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Trinity vs.The Bible Trinity: War of the Gods?

Posted Sep 18, 2010 by Bobby B in Trinity
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The term "Trinity" is the central word of Catholic faith, upon it the mystical union with all other churches is based

Most SDA's who have studied the subject of the trinity in any depth are familiar with the infamous quote:  "The Catholic Church teaches that the fathomless mystery we call God has revealed Himself to humankind as a Trinity of Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The mystery of the Trinity is the central doctrine of Catholic faith.  Upon it are based all other teachings of the Church."   Pg. 19, HANDBOOK FOR TODAY’S CATHOLIC, quoting the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC  CHURCH, paragraphs 238 – 267.)  Someone quickly argues: "but not all Catholic teachings are false, many are true, just because SDA's agree on the 'Trinity' does not prove it to be a false teaching."  That's the point, Adventists have NEVER affirmed or believed in the Catholic "version" of the Trinity; they have only conceded to use the "term" as if they do.  Modern SDA scholars claim the Catholic "Trinity" is false.  Modern SDA scholars claim the "Trinity" of the Protestant reformers (essentially the same as the Catholic Trinity) is also false.

Pioneers correct for rejecting all versions of the Trinity; incorrect for rejecting the "bible Trinity"

The early Adventist's rejected ALL versions of the Trinity including the modern SDA version.  The question arises, were the early SDA's right or wrong in rejecting all forms of Trinitarianism?  Modern scholars answer this question by implying that they were partially right and partially wrong.  They were right in rejecting all creeds, thus allowing for an open forum to eventually develop a "biblical view of the Trinity". The early Adventists were wrong for rejecting the "form" of Trinitarianism that modern SDA's would eventually accept.

If not the doctrine, believe in the "term"

It can be clearly demonstrated that Adventists have NEVER accepted or believed in the precise Catholic "version" of the Trinity.  Yet, this fact is mostly irrelevant in discussions of ecumenical unity among all Christian denominations.  In this modern era, Christian churches are not required to submit to Rome's authority by professing any precise definition of Trinitarianism, rather by simply affirming a strong belief in the TERM itself (i.e. I believe in the "Trinity").

When did it all begin?

SDA's apostasy into a doctrinal downfall regarding the identity of "God" BEGAN not with L. E. Froom, nor from Trinitarian concepts sporatically published by SDA's before the death of EGW.  Adventist acceptance of Trinitarianism did NOT begin with Jones and Waggoner in 1888, and it did not begin from reading EGW statements from "The Desire of Ages" (1898).  Adventist acceptance of Trinitarianism first began by short-shortsightedly using the Trinity "TERM" to express non-trinitarian concepts (i.e. SDA's believe in the Bible doctrine of the trinity, not human speculations).  Why would non-trinitarian SDA's even want to use the term "Trinity" at all if that "term" misrepresented their belief?

The Trinity = non-trinitarianism

After D. M. Canright wrote his book "Adventism Renounced" in 1889, and accused the SDA denomination of rejecting the Trinity doctrine, SDA's struggled to answer this accusation.  One simple way of answering Canright would have been, "Yes, we reject the Trinity doctrine, have always rejected it, and these are the biblical reasons why..."  This would have been the most candid and straight forward approach.  Unfortunately, some Adventists began using the TERM "Trinity" in a conciliatory and accommodating way. They started using the term as if it were NOT theologically loaded, and could be used in any generic sense, even to the extreme of expressing radically non-trinitarian concepts.  As incredible as it sounds, every SDA (excepting maybe Max Hatton), who has ever promoted Trinitarianism in writing, have also inadvertantly included one or more distinctive, non-trinitarian concepts into their "version" of that doctrine.  In this respect, the Adventist church has ALWAYS been non-trinitarian.  The following are three examples of non-trinitarian beliefs published under the generic Trinity umbrella.

The created Trinity

In 1890 "The Bible Echo and Signs of the Times" contained an article entitled "The Trinity" by Chas L. Boyd. On page 315 we read the following:  {6. After whose form, or image, was Christ created? "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God." "Who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person." Phil. 2:6; Heb. 1:3.}

Evidently Mr. Boyd believed that the "Son of God" in his pre-existence was a created being.  This is significant considering the year (1890, a year after Canright's book was published), and the title of the article:  "The Trinity".  In other words, "sure, SDA's believe the Trinity if the concept is defined by whatever we want it to be."  Professed "Trinitarians" of that era and today are hard pressed to accept and profess Boyd's definition of the term Trinity.

The Trinity that denies the personality of the Holy Spirit

Two years later, the Austrailian edition of "The Bible Echo and Signs of the Times" considered a criticism of SDA's belief of a "Trinity."
"An esteemed subscriber has been furnished with a criticism upon an answer to a query upon the nature of the Trinity which appeared in our Dec.15,1891, number. The objectionable paragraph reads as follows:  "We understand the Trinity, as applied to the Godhead, to consist of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The two former to be personal, spiritual beings, eternal and infinite in all their ways and  attributes. The Son is of the Father, equal in glory and honor, but in some measure subject in authority.  The Holy Spirit is the representative of the Deity in all parts of the universe. These supreme Beings we cannot comprehend or measure."

"Our critic animadverts upon the danger of the subscriber being led to embrace per force some fatal heresy while accepting more obvious truths associated together. These words are a revelation to him; now he can see our dark designs in the position here taken relative to the personality of the Holy Spirit, He invites a comparison of the position here expressed with our Saviour's discourse in the latter chapters of John. There may be others situated as this person is, so we refer to the matter in this place.

"Our reply is that we did not consciously reveal any definite position in regard to the Holy Spirit's personality.  There is certainly nothing incongruous in the idea of the Spirit being a personal representative, hence saying that the Spirit is the representative of the Father and Son does not deny his personality as our friend would make out.  He occupies in our minds an exalted place with Deity; and the paragraph in question speaks of him as a supreme Being. In reference to the subject of his personality our minds are well expressed by J. H. Waggoner in his little work entitled "The Spirit of God," as follows:—

"'There is one question which has been much controverted in the theological world upon, which we have never presumed to enter. It is  that of the personality of the Spirit of God.  Prevailing ideas of person are very diverse, often crude, and the word is differently understood; so that unity of opinion on this point cannot be expected until all shall be able to define precisely what they mean by the word, or until all shall agree upon one particular sense in which the word shall be used.  But as this agreement does not exist, it seems  that a discussion of the subject cannot be profitable, especially as it is not a question of direct revelation.  We have a right to be positive  in our faith and our statements only when the words of Scripture are so direct as to bring the subject  within the range of positive proof.  We are not only willing but anxious to leave it just where the Word of God leaves it. From it we learn that the Spirit of God is that awful and mysterious power which proceeds from the throne of the universe, and which is the efficient actor in the work of creation and of  redemption.'"

I do not have access to the article in question (Dec.15,1891), but there are several points of particular import.
1.  In the 1891 article, "We [SDA's] understand the Trinity, as applied to the Godhead, to consist of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." (emphasis supplied).  The author is using the "term" trinity as if SDA's believe in classic or creedal Trinitarianism.
2.  After using the Trinity term to describe what SDA's believe, the author defines the Trinity by using the non-trinitarian terminology of the early pioneers.
3.  The "Trinity" author is criticized by a non-SDA for denying the personality of the Holy Spirit.
4.  The author replies to the criticism by saying:  "we did not consciously reveal any definite position in regard to the Holy Spirit's personality."

5.  Then the author says:  "the paragraph in question speaks of him (the Holy Spirit) as a supreme Being."  i.e. "see we believe the personality of the Holy Spirit the same as you."  (emphasis supplied).
6.  Then the author quotes J.H. Waggoner's non-trinitarian, (H.S. is not a separate "person") book as expressing "our minds" regarding the personality of the Holy Spirit.

This article is the classic example of the Trinity dance round, and round, and around, Canright's accusation, "They [SDA's] reject the Trinity". (emphasis supplied)  Unfortunately, this is not the most famous example of using the Trinity term in an ambiguous way (double-talk) in order to pacify critics who believed that SDA's "reject the Trinity."

Samuel T. Spear and "The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity"

Dr. Samuel T. Spear was well known by Adventist's of his day.  Although a Presbyterian minister, he was a militant advocate of the separation of Church and State.  Many of his articles published in the "Independent" were reprinted and quoted in the Review, and Signs of the Times.  The most famous of these articles (at least for SDA's) was entitled "The subordination of Christ" (1889).  In 1891 this article was reprinted (presumably by M.C. Wilcox), in the December issue of The Signs of the Times under the same title.  Samuel Spear died in the beginning of the same year (1891).  The next year Dr. Spear's article was slightly edited and republished in "The Bible Students Library" under the changed heading "The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity."  The reason and motivation for SDA's to include this non-Adventist work about the "Trinity" in a tract series intended mostly for non-Adventist distribution, has been a historical mystery enshrouded with much speculation and controversy.  (Froom, MOD, 322,323; Gane; Whidden, Moon, Reeve; Burt; Knudson first; second; Pfandle; Hatton)

Spear's article is semi-sickening

Many years ago when first reading Spear's article, my initial gut reaction can be described as semi-sickening.  Only semi-sickening, because much (if not most) of Spear's arguments were believed by the denominational majority of non-trinitarian SDA's.  The "sickening" part was primarily the use of the "term" trinity, as though there were really two distinct and separate doctrines:  1.  The Trinity:  presumably implied as the expression of the creeds, a lot of “philosophical discussion and foolish speculation”. vs. 2.  "The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity"  which does not "speculate outside of the Bible and beyond it", and only expresses the terminology and revelation of Scripture itself.

Are there two Trinity doctrines?

Is there a war of the gods? Are there really two distinct Trinity doctrines, one pitted against the other?  Everything I had ever read from the early SDA pioneers expressed the opposite.  There is no Trinity, period. All Trinitarian "versions" are the offspring from the unbiblical speculations born during the nicean council (325).  So how does this non-SDA, Samuel Spear D.D., one who is raised, fed, and educated by the historic creeds, simply stumble upon the truth of a non-creed influenced "Bible Doctrine of the Trinity"?  How could this Presbyterian Minister be "standing head and shoulders above all" of the other SDA pioneers in his comprehension and explanation of "the Bible doctrine of the Trinity"?  Why not simply republish a non-trinitarian article from one of the many SDA's to choose from, then include this in "The Bible Students Library"?  Was there a lack of SDA material on the subject?

Spear's article:  The Trinity suppression not a profession

SDA's of that era tended to suppress discussion of their non-trinitarian beliefs (resulting from Canright's accusation in 1889) rather than increase this negative publicity.  Adventist's began to use Spear's "trophy article" to confront non-SDA's using the same rational when quoting EGW among themselves, i.e. "don't argue with me about the trinity, disagree with someone much greater than me; a famous minister from mainstream Protestantism:  Samuel T. Spear D.D.." (see ST Jan. 23, 1893 pg. 192 question 73)

Can any SDA can really accept Spear's "Trinity"?

Most SDA historians (post Froom) equate Spear's tract as evidence that SDA's of the 1890's became disgruntled with non-trinitarianism (after 1888).  To them, Spear's "Bible doctrine of the Trinity" was Adventism's conception into Trinitarian life that would birth forth in the 1930's.  Many modern SDA non-trinitarians perceive the republication of Spear's article as simply a continuation, and a more detailed explanation of SDA's non-trinitarian belief.  The harsh reality is that neither position can be sustained, both are incorrect.  What is the truth?  The truth is that Dr. Samuel Spear believed in a "Trinity" that no Adventist, (past or present), could believe in and promote.  Spear's article was edited, and republished after his death in an opportunistic, mis-representative way in order to pacify SDA critics about their Trinitarian disbelief.  Without judging motive, Spear's tract was undoubtably designed in an attempt to remove the church from the non-trinitarian, non-Christian, cult watchlist; (like Questions on Doctrine, 1957) while maintaining its non-trinitarian beliefs in the process.  On the surface, Spear's Trinitarian profession appears sympathetic to both a Trinitarian and a non-trinitarian SDA perspective at the same time.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  How can this be proven?

Firstly, no one has taken the time to question if Mr. Spear considered himself a Trinitarian or non-Trinitarian when he wrote the article.  The evidence suggests that he always considered himself a Trinitarian (even while rejecting elements of the traditional creeds, i.e. eternal generation and consubstantial union).  There is no record of controversy from his local Presbyterian congregation or any religious newspaper that would suggest otherwise.

Secondly, all Presbyterians used the "The Westminster Confession of Faith" as the standard of orthodox belief.  The section regarding the Trinity begins thus:  "Of God, and of the Holy Trinity. I. There is but one living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions." All Presbyterians definitely believed in an "incorporeal" Trinity.  With this in mind, Samuel Spear would be considered one of the Trinitarian "spiritualizers" denounced by James and Ellen White and other SDA pioneers of the day.

Thirdly, Samuel Spear was of the "new school" Presbyterian persuasion.  "Old school" Presbyterians were strictly Calvinistic, while the "new school" accepted Arminian and Unitarian influences (like SDA's).  Samuel Spear's article entitled "The Subordination of Christ" was mainly emphasizing just that:  Subordinationism. It was never intended as to be a detailed exposition of Trinitarian or non-trinitarian belief. Spear's belief in subordinationism evidently resulted from the Unitarian influence.  Old school and new school Presbyterians were in basic agreement regarding the Trinity. When doctrinal controversy arose that required a church trial, the accusation was always the Sabellian heresy (modalism; and or denying Christ's divinity i.e. Unitarianism) and NEVER tri-theism.  When you read other "new school" Presbyterians of that era speak of the Trinity, the emphasis is much closer to modalism than tri-theism (i.e. similar to St. Augustine).

With the above mentioned points in mind, lets examine a few quotes from Spear's article and compare the concepts with historic and modern Adventist beliefs.

"The Bible, while not giving a metaphysical definition of the spiritual unity of God, teaches His essential oneness in opposition to all forms of polytheism..."

According to Spear's own interpretation, the "spiritual unity of God" and "His essential oneness" must be understood within the context of an "incorporeal" ("without body, parts, or passions") God, who is always one Divine Being.  Believing in the incorporeality of God is essential to explain the Trinitarian unity of God vs. polytheism. Early SDA's believed the biblical term "one God" referred only to one Divine Being, namely: God the Father.  Modern SDA's understand "one God" to mean a unity of three, separate Divine Beings.

"...we must not, on the one hand, adopt any theory of the trinity of the Godhead, of which the divinity of Christ is one element, that involves the supposition of three gods instead of one..."

Again, according to Spear, "the supposition of three gods instead of one" must be understood within the context of an "incorporeal" God, who is always one Divine Being.  With this view the "divinity of Christ" is still maintained while not dividing this incorporeal, one Being, three "person" God into three, separate Gods (plural).  Early SDA's believed the Father (a corporeal being) to be the biblical "one God" while at the same time upholding the (corporeal) Son's complete divinity.  How?  By accepting the biblical witness that the "Son" derived His original existence, in some mysterious way, from the Father prior to his incarnation.  Therefore, all that Gods "Son" is regarding his divine nature, was given as a literal inheritance from his Father.  Modern SDA's maintain the term"Son" implies nothing more than an agreement to enter an economic role with no relational meaning intended.  Thus the unity of God is divided by assuming the existence of at least two un-originate God beings.

"It is true that, in that nature, He was a created and dependent being, and in this respect like the race whose nature He assumed; and yet the Bible statement of His subordination extends to His divine as well as his human nature."

According to classic Trinitarianism, prior to the incarnation, Christ was one of the incorporeal, tri-personal modes, expressions, "persons" (whatever) of the incorporeal, one-being God.  This "subordination" of Christ is still within the context of a one-being God, (i.e. my will is subordinate to my conscience of reason).  Early SDA's expressed the subordination of Christ to the Father using similar terminology as Spear.  Yet, the non-trinitarian SDA context of subordination is entirely different than Spear.  They perceived subordination resulting from a literal ontological relationship between Father and Son (i.e. the Son owed his pre-incarnate origin of existence to his Father).  Modern SDA's explain all subordination as the result of assumed economic roles; the function and necessity of these roles will eventually cease to exist.

"This doctrine [the tri-une God], as held and stated by those who adopt it, is not a system of tri-theism, or the doctrine of three Gods, but is the doctrine of one God subsisting and acting in three persons, with the qualification that the term “per­son,” though perhaps the best that can be used, is not, when used in this relation, to be understood in any sense that would make it inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead, and hence not to be understood in the ordi­nary sense when applied to men. Bible trinitarians are not tritheists."

Spear, (in harmony with the creeds), understands "the doctrine of one God" to be one incorporeal divine being.  Firstly, if "person" is defined as a corporeal being, this fact alone "would make it inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead" according to all creedal definitions.  Secondly, Spear specifically warns that the term "persons" is "not to be understood in the ordi­nary sense when applied to men."  According to Spear's converse implication, if the "person" term is understood in the ordi­nary sense, (i.e. a corporeal being), "Bible trinitarians are...tritheists."  Early SDA's, while believing the corporeality of both Father and Son, never spoke with bi-theism terminology (i.e. God the Father, God the Son; two Gods etc.).  They apparently resolved this paradoxical dilemma of not having two Gods through their biblical interpretation and explanation of Christ's subordination to his Father.  In like manner, early SDA's were never accused of tri-theism because of their belief that the Holy Spirit was NOT a separate being in relation to Father and Son.  Rather, they perceived the H.S. as the dynamic,  personal and impersonal aspect of the divine nature shared by both (i.e. Spirit is to God, what spirit is to man).  Modern SDA's perceive the H.S. as the third, co-eternal, co-equal Divine Being.  The question of the Holy Spirit's corporeality has never been formally addressed by SDA's in modern times.  Modern SDA's avoid the charge of tri-theism by claiming that all three divine beings never fight with each other, and this is why we don't call them three Gods like polytheists.

"So, also, the theory of a threefold consciousness of the triune God—one consciousness for God the Father, another and a different consciousness for God the Son, and a third and a different consciousness for God the Holy Ghost—is another speculation..."

Again, Spear's argument against the idea of "a threefold consciousness of the triune God" must be understood within the context of an incorporeal, one Divine Being Trinity.  Early SDA's believed in two distinct beings, with two distinct consciouses (Father and Son). Modern SDA's have defined both the "three person" term, and "a threefold consciousness" of those "three persons" in a way that is unavoidably tritheism according to Spear's own definition. "'Person' as applied to God indicates a being with personality, intellect, and will." (Whidden, Moon, Reeve)

The danger in using the term itself

Once the basic context of Samuel Spear's Bible "Trinity" is understood, it becomes painfully obvious that his belief was NOT the same as SDA non-trinitarians of his day.  Nor, is it the same as modern SDA Trinitarians.  No matter what SDA version (of trinitarianism or non-trinitarianism) you compare Spear's belief with, your ALWAYS comparing "apples with oranges".  The main point however, is not that Spear's Bible doctrine of the Trinity has little in common with the historic or modern SDA version.  The point is simply the grave danger of using the Trinity "term" itself.  Once a few SDA's became comfortable in expressing various forms of non-trinitarianism while using the trinity term, decades of desensitization ended with the fallacious conclusion that SDA's have always believed in the Trinity (at least ever since Spear's "Trinity" article 1892; and "Desire of ages" by EGW. see M.L Andreason p. 10).  In modern ecumenical discussions, it doesn't really matter what you believe about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; if you call it the Trinity then everyone is happy.  Rome is happy. (see J. H. Waggoner, "The Pope of Rome", S.T. 1889, pg. 130)

The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity (1892) vs. The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity (2010)

Spear's "Bible Doctrine of the Trinity" comes full circle in modern times.  That single tract published in 1892, has inevitably caused more confusion regarding the identity of God than probably anything else written by an Adventist.  Following Spear's argument, SDA scholars of today believe that the current Adventist "Trinity" is the only viable "Biblical" version, in contrast to all other definitions of Trinity creeds.  Modern historians also claim that Ellen White finally accepted the "Biblical view of the Trinity" and encouraged everyone else to do the same.  Yet, her strong aversion and fear of using the Trinity term (even once), is evidence that she linked that "term" with all the false teachings of that foundational doctrine of Rome.  There is no "biblical Trinity" vs. a "non-biblical Trinity", no war of the gods; all versions of Trinitarianism must be regarded as false.