by John Howe
IN A LETTER TO A PERSON OF WORTH
OCCASIONED BY THE LATELY PUBLISHED CONSIDERATIONS ON THE EXPLICATIONS OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY, BY DR. WALLIS, DR. SHERLOCK, DR. S—TH, DR. CUDWORTH, ETC.
TOGETHER WITH CERTAIN LETTERS,
I INTEND not this discourse shall be concerned in what this author hath said of the several explications given by the persons named on his title page. The only thing it is designed for, is the discoursing with him that single point, which he refers to in his twenty-ninth and thirtieth pages, and which in this controversy is on all hands confessed to be the cardinal one, viz.—Whether a trinity in the Godhead be possible or no?
I put not the question about three Persons; both because I will not, in so short a discourse as I intend to make this, be engaged in discussing the unagreed notion of a person; and because the Scripture lays not that necessity upon me, though I do not think the use of that term, in this affair, either blamable or indefensible. But I shall inquire whether the Father, the Son, (or Word,) and the Holy Ghost cannot possibly admit of sufficient distinction from one another to answer the parts and purposes severally assigned them by the Scripture, in the Christian economy, and yet be each of them God, consistently with this most inviolable and indubitable truth, that there can be but one God.
This author concludes it to be impossible in the mentioned pages of his discourse, and thereupon seems to judge it necessary that two of them be excluded the Godhead, as many others, some going the Arian, some the Photinian, more lately called the Socinian, way, have done before him. He acknowledges page 30, col. 1, there may be "some secret revealed by God, because it was above human capacity to discover it; and sometimes also to comprehend how it can be;" but adds, "there is a vast difference between my not being able to conceive how a thing should be, and a clear apprehension and sight that it can not be." What he says thus far is unexceptionable, and I heartily concur with him in it. But for what he subjoins, (wherein he might have spoken his mind of the matter in controversy, with as much advantage to his cause, without reflecting upon his adversaries, as if they considered these things either with no intention, or with no sincerity, not allowing them even the never so little of the one or the other) that, "three distinct Almighty and All-knowing persons, should be but one Almighty, or but one All-knowing, or but one God; a man, who considers with never so little intention and sincerity, clearly sees that it cannot be. In short, that it is not a mystery, but, as Dr. South speaks, an absurdity and a contradiction." This is that I would consider with him, if he will affix these words of his, "a man who considers, &c., clearly sees it cannot be; and it is an absurdity and a contradiction," to the question as I have set it down above. In the meantime he cannot be ignorant that, as he hath represented the matter, he hath here either not truly, or at least not fairly, given the sense of any of them whom he pretended to oppose.
For when, by those words, "But that three divine persons, or that three distinct Almighty and All-knowing persons should be but one Almighty, but one All-knowing, or but one God," he would slily insinuate to his unwary and less attentive reader, that the same men held three Almighties, and but one; he well knows, and elsewhere confesses, (though he might suppose that some readers would not be at leisure to compare one place of his writings with another, but hastily run away with the apprehension that such as were not of his mind spake nothing but nonsense and contradictions,) that not only his later opposers since P. Lumbard, as he speaks, but divers much more ancient, as Athanasius, and the rest of the Nicene fathers, &c. denied three Almighties, though they affirmed each of the Persons to be Almighty; understanding omnipotency, as they do omnisciency, to be an attribute not of the Person, as such, but of the essence as such, which they affirm to be but one, i. e. that they are each of them Almighty, by communication in one and the same almighty essence. And if their sentiment be so very absurd, he needed the less to fear representing it as it is.
And the other, who seems to grant three Almighties, doth never say there is but one Almighty; though such say too, there is but one God, placing the unity of the Godhead in somewhat else, as he hath himself taken notice; which is remote from express self-contradiction also. But I shall concern myself no further about the one or the other of these ways of explaining the doctrine of the three Persons: only shall inquire concerning the possibility of such a trinity in the Godhead as was above expressed, requiting the uncharitableness of this author, in imputing carelessness or insincerity to all that think it possible, with so much charity, as to believe he would not (against the plain tenor of Scripture) have rejected the doctrine of the trinity, as he professes to do that of the incarnation, if he had not thought it every way impossible. And here I premise,—
First. That the present undertaking is not to show that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three, and but one, in the same respect; which I would adventure, in this author's words, to say, no man that considers with never so little intention and sincerity would offer at. But when they are supposed to be but one, in respect of Deity, they are thought to be three in some other respect.
Secondly. That what I now design is only to represent this matter as possible to be, some way, and in the way here proposed for aught we know, not as definitely certain to be this way or that. The former is enough to our present purpose, i. e. if any way it can be conceived, without absurdity or contradiction, that these may be three with sufficient distinction to found the distinct attributes which the Scriptures do severally give them, so as some things may be affirmed of some one, and not be affirmed of the other of them, and yet their unity in Godhead be conserved, our point is gained; and the clamour of this and every other opposer ought to cease, for our asserting what every one that considers clearly sees cannot be.
Now, so much being forelaid, that we may proceed with clearness and satisfaction of mind—If we would understand whether it be possible that these three may be sufficiently distinguished for the mentioned purpose, and yet be one in Godhead, or in divine being; we are to recollect ourselves, and consider what we are wont, and find ourselves indispensably obliged to conceive of that ever-blessed Being, and what is with less certainty or evidence said or thought of it—Therefore,—
I. We cannot but acknowledge, that whereas we do with greatest certainty and clearness conceive of it as an intellectual Being, comprehensive, with that, of infinite and universal perfection, so we do, most expressly, though this be implied in universal perfection, conclude it a Being most necessarily existent; which God hath himself been pleased to signify to us by the appropriated name, "I am," or, "I am what I am."
Hereby is this most excellent of Beings infinitely distinguished from all creatures, or from the whole creation. All created being is merely contingent, i. e. (according to the true notion of contingency) dependent upon will and pleasure. So he hath himself taught us to distinguish; and with such distinction to conceive of the creation, (Rev. 4:11,) "Thou hast made all things; and for, (or by, διὰ) thy pleasure (or will, θέλημά σου) they are, or were created." Whatsoever being is necessarily existent, the excellency of its nature being such as that it was necessary to it to exist, or impossible not to exist, is God, or is Divine Being. Notwithstanding what some have imagined of necessary matter, we might adventure to affirm this universally of all necessary being, that it is divine, taking it to be plainly demonstrable, and to have been demonstrated beyond all contradiction, by the learned Dr. Cudworth, and many others long before him: and doubt not to evince (though that is not the present business) that supposing the imagination of necessary matter were true, this sensible world could never possibly have been made of it, by any power whatsoever; the only pretence for which it is imagined. But if any have a mind to make this a dispute, to avoid being unseasonably involved in it at this time, it will serve my present purpose to assert only, whatsoever intellectual being is necessarily existent, is divine.
And on the other hand, whatsoever being is contingent, i. e. such as that it depended on a mere intervening act of will, (viz. even the sovereign and supreme will) whether it should be or not be, is created, or is creature.
II. Whatsoever simplicity the ever-blessed God hath, by any express revelation, claimed to himself, or can by evident and irrefragable reason be demonstrated to belong to him, as a perfection, we ought humbly and with all possible reverence and adoration, to ascribe to him. But such simplicity as he hath not claimed, as is arbitrarily ascribed to him by overbold and adventurous intruders into the deep and most profound arcana of the divine nature; such as can never be proved to belong to him, or to be any real perfection; such as would prove an imperfection and a blemish, would render the divine nature less intelligible, more impossible to be so far conceived as is requisite, as would discompose and disturb our minds, confound our conceptions, make our apprehensions of his other known perfections less distinct, or inconsistent, render him less adorable, or less an object of religion; or such as is manifestly unreconcilable with his plain affirmations concerning himself; we ought not to impose it upon ourselves, or be so far imposed upon, as to ascribe to him such simplicity.
It would be an over-officious and too meanly servile religiousness, to be awed by the sophistry of presumptuous scholastic wits, into a subscription to their confident determinations concerning the being of God, that such and such things are necessary or impossible thereto, beyond what the plain undisguised reason of things, or his own express word do evince; to imagine a sacredness in their rash conclusions, so as to be afraid of searching into them, or of examining whether they have any firm and solid ground or bottom; to allow the schools the making of our Bible, or the forming of our creed, (who license and even sport themselves to philosophize upon the nature of God, with as petulant and irreverent a liberty as they would upon a worm, or any the meanest insect, while yet they can pronounce little with certainty even concerning that,) hath nothing in it either of the Christian or the man. It will become as well as concern us, to disencumber our minds, and release them from the entanglements of their unproved dictates; whatsoever authority they may have acquired, only by having been long, and commonly, taken for granted. The more reverence we have of God, the less we are to have for such men as have themselves expressed little.
III. Such as have thought themselves obliged by the plain word of God to acknowledge a trinity in the Godhead, viz. of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but withal to diminish the distinction of the one from the other so as even to make it next to nothing, by reason of the straits into which unexamined maxims have cast their minds, concerning the divine simplicity; have yet not thought that to be absolute or omnimodous. For the allowing of three somewhats in the divine nature (and what less could have been said?) cannot consist with absolute simplicity in all respects, inasmuch as they cannot be three without differing, in some respect, from one another.
Since therefore there is a necessity apprehended of acknowledging three such somewhats in the Godhead, both because the word of God (who best understands his own nature) doth speak of three in it so plainly, that without notorious violence it cannot be understood otherwise, and because it affirms some things of one or other of them, which it affirms not of the rest; it will therefore be necessary to admit a true distinction between them, otherwise they cannot be three: and safe to say, there is so much as is requisite to found the distinct affirmations, which we find in God's word, concerning this or that, apart from the other: otherwise we shall, in effect, deny what God affirms; and modest to confess, that how great the distinction is, with precise and particular limitation, we do not know nor dare be curious to determine or inquire; only that as it cannot be less than is sufficient to sustain distinct predicates or attributions, so it cannot be so great as to intrench upon the unity of the Godhead: which limits, on the one hand and the other, God hath himself plainly set us.
IV. Therefore, since we may offend very highly by an arrogant pretence to the knowledge we have not, but shall not offend by confessing the ignorance which we cannot (and therefore need not) remedy, we should abstain from confident conclusions in the dark, and at random, especially concerning the nature of God; and, for instance, from saying, We clearly see a sufficient distinction of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Godhead cannot be, or is impossible. It expresses too little reverence of God, as if his being had any, or so narrow, limits as to be presently seen through; an over-magnifying opinion of ourselves, as if our eye could penetrate that vast and sacred darkness, or the glorious light (equally impervious to us) wherein God dwells; too great rudeness to the rest of men, more than implicitly representing all mankind besides as stark blind, who can discern nothing of what we pretend clearly to see.
And it is manifest this cannot be said to be impossible, upon any other pretence, but that it consists not with the unity of the Godhead, in opposition to the multiplication thereof; or with that simplicity, which stands in opposition to the concurrence in all perfections therein, with distinction greater than hath been commonly thought to belong to the divine nature. For the former, we are at a certainty: but for the latter, how do we know what the original, natural state of the Divine Being is, in this respect? or what simplicity belongs to it? or what it may contain or comprehend in it, consistently with the unity thereof; or so, but that it may still be but one Divine Being? What distinction and unity (conserved together) we can have, otherwise, an idea of, without any apprehended inconsistency, absurdity, or contradiction, we shall rashly pronounce to be impossible (or somewhat imperfectly resembled thereby) in the Divine Being, unless we understood it better than we do. Some prints and characters of that most perfect Being may be apprehended in the creatures, especially that are intelligent; such being expressly said to have been made in the image of God. And if here we find oneness, with distinction, meeting together in the same created intelligent being, this may assist our understandings in conceiving what is possible to be (in much higher perfection) though not to the concluding what certainly is, in the uncreated.
V. Waiving the many artificial unions of distinct things, that united, and continuing distinct, make one thing under one name, I shall only consider what is natural, and give instance in what is nearest us, our very selves; though the truth is, we know so little of our own nature, that it is a strange assuming when we confidently determine what is impossible to be in the divine nature, besides what he hath told us, or made our own faculties plainly tell us is so; and what he hath made any man's faculties to tell him, he hath made all men's that can use them.
But so much we manifestly find in ourselves, that we have three natures in us, very sufficiently distinguishable, and that are intimately united, the vegetative, sensitive, and the intellective. So that notwithstanding their manifest distinction, no one scruples, when they are united, to call the whole the human nature. Or if any make a difficulty, or would raise a dispute about the distinction of these three natures, I for the present content myself with what is more obvious, not doubting to reach any mark by degrees, viz. that we are made up of a mind and a body, somewhat that can think and somewhat that cannot; sufficiently distinct, yet so united that not only every one, without hesitation, calls that thing made up of them one man; but also every one that considers deeply, will be transported with wonder by what more than magical knot or tie, two things so little akin should be so held together, that the one that hath the power of will and choice cannot sever itself, and return into the same union with the other at pleasure. But,—
VI. Since we find this a thing actually done, the making up of two things of so different natures into one thing, that puts the matter out of doubt that this was a thing possible to be done; it was what God could do, for he hath done it. And if that were possible to him, to unite two things of so very different natures into one thing; let any colourable reason be assigned me, why it should not be as possible to him, to unite two things of a like nature, i. e. if it were possible to him to unite a spirit and a body, why is it less possible to him to have united two spirits? And then I further inquire, if it were possible to him to unite two, would it not be as possible to unite three? Let reason here be put upon its utmost stretch, and tell me what in all this is less possible than what we see is actually done? Will any man say two or three spirits united, being of the same nature, will mingle, be confounded, run into one another, and lose their distinction? I ask, supposing them to pre-exist apart antecedently to their union, are they not now distinguished by their own individual essences; let them be as much united as our souls and bodies are, why should they not as much remain distinct by their singular essences? There is no more hazard of their losing their distinction, by the similitude of their natures, than of our soul and body transmuting one another by their dissimilitude.
I know not but the dictates of so vogued an author with many in this age, as Spinosa, may signify somewhat with some into whose hands this may fall; who, with design bad enough, says, that from whence one might collect the remaining distinction of two things of the same nature in such a supposed union, were the more easily conceivable of the two, i. e. than of two things of different natures. For in his Posthumous Ethics, de Deo, he lays this down in explication of his second definition, Cogitatio aliâ cogitatione terminatur. At corpus non terminatur cogitatione, nec cogitatio corpore. Some may regard him in this, and it would do our business. For my part, I care not to be so much beholden to him; for it would at the long run overdo it; and I know his meaning. But I see not but two congenerous natures are equally capable of being united, retaining their distinction, as two of a different kind, and that sufficiently serves the present purpose.
However, let any man tell me why it should be impossible to God so to unite three spirits, as by his own power to fix their limits also, and by a perpetual law, inwrought in their distinct beings, to keep them distinct, so that they shall remain everlastingly united, but not identified; and by virtue of that union be some one thing, (which must yet want a name,) as much and as truly, as our soul and body united do constitute one man. Nor is it now the question, whether such a union would be convenient or inconvenient, apt or inapt; but all the question is, whether it be possible or impossible; which is as much as we are concerned in at this time. But you will say, Suppose it be possible, to what purpose is all this? How remote is it from the supposed Trinity in the Godhead! You will see to what purpose it is by and by. I therefore add,—
VII. That if such a union of three things, whether of like or of different natures, so as that they shall be truly one thing, and yet remain distinct, though united, can be effected, (as one may with certainty pronounce there is nothing more impossible, or unconceivable in it, than we find is actually done,) then it is not intrinsically impossible; or objectively, it is not impossible in itself. No power can effect what is simply, and in itself impossible. There is therefore no contradiction, no repugnancy, or inconsistency, as to the thing; nor consequently any shadow of absurdity in the conception hereof. Whereupon,—
VIII. If such a union with such distinction be not impossible in itself, so that by a competent power it is sufficiently possible to be effected or made; we are to consider whether it will appear more impossible, or whether I shall have a conception in my own mind any thing more incongruous, if I conceive such a union with such distinction, unmade, or that is original and eternal, in an unmade, or uncreated Being. For we are first to consider the thing in itself, abstractly from made or unmade, created or uncreated being. And if it pass clear of contradiction or absurdity, in its abstract notion, we are so far safe, and are not liable to be charged as having the conception in our minds of an impossible, absurd, or self-repugnant thing. So that clamour and cry of the adversary must cease, or be itself absurd, and without pretence. This now supposed union with such distinction, must, if it be judged impossible, as it is in our thoughts introduced into unmade being; can no longer be judged impossible as it is a union of distinct things, but only as it is unmade, or is supposed to have place in the unmade eternal Being.
IX. This is that then we have further to consider, whether, supposing it possible that three spiritual beings might as well be made or created in a state of so near union, with continuing distinction, as to admit of becoming one spiritual being, to be called by some fit name, which might easily be found out if the thing were produced, as that a spiritual being and a corporeal being may be made and created in a state of so near union, with continuing distinction, as to become one spiritual corporeal being, called by the name of man; I say, whether, supposing the former of these to be as possible to be done, or created, as the latter, which we see done already: we may not as well suppose somewhat like it, but infinitely more perfect, to be original and eternal in the uncreated Being? If the first be possible, the next actual, what pretence is there to think the last impossible?
X. I might add, as that which may be expected to be significant with such as do seriously believe the doctrines both of the incarnation and the trinity, (though I know it will signify nothing with them who with equal contempt reject both,) that the union of the two natures, the human, made up of a human body and a human soul, which are two exceedingly different natures, with the divine, which is a third and infinitely more different from both the other, in one person, viz. of the Son of God, cannot certainly appear, to any considering person, more conceivable or possible than that which we now suppose, but assert not, of three distinct essences, united in the One Godhead, upon any account but this only, that this is supposed to be an unmade, eternal union, the other made and temporal; which renders not the one less conceivable than the other, as it is union, but only as in the several terms of this union it is supposed eternally to have place in the Being of God; whereas that other union, in respect of one of its terms, is acknowledged de novo to have place there.
In short, here is a spiritual created being, a human soul, (setting aside for the present the consideration of the human body, which united therewith made up the man, Christ,) confessed to be in hypostatical union with the uncreated, spiritual being of God, not as that being is in the person of the Father, nor as in the person of the Holy Ghost, for then they should have become man too, but as it was in the person of the Son only; why shall it be thought less possible that three uncreated spiritual beings may be in so near a union with each other, as to be one God, than that a created spirit, and body too, should be in so near a union with one of the persons in the Godhead only, as therewith to be one person? Will it not hereby be much more easily apprehensible how one of the Persons (as the common way of speaking is) should be incarnate, and not the other two? Will not the notion of Person itself be much more unexceptionable, when it shall be supposed to have its own individual nature? And why is a natural, eternal union of uncreated natures, with continual distinction, or without confusion, sufficient unto the unity of the Godhead, less supposable, than a temporal contracted union with created natures, without confusion too, that shall be sufficient to the unity of a person? Will it be any thing more contrary to such simplicity of the divine nature as is necessarily to be ascribed thereto? Or will it be tritheism, and inconsistent with the acknowledged inviolable unity of the Godhead?
XI. That we may proceed to speak to both, let these things be considered with seriousness and sobriety of mind, as to ourselves, with all possible reverence towards the blessed God, and with just candour and equanimity towards other men. And, first, we must leave it to any one's future representation, (not being hitherto able to discern any thing) what there is in all this that is here supposed any way repugnant to such simplicity as God any where claims to his own being, or that plain reason will constrain us to ascribe to him, or that is really in itself any perfection. We are sure God hath not by his word taught us to ascribe to him universal, absolute simplicity; or suggested to us any such notices as directly and evidently infer it to belong to him; nor hath seemed at all intent upon cautioning of us lest we should not ascribe it. The word we find not among his attributes mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. The thing, so far as it signifies any general perfection, we are sure belongs to him; but the Scriptures are not written with visible design to obviate any danger of our misconceiving his nature, by not apprehending it to be in every respect most absolutely simple. It doth teach us to conceive of him as most powerful, most wise, most gracious; and doth not teach us to conceive all these in the abstract, viz. power, wisdom, and goodness, to be the same thing. Yet we easily apprehend by reflecting upon ourselves, that, without multiplying the subject, these may all reside together in the same man. But our difficulty is greater to conceive what is commonly taught, that these without real distinction, or with formal only, as contradistinguished to the difference of thing from thing, are in the abstract affirmable of God, that he is power, wisdom, goodness; that to his being belongs so absolute simplicity, that we must not look upon these as things really distinguishable, there, from one another, but as different conceptions of the same thing. We must conceive of things as we can, not as we cannot; and are only concerned to take heed of unrevealed, and undemonstrable, and peremptory conceptions concerning that glorious, most incomprehensible, and ever-blessed Being; to beware of too curious prying into the nature of God, when it was so penal to look unduly into, or even to touch that only-hallowed symbol of his presence, his ark! beyond what he hath revealed expressly, or we can most clearly, by generally received light, apprehend: when we know there is a knowledge of him so reserved from us, whereof our minds are so little receptive, that it seemed all one, whether he told us, he did dwell in thick darkness, or in inaccessible light. It will be a reproach to us, if we shall need to be taught reverence of him by pagans; or that such a document should need to be given us for our admonition, as that very ancient inscription in one of their temples imported, "I am whatsoever was, is, or shall be; and who is he that shall draw aside my veil?"
XII. If we should suppose three spiritual necessary beings, the one whereof were mere power, (or furious might) destitute of either wisdom, or goodness; another mere wisdom, (or craft rather) destitute of either goodness or power; a third mere goodness, (or fond and fruitless kindness) destitute of either power or wisdom; existing separately and apart from each other; this triple conception would overthrow itself, and must certainly allow little ease to any considering mind. Nor could any of these be God. But if we conceive essential power, wisdom, and goodness concurring in one spiritual necessarily existent Being, in which is each of these, not only by the περιχώρησις usually acknowledged in the three Persons, totally permeating one another, (which signifying but mere presence, as we may express it, is in comparison a small thing,) but really and vitally united, by so much a nearer and more perfect union than hath ever come under our notice among created beings, of partly corporeal, partly incorporeal natures, by how much beings of purest spirituality may be apter to the most intimate union, than when one is quite of a different nature from the other; and as whatsoever union is supposable to be, originally, eternally, and by natural necessity, in the most perfect being, may be thought inexpressibly more perfect than any other. And if, hereupon, we further conceive the most entire, perpetual, everlasting intercourse and communion of these three, so originally united, that what is conceivable of perfection or excellency in any one of these, is as much the other's, for whatsoever exercises or operations, as his own; I cannot apprehend what there is of repugnancy, contradiction, or absurdity in this supposition; nor any thing that, by any measures he hath given us to govern our conceptions of him, appears unbecoming or unworthy of God. There is, it is true, less simplicity, but more perfection ascribed hereby to the divine Being, entirely considered; and more intelligibly, than if you go about to impose upon yourself the notion of most absolute omnimodous simplicity therein. There would be yet more absolute simplicity ascribed unto an eternal Being, if you should conceive in it mere power exclusive of wisdom, and goodness—and so of the rest; but infinitely less perfection. And, if that would avail any thing, I could easily produce more schoolmen than one, of no small note, concurring in this sentiment, that simplicitas, si sumatur in totâ suâ amplitudine, non dicit perfectionem simpliciter. But I count it not worth the while.
XIII. And let it be here again observed, I speak not of this, as any certain determination, that thus things are done in the Deity; but as a possible supposition of what, for aught we know, may be. If any say, this gives us the notion of a compounded Deity, or of a composition in it; I only say the term composition, seems to imply a pre-existing component that brings such things together, and supposes such and such more simple things to have pre-existed apart or separate, and to be brought afterwards together into a united state. Whereupon I peremptorily deny any composition in the being of God. And let any man, from what hath been hitherto said, or supposed, infer it, if he can. Imagine this of the Godhead, and you shall, we acknowledge, conceive most untruly, most unworthily, most injuriously of God; and what is most absolutely impossible to agree to the Divine Being. And for this reason only, that I know of, that carries any shadow of importance in it, many have been so apt, without the least warrant from any revelation God hath given of himself, to ascribe to him an unintelligible simplicity; apprehending they must otherwise admit a composition in his most sacred essence, i. e. the putting of things together that were separate, to make it up; which must suppose it a new production, that once was not, and from an imperfect state, by the coalition of things once severed, to have arrived to the perfection we ascribe to the Divine Being; which sort of being cannot, without the most absurd and blasphemous contradiction, ever admit to be called God. But if we suppose most perfect, essential power, wisdom, love, by original, eternal, and most natural necessity to have co-existed in that being most intimately united, though distinct; that seemingly important reason will appear but a shadow, and accordingly vanish as such.
And, indeed, this is no more than what, in effect, such as discourse upon this subject do commonly say, (though perhaps some may less consider the ducture and sequel of their own professed sentiments) when they speak of the incomprehensibleness of God's essence, and how impossible it is a finite mind should form or receive a full and complete idea of it; or when they therefore say, that any conceptions we can have of the wisdom, goodness, or any other attribute of the Divine Being, are still but inadequate conceptions; whereby they must mean, when we consider for instance the wisdom of God, that we not only fall infinitely short of conceiving all that belongs to the Divine Being, in that kind, but that there is also infinitely more belonging thereto, in other kinds, than it is possible that conception can contain or express. And when we have the conception in our minds of the divine wisdom, do we not apprehend there is really somewhat else in the divine Being, whereof that term hath no signification? Or will we say his wisdom and his power are really the same thing? as they must either be the same, or diverse things: if we say they are the same, we must, I doubt, confess ourselves to say what we do not understand, especially when, in the abstract, we affirm them of one another, and of God; and accordingly say that wisdom is power, and power is wisdom, and the one of these is God, and the other, God. I know a formal distinction is commonly admitted, i. e. that the conception of the one is not included in the conception of the other. But are these different conceptions true or false? If false, why are they admitted? If true, there must be somewhat in the nature of the thing corresponding to them. But if we say they are distinct, but most intimately and eternally united in the Divine Being, by a necessary, natural union, or that it is not impossible so to be, what we say will, I think, agree with itself, and not disagree with any other conception we are obliged to have concerning the blessed God.
In the meantime, I profess not to judge we are, under the precise notions of power, wisdom and goodness, to conceive of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: nor that the notions we have of those, or any other divine perfections, do exactly correspond to what, in God, is signified by these names; but I reckon, that what relief and ease is given our minds by their being disentangled from any apprehended necessity of thinking these to be the very same things, may facilitate to us our apprehending the Father, Son, and Spirit to be sufficiently distinct, for our affirming, or understanding the affirmation, of some things concerning some one, without including the other of them.
XIV. But some perhaps will say, while we thus amplify the distinction of these glorious Three, we shall seem to have too friendly a look towards, or shall say in effect, what Dr. Sherlock is so highly blamed for saying, and make three Gods. I answer, that if with sincere minds we inquire after truth for its own sake, we shall little regard the friendship or enmity, honour or dishonour of this or that man. If this were indeed so; doth what was true become false, because such a man hath said it? But it is remote from being so. There is no more here positively asserted, than generally so much distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit, as is in itself necessary to the founding the distinct attributions which in the Scriptures are severally given them—that when the Word or wisdom was said to be with God (understanding it, as the case requires, with God the Father) in the creation of all things, we may not think, nothing more is said than that he was with himself; that when the Word is said to be made flesh, it is equally said the Father was made flesh, or the Holy Ghost; that when the Holy Ghost is said to have proceeded from, or have been sent by the Father, or the Son, he is said to have proceeded from himself, or have sent himself.—But in the meantime this is offered without determining, precisely, how great distinction is necessary to this purpose. It is not here positively said, these three are three distinct substances, three infinite minds or spirits. We again and again insist, and inculcate, how becoming and necessary it is to abstain from over-bold inquiries, or positive determinations concerning the limits, or the extent of this distinction, beyond what the Scriptures have, in general, made necessary to the mentioned purpose; that we may not throw ourselves into guilt, nor cast our minds into unnecessary straits, by affirming this or that to be necessary, or impossible in these matters.
XV. The case is only thus, that since we are plainly led by the express revelation God hath made of himself to us in his word, to admit a trinal conception of him, or to conceive this threefold distinction in his being, of Father, Son, and Spirit; since we have so much to greaten that distinction, divers things being said of each of these, that must not be understood of either of the other; since we have nothing to limit it on the other hand, but the unity of the Godhead, which we are sure can be but One, both from the plain word of God, and the nature of the thing itself; since we are assured both these may consist, viz. this trinity, and this unity, by being told there are three, (1 John 5:7) and these three (that is, plainly, continuing three) are ἕν, "one thing;" which one thing can mean nothing else but Godhead; as is also said concerning two of them, elsewhere, (there being no occasion, then, to mention the third) I and my Father are one thing. (John 10:30.) We are hereupon unavoidably put upon it to cast in our own minds, (and are concerned to do it with the most religious reverence and profoundest humility) what sort of thing this most sacred Godhead may be, unto which this oneness is ascribed, with threefold distinction. And manifestly finding there are in the creation made unions, with sufficient remaining distinction, particularly in ourselves, that we are a soul and a body, (things of so very different natures) that often the soul is called the man, (not excluding the body) and the body, or our flesh called the man (not excluding the soul) we are plainly led to apprehend, that it is rather more easily possible there might be two spirits (so much more agreeing in nature) so united, as to be one thing, and yet continuing distinct; and if two, there might as well be three, if the Creator pleased: and hence are led further to apprehend, that if such a made union, with continuing distinction, be possible in created being, it is, for aught we know, not impossible in the uncreated, that there may be such an eternal unmade union, with continuing distinction. And all this being only represented as possible to be thus, without concluding that thus it certainly is, sufficiently serves our purpose, that no pretence might remain of excluding the eternal Word, and the eternal Spirit, the Godhead, as if a trinity therein were contradictious and impossible, repugnant to reason and common sense. Where now is the coincidency?
XVI. Nor is there, hereupon, so great a remaining difficulty to salve the unity of the Godhead; when the supposition is taken in, of the natural, eternal, necessary union of these three, that hath been mentioned.
And it shall be considered, that the Godhead is not supposed more necessarily to exist, than these three are to co-exist in the nearest and most intimate union with each other therein. That spiritual Being which exists necessarily, and is every way absolutely perfect, whether it consists of three in one, or of only one, is God. We could never have known, it is true, that there are such three co-existing in this one God, if he himself had not told us. "What man knoweth the things of a man, but the spirit of a man that is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, but the Spirit of God." 1 Cor. 2:11. In telling us this he hath told us no impossible, no unconceivable thing. It is absurd, and very irreligious presumption to say this cannot be. If a worm were so far capable of thought, as to determine this or that concerning our nature, and that such a thing were impossible to belong to it, which we find to be in it, we should trample upon it! More admirable divine patience spares us! He hath only let us know that this is the state of his essence, whereof we should have been otherwise ignorant. This is its constitution, (q. d. ita se habet comparatam) "thus it is in, and of itself," that there are three in it to be conceived, under the distinct notions of Father, Son, and Spirit, without telling us expressly how far they are distinct, in terms of art, or in scholastic forms of speech. But he considered us as men, reasonable creatures; and that when he tells us there are three existing in his being, of each of which some things are said, that must not be understood spoken of the other, and yet that there is but one God; we are not uncapable of understanding, that these three must agree in Godhead; and yet that they must be sufficiently distinct, unto this purpose, that we may distinctly conceive of, apply ourselves to, and expect from, the one and the other of them. And the frame of our religion is therefore ordered for us accordingly, i. e. for us to whom he hath revealed so much. Others, to whom such notices are not given, he expects should deport themselves towards him, according to the light which they have, not which they have not.
XVII. But an hypothesis in this affair, which leaves out the very nexus, that natural, eternal union, or leaves it out of its proper place, and insists upon mutual consciousness, which, at the most, is but a consequence thereof, wants the principal thing requisite to the salving the unity of the Godhead. If two or three created spirits had never so perfect a mutual perspection of one another, that would not constitute them one thing, though it probably argue them to be so; and but probably; for God might, no doubt, give them a mutual insight into one another, without making them one; but if he should create them in as near a union, as our soul and body are in with one another (and it is very apprehensible they might be created in a much nearer, and more permanent one, both being of the same nature, and neither subject to decay) they would as truly admit to be called one something, (as such a creature might well enough be called, till a fitter name be found out) notwithstanding their supposed continuing distinction, as fitly, as our soul and body united, are, notwithstanding their continual distinction, called one man. And I do sincerely profess such a union, with perpetual distinction, seems to me every whit as conceivable, being supposed unmade, uncreated, and eternal, as any union is among creatures, that must therefore be a made thing, or a temporal production.
And whereas necessity of existence (most unquestionably of an intellectual being) is a most certain, and fundamental attribute of Deity: the Father, Son, and Spirit being supposed necessarily existent, in this united state, they cannot but be God; and the Godhead by reason of this necessary union cannot but be one; yet so, as that when you predicate Godhead, or the name of God of any one of them, you herein express a true, but an inadequate conception of God; i. e. the Father is God, not excluding the Son and Holy Ghost; the Son is God, not excluding the Father and the Holy Ghost; the Holy Ghost is God, not excluding the Father and the Son. Thus our body is the man, not excluding the soul; our soul is the man, not excluding the body. Therefore their union in Godhead being so strict and close, notwithstanding their distinction, to say that any one of them is God, in exclusion of the other two, would not be a true predication. It is indeed said, the Father is the only true God; but that neither excludes the Son, nor the Holy Ghost, from being the true God also, (John 17:3;) each of them communicating in that Godhead which only is true. It had been quite another thing if it had been said, Thou Father only art the true God.
XVIII. The order, moreover, is this way also very clearly preserved and fitly complied with, of priority and posteriority (not of time, as every one sees, but nature) which the names Father, Son, and Spirit do more than intimate. For the Father (usually called by the divines, fons trinitatis,) being by this appellation plainly signified to be first in this sacred triad; the Son, as that title imports, to be of the Father; and the Spirit to be of, or from, both the other: let these two latter be considered as being of, or from the first, not by any intervening act of will, by which it might have been possible they should not have been so; but by natural, necessary, eternal promanation; so as that necessity of existence is hereby made as truly to agree to them as to the first, which is acknowledged the most fundamental attribute of Deity. This promanation is hereby sufficiently distinguished from creation; and these two set infinitely above all creatures, or the whole universe of created beings. Nor is there hereby any place left for that unapt application of a son and a grandson deriving themselves from the grandfather, or two brothers from one father; p. 17 of these considerations.
And although it be also true, and readily acknowledged, that there are numerous instances of involuntary productions among the creatures, and which are therefore to be deemed a sort of natural and necessary productions; yet that necessity not being absolute, but ex hypothesi only, i. e. upon supposition of their productive causes, and all things requisite to those productions, being so, and so, aptly posited in order thereto, all which depended upon one sovereign will at first, so that all might have been otherwise; this signifies nothing to exempt them out of the state and rank of creatures, or invalidate this most unalterable distinction between created being, and uncreated.
XIX. But if here it shall be urged to me that one individual necessarily existent, spiritual Being, alone is God, and is all that is signified by the name of God; and therefore that three distinct individual, necessarily existent, spiritual Beings must unavoidably be three distinct Gods:
I would say, if by one individual, necessarily existent, spiritual Being, you mean one such Being, comprehending Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, taken together, I grant it. But if by one individual, necessarily existent, spiritual Being, you mean either the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, taken sejunctly, I deny it; for both the other are truly signified by the name of God too, as well as that one.
I therefore say, the term individual must in this case now supposed (as possible, not as certain) admit of a twofold application; either to the distinct essence of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Holy Ghost; or to the entire essence of the Godhead, in which these three do concur. Each of these conceived by itself are (according to this supposition) individual essences, but conceived together, they are the entire individual essence of God. For there is but one such essence, and no more, and it can never be multiplied, nor divided into more of the same name and nature; as the body and soul of a man, are one individual body, and one individual soul, but both together are but one individual man: and the case would be the same, if a man did consist of two, or three spirits so (or more nearly) united together, as his soul and body are. Especially if you should suppose, which is the supposition of no impossible or unconceivable thing, that these three spirits which together, as we now do suppose, do constitute a man, were created with an aptitude to this united co-existence, but with an impossibility of existing separately, except to the divine power which created them conjunct, and might separate them so as to make them exist apart: which yet cannot be the case in respect of three such uncreated spiritual beings, whose union is supposed to be by natural, eternal necessity, as their essences are; and are therefore most absolutely inseparable.
XX. Or if it should be said, I make the notion of God to comprehend Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and a Godhead be-besides common to these three:
I answer; nothing I have said or supposed, implies any such thing; or that the notion of God imports any thing more of real being than is contained in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, taken together, and most intimately, naturally, and vitally, by eternal necessity, united with one another. As in a created being, consisting of more things than one, taken together and united, a man for instance, there is nothing more of real entity, besides what is contained in his body and his soul united and taken together. It is true that this term, a man, speaks somewhat very diverse from a human body taken alone, or a human soul taken alone, or from both, separately taken; but nothing diverse from both united, and taken together. And for what this may be unjustly collected to imply of composition, repugnant to divine perfection, it is before obviated. Sect. 13.
If therefore it be asked, "What do we conceive under the notion of God, but a necessary, spiritual Being?" I answer, that this is a true notion of God, and may be passable enough, among pagans, for a full one. But we Christians are taught to conceive under the notion of God, a necessarily spiritual Being, in which Father, Son, and Spirit, do so necessarily coexist, as to constitute that Being; and that when we conceive any one of them to be God, that is but an inadequate, not an entire and full, conception of the Godhead. Nor will any place remain for that trivial cavil, that if each of these have Godhead in him, he therefore hath a trinity in him; but that he is one of the three who together are the One God, by necessary, natural, eternal union.
Which union is also quite of another kind than that of three men, (as for instance, of Peter, James, and John) partaking in the same kind of nature; who, notwithstanding, exist separately and apart from each other. These three are supposed to coexist in natural, necessary, eternal, and most intimate union, so as to be one Divine Being.
Nor is it any prejudice against our thus stating the notion of the Godhead, that we know of no such union in all the creation, that may assist our conception of this union. What incongruity is there in supposing, in this respect, as well as in many others, somewhat most peculiarly appropriate to the being of God? If there be no such actual union in the creation, it is enough to our purpose, if such a one were possible to have been. And we do know of the actual union of two things of very different natures so as to be one thing, and have no reason to think the union of two or more things of the same sort of nature, with sufficient remaining distinction, less possible or less intelligible.
XXI. Upon the whole, let such a union be conceived in the being of God, with such distinction, and one would think, (though the complexions of men's minds do strangely and unaccountably differ) the absolute perfection of the Deity, and especially the perfect felicity thereof, should be much the more apprehensible with us. When we consider the most delicious society which would hence ensue, among the so entirely consentient Father, Son, and Spirit, with whom there is so perfect rectitude, everlasting harmony, mutual complacency, unto highest delectation; according to our way of conceiving things, who are taught by our own nature (which also hath in it the divine image) to reckon no enjoyment pleasant, without the consociation of some other with us therein; we for our parts cannot but hereby have in our minds a more gustful idea of a blessed state, than we can conceive in mere eternal solitude.
God speaks to us as men, and will not blame us for conceiving things so infinitely above us, according to the capacity of our natures; provided we do not assume to ourselves to be a measure for our conceptions of him, further than as he is himself pleased to warrant, and direct us herein. Some likeness we may (taught by himself) apprehend between him and us, but with infinite (not inequality only, but) unlikeness. And for this case of delectation in society, we must suppose an immense difference between him, an all-sufficient, self-sufficient Being, comprehending in himself the infinite fulness of whatsoever is most excellent and delectable; and ourselves, who have in us but a very minute portion of being, goodness, or felicity, and whom he hath made to stand much in need of one another, and most of all of him.
But when, looking into ourselves, we find there is in us a disposition, often upon no necessity, but sometimes, from some sort of benignity of temper, unto conversation with others; we have no reason, when other things concur, and do fairly induce, and lead our thoughts this way, to apprehend any incongruity in supposing he may have some distinct object of the same sort of propension in his own most perfect Being too; and therewith such a propension itself also.
XXII. As to what concerns ourselves, the observation is not altogether unapposite, what Cicero, treating of Friendship, discourses of perpetual solitude, "that the affectation of it must signify the worst of ill humour, and the most savage nature in the world. And supposing one of so sour and morose a humour, as to shun and hate the conversation of men, he would not endure it, to be without some one or other to whom he might disgorge the virulency of that his malignant humour. Or that supposing such a thing could happen, that God should take a man quite out of the society of men, and place him in absolute solitude, supplied with the abundance of whatsoever nature could covet besides; Who, (saith he,) is so made of iron, as to endure that kind of life?" And he introduces Architas Tarentinus reported to speak to this purpose,—"that if one could ascend into heaven, behold the frame of the world, and the beauty of every star, his admiration, which would be unpleasant to him alone, would be most delicious, if he had some one to whom to express his sense of the whole."
We are not, I say, strictly to measure God by ourselves in this; further than as he himself prompts and leads us. But if we so form our conception of divine bliss, as not to exclude from it somewhat, whereof that delight in society which we find in ourselves may be an imperfect, faint resemblance; it seems not altogether disagreeable to what the scriptures also teach us to conceive concerning him, when they bring in the eternal Wisdom, saying, as one distinct from the prime Author, and Parent of all things, "Then was I by him, as one brought up with him, and daily his delight." Prov. 8:30.
XXIII. However, let the whole of what hath been hitherto proposed be taken together, and to me it appears our conception of the sacred trinunity will be so remote from any shadow of inconsistency or repugnancy, that no necessity can remain upon us of torturing wit, and racking invention to the uttermost, to do a laboured and artificial violence (by I know not what screws and engines) to so numerous plain texts of Scripture, only to undeify our glorious Redeemer, and do the utmost despite to the Spirit of grace. We may be content to let the word of God (or what we pretend to own for a divine revelation) stand as it is, and undistorted, speak its own sense. And when we find the Former of things speaking as We or Us; (Gen. 1:26;) when we find another, (Prov. 8:22) I, possessed by the Lord, in the beginning of his way, before his works of old; so as that he says of himself (as distinct from the other) "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was"—and, "When he prepared the heavens I was there," &c. (v. 27;) when we find the child born for us, the Son given to us, called also "the mighty God," and (as in reference to us he fitly might) "the everlasting Father," (Isa. 9:6;)—when we are told of the Ruler that was to come out of Bethlehem-Ephrata, that "his goings forth were from everlasting," (Mic. 5:2;) that, "The Word was in the beginning with God, and was God—that all things were made by him, and without him nothing was made, that was made—that this Word was made flesh—that his glory was beheld as the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth," (John 1:11;) even that same he that above was said to have been "in the beginning with God, and to be God:"—that when he who was said to have "come down from heaven," (John 3:13,) was, even while he was on earth, at that time, said to be "in heaven;"—that we are told by himself, "he and his Father are one thing," (John 10:30;)—that he is not only said to "know the heart," but to "know all things," (John 21:17;)—that even he, who according to the flesh came of the Israelites, (Rom. 9:5,) is yet expressly said to be "over all, God blessed for ever;"—that when he was in the form of God, "he humbled himself to the taking on him the form of a servant, and to be found in fashion as a man," (Phil. 2:6:)—that it is said, "all things were created by him, that are in heaven, and on earth, visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers; and that all things were created by him, and for him," (Col. 1:16;) than which nothing could have been said more peculiar or appropriate to Deity;—that even of the Son of God it is said, "he is the true God and eternal life," (1 John 5:20;)—that we are so plainly told, "he is Alpha and Omega, (Rev. 1:8,) the first and the last, he that was, and is, and is to come, the Lord Almighty, (ch. 2:23,) the beginning of the creation of God; the searcher of hearts," (ch. 3:14:)—that the Spirit of God is said to "search all things, even the deep things of God," (1 Cor. 2:10;)—that lying to him is said to be lying to God, (Acts 5:3;)—that the great Christian solemnity, baptism, is directed to be in the name of "the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;"—that it is so distinctly said, "There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and that these three are one thing," (1 John 5:7:) I cannot imagine what should oblige us so studiously to wiredraw all this to quite other meanings.
XXIV. And for the leaving out of the last mentioned text in some copies, what hath been said (not to mention divers others) by the famously learned Dr. Hammond upon that place, is so reasonable, so moderate, so charitable to the opposite party, and so apt to satisfy impartial and unprejudiced minds, that one would scarce think, after the reading of it, any real doubt can remain concerning the authenticness of that 7th verse in 1 John 5.
Wherefore now, taking all these texts together, with many more that might have been mentioned, I must indeed profess to wonder, that with men of so good sense, as our Socinian adversaries are accounted, this consideration should not have more place and weight,—that it being so obvious to any reader of the Scriptures to apprehend from so numerous texts, that Deity must belong to the Son of God, and that there wants not sufficient inducement to conceive so of the Holy Ghost also; there should be no more caution given in the Scriptures themselves to prevent mistake (if there were any) in apprehending the matter accordingly: and to obviate the unspeakable consequent danger of erring in a case of so vast importance. How unagreeable it is to all our notions of God, and to his usual procedure in cases of less consequence! How little doth it consist with his being so wise and so compassionate a lover of the souls of men, to let them be so fatally exposed unto so inevitable, and so destructive a delusion! that the whole Christian church should, through so many centuries of years, be even trained into so horrid and continued idolatry by himself who so severely forbids it! I cannot allow myself to think men of that persuasion insincere in their professing to believe the divine authority of the holy Scriptures, when the leader and head of their party wrote a book, that is not without nerves, in defence of it. But I confess I cannot devise with what design they can think those Scriptures were written; or why they should count it a thing worthy of infinite wisdom to vouchsafe such a revelation to men, allowing them to treat and use it as they do; and that till some great Socinian wits should arise fifteen hundred years after, to rectify their notions in these things, men should generally be in so great hazard of being deceived into damnation, by those very Scriptures which were professedly written to make them wise to salvation!
XXV. Nor is it of so weighty importance in this controversy, to cast the balance the other way, that a noted critic (upon what introducement needs not be determined) changed his judgment, or that his posthumous interpretations of some texts (if they were his interpretations) carry an appearance of his having changed it; because he thought such texts might possibly admit to be interpreted otherwise, than they usually were by such as alleged them for the trinity, or the (disputed) Deity of the Son or Spirit; or that the cause must be lost, upon his deserting it; or that he was still to be reckoned of the opposite party (as this author calls it) and that such texts as we most relied upon, were therefore given up by some of our own.
And it is really a great assuming, when a man shall adventure to pronounce, so peremptorily, against the so common judgment of the Christian church, without any colour of proof, that our copies are false copies, our translations, our explications false, and the generality of the wisest, the most inquisitive, most pious, and most judicious assertors of the Christian cause, for so many continued ages, fools or cheats for owning and avowing them; for no other imaginable reason, but only because they make against him! How will he prove any copies we rely upon to be false? Is it because he is pleased to suspect them? And is an interpretation false, because the words can possibly be tortured unto some other sense? Let him name me the text, wherein any doctrine is supposed to be delivered that is of merely supernatural revelation, of which it is not possible to devise some other meaning, not more remote, alien, or unimaginable, than theirs of most of the disputed texts.
Nor indeed do we need to except that natural sentiment in itself, that there is but one God, (which this author takes such pains to prove, as if he thought, or would make other men think we denied it.) For though it is so generally acknowledged, doth he not know it is not so generally understood in the same sense? Against whom doth he write? Doth he not know they understand this oneness in one sense, he in another?—they in such a sense as admits a trinity, he in a sense that excludes it?
But (for such things as did need a superadded verbal revelation) how easy is it to an inventive, pervicacious wit, to wrest words this way, or that.
XXVI. The Scriptures were written for the instruction of sober learners; not for the pastime of contentious wits, that affect only to play tricks upon them. At their rate of interpreting, among whom he ranks himself, it is impossible any doctrine can with certainty be founded upon them. Take the first chapter of St. John's gospel for instance, and what doctrine can be asserted in plainer words, than the Deity of Christ, in the three first verses of that chapter? Set any man of an ordinary, un-prepossessed understanding, to read them, and when he finds that by the Word is meant Jesus Christ (which themselves admit) see if he will not judge it plainly taught, that Jesus Christ is God, in the most eminent known sense: especially when he shall take notice of so many other texts, that, according to their most obvious appearance, carry the same sense. But it is first, through mere shortness of discourse, taken for granted and rashly concluded on that it is absolutely impossible, if the Father be God, the Son can be God too, (or the Holy Ghost,) upon a presumption that we can know every thing that belongs to the divine nature; and what is possible to be in it, and what not; and next, there is hereupon not only a licence imagined, but an obligation, and necessity, to shake heaven and earth, or tear that divine word that is more stable, into a thousand pieces, or expound it to nothing, to make it comply with that forelaid presumptuous determination. Whereas, if we could but bend our minds so far to comply with the plain ducture of that revelation God hath made unto us of himself, as to apprehend that in the most only Godhead there may be distinctions, which we particularly understand not, sufficient to found the doctrine of a trinity therein, and very consistent with the unity of it, we should save the divine word, and our own minds, from unjust torture, both at once. And our task, herein, will be the easier, that we are neither concerned nor allowed to determine, that things are precisely so, or so; but only to suppose it possible that so they may be, for aught that we know. Which will, I am certain, not be so hard, nor so bold an undertaking as his, who shall take upon him to prove, that any thing here supposed is impossible.
Indeed, if any one would run the discourse into the abyss of infinity, he may soon create such difficulties to himself, as it ought not to be thought strange, if they be greater than any human understanding can expedite: but not greater than any man will be entangled in, that shall set himself to consider infinity upon other accounts; which yet he will find it imposed upon him unavoidably to admit whether he will or no:—not greater than this author will be equally concerned in, upon his doing that right to truth, in opposition to the former leaders of his own party, as to acknowledge the omnipresence of the divine essence, (p. 32,) which he will find, let him try it when he will; nor yet so great, nor accompanied with so gross, so palpable and horrid absurdities, as he will soon be encountered with, should he retract his grant, or entertain the monstrously maimed, and most deformed, impious conceit, of a finite, or limited Deity!
XXVII. Yet, also, in this present case, the impossibility to our narrow minds of comprehending infinity, is most rationally improvable to our very just advantage. It ought to be upbraided to none as a pretext, or a cover to sloth, or dulness. It is no reproach to us that we are creatures, and we have not infinite capacities. And it ought to quiet our minds, that they may so certainly know they have limits; within which, we are to content ourselves with such notions, about indemonstrable and unrevealed things, as they can, with greatest ease to themselves, find room for.
I can reflect upon nothing in what is here proposed, but what is intelligible without much toil, or much metaphysics; as matters of so common concernment, ought, to our uttermost, to be represented in such a way that they may be so. We need not be concerned in scholastic disquisitions about union; or by what peculiar name to call that which is here supposed. It is enough for us to know there may be a real, natural, vital, and very intimate union, of things that shall, notwithstanding it, continue distinct, and that shall, by it, be truly one. Nor do we need to be anxiously curious in stating the notions of person and personality, of suppositum and suppositality, though I think not the term person disallowable in the present case. Nor will I say what that noted man (so noted that I need not name him, and who was as much acquainted with metaphysics as most in his age) published to the world above twenty years ago, that he counted the notion of the schools about suppositum a foolery. For I do well know, the thing itself, which our Christian metaphysicians intended, to be of no small importance in our religion, and especially to the doctrine of redemption, and of our Redeemer.
XXVIII. But I reckon they that go the more metaphysical way, and content themselves with the modal distinction of three persons in the Godhead, say nothing herein that can be proved absurd or contradictious. As to what is commonly urged, that if there be three persons in the Deity, each person must have its distinct individual essence, as well as its distinct personality, I would deny the consequence, and say, that though this be true in created persons, (taking person in the strict metaphysical sense) it is not necessary to be so in uncreated; that the reason is not the same between finite things and infinite: and would put them to prove, if they can, that the same infinite essence cannot be whole and undivided in three several persons; knowing there can be nothing more difficult urged in the case, than may against the divine omnipresence; which irrefragable reasons, as well as the plainest testimony of Scripture, will oblige us to acknowledge.
But I think, though this hypothesis abstractly considered, and by itself, is not indefensible; it doth not altogether so well square with the Christian economy, nor so easily allow that distinction to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which seems requisite to found the distinct attributions that are severally given them in the holy Scriptures.
XXIX. To conclude, I only wish these things might be considered, and discoursed, with less confidence, and peremptory determination; with a greater awe of what is divine and sacred; and that we may more confine ourselves to the plain words of Scripture in this matter, and be content therewith. I generally blame it in the Socinians (who appear otherwise rational and considering men) that they seem to have formed their belief of things, not possible to be known but by the Scriptures, without them; and then think they are by all imaginable arts, and they care not what violence, (as Socinus himself hath in effect confessed) to mould and form them according to their preconceived sense. Common modesty and civility, one would have thought, should have made Schlictingius abstain from prefixing, and continuing that as a running title to a long chapter: Articulus Evangelicorum de Trinitate cum sensu communi pugnat; engrossing common sense to himself and his party, and reproaching the generality of Christians, as not understanding common sense. They should take upon them less, and not vaunt, as if they were the men, and wisdom must die with them.
For this author, I congratulate his nearer approach to us, from those who were formerly leaders of his party, in the doctrines of God's omnipresence, and the perceptiveness, and activity of separate souls. He writes with sprightliness and vigour: and, I doubt not, believes really what he writes with so little seeming doubt. And because his spirit appears to be of a more generous, exalted pitch, than to comport with any thing against his judgment, for secular interest and advantage, I reckon it the greater pity it should want the addition of what would be very ornamental to it, and which he wishes to two of the persons, to whom he makes himself an antagonist, more of the tenderness and catholic charity of genuine Christianity, (p. 19, col. 2,) to accompany those his abilities and learning, which would not thereby be the lesser, (as he speaks) nor the less conspicuous.
I believe few would have thought him to see the less clearly, if he had been content to see for himself, not for mankind. And if he had not talked at that rate, as if he carried the eyes of all the world in his pocket, they would have been less apt to think he carried his own there. Nor had his performance, in this writing of his, lost any thing of real value, if in a discourse upon so grave a subject, some lepidities had been left out, as that of Dulcinea del Toboso, &c.
And to allude to what he says of Dr. Cudworth, his displeasure will not hurt so rough an author as Arnobius, so many ages after he is dead, if he should happen to offend him, by having once said, Dissoluti—est pectoris in rebus serüs quærere voluptatem, &c.
But for all of us, I hope we may say, without offence to any, common human frailty should be more considered, and that we know but in part, and in how small a part! We should, hereupon, be more equal to one another. And when it is obvious to every one, how we are straitened in this matter, and that we ought to suppose one another intently aiming to reconcile the Scripture discovery with natural sentiments, should not uncharitably censure, or labour to expose one another, that any seem more satisfied with their own methods than with ours. What an odd and almost ludicrous spectacle do we give to the blessed angels that supervise us, (if their benignity did not more prompt them to compassion) when they behold us fighting in the dark, about things we so little understand; or, when we all labour under a gradual blindness, objecting it to one another, and one accusing another that he abandons not his own too weak sight, to see only by his (perhaps) blinder eye.
Thus, Sir, you have my sense, what I think safe, and enough to be said in this weighty matter. To you, these thoughts are not new, with whom they have been communicated and discoursed heretofore, long ago. And I believe you may so far recollect yourself, as to remember the principal ground was suggested to you, upon which this discourse now rests; viz. necessity of existence, and contingency; emanations absolutely independent upon any will at all, and the arbitrary productions of the divine will,—as the sufficient and most fundamental difference between what is uncreated and what is created; and upon this very account, as that which might give scope and room to our thoughts, to conceive the doctrine of the trinity, consistently with the unity of the Godhead; and so, as that the Son, though truly from the Father; and the Holy Ghost, though truly from both, shall yet appear infinitely distinguished from all created beings whatsoever.
So much you know was under consideration with us above twenty years ago; and was afterwards imparted to many more; long before there was any mention or forethought, within our notice, of such a revival of former controversies, upon this subject, as we have lately seen.
This occasion, now given, hath put me upon revolving anew these former thoughts; and upon digesting them into some order, such as it is, for public view. If they shall prove to be of any use, it appears they will not be out of season; and it will be grateful to me to be any way serviceable to so worthy a cause. If they shall be found altogether useless, being evicted either of impertinency, or untruth, it shall not be ungrateful; for I thank God, I find not a disposition in my mind to be fond of any notions of mine, as they are such; nor to be more adventurous, or confident, in determining of things hid, not only in so profound, but in most sacred darkness, than I have all along expressed myself. I ought, indeed, to be the more cautious of offending in this kind, that being the thing I blame, the positive asserting this or that to be impossible, or not possibly competent to the nature of God, which by his own word, or the manifest reason of things, doth not plainly appear to be so,—much more which his word doth, as plainly as it is possible any thing can be expressed by words, ascribe to him. The only thing I assert is, that a trinity in the Godhead may be possible, for aught we know, in the way that I have proposed; at least it is so, for any thing that I do as yet know. And so confident I am of the truth, and true meaning of his word, revealing a trinity in his eternal Godhead, that I strongly hope, if ever it shall be proved to be impossible upon these terms that I have here set down; by the same, or by equal light, the possibility of it some other way, will appear too, i. e. that not only a trinity in the unity of the Godhead is a possible thing; but that it is also possible that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost may be sufficiently distinguished to answer the frame and design of Christianity: and that will equally serve my purpose. For so, however, will the scandal be removed, that may seem to lie upon our holy religion, through the industrious misrepresentation which is made of it, by sceptics, deists, or atheists, as if it were made up of inconsistencies and absurdities, and were fitter to be entertained with laughter than faith: and being effectually vindicated, it will be the more successfully propagated, and more cheerfully practised; which is all that is coveted and sought by,
Your very respectful,
Humble servant, &c.
HAVING the copies of some letters by me, which I wrote to Dr. Wallis between two and three years ago, upon this subject; I think, Sir, it is not improper, and, perhaps, it may be some way useful, to let them accompany this to yourself. And here I shall freely tell you my principal inducement, (taking notice, in some of the Doctor's printed letters, of others to him, contained in them) to send him incognito one also; but with that reason against printing it, which you find towards the end of the first letter.
It was really the apprehension, which had long remained with me, that the simplicity, which (if the notion of it were stretched too far,) not the Scriptures, but the schools have taught us to ascribe to the being of God, was that alone which hath given us difficulty in conceiving a trinity in the only one God.
It is not the unity, or oneliness of the Godhead; but the simplicity of it, as the schoolmen have stated it, that hath created the matter of dispute. Unity, you know, denies more of the same; simplicity denies more in it. Concerning the former, that there could be no more Gods than one, we are at a point; the reason of the thing itself, and the holy Scriptures so expressly asserting it, leave it out of dispute.
All the doubt is about the latter. Not whether such a thing belongs to the nature of God; but concerning the just explication of it. As it is a real excellency, not a blemish; and not merely a moral, but a natural excellency; there can be no doubt of its belonging to the divine nature; but if you understand it as exclusive of all variety therein, you find not any express mention of such an attribute of God in the Scriptures. They are silent in the matter. It hath no authority, but of the schools. That, and the reason that can be brought for it, must give it its whole and only support. It is the only thing that must open, and give way, to admit the doctrine of the trinity; and it is the only thing that needs to do so. For we none of us assert a trinity of Gods; but a trinity in the Godhead. It is the only thing that can, to the adversaries of the trinity, with any colourable pretence, seem opposite to it: and which, therefore, I thought the only thing that remained to be sifted and examined, if they will state it in an opposition thereto. And consider, what so mighty and invincible strength of reason it had, whence alone either to shock the authority or pervert the plain meaning of the holy Scriptures, discompose the whole frame of Christian religion, disturb the peace of the church, perplex very thinking minds, subvert the faith of some, and turn it into ridicule with too many!
I reckoned the Doctor (as I still do, notwithstanding the contempt this author hath of him) a person of a very clear, un-muddied understanding. I found him, by what he expressed in his first Letter of the Trinity, not apt to be awed by the authority of the schools, nor any bigot to them, as having declined their notion of a person, and fixing upon another, (less answering, as I apprehend, the scheme and design of Christianity.) I thought it easy, and reputable enough to him to add what might be requisite in this matter, without contradicting (directly, or discernibly) any thing he had said. I gave him the opportunity of doing it, as from himself, without seeming to have the least thing to that purpose suggested to him by any other. I had myself, I think, seen and considered the main strength of the schoolmen's reasonings concerning that simplicity, which they will have to be divine; and, for aught I do yet know, have competently occurred to it in this foregoing letter, and partly in what you will now find I wrote to him. But what there is of real infirmity, or impertinency to this case, (as it is, and ought to be represented,) in their arguings, I reckoned he would both see and evince more clearly than I.
Therefore I greatly desired to have engaged him upon this point, but I could not prevail; and am therefore willing that what I wrote then with design of the greatest privacy, should now become public. Not that I think it hath so great value in itself; but that perhaps it may further serve to excite some others more able, and more at leisure, to search and inquire into this matter; and either to improve, or disprove what I have essayed. And which of the two it is, it is all one to me. For I have no interest or design, but that of truth, and the service of the Christian cause.
I was so little apprehensive of any such future use to be made of these letters, that I kept no account of the dates, except that one of the two latter (which both only refer to the first) I find, by the copy I have in my hands, to have been sent December 19th, 1691. I remember it was a long time, and guess it might be six or eight weeks, ere I heard any thing of the first, after I had sent it. Probably it might have been sent in October, or the beginning of November before. I at length heard of it very casually; being in a house in London, whither the Doctor's eighth letter was newly arrived (then no secret) in order to impression. I then found this my first letter was lightly touched, but mistaken; which occasioned (it being a post-night) my second. That was followed by the third, the next post after, when I had a little more time wherein to express my mind, though I still concealed my name, as it is yet fittest to do, my main business in my letter to you lying with a person, who (blamelessly enough) conceals his.
These two latter of my letters to the Doctor produced some alteration in that paragraph of his eighth letter, which relates to my first: but yet no way answering the design for which I wrote it. You have them now together, exactly according to the copies I have by me, excepting one or two circumstantial things fitly enough left out, or somewhat altered. And they had all slept long enough, if this occasion had not brought them to light.
But before I give them to you, let me suggest some things further to you concerning the foregoing letter to yourself. You may apprehend that some will think it strange, (if not an inconsistency) that I should suppose it possible an absolute omnimodous simplicity may not belong to the Divine Being, when yet I absolutely deny all composition in it.
And I apprehend too some may think so, at least awhile; but such as have considered well, will not think so, and such as shall, I presume will not long. For,—
1. If I had denied the simplicity of the divine nature, had the inference been just, that therefore I must grant a composition? How many instances might be given of one opposite not agreeing to this or that thing, when also the other doth as little agree! And most of all doth the transcendent excellency of the divine nature exempt it from the limiting by-partitions to which creatures are subject.
Take reason, in the proper sense, for arriving gradually, by argumentation, from the knowledge of more evident to the knowledge of obscurer things; and so, we cannot say the divine nature is rational: but is it, therefore, to be called irrational? Faith and hope agree not to it. Are we therefore to think infidelity or despair do not disagree?
It is indeed more generally apprehended, we can scarce have the notion of any thing that strictly, or otherwise than by some very defective analogy, agrees to him, and to us. Some pagans, and some Christians from them, (not in derogation, but) in great reverence to the high excellency of the Deity, not excepting the most common notion of all other, even that of being itself; make his being and substance to be super-essential, and super-substantial. It is out of doubt that whatsoever perfection is in us, is not the same thing in him formally, but in an unconceivable transcendent eminency only. Do, therefore, their contraries agree to him?
2. I am far from denying the simplicity of the blessed nature of God, which I ascribe to him in the highest perfection which it is capable of signifying. I most peremptorily affirm not only all the simplicity which he expressly affirms of himself; but all that can by just consequence be inferred from any affirmation of his; or that can by plain reason be evinced any other way.—Whatsoever is any real perfection, &c. Sect. 11.
It is true, while I affirm such a simplicity as excludes all composition, in the sense already given, I affirm not such as excludes all variety: not such as excludes a trinity, which he so plainly affirms, and with such distinction, as his affirmations concerning it imply, and make requisite.
I further judge, that though the Scriptures do not expressly ascribe simplicity to the being of God, as a natural excellency, they say that which implies it, as such, to belong to him; as when they bring him in saying of himself, "I am what I am." This must imply his nature to exclude every thing that is alien from itself. I take it, as it signifies (besides a moral) a mere natural excellency, to import a most perfect purity of essence. And I understand that to be purum, which is plenum sui, and quod nihil habet alieni. I do therefore take the natural simplicity of the Divine Being to exclude the ingrediency of any thing that can infer in it, conflict, decay, chance, disturbance, or infelicity in the least degree; and to include whatsoever infers the contraries of all these; serenity, tranquillity, harmony, stability, delight, and joy, in highest perfection; as necessity of existence also doth;—and that for all this, it by no means needs to exclude a trinity, but to include it rather.
But I judge human (and even all created) minds very incompetent judges of the divine simplicity. We know not what the divine nature may include consistently with its own perfection, nor what it must, as necessary thereto. Our eye is no judge of corporeal simplicity. In darkness it discerns nothing but simplicity, without distinction of things: in more dusky light the whole horizon appears most simple, and everywhere like itself: in brighter light, we perceive great varieties, and much greater if a microscope assist our eye. But of all the aerial people that replenish the region (except rare appearances to very few) we see none. Here want not objects, but a finer eye.
It is much at this rate with our minds in beholding the spiritual sphere of beings, most of all the uncreated, which is remotest, and furthest above, out of our sight. We behold simplicity; and what do we make of that? vast undistinguished vacuity! sad, immense solitude! only this at first view. If we draw nearer, and fix our eye, we think we apprehend somewhat, but dubiously hallucinate; as the half-cured blind man did, when he thought he saw men like trees.
But if a voice which we acknowledge divine, speak to us out of the profound abyss, and tell us of grateful varieties and distinctions in it; Good God! shall we not believe it? Or shall we say we clearly see that is not, which only we do not see? This seems like somewhat worse than blindness!
The Works of the Reverend John Howe (Vol. 2,)