God did not stop speaking once He had given the Church the apostolic deposit of faith. He continued to explain the full meaning of that deposit through the development of doctrine, which continues down through this present age by the work of the Magisterium, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is how the Church came to understand more clearly, for example, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity--the truth that God is three Persons in one divine Essence. This most basic of Christian doctrines took several hundred years for the magisterium to define in a way that would do justice to all the various aspects of the revelation that God had given us in Christ. (Thigpen P. The Rapture Trap, 2nd edition. Nihil obstat Joseph C. Price, June 14, 2002. Imprimatur Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, June 18, 2002. Ascension Press, 2002, p. 226)
2) That there is one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, the one by whom God created all things, and by whom they do consist; that he took on him the nature of the seed of Abraham for the redemption of our fallen race; that he dwelt among men full of grace and truth, lived our example, died our sacrifice, was raised for our justification, ascended on high to be our only mediator in the sanctuary in heaven, where, with his own blood he makes atonement for our sins.
It is notable that while there is no reference to the term Trinity, neither is there any overt polemic against a trinitarian position. Smith was clearly striving to adhere as closely as possible to biblical language. The statement represented a consensus at the time, but in harmony with its preamble's explicit disclaimer of any creedal statement it was never given the status of official approval.
The second statement of "Fundamental Principles" (1889), also by Uriah Smith, is likewise a consensus statement that avoids pressing any points of disagreement. As with the 1872 statement, the preamble maintains "no creed but the Bible,"and further claims that "the following propositions may be taken asa summary of the principal features of their [Seventh-day Adventists'] religious faith, upon which there is, so far as we know, entire unanimity throughout the body" (emphasis supplied).
Apparently, Smith did not consider the fine points of the doctrine of the Godhead as ranking among the "principal features" of the SDA faith at that time, because he could hardly have been unaware that there were certain minor disagreements related to the Trinity. Article I from 1872 (quoted above), was reproduced without change in the 1889 statement. Article II in the 1889 statement has some modifications in the language about the work of Christ, but no material change in its reference to the person of Christ. Because these articles adhere closely to biblical terminology, they were capable of being interpreted favorably by either nontrinitarians or trinitarians.
The third statement of "Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists" was prepared under the direction of a committee, but it was actually written by F. M. Wilcox, editor of the Review and Herald. Fifteen years later, in 1946, it became the first such statement to be officially endorsed by a General Conference session. Article 2 declares,
"That the Godhead, or Trinity, consists of the Eternal Father, a personal, spiritual Being, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, infinite in wisdom and love; the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, through whom all things were created and through whom the salvation of the redeemed hosts will beaccomplished; the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, the great regenerating power in the work of redemption. Matt. 28:19."
Thus, the statement voted at Dallas in 1980 was the fourth fundamental beliefs statement of Seventh-day Adventists, but only the second to be officially voted by a General Conference session. The official adoption of the explicitly trinitarian Dallas statement might have been expected to bring closure to the century-old debate, but it proved to be a precursor of renewed tensions.
RENEWED TENSIONS AND CONTINUING DEBATE: 1980 TO THE PRESENT
The period from 1980 to the present has been characterized by renewed debate along a spectrum of ideas from the reactionary to the contemporary. Soon after the Dallas statement-and perhaps in reaction to it-voices from the "edges" of the church began to advocate that the pioneers earliest views were correct, that Ellen White's apparently trinitarian statements had been misinterpreted, and that the Dallas statement represented apostasy from the biblical beliefs of the pioneers.
Some, in apparent ignorance of the 1946 action, believed that the Dallas statement was the first ever officially voted statement of Adventist belief, and hence, that its very existence was an aberration from the historical pattern. Citations from the primary sources, extracted from their historical context and repackaged in plausible conspiracy theories, proved quite convincing to many.
A more substantial development was the continued quest to articulate a biblical doctrine of the Trinity, clearly differentiated from the Greek philosophical presuppositions that undergirded the traditional creedal statements. Raoul Dederen had set forth in 1972 a brief exposition of the Godhead from the OT and NT. He rejected the "Trinity of speculative thought" that created philosophical "distinctions within the Deity for which there is no definable basis within the revealed knowledge of God." Instead, he advocated the example of the apostles: "Rejecting the terms of Greek mythology or metaphysics, they expressed their convictions in an unpretending trinitarian confession of faith, the doctrine of one God subsisting and acting in three persons."
Building on this line of thought, Fernando Canale, Dederen's student, set forth in 1983 a radical critique of the Greek philosophical presuppositions underlying what Dederen had referred to as "speculative thought." Canale's dissertation, A Criticism of Theological Reason, argued that Roman Catholic and classical Protestant theology took its most basic presuppositions about the nature of God, time, and existence, from a "framework" provided by Aristotelian philosophy. Canale maintained that for Christian theology to become truly biblical, it must derive its "primordial presupposition" from Scripture, not from Greek philosophy.
In the more recent Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (2000), edited by Dederen, Canale authored a magisterial article on the findings from his continuing work on the doctrine of God. Again, Canale explicitly differentiates between a doctrine of God based on Greek philosophical presuppositions and one based on biblical presuppositions, making a strong case for his view that only through a willingness to "depart from the philosophical conception of God as timeless" and to "embrace the historical conception of God as presented in the Bible," can one discover a truly biblical view of the Trinity.
A third line of thought seeks to locate Adventist trinitarianism in the context of contemporary systematic theology. Seconding Canale's discontent with classical theology, but taking the critique in a different direction, was Richard Rice's Reign of God (1985). Rice argued that the Trinity was implied, though not explicit, in Scripture. Fritz Guy, in Thinking Theologically (1999), agrees that "the traditional formulations" of the Trinity doctrine "are not entirely satisfactory." He warns against a perceived tendency toward tritheism and favors updating the language to make it more "functional and gender-neutral." Guy's book, however, is not a systematic exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity, and how his suggestions will ultimately affect the discussion remains to be seen.
The long process of change from early Adventists' initial rejection of creedal trinitarianism to their eventual acceptance of a doctrine of the Trinity could rightly be called a search for a biblical Trinity. The early Adventists were not so much prejudiced against traditional formulas as they were determined to hew their doctrine as closely as possible to the teaching of Scripture. In order to base their beliefs on Scripture alone, and to disallow tradition from having any theological authority, they found it methodologically essential to reject every doctrine not clearly grounded in Scripture alone. Since the traditional doctrine of the Trinity clearly contained unscriptural elements, they rejected it. Eventually, however, they became convinced that the basic concept of one God in three persons was indeed found in Scripture. In the second part of this study will consider in more detail the role of Ellen White in that process ("The Adventist Trinity Debate" Jerry Moon, Ph. D. Chairman, Church History Department. Andrews University Theological Seminary. As reported in ENDTIME ISSUES NEWSLETTER No. 149, June 15, 2006).
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