Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales.

Among other issues at the nowfamous Bible conference in 1919, leading Seventh-day Adventist administrators and theologians discussed the nature of the deity of Jesus. One aspect of their discussion concerned worship. How could they worship Jesus Christ if He was not eternal God?

This question strikingly reiterates an argument used by Athanasius in the fourth century. The presbyter Arius attacked the church’s teachings of the eternal divinity of Jesus with his claim that the pre-existent Jesus had a beginning. Athanasius powerfully countered, “The whole earth sings the praises of the Creator and the truth, and blesses Him and trembles before Him.” But does not the whole Bible point to Jesus Christ—the Word—as this Creator?

Both in the Adventist movement and in the early church, devotion to Jesus played a major role in the development of what is known as the doctrine of the Trinity.

In the ancient world, the first Christians’ commitment to Jesus did not go without notice. Pliny the Younger, governor of the province of Bithynia, wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan that they “sing hymns to Christ as to a God.” Everywhere they willingly testified to the full divinity of Jesus and some even died as martyrs because of this confession. On the floor in the earliest Christian church building excavated in Palestine—burned into stone in Megiddo in the early third century—we read the words of dedication “to God Jesus Christ.”

The Christian pioneers ventured into the world with the gospel, proclaiming the risen and divine Savior. But as they carried forth their witness to the Jesus they worshipped, questions and challenges arose. How can you say Jesus is God? What does it mean that He is? Reflecting on and responding to these challenges, the church developed its thinking and its theology—that is, speaking systematically about God.

The journey of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in many ways mirrors the way the early church arrived at its understanding. And just as the true nature of Jesus was a cornerstone for the first Christians, His eternal divinity is important for us today. It still matters because He matters.


The basis for this discovery was—and is—the Bible. The belief that Jesus is God was not a late invention of the fourth century in order to hide the real truth about Him, as claimed in The Da Vinci Code and similar conspiracy theories. Neither is the Bible only calling Jesus the “Son of God” as if this title makes Him less divine, implying that He had a beginning. The claim to the full divinity of Jesus stems from the Bible itself. It arises first from a number of explicit statements. These are not few, nor are they difficult texts to comprehend. They are straightforward and permeate all of the New Testament. Just read the following examples, proclaiming Jesus to be God (emphasis supplied):

• “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, NRSV).
• “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18, NRSV).
• “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever” (Romans 9:5, ESV).
• “. . . waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13, ESV).
• “. . . by the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1, ESV). Christians read further in the Scriptures and observed how a number of texts attribute to Jesus the prerogatives that belong to God alone, such as authority to forgive sins (see Mark 2:5-7), lordship over nature (see Mark 4:41) and power to grant eternal life (see John 17:3).

The early Christians realized that if eternal life depends on knowing Jesus Christ, He must have the basic attributes of God. As the One who is sent, He shares them with Him who sends. This belief, however, presented them with a decisive choice when facing the pagan cultures of the Roman Empire—the choice between one or several gods, monotheism or polytheism. 


Accepting the clear biblical testimony that Jesus is God raised the question that came to define Christianity in contrast to all other religions: What kind of God is Jesus?

In the Greek-Roman culture, monotheism was not the norm. The pagans were accustomed to having more than one God. To them, it would not have been strange if the Christians had proclaimed two Gods—a greater God called the Father and a lesser god, namely Christ. So this question became a major challenge for the Christians. How are we to understand the deity of Jesus? And what is our basis for defining what it means to be God?

Anti-Trinitarians—later with the Alexandrian presbyter Arius as their spokesman—chose the pagan understanding of “god,” as someone or something you can become. “Gods” may have a beginning, they are not necessarily omnipotent and all-knowing, and they don’t necessarily have life in themselves. Popular religion of the time taught it, and the philosophers expressed similar thoughts in more sophisticated forms. To the Greeks, only the world—kosmos—was eternal. “Gods” came into being. They fought each other, as they were not equally powerful, and they could be fooled. Some Christian philosophers—including Arius—were influenced by this concept of the divine, which became the underlining premise of their understanding of Jesus.

But the Christian church and its theologians chose another basis for defining what it means to be God. The Trinitarian doctrine takes God’s self-revelation in Jesus as presented in the Scriptures as the starting point.

The Bible is not silent on what it means to be God. God is the Creator. He made the world from nothing and, as Creator, God is therefore independent of everything created. He is before all: He has no beginning and He is omnipotent, all-knowing and forever present. This is what God is as God, and there is no other. A text like Isaiah 44:6 summarizes this basic understanding of the Old Testament monotheism: “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (NRSV).


So the early church chose the God revealed in Scripture, preferring the Old Testament to Greek and pagan philosophy. But it was not an easy battle. Major opponents wanted to get rid of much or even all of the Old Testament—and even major parts of the New, considered too Jewish, as well. But the Trinitarian doctrine developed on the basis of the whole Bible because Jesus clearly understood Himself as Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament:

• In Revelation 1:17, 18, Jesus quotes Isaiah 44:6, which is spoken by Yahweh: “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (NKJV).
• All Jews knew Yahweh was their shepherd (see Psalm 23:1) and Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11, NKJV).
• The language of Jesus in proclaiming Himself the great “I am” is a clear reference to the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament and to numerous texts in the second part of the book of Isaiah: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.’ Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him” (John 8:58, 59, NASV). The Jews well understood that He was claiming Himself to be God and wanted to stone Him for blasphemy. 

So the New Testament presents Jesus as one with Yahweh. He is Creator (see John 1:3, Colossians 1:15 and Revelation 3:14). This portrait reflects the clear prophetic statement by Isaiah about the eternal divinity of the Messiah to come, a “mighty God” and an “eternal Father” (see Isaiah 9:6).


But how could Jesus be God and God be one at the same time? Some Christians moved toward one extreme position by identifying the Father totally with the Son— and later identifying the Son totally with the Holy Spirit. Doing so would, however, destroy the personality of each and conflict with the Bible, as the “Father” and the “Son” are clearly two distinct persons.

The answer to the question is in part found in the Hebrew word used for “one” in the famous text in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (NASV). It denotes a unity of relationship, not necessarily a numerical or mathematical oneness (compare the use of the word echad in texts like Genesis 2:24; 21:25; and Judges 20:1).


One of the most beloved texts of the Bible is John 3:16. Compare two major translations:

• "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (NIV).
• "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (NKJV).

Which is it? Is Jesus the "one and only" or is He "the only begotten"? What is the meaning of the Greek word monogenes? And what difference does it make?

However monogenes is translated, it does not denote a literal birth in our modern sense of the word. I was strongly challenged at a meeting by a group who asked me whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes that Jesus is literally the only begotten Son of God? Such language imposes our modern culture on the Bible, and a "yes" to this question presupposes a mother with whom the Father God had intercourse! This would be the meaning if the expressions are to be understood literally. But we are not speaking about humans: we are speaking about God, and our language is, in this case, metaphorical and has clear limitations.

Moreover, we have to understand the expressions against the background of the culture into which the Bible was spoken. "Fatherhood" and "sonship" had different connotations, both in Semitic and Indo-European cultures of biblical times, from what these concepts carry today. In the Bible, a "son" may mean a son but also a descendant, a successor (like Belshazzar, in Daniel 5), students (like the sons of the prophets) or a representative (like the King of Israel, see Psalm 2:7).

So what is the meaning of monogenes in John 3:16? Greek scholars have proposed two origins for the word. One theory has been that the word stems from the verb gennao, meaning "to beget" and is generally used only about males, as in the genealogy in Matthew 1. In this case, the meaning of the term monogenes with the prefix mono (one or only one, as in words like "monogamy" and "monotheism") would be "the only one born to or begotten."

However, this view is rejected by the vast majority of Greek scholars today. Rather, the origin of the word is understood as genos, which means "kind or type." The term monogenes in John 3:16 (and other New Testament texts) therefore means "the only one of its kind" or—as in the New International Version—"the one and only." In this view, the meaning could but does not have to include the sense "only one born to or begotten." Any "only begotten" son is unique of course but being unique does not necessarily mean you are the only one born.

How is this view substantiated? Let me mention two supporting arguments. One is technical and requires some understanding of Greek grammar; the other, however, is based on the usage of the word and is easily checked without any training in ancient Greek. First, the natural way to form a participle from the verb gennao creates the word monogennetos, not monogenes. Second, the use in Hebrews 11:17 of the word monogenes about Isaac as the unique son of Abraham makes the meaning "only begotten" impossible, as everyone knows that Abraham, in a literal sense, had more sons.

So the meaning "one and only" or "unique" is the natural and obvious meaning of the word monogenes. Does this imply Jesus had a beginning? The answer is no, unless you claim Jesus is a different God and entertain a pagan view of the divine. Jesus is the unique representative of the Godhead to all creation. This is what He has always been.

Additionally, when the New Testament speaks about the Father and the Son, it describes a unique relationship. God is mentioned as a Father in only 18 texts in the Old Testament. In the Gospel of John alone, Jesus mentions His Heavenly Father more than 100 times in direct speech.

We know the Father because we know the Son. In part, their relationship is unique because it is eternal. There never was a time when it did not exist. If there was a time when the Son was not, there would have been a time when God would not have been the Father. The unique unity and intimate relationship between the two presupposes that the persons within the Godhead are "co-eternal."

So in establishing the Trinity doctrine, the Christians had to denounce those views that questioned that there are three distinct persons or personalities in the Godhead, admitting that the word “person” is from the human sphere and falls short of fully and exactly describing God. On the other hand, the Christian church had to distance itself from any position presenting Jesus as substantially different from the Father. The language used was that Father and Son share in substance, a term later used by Ellen White when she writes, “Jesus said, ‘I and my Father are one.’ The words of Christ were full of deep meaning as he put forth the claim that he and the Father were of one substance, possessing the same attributes.”1

The term “substance” is not to be understood as some kind of mystical emanating energy but as the basic attributes without which God would not be God, such as being eternal and without beginning, independent of all created, and thus omnipotent, all knowing and forever present. Only in this way could the early Christians defend the true oneness of God, and avoid worshipping more than one God and thus a return to paganism.

Anti-Trinitarians at the time of the early church either rejected the distinctive personalities of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, making them identical persons, or they understood Jesus as having a beginning and, thus, being substantially different from the Father, treating Jesus as a second god. In addition, Anti-Trinitarians of today often perceive Jesus as a second and lesser god, returning to a view based on paganism or Greek philosophy. 

The basics of the Trinity A short outline of the Bible-based formulation that led the early church to the doctrine of the Trinity:

1. Monotheism—God is one!

2. Jesus is God.

3. Yet, the Father and the Son are two distinct persons.

4. There are at least two persons in that one God.

5. The Holy Spirit is a distinct person within the Godhead.

6. These three form a unity.

In this article, we have looked at the first four of these points. The second article in this series will discuss the question of the Holy Spirit.


But does not the Bible—not least the New Testament—contain a number of texts that speak about the subordination of Jesus the Son? Anti-Trinitarians are quick to point this out by listing texts that do not speak about the eternal divinity of Jesus but about His limitations, humility and humanity. And is He not—by being named the “Son”—lesser and later?

Neither modern Seventh-day Adventists nor the early Christian theologians are silent about these texts. But all these texts speak of the role of Jesus in dealing with the created beings as the full representative of God, both before and after the origin of sin. They do not speak about nor negate the nature of His eternal divinity.

Instead, they highlight the very point of the doctrine. Rightly understood, these texts help us see why it is important because they reveal what the gospel is about. Jesus is the slain Lamb; but He is also our divine Shepherd (see Revelation 7:17). The Christian message is based on the fact that the Creator of the Universe, the eternal omnipotent and all-knowing God Himself, stepped down and became a human being, even to death on the cross. This is what we call the agape love of God. He was fully God, He humbled Himself and became fully human, and He is now exalted above all (see Philippians 2:5-11).

As Trinitarians, Seventh-day Adventists—with the early Christian church—reject any pagan concept of the divine and, based on the Bible, choose to believe in a God of agape love. If Jesus was anything less than “the eternally blessed God” (see Romans 9:5), this love would disintegrate and become a phantom. We would no longer really know God as a person because He, if that were the case, had sent someone else. And Jesus could no longer provide full sacrifice and atonement for our sins because He would not be eternal, and the cross would just be trading with the devil. But the biblical God of agape love was willing to sacrifice Himself in order to not compromise or trade with sin. 

This is why the doctrine mattered so much for the early Christian church. Jesus Christ was able to become the perfect mediator between God and human beings (see 1 Timothy 2:5), not because He is somewhere in between but exactly because He is both fully God and fully human. The significance of this truth has not changed and is allimportant for the Seventh-day Adventist Church today.

1 “The True Sheep Respond to the Voice of the Shepherd,” Signs of the Times, November 27, 1893, p. 54.

This is the first article in a series of three dealing with the issue of the Trinity in the Bible, in the early church, and in the Seventh-day Adventist movement. This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Record magazine, published by SPD.

Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales.