The No-Longer Neglected Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

The No-Longer Neglected Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

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December 13, 2017

The Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University has publicly rended its garments, in the paradoxically understated way careful scholars do, by producing a video series of lectures on the Trinity. This series of sixteen lectures is introduced by a sobering observation: “In the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of Arianism and anti-Trinitarianism, not only in the Seventh-day Adventist Church but also in the wider Christian and Evangelical world.” I opine that many Seventh-day Adventists do not possess a conscious realization of what they believe about the nature of God; they will articulate that they believe in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, but if you engage them in dialogue, you can gradually discern that they incline toward one or more anti-Trinitarian heresies. Furthermore, most Seventh-day Adventists do not realize that anti-Trinitarianism is inextricably linked to opposition to women’s ordination. Although this stealthy linkage is not expressly set forth in the lectures, the scholars provide a thorough biblical, historical, and practical discussion of the Trinity.

Jiri Moskala, Dean of the Seminary, gives a general introduction to the lectures. He claims that the doctrine of the Trinity relates to the practicalities of life. Specifically, a proper understanding of God informs our understanding of redemption and how we relate to each other. He offers that the three distinct persons of the Triune God are co-eternal and equal.

Denis Fortin, Professor of Historical Theology, provides a more detailed introduction. He notes that study of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity has been relatively neglected. Consequently, the recent surge of anti-Trinitarianism is affecting many of our local churches. He concedes that the word Trinity is not in the Bible and that 1 John 5:7 is a later insertion that is not contained in the early manuscripts. Furthermore, the modern mathematical and rational mind is troubled by the notion that three can be one. But the Old Testament’s numerous suggestions of a Trinity formulation are overwhelmingly confirmed in the New Testament, notwithstanding problematic texts that Fortin acknowledges. The Church Fathers in their Christological disputes clarified the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and codified it in the Nicene Creed although Fortin is careful to note that we do not accept the Platonic worldview that predominated in the past. Augustine affirmed that the Three are equal and bonded by love. He rejected any form of subordinationism; the Son and Holy Spirit may appear to be subordinate in history (with respect to the plan of salvation) but are not subordinate in eternity. Thereafter, the Reformers focused on salvation and ecclesiology rather than the Trinity. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, undermined the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, leading many nineteenth-century churches (and certain Adventist pioneers) to reject the doctrine. Fortin offers the intriguing insight that rejection of the truth about the Trinity can lead to disbelief in the reality of God. He further suggests that the pantheism of John Harvey Kellogg can be regarded as a development that naturally follows the Arianism of the early Adventists.

Jo Ann Davidson, Professor of Theology, surveys the biblical texts that teach the Trinity. She discusses the biblical evidence that there is only one God, that there are three persons who are one God, and that the Three work together. She links marriage to the Trinity by showing that the same word, echad, which means a oneness composed of a plurality, describes the marriage couple (Genesis 2:24) and the Triune God (Deuteronomy 6:4). Marriage helps us understand “heavenly math” that sets forth that 1+1+1=1. She observes in various texts a “rocking back and forth” between the singular and plural in the way God is identified. She explains why Subordinationism, polytheism, and Modalism are to be rejected. She advises that we study other important doctrines, such as salvation, through the lens of a correct understanding of the Trinity.

Moskala, in his capacity as Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology, identifies hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament. He mentions five texts that contain divine plural expressions. He shares seven interpretative approaches to those texts and explains why the first six are problematic and the seventh one is meritorious: (1) mythological reminiscence, (2) reference to Christ, (3) addresses earthly elements, (4) plural of majesty, (5) addresses the heavenly court, (6) plural of God’s self-exhortation, (7) God speaks within the community and fellowship of the Godhead. There are other hints of a plurality of God: (1) echad; (2) texts that show that God sends someone who is God, (3) Angel of the Lord texts, and (4) texts that contain two divine persons and texts that contain three divine persons.

Moskala in his next lecture focuses on the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. He observes that there is no reference to the concept of Spirit in other Ancient Near Eastern texts. He argues that the New Testament does not reveal anything new about the Holy Spirit that is not set forth in a nutshell in the Old Testament. He engages in a statistical analysis of ruach, which occurs 389 times in the Old Testament, 105 times for natural meaning, 130 times for human spirit, 11 times for supernatural spirit, 10 times for abstract meaning, and 123 times for the divine Spirit. Three texts speak specifically of “Holy Spirit.” Other texts speak of “Spirit of the Lord” and “Spirit of God.” He then devotes the rest of the lecture to a survey of various texts that describe the Holy Spirit’s functions and characteristics of personhood.

Richard Davidson, J.N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, grapples with Proverbs 8, one of the most disputed passages in the Old Testament. He provides a historical overview of how that text has been interpreted and explores the question whether Wisdom in Proverbs 8 refers to the Son, poetic personification, or the goddess Sophia. The language of birth in Proverbs 8 was often cited by Adventist pioneers in support of their contention that the Son is divine but not eternal, but Ellen White’s citations of Proverbs 8 affirm His eternal existence. Davidson provides numerous lines of biblical evidence in support of his claim that Wisdom refers to the Son, that He is eternal, and that He is not eternally subordinate to the Father. Specifically, he shows that there was a discrete event that occurred before sin when the Son was installed (nasak III) as a mediator between infinity and finitude and that the language of installment explains and is linked to the language of birth.

Paul Gregor, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology, discusses references to the Trinity in the Book of Daniel. In Babylon, Daniel is introduced to different depictions of polytheistic gods. But Daniel describes God in various ways that do not incorporate polytheistic characteristics, and he is understood by his contemporaries to be speaking about a God who is not to be confused with their gods. Gregor identifies these Trinitarian hints: the Son of God in the fiery furnace, the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days, Prince of the Hosts, Prince of Princes, the Anointed One, Michael, and Man in linen. He elaborates on four of them. He notes that “Spirit of God” is used four times by non-Jews: Nebuchadnezzar (twice), the Queen Mother, and Belshazzar. We see the three members of the Trinity in references to the Ancient of Days, the Anointed One, and the Spirit of God.

Ranko Stefanovic, Professor of New Testament, presents a simplified overview of the Trinity in the Bible. He stresses that when we talk about God we are standing on holy ground and thus should be reverent and shun all speculation. The being and nature of God is a mystery. The word Trinity is not in the Bible, and the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook. There are ambiguous texts, but there are also clear texts. Elohim expresses plurality in singularity. Echad expresses oneness in plural form. He discusses various Old Testament texts in which the singular and plural together describe God. Moving to the New Testament, Stefanovic talks about various texts that reference the Trinity. He notes that we are baptized in one name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The apostolic commission references the Trinity. The dispensing of spiritual gifts involves all members of the Godhead. He then discusses development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth and fifth centuries. He cautions that the doctrine of the Trinity is not Tritheism and that personhood of the Godhead does not refer to human personality (except for the incarnate Christ). By faith and in reliance on what the Bible teaches, we can know that Three are One while acknowledging that the mystery of the Trinity is beyond our human comprehension.

Stefanovic in his second lecture focuses on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. John 14:16-17 establishes that the Holy Spirit (allos parakletos) is a divine person and not merely an impersonal force. (1 John 2:1 refers to Jesus as a parakletos). There is a difference between allos (another of the same kind) and the word not chosen by the biblical author, heteros (another of a different kind). John 14:25 evidences that the Holy Spirit is not Jesus Himself. There is a remarkable parallelism in numerous texts in which references to the Holy Spirit are literarily connected to references to God. Stefanovic engages John 7:39 and offers that the Holy Spirit had always worked in human history but the fullness of His glory and power did not become manifested until Jesus’ glorification after the Cross. He highlights numerous texts that illustrate the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Stefanovic in his third lecture discusses the Trinity in Revelation. He points out the book’s first reference to the Trinity in Revelation 1:4-6. He identifies all three persons of the Godhead in Revelation 4-5 and explains the linkage between Christ’s enthronement and Pentecost. He draws on Isaiah 11:2 and Zechariah 4:6 to explain that reference to the seven spirits is a reference to the Holy Spirit. The second half of the Book of Revelation describes the counterfeit trinity. Revelation 12 and 13 set forth the counterfeit trinity as dragon, beast of the sea, and beast of the earth. Stefanovic points out the numerous literary parallels between the Trinity and the counterfeit trinity. He then offers Revelation 14:7 as a literary “clear line of demarcation” that differentiates the Trinity from the counterfeit trinity. In closing, he offers a pastoral appeal that we resist Satan’s end-time deception, which includes a comprehensive effort to corrupt our understanding of the Trinity.

Jerry A. Moon, Professor of Church History, provides a broad overview of the Trinity. He identifies seven attributes of God: personal, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, immutable, good, loving. He notes that in the Old Testament Lord can refer to any three members of the Godhead. Numerous texts in the New Testament testify that Jesus is God. Acts 5:1-4 and Ephesians 4:30 are the clearest texts that testify to the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit. The Triune God is depicted best in Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14, and Matthew 3:16, 17 and, interestingly, echad is also illustrated by a cluster of grapes in Numbers 23:13. There is a oneness in relationship but oneness in being is beyond our ability to verify. Anti-Trinitarians were dominant in Adventism between 1846 and 1888. During the next decade, there was growing dissatisfaction. Between 1898 and 1913, there was a paradigm shift. From 1913 onward, the Trinity was largely accepted. In 1931 a fundamental belief on the Trinity was written and voted in 1946. There were six proposed reasons for why Adventists initially rejected the doctrine of the Trinity: (a) makes the Father and Son identical; (b) teaches the existence of three gods; (c) diminishes value of atonement, because Jesus as God could not have died on the Cross; (d) The Holy Spirit is referred to by the neutral pronoun It, (e) Jesus is not eternal because begotten. Moon demonstrates why these proposed reasons fail to persuade. He traces Ellen White and James White’s budding opposition to anti-Trinitarianism to 1869 and 1876, respectively. Moon makes two deductions: (a) the Adventist movement may have been derailed if the full truth about the Trinity had been pronounced early on and (b) Ellen White progressed in her understanding. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity differs from the medieval Christian doctrine of the Trinity that incorporates dualism of body and soul, timelessness, and impassibility.

John Reeve, Assistant Professor of Church History, focuses on the historical progression of belief with respect to the Trinity of the early Church Fathers. The best early book about the Trinity is written by Augustine, who admonishes after his presentation that we are not capable of defining God. Reeve stresses that we cannot understand through our contours of logic how one can be three. Reeve discusses the foreground provided by Plato, Philo, and Aristotle: Plato offers his One and Dyad, Philo describes one God and agents of God (Logos, Sophia, and others), and Aristotle sets forth the Unmoved Mover. Irenaeus sees Christ as the bridge between God and humanity, so he claims that Christ must be fully God and fully human but offers no explanation how that can be. Theophilus is the first to use the term Trinity, but he conceives of God and two hands, Logos and Sophia, with the Spirit coming thereafter. Tertullian pictures God as a monarch who has two lieutenants. God is the source of power of the two lieutenants who are subordinate to him. Origen does not see that the Father and Son have the same nature. Christ begins as Logos and ends up as all in all. Christ is God by participation, not nature. Christ would cease to be God if He were to stop contemplating the Father. Sabellius offers Modalism as a solution to the problem of the three in one, but Modalism is regarded as problematic because it contradicts what is taught in Scripture. Accordingly, Constantine calls a council to resolve the disputes that have arisen. During this time, Arius feuds with Alexander, whose secretary is Athanasius. At the Council of Nicaea, Sabellianism (Modalism) is confronted along with Arius, who believes “there was a time when he was not,” that Jesus is a created being. Homoousios (same substance) is agreed to at the Council to dispense of Arius, but a problem arises because homoousios can also mean same person, because homoousios does not dispense with Modalism.

Reeve in part two of his lecture notes two other perceived problems of homoousios: it is a philosophical term that is not found in the Bible. Constantine gets frustrated and changes his position by decreeing that anyone who holds to homoousios is a heretic. But Athanasius holds to homoousios, which becomes a pariah. About forty councils between Nicaea and Constantinople struggle with what terminology is best. Homoios (the Son and Father are similar) is proposed. The term is in the Bible and is sufficiently vague to please everyone, but the term is too imprecise for those who hold to homoousios. And Homoios is found to be contrary to what Scripture teaches. Heteroousios (the Son has a different nature than the Father) garners little support and helps swing the pendulum in the other direction. A new term homoiousios (similar nature but not similar person) is used. This new term rejects Modalism, also argues against Arianism, and is a compromise that those holding to homoousios might be able to abide. But Athanasius who in his lifetime was banned by five different emperors, thrown into a Roman prison and after being freed was forced to walk home in rags through Arian crowds, holds firm. In response to entreaties that homoiousios is better than homoios and heteroousios, Athanasius rhetorically asks, “If the Son and Father have a similar nature, what is different about their natures?” The debate results in a new formula in which hypostases supplements homoousios to aver that three persons share the same nature. This causes a problem for those who question whether the Holy Spirit, of whom very little is said in the Nicaean Creed, has the same nature as the Father and Son. Basil of Caesarea writes an important book that marshals biblical texts that establish that the Holy Spirit is the third member of the Godhead. A new council is convened in Constantinople in 381 and the new formula is voted. Reeve stresses that the formula is correct not because it was voted but because it is taught in Scripture. He observes that we too often emphasize the Three to the detriment of the One. He compares the Scriptural paradigm with the philosophical paradigm in how the Trinity is understood. The eternal generation theory of the Trinity is explained and rejected. We should not go beyond what Scripture has revealed; we should resist the urge to resolve the tension, the mystery, of the Three and the One.

Merlin D. Burt, Professor of Church History, identifies and discusses four reasons for recent anti-Trinitarian agitation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: (a) proliferation of Internet sites; (b) anti-Trinitarian denominations; (c) perception that the doctrine of the Trinity is a Catholic doctrine; (d) Adventist Neo-Restorationism (a nostalgia for the “original purity” of the Adventist pioneers). He explains the differences between the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. Before 1890 anti-Trinitarianism predominated in Adventism; Seventh-day Adventists believed that the Father is fully God, the Son is divine but a created or begotten being, and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. William Miller was a Trinitarian, but his closest associate, JV Himes, was a member of the Christian Connexion, which was anti-Trinitarian. Two of the three founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, James White and Joseph Bates, also came from the Christian Connexion and thus were anti-Trinitarian. Uriah Smith’s early view of Jesus was extremely anti-Trinitarian; he wrote in 1865 that Jesus is a created being. In the 1890s, AT Jones began to embrace Trinitarian sentiments and wrote in 1899 that the Father is One, the Son is One, the Holy Spirit is One, and the Three are One. Ellen White did not articulate in her early years anti-Trinitarian statements. In her writings, she refers to Jesus as eternal in 1878 and later in 1887. Her most influential statement about the deity of Jesus is found on page 530 of Desire of Ages, published in 1898: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.” From 1900 to 1931, WW Prescott frequently wrote in support of the Trinity. The participants at the 1919 Bible Conference were divided with respect to the Trinity. Thereafter, FM Wilcox wrote numerous Bible studies on the Trinity in the Review and Herald. In 1931, a Trinitarian statement about God was codified. In the 1940s, a few notable Seventh-day Adventists were still stridently anti-Trinitarian. Questions on Doctrine published in 1957 accepts the Trinitarian view. Burt concludes with three observations: (a) the development of our theology has usually been corrective and progressive; (b) some doctrinal changes have required the passing of a previous generation; (c) we can be encouraged that our theology has been and is always supremely dependent upon Scripture.

Burt in his next lecture focuses on Ellen White’s understanding of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. She refers to the Holy Spirit tens of thousands of times in her writings. The early Seventh-day Adventists did not regard the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead. They did not believe that the Holy Spirit is a person but merely a manifestation of the presence of the Father or the Son. For example, JH Waggoner in 1877 refers to the Holy Spirit as an It rather than a He, as a power that proceeds from the throne of God. In 1889, MC Wilcox identifies the Holy Spirit as God’s power separate from His person and again in 1898 as the way God’s omnipresence functions. AT Jones in 1907 affirms that the Holy Spirit is a person. Against this background, Ellen White’s understanding of the Holy Spirit can be divided between the period before 1890 and the period after 1890. We see three emphases of hers before 1890: (a) the personhood of the Father and Son; (b) the practical and demonstrable work of the Holy Spirit; (c) rejection of the assertion of clearly unbiblical ideas about the mystery of the Holy Spirit, such as the idea that the Holy Spirit is Gabriel. She first explicitly affirms the personhood of the Holy Spirit in 1893. In 1896, she refers to the Holy Spirit as the third member of the Godhead. Burt shares other statements of hers that affirm the personhood of the Holy Spirit. He observes that she depicts the Holy Spirit not only as a person but as a representative of Jesus. He observes that Ellen White refers to the Holy Spirit as an It and a He before and after 1890 and offers that we should not read too much into this usage of language. He buttresses the veracity of a couple of her published statements with what her original hand-written manuscripts state.

Woodrow Whidden, Ph.D. in the final lecture discusses the practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity. The overriding issue in the Great Controversy is the character of God. The members of the Godhead are mutually submissive, existing in a profound oneness, eternally sacrificing, and outflowing in creative and redemptive love. If this is the truth about God, we likewise should live in loving rather than selfish ways. The truth about the Trinity enlightens our understanding of personal salvation. Only God can redeem lost human beings. Only a Trinitarian love can be efficacious in redeeming lost human beings. And only a Trinitarian love can serve as a model for how human beings should love one another. He observes that those religious communities that are unclear about justification by grace through faith alone tend to be anti-Trinitarian.

The lectures make use of helpful visual aids and promote various written works for additional study. The video presentations range in length from 17 minutes to 2 hours 28 minutes. The occasional overlap that occurs reinforces important points and reflects consensus of belief. The scholars, who have engaged in ministry outside the classroom, exhibit a humble demeanor that is as much pastoral as professorial. An excellent way for a local church to escape the doldrums is to invite a Seminary faculty member to speak. This series of lectures can help overcome the perception that a divide exists between the scholarly Seventh-day Adventist community and the local church in the hinterland, a divide that is the opposite of what the Triune God models for the church.

The lectures provide no support for the anti-Trinitarian heresy of Eternal Functional Subordinationism (hereinafter EFS), which is the principal component of male headship theory. The lectures do not specifically address EFS but only vaguely allude to it in the Seminary’s introductory statement quoted above: “In the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of Arianism and anti-Trinitarianism, not only in the Seventh-day Adventist Church but also in the wider Christian and Evangelical world.” Consequently, many Seventh-day Adventists may not realize after watching the lectures that male headship theory, which undergirds opposition to women’s ordination, is anti-Trinitarian. However, the Seminary’s non-mention of EFS is probably wise from a pedagogical perspective. We can appreciate that a soft appeal can often be more effective than a direct accusation. We can also appreciate that we learn best when we have not been placed in a defensive posture. In addition, a thorough grounding in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is requisite to an evaluation of EFS and male headship theory in general.

Ironically, I must now do what the Seminary in its lectures wisely chose not to do, which is provide at least a nutshell description of EFS. Sometime around 1980, male headship theorists reasoned that a new doctrine of God needs to be devised to bolster their belief that women are eternally subordinate to men. Theretofore, Christians possessed a theoretical understanding that the plural oneness of God is a model for the plural oneness of the marriage couple. Christians began to discern that this Trinitarian model for husband and wife refutes the cultural mandate that the roles for men and women be gender-based and different. And as women began to excel in professions previously denied to them, including the ministry, that cultural mandate quickly weakened and became obsolete. In response, male headship theorists reasoned as follows: We need a new doctrine of God. We need to find in the Godhead qualities of hierarchy, inequality, and subordination of an eternal (as opposed to voluntary or temporary) kind, so that we can argue that such qualities forever characterize the relations between men and women. But we do not want to second Arius and hold that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father. If we disassociate ontology from function, we can instead claim that the Son is ontologically equal to the Father but eternally subordinate in function. We can then further claim based on that proposed divine model that women, though ontologically equal to men, are eternally subordinate in function.

That many Seventh-day Adventists have fallen for male headship theory and its principal component, EFS, does not need to be explicated. In 2015 at the General Conference Session in San Antonio, a vote opposed to women’s ordination prevailed by a margin of 58% to 42%. Clearly and demonstrably, anti-Trinitarianism is surging, is thriving, and is alive and well in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Moon and Burt raise awareness that the anti-Trinitarianism that predominated among the early Adventists was not a momentary lapse in doctrinal understanding, a lapse that Ellen White could easily correct with the stroke of a pen, but a heresy that has lasted for generations. Many children of the Adventist Movement, as Seventh-day Adventists, descended into the grave six, seven, and eight decades later believing that the Son and Holy Spirit are lesser beings. We should infer from Moon and Burt’s historical overviews that there is still a struggle between Trinitarians and anti-Trinitarians in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The dispute regarding women’s ordination is a manifestation of that ongoing struggle. This dispute, properly understood, is not a mere policy disagreement but a profound theological disagreement about the nature of God that has been ongoing for centuries.

As we consider Fortin’s observation that the Arianism of certain Adventist pioneers may have conditioned Kellogg to embrace a distorted picture of God, we too can observe that many Seventh-day Adventists today have been similarly conditioned. Many Seventh-day Adventists today have found it easy to lunge toward male headship theory and its exaltation of hierarchy, inequality, and subordination because of the anti-Trinitarianism in the waters they have drunk.

Jo Ann Davidson is correct in her assertion that God is not honored by our lazy thinking about Him. The painstaking exegesis shared by the theologians in their lectures models how we should study God. Reeve’s meticulous rejection of numerous imprecise and inaccurate representations of God impresses upon us that we too should avoid even the smallest error in our representation of God. We should accept Whidden’s invitation that we consider the practical consequences of how we picture God. And we should be sobered by the admonishment offered by Stefanovic, that we are not immune from the counterfeit trinity’s last-day effort to corrupt humanity’s understanding of the Trinity.

Let us no longer neglect the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Let us open our eyes and become cognizant of the anti-Trinitarian underpinnings of certain aberrant ecclesiastical practices. Let us demonstrate by our conduct a biblically informed understanding of God. Let us in the words of our Lord and Savior “be one just as We are one” John 17:22 (NKJV).


Phillip Brantley is an attorney who offices in Houston, Texas and lives in Sugar Land, Texas and Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is a graduate of Andrews Academy, Andrews University, and The University of Texas Law School. He is married to Marilyn Brantley, and they have one daughter Rachel.

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