God Is a Personal Being, Not an Essence
The Trinity doctrine is not the issue we should be primarily dealing with; in itself, it is not the masterly sophistry. We have been dealing with the wrong issues, which has had a very damaging impact, leading to disunity, distraction, and fanaticism. Did Sister White ever speak openly against the Trinity doctrine? No. Then why are there people doing this continually?
The word ‘trinity’, in and of itself, without the history behind it, is not error. It simply means ‘three in unity’. Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy is clear that there are three persons of the Deity and they are working in perfect unity. In the Great Commission, they share the same threefold Name of authority. However, Sister White never uses that word to explain the truth about GOD, because its application has historically been used to explain a GOD of one substance consisting of three persons, which is an impossibility. So, I’m not in favor of using this term either.
The Masterly Sophistry Isn’t the Trinity
The problem of consubstantiality does not go away when you leave the Trinity. Many non-trinitarians believe that the Holy Spirit is the very substance of CHRIST, which would make Him not a personal being but rather an essence; and that is what Kellogg taught before he became a trinitarian, thinking that would solve the issue. Now what do I mean by these terms? I will quote from the Spirit of Prophecy using these terms and then get into their definitions.
Oh, the wonderful sophistry that is coming in, the masterly sophistry—that God is an essence. We have got a God, a personal God and a personal Saviour, and Satan is seeking with all his wiles to seduce men and women to become as gods themselves and flattering them to have a higher and higher class of education. But we want the lower class. That is the highest for us to obtain, because self lives.
— Manuscript 153, 1904
To John was given a revelation of God as He will appear to us when He comes in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He saw a personal being; not an essence…
Let no one come in with his masterly sophistries and steal away your Lord, leaving you without Christ and without God.
— Manuscript 161, 1904
This Sophistry Is the Alpha of Apostasy
The Spirit of Prophecy thus gives us the “masterly sophistry” loud and clear. It is the alpha of apostasy, and its end result, or omega, if not corrected, is being without GOD and being lost for eternity. What is this sophistry? Making GOD into an essence, which is a denial of a personal GOD and a personal SAVIOUR. Notice that she does not say the same for the Holy Spirit. This becomes even more clear in this quote, where Sister White is quoting the Great Commission but with parenthetical words to add clarity:
“Go, ye therefore,” He said, “and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father (a personal God) and of the Son (a personal Prince and Saviour), and of the Holy Ghost (sent from heaven to represent Christ)”
— Manuscript 41, 1897 (parentheses not mine)
An Impersonal Spirit
The Spirit of Prophecy leaves the adjective “personal” out of the description of the Holy Spirit, and that is intentional. And in this next quote, Sister White actually calls the Holy Spirit an “essence,” which, if it were referring to GOD or of CHRIST, would be of that great sophistry:
The believers in all ages are to be one, and the Holy Spirit is the living essence that cements, animates, and pervades the whole body of Christ’s followers.
— Manuscript 8c, 1891
But watch what she says about GOD Himself in this next quote:
The theory that He is an essence, pervading everything, is one of Satan’s most subtle devices. I warn you to beware of being led to accept theories leading to any such view. I tell you, my brother, that the most spiritual-minded Christians are liable to be deceived by these beautiful, seducing, flattering theories. But in the place of honoring God, these theories, in the minds of those who receive them, bring Him down to a low level, where He is nothingness.
— Letter 230, 1903
Here’s another one:
We can enjoy the contemplation of God and the sense of His presence … When in times of trouble and perplexity we trust Him fully, we have a living sense of His cheering, all-pervading presence and power. We realize that the Lord is indeed our strength and our portion forever. We can be one with Christ in God. But let us never undertake to define God as an essence.
— Manuscript 126, 1905
Notice, that it does not say personal presence. There is a distinction. And this next quote shows the distinction:
Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, when the personal presence of Christ was removed, the disciples realized no break in their communion, and no diminution of power because of His absence. Through the Holy Spirit, greater efficiency and power was imparted to them, because Jesus was their Advocate in heaven. His intercession before the Father availed for them more than did His personal presence with them when compassed with the impediments of humanity.
Christ, through the operation of the Spirit, had His abiding place in each individual soul, and grace and peace were multiplied through the knowledge of the fact that they had a risen Saviour who made an atonement for every one who came to Him by faith.
— Manuscript 42, 1895
Where Is Christ?
Where is CHRIST? In heaven. He is absent from this earth. Yet, as He is divine, His presence, though not personal, through the operation of His Spirit and angels, is everywhere. This next quote shows that:
The Bible shows us God in His high and holy place, not in a state of inactivity, not in silence and solitude, but surrounded by ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands of holy beings, all waiting to do His will. Through these messengers He is in active communication with every part of His dominion. By His Spirit He is everywhere present. Through the agency of His Spirit and His angels He ministers to the children of men.
Above the distractions of the earth He sits enthroned; all things are open to His divine survey; and from His great and calm eternity He orders that which His providence sees best.
— Ministry of Healing, p. 417
So, GOD is personally only in heaven. But His Spirit is everywhere. It pervades all things, and thus He is present in this way everywhere as He can see all things and operate in His entire universe from His throne. This is vital to understand. Otherwise, we will either see GOD as being far distant and not interacting with His universe as the Deists see Him, or we will see GOD as an essence Himself, rather than His Spirit as a power that proceeds from Him.
The “Pervading Presence”
Now, let us read more about this pervading essence of the Spirit of GOD, which is also called the “Holy Spirit” when pertaining to the things concerning our salvation. The following is taken from a chapter entitled “GOD in Nature” in the book Education. Again, this is GOD through His Spirit; it is not GOD Himself, but what proceeds from Him, representing Him in nature
Upon all created things is seen the impress of the Deity. Nature testifies of God. The susceptible mind, brought in contact with the miracle and mystery of the universe, cannot but recognize the working of infinite power. Not by its own inherent energy does the earth produce its bounties, and year by year continue its motion around the sun. An unseen hand guides the planets in their circuit of the heavens. A mysterious life pervades all nature—a life that sustains the unnumbered worlds throughout immensity, that lives in the insect atom which floats in the summer breeze, that wings the flight of the swallow and feeds the young ravens which cry, that brings the bud to blossom and the flower to fruit…
For all the objects of His creation the condition is the same—a life sustained by receiving the life of God, a life exercised in harmony with the Creator’s will.
— Ibid., p. 99
The Working of God
Now, this is from Chapter 14 of the same wonderful book:
Rightly understood, both the revelations of science and the experiences of life are in harmony with the testimony of Scripture to the constant working of God in nature.
The mighty power that works through all nature and sustains all things is not, as some men of science claim, merely an all-pervading principle, an actuating energy. God is a spirit; yet He is a personal being, for man was made in His image. As a personal being, God has revealed Himself in His Son. Jesus, the outshining of the Father’s glory, “and the express image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3), was on earth found in fashion as a man. As a personal Savior He came to the world. As a personal Savior He ascended on high. As a personal Savior He intercedes in the heavenly courts. Before the throne of God in our behalf ministers “One like the Son of man.” Daniel 7:13.
The apostle Paul, writing by the Holy Spirit, declares of Christ that “all things have been created through Him, and unto Him; and He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16, 17, R.V., margin. The hand that sustains the worlds in space, the hand that holds in their orderly arrangement and tireless activity all things throughout the universe of God, is the hand that was nailed to the cross for us.
The greatness of God is to us incomprehensible. “The Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4); yet by His Spirit He is everywhere present. He has an intimate knowledge of, and a personal interest in, all the works of His hand.
— Ibid., pp. 131-32
God Is Spirit
Notice that GOD is a Spirit, or as the Revised, margin more correctly translates it, “God is spirit”—as in His nature, in contrast to our mortal nature, just as “GOD is light” and “GOD is love” as John says in his first epistle. His spiritual nature is all-powerful and from His Throne, He can manifest His power in all places, upholding every atom in the universe. It is truly amazing and beyond what we can comprehend. He manifests Himself in all the universe by His own “working,” or activity, in it (which is what “hand” represents). Thus, His Spirit is referring not to His personal being, but His personal activity. We cannot have a relationship with His activity, but we can have a relationship with Him who works from His Eternal Throne in heaven.
My hand is still myself, just as the hand of GOD’s Spirit is Himself, but you are not to have a relationship with my hand but with me personally. Likewise, it is CHRIST, whose personal presence is in heaven, that we are to have a relationship with. Our LORD’s upholding hand that works throughout the universe by the will of His FATHER, is figurative, of course; but it is representative of His work, and thus Himself, and the Spirit of Prophecy states this as follows:
The Holy Spirit is the representative of God.
— General Conference Bulletin, 3/4/1895
GOD cannot personally be in all places at once, thus He sends His representative, which can mysteriously manifest His presence in all places. Thus, as one of our pioneers wrote, “God by His Spirit may fill heaven and earth, etc. Some confound God with his Spirit, which makes confusion” (J.B. Frisbie, Review and Herald, 3/7/1854).
With this background from the Spirit of Prophecy, let us now examine some definitions. Here are the three definitions for ‘personal’ in Webster’s original 1828 dictionary; and all three work:
- Relating to an individual; affecting individuals; peculiar or proper to him or her, or to private actions or character.
- Pertaining to the corporal nature; exterior; corporal; as personal charms or accomplishments.
- Present in person; not acting by representative; as a personal interview.
This needs no further explanation. We now know what Sister White is referring to when she uses the word “personal.” Opposite to this is the word, ‘essence’, so let’s look this word up. This time I will quote from the Collins Dictionary in British English. There are varying definitions for this word, but #5 fits here because it gives the heading of “theology,” which is what we are dealing with. This is from the online version: “an immaterial or spiritual entity.”
What is ‘immaterial’? Let’s let the same dictionary explain; and only the second definition works, so I will use that one: “not formed of matter; incorporeal; spiritual.”
Sister White Supports This
Now, let’s look at the same thing from the Spirit of Prophecy:
There are many issues in our world today in regard to the Creator not being a personal God. God is a being, and man was made in His image. After God created man in His image, the form was perfect in all its arrangements, but it had no vitality. Then a personal, self-existing God breathed into that form the breath of life, and man became a living, breathing, intelligent being…
Through Jesus Christ, God—not a perfume, not something intangible, but a personal God—created man and endowed him with intelligence and power.”
— Manuscript 117, 1898
And here is how Webster defines ‘intangible’: “That cannot or may not be touched.” So, this is what Sister White means when she says that GOD is not an essence, and by being “personal” she is referring to GOD and His SON, like us, having a tangible form, which can be touched. Can anyone touch the Spirit of GOD? No, that cannot be done, for it is immaterial. It is an essence that proceeds from GOD. It is the mysterious life that pervades all nature. Thus, it cannot be GOD Himself, for He is a personal being in heaven; but it does represent Him, and thus we can still say it is Him, as His divine hand—His personal working throughout the universe.
The Trinity Is Not the Problem
Brethren, the Trinity doctrine is not our enemy. It is only one of the theories that teach the false education of an impersonal GOD. Exposing its error will not destroy its root but only invoke prejudice. Its root goes back to ancient pagan thought, which is also behind making graven images to replace a tangible GOD so that they would have something they could touch. But JEHOVAH is a personal being—one with a form. Now, here is the third definition that Collins gives for ‘being’: “something that exists or is thought to exist.”
Is the Spirit of GOD something that exists? Most definitely. Then, according to this definition, it is a being. There are three persons in the heavenly trio, and these are also three ‘beings’ according to the above definition—though I would not normally use it, because we normally think of beings as personal individuals like ourselves.
What we need to know is the distinction that GOD is a personal being, not an impersonal one. So, the idea of three beings is not what we need to fight against and should not be an issue. It will only lead to unprofitable discussion, which we are to avoid, especially as it pertains to GOD. Other non-issues are the co-eternality and the co-equality of these three persons. Regarding the former, here is a statement from the Spirit of Prophecy, showing that
Christ Is God, Yet Distinct.
The world was made by Him [Christ], “and without Him was not anything made that was made.” If Christ made all things, He existed before all things. The words spoken in regard to this are so decisive that no one need be left in doubt. Christ was God essentially, and in the highest sense. He was with God from all eternity, God over all, blessed forevermore.
— Review and Herald, 4/5/1906 (brackets mine)
If CHRIST made all things, then He also made all eternity—a realm we cannot comprehend with our finite minds. Thus, to place Him as having a beginning of His personality at some point in time, or even at some point in eternity, is going beyond the realm of inspiration. So, this is a correction to what our pioneers taught. Yet, it does not deny that GOD is actually His Father. CHRIST is GOD essentially—that is, in all of the qualities of GOD, making Him what He is—thus, making Him equal with GOD. But this does not destroy the facts that He came from GOD and is thus subordinate to GOD in terms of headship, as the Bible clearly teaches (see 1 Cor. 11:3; 15:28).
I also like how the Spirit of Prophecy describes it:
God is the Father of Christ; Christ is the Son of God. To Christ has been given an exalted position. He has been made equal with the Father. All the counsels of God are opened to His Son.
— 8 Testimonies, p. 268
The Eternal Father, the unchangeable one, gave his only begotten Son, tore from his bosom Him who was made in the express image of his person, and sent him down to earth to reveal how greatly he loved mankind.
— Review and Herald, 7/9/1895
Though sin had produced a gulf between man and his God, divine benevolence provided a plan to bridge that gulf and what material did He use? A part of Himself, the brightness of the Father’s glory came to a world all seared and marred with the curse, and in His own divine character, in His own divine body, bridged the gulf, and opened a channel of communication between God and man.
— Letter 36a, 1890
Some Things Remain a Mystery
How CHRIST could exist with the FATHER from all eternity and yet be begotten is a mystery to us. Eternity itself is a mystery to us, and since that is so, certainly what is beyond all of eternity is a mystery. Even how GOD Himself could always exist is indeed a mystery. One thing Scripture does tell us is that “the HIGH AND LOFTY ONE … inhabiteth eternity” (Isaiah 57:15). And here is how Sister White expresses it:
God always has been. That which concerns us is not the how or the wherefore. In the Word God is spoken of as the everlasting God. This name embraces past, present, and future. God is from everlasting to everlasting. He is the Eternal One.
— Manuscript 137, 1903
Brothers and sisters, we do not need to try to explain everything. We need to let GOD be GOD, which essentially includes His SON. We do not need to go around teaching against the Trinity doctrine or that CHRIST came from the FATHER. These things are both taken care of when we study this very special pillar of the Seventh-day Adventist faith that we have been studying. What is it called? I will let the Spirit of Prophecy explain it here:
Those who seek to remove the old landmarks are not holding fast; they are not remembering how they have received and heard. Those who try to bring in theories that would remove the pillars of our faith concerning the sanctuary, or concerning the personality of God or of Christ, are working as blind men. They are seeking to bring in uncertainties and to set the people of God adrift, without an anchor.
— Manuscript 62, 1905
So What Should We Call Ourselves?
Sister White’s husband published a foundational pamphlet called “The Personality of GOD” and he never mentioned the word ‘Trinity’ or ‘trinitarian’ in it, though he did use the term “sectarian.” The point is that this is our truth. And if we believe it, along with the other few pillars of our faith, we are Seventh-day Adventists. We do not need to distinguish ourselves as being ‘nontrinitarian’ or ‘FATHER and SON’ believers or believers of the ‘one true GOD’. These are all labels that do us no good. Those who believe in the pillars of our faith are true Seventh-day Adventists, not the ones who have the trademarked name but deny the faith.
And what does the “one true GOD” mean anyway? Does it mean that CHRIST is not GOD? It could easily be interpreted this way and I’m sure many times is.
And if we go right out and teach the real sonship of CHRIST, what are we accomplishing? This is not one of the pillars of our faith, and unless people understand that GOD is a person, they will most likely deny the truth. They can easily spiritualize it away by reinterpreting what SON means. And why should they accept it? It is totally contrary to their view of GOD in His relation to the SON and the Spirit.
What People Really Need to Know
What they need is to know that GOD is a personal being and not an essence, and they need to know what that means. This is the root. This will take care of all the related issues. No one can possibly remain a trinitarian and accept this truth, and they will not become a nontrinitarian only to believe what Kellogg did, that the Spirit is the very essence of GOD. Accepting this truth, they must necessarily also accept that GOD is one in personality, and not three. Such a view is wholly contrary to believing that CHRIST was not actually born from GOD, because how else could He be GOD essentially?
I can bear my own testimony that I denied the pre-incarnate sonship of CHRIST for years, no matter how much it was explained to me. I thought it would require me to believe in consubstantiality, because I had heard people speak of the Holy Spirit as if it were CHRIST Himself, with no distinction. But it was when someone explained to me the personality of GOD that everything started making sense. I quickly then came to the truth of CHRIST truly being the SON OF GOD on my own—that is, without any human explaining it to me.
With that, I will close with this statement from the Spirit of Prophecy, giving us some very good admonition:
I am instructed to say to you that it is not best to dwell upon the spiritualistic sentiments, the strange, misleading theories which have for years been coming in among us.
It is not best to preach on the subject of pantheism, or to read quotations from authors who write on this subject, and the specious, deceptive errors that lead to it. The statements made in Testimony Volume 8 are sufficient to warn our people to avoid these errors. These statements will do more to enlighten minds than all the explanations or theories that our ministers and teachers may put forth concerning these matters.
If you try to handle these subjects, you will be led to repeat the sophistries of Satan, and thus you will help Satan to present his false theories to the people. Resolve never, never to repeat error, but always to teach the truth. Fill hearts and minds with the solemn, sacred truth for this time.
Dwell on present truth, on Christ’s second coming. The Lord is coming very soon. We have only a little while in which to present the truth for this time—the truth that is to convert souls. This truth is to be presented in the utmost simplicity, even as Christ presented it, so that the people can understand what is truth. Truth will dispel the clouds of error.
— Letter 175, 1904