Three Co-Eternal Persons

Anti-Trinitarianism is starting again to make headway in certain circles of conservative Adventism. Typically, those drawn to these views adhere to—or find themselves attracted to—one or both of the following theories:

  1. That Jesus, at some distant point in eternity past, was brought forth (or begotten) by the Father.
  2. That the Holy Spirit is not a separate divine Person, but is rather the spiritual presence of the Father and the Son. 

Faithful Seventh-day Adventists should never permit themselves to be surprised or spooked by controversy. Long ago Ellen White warned the church:

The days are fast approaching when there will be great perplexity and confusion. Satan, clothed in angel robes, will deceive, if possible, the very elect. There will be gods many and lords many. Every wind of doctrine will be blowing (1).

But we need not despair, for the same writer assures us:

Not one cloud has fallen upon the church that God has not prepared for; not one opposing force has risen to counterwork the work of God but He has foreseen. All has taken place as He has predicted through His prophets (2).

The two great inspired sources, the Bible and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, must remain our changeless criterion in all doctrinal disputes:

To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa. 8:20).

God has, in that Word (the Bible), promised to give visions in the last days, not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth (3).

Men may get up scheme after scheme, and the enemy will seek to seduce souls from the truth; but all who believe that the Lord has spoken through Sister White, and has given her a message, will be safe from the many delusions that will come in these last days (4).

The Only Inspired Pioneer

The fact that many of our early Adventist pioneers held anti-Trinitarian beliefs cannot be allowed to influence our stance. Only one pioneer was inspired, and her name was Ellen G. White. About her writings, she wrote:

There is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence in that which I have written (5).

Ellen White wrote no such endorsement regarding anyone else’s writings or teachings—except, of course, the Bible. Even the writings and teachings of A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner received no such carte blanche endorsement. Consider the following Ellen White statements regarding these two messengers:

Some interpretations of Scripture given by Dr. Waggoner I do not regard as correct (6).

I believe without doubt that God has given precious truth at the right time to Brother Jones and Brother Waggoner. Do I place them as infallible? Do I say that they will not make a statement, or have an idea that cannot be questioned or that cannot be error? Do I say so? No, I do not say any such thing (7).

We cannot therefore assume that anything taught by any of the pioneers on any subject—not even Jones or Waggoner—must therefore be true. Only the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy writings stand totally free of doctrinal error. Any theological argument which depends heavily on statements from uninspired persons—including one or more of the Adventist pioneers—betrays the serious likelihood of error. Especially do these arguments become dangerous when accompanied by the claim that “Ellen White never rebuked” one or another of the anti-Trinitarian pioneers for their views on this subject. The inspired writings are self-explanatory on the Trinitarian issue, as on all issues, and the absence of direct rebuke by Ellen White to anyone holding views contrary to the inspired consensus doesn’t change the clarity of that consensus.

Terminology

Before we begin our study, let us be clear that language is malleable. Some have noted that the word “Trinity” is not found in either Scripture or the writings of Ellen White. This is true, of course. But the Bible doesn’t contain such terms as “virgin birth,” “bodily resurrection,” or “investigative judgment” either. However, the doctrines represented by these phrases are clearly taught in the Bible. When the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church speak of “three co-eternal Persons” in Fundamental Belief No. 2 (8), using the term “Trinity” to describe this belief, it is with reference to the Bible/Spirit of Prophecy consensus on this subject that this term is used.

To what extent the creeds and orthodoxies of other Christian communities harmonize with—or veer from—this inspired definition of the Trinity, is beside the point. Ellen White uses such terms as “heavenly trio” (9) and “eternal heavenly dignitaries” (10) to describe the three Persons of the Godhead; others simply prefer to speak of the Godhead, or perhaps the triune Godhead. 

So long as these terms are used to describe a union of three co-eternal, distinct Persons, terminology is negotiable. 

Jesus Christ’s Eternal Pre-Existence

Perhaps the clearest Bible passage regarding Christ’s eternal pre-existence is the Old Testament prophecy pinpointing the location of His birth when He came incarnate:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2).

The same point is underscored in the following passage from the Gospel of John:

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. . . . 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 1:1-2,14).  

Some claim that the use of the word “begotten,” relative to Jesus’ status as the Son of God (John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; I John 4:9; 5:1), proves that at some point in eternity past He was “brought forth” in some way from the Father. But like many Bible words, the word “begotten” means different things in different settings. Ellen White notes this point with regard to inspired language when she writes: “Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea” (11). 

In another Bible passage it is clear that “begotten” doesn’t refer to a beginning point when used with reference to Jesus:

And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5).

Obviously here, “first begotten” has nothing to do with a point in time, as Jesus was not the first human being to be raised from the dead (see I Kings 17:17-21; II Kings 4:20-37; Luke 7:12-15; 8:49-56; John 11:39-44; Jude 9). The word “begotten” in Revelation 1:5 clearly refers to pre-eminence, not chronology. If, according to Micah 5:2, the One born in Bethlehem existed “from everlasting,” we are constrained to understand the word “begotten” in other passages relative to Jesus (John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; I John 4:9; 5:1) to also refer to pre-eminence.

Along the same lines, the book of Hebrews describes Isaac as the “only begotten son” of Abraham, even though Abraham had already fathered Ishmael:

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son (Heb. 11:17).

Here again we see how “begotten” refers to pre-eminence, not to a point of beginning. Isaac was not Abraham’s only (or exclusive) son, but he was the son chosen to be Abraham’s heir, and thus the only pre-eminent son.

Jesus, of course, declared Himself to be the eternally pre-existent God of the Old Testament when He stated, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Ellen White comments on the reaction of those present in the following statement:

Silence fell upon the vast assembly. The name of God, given to Moses to express the idea of the eternal presence, had been claimed as His own by this Galilean Rabbi. He had announced Himself to be the self-existent One, He who had been promised to Israel, “whose goings forth have been from of old, from the days of eternity.” Micah 5:2, margin (12).

The unbelieving Jews listening to Jesus obviously knew what He meant by this statement. He was claiming to be God—the great I AM who had spoken to Moses at the burning bush in the wilderness (Ex. 3:13-14). This is why the Bible says: “Then took they up stones to cast at Him: but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (John 8:59).

Other Ellen White statements are equally clear regarding Christ’s eternal pre-existence with the Father. In another comment on the experience noted above, she writes:

Here Christ shows them that, although they might reckon His life to be less than fifty years, yet His divine life could not be reckoned by human computation. The existence of Christ before His incarnation is not measured by figures (13).

Elsewhere she writes:

Not one of the angels could become surety for the human race; their life is God’s; they could not surrender it. The angels all wear the yoke of obedience. They are the appointed messengers of Him who is the Commander of all heaven. But Christ is equal with God, infinite and omnipotent. He could pay the ransom for man’s freedom. He is the eternal self-existing Son, on whom no yoke had come; and when God asked, “Whom shall I send?” He could reply, “Here am I; send Me.” He could pledge Himself to become man’s surety; for He could say that which the highest angel could not say,—I have power over My own life, “power to lay it down, and . . . power to take it up again” (14).

From the days of eternity the Lord Jesus Christ was one with the Father; He was the “image of God,” the image of His greatness and majesty, “the outshining of His glory” (15).

When Christ passed within the heavenly gates, He was enthroned amidst the adoration of the angels. As soon as the ceremony was completed, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in rich currents, and Christ was indeed glorified, even with the glory which He had with the Father from all eternity. . . . In speaking of His pre-existence, Christ carries the mind back through dateless ages. He assures us that there never was a time when He was not in close fellowship with the eternal God (16).

From all eternity Christ was united with the Father, and when He took upon Himself human nature, He was still one with God (17).

And for those who still might endeavor to read the above statements as affirming Christ’s eternal pre-existence with the Father, but not as a separate Person, the following statement is perhaps clearest of all:

The Word existed as a divine being, even as the eternal Son of God, in union and oneness with His Father. From everlasting He was the mediator of the covenant, the One in whom all nations of the earth, both Jews and Gentiles, if they accepted Him, were to be blessed. . . . Christ was God essentially, and in the highest sense. He was with God from all eternity, God over all, blessed forevermore.

The Lord Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, existed from eternity, a distinct person, yet one with the Father (18).

And then, of course, we have this inspired declaration:

In Christ is life original, unborrowed, underived (19).

This statement leaves no room for the belief that Christ was, at some point in the dim-dark reaches of eternity, “brought forth” from the Father, or that the Father was the original Source from which the Son proceeded. Some have even compared Jesus’ alleged derivation from the Father to the stone cut out without hands in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:34). Such language as “unborrowed, underived” flatly rules out such a notion. Yes, Jesus came from the Father at His incarnation (John 16:20), but at no point in eternity past did He originate or derive life, power, or wisdom from His Father. The inspired pen is clear, as we have seen, that the Son has not only existed from eternity, but that He has existed as a distinct, fully divine Person. He was never “brought forth” from one form into another. 

Let us also be clear that simply because the inspired writings depict Jesus as “one with the Father” from all eternity, in no way implies that the Father and the Son were not two distinct Persons. A husband and a wife are “one” as well, but they are still distinct individuals. The same with the Godhead. 

Some anti-Trinitarians have lately insisted that the Yahweh of the Old Testament is the Father, not the Son. But this claim is difficult to reconcile with such Ellen White statements as the following, which speak of the Savior’s earthly training as a child:

The very words which He Himself had spoken to Moses for Israel He was now taught at His mother’s knee. . . . He who had made all things studied the lessons which His own hand had written in earth and sea and sky (20).

Different Roles Not an Issue

Lately the issue of different roles among the Members of the Godhead has been a point of discussion within the context of the continuing Adventist debate over gender roles in spiritual leadership. As the Bible depicts the image of God in humanity as consisting of both male and female components (Gen. 1:27), the inspired evidence has been found to demonstrate that the template for the roles God has given to men and women is found among the varying roles performed within the Godhead, and that the restoration of God’s image within humanity will thus involve the mirroring of Biblical gender role distinctions (21).

Despite the protests of certain ones, both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White are clear that the three Members of the Godhead—though equal in eternal and distinct existence and pre-existence, as well as power and wisdom—nevertheless fill different but complementary roles. Writing after the Savior’s ascension, the apostle Paul underscores this truth when he compares the spiritual relationship of men to women with that of the Father to the Son within the Godhead:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God (I Cor. 11:3).                                

While Scripture describes the Father and the Son as equal in a number of passages (John 1:1-3; Phil. 2:5-8; Col. 2:9), the submission of the Son to the Father is clear from before the beginning of creation. The Father is declared to have created all things through His Son (John 1:3; I Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). It is the Father who has “chosen us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4)  It is the Father who has predestined us “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).    
               
It is the Father who sends the Son into the world to make possible humanity’s salvation (John 3:16-17; 17:18). Before returning from earth to His Father in heaven, Christ declared, “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18), this power obviously given by the Father on account of His Son’s triumph over sin and death. The seating of Christ at His Father’s right hand following Christ’s ascension (Psalm 110:1; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:13; 8:1; 10:12-13; 12:2; I Peter 3:22) is also indicative of the Father’s supreme authority. To be seated at the right hand of a monarch in the ancient world meant that the one thus honored was second in authority. We see this clarified elsewhere in Jesus’ declaration that “the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22).

If this authority is committed to the Son by the Father, the ultimate authority is in fact the Father’s. In each of the above passages it is the Father who acts through the Son. We never read that the Son acts through the Father. 

Reflecting the teaching of the above verses, Ellen White declares—speaking of Christ before His first advent: “The Son of God was next in authority to the great Lawgiver” (22). Elsewhere she writes, “In His incarnation He (Christ) gained in a new sense the title of the Son of God” (23).  Both these statements reflect the distribution of authority between the Father and the Son, and give evidence that the Sonship of Christ predated His coming to earth—for indeed, if He became His Father’s Son “in a new sense” when becoming man, He had previously been Son of the Father in a different, older sense. 

But the different roles ascribed by the inspired pen to the Members of the Godhead are a separate issue from the question of whether or not the Godhead consists of three co-eternal Persons, as affirmed by the inspired consensus and the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Scripture and the writings of Ellen White are clear that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit perform both varying and identical roles. We see examples of the former in some of the passages cited above. The sanctification of earthly believers is an example of the latter, as Ellen White declares that “our sanctification is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (24). But irrespective of the different roles they fill, the Members of the Trinity have existed from eternity as distinct divine Persons. 

There are those who insist that Jesus’ title as the Son of God is proof that at some point in the dim reaches of eternity past, He was brought forth from the Father. After all, such reasoning goes, to be a “son” implies originating from another Source. But that’s creaturely wisdom talking, not the Creator’s. We can’t permit rational human thought patterns, arithmetic, or other logical constructs to sit in judgment on divine truth. What accurately describes human relationships—like a child originating from a parent—does not necessarily describe divine realities. The inspired writings identify Jesus as the Son of the Father, but they also maintain—as we have seen—that He existed with the Father from eternity as a distinct Person (25), and that the life in Him is “original, unborrowed, underived” (26).

Whether or not this makes sense to our finite minds is not important. Three Persons equaling one God may sound like mathematical or philosophical nonsense, but divine truth stands above and beyond the fixed limits of human thought. Like Noah’s Flood, which from a human standpoint was scientifically impossible, heavenly realities are not subject to human analysis, and must be accepted on faith.

The Deity and Personhood of the Holy Spirit

Both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White are clear that the Holy Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is a distinct divine Person, not a mere force or essence. Repeatedly, in His promise to His disciples to send the Holy Spirit, Christ refers to this Spirit by such pronouns as “He” and “Him” (John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:7,13-14). In giving the Great Commission just before His ascension, Jesus placed the Holy Ghost alongside His Father’s name and His own name, declaring that His followers should be baptized in the name of all three (Matt. 28:19). 

We have noted already several very clear Ellen White statements affirming the Deity and Personhood of the Holy Spirit, along with that of the Father and the Son. Let us review them again:

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 (27).

The eternal heavenly dignitaries—God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit—arming them (the disciples) with more than mortal energy . . . would advance with them to the work and convince the world of sin (28).

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the three holy dignitaries of heaven, have declared that they will strengthen men to overcome the powers of darkness (29).

When we have accepted Christ, and in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit have pledged ourselves to serve God, the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit—the three dignitaries and powers of heaven—pledge themselves that every facility shall be given to us if we carry out our baptismal vows to “come out from among them, and be . . . separate, . . . and touch not the unclean thing” (30).

When you gave yourself to Christ, you made a pledge in the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the three great personal Dignitaries of heaven (31).  

Other statements also identify the Holy Spirit as both God and a personal Being:

We need to realize that the Holy Spirit, who is as much a person as God is a person, is walking through these grounds.

The Holy Spirit is a Person, for He beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. . . . 

The Holy Spirit has a personality, otherwise He could not bear witness to our spirits and with our spirits that we are the children of God. He must also be a divine person, else He could not search out the secrets which lie hidden in the mind of God (32).

Many have called our attention to Ellen White statements which speak of the Holy Spirit being the Spirit of Jesus Christ and of His Father (33). This we acknowledge. But this doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit can’t also be a distinct Person. It is not a question of either/or, but of both/and. The following Ellen White statement is clear that the Holy Spirit’s personality is in fact distinct from that of Jesus Christ:

The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, in Christ’s name.  He personifies Christ, yet is a distinct personality (34).

Elsewhere we read:

The prince of the power of evil can only be held in check by the power of God in the Third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit (35).

The Comforter is called the ‘Spirit of truth.’ His work is to define and maintain the truth. He first dwells in the heart as the Spirit of truth, and thus He becomes the Comforter. . . . Through the Scriptures the Holy Spirit speaks to the mind, and impresses truth upon the heart. Thus He exposes error, and expels it from the soul. . . . 

Sin could be resisted and overcome only by the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power (36).

Evil had been accumulating for centuries and could only be restrained and resisted by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power (37).

He (Christ) determined to give His Representative, the Third Person of the Godhead. This gift could not be excelled (38).

The Godhead was stirred with pity for the race; and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit gave Themselves to the working out of the plan of salvation (39).

There are those who claim that while the Holy Spirit is a Person, He is not a separate Being. Yet Ellen White, in the following statement, identifies the Members of the Godhead as individual Beings:

You are baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. You are raised up out of the water to live henceforth in newness of life—to live a new life. You are born unto God, and you stand under the sanction and the power of the three holiest beings in heaven, who are able to keep you from falling (40).

Conclusion: Three Co-Eternal Persons

Some have asked, “If anti-Trinitarianism is so wrong, why did Ellen White not directly rebuke those of her contemporaries who held these views?” Others wonder aloud that if, as Ellen White says, the Advent movement could have finished their task and gone home long before 1888 (41), when so many of our pioneers held anti-Trinitarian beliefs, these teachings couldn’t possibly be so dangerous, or they would have been confronted and corrected far sooner by the testimony of the Spirit of Prophecy.

Speculation like this is always dangerous. It’s like those critics of the Sabbath doctrine who ask, if the Sabbath is so important, why it isn’t mentioned specifically in the various New Testament lists of sins? The reasons inspired counsel explicitly defines truth and error in certain settings but not in others, is not always known. All we can do with respect to any issue is to consult and accept the collective inspired witness. On the issue of the Trinity, or Godhead, and its composition of three co-eternal Persons, the inspired testimony—affirmed in the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—is clear beyond question.

        
References

1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 80.

2. ----Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 108.

3. ----Early Writings, p. 78.

4. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, pp. 83-84.

5. Ibid, p. 52.

6. ----1888 Materials, vol. 1, p. 164.

7. Ibid, vol. 2, p. 566.

8. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016), p. 162.

9. White, Evangelism, p. 615.

10. Ibid, p. 616. See also SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1110; vol. 6, p. 1075; vol.
7, p. 959.

11. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 20.

12. ----The Desire of Ages, pp. 469-470.

13. ----Signs of the Times, May 3, 1899.

14.  ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p.  1136.

15.  ----The Desire of Ages, p. 19.

16.  ----Acts of the Apostles, pp. 38-39.

17.  ---- Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 220.

18.  Ibid, p. 247 (italics supplied).

19.  ----The Desire of Ages, p. 530.

20.  Ibid, p. 70.

21.  See John W. Peters, “Restoration of the Image of God: Headship and Submission

22.  White, Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, p. 9.

23.  ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1114.

24.  Ibid, vol. 7, p. 908.

25.  ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 247.

26. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 530.

27.  ----Evangelism, p. 615.

28.  Ibid, p. 616.

29.  SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1110.

30.  Ibid, vol. 6, p. 1075.

31.  Ibid, vol. 7, p. 959.

32.  ----Evangelism, pp. 616-617.

33. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 131; Acts of the Apostles, pp. 50-51; Christian Service, pp. 250, 252, etc.

34.  ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, p. 324.

35.  ----Evangelism, p. 617.

36.  ----The Desire of Ages, p. 671.

37.  ----Testimonies to Ministers, p. 392.

38.  ----My Life Today, p. 36.

39.  ----Counsels on Health, p. 222.

40. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 7, p. 267.

41.  ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 68.