Every once in a while I discuss theological, biblical, and philosophical minutiae on my blog – mainly because, well, mainly because I enjoy a discussion of such things! Plus, sometimes that minutiae has farther-reaching implications than the average layperson realizes, ultimately influencing what the person in the pew understands about God and His ways – and, by way of extension, how the person in the pew lives.
In this case, I have been challenged recently by a few people (all good friends of mine) with the claim that E. J. Waggoner adopted a “mystical” view of the atonement in the early 1890s that served as the foundation to his allegedly heretical conflation of justification and sanctification, leading to his heretical views on the vindication of God. And when he started wading into panentheistic waters – the belief that God exists in everything – it all came together as a highly potent and toxic mix.
So what are we to make of this claim? Did Waggoner adopt a “mystical” view of the atonement?
First of all, let’s define our terms: what is meant by the phrase “mystical view”? To put it in simple terms, a “mystical” view of the atonement focuses solely on the subjective aspects of Christ’s atonement on the cross. That is, Christ died not to satisfy any objective demands of justice; He died only to somehow work a change in our psyches and reconcile us to Himself. The atonement merely revealed God’s heart to us. Christ didn’t bear the penalty of our sin, serving as our Substitute. Salvation has nothing to do with Christ redeeming us from some external punishment from which we need to be delivered; salvation consists solely of subjective sanctification where we are freed from an internal conflict.
The real watershed moment in Waggoner’s “mystical” views on the atonement came in 1893, it is postulated, when he wrote an article in The Present Truth – a publication he edited in the United Kingdom – where he sought to answer the question “Why Did Christ Die?” When one reads this article, it seems as though Waggoner was starting to adopt an exclusively mystical, subjective view of the cross and the atonement. He says, for example, that the Scriptures “never once hint of such a thing as the necessity for God to be reconciled to man” (Sept 21, 1893). No, he says, the cross was not for the purpose of reconciling God to man, but to reconcile man to God.
When one reads the whole article in context, however, and compares it with Waggoner’s continued views on the atonement expressed later, it becomes apparent that if he’s guilty of anything, it’s that he is setting up a straw man that is, as an isolated article, perhaps a little unbalanced.
It is not, however, the watershed moment, or the smoking gun, signaling Waggoner’s hard break – or even soft break – with his objective views of the atonement.
Notice, for example, all the qualifiers he uses when describing the “Substitutionary” model of the atonement that he is setting on fire (all emphases mine):
But,” someone will say, “You have made the reconciliation all on the part of men; I have always been taught that the death of Christ reconciled God to man; that Christ died to satisfy God’s justice, and to appease Him.” Well, we have left the matter of reconciliation just where the Scriptures have put it; and while they have much to say about the necessity for man to be reconciled to God, they never once hint of such a thing as the necessity for God to be reconciled to man. To intimate the necessity for such a thing is to bring a grave charge against the character of God. The idea has come into the Christian Church from the Papacy, which in turn brought it from Paganism, in which the only idea of God was of a being whose wrath must be appeased by a sacrifice. . . .
“But to speak of the necessity for God to be reconciled to man is not only to say that He cherished enmity in His heart, but to say that God was partially in the wrong, and that a change had to take place in Him as well as in man. . . .
“It is very difficult for the mind to rid itself of the idea received as a legacy from Paganism, through the Papacy, that God was so angry at man for having sinned, that He could not be mollified without seeing blood flow, but that it made no difference to Him whose blood it was, if only somebody was killed; and that since Christ’s life was worth more than the lives of all men, He accepted Him as a substitute for them. This is almost a brutal way of stating the case, but it is the only way that the case can be truly presented. The heathen conception of God is a brutal one, as dishonouring to God as it is discouraging to man; and this heathen idea has been allowed to colour too many texts of Scripture. It is sad to think how greatly men who really loved the Lord, have given occasion to His enemies to blaspheme. . .
“Remember that in giving His Son, God gave Himself, and you will see that a sacrifice was not demanded to satisfy God’s outraged feelings, but that, on the contrary, God’s inexpressible love led Him to sacrifice Himself, in order to break down man’s enmity, and reconcile us to Himself.
It is apparent what He is doing: tracing this particular model of the atonement to Roman Catholicism and Paganism, using terms like “appease,” “mollified,” “God was angry at man,” He had “outraged feelings,” He “cherished enmity in His heart,” etc. No honest reader of Scripture – at least none who agrees with the hermeneutical approach of Adventism – would disagree with Waggoner that God didn’t have outraged feelings, or that He had enmity in His heart toward us.
No Adventist reader of Scripture would then disagree with Waggoner’s desire to expunge this horrific explanation of God and the atonement (though one could, I suppose, question whether Waggoner accurately described a model that any Christian really subscribes to – but that’s a different topic). Further, such a desire was merely in concert with what Ellen White herself described, noting, for example, her words in Steps to Christ that Christ’s “great sacrifice was not made in order to create in the Father’s heart a love for man, not to make Him willing to save. No, no! . . . . The Father loves us, not because of the great propitiation, but He provided the propitiation because He loves us” (p. 13).
Such a distinction needs to be made, Ellen White says, because “Satan led men to conceive of God as a being whose chief attribute is stern justice – one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor. . . . It was to remove this dark shadow, by revealing to the world the infinite love of God, that Jesus came to live among men.” Indeed, “the Son of God came from heaven to make manifest the Father” (p. 11).
So Waggoner, even though he may have overstated the case a little too much for some people’s liking, wasn’t necessarily ridding his theology of the substitutionary model of the atonement in 1893. Like Ellen White, he was decrying the despicable classic explanation of God that places the atonement as the apex of God’s inner need for some type of appeasement and mollification in order to love sinners and feel right toward them.
It’s not simply a contextual reading of Waggoner’s 1893 “Why Did Christ Die?” article that helps us realize his true views on the objective and substitutionary aspects of the atonement though; his views also become apparent when one does a simple search of his writings from 1893 onward, starting – surprise, surprise – with the very last paragraph in this very same article that critics cite as Waggoner’s departure from the objective model. “We have not a God who demands a sacrifice from man,” Waggoner summarizes, “but one who in His love has offered Himself a sacrifice. We owe to God a life perfectly in harmony with His law; but since our life is just the opposite of that, God in Christ has substituted His own life for ours.”
Can it get any clearer?
Waggoner would express very similar sentiment throughout the rest of his ministry, repeatedly affirming the objective aspects of the atonement. Here is a sample of his affirmations of such a thought, starting in the year 1893 (though a few months before this “watershed” article was published):
- March 9, 1893: “This is the message of these days. It is to present Christ as the power of God, and the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ as the only righteousness which will cover men from the wrath of God” (The Present Truth – unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from this same magazine).
- October 26, 1893: “What an exchange is this! We are offered everything for nothing; yes, for worse than nothing, for our load of sins would surely sink us in perdition unless we should become freed from it. And Christ simply asks us to give it all to Him; for He has purchased us, and our sins with us. He has paid the penalty of our sins, and He knows what to do with them. He will remove them as far from us as the east is from the west; He will cast them into the depths of the sea.”
- November 9, 1893: “Man has no power to forgive sin, for sin is the transgression of the law of God, and no man has authority to say that the claims of that law are satisfied. Even God Himself could not say so had not the demands of that holy law been met in the death of Christ.” (NOTE: This one is a biggie: it clearly demonstrates that Waggoner firmly believed God could not simply forgive us unless the “demands” of the “holy law [had] been met in the death of Christ.” If that’s not “objective” talk about the atonement, I don’t know what is.)
- February 1, 1894: “[I]t took nothing less than the Divine life of Christ to meet the demands of the law. . . . [O]ur sin was put upon Him, He was cut off from the favour of God; and when upon the cross He cried out, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ it was no fanciful utterance. God had forsaken Him. He had hidden His face from Him. In that last dreadful hour spent in Gethsemane, Christ passed without the pale of the mercy and favour of God; and it was this that caused His sufferings. He felt what the wicked will feel at the last day when they, because of sin, experience the wrath of God” (NOTE: Some have also claimed that Waggoner’s alleged mystical views of the atonement would also lead to his rejecting of the destruction of the wicked – as other modern theologians have done. But this quote, along with scores of others, clearly demonstrates that Waggoner fully affirmed the idea that God will ultimately destroy the wicked [as opposed to the wicked destroying themselves], as further quotes will also demonstrate.)
- February 8, 1894: “In Christ, the sinner exchanges his sins for God’s righteousness, which is the righteousness that the law demands. In Christ, also, the penalty for sin has been paid. Christ is the law freed of its terrors, and human flesh divested of its sin. We meet Him as sinners and lose our sin, and also meet the law without meeting its penalty.“
- July 18, 1895: “[A]lthough sinless, ‘he was made to be sin for us,’ counting our sin as his. We had gone astray, and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. So when he was crucified, he was crucified for our sin” (Signs of the Times).
- March 31, 1898: “[L]ife for us depends not simply upon the fact that He bore the curse of death for us, but our hope centres in the fact that He was able to do this and still live. ‘Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I became dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of death and of Hades.’ Rev. i. 17, 18, R.V. ‘Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death’ (James i. 15), which is the curse, and so our sins caused the death of Christ, ‘who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree,’ but since He ‘did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,’ He was able to pay the penalty for our sins and pass through the grave.”
- May 18, 1899: “Great as is God’s power to destroy, so great is His power to redeem. The destruction of the wicked is only one part of the great work of redemption. This is shown in the death of Christ. Christ died for the world of sinners. He was made to be sin for us, and therefore He suffered the penalty for sin. He was made to be sin for us, in order that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him, and even so He suffered as a sinner, in order that guilty sinners might be saved from wrath through Him. In giving His only Son to die for sinners, and giving Himself in His Son, God showed us not only the inevitable fate of sinners but also how much He longed not to see a single sinner punished. He has no pleasure in the death of any.”
- July 6, 1899: “Our sins are forgiven by the substitution of the righteousness of Christ, which means that it is by God’s giving us His life instead of ours. That means a complete transformation.”
- September 14, 1899: “So although the last day will be the most terrible, it will contain nothing but joy for those who have accepted the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Do not the righteous joy in the cross of Christ? Is it not the one thing in which to glory? Yet the crucifixion of Christ was a most terrible event, and all the terrors of the wrath of God raged round the cross where Christ died. But for His death on the cross, the Son of man would not have the power to sit in judgment and to execute judgment on the ungodly.”
- August 2, 1900: “Justification is a free gift, but so also is sanctification. Christ died to pay the penalty of our sins, but He has risen from the tomb, and desires to live over again, in the person of His obedient follower, the same perfect life that He once lived upon this earth.”
- October 31, 1901: “We need not now go into a consideration of how and why it was that God must needs give His life; suffice it for the present that He did it, taking the guilt of the world upon themselves; for ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ 2 Cor. v. 19. And as He took the sins of the world upon Himself, so He took upon Himself the penalty for sin. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.’ Isa. liii. 5.”On the cross Christ, and God in Christ, takes the punishment that is naturally due to sin, suffering all that any sinner, and all sinners together, can possibly suffer in being cut off for their sins. ‘Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.’ 1 Peter iii. 18. ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’ (Isa. liii. 8), and that is the utmost penalty that can be visited upon any sinner.
“In the cross we see the judgment and the execution of the penalty against sin: ‘The soul that sinneth it shall die.’ The cross brings salvation; but salvation is the destruction of sin; and the destruction of sin necessarily involves the destruction of those who will not allow sin to be separated from them. There was the same awful terror at Calvary when Christ offered up His life, that there will be at His second coming.” (NOTE: From 1893 onward, Isaiah 53 – which presents a very explicit picture of the substitutionary aspects of the atonement – was a favorite passage for Waggoner, quoting it no fewer than 70 times. [Actually, technically speaking, I only searched for the phrase “iniquity of us all,” which is v. 6. This means that he quite likely quoted other parts of the chapter that demonstrate substitution – like the one above, “He was wounded for our transgressions” – quite frequently as well, meaning that he liked the chapter even more than my quick search demonstrates.])
- February, 1902: “The sins of the world were on him, and he could not have put them off without dying, except by denying himself, which he cannot do. But now, having given up his own life, thus showing not only his hatred of sin, but also the immutability of the law of righteousness, he has a new life, that has not been tainted by sin, to give to every one who will accept it. His grace is as free as the air we breathe, and therefore there is no excuse for anyone who does not accept the new life in Christ. Whoever clings to the old life of sin must necessarily go to destruction, suffering the same penalty for sin that God himself suffered” (The Medical Missionary, vol. 4).
- January 15, 1903: “Christ suffered for sins – the Just for the unjust.”
After doing this quick search of Waggoner’s writings, post-1893, it is evident to me that, contrary to the views of some (views that, I might add, have been gaining traction of late), he did not at all abandon the substitutionary aspects of the atonement. Indeed, he clearly enunciated this teaching – even as late as 1903, when his panentheism was in full force.
It cannot – nor should not – be denied, of course, that he placed a great deal of emphasis on the subjective aspects of the atonement. But he was not here even departing from what Ellen White herself did so frequently. In fact, I would propose that if the average evangelical theologian – especially those of stronger Reformed persuasions – picked up her works on soteriology, they, too, would say she waded deeply into “mystical” waters (I once had a Calvinist friend, who was simply a layperson, tell me that he was scandalized when he read Steps to Christ, feeling that it was way too subjective).
One example, from her book Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, will suffice at this point to demonstrate how Ellen parts company with the classic, forensic-only models of the atonement that are common within mainstream evangelicalism. “But forgiveness has a broader meaning than many suppose,” she states in chapter 5, “God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart” (p. 113, emphasis original). If such a definition of “forgiveness” wouldn’t cause a Reformed theologian to break out in cold-sweat, I don’t know what would (and, sadly, also many Adventist theologians)!
And yet such an explanation was perfectly consistent with the rest of her theology, remembering how she warned that “many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification” (1888 Materials, p. 897 [written in 1891]).
Thus, it is clear from this brief survey that Waggoner was in harmony with Ellen White – and, I might add, of course, the Bible – as it relates to both the objective and subjective aspects of the atonement. It shouldn’t thus surprise us that, as late as 1898, Ellen herself was praising Waggoner for editing the “best paper published by our people,” (a paper, of course, in which Waggoner was supposedly disseminating his great mystical heresies since 1893) and urging him to visit her in Australia (see Manuscript Releases, vol. 17, p. 217).
Furthermore, contrary to what some have proposed, if Jones or Waggoner – who were Ellen’s two closest companions in the gospel – at any time delved into troubling theological waters, Ellen was very quick to correct them, even if she had to write a letter from Australia. She did this in 1893 with Jones when he seemed to say that works didn’t matter when it comes to salvation. She did it again with Jones a short time later, when he, for a short time, heralded Anna Rice as a prophet. And she did it with Waggoner, when, at the turn of the century, he started promoting his panentheism. Indeed, she was quick to correct the errors of Jones and Waggoner, precisely because she knew that if the message was to succeed, they needed to stand as far above theological error as possible.
Nowhere do we read, however, Ellen correcting Waggoner over his alleged mystical views of the atonement, or the nature of Christ, or the danger of him conflating justification and sanctification, or the vindication of God.
Thus, the bottom line is that any intimation that Waggoner’s views on sanctification and the vindication of God were faulty because of a “mystical” view of the atonement are entirely misguided. Simply put, Waggoner maintained throughout his ministry, at least until 1903, the objective aspects of the atonement.