The inter-relation between Non-Trinitarianism and Conditionalism in early Adventism

Posted Oct 03, 2011 by Bobby B in General

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the inter-relation between Conditionalism and non-Trinitarianism.  Most church leaders, and members do NOT understand this relation because of Leroy Froom’s powerful effort and influence to disassociate these two doctrines.  Leave this for another article.  The significance of this relation is clearly seen when realizing that Adventist leaders were both Conditionalists, and non-Trinitarian BEFORE they were Sabbatarian.  Not only this, it was by understanding and accepting the doctrine of Conditionalism that directly influenced them to reject Trinitarianism and become anti-Trinitarian.  This realization dispels at least four popular myths promoted by Froom, and most modern SDA scholars.

1.  The early SDA’s did not study the subject of the Trinity very much.  They were confused about what “version” of Trinitarianism they were opposing.  Therefore, they would not necessarily be in disagreement with modern Adventism’s “Biblical Trinity”.
2. Non-Trinitarianism was never a foundational “Pillar” for SDA’s.  It was a “minority opinion” of “a few key leaders”, (Froom), or it was entirely “optional” because of no official creed.
3.  Trinitarianism and Conditionalism are compatible, companion doctrines.  There is no contradiction between the two teachings.
4.  Ellen White NEVER reproved ANY of her non-Trinitarian co-workers or family for their beliefs because she did not want to appear like she was attacking the fundamental SDA belief of Conditionalism.

The following quotation is from the book, “The Sanctuary and the Atonement, Biblical, Historical and Theological Studies” Prepared by the Biblical Research Committee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, pages 530-533.

“First, Stephenson's objections to Trinitarianism were related not only to the atonement but also to the question of the soul's immortality. His views on both Trinitarianism and Conditionalism are traceable, in part at least, to Henry Grew, who, via the writings of his disciple George Storrs, influenced many Millerites to adopt conditionalism. Conditionalism has always been a major feature of Sabbatarian Adventism. Conditionalism influenced early Adventists to be anti-Trinitarian.”
[emphasis supplied].

This is a VERY candid admission from the BRI.  In fact, I don’t think they realize the extent of its significance.  Notice the following as listed.
1.  Objections to “Trinitarianism were related not only to the atonement but also to the question of the soul's immortality.” The early SDA’s rejected Trinitarianism because Trinitarianism is based upon the same Greek dualistic presupositions as the natural immortality of the soul, and the eternal torment of the wicked.  This has been candidly admitted by many modern SDA scholars (excepting Leroy Froom; search book for "dualism").

"A major development [in Adventism] since 1972 has been the quest to articulate biblical presuppositions grounding a biblical doctrine of the Trinity, clearly differentiated from the dualistic presuppositions that undergird the traditional creedal statements."[52]
"In many ways the philosophical assumptions and presuppositions of our worldview are different from traditional Christianity and bring different perspectives on some of these old issues. We do not accept the traditional Platonic dualistic worldview and metaphysics that were foundational to the church fathers' theology of the Trinity, one of these being the concept of the immortality of the soul."[53]

Some modern SDA’s contend that since we have removed the dualistic presupositions from our “version” of the Trinity; Adventists have the only legitimate “Biblical Trinity” in comparison with the Catholic and Protestant versions of the same.  On the other hand, other SDA scholars would argue the contrary.  When you remove Greek dualism from classical Trinitarianism, what remains is NOT Trinitarianism at all; rather another “version” of non-Trinitarianism.

In her earliest writings she [EGW] differed from some aspects of traditional trinitarianism and in her latest writings she still strongly opposed some aspects of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity."[48]

"But I would like to say, I think there were seven non-orthodox, which means those who did not hold their brand of Trinitarianism, which we reject today, along with them. So, we probably would have been branded as Arian by the orthodox."[49]

The dualistic presuppositions of classic Trinitarianism are admitted by non-Adventist scholars involved in the debate:

"Just as opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity have long claimed that the doctrine is a result of Platonic philosophy, the conditionalists claim that the "traditionalists" have borrowed the concept of the soul's existence after death from the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul, even though this is denied by the other side."  (Hell: Traditionalist vs. Conditionalist Views, by Randall Watters).

2. “His [most early SDA’s] views on both Trinitarianism and Conditionalism are traceable, in part at least, to Henry Grew, who, via the writings of his disciple George Storrs, influenced many Millerites to adopt conditionalism.”  (ibid). Henry Grew, who had both Unitarian and Christian Connexion church ties, was an untiring advocate of non-Trinitarian Conditionalism.  Among his most famous works are:  An examination of the divine testimony concerning the character of the son of God, by Henry Grew, (1824).  Notice the texts that relate to “immortality” as quoted from Grew’s tract.

“Although the Son of God, who is King in Zion, is honoured with appropriate titles of dignity and glory, he is distinguished from "the only true God," by the following titles of supremacy which belong to "the invisible God" alone.
The eternal God. Deut. xxxiii. 27.
Most high God. Mark v. 7. Dan. v. 18.
God alone. Ps. Ixxxvi. 10. Isa. xxxvii. 16. Lord alone. Neb. ix. 6.
God of heaven. Dan. ii. 44. Besides me there is no God. Isa. xliv. 6. Who only hath immortality. 1 Tim. vi. 16. The only true God. John xvii. 3. The King eternal, immortal, invisible. 1 Tim. 1. 17. The only wise God. 1 “Tim. 1:17. Lord God omnipotent. Rev. xix. 6. Blessed and only Potentate. 1 Tim. vi. 15.* One God and Father of all. Eph. iv. 6. The only Lord God. Jude 4. There is but one God, the Father. 1 Cor. viii. 6. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Cor. xi.31.”
(pp. 47-48).

We quote Grew because most early SDA’s, like Henry grew and others from the Christian Connexion, applied these verses to the Father alone.  Another popular, and influential tract by Henry Grew is “An Appeal To Pious Trinitarians”, (1837).  For those interested in other writings by Henry Grew regarding Conditionalism, and anti-Trinitarianism you can find them here.

3.  Quoting again from the BRI book:  “Conditionalism has always been a major feature of Sabbatarian Adventism.” In reality, it was non-Trinitarian-Conditionalism that “has always been a major feature of Sabbatarian Adventism.”  Both early Adventists, and early SDA’s, learned, and taught Condionalism within a non-Trinitarian context.  This disproves entirely the myth that non-Trinitarianism was NOT a foundational, fundamental “Pillar” of Adventism.  It wasn’t just the State of the dead, it was the non-Trinitarian state of the dead.

4.  “Conditionalism influenced early Adventists to be anti-Trinitarian.” (ibid). Now let this sink in.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  It was through intensive study of Biblical Conditionalism, that influenced them to reject Trinitarianism.  They viewed the two teachings to be based upon the same dualistic, presupposed speculations.  These suppositions are entirely incompatible, and contradictory too Biblical revelation.  If "Conditionalism influenced early Adventists to be anti-Trinitarian”; then why hasn't the "same" Conditionalism influenced modern Adventists to be anti- Trinitarian?   Because modern Adventism has changed, and reinterpreted the proof texts, and the "process" of how immortality is given man (thanks too Dr. Froom).  Trinitarian-Conditionalism is explained in a radically different manner than the non-Trinitarian version of the same.

5.  “Her statement in DA, p. 530, ‘In Christ was life, original, unborrowed, underived,’ caused consternation in the 1890s, but it also nudged Adventism effectively toward appreciation for a concept of Trinitarianism that was consonant with Conditionalism.” (
“The Sanctuary and the Atonement", BRI).

In other words after the 1890’s Adventism began to search for a “concept of Trinitarianism that was” consistent, and non-contradictory with Conditionalism.  The problem is they never found such Trinitarianism.  That’s the whole point in summation:  All “versions” of Trinitarianism are contradictory, and incompatible with Biblical Conditionalism.  The primary reason why SDA’s are unaware of this fact, as stated before, is because of Froom’s disassociation of non-Trinitarianism from Conditionalism, and his re-association of the same with Nicene-Trinitarianism.

Although many, many examples could be cited, the following two are a classic example of how SDA’s understood, and preached Conditionalism.

"That God is the fountain and source of immortality is plain from the statement of Paul. He speaks thus of God the Father: 'Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen nor can see; to whom be honor and power everlasting; Amen.' 1 Tim. 6:16. This text is evidently designed to teach that the self existent God is the only being who, of himself, possesses this wonderful nature. Others may possess it as derived from him, but he alone is the fountain of immortality. "Our Lord Jesus Christ is the source of this life to us. 'For as the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.' John 5:26. 'As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.' John 6:57. The Father gives us this life in His Son. 'And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.' 1Jn 5:11,12. These Scriptures do clearly indicate that Christ is the source of endless life, and that those only have this who have Christ."  (J.N.ANDREWS, Review and Herald, Jan. 27, 1874 p.52.)

"719.—— READING OF 2 THESS. 1:10 —CHRIST'S IMMORTALITY. “2. Does 1 Tim. 1:14-16 teach that God only by nature has immortality, and that Christ did not have it till it was bestowed upon him by the Father?  J. F. A. “...(2) The expression 'that God "only hath immortality," in the sense of being originally the supreme fountain and source of all life, must be true in the very nature of the case if he antedates all other beings. Christ had a beginning. John 1 :1. But that was not like the beginning of other intelligences in the universe, which are all creations of Christ himself.  Col. 1 : 16. He was not a created being, but "proceeded forth and came from God." John 8 :42. He is the only begotten Son of the Father. John 1: 14, 18.  By nature, then, he is co-equal with God. From the beginning of his existence he must have been as essentially, immortal as God; and yet it all came from God. So Christ says that, "As the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself." John 5: 26. No others have immortality, except as God and Christ bestow it upon them.” (R.H. December 22, 1896, p. 813, presumably by Uriah Smith).

In 1888, E. J. Waggoner presented an article entitled "Immortality".  Please notice the progression of texts, and the clear distinction between the Father, and His Son.  This is a very nice example of how SDA's interpreted these Bible passages (in the past).

“Let us have some more plain declarations. In 1 Tim. 6:12 Paul charges Timothy to 'fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.' A man cannot 'lay hold' of something that he already has hold of.  And how should he 'lay hold' on eternal life? By exercising faith; and this again is in harmony with Christ's words in John 3:16, 36. The apostle then charges Timothy to 'keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; which in his times he shall show, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see.' Verses 13-16. This language must refer to God the Father, for although Christ in Revelation is called 'King of kings and Lord of lords,' it is he in this instance who is going to make known the 'blessed and only Potentate;' and further, the one here spoken of is one 'whom no man hath seen, nor can see;' but Christ has been seen many times.

"But to the main point of the statement. It is that God only hath immortality. So long as the Bible remains, this text will be a standing rebuke to those who claim immortality as theirs by right. That is an attribute of God alone. 'But,' says one, 'is not Christ immortal? and do we not read of the angels that they cannot die?' Yes; and we turn to John 5:26 and read Christ's words: 'For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.' Christ, then, being the only begotten Son of God, partakes of his attributes, and has life in himself. That is, he is able to impart life to others. The text in Timothy does not shut off any one from obtaining immortality, but if it is obtained it must be as a gift from God. It is in this way that the angels are immortal.”
(E.J. WAGGONER, The Present Truth, April 19, 1888, p. 117). For those who want a clue, the above texts are ONLY partially quoted today, and are NOT interpreted as applying to God the Father exclusively.

For the sake of brevity, I will now shortly list some relations between Conditionalism and non-Trinitarianism.
1.  God “only hath immortality” is one of the foundational texts upon which Conditionalism is based.  The primary need is to IDENTIFY Who this “God” is.  Consistently SDA’s applied this text to the Father exclusively.

2.  Does this mean the Son does NOT have immortality?  "As the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself." John 5: 26. No others have immortality, except as God and Christ bestow it upon them.”  (as quoted above).  When was this “given”?  When He was “begotten” in eternity.

3.  How does this “derived immortality” relate to the incarnation of Christ?  Trinitarianism teaches "immutability" (God is not subject to change).  Early SDA’s believed “the Word became flesh” in a literal way, and this was a big “change” for the Son of God.  One distinction between Father and Son is that the pre-existent Son was capable of such mutation while the Father was not.

4.  How does mutability relate to the nature of Christ during His incarnation?  Trinitarianism teaches the “impeccability” of Christ.  Impeccability means that it was NOT possible for Christ to sin while on earth.  All SDA’s believed this as a possibility.  How could they believe such?  They rejected Trinitarianism.

5.  How does a mutable, and the possibly, peccable nature of Christ relate to Conditionalism, and Trinitarianism?  I will quote again from the BRI book for illustration.

“Stephenson dealt with Trinitarianism when he discussed Christ's fitness to offer God an adequate atonement. Trinitarians, he charged, ‘claim that the Son of God had three distinct natures at the same time; viz., a human body, a human soul, united with his Divine nature: the body being mortal, the soul immortal, the Divinity co-equal, co-existent, and co-eternal with the everlasting Father. Now, none of the advocates of this theory, claim that either his soul or Divinity died, that the body was the only part of this triple being which actually died “the death of the cross;” hence, according to this view (which makes the death of Christ the grand atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world) we only have the sacrifice of the most inferior part — the human body — of the Son of God.”

“In place of so inadequate a sacrifice as a mere human body, Stephenson (and other early Sabbatarian Adventists) taught a Christ who was able to offer God the death of a whole man, body and soul – yet not of an ordinary man by any means. Christ, in Stephenson's thought, was created somewhere in eternity in the special sense of being ‘only begotten.’ He was deathless, divine, and Son of God before His incarnation. At His incarnation, His divinity did not take on humanity, as Trinitarians claimed; it was exchanged for humanity while Jesus nonetheless remained the Son of God. He ‘did not lose his personal identity in his transition from God to man.’ Said Stephenson, commenting on John 1:14, ‘The Word was made flesh.' The natural import of this language is, that the only begotten of the Father, was actually converted into flesh, . . . that the Divine nature was made human; nay, that the very substance of which he was originally composed was converted into flesh.” (ibid).

While there are many points in the above quote that could be noted; for this article it must be admitted that one’s understanding of non-Trinitarian-Conditionalism directly affects your perception of the incarnation, nature, and death of Christ. and resurrection.  All of which directly relate to one’s perception and value of the Atonement. This fact is recognized by prominent, non-Adventist modern scholars currently involved in the Conditionalist debate.

“I pointed out to him that Fudge has never made the claim attributed to him, but instead taught that the person of Christ truly died, and not merely one of his natures as Peterson asserted. Peterson toned down the accusation in Two Views, saying that Fudge’s position would lead to one of two possibilities, one that Jesus’ whole person died (which, in Peterson’s view, is anti-Trinitarian), and the other that his humanity but not his divinity died.” (Glenn Peoples, 2007)

6.  It is also important to note that through the study of "the state of the dead" in relation to the nature of man; every text relating to "soul" and "spirit" are examined in detail.  This study is directly related to the understanding of "the Holy Spirit."  Through this process, early SDA's discovered the "Spirit" is to God; what the "spirit" is to man.  Again, the rejection of Greek dualism:  The Spirit being an entirely separate entity.

This final quotation is from Woodrow Whidden as it is very similar to the BRI statements regarding the relation between Conditonalism, and non-Trinitarianism.

"What was somewhat curious (and in need of some further explanation) is why she [EGW] never directly attacked anyone who held to this dominant Arian expression, but then seemed to be willing to go against such a grain with her own positive testimony to the full deity of Christ...

"Influenced primarily by the Millerite George Storrs, most early Seventh-day Adventists had been converted to conditionalism (including Ellen White and her family during their Millerite experience). Such views were fervently held--in clear opposition to the regnant immortal soulism. This monistic, more unitive understanding of human nature caused a somewhat complex reaction to Trinitarian emphases, especially as it related to their understanding of the nature of Christ and the meaning of His atoning death...

"This could also explain some of the lack of forthright Trinitarian testimony from Ellen White in the early years: she did not want to give the appearance of attacking either the firmly held doctrine of conditionalism or the truth that Christ as a human soul really did die an atoning death on the cross; His death was not the expiration of a mere physical body."
(Arianism, Adventism and Methodism: The Healing of Trinitarian Teaching and Soteriology* by Woodrow Whidden, PhD., Professor of Religion at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan).  [emphasis in brackets, and underline supplied].

Proffesor Whidden’s article is worthy of reading.  Yet, his explanation of WHY EGW never publicly, or privately disagreed with all her co-workers regarding their non-Trinitarian-Conditionalism is much more easily, and rationally explained.  If Ellen White promoted Trinitarianism of any kind; she would be “attacking” BOTH “the firmly held doctrine of Conditionalism” and “the truth that Christ as a human soul really did die an atoning death on the cross; His death was not the expiration of a mere physical body."  If SDA's are teaching Conditionalism today, why does it NOT cause the SAME "complex reaction to Trinitarian emphases" that the early SDA's experienced?  It's NOT the same Conditionalism!

One final quotation from the BRI, also found in the “Open Face” from restitution ministries.

“Whatever criticism may be leveled at early Adventist anti-Trinitarianism, it cannot fairly be accused of intending to downgrade our Lord. It labored lovingly to upgrade popular conceptions of the atonement. Movement of Destiny need not have been embarrassed!“

One final question to ponder.  It's been over fifty years since "Questions on Doctrine" was published.  The reactions of the perceived and real changes in SDA doctrine have shaken the denomination worldwide.  Dozens of independent ministries formed as a direct result.  Hundreds of books were written in protest of these doctrinal changes.  Yet, (to the best of my knowledge), no-one has accused QOD of changing SDA's "understanding", and "Biblical explanation" of Conditionalism...until now.  I am reluctant to speculate about the extent of this significance.  If, and when verified, the doctrinal change of Conditionalism could be the single most important historical discovery within Adventism in decades or more.  It is left with the reader to determine the truth or error of these conclusions.