using it as she did the first time as a descriptive word (an adjective) but as a verb (a ‘happening’ word). In other words she is saying that because Christ is begotten (obviously of the Father) He is the Son of God.
Note also that she says more specifically that He was a Son “begotten in the express image of the Father's person” (see Hebrews 1:3). This was exactly the same reasoning as the 4th century bishop of Alexandria (see his letter above). As has been said previously, we shall come back to this word “person” later in the theological studies. It is very important.
Ellen White made this statement after receiving 50 years of revelation from God. It was obviously in harmony with what He had revealed to her. It was also at that time in harmony with the generally held belief of Seventh-day Adventists.
If it is doubted that Ellen White meant that Christ is literally begotten (sourced) of God, then all that needs to be done is to take a quick look at what she wrote just six weeks later. This time it was in the Review and Herald. Take note that at this time, Ellen White was still in Australia.
“The Eternal Father, the unchangeable one, gave his only begotten Son, tore from his bosom Him who was made in the express image of his person, and sent him down to earth to reveal how greatly he loved mankind." (Ellen G. White, Review & Herald 9th July 1895 ‘The Duty of the Minister and the People’)
Here we can see that instead of using the word ‘begotten’ (as the second time), Ellen White uses the word “made”.
As in the previous statement, she first uses “begotten” as an adjective (a describing word) and then “made” as a verb (a happening word). It is obvious that in her thinking, this “made” concept is the same as the “begotten” in her previous statement. This means that in the mind of Ellen White, ‘begotten” (made) was a happening in ages past. Again remember that this was after receiving revelations from God for over 50 years.
Notice too she said that this ‘making’ (producing), just as she said of being begotten, was in the “express image” of God’s “person”. This is something that is obviously very important.
As here expressed through the spirit of prophecy, this ‘begotten faith’ was the faith of early Seventh-day Adventists. This remained the same for decades after the death of Ellen White. This is the same ‘faith’ that shortly after God’s messenger passed from the scene, openly came under attack from within our own denomination. As a denomination, this eventually led to us accepting the trinity doctrine. This of course was not as the original (orthodox) trinity doctrine, which as we have already noted was totally based on the Son being the begotten of God (see above) but that all three personalities are all unbegotten. This unbegotten view of Christ is the same view that the Bishop of Alexander did not regard with very much esteem. He said that it was only believed by those who “have their intellects blinded” (see above).
We now need to move on to our sixth source in summary of our historical perspective and see what Seventh-day Adventists today (2008) are officially said to believe. This will show us where the real problem is today.
Official current Seventh-day Adventism
In the official Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist theology (this is the official exposition of what Seventh-day Adventists are said to believe), Fernando Canale, in summary of what he has previously said, puts it this way
“There is, therefore, no ground within the biblical understanding of the Godhead for the idea of a generation of the Son from the Father.” (Fernando Canale, Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopaedia, Volume 12, page 125, ‘The doctrine of God’)
He also says on the same page
“In the Bible, therefore, no ground is found for the idea that there is an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father or that the divine reality of the Father has in any way a primacy of origin over the divine reality of the Son”. (Ibid)
Regarding whether Christ is truly the pre-existent Son of God or not, this really does sum up the current official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This says that He is not begotten (sourced) of the Father therefore He is not truly a son, at least not in His pre-existence.
This of course is in direct opposition to the faith of early Christianity. It is also in opposition to that which was believed by early Seventh-day Adventists, even up to the time that Ellen White died. We have also seen that it is also contrary to what we have been told through Ellen White (through the spirit of prophecy).
In contrast to this past begotten faith, current Seventh-day Adventist theology says that Christ is one of three unbegotten divine beings in one triune (trinity) structure that is called God. For confirmation of this, see fundamental belief No. 2 of their 28 fundamental beliefs (‘Seventh-day Adventists believe’ page 16). Note this trinity belief is separate from beliefs No. 3 (Ibid page 29), No.4 (Ibid page 37) and No. 5 (Ibid page 59) which respectively refers to the individual personalities of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Officially, Seventh-day Adventists today deny any type of Sonship within the Godhead. This is because they deny the ‘begotten faith’.
As well as from a Scriptural perspective, we can now see ‘the begotten problem’ from an historical standpoint. It is simply that Seventh-day Adventism today is completely out of harmony with early Christianity and with early Seventh-day Adventism. This is one of the main reasons why within our denomination today we have a trinity debate.
It must be said that this does not automatically make current Seventh-day Adventist theology wrong. It may have been that early Christianity, also early Seventh-day Adventists, also Ellen White, had it wrong concerning Christ. This is something that every individual needs to decide for him or her self. It must be determined by the weight of evidence available.
This ‘Begotten Series’ therefore is to help people (primarily I would think Seventh-day Adventists) to better understand this begotten issue.
Note that in all of this there is a parallel. This is that concerning the person of Christ, early Christianity began with a very simple begotten faith, after which it developed a more complex philosophical (outside of Scripture) faith. This latter faith said that Christ was ‘eternally’ (everlastingly) begotten of God making Him as a personality coeternal with the Father. It then went further by saying that the Holy Spirit was a personality worthy of worship and eventually developed a trinity doctrine (the one we term orthodoxy).
Exactly the same has happened within Seventh-day Adventism. Our faith concerning Christ began as a simple begotten belief. It later developed into Christ being coeternal with the Father and then, after making the Holy Spirit appear to be a person like God and Christ, which was not believed during the time of Ellen White’s ministry, it eventually evolved into full blown trinitarianism. This I find is really very interesting.
What is also interesting is that the original (orthodox) trinity doctrine became (and still is) the core belief of the vast majority of apostate Christianity (especially the Papacy) whilst the non-orthodox trinity doctrine, as espoused by certain protestant denominations, has now become the core belief of Seventh-day Adventism.
This trinity history is elaborated on more fully in the paper ‘A research paper on the history of the trinity doctrine within the early Christian Church and within Seventh-day Adventism’.
The next section
If anyone reading this paper has already been involved with these Seventh-day Adventist ‘trinity discussions’, they will appreciate that to a very great extent, the ‘begotten debate’ revolves around the Greek word ‘monogenes’. This is why, before we move on to taking a look at this word from a Scriptural perspective, we shall be taking a look at what the early Christians believed concerning Christ. This is because the Greek speaking Christians would have well understood the meaning of their own language. They would also have acquired their beliefs through a study of the Scriptures. We shall be looking at this in the next two sections.
My prayer is that overall, this ‘Begotten Series’ may be a blessing to you, also that it will help you in your understanding of the love of God that has been revealed through His Son.
God bless you as you read and study.
In closing I would ask that if you know of others who may be interested in this study then please send them either this page or the link to this website.
As you consider this request, please remember that before He returned to His Father in Heaven, Jesus did say to His followers
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” John 8:32
He also admonished each one of us to
“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give” Matthew 10:8
Whilst not everyone has been given the gift of healing or the gift of casting out devils, we have all been given the ability to freely share with others what God has freely shared with us. If therefore you know of someone whom you believe may benefit from this study then please consider passing it on.
Initial publication – 29th November 2007
Last edited – 29th May 2008
© T. M. Hill 2007
“When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either quit being mistaken or cease to be honest!" (Source unknown)
Last Updated (Wednesday, 21 July 2010 02:49)