Destructive heresies are tearing through Adventism, and unsuspecting victims fall prey to the “twinity” doctrine, believing that the Holy Spirit is subordinate to God the Father and Son. This false teaching is an inherent part of the universal conflict started in heaven more than 6000 years ago (Isaiah 14:12-17; Ezekiel 28:11-19). Lucifer, created loftiest among angels, despised the Godhead and sought to distort and supplant the throne.1 The uprising resulted in the banishment of a third of the angels (Revelation 12:3,4,7-9).
Dispelled from heaven and disguised as a serpent, Satan deceived Adam and Eve into believing his lies about God and His nature (Genesis 3:1-7). Essentially, the same deception is insidiously spreading throughout the Adventist world, including Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Proponents of the heresy claim to be sincere Adventists and messengers from God.
The Study of the Triune God
The term “theology” comes from two Greek terms, theos (God) and logos (“the word about” or “study of”). It is the “study” or “doctrine of God” (which is the product of study), often attributed to by theologians as “theology proper”. It means that the subject of God is the pinnacle, crown or pearl of all theological reflection.
No other investigation compares to the Godhead’s profound insight (Colossians 2:1-3; Jeremiah 9:23,24). Without God, there is no theological exploration. Hence, at the heart
of the great controversy is the mystery of the Godhead. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Satan’s primary target. Satan knows time is not in his favour (Revelation 12:12, 17). What better alternative than for Satan to create confusion around the true nature of the triune-God? The anti-trinitarian heresy is the perfect game plan. Misunderstanding the Trinity teaching culminates in a distorted view of God’s plan of salvation.
The Mystery of the Godhead
Bibliology is the study of the Bible. It is the first biblical doctrine in Adventist theology. There is no better-written revelation of God than what He has revealed in the Bible. Our knowledge of God depends on what He discloses to us in Scripture (Deuteronomy 29:29). The Bible stresses two facets of God: He is knowable (Psalm 14:1; John 17:1-5; 14:8-11) and yet mysteriously incomprehensible (Psalm 90:1-12; Romans 11:33-36). The seemingly contradictory features of God are a mystery, yet they are integral to a scriptural perspective of the Godhead. If we know God perfectly, He is not God. However, if we fail to experience and know God, He then remains for us the obscure “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) of the heathens.
God’s supernatural revelation of Himself appears to us in diverse forms (Psalm 19:1-3; Hebrews 1:1). However, His ultimate revelation comes to us through His Son, Jesus Christ (John 5:39; 14:7; 15-21; 1 John 5:20). Throughout eternity, we will continue to delve into the mystery of God (Job 11:7; Isaiah 40:18). In our pursuit to know God, it is imperative to recognise our limitations—to treat the study of God with reverence and awe for who He is.2 God forbid we become presumptuous to assume we know everything there is about God.
William Miller and the Godhead
Adventism is entrenched in the milieu of the mid-1840s and an extraordinary spiritual awakening inspired by William Miller. He was convinced Jesus would return to earth sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.3 When Jesus had not returned, they concluded the time reckoning was not according to the Jewish religious calendar (Mar-Mar) but the Jewish civil calendar (Oct-Oct). They felt they had found the answer. Jesus was not to return in March, but in October: October 22, 1844.
However, October 22, 1844, arrived and passed, and the Advent pilgrims were immensely disillusioned. A third of the devotees gave up hope altogether. Another third returned to their old beliefs. However, the remnant restudied the prophetic 2300 evenings and mornings (Daniel 8:14; cf. Daniel 9:24-27; Ezra 7:7-8) and realised it marked the antitypical day of atonement and beginning of the investigative judgement.
With the seventh-day Sabbath and other distinctive Adventist doctrines, this new understanding contributed to the formal establishment of the “Seventh-day Adventist” Church in 1863.
Miller misunderstood Daniel 8:14. However, he was well ahead of many Adventist pioneers in his knowledge of the Godhead. In 1822, he announced, “I believe in one living and true God, and that there are three persons in the Godhead—as there is in man, the body, soul and spirit. And if anyone will tell me how these exist, I will tell him how the three persons of the Triune God are connected.”4 Miller defended trinitarian concepts alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments.
Early Adventist Pioneers and the Godhead
Unlike Miller, many early Adventist pioneers rejected the Trinity teaching. James White, a former minister of the Christian Connexion,5 and Joseph Bates and Joshua V Himes who likewise came from that tradition, rejected the “trinity” because it was not a term used in the Bible. James White called it an “unscriptural Trinitarian creed” and “the old trinitarian absurdity”.6 Uriah Smith considered Jesus Christ as just a “created being” who appeared “first” in time but was not equal to God the Father.7 By 1881 he concluded that Jesus was “begotten” and not created.8
JN Andrews also postulated a similar view that Christ “at some point in the eternity of the past” had a “beginning of days”.9 Other Adventist pioneers, like JB Frisbie, JN Loughborough, RF Cottrell, DM Canright and JH Waggoner either dismissed the Trinity doctrine or opposed the scriptural teaching of the eternal deity of Christ.10 However, discussions on the person of the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead were missing. Adventist pioneers accepted the Holy Spirit merely as the omnipresent and pervasive “influence” or “spirit” of the Father or the Son.
Ellen White and the Godhead
A noticeable exception to anti-trinitarianism came from the pen of Ellen G White. Jesus Christ, she declares, was the “brightness of His Father’s glory and the express image of His person. He possessed divine majesty, perfection and excellence. He was equal with God”11 and was the “eternal Son of God.”12 She was unequivocal; those who denied the pre-existence of Jesus Christ had succumbed to a “dangerous error.”
“None,” she insisted, “who hold this error can have a true conception of the character or the mission of Christ, or of the great plan of God for man’s redemption.”13
To cast aside all ambiguities, Ellen White stressed that in Christ existed “life, original, unborrowed”, and “underived”.14 He was equal to the Father in every sense. But, further, in like fashion, the “Third Person of the Godhead”.15 The “Comforter” too, she added, “is the Spirit in all the fullness of the Godhead . . . There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—those who receive Christ by living faith are baptised, and these powers will cooperate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.”16 The understanding of the triune God is explicit.
A Brief Reflection
Adventist pioneers grappled to understand the Trinity. Through the publications of Ellen White, the eternal persons of the Trinity were better realised: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three co-equal divine Persons of the Godhead, all work in harmony for humanity’s salvation. For us to understand the conundrum of God’s Self-disclosure is a remarkable blessing.
Nevertheless, we cannot be complacent. Satan’s underlying plan is to deceive people from knowing God. What an incredible privilege to appreciate the mystery of God. We may not grasp the complex personality of the triune-God completely. However, we know that we will grow and discern God better as the Bible declares Him to us. May we increase each day to know the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our eternal destiny hinges on this biblical truth.
Dr Limoni Manu O’Uiha is a pastor and theologian based in Palmerston North, North New Zealand Conference.