Woodrow Whidden on Ellen White’s Christology

Woodrow W. Whidden II, Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ: A Chronological Study. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1997.

In this volume Woodrow Whidden summarizes chronologically Ellen White’s thoughts on the human nature of Christ. The background to this study is that this became a controversial subject in Adventist teaching in the 1950s, when a group of theologians and administrators sought to influence change of the church’s teaching. Prior to the 1950s there was consensus among Adventists that Jesus had a “post-fall” human nature; today, Whidden says, “probably the majority” of pastors and professors say he had a “pre-fall” nature. Ellen White has been quoted by partisans on both sides. Whidden finds the terminology itself unhelpful, as there are things Jesus shares with those born after the Fall and ways in which he is unique. Whatever position we take, he argues, it will affect our views on salvation and perfection; so the debate on this point has had wider implications.

Whidden notes that any discussion of Christ’s humanity is meaningless without affirming Jesus’ full divinity (p. 14). That’s a good and necessary point, but I think he says too little, too late. I think we need a full awareness of what Jesus was from eternity, and then speak of the Incarnation and kenosis, and the relationship of the divine and human natures, before getting into these issues. In other words, we need to stand on the solid ground of Nicea and Chalcedon.

The definition of sin is critical if we are going to discuss its effect on humanity. But since we are here considering Ellen White’s thought, we have to realize she doesn’t use the term “original sin” (apart from one use of it as a reference to Adam’s sin), neither is she conversant with the theological history of the concept. I think Whidden muddies the water with his own repeated analogy of sin as an “infection,” as if sin is something tangible (it isn’t a term Ellen White uses). Still, it is clear that she thought there is something about sin that depraves and defiles, that is inherited, and is an “inwrought” “selfishness.” This leads Whidden to ask, if Christ had this, how could he be our substitute?

In the period leading up to the 1888 General Conference, Ellen White speaks of Jesus sharing our “infirmities” and “weaknesses” but not “possessing like passions.” His sacrifice had to be superior to what man could offer. Wooden regards White’s article in RH 7/28/1874 as a critical statement, which she references and builds upon in later years. He again emphasizes a distinction between being “infected” but not “affected,” using language she does not. Clearly Christ’s humanity is affected by the Fall (but so is ours). Is it right to speak of sin as an “infection,” as if it were a kind of self-existing substance (rather than, as Augustine put it, a privation of the good)? I think this is problematic.

Whidden notes an article in which White stresses Jesus did not rely upon his innate divine power, a theme that she will repeat in her future to underline Jesus’ efficacy as an example. She makes a helpful contrast when she says whereas we are “sinful by nature,” he had “no sin in him.” I think Whidden is mistaken in suggesting that White uses “character” and “nature” as synonyms; in an earlier article in that same series on redemption (2/26/1874) she contrasts Adam’s perfect nature with his character that had to be developed through tests and maturity.

Whidden makes an important point when he observes that at the 1888 General Conference, and in documents reflecting on it, Ellen White places no emphasis on Christological issues (pace the interpretation of the 1888 message by Wieland, et al.). In the next few years, however, she places great stress on the incarnation, and the union of the divine and human in Christ (I think the term “blending” unfortunate, opening the way to a non-Chalcedonian Christology). Christ’s humanity is unique, but remains truly human, ensuring his genuine identification with us.

Whidden surveys some key words that she seems to use in contradictory ways—at times White says Jesus shared our human passions and propensities, while at other times she says he didn’t. Whidden follows Larson in noting that these terms can be neutral terms, without a moral quality attached to them; she uses them in this way when speaking of what Jesus shared, but when she qualifies them as “sinful” or “fallen,” she distinguishes between his humanity and ours. He discusses Poirier’s theory about the Melvill distinctions between innocent infirmities and sinful propensities, and offers that as another aid in understanding her use.

In the late 1890s, Ellen White published her greatest writings on the life of Christ (Desire of Ages, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, Christ’s Object Lessons), but in these she did not reflect more carefully and fully on the issues at hand, but simply republished statements that had appeared in earlier articles. There was more emphasis in this period on Christ’s uniqueness (it is interesting, and even a little puzzling, that she didn’t respond directly to the statements by AT Jones in this period and the years immediately preceding).

She frequently makes statements like this: “Christ did in reality unite the offending nature of man with his own sinless nature, because by this act of condescension, he would be enabled to pour out his blood in behalf of the fallen race.” Whidden’s argument that the phrase, “his sinless nature,” here refers to his human nature is not persuasive; this passage, and others like it, are clearly speaking of the incarnation, and his condescension and humiliation in uniting with our humanity (p. 54).

Whidden says, “No other individual promoting sanctification and the life of victory over sin appropriated the humanity of Christ as Ellen White did” (p. 57). While he wasn’t part of the holiness movement, surely there’s a parallel with Edward Irving (d. 1834), who also connected Christ’s (fallen) human nature with our sanctification—something Herb Douglass has often pointed out; Irving’s thought has been appropriated more recently by Karl Barth and Colin Gunton.

Ellen White’s 1895 (1896?) letter to W. L. H. Baker, brought to light in the 1950s, was the main catalyst for shifting the emphasis on Christ’s humanity within Adventism, Whidden argues. He sees Baker (whose actual teachings aren’t cited) as being in the camp of Waggoner, Jones, and Prescott). Whidden says her major concern is with Baker’s presentation of Christ’s humanity, and that she emphasizes Christ’s uniqueness and sinlessness, free from the “propensities of sin.” He analyzes Wieland’s interpretation of the letter, which he finds forced, imposing a preconceived view, equating terms that Ellen White was seeking to separate.

She says to Baker, “Let every human being be warned from the ground of making Christ altogether human, such an one as ourselves; for it cannot be” (p.65). This seems to suggest something more was going on with Baker than Whidden allows. It isn’t just the kind of humanity which Jesus had that she’s concerned about—it’s that Baker seems to make Jesus “altogether human”—in other words, he’s at risk of denying his divinity.

She tells Baker, “Truth lies close to the track of presumption … you need to guard strenuously every assertion, lest your words be taken to mean more than they imply.” This is immediately followed by a warning that he not “lose or dim the clear perceptions of His humanity as combined with divinity.” Then come statements that emphasize his divinity (pace Whidden): “His birth was a miracle of God”; he was “the Son of the Infinite God.” “The incarnation of Christ has been, and will ever remain a mystery.” Then the statement that Whidden cites without comment: don’t make him “altogether human, such an one as ourselves: for it cannot be. The exact time when humanity blended with divinity, it is not necessary for us to know.” This suggests Baker was advocating a variety of adoptionism, thus denying the reality of the incarnation, not merely discussing the kind of humanity. This, I suggest, is why his statements would merit a firm rebuke while those of Jones, Waggoner, and Prescott did not.

In chapter 9, Whidden lays out his own interpretation, and it seems clear that a particular understanding of justification and sanctification is the hermeneutical principle that guides his understanding of Christology. Should it not be the other way around? Shouldn’t we start with who Christ is, and what he has done in the incarnation? I think that’s what Ellen White does. Whidden notes that Ellen White’s teachings didn’t vary with time. She was consistent. In some contexts she emphasized his identity with fallen man, at other times his uniqueness as the sinless Savior. Whidden’s bottom line, with which I highly concur, is that we can’t completely reconcile the two; there must always remain a sense of paradox, tension, dialectic, when speaking of the Incarnation.

I think it a critical point when he observes that Jesus didn’t have “a previous experience in sin”—he didn’t know what it was like to struggle to over come “habitual sin,” which is something that binds all humans (pp. 73-74). We speak glibly of Jesus not having an “advantage” over us—but this is surely an “advantage” he had, and a “difference” from us. This is worthy of much more emphasis.

I am troubled, though, when Whidden says, “Christ was not just like fallen humans,” but “was enough like them to identify with their ‘infirmities’” (p. 70). Elsewhere, “Could Jesus have a nature just like ours and still be our interceding advocate and high priest?” (p. 72). Here I think he misunderstands the thrust of her statement in the Baker letter that he was not “altogether human”—she was warning against denying his divinity or the reality of the incarnation, not watering down the genuineness of his humanity.

Here Whidden is on very dangerous ground, and this is furthered by the fact that “nature,” a philosophical concept, is not thoroughly discussed and defined in terms of its long history of theological use. We can’t do theology in a vacuum, assuming that Ellen White was the first person since Paul to wrestle with these questions. This also shows the danger of trying to argue theology from the writings of one who was not systematic, and not a theologian—as well as the danger of building the case on her writings, and not on Scripture.

Whidden doesn’t do exegesis here. He might say it’s because he’s writing about Ellen White’s views—but in this chapter he is trying to argue what we should teach, and is basing it on her writings, just as his opponents do. But Scripture says it is precisely because of his identity with us that he can be a high priest—because he was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” and “was in all points tempted like as we are” (Heb. 4:15); because “he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). And this is rooted in his having a “nature just like ours”—“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same”; “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren” (Heb 2:14-17). This must be our starting point. We can discuss what it means, but we have to do it in the larger context of Christian theology, including Nicea, Chalcedon, Reformation discussions of Christology, current theology, and not just pick selective statements in Ellen White that support our preconceptions.

In chapter 10, Whidden more directly addresses those with whom he is in disagreement—those who may call themselves “historic” or “traditional” Adventists. He wants first to establish common ground. Following Froom, he wants to distinguish between the “eternal verities,” genuine Adventist “landmarks” (of which Ellen White only identifies three), and points we’re still discussing. Agreeing we’re all on the same side, and proceeding on the basis of charity, will go a long way in changing the tenor of the conversation. He argues we have to be careful about the term “historic Adventism” because there is much in Adventist history no one would want to embrace, including Arianism and the denial of the Trinity and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. He suggests that all Adventists can agree Jesus was enough like us that he is able to be sympathetic intercessor and profoundly unique that he can be our sinless substitute. That’s the paradox he wants to cling to.

Chapter 11 is a contribution by Kevin Paulson (a classmate of mine at Loma Linda): “The Lower and Higher Natures: The Key to Resolving the Adventist Christology Debate,” and includes Whidden’s reply. It is a helpful addition to the book, in that it raises an issue that Whidden never adequately addresses—the question of anthropology. What exactly is human nature? Paulson argues it is more complex than Whidden suggests. We have a “lower” nature, what Paul calls “the flesh,” and a “higher nature” nature, what Paul refers to as “spirit” or that might be called the will; this is the place of character development. This, he says, is the key to understanding Ellen White’s statements on such things as “propensities”—Christ had the “propensities” or “inclinations” of the flesh (hunger, thirst—fear?—sex drive?), but his will was unsullied. He never assented. I’d suggest that this “lower nature” is more than “infirmity” or “weakness,” but includes all those things that are basic bodily cravings or stress responses. The key part of Whidden’s response is his basic agreement with this anthropological point.

Some reflections I made after the QOD conference are worth repeating here:

Reflecting on this from the perspective of having been away from Adventism for over two decades, having studied at Lutheran and Catholic institutions of higher education, it seems to me that the different parties have more in common than I think they realize or want to admit. All agree Christ was fully human and fully divine, and that his humanity was affected by heredity, and was the weakened, mortal flesh we share. All agree he is substitute and example. All agree as a high priest he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. They all agree he could have sinned (something Catholic and most Protestant theologians would deny), but never wavered. All agree that while we are born separated from God, his relationship with the Father and the Spirit was never broken. All agree that Seventh-day Adventists are fully Arminian. All agree that Jesus is coming and that there will be a time of trouble and that those who live through it will have a very intense experience that will require them to cling closely to Christ. All agree, I think, that the Holy Spirit will continue to uphold them.

There are issues that undergird the differences that need further exploration. Some self described “evangelicals” are comfortable using the term “original sin.” The phrase was stricken from an early draft of QOD but the idea remained. It isn’t found in earlier Adventist theology and doesn’t appear in official Adventist publications after this. Both liberals, like David Larson, and conservatives, like his recently deceased father, Ralph Larson, have problems with it. This raises a number of questions when we speak both about Christ’s inheritance and ours. What is the nature of sin? What exactly do we inherit? If sin isn’t inherited guilt (as Catholics teach), is it some sort of “substance” or “infection” that can be passed along, as some Protestants seem to suggest? Or is it better spoken of as a broken relationship and acts of the will? David Larson asked whether we might be operating with an understanding of the human person derived more from Aristotle and Plato than from the Bible.

There wasn’t much discussion of the larger Christian history of discussion about these issues. Douglass and an Evangelical scholar, Donald Dayton, pointed out that many theologians have shared a belief that Christ took our fallen nature (including Edward Irving, Karl Barth, and Colin Gunton). I think it would be good for some historians and theologians to explore their thought and how it compares with the thought of Adventists who share this perspective.

5 thoughts on “Woodrow Whidden on Ellen White’s Christology

  1. “All agree, I think, that the Holy Spirit will continue to uphold them.”

    This is actually the critical point of difference. The pre-fall people tend to believe that the Holy Spirit will still help us after the close of probation, and it is usually the post-fall people who assert that when the Holy Spirit is withdrawn from the world we will have to resist sin without His aid.

    I think Larson’s point is the way out of this argument. We’ve been discussing human nature as if it were a “thing”. I think it would be helpful to put that terminology aside and talk about the effect of sin on the interrelated aspects of humanity and compare that to what we know about the unique person of Jesus.

  2. I think you are misrepresenting the historic position, which goes back to the earliest days of Adventism. See, for example, James White, “The Seven Last Plagues,” in A Word to the “Little Flock.”

    The withdrawing of the Holy Spirit is the withdrawal of God’s protection upon the earth, pursuant to God sending the seven last plagues. During this time without an intercessor, there is no one to intercede on behalf of those who are the object of God’s wrath. But as God upheld Israel in Egypt, so God upholds the saints, and assists them through the angels.

    Here’s James White:

    “‘And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor.’ Isaiah 59:14, 15, 16.

    “I think that the next two verses, which speak of our Lord’s putting on the ‘garments of vengeance for clothing,’ to ‘repay fury to his adversaries,’ point to the wrath of God in the seven last plagues. God has shown this day of wrath, in prophetic vision, to some of his servants by different symbols. …

    “We may see by the 91st Psalm, that many of the wicked are to be cut off, while the saints are on the earth, in their mortal state; for they are to fall by thousands all around them.

    “The saints are exhorted not to fear the plagues at that time, for God will give his angels charge over them, so that no plague shall come nigh their dwellings ….

    “… [T]he humble followers of the Lamb, have nothing to fear from the terrors of the day of wrath; for they will be sealed before the plagues are poured out. ….

    “Israel was safe; for God was their protector in that perilous night. The true Israel of God will be safely protected, when Christ rules the nations with a ‘rod of iron,’ and dashes them ‘in pieces like a potter’s vessel;’ for he has promised to give his angels charge over them, to keep them in all their ways.

    “Those who keep the word of Christ’s ‘patience’ in this time of waiting, and trial, will then be kept ‘FROM the hour of temptation, (or trial) which shall come on all the WORLD, to try them that dwell upon the earth.’–Rev. 3:10.

    “Those who do every well known duty to God, and his children : and confess their faults to God, and to one another : and are healed from their faults : will safely rest in the arms of the holy angels, while the burning wrath of God is being poured out on those who have rejected his counsel, and commandments.”

    In that same pamphlet is Ellen White’s account of her first vision; she notes that in the midst of the darkness, following the sealing, after the voice of God is heard, “he poured on us the Holy Ghost, and our faces began to light up and shine with the glory of God as Moses’ did when he came down from Mount Sinai.”

    Ellen White wrote that during the “Time of Jacob’s Trouble,” which is the period of protection of God’s people during the outpouring of God’s wrath, “They lay hold on the strength of God as Jacob laid hold of the Angel; and the language of their souls is: ‘I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me'” (GC 620).

    So it seems clear to me, looking at this as an historian, answering the question of what the early Adventist understanding was, that 1) they put together their understanding of last day events from the Bible and 2) they agreed that though God’s protection was withdrawn from the world, God’s people were still upheld by him.

  3. Bill,

    I think your response about the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit is right on. I am no “historic Adventist,” but I share some of their beliefs about the latter days. Many on the other side set up straw man arguments about such understandings. The same can be said for our belief – influenced by Ellen White, of course – that we will stand without a Mediator during that time. This is not to say that we will be getting by in our own strength, but that Jesus won’t need to forgive sins anymore, because there are no more sins that need forgiveness.

    This whole issue is somewhat confusing to me. However, I take Ellen White at face value when she says that Christ “took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature, that He might know how to succor those that are tempted,” (SDABC, Vol. 7a, p. 450) but I, too, am a little confused, as to the exact definition of “nature.”

    One more thought: I am always a little uneasy/frustrated when people say that Ellen White was not a “theologian.” Maybe she was not a “Systematic Theologian” as we typically define the term, or not a so-called “trained theologian” (whatever that term means!) but I would never say that she was not a “theologian.” I guess I’m just responding to the overall use of the term “theologian,” as it seems like there is a privileged group who is allowed to declare who is and who is not a theologian.

    If we are determining who is/who is not a theologian based on their education and training, then our friend George Knight perhaps would not qualify – as his doctorate is in Education.

  4. “I think you are misrepresenting the historic position…”

    Bill, sorry for posting that and then forgetting about it. I wasn’t trying to lay out the historic position, which as you point out is more nuanced. I was talking about a position that I have heard certain people lay out here at the sem and in my district–a connection between the human nature of Christ to final generation perfection.

  5. That was articulated quite forcefully in the 1890s by A. T. Jones, and spelled out in its fullest by M. L. Andreasen, the most influential Adventist theologian of the mid-20th century. See his book, The Sanctuary Service, still sold in every ABC–esp. the last chapter; also, The Book of Hebrews. In the 1970s, this was the position of the editors of the Review and Herald. See esp. Herb Douglass’ books, Jesus, The Model Man and Why Jesus Waits.

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