"An interpretive history of the doctrine of the Incarnation as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church III – Ellen White on the Incarnation 1888 - 1915"

XXXVIII - 1 (05)

“Watchman,

what of the night?”

"The hour has come, the hour is striking and striking at you,
the hour and the end!"            Eze. 7:6 (Moffatt)

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An interpretive history of the doctrine of the Incarnation as
taught
by the Seventh-day Adventist Church — 3

 

III

Ellen G. White on the

Incarnation

1888-1915

 

The presentations of Dr. E. J. Waggoner and Elder A. T. Jones on the subject of righteousness by faith during the last decade of the 19th century included of necessity a discussion of the nature of the humanity which the Son of God took upon Himself. Their concepts on the subject of the doctrine of the Incarnation produced opposition. Some of those who were opposed wrote to Ellen White. These did not write simply to obtain the light she had been given in regard to the humanity of the Son of man, but to assert their doubts as the basis of their questioning. To these questioners she replied in a morning talk given at Battle Creek on January 29, 1890. She revealed that letters had been coming to her "affirming that Christ could not have had the same nature as man, for if He had had He would have fallen under similar temptations." To this reasoning, she replied:

 

If He did not have man's nature, He could not be our example. If He did not partake of our nature, He could not have been tempted as man has been. If it were not possible for Him to yield to temptation, He could not be our helper. It is a solemn reality that Christ came to fight the battle as man, in man's behalf. His temptation and victory tell us that humanity must copy the Pattern; man must become a partaker of the divine nature (Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 408).

 

These letters reveal that among the rank and file of Adventists, there was as much a need to clarify the doctrine on the Incarnation, as to understand the 1888 message οn righteousness by faith. The two go hand in hand. In this brief answer, which Ellen White gave to the questioners, there is summarized the same position as found in her writings prior to 1888, and until her death in 1915. While it is true that during this period - 1888-1915 - many more statements on the subject of the Incarnation came from her pen than prior to 1888; however, there was no altering of the basic position as first stated in 1858 - that Jesus would take "man's fallen nature" (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. I, p. 25).

 

There are two approaches which can be used in presenting the material on the Incarnation in the writings of Ellen G. White during the period covered in this chapter: 1) We could simply list by year what was penned; or 2) We can bring [what was penned] together in an interpretive analysis of the statements ιrregαrdless of the year sequence. Since this is an "interpretive" history, we shall use the second approach.

 

To Ellen G. White, the Incarnation "is a great mystery, a mystery that will not be fully, completely understood in all its greatness until the translation of the redeemed shall take place. Then the power and the greatness and efficacy of the gift of God to man will be understood;" however, she cautioned that "the enemy is determined that this gift shall be so mystified that it will become as nothingness" (Letter 280, 1904; 5BC:1113).

 

The magnitude and the depth of the condescension revealed by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, leaves the student "breathless." In 1896, Ellen White wrote:

 

In contemplating the incarnation of Christ in humanity, we stand baffled before an unfathomable mystery, that the human mind cannot comprehend. The more we reflect upon it, the more amazing does it appear. How wide is the contrast between the divinity of Christ and the helpless infant in Bethlehem's manger! How can we span the distance between the mighty God and a helpless child? And yet the Creator of worlds, He in whom was the fullness of the Godhead bodily, was manifest in the helpless babe in the manger. Far higher then any of the angels, equal with the Father in dignity and glory, and yet wearing the garb of humanity! Divinity and humanity were mysteriously combined, and man and God became one (Signs of the Times, July 30, 1896).

 

It is in this union "that we find the hope of our fallen race" (ibid). "The humanity of the Son of

 

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God is everything to us. It is the golden linked chain that binds our souls to Christ, and through Christ to God. This is to be our study" (Ms. 67, 1998: 7BC, p. 904). Therefore, we need to "fix our minds on the most marvellous thing that ever took place in earth or heaven - the incarnation of the Son of God" (Ms. 76, 1903; 7BC:904). "We must come to this study with the humility of a learner, with a contrite heart. And the study of the incarnation of Christ is a fruitful field, and will repay the searcher who digs deep for hidden truth (Ms. 67, 1898; 7ΒC:905).

 

Where is one to begin in the study of the Incarnation? The counsel indicates that ---

 

There are light and glory in the truth that Christ was One with the Father before the foundation of the world was laid. This is the light shining in a dark place, making it resplendent with divine, original glory. This truth, infinitely mysterious in itself, explains other mysterious and otherwise unexplainable truths, while it is enshrined in light, unapproachable and incomprehensible (R&Η, Αρril 5, 1906).

 

As "One with the Father," "the Lord Jesus Christ . . . existed from eternity a distinct Person (ibid.). This distinct Person became the man, Christ Jesus. While Ellen G. White definitely stated that "we cannot explain how divinity was clothed with humanity" (R&H, Oct. 1, 1889), her writings during this period unfold various fundamental aspects of what took place when Christ became man. In 1899, she wrote:

 

Christ at an infinite cost, by a painful process, mysterious to angels as well as to men, assumed humanity. Hiding His divinity, laying aside His glory, He was born a babe in Bethlehem (Ms. 29, 1899).

 

In creation, Christ had given "to humanity an existence outside of Himself;" but "in redemption He takes humanity unto Himself. He makes it a part of His own being" (M. L. Andreasen Collection #2, "The Word Made Flesh"). We might then ask - "Was the human nature of the Son of Mary changed into the divine nature of the Son of God? No; the two natures were mysteriously blended in one person, the man Christ Jesus" (Letter 280, 1904). Or we might ask the question in another way - Was the divine nature degraded by accepting the human nature formed in the womb of Mary? The answer is again - no! "In Christ, divinity and humanity were combined. Divinity was not degraded to humanity; divinity held its place, but humanity by being united with divinity withstood the fiercest test of temptation in the wilderness" (SM, bk 1, p. 408). What then is meant when the expression - Christ "united humanity with divinity" - is used by Ellen White? Observe this definitive reference:

 

He [Christ] united humanity with divinity: a divine spirit dwelt in a temple of flesh. He united Himself with the temple (Youth's Instructor, Dec. 20, 1900; 4BC:1147).

 

The nature of this "temple of flesh" is also clearly defined in this same article. It reads:

 

Think of Christ's humiliation. He took upon Himself fallen, suffering human nature, degraded and defiled by sin (ibid.).

 

Again:

 

Christ did in reality unite the offending nature of men with His own sinless nature, because by this act of condescension He would be enabled to pour out His blessings in behalf of the fallen race (R&H, July 17, 1900).

 

Lest it be misunderstood what she meant by the term, "human nature," or when she wrote that Christ became "flesh," she emphasized that it was "in the likeness of sinful flesh." In an article in the Youth's Instructor, "The Privileges of Childhood” (August 23, 1894), she counselled, "Let children bear in mind that the child Jesus had taken upon Himself human nature, and was in the likeness of sinful flesh, and was tempted of Satan as all children are tempted." [This should dispel forever the deception that Christ bore our fallen nature only at the time of the wilderness temptation, and then merely vicariously.] On another occasion, she wrote - (Christ) "was not only made flesh, but He was made in the likeness of sinful flesh" (W-106-1896). Some might quibble that because she used the language of Scripture, "likeness of sinful flesh," the use of "likeness" meant that the nature that Christ assumed was not really sinful fallen nature, but only something which

 

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physically resembled it. However, in two published sources it is plainly stated that "He took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature" (Medical Ministry, p. 181); and "He took upon Him our sinful nature" (R&H, Dec. 15, 1896).

 

While being specific as to the nature that Christ assumed in becoming incarnate, Ellen White was just as pointed as to the effect of such a union upon Him. She declared that "in His human nature, He maintained the purity of His divine character" (Youth's Instructor, June 2, 1898); and in taking upon Himself man's nature in its fallen condition, Christ did not in the least participate in its sin" (Signs of the Times, June 9, 1898). "No taint of sin was found on Him" (ibid., January 16, 1896).

 

The article in the Signs of the Times from which the last sentence quoted was taken bore the title, "Sin condemned in the flesh." In this article the various Bible texts which refer to Christ's sinlessness were quoted, such as, "that holy thing (Luke 1:35); "He did no sin" (I Peter 2:22); "knew no sin" (II Cor. 5:21); "in Him was no sin" (I John 3:5); and that Christ was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26). Then this sentence is written - "This testimony concerning Christ plainly shows that He condemned sin in the flesh” (ibid.).

 

One positive point Ellen White made in reply to the negative assumption that came to her as a result of the preaching on the subject of righteousness by faith was that if Christ "was not a partaker of our nature, He could not have been tempted as man has been" (Selected Messages, bk. 1, 408). She recognized that - - -

 

Unless there is a possibility of yielding, temptation is no temptation. Temptation comes and is resisted when man is powerfully influenced to do a wrong action, and knowing that he can do it, resists by faith, with a firm hold upon divine power (Ms. 29, 1899).

 

Then she declared - "This is the ordeal through which Christ passed." To pass through this experience presented a two-fold risk to the God-head: 1) A risk to the Son of God personally: and 2) A risk to the unity of the eternal throne unless certain precautions were taken. From the beginning God had exercised great care lest sin become immortalized. Our first parents were driven from the Garden of Eden so they could not partake of the tree of life following their disobedience (Gen. 3:22-23). Now if Christ came into humanity with the immortal aspect of the Godhead - the glory He had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5) - and failed, which had to be a possibility or His temptations would have been meaningless, then there would have been two Beings in eternal antagonism. The Incarnation, of necessity, had to synthesize these two risks.

 

Ellen White indicated that Christ did accept in Himself this synthesis. He came a "free agent, placed on probation, as was Adam, and as is man” (Ms. 29, 1899). Christ also shielded the Eternal Throne. "He humbled Himself, and took mortality upon Him. As a member of the human family, He was mortal." Thus if He sinned, "divine wrath would have come upon Christ as it came upon Adam" (Signs of the Times, June 9, 1898). But while Christ yielded up the divine prerogatives, His place in the Godhead was held in sacred trust, and could not be lost, "while He stood faithful and true to His loyalty" (Signs of the Times, May 10, 1899; 5BC:1129).

 

From 1891 to 1900, Ellen White was in Australia. It was there in 1895 that she wrote a letter to an American worker doing evangelism there. This letter to William L. H. Baker has been used extensively to mitigate the force of all that she wrote during this period on the nature which Christ assumed in becoming a man. [See Appendix Α for a discussion of this letter]. At this very time, she was writing the book, The Desire of Ages, on the life of Christ. Nowhere in the book can there be found statements which would sustain the interpretations being given to the letter which was sent to Elder Baker, but rather contrary wise.

 

Throughout the book - The Desire of the Ages - the description of the humanity which Christ took upon Himself and the victory that He obtained in the flesh reflect the same concepts the author penned in previous publications, and in articles appearing in church papers during this same time period. Of Christ it is stated that He

 

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"accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity." In context, she wrote:

 

It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man's nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race was weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life (p. 49).

 

A prepublication draft of this paragraph is very expressive. It reads:

 

Christ was to take humanity upon Him, not as it was when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden, but as weakened and defiled by four thousand years of sin. He was to come as the Son of man, like every child of Adam, accepting the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were, what the inheritance bequeathed to Jesus in His human nature was, Scripture reveals in the history of those who were the earthly ancestors of our Saviour. With such an heredity, Jesus came as one of us, to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life (Μ. L. Andreasen Collection #2).

 

In another chapter of the book, Ellen White wrote that "as one of us He was to give an example of obedience. For this He took upon Himself our nature, and passed through our experiences" (p. 24). The expressions - "as one of us," and "our nature" - are clearly defined in the book. In one place it is written - "Christ took upon Him the infirmities of degenerate humanity," which for four thousand years "had been decreasing in physical strength, in mental power, and moral worth" (p. 117). "Our Saviour took humanity, with all its liabilities" (ibid.). Christ knew that it was impossible for man to deny the clamor of his fallen nature, and that through this channel, Satan would seek to take advantage of hereditary weakness to ensnare Him, so "by passing over the ground which man must travel, our Lord has prepared the way for us to overcome" (pp. 122-123). "By His humanity, Christ touched humanity: by His divinity, He lays hold upon the throne of God. As the Son of man, He gave us an example of obedience; as the Son of God, He gives us the power to obey" (p. 24).

 

A statement appeared in the Youth's Instructor during 1897 which could serve as a summary of all that the inspired writings have declared in regard to the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. It reads:

 

To human eyes, Christ was only a man, yet He was a perfect man. In His humanity, He was the impersonation of the divine character. God embodied His own attributes in His Son, - His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His purity, His truthfulness, His spirituality, and His benevolence. In Him, though human, all perfection of character, all divine excellence, dwelt (Sept. 16, 1897).