Lecture Outline

Ellen White on the Human Nature of Christ

Denis Fortin


During the last 50 years, since the publication of the book Questions on Doctrine, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has discussed, even debated, the implications of the human nature of Christ. One of the major questions as been: How similar or different from our human nature was Christ's humanity? Although debates have subsided in the last decade or so, at times the discussion on this subject remains intense.

Theologians and church members have lined themselves along three major theological lines. On the one hand there are those who emphasize that Christ's human nature was identical to ours. This postlapsarian position emphasizes that Christ's human nature inherited the weaknesses of humankind since the fall of Adam and Eve. Included in these inherited weaknesses are the possibility for Christ to yield to temptation and to be tempted from within himself, that his innermost self was affected by sin and predisposed to sin from birth. Yet, by abiding in the Father, Christ never yielded to any temptation whether from without or from within himself. Hence, he is not only our perfect Redeember, he is also our perfect example. If Christ did not have an inner predisposition to sin, like we have, then he could not be our example in the victory over sin and, of greater consequence, he had an advantage over us; his humanity would therefore be different from ours. In this camp we find the following theologians: Robert J. Wieland, Donald K. Short, Dennis Priebe, Jean Zurcher, Ralph Larson.

Another group of people, mainly the theologians who compiled the book Questions on Doctrine, emphasized that Christ took Adam's sinless human nature before the fall. This prelapsarian position argues that in Christ there was no sin, either inherited or cultivated, as is common to all other human beings. The fallen nature Christ took upon himself was taken vicariously, in order to redeem us; it was not his intrinsically or innately. Just like he bore our sins, he also bore our nature. In this group we have the following theologians: Roy Allan Anderson and W. E. Read. Few people still hold this view as most prelapsarian proponents now belong to the third group.

A third group of theologians and church members emphasize that although Christ's nature was fully human and that he could yield to temptations, Christ did not inherit our inner inclinations and predispositions to sin. He could sin, and he was tempted to sin, but all his temptations came from outside of himself as was the case with Adam and Eve before the fall. This prelapsarian position holds that a predisposition to sin is not inherant to humanity and that Christ as the second Adam could not have any inner tendency to sin. To have such tendencies would mean his nature was corrupted and he would also need a Savior. It is argued that to not have an inner predisposition to sin is not an advantage over us since Christ's temptations were far more difficult to overcome than ours and that his sinless nature is the standard of a true human nature not ours. This position is held by the following theologians: Edward Heppenstall, Raoul Dederen, Roy Adams, Woodrow Whidden.

Whether realized or not, much of this discussion has to do with a priori definitions of sin and its effects on humanity. The debate on the human nature of Christ is first and foremost a debate on what sin is and what effect, if any, it had on Christ's human nature. At the very core of this discussion, the major theological question is whether sin is both a state of being in humanity and evil actions against the will of God, or whether sin is primarily evil actions against the will of God leading to a state of sinfulness.

In regard to Christ's human nature, the question is whether he had a sinless human nature (without predispositions and inclinations to sin) inherited at conception and preserved throughout his life by not yielding to temptations, or whether he had a sinful human nature (with predispositions and inclinations to sin) inherited at conception and remained sinless throughout his life by never yielding to temptations. The first statement (the prelapsarian position) presupposes that sin is first a state of being and that inclinations to sin are part of what sin is and negatively affect one's salvation (one is lost for being born a sinner), the second statement (the postlapsarian position) presupposes that sin is only an evil action, that inner inclinations to sin are not morally reprehensible as long as they are overcome and never yielded to (one is lost by becoming a sinner).

At the core of any Adventist discussion on the human nature of Christ are Ellen White's numerous statements. While she strongly supported that Christ's nature was identical to ours and that Christ could have yielded to temptations, she also emphasized that his nature was somehow different from ours. A number of questions should be asked as we read these selected statements. According to Ellen White

How identical to us was Christ?

How different from us was he?

Did the fact that Christ was different from us prevent him from being our Savior and perfect example?

Is the fact that we are different from Christ prevent us from emulating his life and having victory over sin as he did?


A. Statements emphasizing Christ’s full identity with humanity

Leaving the royal courts of heaven Christ came to our world to represent the character of His Father, and thus help humanity to return to their loyalty. The image of Satan was upon men, and Christ came that He might bring to them moral power and efficiency. He came as a helpless babe, bearing the humanity we bear. "As the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same." He could not come in the form of an angel; for unless He met man as man, and testified by His connection with God that divine power was not given to Him in a different way to what it will be given to us, He could not be a perfect example for us. He came in humility, in order that the humblest being upon the face of the earth could have no excuse because of his poverty, or ignorance, and say, Because of these things, I cannot obey the law of Jehovah. Christ clothed His divinity with humanity, that humanity might touch humanity; that He might live with humanity and bear all the trials and afflictions of man. He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin. In His humanity He understood all the temptations that will come to man (Ms 21, 1895). {7BC 925}

In taking our nature, the Saviour has bound Himself to humanity by a tie that is never to be broken. Through the eternal ages He is linked with us. "God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son." John 3:16. He gave Him not only to bear our sins, and to die as our sacrifice; He gave Him to the fallen race. To assure us of His immutable counsel of peace, God gave His only-begotten Son to become one of the human family, forever to retain His human nature. {DA 25}

Christ ascended to heaven, bearing a sanctified, holy humanity. He took this humanity with Him into the heavenly courts, and through the eternal ages He will bear it, as the One who has redeemed every human being in the city of God (RH March 9, 1905). {6BC 1054}

The humanity of the Son of God is everything to us. It is the golden chain that binds our souls to Christ, and through Christ to God. This is to be our study. Christ was a real man; He gave proof of His humility in becoming a man. Yet He was God in the flesh. When we approach this subject, we would do well to heed the words spoken by Christ to Moses at the burning bush, "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5). {1SM 244}

When Jesus took human nature, and became in fashion as a man, He possessed all the human organism. His necessities were the necessities of a man. He had bodily wants to be supplied, bodily weariness to be relieved. By prayer to the Father He was braced for duty and for trial (Letter 32, 1899). {5BC 1130}

It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man's nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life. {DA 49}

He took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature, that He might know how to succor those that are tempted. (Letter 67, 1902) {MM 181}

It was in the order of God that Christ should take upon himself the form and nature of fallen man, that he might be made perfect through suffering, and himself endure the strength of Satan's fierce temptations, that he might understand how to succor those who should be tempted. {RH December 31, 1872}

Through his humiliation and poverty Christ would identify himself with the weaknesses of the fallen race, and by firm obedience show man how to redeem Adam's disgraceful failure, that man by humble obedience might regain lost Eden. The great work of redemption could be carried out only by the Redeemer taking the place of fallen Adam. With the sins of the world laid upon him, he would go over the ground where Adam stumbled. He would bear the test which Adam failed to endure, and which would be almost infinitely more severe than that brought to bear upon Adam. He would overcome on man's account, and conquer the tempter, that through his obedience, his purity of character and steadfast integrity, his righteousness might be imputed to man, that through his name man might overcome the foe on his own account. What love! What amazing condescension! The King of glory proposed to humble himself to fallen humanity! He would place his feet in Adam's steps. He would take man's fallen nature and engage to cope with the strong foe who triumphed over Adam. He would overcome Satan, and in thus doing he would open the way for the redemption of those who would believe on him from the disgrace of Adam's failure and fall. {RH, February 24, 1874}

Christ was not in as favorable a position in the desolate wilderness to endure the temptations of Satan as was Adam when he was tempted in Eden. The Son of God humbled himself and took man's nature after the race had wandered four thousand years from Eden, and from their original state of purity and uprightness. Sin had been making its terrible marks upon the race for ages; and physical, mental, and moral degeneracy prevailed throughout the human family. When Adam was assailed by the tempter in Eden he was without the taint of sin. He stood in the strength of his perfection before God. All the organs and faculties of his being were equally developed, and harmoniously balanced. Christ, in the wilderness of temptation, stood in Adam's place to bear the test he failed to endure. Here Christ overcame in the sinner's behalf, four thousand years after Adam turned his back upon the light of his home. Separated from the presence of God, the human family had been departing every successive generation, farther from the original purity, wisdom, and knowledge which Adam possessed in Eden. Christ bore the sins and infirmities of the race as they existed when he came to the earth to help man. In behalf of the race, with the weaknesses of fallen man upon him, he was to stand the temptations of Satan upon all points wherewith man would be assailed. {RH, July 28, 1874}

I had freedom and power in presenting Jesus, who took upon himself the infirmities and bore the griefs and sorrows of humanity, and conquered in our behalf. He was made like unto his brethren, with the same susceptibilities, mental and physical. He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin; and he knows how to succor those who are tempted. Are you harassed and perplexed? So was Jesus. Do you feel the need of encouragement? So did Jesus. As Satan tempts you, so he tempted the Majesty of heaven. {RH February 10, 1885}

He assumed human nature, with its infirmities, its liabilities, its temptations. {Ms 58, 1890}


B. Statements emphasizing Christ’s unique humanity

He [Christ] was to take His position at the head of humanity by taking the nature but not the sinfulness of man. In heaven was heard the voice, "The Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord" (ST May 29, 1901). {7BC 925}

Christ made a full atonement, giving His life as a ransom for us. He was born without a taint of sin, but came into the world in like manner as the human family. He did not have a mere semblance of a body, but He took human nature, participating in the life of humanity. (Letter 97, 1898). {7BC 926}

He prayed for His disciples and for Himself, thus identifying Himself with our needs, our weaknesses, and our failings, which are so common with humanity. He was a mighty petitioner, not possessing the passions of our human, fallen natures, but compassed with like infirmities, tempted in all points even as we are. Jesus endured agony which required help and support from His Father. {2T 508,509}

He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions. (2T 202)

In taking upon Himself man's nature in its fallen condition, Christ did not in the least participate in its sin. He was subject to the infirmities and weaknesses by which man is encompassed, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses" (Matt. 8:17). He was touched with the feeling of our infirmities, and was in all points tempted like as we are. And yet He knew no sin. He was the Lamb "without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19). {1SM 256}

Man could not atone for man. His sinful, fallen condition would constitute him an imperfect offering, an atoning sacrifice of less value than Adam before his fall. God made man perfect and upright, and after his transgression there could be no sacrifice acceptable to God for him, unless the offering made should in value be superior to man as he was in his state of perfection and innocency. The divine Son of God was the only sacrifice of sufficient value to fully satisfy the claims of God's perfect law. Christ alone could open the way, by making an offering equal to the demands of the divine law. He was perfect, and undefiled by sin. He was without spot or blemish. {RH December 17, 1872}

Jesus was sinless and had no dread of the consequences of sin. With this exception His condition was as yours. {Our High Calling, 59)

Just before his cruel death, Jesus said, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." Satan could find nothing in the Son of God that would enable him to gain a victory. He had kept his Father's commandments; and there was no sin in him that Satan could triumph over, no weakness or defect that he could use to his advantage. But we are sinful by nature, and we have a work to do to cleanse the soul-temple of every defilement. Let us improve this precious privilege to confess our faults one to another, and pray one for another, that we may be healed. {RH May 27, 1884}

He was a mighty petitioner, possessing not the passions of our human, fallen natures, but compassed with like infirmities, tempted in all points even as we are. Jesus endured agony which required help and support from his Father. Christ is our example. {RH, August 17, 1886}

Christ was not insensible to ignominy and disgrace. He felt it all most bitterly. He felt it as much more deeply and acutely than we can feel suffering, as his nature was more exalted, and pure, and holy than that of the sinful race for whom he suffered. {RH September 11, 1888}

Christ was free from every taint of selfishness. {RH March 28, 1893}

[In Christ] the Godhead was not made human, and the human was not deified by the blending together of the two natures. Christ did not possess the same sinful, corrupt, fallen disloyalty we possess, for then He could not be a perfect offering. {RH April 25, 1893}

Christ . . . transgressed not the law of God in any particular. More than this, he removed every excuse from fallen man that he could urge for a reason for not keeping the law of God. Christ was compassed with the infirmities of humanity, he was beset with the fiercest temptations, tempted on all points like as men, yet he developed a perfectly upright character. No taint of sin was found upon him. . . . The humanity of Christ is called "that holy thing." The inspired record says of Christ, "He did no sin," he "knew no sin," and "in him was no sin." He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners." {ST January 16, 1896}


C. The Baker Letter

Letter 8, 1895 in 13MR 18-20 (Written to Brother and Sister W. L. H. Baker).

[William Lemuel Henry Baker (1858-1933) was an evangelist, conference administrator, and Bible teacher in the United States and Australia. Early in his ministry, Ellen White took an interest in Beker’s spiritual life and encouraged him to faithfully practice the truth he believed in and to “look steadfastly to Jesus” (Lt 81, 1900). While Baker served as a pastor in Australia in 1895, Ellen White wrote him and his wife a long letter (Lt 8, 1895). While most of the letter consists of her personal appeal for more efficiency in his evangelistic and pastoral work and invites him to be totally committed to Christ, one section in the middle of the letter has drawn much attention. In this section, which seems to be a response to a letter he had written to Ellen White, she discusses the theological meaning of the humanity of Christ and warns Baker, “Be careful, exceedingly careful as to how you dwell upon the human nature of Christ.” She then continues with a statement in which she contrasts Christ’s human nature with that of Adam’s and his posterity. Since its publication in Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (RHPA 1957; annotated ed. AUP 2003), this section of the letter has been at the core of the Adventist debate on whether Christ had a postlapsarian or prelapsarian human nature. Many people leaning toward the prelapsarian position have understood this letter to indicate that Christ’s humanity was not entirely identical to ours in that Christ was not born with an inner disposition to sin. For further reading on how this letter has been interpreted in Adventist theology see: W. W. Whidden, Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ (RHPA 1997), pp. 59-66; J. Zurcher, Touched With Our Feelings: A Historical Survey of Adventist Thought on the Human Nature of Christ (RHPA 1999), pp. 163-165; R. Larson, The Word Made Flesh: One Hundred Years of Seventh-day Adventist Christology, 1852-1952 (Brushton, NY: Teach Services, 1986), pp. 66-154; A. L. Moore, Theology in Crisis (Corpus Christi, TX: Life Seminars, 1980), pp. 258-271; A. L. Moore, Adventism in Conflict (RHPA 1995), pp. 145-157; E. C. Webster, Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology (Andrews University Press, 1984), pp. 129-133.]

Be careful, exceedingly careful as to how you dwell upon the human nature of Christ. Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin. He is the second Adam. The first Adam was created a pure, sinless being, without a taint of sin upon him; he was in the image of God. He could fall, and he did fall through transgressing. Because of sin, his posterity was born with inherent propensities of disobedience. But Jesus Christ was the only begotten Son of God. He took upon Himself human nature, and was tempted in all points as human nature is tempted. He could have sinned; He could have fallen, but not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity. He was assailed with temptations in the wilderness, as Adam was assailed with temptations in Eden.

Bro. Baker, avoid every question in relation to the humanity of Christ which is liable to be misunderstood. Truth lies close to the track of presumption. In treating upon the humanity of Christ, you need to guard strenuously every assertion, lest your words be taken to mean more than they imply, and thus you lose or dim the clear perceptions of His humanity as combined with divinity. His birth was a miracle of God; for, said the angel, "Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the son of the Highest; and the Lord shall give unto him the throne of his Father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." [Luke 2:31-35]

These words are not addressed to any human being, except to the Son of the Infinite God. Never, in any way, leave the slightest impression upon human minds that a taint of, or inclination to corruption rested upon Christ, or that He in any way yielded to corruption. He was tempted in all points like as man is tempted, yet He is called that holy thing. It is a mystery that is left unexplained to mortals that Christ could be tempted in all points like as we are, and yet be without sin. The incarnation of Christ has ever been, and will ever remain a mystery. That which is revealed, is for us and for our children, but let every human being be warned from the ground of making Christ altogether human, such an one as ourselves: for it cannot be. The exact time when humanity blended with divinity, it is not necessary for us to know. We are to keep our feet on the rock, Christ Jesus, as God revealed in humanity.

I perceive that there is danger in approaching subjects which dwell on the humanity of the Son of the infinite God. He did humble Himself when He saw He was in fashion as a man, that He might understand the force of all temptations wherewith man is beset.

The first Adam fell: the second Adam held fast to God and His word under the most trying circumstances, and His faith in His Father's goodness, mercy, and love did not waver for one moment. "It is written" was His weapon of resistance, and it is the sword of the Spirit which every human being is to use. "Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me"--nothing to respond to temptation. Not one occasion has been given in response to His manifold temptations. Not once did Christ step on Satan's ground, to give him any advantage. Satan found nothing in Him to encourage his advances.

As teachers we need to understand that the object and teaching of our Lord was to simplify in all His instruction, the nature and the necessity of the moral excellence of character which God through His Son has made every provision that human agents should obtain, that they may be laborers together with Jesus Christ. This God requires, and to this end the ministers of the gospel should work, both in their education of the people, and in the ministry of the word.

There are many questions treated upon that are not necessary for the perfection of the faith. We have no time for their study. Many things are above finite comprehension. Truths are to be received not within the reach of our reason, and not for us to explain. Revelation presents them to us to be implicitly received as the words of an infinite God. While every ingenious inquirer is to search out the truth as it is in Jesus, there are things not yet simplified, statements that human minds cannot grasp and reason out, without being liable to make human calculations and explanations, which will not prove a savor of life unto life.


D. Christ's Humiliation and Temptations in the Wilderness

Manuscript 57, 1890 in 16MR 180-184.

Christ's humiliation is not understood and not appreciated. Forty days and nights Jesus was subjected to the temptations of the enemy--the one who was once an angel next to Christ in majesty and glory in the heavenly courts. It is stated, Thou wast exalted because of thy beauty, et cetera. But he wanted to have the place of Christ, and Christ was one with the Infinite God; and because this was not accorded him, he became jealous, and he was the originator of sin.

Satan wished to change the government of God, to fix his own seal to the rules of God's kingdom. Christ would not be brought into this desire, and here the warfare against Christ commenced and waxed strong. Working in secrecy but known to God, Lucifer became a deceiving character. He told falsehood for truth.

He was expelled from heaven, and apparently Christ was alone with him in the wilderness of temptation. Yet He was not alone, for angels were round Him just as angels of God are commissioned to minister unto those who are under the fearful assaults of the enemy. Christ was in the wilderness with the one with whom there was war in heaven, and the one whom He overcome; and Satan was defeated.

Now Satan meets Him under different circumstances, as the glory that was round about Him is no longer visible. He has humbled Himself, taken upon Himself our nature. And He came into the world to stand at the head of humanity whom Satan had deceived, and to fight His battles in behalf of the race whom Satan has deceived through his lying power. This whole effort was to draw Christ away from His allegiance to God, to undermine in a deceptive way His principles and His allegiance to the Lord God.

What mental anguish Christ passed through! What grief! What torture of mind! He was face to face not with a hideous monster, as is represented with bat's wings and cloven feet, but a beautiful angel of light, apparently just from the presence of God. His deceiving power was so great that a third of the heavenly angels were induced to believe him to be right and unite with him against God and His Son Jesus Christ.

And now Satan's personal contact in this world with Christ was of a most determined character, for if he succeeded here is his strong and wily efforts he was conqueror and the prince of the world. He knew that all his claims to the kingdoms of the world were false and could not be sustained unless he should overcome Christ.

It is impossible to take in the depth and the force of these temptations unless the Lord shall bring man where He can open these scenes before him by a revelation of the matter, and then it can only be but partially comprehended. Satan's assaults were prepared for the circumstances in accordance with the exalted character with which he had to deal. If he [could] gain the victory in the first temptation, he would secure Him on all the rest. Satan had never aimed his darts at so strong a mark.

Our Lord's trial and test and proving shows that He could yield to these temptations, else the battle was all a farce. But He did not yield to the solicitude of the enemy, thus evidencing that the human nature of man, united with the divine nature by faith, may be strong and withstand Satan's temptations.

Christ's perfect humanity is the same that man may have through connection with Christ. As God, Christ could not be tempted any more than He was not tempted from His allegiance in heaven. But as Christ humbled Himself to the nature of man, He could be tempted. He had not taken on Him even the nature of the angels, but humanity, perfectly identical with our own nature, except without the taint of sin. A human body, a human mind, with all the peculiar properties, He was bone, brain, and muscle. A man of our flesh, He was compassed with the weakness of humanity. The circumstances of His life were of that character that He was exposed to all the inconveniences that belong to men, not in wealth, not in ease, but in poverty and want and humiliation. He breathed the very air man must breathe. He trod our earth as man. He had reason, conscience, memory, will, and affections of the human soul which was united with His divine nature.

Our Lord was tempted as man is tempted. He was capable of yielding to temptations, as are human beings. His finite nature was pure and spotless, but the divine nature that led Him to say to Philip, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father" also, was not humanized; neither was humanity deified by the blending or union of the two natures; each retained its essential character and properties.

But here we must not become in our ideas common and earthly, and in our perverted ideas we must not think that the liability of Christ to yield to Satan's temptations degraded His humanity and He possessed the same sinful, corrupt propensities as man.

The divine nature, combined with the human, made Him capable of yielding to Satan's temptations. Here the test to Christ was far greater than that of Adam and Eve, for Christ took our nature, fallen but not corrupted, and would not be corrupted unless He received the words of Satan in the place of the words of God. To suppose He was not capable of yielding to temptation places Him where He cannot be a perfect example for man, and the force and the power of this part of Christ's humiliation, which is the most eventful, is no instruction or help to human beings.

But the facts of this history are not fable, but a living, acting, experience. [To deny this] would rob Jesus of His greatest glory--allegiance to God--which enshrouded Him as a garment in this world on the field of battle with the relentless foe, and He is not reckoned with the transgressor. He descended in His humiliation to be tempted as man would be tempted, and His nature was that of man, capable of yielding to temptation. His very purity and holiness were assailed by a fallen foe, the very one that became corrupted and then was ejected from heaven. How deeply and keenly must Christ have felt this humiliation.

How do fallen angels look upon this pure and uncontaminated One, the Prince of Life, through the different stages of His humiliation? They look upon the scene, the Son of the living God humiliated to take upon Himself the nature of man and meet the strong man armed with all his weapons of deception and falsehood to overcome Jesus Christ. And every victory gained, how precious it is in behalf of the human family, exalting, elevating, ennobling the workmanship of God; and Satan has been at work for centuries, degrading, debasing, and prostituting all his powers to do his hellish work.

The humanity of Christ received the fallen foe and engaged in battle with him. He was sustained in the conflict by divine power just as man will be sustained by his being a partaker of the divine nature. He gained victory after victory as our Champion, the Captain of our salvation, and the divine approval of God and all the universe of heaven flowed into His soul. His nature was shocked almost unto death, but the heavenly angels ministered unto the suffering One.

All heaven rejoiced because humanity, the workmanship of God, was placed in an elevated scale with God by the signal victory gained. Christ was more than conqueror, leaving the way open that man may be more than conqueror through Christ's merits, because He loved him. The Son of the infinite God is brought into the tenderest sympathies with the tempted church. He knows how to succor those who shall be tempted, because He was Himself tempted.


Notes on "passions," "infirmities," "weaknesses," and "propensities"

Understanding what Ellen White meant by "passions," "infirmities," "weaknesses," and "propensities" has been part of the Seventh-day Adventist debate over the human nature of Christ. In the preceding quotes from her writings she often made references to Christ’s nature having “the weaknesses of the fallen race” (RH Feb. 24, 1874), taking “upon himself the infirmities” and bearing “the griefs and sorrows of humanity” (RH Feb. 10, 1885), or assuming “human nature, with its infirmities, its liabilities, its temptations” (Ms 58, 1890). In contrast, she stated that “He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions” (2T 202), he did not have in him any “evil propensity” (Lt 8, 1895), and he did not possess “the same sinful, corrupt propensities as man” (Ms 57, 1890).

Repeatedly in her writings, Ellen White stated that Christ took our human infirmities and weaknesses and thus could be tempted as we are. Yet in regard to propensities, Ellen White always used this word in a negative context whether when she wrote about sinful, animal, corrupt, or natural propensities in human beings, or when she wrote that no evil propensities were found in Jesus.

What did Ellen White mean by these words?

Comparative studies between Ellen White’s use of these expressions and as they were used by other authors in her day are helpful. Since the 1980s, studies done of Ellen White’s use of literary sources have shed some light on the meaning of these words and expressions. In their studies of Ellen White’s writings, Woodrow Whidden, Tim Poirier, and Eric Webster explain that Ellen White’s usage of these words is similar to authors she had read such as Henry Melvill and Octavius Winslow.


According to these studies, Ellen White’s use of the word “passion” in reference to Christ’s nature refers to two different aspects of human passion. In a first context – e.g. “He had all the strength of the passion of humanity” (ST Nov. 21, 1892) – she refers to normal human desires, appetites, feelings, or emotions rather than perverted desires that naturally tend to break over the bounds of lawful expressions as in this other context: “He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions” (2T 202).

Whidden comments that “It is quite evident that such expressions as ‘propensity,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘susceptibility,’ along with the little-used words ‘tendency’ and ‘inclination,’ all meant essentially the same thing, except when she qualified them with adjectives or adverbs freighted with moral distinctions. It seems clear that these expressions convey the idea that one has a proneness to do something, not an actual doing (either good or bad)” (p. 48). Christ, however, did not possess a sinful proneness even though He had normal passions and tendencies.

Henry Melvill on Infirmities and Propensities

It has been shown that Ellen White used the sermons of Anglican minister Henry Melvill in writing on the nature of Christ. In one of his sermons, Melvill explains the distinction between infirmities and propensities in the human nature of Christ in a way that we find later in Ellen White’s writings ( RH July 5, 1887). Melvill writes:

“But whilst he [Christ] took humanity with the innocent infirmities, he did not take it with the sinful propensities. Here Deity interposed. The Holy Ghost overshadowed the Virgin, and, allowing weakness to be derived from her, forbade wickedness; and so caused that there should be generated a sorrowing and a suffering humanity, but nevertheless an undefiled and spotless; a humanity with tears, but not with stains; accessible to anguish, but not prone to offend; allied most closely with the produced misery but infinitely removed from the producing cause. So that we hold – and give it you as what we believe the orthodox doctrine – that Christ’s humanity was not the Adamic humanity, that is, the humanity of Adam before the fall; nor fallen humanity, that is, in every respect the humanity of Adam after the fall. It was not the Adamic, because it had the innocent infirmities of the fallen. It was not the fallen, because it never descended into moral impurity. It was, therefore, most literally our humanity, but without sin.” (Melvill’s Sermons, p. 47 quoted in Webster, p. 128)

Webster concludes that “in his summary of the discussion, Melvill makes it clear that, in his view, Adam had neither ‘innocent infirmities’ nor ‘sinful propensities;’ we are born with both, and Christ took the first but not the second.” . . . Hence it is possible “that when Ellen White states that Christ took upon Himself man’s ‘fallen and sinful nature’ she is thinking of those ‘innocent infirmities’ that brought Christ to man’s level, and that when she speaks of the sinlessness of Christ’s humanity she is thinking of the fact that Christ did not possess “sinful propensities” (p. 129).

Octavius Winslow on Weaknesses and Propensities

Octavius Winslow is another author that Ellen White read and borrowed from in her understanding of the human nature of Christ. The following passage in found in Winslow’s book The Glory of the Redeemer in His Person and Work (London: John Farquhar Shaw, 1855), pp. 129, 132-135. One can see Ellen White’s similar use of Winslow’s thoughts in 5BC 1131 and 16MR 181-183 (quoted above).

But his [Christ’s] taking up into subsistence with his own, our nature in its fallen condition, comprehends the sinless infirmities and weaknesses with which it was identified and encompassed. “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.” (129)

Our Lord’s exposure to temptation, and his consequent capability of yielding to its solicitations, has its foundations in his perfect humanity. It surely requires not an argument to show that, as God, he could not be tempted, but that, as man, he could. His inferior nature was finite and created; it was not angelic, it was human. It was perfectly identical with our own,– its entire exemption from all taint of sin, only excepted. A human body and a human mind were his, with all their essential and peculiar properties. He was “bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh:” he travelled up through the stages of infancy, boyhood, and manhood; he was encompassed with all the weaknesses, surrounded, that belong to our nature. He breathed our air, trod our earth, at our food. The higher attributes of our being were his also. Reason, conscience, memory, will, affections, were essential appendages of that human soul which the Son of God took into union with his Divine. As such, then, our Lord was tempted. As such, too, he was capable of yielding. His finite nature, though pure and sinless, was yet necessarily limited in its resources, and weak in its own powers. Touching his inferior nature, he was but man. The Godhead, as I have before remarked, was not humanized,– nor was the humanity deified, by the blending together of the two natures. Each retained its essential character, properties, and attributes, distinct, unchanged, and unchangeable. (132-133)

But let no one suppose that a liability in Jesus to yield to Satan’s temptations, necessarily implies the existence of the same sinful and corrupt nature which we possess. Far from it. To deny his capability of succumbing to temptation, were to neutralize the force, beauty, and instruction of this eventful part of his history altogether. It were to reduce a splendid fact to an empty fable, a blessed reality to a vague supposition; it were to rob Jesus of the great glory which covered him when left alone, the victor on this battle-field. And yet, that he must necessarily be sinful in order to be thus capable of yielding, does not follow; it is an error in judgment to suppose that the force of a temptation always depends upon the inherent sinfulness of the person who is tempted. The case of the first Adam disproves this supposition, and in some of its essential features strikingly illustrates the case of the second Adam. In what consisted the strength of the assault before whose fearful onset Adam yielded? Surely not in any indwelling sin, for he was pure and upright. There was no appeal to the existence of any corrupt principles or propensities; no working upon any fallen desires and tendencies in his nature; for, until the moment that the blast swept him to the earth, no angel in heaven stood before the throne purer or more faultless than he. But God left him to the necessary weakness and poverty of his own nature, and thus withdrawing His Divine support and restraint, that instant he fell! That our adorable Lord did not fall, and was not overcome in his fearful conflict with the same foe, was owing solely to the upholding of the Deity, and the indwelling and restraining power of the Holy Spirit, which he possessed without measure. (133-134)

Winslow argues that Christ did have weaknesses and infirmities but no corrupt principles or propensities in him. Like Melvill, Winslow espoused a view of Christ’s nature where Christ inherited the post-fall human infirmities and weaknesses which enabled him to be tempted as we are but he inherited no propensities to sin.

John Wesley on Infirmities

In many ways, Ellen White’s theology of salvation is similar to that of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. In one of his sermons,“Christian Perfection” [Sermon 40], Wesley defined what he understood infirmities to be. In this sermon he first discussed the areas of one’s life in which a Christian is not to expect full perfection this side of heaven. One of these areas has to do with human infirmities. By infirmities he meant: “bodily infirmities” and

“all those imperfections which are not of a moral nature. Such are the weakness or slowness of understanding, dulness or confusedness of apprehension, incoherency of thought, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such (to mention no more of this kind) is the want of a ready or retentive memory. Such, in another kind, are those which are commonly, in some measure, consequent upon these ; namely, slowness of speech, impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation ; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. These are the infirmities which are found in the best of men, in a larger or smaller proportion. And from these none can hope to be perfectly freed, till the spirit returns to God that gave it” (Sermon 40, section I.7).

For further reading see: W. W. Whidden, Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ (RHPA 1997), pp. 46-50; Tim Poirier, “Sources Clarify Ellen White’s Christology,” Ministry, December 1989, pp. 7-9; Eric C. Webster, Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology (Andrews University Press, 1984), pp. 115-133.