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Ellen White's Pro-Trinitarian Quotations: a Brief, Yet Comprehensive Explanation

Posted Oct 05, 2010 by Bobby B in General
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If the early Adventist church was unanimously non-trinitarian, and the modern Adventist church is avowedly Trinitarian, how did this monumental change come about?  The standard denominational answer is simply:  Ellen White changed the denominational belief about the Trinity mainly by her quotations found in "The Desire of Ages." (The Trinity, Whidden, Moon, Reeve)


This premise is based SOLELY upon the presumption that EGW changed her fundamental belief of the identity of God (from non-trinitarian in harmony with her colleges, then become a "Biblical Trinitarian"). (see, B. Andrew) The problem with this supposition, is that it's based ONLY upon circumstantial evidence, (i.e. the interpretation, or misinterpretation of the supposedly Trinitarian statements themselves).  Why is this?  Because Mrs. White never told anyone, anywhere, at anytime that she had changed, modified, or improved her view about God.  This is a plain, simple, historical fact.  Someone argues, "but, but, but, EGW says right here in the book 'Evangelism'...."

Thank you for pointing out these quotations in the book "Evangelism."  Are you saying that Mrs. White had a different perspective of God than all her contemporary co-workers?  "Yes, that is exactly what I am saying, she 'differed sharply' with all of them, there was a 'continental divide' between her view of the Trinity, and all other SDA non-trinitarians."  If what you are saying is true, then you have just convinced me.  "Convinced you of what?"  You have just convinced me that Ellen White was not a true Christian.  If Mrs. White differed so strongly with her church brethren regarding the Trinity, she should have explained their errors privately according to biblical gospel order.  Instead, she published a book intended for non-SDA distribution; exposing the errors of all her non-trinitarian church brethren to the world, rather than firstly before the church.  "I never thought of it that way before.  It is strange that no non-SDA critics picked up on 'The Desire of Ages' Trinitarian teaching and exposed this fact in their publications."  That's because there was NO controversy over the D.A. statements until decades AFTER that book was published.  Ellen White never INTENDED her statements in "The Desire of Ages" to be viewed or understood as "new light" about some biblical view of the Trinity.  Then how are these apparently Trinitarian statements by EGW explained?


One way is to compare her statements with the Bible.  Yet, many concede that scripture cannot be correctly understood and explained without appealing to EGW quotes as the final authority.  Another way of interpreting EGW "Trinitarian" statements is to compare everything she has ever published on the subject.  Unfortunately, many cling to favorite quotes, while ignoring or misinterpreting others.  When using this method in discussion with others, the conversation usually degrades into the "one with the most EGW quotes wins" mentality.  Is there any other solution to understand EGW's intent when making her "Trinitarian" statements?  There is.  Once I began to understand and apply this rationale, ALL of Mrs. White's apparently "Trinitarian" statements can be perfectly understood, and explained within the context of her still maintaining her former non-trinitarian belief.

It is an excepted fact among all modern SDA scholars and historians (since the 1980's) that Ellen White, and her assistants "borrowed" (sometimes heavily) from the books and publications of other Protestant authors.  (see Veltman) and (When the visions led) What is the point?  The point is that ALL of EGW's major "Trinitarian" statements can be traced back to the Protestant authors who originated them.  If Mrs. White wanted to promote any version of Trinitarianism, she would have included some of the large amounts of Trinitarian terms from the Trinitarian authors she copied from.  Instead, stronger evidence suggests that she purposefully changed, and paraphrased these copied Trinitarian statements in order to "divest" them from being interpreted as such.  (Knudson)

The following are the three most infamous EGW "Trinitarian" statements copied from Protestant authors:
"In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived."  (The  Desire of Ages, p. 530)

As Gary Hullquist puts it: "Actually, this expression was borrowed and derived from John Cumming, D.D., F.R.S.E. of London who originally penned these words in his Sabbath Evening Readings on the New Testament – St. John published by the John P. Jewett Co., Cleveland, OH in 1856. On page 5 Cumming writes:
“’In him was life,’—that is, original, unborrowed, underived. In us there is a streamlet from the Fountain of Life; in him was the Fountain of Life. Our life is something we receive, something that the Giver takes back again to himself, —over which we have no control, and for which we must give God the account and the praise. But in Jesus was life underived, unborrowed;”

Excellent research has already been done examining the meaning of EGW's and Cumming's words.  Only a few comments are necessary.  Firstly, Cumming was a clergyman for the Church of Scotland.  The church of Scotland is a Presbyterian church that uses THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH as its doctrinal standard (like Samuel T. Spear DD.).  The Westminster creed defines the Trinity by the following:  "In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son."

John Cumming was from the same Trinitarian school as Samuel Spear.  They both believed in One God (without body, parts etc.); one divine being who is manifested in three persons.  With the qualification of "person" NOT implying a multiplication of the One divine being (like the current SDA view).  Was John Cumming really trying to say that the "Son" of God was never "derived" from the father in his pre-existence, and therefore is not really a son at all?  All, Presbyterians, in common with non-trinitarian SDA's (and classic Trinitarians for that matter) believed the Son WAS DERIVED from the Father because he is the only one who "is of none, neither begotten nor preceeding".  Cumming believed the Son was "eternally" or continually derived. Early SDA's believed the Son was derived from his Father by a mysterious one-time event.  Modern SDA's believe that Father and Son have NO ontological relationship whatsoever.

Most SDA "Trinitarians" have difficulty understanding the term "underived" because they have never understood historic, creedal-Trinitarianism. Therefore, some SDA's (like M.L. Andreasen), confused the "underived" phrase to mean "not-begotten."  This would be a clear denial of the SDA pioneer's non-trinitarian beliefs; and ironically, a denial of classic Trinitarian beliefs at the same time.  Thus, the majority of SDA's eventually misinterpreted EGW's use of Cummings "underived" phrase to mean:  Ellen White doesn't want us to believe the Son of God was derived or begotten from the Father anymore; she wants us to believe the terms Father and Son only imply agreed upon economic roles between two co-equal, co-eternal God-Beings.

The second most infamous EGW "Trinitarian" quotation is again found in "The Desire of Ages":  “Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy but in the fullness of divine power.” (DA-671. ) This quotation was copied and paraphrased from "The Great Teacher" by John Harris (1836; p.174).  John Harris was an English Congregational minister.  " tremendous then must that principle of evil be, which can only be subdued by the mighty power of the Spirit; by the advent and accession of the third person in the awful Godhead; by no modified energy, but by the full almightiness of divine power."  ( "The Great Teacher" by John Harris (1836; p.174)

The Congregational churches used a slightly modified Westminster Confession (dealing with church government) called the Savoy Declaration.  The belief about the Trinity was the same as Presbyterians (i.e. Samuel Spear, John Cumming, John Harris).  It has been known by SDA scholars for some time that John Harris's book was source material for "The Desire of Ages."  Yet, I haven't found anyone who has quoted the above "third person" statement as originating from Harris.  Was Harris really trying to say that the Holy Spirit, the "third person" in the Godhead, is a seperate and distict being from Father and Son?  Turning to the previous page in "The Great Teacher" we read this:  "but Jesus, taking the affair entirely into his own hands, poured out his Holy Spirit—a blessing intended to make us holy like himself, happy like himself, and even one with himself; for, by giving us his Spirit, he may be said to have given us himself, to have turned himself into Spirit, into a fountain of divine influence that he may be one with our spirits." This quotation sounds a lot like the following:  “In giving us His Spirit, God gives us Himself, making Himself a fountain of divine influences, to give health and life to the world.” EGW, 7T-273.  Neither Harris, nor Ellen White, ever intended the Trinitarian phrase "third person" to be understood as a "third divine being" as is misinterpreted by modern Adventism.

The third, and probably the most infamous EGW "Trinitarian" quotation is this: "The Father is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight. The Son is all the fulness of the Godhead manifested. The Word of God declares Him to be 'the express image of His person.' 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' Here is shown the personality of the Father.  The Comforter that Christ promised to send after He ascended to heaven, is the Spirit in all the fulness of the Godhead, making manifest the power of divine grace to all who receive and believe in Christ as a personal Saviour. There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-- those who receive Christ by living faith are baptized, and these powers will co-operate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ. . . .  {SpTB07 63.2}

The source of this quotation is taken from a book entitled "The Higher Christian Life" (1858) by William Boardman.   Other excellent research has already been done comparing EGW's quote with that of boardman.  On the surface, Boardman appears to be teaching exactly the same as modern Adventism.  The trinity is three divine beings united together as "one God."  Quoting from Boardman  "The persons are not mere offices, or modes of revelation, but living persons of the living God.*" Not to get burdened with metaphysical conjecture, but Boardman's Trinity is nothing like Modern SDA's Trinity.  Superficially, Boardman and SDA's belief look the same, because he talks about "three living persons", and "society" within the Godhead and the like, but this is not Tri-theism.  With careful examination you will see it is the same old incorporeal one God (without form) who thinks about his own perfections, and the "Father's own conception of himself is the Son....And in the same way God the Father's own conception of himself, working in the actual process of creating, sustaining, is, himself, his other self so to speak, a real being, truly personal as either himself or his Son, with every attribute, natural and moral, all complete, entire, wanting nothing. And this being, the God 'working all things is the Holy Spirit; and he like the Son, is both coequal and coeternal with the Father." (Boardman)

So how are these three still only one divine being?  "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, because from the Father proceed both the Son and the Holy Ghost. And we can see how the three are, each equal to each and to all, for the Son is the Father in all his fulness imaged forth. And the Spirit is the Father working or making manifest the Deity as imaged forth in the Son....For from eternity, God's conception of himself both as embodied and imaged forth in the word, and as working out his own counsels in the created universe, was perfect, and these conceptions were perfectly realized, and were the Son and the Spirit." (Boardman)

Boardman references a bible commentary by Hermann Olshausen as the basis for his "living persons" understanding.  Olshausen explains how his theory of three living personalities in the one divine being is different from Tri-theism.  The definition of the term "person" is discussed at length, and in the end, "person/s" are NOT to be understood in any ordinary sense, or use of the word.  (see Olshausen footnote)

Both early, and modern SDA's are hard pressed to subscribe to Boardman's, and Olshausen's understanding of the "three living persons" of/in the Godhead.  They both viewed the Father as entirely incorporeal (without form), both the "Son" and "Spirit" as the Father's conceptions about himself, and thus, NOT SEPERATE PERSONS at all in any common sense of the term.  Early SDA's grasped the fundamental errors of Trinitarianism while probably not fully understanding all the explanations, or implications of this teaching (who could?).  Many tended to "sympathize" with creedal Trinitarianism simply because it uses much of the same vocabulary as non-trinitarianism (i.e. one God, Only one who is unbegotten, Son begotten from the Father, Holy spirit proceeds from Father, and Son, subordination etc.).  For both the classic Trinitarian and early SDA non-trinitarian, all these terms have real ontological, relational meaning.  For modern Adventist Trinitarians, all these terms have metaphorical meaning at best; and for some terms, no meaning at all.  Archibald Alexander Hodge quotes Boardman's famous statement in his detailed explanation of Trinitarian theology.  Interestingly enough, he defines the modern SDA "biblical Trinity" as Tritheism.

So how does all of this relate to EGW borrowing, and paraphrasing statements from Protestant authors?  The early SDA's doctrinal development of non-trinitarianism was not dependent upon EGW.  She confirmed the Pioneers' non-trinitarian beliefs.  Modern SDA non-trinitarians are NOT dependent upon EGW's writings to confirm their non-trinitarian belief.  That belief was already confirmed over 100 years ago.  Unless....Ellen White "changed her mind" about God in her later years and accepted some "biblical form" of Trinitarianism which she desperately tried to communicate with the rest of the church (if she did change her mind, she never told anyone).

It all boils down to the question of MOTIVE.  What motivated EGW to write Trinitarian sounding statements?  If she did change her mind about God, she would have great motivation to enlighten the darkness of all her non-trinitarian co-workers.  If she did not change her mind about the "presence and personality" of God; she would have NO MOTIVATION AT ALL to change anyone's belief.  This motivation question is really foundational before even entering into lengthy discussions of "derived", "third person", "heavenly trio", interpretations.  These Ellen White quotations have become the official "explanation" for this major doctrinal transition.  These same quotations are the moral justification or "scape goat" for this doctrinal change.  Without the premise of EGW changing her mind, there is NO justification or explanation of modern Adventism's acceptance of any version of Trinitarianism.  Without the EGW "change of mind" motif, the only plausible admission might be:  "we were tired of being labeled a non-Christian, cult; so we made the necessary doctrinal changes in order to be accepted by the other churches."

Were most of EGW's "borrowed" "Trinitarian" statements incidentally selected simply for their beauty of expression, and NEVER intended to change anyone's previous non-trinitarian belief?  I believe so.  The intention of these "copied" statements were NOT to present a detailed confession faith, and explanation of doctrine.  The exception of which is only one:  when she borrowed and modified statements from Boardman's "Trinity" to denounce Kellogg's "Trinity"; while at the same time upholding Adventism's non-trinitarian "pillar" of the previous 50 years.

Modern SDA scholars seek to maintain that EGW was introducing the "new light" of a "biblical Trinity" in "The Desire of Ages".  They would have us believe that although her view of the "Trinity" was different from Boardman's "Trinity" and radically different from Kellogg's "Trinity"; she was now proclaiming a "biblical view of the Trinity" that was essentially different from ALL her non-trinitarian co-workers, and that of the entire non-SDA Christian church itself.  Yet, if this is not incredible beyond all imagination; Ellen White initiated this great doctrinal change without even once using the term "Trinity" to describe her belief.  Why so?  As the theory goes, she didn't want people to confuse and associate her true "biblical trinity" with all other false versions that use the same term.  "A likely reason why she consistently shunned the term 'Trinity,' even after she had embraced certain aspects of trinitarian teaching, is the second hypothesis: that she had become aware of two varieties of trinitarian belief, one that she embraced and one that she vehemently rejected. An uncritical use of the term "Trinity" might appear to endorse philosophical concepts to which she was diametrically opposed." (Jerry Moon)

And so the mythology of the Trinitarian Ellen White continues today using the same premise used by Walter Martin during the 1955-1956 evangelical conferences:  "Mrs. White reversed herself later on very quickly, and affirmed the doctrine of the trinity very strongly and taught it."


Biblical commentary on the New Testament, Volume 3 By Hermann Olshausen (1859)
"The chief error to which the word " Person" leads, and which has constantly been opposed by all the more profound teachers of the church, and especially by Augustine, in his acute and profound work on the subject of the Trinity, is this. We are led by it to conceive of Father, Son, and Spirit as locally or mechanically distinct from one another, whilst we should view them as livingly interpenetrating one another. To this view we may advantageously oppose whatever there is of truth in Sabellianism (which rightly recognizes this unity in the existence of the Deity), yet without adopting at the same time its erroneous denial of the individual independency of consciousness in Father, Son, and Spirit....The only means we possess for illustrating the unity of the essence, and the severalty of consciousness in the Godhead, consists in the corresponding analogy which we find in the spiritual nature of man, the image of God. As in man there is not only spiritual being, but also the knowledge of that being, so also in the Divine nature, if we apprehend it as a living God, not as a dead notion, we must suppose both being and the knowledge of its peculiar being. This knowledge which God possesses of himself is designated as the Son: in him dwells the Father himself, and through him effects everything that he does effect. But, as all the powers of the Father concentrate themselves, as it were, in his self-consciousness, so do they also continually revert from the Son to their primary source, the Father, and this return is designated as the Holy Ghost....All knowledge of God proceeds from the Father, as absolute power, through the Son, as perfect love, to the Holy Ghost, as complete holiness. But regarded conversely, the Holy Ghost leads back directly to the Father, so that the end again issues in the beginning. And thus, in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is represented the eternal being of God in its essential internal movement and interaction. If according to this explanation it may appear difficult to understand how inward actions of the Divine Being can appear as an individual consciousness, it is explained by the consideration that the activities of the absolute Spirit are, in accordance with its nature, pure life, being, and consciousness. To apprehend, however, the idea of the individual as something limited and bounded within itself, and totally separated from all other spiritual life, would be the very error which has been already pointed out; and the Scriptures, in their entire mode of expression, shew that in this sense it apprehends neither the Son nor the Holy Ghost as a person."  [emphasis supplied]