The Godhead (part 1)

Introduction A

I’m writing from Malaysia where I have made many Muslim friends in the last couple years from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and, of course, Malaysia.  And as I am connected to most of these electronically, it seems likely to me that one or more of them might read this.  So, for the rest of you, please endure a word of explanation to them:

Friends, the reason that I am a Seventh-day Adventist is not because I just accepted the religion of my family or nation.  It is because I found incredible power in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is because I found incredible prophecies in the prophetic books that proved that those books were still reliable today.  It is because I searched for truth and God helped me find it.

And what kind of truth did I find?  Truth about history.  Truth about world religions.  Truth about how to escape from sinful habits.  Truth about how to be justified in the Day of Judgment.  Truth about the life and work of Jesus.

What I never did find is prophets writing about a “Trinity.”  So when I talk to you about religion, I never talk about my views about God.  I don’t think it is reverent to argue about ideas that are high above us.  I won’t argue about the nature of God.

But recently, some of my friends have begun arguing about the Godhead, about mysterious questions.  And this article is written to help them.  It may or may not be interesting to you.

Introduction B

You and I can work together if we have the same mission.  We need not agree on minor points if our major aim harmonizes well.  This is why James White (a non-trinitarian) could work together so finely with William Miller (a trinitarian) before the Great Disappointment.  Their message was to lead people to prepare for Christ’s soon return.  And little arguments about the great ancient pre-earth past just couldn’t hold a candle to questions about the very near future.

I can work with you for the same reason if you and I share a burden for the Three Angels’ Messages.

Those messages relate to the whole Bible.  But they are not the whole Bible.  They are the part of the wide Bible message that is particularly at issue today.  They include messages about the Judgment, the work of Creation, the fall of Babylon, the Mark of the Beast, the commandments of God and about righteousness by faith.  And they include instructions about to whom we should be sharing these messages: to every kindred, tribe and people (this is why I am in Malaysia far from my mother and brother and in-laws and nephews and nieces).

Those messages were given to unite our efforts, and to unite our hearts, and to keep us away from arguments regarding periphery things.

“These messages were represented to me as an anchor to the people of God.  Those who understand and receive them will be kept from being swept away by the many delusions of Satan”  (EW 256.2).

Our pioneers worked tirelessly to share these three messages.

Those who read broadly in their writings know that the pioneers of the Adventist message were not trying to convert the mainstream church members to a non-trinitarian position.  What message did these courageous men present to the world?  They wrote books on the Sabbath, on spiritualism, and on the truths of the sanctuary.  They wrote about mortality and about God’s law.[i]  These are all themes of the Three Angels’ Messages.

They did not write any books on the Godhead.

Consider this also: The three books designed by Ellen White to warn (GC) and prepare (DA, STC) the world for Christ’s coming can be read with pleasure and appreciation by trinitarians and by many non-trinitarians alike.  They just were not written to change the public’s view regarding questions on the Godhead.

I did say that none of the pioneers wrote a book on this topic.  Well, J. H. Waggoner almost did.  In 1877 he wrote a book titled “The Holy Spirit.”  He was a non-trinitarian.  And in this book was his perfect opportunity to express his core beliefs on this topic.  Instead, he said that Adventists had never dared to even enter the discussion of whether the Spirit was a person. And there were reasons, he said, for not entering into the argument.  One reason was the ambiguity of the terms.  But the other was this: it was not an issue settled by “direct revelation.”

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 [this topic] just where the word of God leaves it.

A person then who read between the lines might have been able to conclude that Waggoner was less than persuaded by the Trinitarian creeds.  But one would have been equally sure that the author was not writing the book to contradict them.

In other words, the pioneers were private non-trinitarian persons who took the Three Messages to a trinitarian world.  And they rarely, in lectures or books for the public, even alluded to the issue of the Godhead.

In one other of Waggoner’s books did he address his concerns with the Trinity.  And there he almost sounded like he would be a trinitarian if the word was only defined differently.  He did not want to be confused with those who denied Christ’s divinity.

[Some] take the denial of a trinity to be equivalent to a denial of the divinity of Christ.  Were that the case, we should cling to the doctrine of a trinity as tenaciously as any can; but it is not the case.  They who have read our remarks on the death of the Son of God know that we firmly believe in the divinity of Christ; but we cannot accept the idea of a trinity, as it is held by Trinitarians, without giving up our claim on the dignity of the sacrifice made for our redemption.[ii]

This comment comes from his book on the atonement.  And it provides quite an insight as to why he opposed the creedal concept of the Trinity.  The creeds said some strange things that, to our Biblical-minded pioneers, sounded like so much meaningless gibberish or worse.  James White complained that 3 does not equal 1. Joseph Bates couldn’t see how Jesus could be at the same time be the Father and the Son.  More significantly, several pioneers thought that the creeds made Christ’s sacrifice into a merely human sacrifice (since divinity can’t die).

And James was right.  Three are not one person as some creeds alleged. Bates was right.  The Son and the Father do not have interchangeable positions in Scripture.  And the pioneers were right that a merely human sacrifice would never atone for our sin.

But on that last point Smith and Waggoner wrote too much.  The blending of Christ’s two natures, his taking humanity so that he could “taste death” for all of us, are mysteries that we cannot penetrate.  How Jesus could really die as He was, is not for us to know.

And I, for the record, wish that our 28 fundamental beliefs were more ambiguous in regard to the Godhead.  There are things we just don’t need to know.  And consequently, we don’t know them.

I mean, we don’t know anything about the Spirit’s substance.  We don’t know anything about the Spirit’s eternal pre-existence.  And if we agree that “in the beginning the Word was with God, and the Word was God” we probably should admit that we don’t know anything about something before that beginning.  We don’t know if the Son was a Son at that point.  We don’t know that He was.  And we don’t know that He wasn’t.  And as I said a bit ago, there are some things we just don’t need to know.

On that very topic where Waggoner said “we” did not dare to go, Uriah Smith did go.  A question sent to the Review drew it out of him.  And the question shows that the readers were not settled on the question at hand as to whether the Spirit was a person.  As Editor, Uriah returned answer through the Review.  He addressed the question again for the General Conference.  In other words, when Smith (twice, in 1890-1891) expressed views of the Spirit that are believed by many today, he did both times for an inside audience(as an aside, these very years were a very low point in the spiritual life of Uriah Smith).

If during his 30 years writing for the church you were to read about 4,000 pages from his pen, only four of those pages would allude to questions regarding the nature of the Godhead.  Did he have non-trinitarian views?  Yes.  Did he promote them in print?  For someone who wrote weekly as an editor, he did so only very rarely[iii].  If you, friend, also have non-trinitarian views, I wish you would imitate the good pioneers on this point.

Of course, the pioneers are not our models.  And their beliefs are not a criterion for what we should believe.  So let’s get to some other points.

New, Old, Original, Orthodox, and a love of Civil Debate

Our lack of Biblical literacy makes us sitting ducks for well-camouflaged error.  When we see an apparently compelling study using much scripture in a persuasive way, we are intrigued and, at the same time, clueless.  But I have written on this elsewhere.

In the arguments over the godhead, personality gets involved in a subtle way.  Some persons are naturally orthodox.  They want to defend the church’s position and react bearishly when it is attacked.  Others are naturally inquisitive and independent.  They don’t want to be controlled or boxed.  They want to think for themselves (I am naturally in the latter of these two groups). The trouble with these internal influences is that they make us easily manipulated.  Satan only need bring up an issue to transform us into brawlers (as Paul calls them in Titus 3:1-3).

Again, much could be written about this.  But if you are looking for data on the godhead, that writing would weary you.  So let us study some Bible ideas:

Three Types of Sons:

We, in Romans 8, are sons of God by adoption (and that adoption is evidenced by our conformity to God’s will, Romans 8:14).  Our adoption makes us “joint-heirs” (Romans 8:17) “with Christ.”  But unlike us, He was not adopted.

And in Job 38, the angels are called “the sons of God.”  There they, holy created beings, are rejoicing as they see the earth being fashioned.  They are sons of God by creation.  That is what Adam was also, a son by creation (Luke 3:38).

But Jesus is the unique Son of God.  Only He is begotten.

A complete offering has been made; for “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son,”—not a son by creation, as were the angels, nor a son by adoption, as is the forgiven sinner, but a Son begotten in the express image of the Father's person, and in all the brightness of his majesty and glory, one equal with God in authority, dignity, and divine perfection. In him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily  (ST May 30, 1895).

What this intriguing statement tells us is the same thing that Scripture tells us a hundred times. Jesus is the “only begotten Son.”

But when was He begotten? Some trinitarians would say it was about 4 BC when Mary, impregnated by the Spirit of God, gave birth.  Some other creeds would say something quite incomprehensible, namely that he is “eternally begotten.” (See the Nicene Creed. This is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church).

The Scripture speaks directly to this question regarding the timing of the begetting.  Surprised?  Psalm 2 tells that there was certainly a day when the Father said to the Son, “this day have I begotten thee.”

"I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" (Psalm 2:7).

Hebrews directly points out this declaration regarding Christ to be the event that separates Him from the angels.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?  And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? (Hebrews 1:5).

Notice the future tense of the second statement in the verse. “I will be to him a Father…”

But though both verses mention a particular day when the Father spoke to the Son, neither tells us a great deal about when this conversation happened.  Psalms 2 does, however, give us some hints.  On the same day, apparently, the Father offered to give the heathen to Jesus for an inheritance.

I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.  Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession (Psalms 2:7).

Thankfully the Bible does clearly tell us elsewhere what day this incredible dialogue between the Father and Son happened.

God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.  And as concerning that he raised him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, he said on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David (Acts 13:33-34).

So what day did the Father say, “Today I have begotten you”?  It was at the resurrection.  And to understand that curious fact there are a few other Bible ideas we need to follow.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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Eugene Prewitt directs the Bible Teacher Training hosted by Aenon.  From there, his teachers train young people from around Asia to reach the various people groups of South East Asia. During school breaks and on weekends he and his wife Heidi frequently travel to put on presentations on Bible topics, canvassing and on Christian Education.

 

[i] Take the titles of publications authored by J. H. Waggoner, J. N. Loughborough, J. N. Andrews, and Joseph Bates, for example. Not counting periodicals, they authored a total of 79 printed items with about 8,500 pages of material. We select these four men as four that wrote on the issue of the Godhead and who also published widely for the church. How many of those 79 publications were dedicated to key topics?

There were seven on the sanctuary and on Investigative Judgment. Twenty-four on the Sabbath. Then another nine on two or more ideas from the Three Angel’s Massages. Four were written on the Law of God or on the Covenants. Ten were written about death or hell or spiritualism. Three were on apocalyptic prophecy. Two each addressed the ministry of Ellen White, spiritual gifts, church finance, church order, America in Prophecy, the Second Coming, personal salvation, or autobiographies of the authors. One was Haskell’s Bible handbook on all kinds of topics. The other five included one each on Advent History, Baptism, Health, Religious Freedom, and the Story of Redemption.

 

[ii] J.H. Waggoner, The Atonement In The Light Of Nature And Revelation, 1884, pp. 164, 165

[iii] He even neglected some excellent opportunities to distance himself from Trinitarians. See TRIMM 2.2 where he compares the Godhead to a firm of three persons acting in concert. This is in a refutation of Greek Orthodox triple baptism.