What is the Doctrine of the Trinity?
Approximately 2 weeks ago I received a request from one of the brothers asking for help on behalf of some of the non-trinitarian brethren. This request happened because a pastor gave them a formal letter notifying them that a church board meeting had been called to discuss church discipline against them for the following two reasons:
“The Denial of faith in the fundamentals of the gospel and in the fundamental beliefs of the Church or teaching doctrines contrary to the same.
”The Adherence to or taking part in a divisive or disloyal movement or organization. (See Pg. 59 in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church Manual)
“Although all members have equal rights within the church, no individual member or group should start a movement or form an organization or seek to encourage a following for the attainment of any objective or for the teaching of any doctrine or message not in harmony with the fundamental religious objectives and teachings of the Church. Such a course would result in the fostering of a divisive spirit, the fragmenting of the witness of the Church, and thus in hindering of the Church’s discharge of its obligations to the Lord [End Quote]
The great irony here is that this very pastor and I have been in communication regarding this very issue and, apparently, he used one of my documents to try to convince the non-trintiarians in his congregation otherwise. Just wow! In what is an even greater irony, the brother who asked for my help with documentation for the non-trinitarians to use in their defense is under the impression that I was a trintiarian when I wrote to this pastor but then became a non-trintiarian afterward. Lol! He is quite mistaken. I actually wrote to the pastor as a non-trinitarian. Now the specific help that this brother requested was that I furnish evidence regarding the ways that current Seventh-day Adventist trintiarians contradict each other. I obliged and sent this information to all parties involved. And, finally, in what is even more irony this very same pastor and I are due to have another video conversation regarding this whole matter. Sometimes all I can do is laugh. It’s quite amazing being between the two camps. I am praying for the church because a kingdom that is divided against itself must fall according to Jesus’ teaching.
Now, for the record, in case there is anyone who is still in confusion in this forum about my position, I am not a trinitarian. I have not been one for several years now. However my rejection of this doctrine is not because I disbelieve in 3 Persons of the heavenly trio. God forbid! I do believe in 3 Persons but belief in 3 Persons does not the doctrine of the trinity make. However, if you listen to certain SDA pro-trinitarian defenders today, any admission to 3 Persons is trintiarianism. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, I think pastor Ivor Myers dubbed this as non-trinitarian trinitarianism. Lol! Yet is it really? Is that all the doctrine of the trinity means for Seventh-day Adventists? It all depends on whom you ask I suppose. For example pastor Dwayne Lemon, in response to a question by a church member about the original pioneer position on the trinity and the current view, defined the matter like this:
“Of course. Well, number one the first thing that we would have to remember is this: The word Trinity does not mean what a lot of people say it means. That’s the first point. In other words when a lot of people here the word Trinity we often think “oh oh” Roman Catholicism and there’s a hierarchy and all this other stuff where God’s over here, the Son is over here, and the Spirit of God is this that and the other but the word Trinity simply means a group of three. That’s what the word Trinity means simply by definition. A group of three. Okay, so that’s point number one that I want them to understand. Is did our pioneers and did Ellen White herself acknowledge three eternal persons? Did they acknowledge Father, Son and Holy Spirit? That will be the first point. And the answer is yes. 
Now there is much more to say here. Pastor Lemon went on to argue that the trinity doctrine, as understood in the pioneers’ time, was actually modalism and that this is what they rejected but this is not quite correct. While there might be a few references to such a thing back then that was not the definition of the trinity according to its adherents back then. I could actually prove this by quoting from many trinitarians of those times but I will forgo. I think everyone already knows this (maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part because I guess brother Lemon himself does not know this). Brother Lemon also seems to have implied that he does not believe in the one Being version of the trinity. However the problem is that this belief is a prevalent SDA view today and we will speak on this later on in part 2. There is actually quite a bit of confusion and variation on this doctrine in Adventism itself.
For the purpose of this op though I would like to examine the paragraph quoted above as an introduction to our subject matter. I will make a summary of the points by the pastor and then issue a disclaimer beneath:
Point 1: Pastor Lemon started by saying that the word “trinity” does not mean what a lot of people say it means.
Note: It is very interesting that SDAs, throughout history, have redefined the term “trinity” as applied to God to suit their purpose. I believe we see an example of this here. Perhaps, due to the context, our brother was picking his words selectively and would define the doctrine differently if he had more time or was in a different environment.
Point 2: He defines what “a lot of people say it means” as “oh, oh Roman Catholicism and there’s a hierarchy and all this other stuff where God’s over here, the Son is over here, and the Spirit of God is this that and the other.”
Note: Is it just me friends or does it seem like there is some serious smoke and mirrors happening here? This looks to be the segue into a redefinition happening here. It would also appear that our brother’s version of the trinity is one without hierarchy. This will become important later on when we look at part 2 about the different versions of the trinity in Adventism today.
Point 3: The trinity simply means a group of three.
Note: Here we see a very unique definition of the doctrine of the trinity don’t we? Is that what this doctrine really is? Does it simply mean a group of three? Or is that really tritheism with a trinity label superimposed? You judge for yourselves.
Point 4: Finally we notice the subtle obfuscation that “our pioneers” acknowledged three eternal persons.
This isn’t really accurate. Who are the “pioneers” here? I say this because the first generation most certainly did not acknowledge this and even some of the latter Adventists (post 1890) who used the word “trinity” did not acknowledge 3 eternal persons. However, EGW most certainly did later on starting in the late 1890s.
Now why am I mentioning all of this? The reason is because there is tremendous confusion in Adventism as to what the doctrine of the trinity actually is. I know because I have asked many Seventh-day Adventists laity, ministers and even theologians. In my experience most of the laity say they don’t really know and they cannot defend the premise even remotely from God’s Word. The ministers and theologians are better but they actually contradict each other on no small scale. Something needs to be done to help so I offer this op. And, contrary to the assertions of some, the doctrine of the trinity does not simply mean “a group of three.” That is playing fast and loose with terminology. It is taking semantic advantage of the fact that the word “trinity,” when used in a different context other than describing God, certainly means a group of three. For example here is the one place where inspiration actually uses the word “trinity.”
“…But beware of that which the old writers called the world’s trinity—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. If you trifle and tamper with these, they will prove your ruin... 
Here the word “trinity” clearly means 3 things – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. This is the “world’s trinity.” However these three desires are not one and the same desire.
You see the word “trinity” has two definitions. One that is generic and applicable to other things besides God and one that is specific and applicable only to God. The “trinity” in this latter setting is a theological term with an unique meaning. All honest parties will admit to this. It is this latter definition that concerns us and this is one that I believe, unfortunately, our brother quoted above very much obscured. And notice that he spoke about what a lot of people say the trinity means. Just here is where we must pause. This is actually the core of the issue.
What is the doctrine of the trinity? Who gets to define it? You see the term “trinity” as used by Seventh-day Adventists throughout history has something of a wax nose. It is used differently depending on the context and audience. Therefore this op will seek to do two things. In fact, we will divide it into two parts with each part accomplishing a goal.
The first part will be to give a definition of the doctrine of the trinity according to its originators and Christnedom at large. This section will quote the creeds and share how its adherents understand the doctrine. The second part will be to define the trinity according to Seventh-day Adventists and share the wide spectrum of beliefs held by Seventh-day Adventists regarding this doctrine. Without further ado let us begin.
What is the doctrine of the trinity?
The difficult in answering this question was well expressed by the SDA pioneer Raymond Cottrell.
“This has been a popular doctrine and regarded as orthodox ever since the bishop of Rome was elevated to the popedom on the strength of it. It is accounted dangerous heresy to reject it; but each person is permitted to explain the doctrine in his own way. All seem to think they must hold it, but each has perfect liberty to take his own way to reconcile its contradictory propositions; and hence a multitude of views are held concerning it by its friends, all of them orthodox, I suppose, as long as they nominally assent to the doctrine 
This quote is astonishing in its accuracy. I am so grateful to God for these words. As brother Cottrell notes of this popular doctrine, everyone seems to explain it his own way and has perfect liberty to reconcile its contradictory propositions. So long as you nominally assent to the doctrine then all is well. This, by the way, is an apt description of current Seventh-day Adventist trintiarianism as we will shortly see in part 2.
Now as for what the doctrine of the trinity is, it is actually a man-made assumptive interpretation of Scripture. It actually went through some variation over the centuries but that is beyond the scope of this op. Personally, I do not impugn the motives of those who originally framed it. I believe they were seeking to harmonize the fact that there is only one God (a singularity) yet two Persons directly called God in Scripture (this would be the Father and the Son) and one Person indirectly called God therein (this would be the Spirit). And, as contradictory as it might seem, men just merged the ideas and said that there were 3 Persons yet One Being. As popular as this idea is these days it is naught but speculation. This idea is completely unknown in God’s Word and no one, Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, etc,.. ever articulated it. In short it’s a presumptuous doctrine. Truthfully the trintiarian creeds appear to be the culmination of several factors (apologetic concerns, polemical controversy and even politics) in early Christendom. We are not going to examine all of those things here but simply focus on the end result - the trintiarian creeds. I will not quote these creeds in their entirety but only the salient portions for this discussion.
Nicean Creed (325 AD)
“We believe in ONE GOD, THE FATHER ALMIGHTY, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in ONE LORD Jesus Christ, THE SON OF GOD, BEGOTTEN OF THE FATHER [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, BEGOTTEN, not made, BEING OF ONE SUBSTANCE with the Father….AND IN THE HOLY GHOST. But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church
Constantinople Update (381 AD)
“And in THE HOLY GHOST, the Lord and Giver of life, WHO PROCEEDETH FROM THE FATHER, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
“And the catholic faith is this: That we worship ONE GOD IN TRINITY, AND TRINITY IN UNITY; NEITHER CONFOUNDING THE PERSONS; NOR DIVIDING THE ESSENCE. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. THE FATHER is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. THE SON IS OF THE FATHER ALONE; not made, nor created; but BEGOTTEN. THE HOLY GHOST IS OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; BUT PROCEEDING. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
“Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, THE SON OF GOD, IS GOD and Man; GOD, OF THE SUBSTANCE [Essence] OF THE FATHER; BEGOTTEN BEFORE THE WORLDS; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. ONE ALTOGETHER; NOT BY CONFUSION OF SUBSTANCE [Essence]; BUT BY UNITY OF PERSON….”
Now what you have just read above IS the doctrine of the trinity. It is not only the Roman Catholic belief but the belief of Christendom at large. The unity of the World Council of Churches is rooted in creedal trinitarianism. In fact Seventh-day Adventist spokesperson Ganuone Diop (he is the secretary of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions) says in an article entitled “Why Adventist Participate in the UN and Ecumenical Meetings” that “Unity is grounded in the existence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit” . In short if you don’t believe like that then you are an heretic and if your church doesn’t believe like that then it is a cult. Again as we will see shortly, in part 2, Seventh-day Adventist leadership has sometimes even stated that the SDA trinity is identical to the belief of the rest of Christendom.
The salient point here is that if you speak about the doctrine of the trinity to the rest Christendom then what the vast majority will comprehend are the creeds quoted above. Virtually all of the trinitarian creeds in the various churches are informed, either explicitly or implicitly, by the Nicean/Athanasian creeds.
Now that we have quoted them it is also very important that we understand how these statements are interpreted. The following points will clarify.
1) It is the highest doctrine in Catholicism that informs all other doctrines.
“The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the "hierarchy of the truths of faith" 
*By the way this isn’t only for Catholicism. It is standard across the board in Christendom. Thus any denomination that rejects the doctrine of the trinity will be regarded as cultic. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are considered as such, in large measure, because of this.
2) It is an assumed doctrine.
In Catholicism this is not a problem at all though because they hold to tradition as authoritative above Scripture. This is considered something of a boon of superiority which they hold over Protestantism when it comes to topics like the 7th day Sabbath or the trinity because these other churches recognize their authority on these matters despite themselves.
“Our opponents sometimes claim that no belief should be held dogmatically which is not explicitly stated in scripture . . . . But the Protestant Churches have themselves accepted such dogmas, as the Trinity, for which there no such precise authority in the Gospels,” 
*A plethora of quotes from Seventh-day Adventists and non-Adventists could be given that admit that this doctrine is an assumption.
3) In trintiarian dogma the substance cannot be divided.
What this means, to use the wording of “The Trinity” article at catholic.com is that “the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three divine persons who are one divine being (God).” And since they cannot be divided this makes one inseparable God Being.
"We confess and we believe that the holy and indescribable Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one only God in His nature, a single substance, a single nature, a single majesty and power. We acknowledge Trinity in the distinction of persons; we profess Unity because of the nature or substance. The three are one, as a nature, that is, not as person. Nevertheless, these three persons are not to be considered separable, since we believe that no one of them existed or at any time effected anything before the other, after the other, or without the other." 
*Now if you do divide the substance (aka: teach 3 separate Beings) then here is what Catholicism will label you:
“Tritheists: Heretics who divide the substance of the blessed Trinity” 
*And by the way this isn’t just Catholicism either. Take for instance this blurb from Wikipedia:
“The most notable Christian sect that has been accused of tritheism by mainstream Christianity and alike is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which views the Trinity not in light of the orthodox Christian doctrine put forth in Nicaea proclaiming God to be one being and three persons, but rather it teaches the Trinity to be three different beings or substances united by one purpose. 
*Did you catch it? What accusation do the Mormons face? Because they believe in “three different beings or substances united by one purpose” they are considered tritheists! I can almost hear the collective gulp of certain SDA pro-trintiarians.
Or again, from the trinitarian expert Ralph Smith:
“The most obvious and simple form of tritheism is the belief in three equally divine but separate beings 
*I would venture an educated guess that the whole “one indivisible Being” trinity theology found within Adventism today at the scholarly levels is actually more informed by the traditions of Christendom than inspiration. In fact this doctrine has infiltrated to such an extent that one of the leading SDA trintiarians (Max Hatton) considers another leading SDA trintiarian (Jerry Moon) to be a tritheist for this very same reason. More on this when we get to part 2.
4) The Son is begotten of the Father by “eternal generation” and the Spirit proceeds by “eternal procession.”
“In this Trinity of Persons the Son is begotten of the Father BY AN ETERNAL GENERATION, and the Holy Spirit proceeds BY AN ETERNAL PROCESSION from the Father and the Son. Yet, notwithstanding this difference as to origin, the Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent. 
*There are some who claim that SDA non-trintiarian theology, because it believes in a begotten Son and a proceeding Spirit, is the same as the Catholic trinity. This is very false claim and the result of a superficial critique. Those who make this claim simply do not understand either the Catholic trinity or the SDA non-trintarian position or perhaps both! First up, the eternal generation conception means that the process never started and is never finished. It is also supposedly an inseparable reality and thus an immutable truth. That means nothing can ever undo it or interfere with it. And finally this is all supposedly occurring with one Divine Being. Quoting now our friends from Catholic.com they say that “this procession or begetting of the Son occurs within the inner life of God. There are not "two beings" involved; rather, two persons relationally distinct, while ever-remaining one in being.”  Notice that again we see that there are “two persons” who are “ever-remaining one in being.” And the Spirit is included in this later on too but not in a relational sense. Anyhow, this all relates back to point 3 because trinitarian doctrine teaches that there is only one God Being. If we were trying to explain this in other terms we might say that trinitarian dogma teaches that 1 Person (the Father) is, has been and always will be continually generating another Person in a relational sense (the Son) and together They are always producing another Person in a non-relational sense (the Spirit) and this is the nature of the one inseparable God Being - absolutely nothing can undo it.
5) God is formless
“God is spirit, and AS SUCH HE DOESN'T HAVE A BODY (Lk 24:39: "A spirit does not have flesh and bone."). When the Bible speaks of our being made in his image, then, it doesn't mean we're like him physically. 
“The Church Fathers, of course, agreed, and loudly declared the fact that God is an unchangeable, IMMATERIAL SPIRIT who has an entirely simple ("incomposite") nature—that is, A NATURE CONTAINING NO PARTS. Since all bodies extend through space and thus can be divided into parts, it is clear that GOD CANNOT HAVE A BODY. 
*Once again we must note that this idea is not just Catholic. It is actually the common conception for trinitarian dogma. In fact it is even reflected explicitly in certain Protestant church creeds, most notably the Methodist trintiarian creed.
“There is but one living and true God, everlasting, WITHOUT BODY OR PARTS, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power and eternity - - - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." 
“The true God is a pure, invisible, self-subsisting Spirit (d); WITHOUT BODY, PARTS, or passions; eternal, without beginning, change, or end; infinite, and incomprehensible; absolute, omnipresent, omniscient, and almighty; perfect in holiness, righteousness, wisdom, and goodness; long-suffering, gracious, and merciful; forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; but terrible in his wrath; for he will not at all acquit the wicked, but will visit sin with righteous judgment 
Now this idea that God is formless is necessitated by true trintarian theology. If there is only one God Being and He has a body with humanoid form (face, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, feet, arms, legs, back, hair) then that becomes highly problematic if you trying to say that this Being is really 3 Persons. This becomes even more of a problem if there is a pre-incarnate Son who stands next to Him and exists in the express image of His Father and in all the brightness of His majesty and glory! Thus trinitarian theology necessitates that one void God of His form to make it seem feasible. It must argue that the triune God Being is really a formless essence and anything the angels or men might see is merely a theophany. It’s just an appearance but not His reality. And you can get into all sorts of heresy from here as numerous witnesses attest (most notably for Seventh-day Adventists - J.H. Kellogg). And again, believe it or not, this formless God Being idea is alive and well in Adventism too.
So there you have it friends. What you have just read above is the doctrine of the trinity as it is articulated and understood by Christendom at large. Hopefully you can see that the very word “trinity,” when used of God, is absolutely loaded with theological baggage and quite a bit of it is heretical too. Perhaps this is reason why inspiration itself never uses this word to describe God.
At the same time neither did inspiration rebuke the SDA authors when they used it from the 1890s onward. Personally, I believe the historical context is key here to understand this concession - the criticisms of Canright and others coupled with the shifting Seventh-day Adventist Pneumatology. In light of such I would have no real qualm with redefining the term “trinity” -->IF<-- it was very clear that this is what was being done. However this clarity was not forthcoming. I think all can admit that to do so would have actually undermined the whole adopting of the term in the first place in terms of undercutting Canright’s criticisms. Thus we can say that certain of the apologists (i.e. M.C. Wilcox, Chas Boyd, Uriah Smith and quite possibly even F.M. Wilcox a bit later one) pulled a fast one here. While I believe that they had good intentions (to defend the church) I do not think they realized what latter generations would do and how their “trinity” references would be distorted. I also believe that latter SDA authors (Lee Wheeler, W.W. Prescott, H.C. Lacey, G.F. Enoch, W.G. Wirth, A.W. Spalding) were sincere in their usages because they genuinely appear to have become orthodox trinitarians. As a side note I do not support what Spalding did in terms of distorting the history though. He took things even further than Froom and made James White, Joseph Bates, J.N. Andrews and others out to be supporters of the trinity. You really can’t make this stuff up!
Anyhow, with the negation of the begotten references and new interpretation of EGW’s writings (post 1950’s) we are left with a very solemn question regarding the doctrine of the trinity.
Is it right for Seventh-day Adventist Christians to use the term “trinity” while full well knowing that they mean something different by it than everyone else?
Isn’t this like a Seventh-day Adventist telling an evangelical that the SDA church believes in eternal hell fire just like the other churches too? Would that be the truth? Such a statement might convince the evangelical that SDA doctrine is orthodox but it would leave quite the false impression wouldn’t it? And not only that but it could cause quite a bit of confusion within Adventism itself, especially if such claims came from the leadership.
So is it right to leave other Christian bodies with the impression that SDA trintiarian belief is the same as theirs, that is if indeed our belief is actually different? And that brings us to another point. Can anyone actually say whether this is so by the Fundamental Belief or was this doctrine written so ambiguously so as to have a wax nose? In other words the SDA fundamental belief on the trinity is perfectly compatible with orthodox trinitarianism or, then again, maybe not so you can just take your pick as it suits you. Aren’t these questions that deserve to be answered or will the church simply kick out non-trinitarians for agitating these matters?
In part 2 we will look at this confusion in Adventism itself on this matter. Until then I am yours in Christ. Sources Quoted:
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=135&v=OYh7y5Hj98k  Ellen G. White Letter 43-1898.25  R. F. Cottrell, Review and Herald June 1st, 1869  http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story3088-why-adventists-participate-in-un-and-ecumenical-meetings  http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p2.htm  “Assumption of Mary,” Life Magazine, October 30, 1950, p. 51  http://www.catholicbible101.com/theholytrinity.htm  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15061b.htm  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritheism  http://www.berith.org/essays/tritheism_and_christian_faith.html  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15047a.htm  https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/explaining-the-trinity  https://www.catholic.com/qa/does-god-have-a-body-like-ours  https://www.catholic.com/tract/god-has-no-body  Methodist “The Articles of Religion, The Book of Discipline” Article 1  http://www.creeds.net/cmwales/main.htm