Facing Trinitarian Challenges With Love

Author’s Note:  After this article was originally posted, Ken LeBrun and John Witcombe both wrote to point out some editorial errors and concerns they had.  I have corrected the spelling errors in their names and apologized for that oversight.  I also inaccurately stated they do not believe the name “God” should be used for Jesus or the Spirit.  I also inaccurately attributed Ken’s concern over the wording in FB#2 to similarities with the Nicaean Creed; a point he denies in his book.   These errors have been corrected in a desire to be fair and accurate in my representation of their views.

In the Deep End of the Pool

Discussing the doctrine of the Trinity is a lot like two humanities majors trying to have an in-depth discussion of particle physics.  What we don't know about God is a massively longer list than what we do know.  Everyone has their own journey in how we try to express who God is and we know that journey isn't just for individual Christians.  The Christian church has been struggling with this since the 3rd century A.D.

It's an open secret that the Seventh-day Adventist church itself has a rather checkered history with the doctrine of the Trinity.  More than a few of our spiritual parents were concerned enough about the influence of the Catholic church in our understanding of the Bible that they rejected the classical Nicene formulation of the concept.  To this day, we have our own take on how the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit works.  Early on, a number of our leaders went so far as to take the view that Jesus was a created being.  As the Son of God, He came into existence in deep eternity past.  Quite a few seemed to have many questions about the nature of the Holy Spirit and whether he should be considered a person at all.

Over time, the Seventh-day Adventist church has adjusted their understanding of the nature and role of each member of the Godhead as well as how we can also then claim to have only one God while have three different beings identified as such in scripture. Merlin Bert wrote a great article on the development of this doctrine with the Adventist Church that you can find on the Biblical Research Institute's (BRI) website.

A Strange Journey

Of course, with each step in our theological growth, there have been members who struggled with that progression.  Throughout the years, we've seen a number of various anti-trinitarian ideas move through the church.  Another wave seems to be cresting again in the Upper Columbia Conference with materials published by Jean Handwerk and videos by Michael McCaffrey.  These are classically non-trinitarian teachings that diminish the nature of the Son and the Spirit in various ways.  

However, a new variant has entered the scene with Ken LeBrun's book, Not a Mystery and John Witcombe's upcoming book, One God, One Church.  The byline on John's advertised book boldly claims to provide, "a new approach to fortify membership against the Anti-Trinitarian movement."  Both men believe that they are defending the church against anti-trinitarianism while calling the church at large to return to what they believe is a more Biblical, pre-1980 stance on the doctrine of the Godhead.

Those holding this view believe that the 1980 formulation of our doctrine of God as, "One God, a unity of three co-eternal persons" is unbiblical in part because the explanatory phrase, "a unity of three co-eternal persons" does not appear in scripture or the writings of Ellen White.  They believe the previous ways the church expressed the relationship between the members of the "heavenly trio" is more Biblically accurate.

They will be quick to tell you they are not Anti-Trinitarian:

  • They believe that there are three members of the heavenly trio.
  • They believe Jesus is from eternity with life, "unborrowed and underived."
  • They believe that the Holy Spirit is a separate person with its own being.
  • They believe all three heavenly beings possess the attributes of God.

What is the problem then?  If one can affirm all the various aspects of the Trinity, doesn't that make one a Trinitarian.  They would say "No!"

Issues with the Trinity

There are several specific issues that those holding this view raise about the doctrine of the Trinity.  Because this is a summary of the collective thought from several different people, each individual may feel that specific points don't accurately describe their particular point of view.  However, the following six points broadly capture their line of thought:

  1. They believe that all doctrine must be founded on a firm "Thus saith the Lord," by which they mean exact wording found specifically in the pages of scripture or in the writings of Ellen White.  Any formulation using "human reasoning," which are words or phrases not found in inspired writings, are the doctrines of men and do not need to be followed.  The Church has no right to make any doctrine based on human reasoning a test of fellowship.
  2. When the Bible says, "One God" it is only referring to the Father.  They believe that while Jesus and the Spirit are divine and eternal, Jesus should be referred to as the Son of God and the Spirit as the Spirit of God.  The title "One God" should be reserved only for the Father.
  3. Jesus and the Spirit are divine because they have a shared life with the Father.
  4. They believe that the 1980 statement departs significantly from what Seventh-day Adventists used to believe and teach on the subject of the Trinity.
  5. They believe that their view is essentially what the Seventh-day Adventist church used to teach on the subject and that they are calling Seventh-day Adventists back to a more Biblical view of the Godhead.
  6. They believe that Christ's mediatorial ministry is a function of his eternal role in the Godhead.  They believe the doctrine of the Trinity minimize or "takes away" that mediatorial role and thus adopting the doctrine of the Trinity is, in effect, taking away the daily (Daniel 12:11).  Thus, the adoption of Trinitarian language in our 1980 statement of belief united us with the actions of the Catholic church and leaves us open to other deceptions such as Sunday sacredness.

What then do we say to these concerns.  While this will hardly be an exhaustive response, here are few thoughts to get your started with each of these primary objections.

  1. This view is a particular type of verbalism.  Requiring exact scriptural wording smacks of Fundamentalism and creates a whole host of problems with many other doctrines of the church.  And including the writings of Ellen White as a basis for establishing doctrine goes against her own counsel on the matter (Evangelism, p. 256).  On a much broader level, a verbalist approach misses the mark in how Inspiration functions (see the introduction to the Great Controversy for Ellen White's description of how the human and the divine interact to produce inspired writings.
  2. While this view makes much of the passages that speak of "one God", it tends to minimize or dismiss other passages where the name "God is applied to the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The problem with this argument is not in what it affirms but in the evidence it excludes.  A number of the Bible texts that Ken insists refer only to the Father, actually assume a plurality in the "oneness" of God.  Further, there is little weight given to the significance of the divine name for God being applied in any way to Jesus or the Spirit in the first century context.
  3. In attempting to avoid the dangers of speculation he sees in the doctrine of the Trinity, Ken LeBrun provides some alternative speculation in the form of a "shared life."  Several Adventist scholars have done an excellent job of explaining the differences between Fundamental belief #2 the various other versions of the concept that have been put forward through the centuries.  In the simplest terms, the language of FB#2 in no way assumes the formulations of "one substance" from classical theology, nor does it suggest three separate Gods (Tri-theism).  It simply attempts to capture the Biblical dichotomy of "one God" and three beings with divine attributes without attempting to explain the unique relationship between them other than with the word, "unity."
  4. There have been a number of papers written on the progression of Adventist doctrine in regard to the Trinity.  The 1980 statement was an incremental step in a much longer process as the church has continued to grow in its understanding of the Godhead and to combat extremes on all sides of the issue.
  5. Neither the idea of the "one God" as a unique name exclusive to the Father nor the idea of a "shared life" as the way in which the three members of the Godhead are bound together are positions held by the Seventh-day Adventist church prior to 1980. 
  6. The mediatorial role of Christ is fundamental to Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.  The error in Ken LeBrun's position is in what he believes Fundamental belief #2 to be saying.  Our current doctrinal statement in no way diminishes the mediatorial role of Christ.  In fact, there have been excellent arguments made for how our understanding of the nature of Christ and the Godhead actually enhance the mediatorial function of Christ on our behalf.  Unfortunately, Ken establishes a "straw man" in ascribing things to FB#2 that it does not say and then forms a theology against that false assumption.

There is obviously much more that could be said on any one of the points raised.  The Biblical Research Institute has a broad collection of papers on various aspects of this subject included on their website that provide excellent references for further study.

A Loving Response

How then should we respond to those who have decided they don't like the way the Seventh-day Adventist Church has articulated its belief about the Godhead?  Dialoguing with anti-trinitarians has its own unique challenges because we're all swimming in the deep end of the pool.  And this particular development is so very near to what the Seventh-day Adventist church does believe, it can be hard to even know where to begin in discussing the subject.  If you encounter this particular idea within your church, here are a few practical ideas to help you engage with love.

  1. Approach the discussion with humility.  None of us has complete knowledge on the full nature of God.
  2. Allow for diversity of thought.  Seventh-day Adventists do not have a creed! We don't all have to agree on how to express our beliefs.  People can be members of the Seventh-day Adventist church and have a different approach to any number of our doctrines than our particular perspective.
  3. Protect Your Church Leadership.  Elected leaders, Sabbath School teachers, and employees of the church have an obligation to be settled in what the church believes and to send a clear and unified voice affirming those teachings.  The view expressed by Ken LeBrun and John Witcombe is not in harmony with how the church understands scripture on this topic and it is not appropriate for leaders to be promoting it.
  4. Focus on the Mission.  The Seventh-day Adventist church was not called into existence to settle the finer points of our theology about God, or diet, or Sabbath-keeping for that matter.  We exist to share the eternal Gospel in the context of the Three Angels' Messages to tell the world of a soon-coming Savior.  Spend your time on that and not on the more speculative matters of theology.