The Trinity: An Introduction

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[This is an abridged version of the vespers study/discussion held by Pastor Zachary Payne on Friday, February 2, 2018]

Seventh-day Adventist Anti-Trinitarianism has become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in the last decade or two.  This is the case around the world, in the NAD, and even here in Wisconsin.  In this post I want to address three traditional complaints held by those who take issue with the Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief of the Godhead or Trinity.  

  • It is not Biblical
  • It is a Catholic doctrine
  • Early Seventh-day Adventists didn’t believe it

Complaint #1: It is Not Biblical

The term “Trinity” throws some people off because of there are claims out there that it is unbiblical.  It is true that you will not find the word in the Bible.  People tend to like the term “Godhead” better, because you may find that word in the Bible.  But we should not get too hung up on words here.  It is important to remember that technically no English word is original to scripture: All English words are translations of other words. 

Example: The word for “Created” in Genesis 1:1 is “BARA” (Hebrew) and is a God-exclusive word.  Only God can “BARA,” or create something out of nothing.  But in English, it’s the same word for a person who is creative.  We cannot “BARA” but we can create, in the modern understanding of the word.  So is the word “create” in Scripture?  It would be easy to say yes, but we’ve just seen that this English word doesn’t quite convey the concept that Moses was trying to get across when he said “God created the heavens and the earth.”  While we can create using the stuff God already created, God can create without the need of previously-existing materials. So yes, it is significant what words we find in the Bible, but the concepts we find are significant as well (maybe even more significant).  This is the case with the Trinity: Even though we can’t find the word, the concept is undoubtedly there.

So let’s look at some Biblical examples.

A. The Great Commission // Matthew 28:29-20

Jesus says that we are to baptize in “the Name” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Not “in the name of the Father, and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit”; and also not “in the names. . . .”  There is one name and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all belong to that one name.  Here we find that there are three “persons” (as they tend to be called by theologians” within the one concept of God.  

B. Creation // Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-4

At Creation we find that “God” (it does not specify which “person”) created the heavens and earth and that the Spirit was also there (v2). In John 1 we find that all things were created by the Word, or Jesus.  So specifically we find that the Son and the Holy Spirit were at Creation.  It makes sense that the Father was there as well, but we find that the other two members are mentioned specifically by scripture as having been there.  This again shows a multiplicity among the God of scripture.  

C. Jesus’ Baptism // Matthew 3:123-17

All three of the members of the Trinity are found present here in this one example.  The Son is baptized, the Father speaks, and the Spirit alights like a dove upon Christ (shortly before driving Him into the wilderness). This example is important because we find all Three here, not just mentioned, but together in one space.

More examples: Romans 14:17-18; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 4:4-6, etc.

Some people might argue for a Duality: the idea that the Son and Father are divine, but that the Holy Spirit is simply Their Will, and not a distinct “person” of the Godhead.  To this, I offer two concepts from Scripture.  

  1. The Holy Spirit is referred to by the Greek pronoun which must be translated as “he” and not “it,” which means that this is a personality and not an object or lifeless force.  
  2. Scripture attributes the Holy Spirit with action verbs:  He guides, speaks, drives, fills, bears witness, dwells in, brings, declares, inspires, etc.  Doe this sound like a force, or is this a personality? 

So we find that, according to how Scripture speaks of the Spirit, this idea does not hold up. 

Finally, in Deuteronomy 6:4 we find that God is “One.”  

So if God is Three, as we have seen from Biblical examples, and God is One, as we have also seen from the Bible, then we must conclude that God is a Tri-Unity or . . . . (drumroll): Trinity.  

So is the Trinity unbiblical?  Sure, the word doesn’t appear in Scripture, but the concept is 100% Biblical, as we have just seen.

Complaint #2:  It is a Catholic Doctrine

The Apostles’ Creed says: 

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.”

The Nicene Creed says:

“We believe in one God,

      the Father almighty,

      maker of heaven and earth,

      of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

      the only Son of God,

      begotten from the Father before all ages,

           God from God,

           Light from Light,

           true God from true God,

      begotten, not made;

      of the same essence as the Father.

   Through him all things were made.

      For us and for our salvation

           he came down from heaven;

           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,

           and was made human.

           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;

           he suffered and was buried.

           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.

           He ascended to heaven

           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

           He will come again with glory

           to judge the living and the dead.

           His kingdom will never end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,

      the Lord, the giver of life.

      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,

      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.

      He spoke through the prophets.

      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,

      and to life in the world to come. Amen.”

So, yes, Catholics do believe in a concept of the Trinity.  However, two questions must be asked in the face of this claim.

  1. Do they believe in the same concept of Trinity as Seventh-day Adventists?
  2. Just because Catholics believe something, does that mean we reject it without making sure whether it’s Biblical or not?

We want to be like the Bereans of Acts 17:11, studying new information alongside scripture earnestly, rather than rejecting it without doing any research.  

Well we already found that there is a Biblical understanding of Trinity when we addressed the first complaint, so we can’t just throw out any idea of the Trinity.  But is there an unhealthy understanding of the Trinity—perhaps a more “Catholic” understanding—that we should stay away from?

Catholics, it turns out, do not believe in the Trinity the same way Seventh-day Adventists do.  This is evident in the Nicene Creed, which is quoted above.  

Notice words like “essence” and “proceeds.”  The Catholic view of God is a “timeless” view that says God is unreachable by humanity.  In Catholic theology, believers must pray to saints and to Mary and maybe even Jesus so that they can plead their case before God the Father, who is quite distant and unknowable for us.  There is a hierarchy in heaven, where God the Father is the only true God, and Jesus is God by proxy—he is is the same “essence” as God the Father.  But they also believe in the concept of “eternal sonship” which says that God the Father has always existed and that Jesus has existed so long that it might as well be forever, but he came out of the Father.  He is not, in a sense, AS eternal as God the Father and is not God in the same sense, although He is the same “essence,” so He is considered God.  The Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and Son and is subject to Their will.

These words like “begotten,” “essence,” “proceeds”: They are all highly contested, and highly fought over terms.  People fought over and died for these specific terms to be used, and because people meddled to this extreme level to figure out what the Trinity was, they turned it into something it never was meant to be.  That is how the “Catholic” understanding of the Trinity came about.  It is okay to reject this view of God and Trinity, because it is man’s creation and not God’s.  But, as we’ve seen above, there is a Biblical version of the Trinity, and that is what Seventh-day Adventists hold onto. 

So when anyone makes the claim that Adventists are believing the same thing as Catholics when we say we believe in the Trinity, they are committing the crime of “eisegesis” (remember, we learned this word at our first vespers this year): that is, reading into Scripture something from our own experiences or biases that is actually not there.  

This is the same thing that happens in our church with the term “Spiritual Formations.”  It’s become a cover-all buzz word that means someone is practicing heretical spirituality. However, if you open up the Minister’s Handbook, which is published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (the highest body of authority in our church), and flip to Chapter 2, you will see that it is entitled: “Spiritual Formations.”  While there are those who will have you believe that anything related to Spiritual Formations is evil, this is simply a chapter on how a minister should pray and read the Bible every day: How we should be formed spiritually on a daily basis.  Through “eisegesis,” many have made something that is very healthy and normal seem scary and monstrous.  It has become such a huge problem, that the Andrews University Theological Seminary had to change the title of their Spiritual Formations class to “Foundations of Biblical Spirituality.”  It’s the same class—no heresy, just a simple class about doing Bible devotions and prayers every day—but people were refusing to go to the Seminary while there was a Spiritual Formations class because of what people were saying about the term, so they eventually just changed the name.

[Note: Yes, there are unhealthy Spiritual Formations—such as forms of Eastern meditation—and some may be practicing those, but there is nothing wrong with Spiritual Formations in an Adventist sense, and using a perfectly healthy phrase to try and condemn someone for heresy is not appropriate.]

We want to make sure we always are performing “exegesis”: that is, letting Scripture tell us for itself what it is trying to say.  

Complaint #3: Early Seventh-day Adventists did not believe in the Trinity

This is true!  100%

But does it mean that it was correct? 

Seventh-day Adventists, in their beginnings, believed in the “Shut Door Theory,” which said that everyone who was not part of the Advent Movement by 1844 was lost and beyond salvation.  This was based off of a misunderstanding Ellen White had about a vision she was given and God soon after corrected her understanding.  We now no longer believe in the Shut Door, but pride ourselves in being a worldwide religion with a vibrant culture of Missions and Evangelism.  

Let’s look at some of our founders and their beliefs on the Trinity…

  • William Miller believed in the Trinity
  • Joshua Himes did not (CC)
  • James White did not (CC)
  • Joseph Bates did not (CC)
  • Uriah Smith believed that Christ was created (similar to Jehovah’s Witnesses today)

The Big Question, however, is: What did Ellen White believe?  

…We’ll get back to that.

Notice how I’ve put a “CC” next to the names of three of our founders?  The CC stands for Christian Connexion, a denomination that all three of these men came out of in order to join the Advent Movement.   It is historically well known that the Christian Connexion opposed the idea of a Trinity.  However, this opposition was not based on Scripture but on logic (i.e. “eisegesis”).  

Elias Smith (in 1840, prominent CC preacher and later Unitarian): “As for three persons being one, and one three, it never was, nor never will be. People may think it is so; but they cannot understand it, for there is no Light in it. This is the mystery of the trinity, and not the mystery of Godliness. Let every person remember, that trinity is an unscriptural Word, invented to express an unscriptural doctrine, which has puzzled and distracted the world down to the present day.”  -Christian Connexion and Unitarian Relations 1800-1844, Thomas Olbricht

Stephen Porter (also a CC preacher): “”These fables are such doctrines and laws as are not named in the Scriptures. I will name a few of them.” The first word on the list, to Porter’s dismay, was “Trinity.”” -Christian Connexion and Unitarian Relations 1800-1844, Thomas Olbricht

These are the sentiments that would have been held or at least understood by the three early Advent believers I listed above who helped found our church.  

But, we find that shortly after her anti-Trinitarian husband passed away, Ellen White began to write more and more strongly in favor of an understanding of the Trinity (in the 1880s-1890s).

Eventually, this lead to her publishing of The Desire of Ages (1898), in which she emphasized the divinity of Jesus and made the claim that the Holy Spirit was the Third Member of the Godhead.  

This slowly started to change how Adventists thought about God and the Trinity.  

This is the place in history where anti-Trinitarians differ from most Seventh-day Adventists.

Because of their commitment to “eisegesis” (reading-in concepts that are not there), anti-Trinitarians go off in some surprising directions with their beliefs.  

  • Conspiracy Theory:  Ellen White never believed in the Trinity, and her writings have been secretly altered by the church to favor a belief in the Trinity (an evil and Catholic doctrine).
    • However, this has been debunked:  M.L. Andreasen looked for himself as a young man, visiting Ellen White and reading—in her own handwriting—the things he was sure she did not write. 
      • Ellen White’s “newly crystallized ideas shook up some of the brethren. One of those was young M. L. Andreasen, who later recalled "how astonished we were when Desire of Ages was first published, for it contained some things that we considered unbelievable; among others the doctrine of the Trinity, which was not generally accepted by the Adventists then."  Being suspicious that perhaps some one had been taking undue license in "editing" her writings, Andreasen later read nearly all Ellen White's handwritten material. "I was particularly interested," he recalled, "in the statement in Desire of Ages which at one time caused great concern to the denomination theologically: 'In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived' (p. 530). That statement may not seem very revolutionary to you, but to us it was. We could hardly believe it. ... I was sure Sister White had never written, 'In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.' But now I found it in her own handwriting just as it had been published.”” Full article: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1993/10/adventists-and-change
  • Rejection/Distortion of clear Bible references to the Trinity: We already saw that the Trinity is in the Bible, so why is there such resistance?  
  • Acceptance/re-appropriation of Catholic view of Trinity:  In promoting rejection of the Trinity, some ministries (Such as the anti-Trinity ministry Revelation1412) use arguments straight out of the Nicene Creed.  This creates a confusing and strange acceptance of the Catholic understanding of a heavenly hierarchy among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in order to convince Adventists not to believe in a Trinity. This strays from the very Biblical version of the Trinity that Seventh-day Adventists believe in.  

Conclusion:  People are falling away from the church right now, even right here in Wisconsin! I’ve seen with my own eyes as people are not kicked out of church but they cut themselves off of the church body because of these beliefs.  I want to encourage anyone who has doubts or questions about the Trinity to go to the Bible and please do not allow yourself to be brainwashed by ministries that lean on “eisegesis” and the twisting of actual documented history to prove a flawed view of God.  As much as they insist we who believe in the Trinity are deceived, from the study I have done on this topic I have a hard time seeing any truth in their claims.