The Trinity doctrine in Adventism--A Brief History
This overview of the "Trinity" doctrine in Adventism serves as a "PREFACE" to the BEGINNING of a SERIES of studies on the Godhead and the Holy Spirit. You will want to begin reading this study with this "Preface" and then read the following pages SEQUENTIALLY as they "Build" on one another. If you are Returning here to Continue the Study you may use the following "Jump To" links to begin where you left off. This is a Powerful Study and you won't want to skip anything. Enjoy!
This brief overview of the "Trinity" doctrine's entrance into the Seventh-day Adventist Church is written to provide impetus for you to dig into the studies that follow on the topic of the Holy Spirit. I have found that a surprising number of Seventh-day Adventist have practically no knowledge of how we have come to believe in the Trinity and even believe that this doctrine was one of the "Fundamental" beliefs of our founding pioneers and of Ellen White herself. It was not. I myself was not aware of its complete history within our denomination nor the surprising fact that "one man" was primarily responsible for its induction into the SDA Church until my book "Are We Missing Something Here" was nearing completion. It will become clear why this doctrine is dangerous and why we need to "reconsider" our belief in it. It is my hope that this information will be helpful in creating a better-informed audience and provide a "reason" for our looking into this study of the Godhead - and more specifically, the Holy Spirit.
It is important for us to note that the Catholic Church considers the doctrine of the Trinity to be the "central doctrine" of their faith: "The mystery of the trinity is the central doctrine of the Catholic faith. Upon it are based all the other teachings of the church." (Handbook for Today's Catholic. Pg. 16).
So how did the "central doctrine" of the Catholic Church make its way into, and end up as a central doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist faith? It may come as a surprise to many that LeRoy Froom (perhaps our Church's most prominent historian) was primarily responsible for introducing the Trinitarian doctrine to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and very purposefully set about to promote its acceptance and institute it into the beliefs of the Church.
In his book "Movement of Destiny", which was published in 1971, he tells us how he came to write about the Holy Spirit and how he came to believe in the "Trinity." His brief account of this is very enlightening in terms of both his history and his method. Here is what he has to say concerning this:
"May I here make a frank, personal confession? When back between 1926 and 1928 I was asked by our leaders to give a series of studies on "The Holy Spirit"... I found that aside from priceless leads found in the Spirit of Prophecy, there was practically nothing in our literature setting forth a sound, Biblical exposition in this tremendous field of study. There were no previous pathfinding books on the question in our literature."
"I was compelled to search out a score of valuable books written by men outside of our Faith….for initial clues and suggestions, and to open up beckoning vistas to intensive personal study. Having these, I went on from there. But they were decided early helps. And scores, if not hundreds, could confirm the same sobering conviction that some of these other men frequently had a deeper insight into the spiritual things of God than many of our own men had on the Holy Spirit and the triumphant life. It was still a largely obscure theme…."
"It was then that I again saw the peerless pre-eminence of the Spirit of Prophecy portrayals that not only supported but greatly enhanced the choicest gems of truth glimpsed in part by these other writers…."
Mr. Froom then exuberantly exclaims: "Thank God, that time of reticence and misunderstanding has passed….This is the supreme hour….Thank God, that final awakening is definitely underway. (Movement of Destiny, p. 322: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1971; used by permission; Emphasis Mine).
Froom goes on to state that the "Truth of the Trinity" was an inevitable evolution in our theology stemming from the 1888 Conference and message:
"When once the sublime truth of the complete Deity of Christ…was affirmed by a growing number at and after the Minneapolis session, emphasis on certain inseparably related truths followed inevitably."
"Thus the Truth of the Trinity was set forth in Tract form by the Pacific Press…in February, 1892….It was not written by one of our own men, but by "the late Dr. Samuel Spear."…. This sound and helpful tract by Spear…. was simple, but adequate, as the first step in recognition and declaration. It was the logical aftermath of 1888."
Mr. Froom concludes his brief account by claiming that the book "The Desire of Ages" presented an "inspired depiction" of the trinity doctrine and because of this it has become our denominations' "accepted position." Froom also boasts that the "Desire of Ages" was even publicized in a prominent Catholic journal (as if this adds credibility to the book). Here it is in his own words: "...The Desire of Ages, of course, presented an inspired depiction, and was consequently destined to become the denominationally accepted position…. The Desire of Ages…. is one of the most highly esteemed books of the Denomination-a recognized classic, even publicized in such a Catholic journal as the "Universal Fatima News" for September 1965." (Movement of Destiny; pp. 323,324; used by permission). I must admit that the reason for Mr. Froom's obvious pride in its endorsement and publicity in a "Catholic Journal" puzzles me. One can hardly conclude that this inclusion adds anything to the credibility of the book, or proves that The Desire of Ages supports the doctrine of the Trinity!
The very first thing I would like to note about LeRoy Froom's account of how he came to believe in the Trinity is the method he obviously employed in arriving at his conclusions. Mr. Froom did not start his study with the Bible and then move on to the writings of Ellen White before turning to "outside" sources. Indeed, Mr. Froom did his study in the exact opposite order! He began with the writings and theologies of "men outside our faith" and worked his way back to the writings of Ellen White in order to find support for his conclusions. Even if Ellen White had been alive and had agreed with his conclusions, I believe that she would NOT have approved of his method in arriving at his position. Our denomination would most certainly never have been brought into existence if we had begun our study of such topics as the Sabbath, the State of the Dead, the Sanctuary, and others if we had conducted our study of these subjects in the manner that Mr. Froom employed! And when it comes to the Trinity doctrine the fact is that Ellen White never used the term "Trinity" in any of her writings, and as we will see, she did not actually support this doctrine.
The REASON LeRoy Froom could not find anything he considered "Pathfinding" written by any of our Pioneers - or by men within our faith on the subject of the Holy Spirit; is NOT because there had been nothing written on the subject but because NONE of our pioneers were "Trinitarians" and therefore did not agree with Elder Froom's conclusions or opinions! Mr. Froom states that even the Spirit of Prophecy had only "priceless leads" to offer him as he began his study. Yet he later declares that the Desire of Ages set forth an "inspired depiction" of the Trinity. If the Desire of Ages truly sets forth an inspired depiction of the "Trinity" and was the "Denominationally accepted position" of the Trinity, why didn't Mr. Froom acknowledge this to start with as he began his study of this subject in 1926? And if Mrs. White had truly set forth an inspired depiction of the Trinity as far back as 1898, why couldn't He find much more material to support his position within the rest of the pages of the Spirit of Prophecy? If Mrs. White truly believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, why is it that she NEVER used the term "Trinity" to describe the Godhead in any of her writings?
The fact is that LeRoy Froom "discovered" what he believed was the "truth of the Trinity" and the Holy Spirit from writers "not of our faith", and then set out to support it with statements from the Spirit of Prophecy. LeRoy Froom wrote a book called, "The Coming of the Comforter" as a result of, and shortly following his study during 1926-1928.
Mr. Froom, talking about the publication of his book in a letter to Dr. Otto H. Christiansen on October 27, 1960; stated that:
"May I state that my book, The Coming of The Comforter, was the result of a series of studies that I gave in 1927 - 28, to Ministerial institutes throughout North America. You cannot imagine how I was pummeled by some of the old-timers…" and speaking of his Trinitarian views he states: "Some men denied that...still deny it, but the book has come to be generally accepted as standard." It should be noted that this book is still widely used and is available in our ABC bookstores.
In 1969, Russel Holt, in a term paper entitled "The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination: Its Rejection and Acceptance" (Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary), divides our denominational history on the subject of the Trinity into three periods: During the first period, which he delineates as 1844-1890, he says: "the field was dominated by those who saw the trinity as illogical, unscriptural, pagan and subversive of the atonement. .... anti-trinitarianism is the evident denominational stance."
He next refers to the time period of 1890-1900, saying: "Roughly within this period, the course of the denomination on the trinity was decided by statements from Ellen G. White." (Ibid. Emphasis Mine).
Finally, He states of the period between 1900-1930: "This period saw the death of most of those pioneers who had championed and held the anti-Trinitarian position. Their places were being taken by men who were changing their thinking, or had never opposed the doctrine...." (see--http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/trinity/moon/moon-trinity1.htm, all Emphasis Mine).
Russell Holt, commenting on Froom's publication of "The Coming of the Comforter (and the subsequent writing of other's) states that: "The trinity began to be published, until by 1931 it had triumphed, and had become the standard denominational position. Isolated stalwarts remained who refused to yield, but the outcome had been decided." (Emphasis Mine).
In 1931, F.M. Wilcox included the term "trinity" in the S.D.A. Yearbook's 22-point "Statement of Beliefs" and this was the first time that this term was seen in any Adventist Statement of Beliefs. Immediately following, in 1932, this pro-trinitarian Statement of Beliefs was added to the first "Church Manual" and all succeeding "Adventist Yearbooks" and began to appear in nearly all the Church books. It had not been voted on by the Church at large, by the General Conference, nor even by a representative body of the leaders of the S.D.A. Church. The 1931 Statement of Beliefs read as follows: "That the Godhead, or Trinity, consists of the Eternal Father, a personal, spiritual Being, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, infinite in wisdom and love; the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, through whom all things were created and through whom the salvation of the redeemed hosts will be accomplished; the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, the great regenerating power in the work of redemption. Matt. 28:19." (Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, "Seventh-day Adventist Year Book", [Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1931], 377).
Holt comments on this change in our fundamental beliefs by noting: "A comparison of statements of faith issued at various times by the denomination shows a marked change in the opinion of the church concerning the trinity...." He observes that: "... Separate statements appeared in 1874, 1889, 1894 and 1931. The first three of these are, for all practical purposes, identical in the articles dealing with the deity. A comparison of the statements of 1874 and 1931 shows the change."
Please note that there was no change in the Statement of Beliefs in regard to the "Trinitarian" viewpoint while Ellen White was alive.
J.S. Washburn (1863-1955; a retired Adventist minister and contemporary of Ellen White -- He was converted by J. N. Andrews at 11, baptized by James White at 12 and began preaching Adventism at 21), opposed this change in the strongest possible terms writing: "The doctrine of the trinity is a cruel, heathen monstrosity, removing Jesus from His true position of Divine Saviour and mediator….This monstrous doctrine transplanted from heathenism into the Roman, papal church is seeking to intrude its evil presence into the teachings of the Third Angel's Message."
Washburn goes on to say: "If we should go back to the immortality of the soul, purgatory, eternal torment and the Sunday Sabbath, would that be anything less than apostasy? If however we leap over all these minor, secondary doctrines and accept and teach the very central, root doctrine of Romanism, the trinity, and teach that the Son of God did not die, even though our words seemed to be spiritual, is this anything else and anything less than apostasy and the very omega of apostasy?" (See Judson Washburn, "The Trinity," 1939. Emphasis mine).
Benjamin Wilkinson, the man who wrote the book entitled "Truth Triumphant", wrote a letter to Dr. T.S. Teters in 1936, saying: "Replying to your letter of October 13 regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, I will say that Seventh Day Adventists do not, and never have accepted the dark, mysterious, Catholic doctrine of the Trinity."
In 1941, the Baptismal Vow was revised to include the trinitarian statement (Mr. Froom was involved in this action as well). So that, NOW, in order to become a Seventh-day Adventist, you have to agree to belief in the trinity.
In a letter written to Roy Allan Anderson, J.L. Schuler, Denton Reebok, A.W. Peterson, W.G. Turner and J.E. Weaver; November 22,1966; LeRoy Froom says: "I am writing to you brethren as a group for you are the only living members of the original committee of 13, appointed in 1931 to frame a uniform baptismal covenant. Elder Branson was the chairman and I was Secretary. The task of this committee was to formulate a uniform baptismal covenant and vow based on the 1931 Fundamental Beliefs statement in the yearbook and Manual…to point up a bit more sharply, the first, second and third persons of the Godhead." (Emphasis mine).
In 1945, all the standard Adventist books were edited, and all the anti-trinitarian statements taken from them. In his book Movement of Destiny, LeRoy Froom states: "The next logical and inevitable step in the implementing of our unified fundamental beliefs, involved revision of certain standard works, so as to eliminate statements that taught, and thus perpetuated erroneous views on the Godhead. Such sentiments were now sharply at variance with the accepted fundamental beliefs set forth in the Church Manual." (Movement of Destiny, page 422 Emphasis Mine).
The "official" acceptance of the "Trinity" into our fundamental beliefs did not come until 1946. According to Dr. Jerry A. Moon (in "Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1, 113-129"): "when the statement had gained general acceptance, the General Conference session of 1946 made it official, voting that "no revision of this Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, as it now appears in the[Church] Manual, shall be made at any time except at a General Conference session." [see Fifteenth Meeting, General Conference Report No. 8, Review and Herald, June 14, 1946] (Emphasis mine).
In 1946 the book Evangelism was compiled from the writings of Ellen White. LeRoy Froom (along with others) was instrumental in the choice and compilation of statements from Ellen White's writings, which seemed to support the Trinitarian viewpoint. This book contains the quotes most often used now (from the writings of Ellen White), to support the trinitarian doctrine within our denomination.
Here's what Froom had to say about this in a letter he wrote to Roy Allan Anderson on January 18, 1966: "I am sure that we are agreed, in evaluating the book Evangelism, as one of the great contributions in which the Ministerial Association had a part back in those days. You know what it did with men in the Columbia Union who came face-to-face with the clear, unequivocal statements of the Spirit of Prophecy on the deity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the trinity and the like." "They either had to lay down their arms and accept those statements, or else they had to reject the Spirit of Prophecy. I know that you and Miss Cluser and I had considerable to do with the selection of those things under the encouragement of men like Elder Branson, who felt that the earlier concept of the White Estate brethren on this book on evangelism was not adequate." Note: I fear that this is still the attitude of our Denomination and that it is based largely on the Ellen White quotes that were chosen to be included in the book Evangelism. The book you now hold in your hands will seriously challenge the assumptions that have been made because of the narrow and carefully selected use of Ellen's writings on this subject.
In 1955 there were meetings of the leaders of the Adventist Church (primarily Roy Allan Anderson and LeRoy Froom) with Dr. Walter Martin and Dr. Barnhouse, two evangelical theologians who felt that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was a cult, and as a result of these meetings the book "Questions on Doctrine" (a book in which LeRoy Froom played a leading role) was produced in 1957 in an attempt to show that SDA's were NOT a cult and that we were quite "mainstream" in our beliefs - including the doctrine of the Trinity. [This book, unfortunately, also contained statements that we do not believe the atonement is taking place in Heaven right now, that Christ came with an "unfallen" human nature, and other untrue and misleading statements regarding Seventh-day Adventist beliefs].
In 1980, the General Conference voted on a new set of "27 Fundamental Beliefs" in which the Trinity doctrine was upheld. Fundamental belief number 2 now read: "2. The Trinity[.] There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons." (Emphasis mine). The concept delineated here, that there are "three co-eternal Persons", is in complete harmony with the Catholic Church's teaching regarding the "Trinity" and, as we shall see, is incorrect.
In 1988 the book "Seventh-day Adventists Believe…A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Beliefs" was published and included the doctrine of the Trinity. This book was highly promoted for use as an evangelistic tool to explain to non-Adventists what we believe our core doctrines to be.
It seems clear to me, as I review the history of the "Trinity" doctrine and its acceptance into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, that something has gone seriously amiss within our denomination. We have not critically considered the "Truth" (or non-Truth) of this doctrine in light of the Great Controversy, and we have certainly not considered the serious implication this doctrine has on the sacrifice, mediation, and ministry of Jesus Christ! Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity - with its focus on the Holy Spirit as a "third co-eternal person" of the Godhead - has successfully caused us to lose our focus on Christ, His Sacrifice, and His ministry in the lives of all believers since the Cross. It effectively limits Christ's ministry to that of "Justification" only, while leaving the work of "Sanctification" to the "Third" person of the Godhead-the Holy Spirit. This is, frankly, unbiblical - and is why we must earnestly examine this subject. I pray that you will find, as a result of your prayerful consideration of these studies, that your focus is returned the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and that your understanding of His great sacrifice in the plan of redemption will be broadened and enriched beyond words.
These studies are, in fact, about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and are not meant to be a refutation our denomination's "Trinity" doctrine per se, but rather a studies that will open up to you the enormity of the sacrifice of Christ on your and my behalf. A clear understanding of this sacrifice will enable you to refute quite adequately the "Trinity" doctrine on your own.
Having said all this, let me state that I do believe that there are "three" persons in the Godhead. How there came to be three is the subject of the studies that follow. The "TRUTH" about the Holy Spirit will astound you! It is a beautiful and important truth for God's Remnant people. My promise to you is that, by the time you have finished these studies, you will understand why an understanding of all this is vitally important. You will clearly understand "who" the Holy Spirit really is and where He came from. You will have a much deeper appreciation of the "inconceivable" sacrifice made by Jesus Christ in order to redeem you and me. And you will be able to intelligently "pray with understanding" for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Latter Rain power. That said; I invite you now to delve into a careful, and prayerful study of the remainder of these Studies.
Next -- #1 Introduction to the Godhead and the Holy Spirit
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