Examining The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity – Brendan Knudson
The controversy over the Godhead in Seventh-day Adventism at the present time is carried out on a number of levels – Biblical, Spirit of Prophecy, Historical and Rational – both individually, and with overlap. The principal of taking “the weight of evidence” (3T, p. 255) should apply to each of these, but in reality, a true understanding will harmonise all so called “anomalies” which lie outside this weight.
One point of historical interest which has presented an ‘anomaly’ in the past to the non-Trinitarian Seventh-day Adventist position is an article by Dr. Samuel T. Spear, D.D., called The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity which appeared as number 90 of the Bible Students Library in 1892. This has been heralded by Trinitarian Seventh-day Adventists as evidence of Trinitarianism in the ranks of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at that early stage. This tract will expose the background of this article, and also highlight some inconsistencies for the Trinitarian who uses this article.
First of all, who is the author? Spear was an Episcopal priest from Brooklyn, New
York who also wrote heavily against church/state unions. During the early to mid
1890’s, Seventh-day Adventism was dominated by two issues: Righteousness by Faith and the then (seemingly) imminent Sunday laws that were being pushed in the United States. Non-SDA articles were often reprinted by Adventist presses, especially by authors whose views on these subjects were in line with Seventh-day Adventism.
Spear’s article was originally reprinted over two issues of Signs of the Times, on December 7 & 14, 1891 (Vol. 18, Nos. 5 & 6) under the title The Subordination of Christ. This gives us an indication of how the article first appealed to the Seventh-day Adventists of that period. Each of these issues included editorial comments on the last page. Here they are in full:
“We call attention to the article entitled ‘The Subordination of Christ,’ by the late Samuel T. Spear, taken from the Independent. It was so long that we found it necessary to divide it. We trust that this candid setting forth of the Trinity will be read with care.” (Signs, Vol. 18, No. 5, p. 80)
“In this number is concluded Dr. Spear’s article on the ‘Subordination of Christ.’ To this candid setting forth of the Trinity, we believe that no Bible student will object. It is worthy of careful reading, for not only the subject matter it contains, but for the way in which it is presented.” (Signs, Vol. 18, No. 6, p. 96)
Now the Trinitarian might jump upon the use of the word trinity in each of these instances and declare their case. However, there is more to unravel which bears upon this matter.
The editor of Signs was M. C. Wilcox. Did Wilcox believe in the trinity doctrine at this time? If we are to take other writings from this decade, we would have to conclude in the negative. Due to the emphasis on righteousness by faith, this decade saw the work of the Holy Spirit receive a level of attention unparalleled in Seventh- day Adventist publications up to this point. In comparison, the personality of the Holy Spirit received very little attention. However, at the rate of about one a year, a
variety of the following question was received by the leading publications, Review and Signs: “May we not understand that the Holy Ghost is a person, as well as the Father, and the Son, or is it Jesus’ Spirit, as most all claim it is?”
The specific question above was answered by M. C. Wilcox in Signs, August 11, 1898 (Vol. 24, No. 31): “The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, the Spirit of Christ, are all one and the same Spirit; for there is “one Spirit, even as ye are called ‘in one hope.’” Eph. 4:4. This Spirit is the outflowing life of God in Christ, and has the power of bringing to the child of God the personality and presence of Christ. In this way it may be said to be a person, while as God’s life it is said to be shed forth, poured out, etc. We cannot comprehend the infinite.”
The next issue of Signs featured an article by Wilcox entitled The Spirit – Impersonal and Personal, in which he expanded upon this subject, saying, “So the Spirit, the Comforter, brings to us Christ’s presence… the “eternal spirit” comes to us as the life force and veritable presence of Jesus Christ; Redeemer, Companion, King.” (Signs, Vol. 24, No. 33, p. 518)
The evidence shows that M. C. Wilcox was non-Trinitarian in the period of the 1890’s at least. So is there another explanation for his use of the term “trinity” as we saw above?
A trend can be seen in this decade where avowedly militant non-Trinitarians became more liberal with their words. Uriah Smith is another example. In 1896 Smith used the term ‘trinity’ to describe the three powers which are mentioned in the baptismal formula and praised in the doxology (see Review, October 27, 1896).
After commenting on this usage, one Trinitarian wrote: “Uriah Smith’s argument here and his use of the word ‘Trinity’ may suggest to some that perhaps his view of the nature of the Holy Spirit and of the relations between the members of the Deity have undergone a change in the direction of Trinitarianism, since last he expressed himself on the subject. As will be seen, this is not so… It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that Uriah Smith consistently held that the Holy Spirit is an influence, not a person nor a member of the Deity in a Trinitarian sense. No evidence has been discovered that he held any other belief on the subject, or that he changed his position prior to his death in 1903.” (Erwin Roy Gane, The Arian or Anti-Trinitarian Views Presented in Seventh-day Adventist Literature and the Ellen G. White Answer)
The evidence of Wilcox and Smith should urge to more study those who are ever ready to jump upon the word “trinity” appearing in Seventh-day Adventist literature of this period as evidence of that doctrines acceptance (For more information, see “When Trinity Doesn’t Mean Trinity” by present author). With this in mind, we now move to look at the Spear article as it appeared in the Bible Student’s Library.
It should be noted that according to the Seventh Day Adventist Encyclopaedia entry, “M. C. Wilcox was chair of the editorial committee for a number of years.” (see entry on the Bible Student’s Library) Each addition to the Library was advertised in the Signs of the Times, sometimes with additional comments. Here are the comments which accompanied the Spear article:
“No. 90 is entitled “The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity,” by the late Samuel T. Spear, D.D., and is reprinted from the New York Independent. While there may be minor thoughts in this worthy number which we might wish to express differently, on the whole we believe that it sets forth the Bible doctrine of the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with a devout adherence to the words of the Scripture, in the best brief way we ever saw it presented.” (Signs, Vol. 18, No. 22)
A later description in May 28, 1894 added the following:
“This tract of 16 pages is a reprint of an article in the New York Independent, by the late Samuel Spear, D.D. It presents the Bible view of the doctrine of the Trinity in the terms used in the Bible, and therefore avoids all philosophical discussion and foolish speculation. It is a tract worthy of reading.” (Signs, Vol. 20, No. 29)
The first of these comments appears to contain a disclaimer of sorts regarding the way certain things in the article were expressed. However, it is also said to be “worthy of reading”. So let us now turn to examine the contents of the article itself.
Reading the article, it becomes apparent that the initial title it ran under, The Subordination of Christ, is the more appropriate to define the contents. In fact, this very theme occupies the majority of the article. Spears sums up his thrust, saying:
“These facts-namely, the absolute unity of the Godhead, excluding all multiplicity of gods, the absolute divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the subordination of Christ in some respect to God the Father-when taken together, have led biblical scholars to consider the question which relates to the method of harmonizing them.”
What little is said of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together as “Trinity” is (apart from wording) acceptable to the non-Trinitarian understanding that there are three agencies/powers/etc of the Godhead.
It is interesting that Spear infers a “tri-personal” God from similar statements that Uriah Smith used “trinity” for. At the same time, Spear makes no effort to outline three co-equal persons or beings in the way that it is found in various trinity beliefs, saying at one point:
“If, however, as some are inclined to do, we undertake to explain the different statements of the Bible relating to the subject, then we must not, on the one hand, adopt any theory of the trinity of the Godhead, of which the divinity of Christ is one element, that involves the supposition of three gods instead of one, and, on the other hand, we must not adopt any theory of the unity of God, or in respect to Christ, that logically excludes the divinity of the latter.”
In fact, this “Bible Doctrine of the Trinity”, while being used as evidence of early Trinitarianism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is also disclaimed by most who point to it as unacceptable to the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. (See Gane, op. cit.; also Max Hatton, Ellen G. White and the Trinity) The Trinitarianism of Spear is not a dogmatic one, but only a way in which he attempts to harmonise the Biblical evidence: “Bible Trinitarians are not Tritheists. They simply seek to state, in the best way in which they can, what they regard the Bible as teaching.”
It is also important that there is no effort made on the part of Spear to expound on the work or personality of the Holy Spirit. It should be noted that J. H. Waggoner’s tract, The Spirit of God: Its Offices and Manifestations to the End of the Christian Age, which set forth the Pioneer position, was also advertised regularly in the Signs of the Times during the year Dr. Spear’s article was printed.
In summary, Spear’s tract beautifully sets forth the
Pioneer truths of:
- Christ’s absolute divinity,
- that Christ’s Sonship “relates to Him as He was before He assumed our nature”,
- that Christ and the Father are separate individuals,
- that Christ is subordinate to the Father in His divinity as well as humanity,
- that there are three personalities of the Godhead which are engaged in the plan of salvation;
with these, no non-Trinitarian who accepts all that the Bible says can disagree.
So we see from examining all the evidence that the printing of The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity, does not “indicate a growing acceptance of this doctrine in the Adventist Church” as Erwin Gane would infer (Gane, op. cit.). Instead it shows an acceptance of Trinitarian language to describe definite non-Trinitarian concepts.
This fact sheds more light on how the doctrine, years after the death of Ellen White, was able to be introduced into the Church to those who were not familiar with the teachings that were attached to these “loaded” terms by the Pioneers. What the Pioneers did, in using such terms, was not wrong, however, it was short-sighted and would be unwise for the non-Trinitarian of today to adopt similar expressions due to the confusion which now abounds.
Spear’s closing thoughts should give us pause to think in these matters. “It is only when men speculate outside of the Bible and beyond it, and seek to be wiser than they can be, that difficulties arise; and then they do arise as the rebuke of their own folly. A glorious doctrine then becomes their perplexity, and engulfs them in a confusion of their own creation. What they need is to believe more and speculate less.”
“The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity,” can be found in “The Book of Hebrews” by M. L. Andreasen at http://www.maranathamedia.com
Erwin Gane’s manuscript is located at http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/trinity/