Good News for Seventh-Day Adventists

Ellet Joseph Waggoner:
The Myth and the Man

David P. McMahon

Waggoner in Retrospect

E. J. Waggoner's theological development is not a matter of mere historical interest. The issue of righteousness by faith and the drama of 1888 have regained great prominence in the Seventh-day Adventist community. Not surprisingly, some of Waggoner's works have been republished. His name is being invoked in support of various theories now promoted within the church. And the works of Waggoner the pantheist are extolled as though they represented the precious light of 1888 which had Ellen G. White's full endorsement.

We believe we have amply demonstrated that Waggoner's pantheism was not a theological aberration isolated from the rest of his theological system. His mind was too orderly and logical for that. His premises on justification by faith, sanctification, the human nature of Christ and the mystical atonement logically lead to pantheism. The best historical theology confirms this. And Waggoner himself has proved it true. His history clearly demonstrates where such ideas as "effective" justification, sanctification by faith alone, the sinful nature of Christ, perfectionism and the mystical atonement lead. If we refuse to learn the lessons of history, we shall be condemned to repeat them.

The Waggoner who abandoned the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith after 1888 and finally espoused "the alpha of deadly heresies" is alive and well represented in Adventism today.


The fatal flaw in Waggoner's theology was his failure to guard cardinal distinctions which must be preserved if we are to avoid confusing God and man. The first vital distinction Waggoner lost was the clear distinction between justification and sanctification—God's work for us and His work in us. Of course, there is also a vital union between the two. But we must not argue from their union to make a fusion. Adventism's stress on the union of law and gospel has always made her prone to blur the vital distinction between law and gospel.

Losing the distinction between the righteousness of faith and sanctification corrupted Waggoner's understanding of both. He could no longer stand with the Reformers, who clearly grasped that the righteousness of faith—Christ's personal obedience alone—is a righteousness unspoiled by any human participation. Whereas the righteousness of faith is wholly substitutionary, sanctification involves man's active response to God in a life of willing obedience and is therefore not by faith alone.

The Bible does not call sanctification "God's righteousness" or "the righteousness of faith" but rather "our righteousness," "his [the believer's] righteousness" or "the righteousness of the law." Though performed in the strength given him of God, this righteousness of the believer is never perfect in this life. It is never entirely free from the contamination of sinful human nature. While good works testify to the genuineness of the believer's faith, they cannot satisfy the demands of God's law unless Christ's merit is added to them. The believer cannot stand in the judgment because of this active righteousness, although he will not stand without it. Furthermore, no one who confuses this active righteousness—sanctification—with the righteousness of faith can stand before God with a good conscience because he would be trusting in that which is incomplete and imperfect for his salvation.

This relationship between righteousness by faith and sanctification is one of the principal points in the current discussion on righteousness by faith. Some insist that the righteousness of the born-again believer is part of "the righteousness of faith" which Paul considers in the book of Romans. And some appeal to Waggoner to support their mingling of these two kinds of righteousness.

A related approach which blurs the distinction between justification and sanctification is the old theory of "effective" justification. (1) If proponents of effective justification simply meant that justification always has sanctifying effects, they would reflect the best Protestant heritage. But the theory of effective justification has a definite history and is therefore very suspect. In the sixteenth century justum efficere was the term used by Roman Catholic apologists who contended that "to justify" means "to make righteous" in a subjective sense. Thus the Romanists confounded justification and sanctification. Around the beginning of this century a number of theologians wanted to discard the Protestant concept of forensic justification by remodeling Luther. They used terms like "analytical justification," "sanative justification" and finally "effective justification." In every instance they infused sanctification into the article of justification so that the true Protestant doctrine was lost. The theory of effective justification blurs the distinction between justification and sanctification, thus corrupting both. Carried to its logical end, it destroys the vital distinction between God's work and man's work. It puts man where God alone should be, and God where man should be.

Some within Adventism do not hesitate to say justification is an internal "making righteous." (2) They follow Roman Catholicism, which confuses justification with sanctification. The post-1888 Waggoner is clearly alive and well in Adventism today.


The saving righteousness for which Paul so earnestly contends is "by faith alone." Those who confound this article with sanctification inevitably contend for sanctification by faith alone. (3) They say that God—Christ or the Holy Spirit—so lives in the believer that He alone does all the believing, working and obeying. The believer passively permits the Deity to do everything in him.

This is quietism. It fails to do justice to the meaningful activity of the believer. It tends to be effeminate and mystical in its view of the Christian life. It lacks the robust virility of biblical Christianity, which sets the justified believer free for legitimate work because his work is no longer done on his own account. Passive sanctification is also generally perfectionistic. If Christ alone does the work for and in the believer, that work is considered perfect and sometimes meritorious.

Sanctification by faith alone tends to pantheism because it blurs the distinction between the work of the Creator and the work of the creature. This was Waggoner's theory of sanctification when he lost the Protestant doctrine of forensic justification. And who would deny that this Waggoner is alive and well in Adventism today?

For years so-called exponents of righteousness by faith have reflected the "victorious-life" theories of the holiness movement. But when Paul and the Reformers spoke of righteousness by faith, they were not referring to some experience of inner piety. They were referring to that infinite, awesome and unrepeatable event when God acted in Christ for man's redemption. This event was historical, juridical and objective. To the apostles and Reformers the gospel was the announcement of this great act of God in Christ. It was faith in God's act which set men free—free from themselves and from their preoccupation with obtaining enough internal piety to stand in the judgment of God. There is nothing more pitiful nor more destructive of true holiness than the Waggonerian tendency to internalize the righteousness of faith.

The Incarnation

Waggoner's doctrine of the sinful human nature of Christ played a conspicuous role in his developing pantheism. With the publication of Questions on Doctrine in 1957, it appeared that this doctrine of the sinful human nature of Christ had been expelled from Adventism. But it is no secret that some church leaders have tried to revive the theory of the sinful human nature of Christ. (4) They believe this view was part of the 1888 message which enjoyed Ellen G. White's support. And they are consequently agitating Waggoner's doctrine on the sinful human nature of Christ and the incarnation.


Waggoner's extreme view on sanctification—that Christ actually thinks and obeys in the believer—and his theory on the incarnation were in harmony with his perfectionism. He taught that Christ lived in sinful human nature two thousand years ago to prove He can do it again in the believer today. In this theology the incarnation is no longer absolutely unique. It continues happening all the time. Rome taught that the church was the extension of the incarnation. Waggoner proposed that the believer is an extension of the incarnation. The following statement by Waggoner the pantheist in 1903 was quoted approvingly in a recent Review editorial.

From the manger in Bethlehem shine the rays that shall fill the earth with the glory of the Lord; and that coming glory will be hastened as the manger is multiplied by the repetition of the mystery of the birth of Christ in all who receive him. (5)

During the 1974 North American Bible Conferences, Herbert E. Douglass presented his thesis on the perfection of the final generation. Significantly, he supported his position by quoting Waggoner's lectures of 1897— lectures permeated with pantheism. (6) In recent years Douglass has been a leading exponent of Waggoner's final-generation concept. He has presented this in Review editorials, the North American Bible Conferences, the Adult Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly on Jesus, the Model Man and in the books, Why Jesus Waits and Jesus, the Benchmark of Humanity. These are all echoes of the perfectionism of Waggoner, who said:

Before the end comes, and at the time of the coming of Christ, there must be a people on earth, not necessarily large in proportion to the number of inhabitants of earth, but large enough to be known in all the earth, in whom "all the fullness of God" will be manifest even as it was in Jesus of Nazareth. God will demonstrate to the world that what he did with Jesus of Nazareth He can do with anyone who will yield to Him. (7)

The Atonement

Waggoner's mystical theory of atonement is also alive and well in Adventism today. The tendency to dissipate the biblical concept of the wrath of God and the propitiatory death of Christ have been present in certain quarters for at least thirty years. Robert J. Wieland embraces Waggoner's view that Christ's death did not propitiate God's wrath but man's enmity. The connection between the doctrine of the sinful human nature of Christ and the mystical atonement is well known in the history of Christian thought. Berkhof wrote:

The mystical theory has this in common with the moral influence theory, that it conceives of the atonement exclusively as exercising influence on man and bringing about a change in him. At the same time it differs from the moral influence theory in that it conceives of the change wrought in man, not primarily as an ethical change in the conscious life of man, but a deeper change in the subconscious life which is brought about in a mystical way. The basic principle of this theory is that, in the incarnation, the divine life entered into the life of humanity, in order to lift it to the plane of the divine. Christ possessed human nature with its inborn corruption and predisposition to moral evil; but through the influence of the Holy Spirit He was kept from manifesting this corruption in actual sin, gradually purified human nature, and in His death completely extirpated this original depravity and reunited that nature to God. He entered the life of mankind as a transforming leaven, and the resulting transformation constitutes His redemption. This is in effect, though with differences of detail, the theory of Schleiermacher, Edward Irving, Menken, and Stier. Even Kohlbruegge seemed inclined to accept it in a measure. It is burdened, however, with the following difficulties:

1. It takes no account of the guilt of man. According to Scripture the guilt of man must be removed, in order that he may be purified of his pollution; but the mystical theory, disregarding the guilt of sin, concerns itself only with the expulsion of the pollution of sin. It knows of no justification, and conceives of salvation as consisting in subjective sanctification.

2. It rests upon false principles, where it finds in the natural order of the universe an exhaustive expression of the will and nature of God, regards sin exclusively as a power of moral evil in the world, which involves no guilt and deserves no punishment, and looks upon punishment as a mere reaction of the law of the universe against the transgressor, and not at all as a revelation of the personal wrath of God against sin.

3. It contradicts Scripture where it makes Christ share in the pollution of sin and hereditary depravity, and deduces the necessity of His death from the sinfulness of His own nature (not all do this). By doing this, it makes it impossible to regard Him as the sinless Saviour who, just because of His sinlessness, could take the place of sinners and pay the penalty for them.

4. It has no answer to the question, how those who lived before the incarnation can share in the redemption of Jesus Christ. If Christ in some realistic way drove out the pollution of sin during the time of His sojourn on earth, and now continues to drive it out; and if the salvation of man depends on this subjective process, how then could the Old Testament saints share in this salvation? (8)

Berkhof has essentially described Waggoner's teaching on the atonement in the 1890's. Berkhof's description also has a close bearing on Wieland's theology.

But the most remarkable revival of Waggonerian-like views on the atonement has taken place in the Division of Religion at Loma Linda University. In this department are those who repudiate the historic Christian doctrine of the substitutionary atonement in order to embrace "the moral influence theory." In fact, the moral influence theory has widely permeated West-Coast American Adventism. It has such a stranglehold on the church's principal financial base that the leaders of the church appear paralyzed and frightened to touch it.

A. Graham Maxwell's recent denominational book of the year, Can God Be Trusted? is conspicuous for what it omits in discussing the atonement. The chapter, "Why Did Jesus Have to Die?" should be compared with an article of similar title written by Waggoner in the British Present Truth of September 21, 1893. (9)


Confounding justification with sanctification, extreme views of sanctification, the doctrine of the sinful human nature of Christ, the mystical atonement and the repudiation of the legal categories of biblical thought all lead logically to a pantheistic theology. Church history in general testifies to this. Adventist history also demonstrates this. We have seen that all the major tenets of Waggoner's post-1888 theology have been revived in Adventism today. Where will these views lead? We do not have to speculate.

If the proper distinction between the saving righteousness of faith and the consequent righteousness of the believer is lost, all is lost. To use Luther's words, "nothing remains but darkness and ignorance of God." Such great objective truths as the incarnation, the atonement and justification cannot be internalized and dehistoricized without prostituting the Christian faith.

But we end on an optimistic note. The Waggoner of 1884-1888 has also been revived and lives in Adventism today. This is the Waggoner who was committed to restoring the Reformation message of justification by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Those who now stand in this stream of thought can also profit by Waggoner's history.


1. See Hans K. LaRondelle, "The Shaking of Adventism? IV; Paxton and the Reformers," Spectrum 9, no. 3 (July 1978): 45-57.
2. See Erwin R. Gane, "Is There Power in Justification?" See also A. John Clifford and Russell R. Standish, Conflicting Concepts of Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Australasian Division.
3. See Morris L. Venden, Salvation by Faith and Your Will.
4. See Herbert E. Douglass, "The Humanity of the Son of God Is Everything to Us," Review and Herald, 23 Dec. 1971, pp. 12-13; idem, "Jesus Showed Us the Possible," ibid., 30 Dec. 1971, pp. 16-17; idem, "The Demonstration That Settles Everything," ibid., 6 Jan. 1972, pp. 13-14; idem, "Men of Faith—The Showcase of God's Grace," in Herbert E. Douglass, Edward Heppenstall, Hans K. LaRondelle and C. Mervyn Maxwell, Perfection: The Impossible Possibility, pp. 13-56.
5. E. J. Waggoner, "The Manger and the Cross," Review and Herald, 6 Jan. 1903, p. 9. Cf. Kenneth H. Wood, "Christmas 1976," Review and Herald, 23 Dec. 1976, p. 2.
6. Herbert E. Douglass, "The Unique Contribution of Adventist Eschatology."
7. E. J. Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant, p. 366.
8. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 389-90.
9. E. J. Waggoner, "Why Did Christ Die?" Present Truth, 21 Sept. 1893, pp. 385-88. Cf. A. Graham Maxwell, Can God Be Trusted? pp. 75.89.

SDA Home Page   Article List   Next Article