THE SOCINIAN CONTROVERSY.
Source: Chapter 23 in the The Works of William Cunningham, D.D. Vol. 3; Historical Theology, Vol 2. pages 155-236.
marked up by Lance George
Greek and Hebrew fonts used in this document can be downloaded at BibleWorks
In the rationalistic perversion of the true principles of the Reformation, as to the investigation of divine truth and the interpretation of Scripture, we have the foundation on which Socinianism is based,—namely, the making human reason, or rather men's whole natural faculties and capacities, virtually the test or standard of truth; as if the mind of man was able fully to take in all existences and all their relations, and as if men, on this ground, were entitled to exclude, from what is admitted to be a revelation from God, everything which could not be shown to be altogether accordant with the conclusions of their own understandings, or thoroughly comprehensible by them. In regard to this principle, and the general views of theology, properly so called, which have resulted from its application, it is not always easy to determine whether the application of this peculiar principium theolgiŠ produced the peculiar theology, or the peculiar theology, previously adopted from some other cause, or on some other ground, led to the maintenance of the peculiar principium, as the only way by which the theology could be defended. If men had adopted rationalistic principles as their rule or standard in the investigation of divine truth and the interpretation of Scripture, they would certainly bring out, in the application of them, the Socinian system of theology, and yet did not think it altogether safe or expedient to deny the divine origin of the Christian revelation, they must, as a matter of course, be forced to adopt, as their only means of defence, the rationalistic principle of interpretation. These two things must, from the very nature of the case, have always gone hand in hand. They could scarcely, in any case, be separated in the order of time; and it is of no great importance to determine, in particular cases, which may have come first in the order of nature,—which was the cause, and which the effect. Papists allege that Socinianism was one of the consequences of the Reformation,—of the unrestrained and licentious speculations upon religious matters which they ascribe to that important event. The principles on which the Reformers acted, and on which the Reformation was based, were not the causes of, and are not responsible for, the errors and heresies which have sprung up in the Reformed churches. At the same time, it cannot be disputed that the Reformation tended to introduce a state of society, and a general condition of things, which led to a fuller and more prominent development of error, as well as of truth, by giving freedom of thought, and freedom in the expression of opinion. In the Church of Rom, and in countries that are fully under its control, the maintenance of any other errors and heresies than those which that church sanctions, is attened with imminent danger, and leads to sacrifices which few men are disposed to make, even for what they may regard as true.
This was the condition of Christendom before the Reformation. It lay wholly under the domination of a dark and relentless despotism, the tendency and effect of which were, to prevent men from exercising their minds freely upon religious subjects, or at least from giving publicity to any views they might have been led to adopt, different from those which had the civil and ecclesiastical authorities on their side. Wherever the Reformation prevailed, this stat of matters gradually changed. Despotism gave place to liberty. Liberty was sometimes abused, and this lead to licentiousness. But it is not the less true that liberty is preferable to despotism, both as being in itself a more just and righteous condition of things, and as being attended with far greater advantages, and with fewer and smaller evils.
Sec. 1.—Origin of Socinianism.
With respect to Socinianism in particular, there is much in the history of its origin that not only disproves the Popish allegation of its being traceable to the principles of the Reformation, but which tends to throw back upon the Church of Rome a share, at least, of the responsibility of producing this most pernicious heresy.1 The founders of this sect were chiefly Italians, who had been originally trained and formed under the full influence of the Church of Rome. They may be fairly regarded as specimens of the infidelity—or free-thinking, as they themselves call it—which the Popish system, in certain circumstances, and in minds of a certain class, has a strong tendency in the way of reaction to produce. They were men who had come, in the exercise of their natural reason, to see the folly and absurdity of much of the Popish system, without having been brought under the influence of truly religious impressions, or having been led to adopt a right method of investigating divine truth. They seem to have been men who were full of self-confidence, proud of their own powers of speculation and argument, and puffed up by a sense of their own elevation above the mass of follies and absurdities which they saw prevailing around them in the Church of Rome; and this natural tendency of the men, and the sinful state of mind which it implied or produced, were the true and proper causes of the errors and heresies into which they fell. Still it was the Church of Rome, in which they were trained, and the influences which it brought to bear upon them, that, in point of fact, furnished the occasions of developing this tendency, and determining the direction it took in regulating their opinions. The irrational and offensive despotism which the Church of Rome exercised in all matters of opinion, even on purely scientific subjects, tended to lead men who had become, mentally at least, emancipated from its thraldom, first and generally, to carry freedom of thought to the extreme of licentiousness; and then, more particularly, to throw off the whole system of doctrine which the Church of Rome imposed upon men, without being at much pains to discriminate between what was false in that system, and what might be true. This is indeed the true history of Socinianism,—the correct account of the causes that in fact produced it.
LŠlius Socinus, who is usually regarded as the true founder of the system,—though his nephew, Faustus, was the chief defender and promulgator of it,—seems to have formed his opinions upon theological subjects before he was constrained to leave Italy, and take refuge among the Protestants, where somewhat greater freedom of opinion was tolerated. He did not certainly find among the Reformers, with whom he came into contact, anything to encourage him in the theological views which he had imbibed; but neither was he brought, by his association with them, under any of those more wholesome influences, which would have led him to abandon them, and to embrace the great doctrines of the Reformation. He continued to manifest the same tendency and the same disposition which he had exhibited in Italy; and he retained the theological views which, in substance, he seems to have formed there. So that, though he published little or nothing, and did not always very fully or openly avow his peculiar opinions, even in private intercourse, yet, as there is reason to believe that he was really and substantially the author of the system afterwards developed and defended by his nephew, his history is truly the history of the origin of the system; and that history is at least sufficient to show that Popery is much more deeply involved in the guilt of producing Socinianism than Protestantism is.
It may be worth while, both as confirming the views now given of the character and tendencies of LŠlius Socinus, and also as illustrating the method often adopted by such men in first broaching their novel and erroneous opinions, to give one or two specimens of what the Reformers with whom he came into contact have said regarding him. He carried on for a time a correspondence with Calvin; in which, while he does not seem to have brought out distinctly the theological views afterwards called by his name, he had so fully manifested his strong tendency to indulge in all sorts of useless and pernicious speculations, as at length to draw from that great man the following noble rebuke: "You need not expect me to reply to all the monstrous questions (portenta quŠstionum) you propose to me. If you choose to indulge in such aerial speculations, I pray you suffer me, a humble disciple of Christ, to meditate on those things which tend to the edification of my faith. And I indeed by my silence will effect what I wish,—viz., that you no longer annoy me in this way. I am greatly grieved that the fine talents which the Lord has given you, should not only be wasted on things of no importance, but spoiled by pernicious speculations. I must again seriously admonish you, as I have done before, that unless you speedily correct this quŠrendi pruritum it may bring upon you much mischief. If I were to encourage, under the appearance of indulgence, this vice, which I believe to be injurious, I would be acting a perfidious and cruel part to you; and therefore I prefer that you should now be somewhat offended by my asperity, than that I should abstain from attempting to draw you away from the sweet allurements of the curiosity (or love of curious speculation) in which you are entangled. The time, I hope, will come, when you will rejoice that you were awakened from it, even by a rude shock."2
Zanchius, too, was an Italian, and, like Socinus, had fled from that country, because it was not safe for him to remain there, in consequence of the anti-Papal views which he had adopted. But then, unlike Socinus, he was a sincere and honest inquirer after truth. He had sought and obtained the guidance of the Spirit of God. He had studied the Bible, with a single desire to know what God had there revealed, that he might receive and submit to it. And he had in this way been led to adopt the same system of theology as Calvin and the other Reformers, and proved himself an able and learned defender of it. In the preface to his work on the Trinity, or De Tribus Elohim, as he calls it,3 he thus describes Socinus: ' He was of a noble family, well skilled in Greek and Hebrew, and irreproachable in his outward conduct; and on these accounts I was on friendly terms with him. But he was a man full of diverse heresies, which, however, he never proposed to me, except, as it were, for the purpose of disputation, and always putting questions as if he wished for information. And yet for many years he greatly promoted the Samosatanian heresy, and led many to adopt it."4
Such was the origin of Socinianism, and such, to a large extent, has been the kind of men by whom it has been advocated, although many of them have been fortunate enough to find themselves in circumstances that rendered it unnecessary to have recourse to the policy and management which its founder adopted, as to the mode of bringing out his opinions.
Sec. 2—Socinian Views as to Scripture.
The Socinians differ from the great body of Christians in regard to the subject of the inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. This was to be expected; for, as they had made up their minds not to regulate their views of doctrinal matters by the natural and obvious meaning of the statements contained in Scripture, it was quite probable that they would try to depreciate the value and authority of the Bible, so far as this was not plainly inconsistent with professing a belief, in any sense, in the truth of Christianity. The position, accordingly, which they maintain upon this point is, that the Bible contains indeed a revelation from God, but that it is not itself that revelation, or that it is not in any proper sense the word of God, though the word of God is found in it. They virtually discard the Old Testament altogether, as having now no value or importance but what is merely historical. And indeed they commonly teach that the promise of eternal life was not revealed, and was wholly unknown, under the Old Testament dispensation; but was conveyed to man, for the first time, by Christ Himself, when He appeared on earth: men, under the patriarchal and Mosaic economies, having been, according to this view, very much in the same situation as the mass of mankind in general,—that is, being called upon to work out their own eternal happiness by their own good deeds, though having only a very imperfect knowledge of God, and of the worship and duty which He required, and having only a general confidence in His goodness and mercy, without any certainty or assurance as to their final destiny. Jesus Christ, according to Socinians, was a mere man, who was appointed by God to convey His will more fully to men; and the sole object of His mission was to communicate to men more correct and complete information concerning God and duty,—and especially to convey to them the assurance of a future state of blessedness, to be enjoyed by all who should do what they could in worshipping and serving God, according to the information He had communicated to them.
They profess, then, to receive as true, upon this ground, all that Christ Himself taught. They admit that the teaching of Christ is, in the main, and as to its substance, correctly enough set forth in the New Testament; and they do not allege that it can be learned from any other source. But then, as to the books which compose the New Testament, they maintain that they were the unaided compositions of the men whose names they bear; and deny that they, the authors, had any special supernatural assistance or superintendence from God in the production of them. They look on the evangelists simply as honest and faithful historians, who had good opportunities of knowing the subjects about which they wrote, and who intended to relate everything accurately, as far as their opportunities and memories served them; but who, having nothing but their own powers and faculties to guide them, may be supposed, like other historians, to have fallen sometimes into inadvertencies and errors. And as to the apostles of our Lord, whose writings form part of the canon of the New Testament, or the substance of whose teaching is there recorded, they commonly deny to them any infallible supernatural guidance, and admit that they were well acquainted with the views of their Master, and intended faithfully to report them, and to follow them in their own preaching. But they think that the apostles probably sometimes misunderstood or misapprehended them; and that they are not to be implicitly followed in the reasonings or illustrations they employed to enforce their teaching,—an observation, of course, specially directed against the Apostle Paul.
With these views of the apostles and evangelists, and of the books of the New Testament, they think themselves warranted in using much greater liberty with its words and language, in the way of labouring to force them into an accordance with their system of theology, than can be regarded as at all warrantable by those who believe that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,—that holy men wrote as they were moved by the Spirit of God. Socinians are also fond of dwelling upon all those topics which seem fitted to shake in men's minds a due sense of the reverence with which the sacred Scriptures ought, as being the word of God, to be regarded,—such as the obscurity attaching to some of their statements, and the difficulty of ascertaining their true meaning; the various readings, and the difficulty in some cases of ascertaining the true text; the apparent inconsistencies, and the difficulty occasionally of reconciling them. In discussing these and similar topics, they follow the example of the Papists,—treat them commonly in the same light or semi-infidel spirit; and their general object is the same,—namely, to insinuate the unfitness of the Bible, as it stands, to be a full and accurate directory of faith and practice, so as to leave it men's only business to ascertain the true and exact meaning of its statements, that they may implicitly submit to them. These topics they are fond of dwelling upon, and of setting forth with prominence, and even exaggeration. And the application they make of them is,—first, and more specifically, to disprove the inspiration of the books of Scripture; and, secondly, and more generally, to warrant and encourage the use of considerable liberty in dealing with their statements, and to cherish a feeling of uncertainty as to the accuracy of the results that may be deduced from an examination of them. They thus make it sufficiently manifest, just as the Papists do, that they are rather disposed to shrink from a trial of their doctrines, by a direct and impartial examination of the exact sense and import of the whole statements of Scripture, as they stand. They are fond, indeed, of declaiming upon the supremacy of the Scriptures, as the only rule of faith, in opposition to all human authorities, councils, creeds, confessions, etc., etc.; and though this general principle is unquestionably true and sound, yet it will commonly be found that there are, in Socinian and rationalistic declamations upon the subject, quite as plain indications of a feeling of soreness, that the creeds and confessions of human authority—that is, of almost all who have ever professed to draw their faith from the Bible—have been decidedly opposed to their theological views, as of reverence for the Scriptures. And there is ground for suspecting that the main reason of their preference for the Bible alone, is because they think they can show that the Scriptures are capable of being so dealt with as to countenance, or at least not to oppose, their system; while creeds and confessions commonly are not. Still Socinians have generally admitted, at least theoretically and in words, down till their recent adoption in our own day, both in America and in Britain, of the entire anti-supernaturalism of German neologians, that the true sense of Scripture, when correctly and clearly ascertained, was to be practically and substantially the rule or standard of men's faith; and have, in consequence, usually undertaken to show that their system of theology was countenanced by Scripture, or at least was not opposed to it, but might be held by men who professed to receive the Bible as the rule of faith.
The leading peculiarity of their system of scriptural interpretation is just the principle, that nothing which is contrary to reason can be contained in a revelation from God; and that, therefore, if any statements of Scripture seem to impute to Jesus or His apostles the teaching of doctrines which are contrary to reason, they must, if possible, be explained in such a way as to avoid this difficulty, and be made to appear to teach nothing but what is accordant with reason. I will not enter again into the consideration of the general principle, or of the way and manner in which it ought to be applied, in so far as it has a foundation in truth; but will rather advert now to the way in which the Socinians actually deal with Scripture, in order to exclude from it anything irrational; though this is a topic which I fear can scarcely be made useful or interesting, without producing more in the way of examples than our space permits. It is very plain that, if it be admitted in general that our faith is to be determined by ascertaining the meaning of Scripture statements, then the first and most obvious step to be adopted is just to employ, with the utmost impartiality and diligence, all the means which are naturally fitted, as means, to effect this end. If it be true, as it is, that the special blessing of God, and the guidance and direction of His Spirit, are necessary to attain this end, let us abound in prayer that we may receive it. If the use of all the ordinary critical and philological means and appliances which are applicable to the interpretation of such a collection of documents as the Bible contains, is necessary to this end,—as it is,—then let all these be diligently and faithfully employed; and let the result be deliberately and impartially ascertained, in the exercise of sound reason and common sense. This should evidently be the way in which the work should be entered on; and then, in so far as the principle about alleged contrariety to reason is true and sound, and admits of being fairly applied, let it be applied fully and frankly to the actual result of the critical and philological investigation, whatever may be the legitimate consequences of the application. But the Socinians commonly reverse this natural and legitimate process. They first lay down the principle, that certain doctrines—such as the Trinity, the hypostatical union, the atonement, the eternity of punishment—are irrational, or inconsistent with what natural reason teaches about God; and then, under the influence of this conviction, already existing, they proceed to examine Scripture for the purpose, not of simply ascertaining what it teaches, but of showing that these doctrines are not taught there, or at least that this cannot be proved.
Now this condition of things, and the state of mind which it implies or produces, are manifestly unfavourable to a fair and impartial use of the means naturally fitted to enable men to ascertain correctly what Scripture teaches. Impartiality, in these circumstances, is not to be expected,—it would betray an ignorance of the known principles of human nature to look for it. Those who believe in these doctrines profess to have found them in Scripture, fairly interpreted, in the use of the ordinary appropriate means,—to base them upon no other foundation,—to know nothing about them but what is stated there,—and to be willing to renounce them, whenever it can be proved that they are not taught in the Bible; while the Socinians are placed, by this principle of theirs, in this position,—as some of the bolder and more straightforward among them have not scrupled to avow,—that they would not believe these doctrines, even if it could be proved to their satisfaction that they were plainly taught by the apostles. Still they usually profess to undertake to show that they are not taught in Scripture, or at least that no sufficient evidence of a critical and philological kind has been produced to prove that they are taught there. The violent perversion of all the legitimate and recognised principles and rules of philology and criticism, to which they have been obliged to have recourse in following out this bold undertaking, can be illustrated only by examples taken from the discussions of particular doctrines, and the interpretation of particular texts; but we may advert briefly to one or two of the more general features of their ordinary mode of procedure in this matter.
In regard to the text of the New Testament, they are accustomed to catch eagerly at, and to try to set forth with something like plausibility, the most meagre and superficial critical evidence against the genuineness or integrity of particular passages,—as has been fully proved with respect to the attempts they have made to exclude, as spurious, the first two chapters both of Matthew and of Luke, because of their containing an account of the miraculous conception of Christ; and they sometimes even venture upon mere conjectural emendations of the text, which have not a shadow of critical authority to support them,—as, for instance, in their criticism upon Rom. ix. 5,—a practice condemned by all impartial critics.
In the interpretation of Scripture, one of the general presumptions which they are fond of using is this,—that the texts adduced in support of some doctrine which they reject, are brought only from one or two of the books of the New Testament,—that the alleged proofs of it are not by any means so clear, so frequent, or so widely diffused as might have been expected, if the doctrine in question had been intended to be taught,—or that no apparent proofs of it occur in passages where they might have been looked for, if the doctrine were true. In dealing with such considerations, which Socinians frequently insist upon, the defenders of orthodox doctrine usually maintain,—first, that most of the doctrines which Socinians reject are clearly and frequently taught in Scripture, and that statements affording satisfactory evidence of their truth, more formal or more incidental, are found to pervade the word of God; and, secondly, that even if it were not so, yet a presumption based upon such considerations is unwarranted and unreasonable: for that we have no right, because no sure ground to proceed upon in attempting, to prescribe or determine beforehand, in what particular way, with what measure of clearness or frequency, or in what places of Scripture, a doctrine should be stated or indicated; but are bound to receive it, provided only God, in His word, has given us sufficient grounds for believing it to have been revealed by Him. If the doctrine can be shown to be really taught in Scripture, this should be sufficient to command our assent, even though it should not be so fully and so frequently stated or indicated there as we might perhaps have expected beforehand, on the supposition of its being true; especially as it is manifest that the word of God, in its whole character and complexion, has been deliberately constructed on purpose to call forth and require men's diligence and attention in the study of its meaning, and in the comparison of its statements; and to test also men's fairness, candour, and impartiality, as indicated by their being satisfied or not with reasonable and sufficient, though it maybe not overwhelming, evidence of the doctrines there revealed.
Another general consideration, often insisted on by Socinians, in order to help out the very meagre evidence they can produce that particular passages in Scripture do not teach the orthodox doctrine, is this,—that all that they need to prove is, that the passage in question does not necessarily sanction the orthodox doctrine, but may possibly be understood in a different sense; and then they contend that they have done this at least. They often admit that, upon critical and philological grounds, a particular passage may be taken in the orthodox sense; but they contend that they have disproved the allegation that it must be taken in that sense, and that this is sufficient. Now, here again, orthodox divines maintain,— first, that in regard to many of the passages, the meaning of which is controverted between them and the Socinians, it can be shown, not only that they may, but that they must, bear the orthodox sense, and that no other sense is consistent with a fair application to them of the ordinary rules of philology, grammar, and criticism; and, secondly, that the Socinian demand that this must be proved in all cases, or indeed in any case, is unreasonable and overstrained. We may concede to the Socinians, that, in the controversy with them, the onus probandi lies properly upon us, and that we must produce sufficient and satisfactory evidence of the truth of our doctrines from Scripture, before we can reasonably expect them to be received. But we cannot admit that any such amount of antecedent improbability attaches to the doctrines we hold, as to impose upon us any obligation to do more than show that the Scripture, explained according to the ordinary legitimate principles and rules applicable to the matter, teaches, and was intended to teach, them,—that a man, examining fairly and impartially as to what the Scripture sets forth upon these points, would naturally, and as a matter of course, without straining or bias to either side, come to the conclusion that our doctrines are taught there,—and that these are the doctrines which the Scriptures were evidently intended, as they are fitted, to inculcate. We wish simply to know what the actual language of Scripture, when subjected to the ordinary legitimate processes of criticism, really gives out,—what it seems to have been really intended to convey. The resolution with which the Socinians set out, of labouring to establish a bare possibility that the words may not have the sense we ascribe to them,—that they may by possibility have a different meaning,—has no reasonable foundation to rest upon; and it produces a state of mind manifestly opposed to anything like a candid and impartial investigation of what it is that the Scripture truly means. Under the influence of this resolution, men will generally find no difficulty in getting up some plausible grounds for asserting that almost any conceivable statement does not necessarily mean what appears plainly to be its real and intended meaning, and that it might by possibility mean something else; while they lose sight of, and wholly miss, the only question that legitimately ought to have been entertained,—namely, What is the true and real meaning which the words bear, and were intended to bear?
It is in entire accordance with these unreasonable and overstrained principles of interpretation, that Mr. Belsham—who held the most prominent place among the Socinians of this country at the conclusion of last century and the beginning of this—lays it down as one of his general exegetical rules,5 that "impartial and sincere inquirers after truth must be particularly upon their guard against what is called the natural signification of words and phrases,"—a statement manifestly implying a consciousness that Socinianism requires to put a forced and unnatural construction upon scriptural expressions, such as would not readily commend itself to the common sense of upright men, unless they were prepared for it by something like a plausible generality, in the form of an antecedent rule. It is, however, just the natural signification of words and phrases that we are bound, by the obligations of candour and integrity, to seek: meaning thereby, that we are called upon to investigate, in the fair use of all legitimate means and appliances suitable to the case, what the words were really designed to express; and having ascertained this, either to receive it as resting upon the authority of God, or, should there seem to be adequate grounds for it, on account of the real and unquestionable contrariety to reason of the doctrine thus brought out, to reject the document containing it as resting upon no authority whatever.6
Sec. 3.—Socinian System of Theology.
Having explained the origin and causes of Socinianism, and the principles and leading features of the plan on which its supporters proceed in the interpretation of Scripture, we have now to give some exposition of the system of theology which, by the application of these principles, the Socinians have deduced from Scripture; or, to speak more correctly, which they consider themselves warranted in holding, notwithstanding their professed belief in the divine origin of the Christian revelation. We have been accustomed to speak of Socinianism as just implying a rejection or denial of all the peculiar and fundamental doctrines of the Christian system, as revealed in the sacred Scriptures; and this is, so far as it goes, a correct, though but a negative and defective, description of it. Socinianism, however, is not a mere negation: it implies a system of positive opinions upon all the important topics of theology, in regard to the divine character and moral government,—the moral character, capacities, and obligations of mankind,—the person and the work of Jesus Christ,—the whole method of salvation,—and the ultimate destinies of men. It is common, indeed, to speak of the meagre or scanty creed of the Socinians; and in one sense the description is unquestionably correct, for it includes scarcely any of those doctrines which have been usually received by the great body of professing Christians as taught in Scripture. And when thus compared with the system of doctrine that has commonly been held in the Christian church, it may be regarded as being, to a large extent, of a negative character, and very scanty in its dimensions. At the same time, it should be observed, that while in one point of view the Socinian creed may be regarded as very meagre and scanty, inasmuch as it contains scarcely any of those doctrines which Christians in general have found in the word of God, yet it really contains a system of opinions, and positive opinions, upon all those topics to which these doctrines relate. The ideas most commonly associated with the name of Socinianism are just the denial or rejection of the doctrines of the Trinity, of the proper divinity of Christ and of His vicarious atonement, and of the personality of the Spirit. And without adverting at present to other features of the Socinian system, it ought to be observed, that while they deny or reject the doctrines that have been commonly held by the Christian church upon these points, they have their own doctrines regarding them, which are not mere negations, but may be, and are, embodied in positive propositions. They not only deny the doctrine of the Trinity, but they positively assert that the Godhead is one in person as well as in essence. They not only deny the proper divinity of Jesus Christ, but they positively assert that He was a mere man,—that is, a man and nothing else, or more than a man. They not only deny the vicarious atonement of Christ, which most other professing Christians reckon the foundation of their hopes for eternity, but they assert that men, by their own repentance and good works, procure the forgiveness of their sins and the enjoyment of God's favour; and thus, while denying that, in any proper sense, Christ is their Saviour, they teach that men save themselves,—that is, in so far as they need salvation. While they deny that the Spirit is a person who possesses the divine nature, they teach that the Holy Ghost in Scripture describes or expresses merely a quality or attribute of God. They have their own positive doctrines upon all these points,—doctrines which their creed embraces, and which their writings inculcate. On all these topics their creed is really as wide and comprehensive as that of any other section of professing Christians, though it differs greatly from what has been generally received in the Christian church, and presents all these important subjects in a very different aspect.
Socinians, as Dr. Owen observes,7 are fond of taking the place, and sustaining the part, of respondents merely in controversy; and it is no doubt true, that if they could succeed in showing that our doctrines receive no countenance from Scripture, we would not only be called upon to renounce these doctrines, but, in doing so, would at the same time, as a matter of course, embrace views substantially Socinian. Still it is right and useful that, during the controversy, we should have distinct and definite conceptions of what are the alternatives,—of what are their doctrines upon all points as well as our own, and of what are the positive opinions which we must be prepared to embrace and maintain, if we think we see ground to abandon the orthodox system of doctrine and to adopt the Socinian. We are not to imagine, then, that what is commonly called the scanty creed of Socinianism is a mere negation; and we are to regard it as virtually embodying positive doctrines upon those points on which we ourselves hold opinions,—though opinions very different from theirs.
There is another observation of a general kind which I think it important that we should remember,—namely, that Socinianism really includes a scheme of doctrines upon all the leading subjects of theology,—upon all the main topics usually discussed in theological systems. The common impression is, that Socinianism merely describes certain views upon the subjects of the Trinity and the atonement; and these topics, indeed, have always and necessarily had much prominence in the controversies that have been carried on with the Socinians or Unitarians. But right. or wrong views upon these points must, from the nature of the case, materially affect men's opinions upon all other important topics in theology; and, in point of fact, Socinianism, even in the writings of its founders, was a fully developed system of doctrine upon everything material that enters, or has been supposed to enter, into the scheme of revelation. Socinianism has its own Theology in the strictest and most limited sense of that word,—that is, its peculiar views about God, His attributes and moral government, as well as its negation of a personal distinction in the Godhead. It has its own Anthropology,—that is, its own peculiar views in regard to the moral character and capacities of mankind as we find them in this world, though here it has just adopted the old Pelagian system. It has its own Christology, or its peculiar views as to who or what Christ was,—though here it has followed very much what were called the Samosatanian and Photinian heresies of early times; names, indeed, by which it was often designated by the writers of the seventeenth century. It has its own Soteriology,—that is, its peculiar views of the plan of salvation,—of the way and manner in which men individually are saved, or actually attain to final happiness,—as comprehending the topics usually discussed under the heads of the atonement or satisfaction of Christ, justification, regeneration, and the work of the Holy Spirit; on the latter topic, indeed, adopting substantially the views of the Pelagians; but with respect to the first of them,—namely, the atonement,—they have discoveries and demerits which may be said to be almost wholly their own. They have their own Eschatology, as it is called,—that is, their peculiar views in regard to those topics which are usually discussed in theological systems under the general head "De novissimis," or the last things,—and especially the resurrection and the final punishment, or the fate and destiny, of the wicked. And besides all this, they have views in a great measure peculiar to themselves, and in full harmony with the general character and tendency of their theological system, on the subjects of the Church, and especially of the Sacraments. We have a sounder view of what Socinianism is, and can form a juster apprehension of the estimate that ought to be made of it, when we regard it as a complete and well-digested system, extending over the whole field of theology, and professing to present a full account of all the leading topics which it most concerns men to know, of everything bearing upon their relation to God and their eternal welfare; a system, indeed, taking up and embodying some of the worst and most pernicious of the heresies which had previously distracted and injured the church, but likewise adding some important heretical contributions of its own, and presenting them, in combination, in a form much more fully developed, much better digested and compacted, and much more skilfully defended, than ever they had been before. It may tend to bring out this somewhat more fully, if we give a brief statement of what the views are which have been commonly held by Socinians on these different subjects, mainly for the purpose of illustrating the unity and harmony of their theological system, and showing that the controversy with the Socinians is not a mere dispute about some particular doctrines, however important these may be, but really involves a contest for everything that is peculiar and important in the Christian system.
It is true of all systems of theology,—taking that word in its wide and common sense, as implying a knowledge of all matters bearing upon our relation to God and our eternal destinies,—that they are materially influenced, in their general character and complexion, by the views which they embody about the divine attributes, character, and government,—that is, about theology in the restricted meaning of the word, or the doctrine concerning God. Hence we find that, in many systems of theology, there are introduced, under the head "De Deo," and in the exposition of the divine attributes, discussions more or less complete, of many topics that are afterwards taken up and illustrated more fully under their own proper heads,—such as providence, predestination, and grace. Socinians have sought, like other theologians, to lay the foundation of their system of doctrine in certain peculiar views in regard to the divine attributes. Orthodox divines have commonly charged them with denying, or explaining away, certain attributes which reason and Scripture seem to unite in ascribing to God, with the view of diminishing the perfection of the divine glory and character, and thereby removing arguments in favour of orthodox doctrines, and bringing in presumptions in favour of their own. I cannot enter into details, but may briefly advert to two of the principal topics that are usually brought into the discussion of this subject.
Socinianism—and indeed this may be said of most other systems of false religion—represents God as a Being whose moral character is composed exclusively of goodness and mercy,—of a mere desire to promote the happiness of His creatures, and a perfect readiness at once to forgive and to bless all who have transgressed against Him. They thus virtually exclude from the divine character that immaculate holiness which is represented in Scripture as leading God to hate sin, and that inflexible justice which we are taught to regard as constraining Him to inflict on sinners the punishment which He has threatened, and which they have merited. The form in which this topic is commonly discussed in more immediate connection with Socinianism, is this: whether vindicative or punitive justice—that is, justice which constrains or obliges to give to sinners the punishment they have deserved—be an actual quality of God,—an attribute of the divine nature? The discussion of this question occupies a prominent place in many works on the atonement; the Socinians denying that there is any such quality in God,—anything in His nature or character which throws any obstacle or impediment in the way of His at once pardoning transgressors, without any satisfaction to His justice; while orthodox divines have generally contended for the existence of such a quality or attribute in God, and for its rendering necessary a vicarious atonement or satisfaction, in order that sinners might be forgiven.
The other topic under this general head to which we propose to advert, is that of the divine omniscience. Orthodox divines have always contended that scriptural views of this attribute, and of its application, afforded powerful arguments in favour of that entire dependence of men upon God's will and purposes which may be said to be a characteristic of the Calvinistic scheme of theology; and, accordingly, the discussion of it, and of the inferences that may be legitimately deduced from it, has entered largely into the Arminian controversy. The Socinians agree in the main with the Arminians upon this subject,—that is, so far as concerns a denial of Calvinistic doctrines; but being somewhat bolder and more unscrupulous than the Arminians, they have adopted a somewhat different mode of arriving at the same conclusion. The Arminians generally admit that God certainly foresees all future contingent events, such as the future actions of men exercising, without constraint, their natural powers of volition; but how this can be reconciled with their doctrine, that He has not fore-ordained these events, they do not pretend to explain. They leave this unexplained, as the great difficulty admittedly attaching to their system, or rather, as the precise place where they are disposed to put the difficulty which attaches to all systems that embrace at once the foreknowledge of God and the responsibility of man. The Socinians, however, being less easily staggered by the conclusive Scripture evidence of God's foreseeing the future free actions of men, especially that arising from the undoubted fact that He has so often predicted what they would be, boldly deny that He foresees these actions, or knows anything about them, until they come to pass; except, it may be, in some special cases, in which, contrary to His usual practice. He has fore-ordained the event, and foresees it because He has fore-ordained it. That they may seem, indeed, not to derogate from God's omniscience, they admit indeed that God knows all things that are knowable; but then they contend that future contingent events, such as the future actions of responsible agents, are not knowable,—do not come within the scope of what may be known, even by an infinite Being; and, upon this ground, they allege that it is no derogation from the omniscience of God, that He does not, and cannot, know what is not knowable. They think that in this way, by denying the divine foreknowledge of future contingencies, they most effectually overturn the Calvinistic doctrine of God's fore-ordaining whatsoever comes to pass; while they, at the same time, concede to the Calvinists, in opposition to the Arminian view, that God's certain foreknowledge of the actions of men lays an immoveable foundation for the position that He has fore-ordained them.
It may be worth while to mention upon this point—for the fact is both very curious and very important—that, in what is probably the earliest summary ever given of the whole Socinian system of doctrine, after it was fully developed, in a little work, understood to have been written with the view of explaining and defending it, by Ostorodus and Voidovius, when in 1598 they were sent from Poland on a mission into the Low Countries, in order to propagate their doctrines there, it is expressly assigned as a reason why they denied God's foreknowledge of the future actions of men, that there was no other way of escaping from the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.8 We shall afterwards have an opportunity of showing that there is more truth and consistency in the Socinian than in the Arminian view upon this particular point, while they agree in the general conclusion, in opposition to Calvinists; but, in the meantime, the two instances we have given will show how wide and extensive are the Socinian heresies, and how thoroughly accordant it is with the general character and tendency of their system to indulge in presumptuous speculations about the incomprehensible God,—to obscure the glory of His adorable perfections,—and to bring Him nearer to the level of the creatures whom He has formed. As the Trinity must afterwards be more fully discussed, I say nothing more about it at present, except this,—that here, too, Socinians manifest the same qualities and tendencies, by presuming to claim such a thorough knowledge of what the divine unity is, and of what it consists in, as to be warranted in maintaining, as a first and certain principle, that it is necessarily inconsistent with a personal distinction, or a plurality of persons, and generally by insisting on applying to the divine nature notions and conceptions derived wholly from what takes place and is exhibited among men.
I have said that the Socinian doctrine about the moral character and capacities of mankind is just a revival of the old Pelagian heresy. Of course it amounts in substance to a denial of the fall and of all original depravity, and to an assertion that men are now, as to all moral qualities, tendencies, and capacities, in the same condition as when the race was created. The image of God in which man was formed, consisted, according to them, merely in dominion over the creatures, and not in any moral perfection or excellence of nature. Adam had no original righteousness, or positive holy tendency of moral nature, any more than we have; and, of course, did not lose any quality of that sort by the sin into which he fell. He committed an act of sin, and thereby incurred the divine displeasure; but he retained the same moral nature and tendencies with which he was created, and transmitted these unimpaired to his posterity. He was created naturally mortal, and would have died whether he had sinned or not. Men are now, in moral nature and tendencies, just as pure and holy as Adam was when he came from the hand of his Creator,—without any proper holiness of nature, indeed, or positive tendency and inclination, in virtue of their moral constitution, to love and obey God, for that Adam never had; but also without any proneness or tendency to sin, although we are placed in somewhat more unfavourable circumstances than he was, in consequence of the many examples of sin which we see and hear of,—a position which somewhat increases the chances of our actually falling into sin. Still men may avoid sin altogether; and some do so, and obtain eternal blessedness as the reward of their perfect obedience. And in regard to those who do commit actual sin, and are guilty of transgression, this at least is plain in general,—that since men are weak or frail, though not sinful or depraved creatures, and since God is nothing but a kind and merciful Father, and has no punitive justice as a constituent element of His character, there can be no difficulty in their obtaining His forgiveness, and being restored to His favour, and thus escaping all the consequences of their transgressions.
As it is true that men's whole theological system is usually connected intimately with the views or impressions they may have been led to form of God's character and government, so it is equally true that their whole views upon theological subjects are greatly affected by the opinions they may have been led to form of the fall of Adam, and its bearing upon his posterity. Sound and scriptural views upon this important subject are indispensably necessary to anything like a correct system of theology; and errors in regard to it spread darkness and confusion over the whole field of theological investigation. Nothing has been more fully brought out by the history of theological discussions than the truth of this position; and the case of Socinianism most strikingly confirms it. If man has not fallen and ruined himself, he has no need of a Saviour, or of any extraordinary interposition of God, in order to his salvation. Sin can be no very heinous matter, when committed by such frail creatures as men are; and when viewed in connection with the character of so gracious and benevolent a being as God is, cannot be supposed to occasion any very great difficulty, or to require any very extraordinary provision, in order to its being forgiven and removed. And, accordingly, the whole Socinian system is based upon these general notions and impressions. He whom most other persons that take the name of Christians regard as their Saviour, and whom they believe to be represented in Scripture as God over all,—a possessor of the divine nature,—and to be held up there as the sole author of their salvation, an object of unbounded confidence and reverence, affection and worship,—and whom all admit to have been sent into the world that He might do everything that was needful, whatever that might be, to secure the salvation of men,—is regarded by the Socinians as a mere man, who had no higher nature than the human, who had no existence till He was born in Bethlehem, who did nothing, and who had nothing to do, for the fulfilment of His mission, but to communicate fuller and more certain information about the divine character and government, the path of duty, and future blessedness, and to set before them an example of obedience to God's law and will. What they say of Christ is true, so far as it goes. He was a man, and He did what they ascribe to Him. But it is not the whole truth, and He did much more for our salvation. Were the Socinian view of man's natural condition correct, a mere man, who came to communicate information and to exhibit an example, might have sufficed for all that was needed. No satisfaction required to be made to divine justice, no righteousness to be wrought out, no change needed to be effected upon men's moral nature. And of course there was no need of a Divine Saviour to expiate and intercede, or of a Divine Spirit to renew and sanctify. All this is superfluous, and therefore it is wholly discarded. The condition of man did not require it, and indeed did not admit of it; and therefore God did not provide it. Men needed only to be assured of God's readiness to pardon all their sins, without satisfaction to His justice, and to get clearer and more certain information than they could very readily procure themselves as to the course they ought to pursue, in order to share more abundantly in God's favour. This was not indeed altogether indispensable, but highly desirable. And God might have communicated it to men in many ways; but He has chosen to convey it by One who, though described in Scripture as the brightness of the Father's glory, and the express image of His person, was yet nothing more than a mere partaker of flesh and blood like ourselves. The sins of men are forgiven merely because God's nature leads Him to forgive, and does not lead Him to punish sin. They need no change upon their moral constitution; accordingly, no provision has been made for changing it. They need merely to be instructed how they can best improve what they have, and most successfully exercise their own natural powers. And this, accordingly, was the sole end of Christ's mission, and of the revelation which He gave.
Christ is undoubtedly spoken of in Scripture as a Prophet, a Priest, and a King; and it has been generally supposed that these different offices, ascribed to Him, express, or indicate, the three chief departments of the work which He was to execute, in order to promote the spiritual welfare of men. The old Socinians reduced them to two,—virtually rejecting the priestly office altogether, or conjoining and confounding it with the kingly one; while modern Socinians have still further simplified the work by abolishing the kingly office of Christ, and resolving all into the prophetical. In the Racovian Catechism—which fills, in the complete edition of 1680, very nearly two hundred pages—four pages are devoted to the kingly office, six are assigned to the priestly or sacerdotal office; and these six are chiefly devoted to the object of proving that Christ was not a priest, and did not execute priestly functions upon earth, although it is admitted that He did so, in some vague and indefinite sense, after He ascended to heaven. The exposition of the prophetical office occupies nearly one hundred pages, or one-half of the whole work. And as this was really and substantially, upon Socinian principles, the only office Christ executed, they endeavour to make the most of it. A considerable space is occupied, in the Racovian Catechism,—and on this account, also, in many of the older works written against the Socinians,—in the discussion of this question, Whether Christ, in the execution of His prophetical office, revealed to, and imposed upon, men a new code of moral duty,—imposed upon them new and stricter moral precepts which were not previously binding, in virtue of anything which they would learn from the exercise of their own faculties, or from any revelation which God might have formerly given. The Socinians of course maintained the affirmative upon this question, in opposition to orthodox divines. And the reason is manifest,—namely, that since Christ had nothing else to do, in the fulfilment of His mission upon earth, but just to reveal, or make known, matters of doctrine and duty, the more of this work. He did, the more plausible will seem the Socinian account of His mission, viewed in connection with the exalted representations that seem to be given us of it in Scripture, even though that account omits everything about satisfying divine justice, and thereby reconciling us to God. But then it did not suit the tendency and genius of the Socinian system, to ascribe to Him much work in the way of revealing to men new truths or doctrines. According to their views of things, very little doctrine is needed, except what men can easily and readily acquire; for though, as I have explained, they have their own positive opinions upon most theological points, there are very few doctrines which they reckon fundamental. Certain notions about the divine character, and some certainty about a future state of happiness for good men, constitute all, in the way of doctrine, that is necessary or very important. And hence the old Socinians laid the main stress, in expounding the prophetical office of Christ and unfolding the object of His mission, upon His making important additions to the precepts of the moral law, and imposing upon men moral obligations which were not previously binding. They were accustomed to draw out, in detail, the instances of the additions He made to the moral law, and the reasons on account of which they held that the particular cases alleged were instances of the general position they maintained upon this point; and the discussion of all this occupies one-fourth part of the Racovian Catechism. The general position, of course, can be proved only, if at all, by an induction of particulars; and these they ranked under two heads: first, the additions Christ made to precepts which had formerly been given in the Old Testament, but which in many instances, they allege, He rendered more strict and extensive; and, secondly, in the precepts He introduced which were wholly new. Under the first head they go over the ten commandments, and endeavour to show that, in regard to every one of them, the New Testament imposes some additional obligation which was not binding, and might have been disregarded or violated without sin, under the law as given by Moses from Mount Sinai,—making use for this purpose chiefly of some of the statements contained in our Saviour's sermon upon the Mount. And so, in like manner, under the second head, they select a number of New Testament precepts, and endeavour to show that they impose duties which were not binding under the Old Testament economy.
These views are utterly rejected by orthodox divines, who, in the discussion of this subject, have fully shown that Socinians need to employ as much straining and perverting of Scripture, in order to make out that Christ added new precepts to the moral law, as is required to show that He was not made under the law, being made a curse for us, that He might redeem those who were under the law. In this way, however, Socinians make out a full and complete rule of moral duty, communicated to men by Christ; and as men have, in the exercise of their own natural capacities, full power to obey it, in all the length and breadth of its requirements, without needing renovation and sanctification from the Spirit, there is no difficulty in their securing their own eternal happiness.
The old Socinians inculcated—and, so far as outward conduct is concerned, usually acted upon—a high standard of morality, putting commonly the strictest interpretation upon the moral precepts of the New Testament. Their general system, upon the grounds already explained, naturally led to the adoption of these views, and zeal for the system naturally induced them to attempt to follow them out in practice; just as other false views in religion have often led men to submit to the severest hardships and mortifications. But experience abundantly proves that, constituted as human nature is, no attempt to carry out a high standard of morality will ever succeed, for any great length of time, or among any considerable number of men, which is not based upon the scriptural system of doctrine; upon right views of the moral nature of man, and of the provision made, under the Christian scheme, by the work of Christ and the operation of the Spirit, for renovating and sanctifying it. And, accordingly, modern Socinians have wholly abandoned the strict and austere morality of the founders of their system. They commonly exhibit the character and the conduct of mere irreligious and ungodly men of the world; and while they still profess to open up heaven to men as the reward of their own good deeds, wrought in their own unaided strength,—that is, without any aid except the ordinary assistance of God in providence, as He upholds and sustains all things,—they seem to have discovered, by some means with which the old Socinians were unacquainted, that a very scanty supply of good works, and especially very little of anything done from a regard to God, to the promotion of His glory and honour, is amply sufficient to accomplish the important end, and to secure men's everlasting happiness.9
Under this same general head of the prophetical office of Christ, the Racovian Catechism has a chapter10 on the subject of His death,—the place which that great event occupies in the Christian scheme, and the purposes it was intended to serve. As it was a fundamental principle of the old Socinians, that Christ did not execute the office of a priest upon earth,—though they admitted that He did so, in some vague and indefinite sense, after His ascension to heaven,—His suffering of death, of course, did not belong to the execution of the priestly, but of the prophetical office; in other words, its sole object and design were confined within the general range of serving to declare and confirm to men the will of God,—that is, the revelation of an immortality beyond death, of which no certainty had been given to men before Christ's death, not even to the most highly favoured servants of God under the ancient economy. Accordingly, the exposition of the death of Christ in the Racovian Catechism is mainly devoted to the object,—first, of proving that it was not, as Christians have commonly believed, a satisfaction to divine justice for men's sins, though it is admitted that Christ might, in some vague and indefinite sense, be described as a sort of piacular victim; and, secondly, of showing how it served to declare and confirm the revelation which God thought proper then to make to men of immortality and a future life of blessedness for the righteous,—the special importance which seems to be assigned to it in Scripture, in its bearing upon the eternal welfare of men, being ascribed to, and explained by, not any peculiar or specific bearing it had upon the forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the enjoyment of His favour; but simply this,—that it was a necessary preliminary to Christ's resurrection, by which chiefly He made known and established the doctrine of immortality, and thereby presented to men such views and motive as might induce them, in the exercise of their own natural powers, to lead such a life as that they would secure for themselves the forgiveness of any sins which they might have committed, and the enjoyment of eternal life. This, and this alone, according to the Socinians, is the place which the death of Christ holds in the Christian scheme; and this indirect and circuitous process is the only way in which it bears upon or affects men's relation to God and their everlasting destinies. Some modern Socinians have seriously proposed that the established phraseology of Christ being the Saviour of sinners should be wholly abandoned, as being fitted only to delude and deceive men, by conveying to them the idea that Christ had done, for the promotion of their spiritual welfare, far more than He ever did, and far more than their natural condition required or admitted of.
With respect to eschatology, or the head "De novissimis,"—the last things,—the general spirit and tendency of Socinians are also manifested in some important deviations from the doctrines which have been generally received among Christians as being plainly taught in Scripture. They have always denied the scriptural doctrine of the resurrection—that is, of the resurrection of the same body—as a thing absurd and impossible; thus faithfully following their true progenitors, the infidel Sadducees, and erring, like them, because, as our Saviour said, they know not the Scriptures nor the power of God. They admitted, indeed, that there will be what they call a resurrection, at least of the righteous; for many of the old Socinians maintained that the wicked who had died before the end of the world would not be raised again, but would continue for ever in a state of insensibility or annihilation,—though this doctrine is repudiated in the later editions of the Racovian Catechism;11—but then it was not a resurrection of the same body, but the formation and the union to the soul—which they generally held to have been, during the intervening period, in a state of insensibility—of a different body. Eternal punishment, of course, was inconsistent with all their notions of the divine character and government, of the nature and demerit of sin, and the design and end of punishment. But they have been a good deal divided among themselves between the two theories of the entire destruction or final annihilation of the wicked, and the ultimate restoration of all men to the enjoyment of eternal blessedness after a period, more or less protracted, of penal suffering. The older Socinians generally adopted the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked, though they sought somewhat to conceal this, by confining themselves very much to the use of the scriptural language, of their being subjected to eternal death;12 while modern Socinians, with very few exceptions, advocate the doctrine of universal restoration, or the final and eternal happiness of all intelligent creatures, and hold this to be necessarily involved in, and certainly deducible from, right views of the divine perfections.
I need not dwell upon the views of Socinians in regard to the nature of the Christian church and the object and efficacy of the sacraments. As the sole object of the appearance of Christ upon earth, and of the whole Christian scheme, was merely to communicate to men instruction or information, and not to procure for them and bestow upon them the forgiveness of their sins,—the enjoyment of God's favour,—and the renovation of their natures,—of course the objects of the church and the sacraments, viewed as means or instruments, must be wholly restricted within the same narrow range. The church is not, in any proper sense, a divine institution; and does not consist of men called by the almighty grace of God out of the world, and formed by Him into a peculiar society, the constitution of which He has established, and which He specially governs and superintends. It is a mere voluntary association of men, who are naturally drawn together, because they happen to have adopted somewhat similar views upon religious subjects, and who seek to promote one another's welfare, in the way that may seem best to their own wisdom; while the sacraments are intended to teach men, and to impress divine truth upon their minds, and are in no way whatever connected with any act on God's part in the communication of spiritual blessings.
I have thus given a brief sketch of the Socinian system of theology, and I would now make one or two reflections obviously suggested by the survey of it. It is manifestly, as I formerly explained, a full scheme or system, extending over all the leading topics of theology. It is plainly characterized throughout by perfect unity and harmony, by the consistency of all its parts with each other, and by the pervading influence of certain leading features and objects. It might, we think, be shown that the Socinian system of theology is the only consistent rival to the Calvinistic one; and that when men abandon the great features of the scriptural system of Calvinism, they have no firm and steady resting-place on which they can take their stand, until they sink down to Socinianism. It is very evident that the Socinian system presents a striking contrast, not only to the views of doctrine which have been generally professed and maintained by Christian churches, but to what seems prima facie to be plainly and palpably taught in Scripture. It must present itself to the minds of men, who have become at all familiar with scriptural statements, in the light of an opposition scheme, fitted and intended to counteract and neutralize all that Christianity seems calculated to teach and to effect; and a thorough investigation of the grounds of the attempts which Socinians have made to show that their system of theology is consistent with Scripture and sanctioned by it, will only confirm this impression. Socinianism has been openly and avowedly maintained only by an inconsiderable number of professing Christians,—many of those who held the leading principles of the Socinian scheme of theology having thought it more honest and straightforward to deny at once the truth of Christianity, than to pretend to receive it, and then to spend their time and waste their ingenuity in labouring to show that the scheme of scriptural doctrine was, in almost every important particular, the very reverse of what the first promulgators of the system plainly understood and intended it to be. The churches of Christ, in general, have held themselves fully warranted in denying to Socinians the name and character of Christians; and the ground of this denial is quite sufficient and satisfactory,—namely this, that Socinianism is a deliberate and determined rejection of the whole substance of the message which Christ and His apostles conveyed from God to men. The Racovian Catechism13 asserts that those who refuse to invocate and worship Christ are not to be reckoned Christians, though they assume His name, and profess to adhere to His doctrine,—thus excluding from the pale of Christianity the great body of those who, in modern times, have adopted the leading features of that scheme of theology which the old Socinians advanced. And if the denial of worship to Christ was, as the old Socinians believed, a sufficient ground for denying to men the name of Christians, it must surely be thoroughly warrantable to deny the name to men who refuse not only to pay religious worship to Christ, but to receive and submit to anything that is really important and vital in the revelations which He communicated to men.
Mr. Belsham, the leader of the English Socinians in the last generation, has distinctly stated that the only thing peculiar in Christianity, or the Christian revelation,—the only point in which it differs from, or goes beyond, the natural religion that may be discovered and established by men in the exercise of their own unaided powers,—is simply the fact of the resurrection of a dead man, and the confirmation thereby given to the doctrine of a future immortality. Now, perhaps, we are not entitled to deny that Socinians are really persuaded of the sufficiency of the evidence by which it is proved that Christ rose from the dead, and that they hold the doctrine of a future immortality more firmly and steadily than it was held by Plato or Cicero. But if, professing to receive Christ as a divine messenger on the ground of the proof of His resurrection, they yet reject the whole substance of the message which He professed to bring from God to men, we cannot concede to them the character or designation of disciples or followers of Christ. A Christian must, at least, mean one who believes Christ to have been a divine messenger, and who receives as true the substance of the message which He bore; and in whatever way we explain the entire dissolution and breaking up, in the case of the Socinians, of the right and legitimate connection that ought to subsist between the admission of the authority of the messenger and the reception of His message, we cannot recognise as Christians men who refuse to believe almost everything which Christ and His apostles taught, and whose whole system of theology,—whose leading views of the character and government of God, the condition and capacities of men, and the way in which they may attain to final happiness,—are just the same as they would be if they openly denied Christ's divine commission,—not only uninfluenced by the revelation He communicated, but directly opposed to it.
But while Socinianism has not been, to any very considerable extent, openly avowed and formally defended in the Christian church, and while those who have avowed and defended it have commonly and justly been regarded as not entitled to the designation of Christians, yet it is important to observe that there has always been a great deal of latent and undeveloped Socinianism among men who have professed to believe in the truth of Christianity; and the cause of this, of course, is, that Socinianism, in its germs or radical principles, is the system of theology that is natural to fallen and depraved man,—that which springs up spontaneously in the human heart, unenlightened by the Spirit of God, and unrenewed by divine grace. It has been often said that men are born Papists; and this is true in the sense that there are natural and spontaneous tendencies in men, out of which the Popish system readily grows, and which make it an easy matter to lead unrenewed men to embrace it. Still it does require some care and culture to make a natural man, who has not been subjected to the system from his infancy, a Papist, though the process in ordinary cases is not a very difficult or a very elaborate one. But it requires no care or culture whatever to make natural men Socinians,—nothing but the mere throwing off of the traditional or consuetudinary respect in which, in Christian countries, they may have been bred for the manifest sense of Scripture. The more intelligent and enlightened Pagans, and the followers of Mahomet, agree in substance with the whole leading features of the Socinian theology; and if we could bring out and estimate the notions that float in the minds of the great body of irreligious and ungodly men among professing Christians, who have never thought seriously upon religious subjects, we would find that they just constitute the germs, or radical principles, of Socinianism. Take any one of the mass of irreligious men, who abound in professedly Christian society around us,—a man, it may be, who has never entertained any doubts of the truth of Christianity, who has never thought seriously upon any religious subject, or attempted to form a clear and definite conception upon any theological topic,—try to probe a little the vague notions which lie undeveloped in his mind about the divine character, the natural state and condition of man, and the way of attaining to ultimate happiness; and if you can get materials for forming any sort of estimate or conjecture as to the notions or impressions upon these points that may have spontaneously, and without effort, grown up in his mind, you will certainly find that, without being aware of it, he is practically and substantially a Socinian. The notions and impressions of such men upon all religious subjects are of course very vague and confused; but it will commonly be found that, in their inmost thoughts,—in the ordinary and spontaneous current of their impressions, in so far as they have any, in regard to religion,—Christ as the Saviour of sinners, and the atonement as the basis or ground of salvation, are virtually shut out, or reduced to mere names or unmeaning formula; that the Christian scheme, in so far as it is taken into account, is viewed merely as a revelation or communication of some information about God and duty; and that their hopes of ultimate happiness, in so far as they can be said to have any, are practically based upon what they themselves have done, or can do, viewed in connection with defective and erroneous conceptions of the character and moral government of God, while a definite conviction of the certainty of future punishment has no place in their minds. Now this is, in substance, just the Socinian system of theology; and if these men were drawn out, so as to be led to attempt to explain and defend the vague and confused notions upon these subjects which had hitherto lurked undeveloped in their minds, it would plainly appear—provided they had intelligence enough to trace somewhat the logical relation of ideas, and courage enough to disregard the vague deference for the obvious sense of Scripture, and for the general belief of Christian churches, to which they had become habituated—that they were obliged to have recourse to Socinian arguments as the only means of defence; unless, indeed, they should reach the higher intelligence, or the greater courage, of openly rejecting Christianity altogether, as teaching a system of doctrine irrational and absurd.
This is, I am persuaded, a correct account of the general state of feeling and impression, in regard to religious subjects, existing in the minds of the great body of the ignorant, unreflecting, and irreligious men around us, in professedly Christian society; and if so, it goes far to prove that, while there is not a great deal of open and avowed Socinianism maintained and defended among us, yet that it exists to a large extent in a latent and undeveloped form, and that it is the natural and spontaneous product of the depraved, unrenewed heart of man, exhibiting its natural tendencies in the formation of notions and impressions about God and divine things, and the way of attaining to ultimate happiness, which are not only unsanctioned by the revelation which God Himself has given us in regard to these matters, but are flatly opposed to it.
In these circumstances, it is perhaps rather a subject for surprise that there should be so little of open and avowed Socinianism among us; and the explanation of it is probably to be found in these considerations:—that in the existing condition of society there are many strong influences and motives to restrain men from throwing off a profession of a belief in Christianity;—that there obtains a strong sense of the impossibility, or great difficulty, of effecting anything like an adjustment between the Socinian system of theology, and the obvious meaning and general tenor of Scripture;—and that an attempt of this sort, which should possess anything like plausibility, requires an amount of ingenuity and information, as well as courage, which few comparatively possess. It is in entire accordance with these general observations, that the strain of preaching which prevailed in the Established Churches of this country during the last century,—in the Church of England during the whole century, and in the Church of Scotland during the latter half of it,—was in its whole scope and tendency Socinian. It is admitted, indeed, that the great mass of the clergy of both churches, during the period referred to, were guiltless of any knowledge of theology, or of theological speculations and controversies; and that their preaching, in general, was marked rather by the entire omission, than by the formal and explicit denial, of the peculiar and fundamental doctrines of the Christian system. Still this is quite sufficient to entitle us to call their system of preaching Socinian, as it left out the doctrines of the natural guilt and depravity of man,—the divinity and atonement of Christ,—justification by His righteousness,—and regeneration and sanctification by His Spirit; and addressed men as if they were quite able,—without any satisfaction for their sins,—without any renovation of their moral natures,—without any special supernatural assistance, to do all that was necessary for securing their eternal happiness, and needed only to be reminded of what their duty was, and of the considerations that should induce them to give some attention to the performance of it. And we find likewise, as we might have expected, if the preceding observations are well founded, that whenever any man arose among them who combined superior intelligence, information, and courage, and who was led to attempt to explain and defend his views upon religious subjects, he certainly, and as a matter of course, took Socinian ground, and employed Socinian arguments.
Sec. 4.—Original and Recent Socinianism.
Before concluding this brief sketch of the Socinian system in general, viewed as a whole, it may be proper to advert to the differences, in point of theological sentiment, between the original and the modern Socinians. Those who, in modern times, have adopted and maintained the great leading principles of the theological system taught by Socinus, commonly refuse to be called by his name, and assume and claim to themselves the designation of Unitarians,—a name which should no more be conceded to them, than that of Catholic should be conceded to Papists, as it implies, and is intended to imply, that they alone hold the doctrine of the unity of God; while, at the same time, it does not in the least characterize their peculiar opinions as distinguished from those of the Arians, and others who concur with them, in denying the doctrine of the Trinity. They hold all the leading characteristic principles of the system of theology originally developed and compacted by Socinus; and therefore there is nothing unfair, nothing inconsistent with the well-understood and reasonable enough practice that ordinarily regulates the application of such designations, in calling them Socinians. They are fond, however, of pointing out the differences, in some respects, between their views and those of the original Socinians, that they may thus lay a plausible foundation for repudiating the name; and it may be useful briefly to notice the most important of these differences.
Socinus and his immediate followers displayed a great deal of ingenuity and courage in devising and publishing a series of plausible perversions of Scripture statements, for the purpose of excluding from the Bible the divinity and the satisfaction of Christ; but there were some of the views commonly entertained by the orthodox, connected with these matters, which—though tending rather to enhance our conceptions of the importance of Christ and His work, viewed in relation to the salvation of sinners—they had not sufficient ingenuity and courage to explain away and reject. These were chiefly His miraculous conception; His having been literally in heaven before He commenced His public ministry; His being invested after His resurrection with great power and dignity, for the government of the world,—for the accomplishment of the objects of His mission, and the final judgment of men; and His being entitled, on this ground, to adoration and worship. Socinus and his immediate followers, though certainly they were not lacking in ingenuity and boldness, and though they could not but feel the inconsistency, at least, of the adoration of Christ with the general scope and tendency of their system, were unable to devise any plausible contrivance for excluding these doctrines from Scripture. The miraculous conception of Christ they admitted, but contended, and truly enough, that this of itself did not necessarily imply either His pre-existence, or any properly superhuman dignity of nature. The texts which so plainly assert or imply that He had been in heaven before He entered upon His public ministry on earth, they could explain only by fabricating the supposition that He was taken up to heaven to receive instruction during the period of His forty days' fast in the wilderness. And they were unable to comprehend how man could profess to believe in the divine authority of the New Testament, and yet deny that Christ is now invested with the government of the world; that He is exercising His power and authority for promoting man's spiritual welfare; that He is one day to determine and judge their final destiny; and that He is entitled to their homage and adoration.
But modern Socinians have found out pretences for evading or denying all these positions. They deny Christ's miraculous conception, and maintain that He was the son of Joseph as well as of Mary, mainly upon the ground of some frivolous pretences for doubting the genuineness of the first two chapters both of Matthew and Luke. Dr. Priestley admitted that he was not quite satisfied with any interpretation of the texts that seem to assert that Christ had been in heaven before He taught on earth; but he gravely assures us that, rather than admit His preexistence, he would adopt the exploded interpretation of the old Socinians, or make any other supposition that might be necessary, however absurd or offensive.14 Mr. Belsham, while he admits that "Christ is now alive, and employed in offices the most honourable and benevolent," yet considers himself warranted in believing that "we are totally ignorant of the place where He resides, and of the occupations in which He is engaged;" and that, therefore, "there can be no proper foundation for religious addresses to Him, nor of gratitude for favours now received, nor yet of confidence in His future interposition in our behalf;"15 while he contends that all that is implied in the scriptural account of His judging the world, is simply this,—that men's ultimate destiny is to be determined by the application of the instructions and precepts which He delivered when on earth. This was the state of completeness or perfection to which Socinianism had attained in the last generation, or in the early part of this century. There was but one step more which they could take in their descent, and this was the entire adoption of the infidel anti-supernaturalism of the German neologians; and this step most of them, within these few years, have taken, both in the United States and in this country. Professor Moses Stuart of Andover, in his Letters to Dr. Channing,16—a very valuable little work on the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ, though not to be implicitly followed,—expressed, in 1819, his apprehension that the Socinians, as soon as they became acquainted with the writings of the German neologians, would embrace their principles, would abandon their elaborate efforts to pervert scriptural statements into an apparent accordance with their views, and adopt the bolder course of openly rejecting the doctrines taught by the apostles as erroneous, while still pretending, in some sense, to believe in the Christian revelation. This apprehension was speedily realized to a large extent in the United States, and is now being realized in this country; so that there seems to be ground to expect that Socinianism proper, as a public profession, will soon be wholly extinguished, and the pantheistic infidelity of Germany, though under a sort of profession of Christianity, be substituted in its place. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that this has already taken place; for we are not aware that any of those amongst us who used to assume the designation of Unitarians, now openly reject or oppose the pantheistic infidelity which is being so largely circulated in this country.
When this change began to show itself among the American Socinians, it was avowedly advocated by themselves on the ground of the necessity of having some system of religion more spiritual and transcendental—more suited to the temperament and the aspirings of an earnest age—than the dry, uninteresting intellectualism of the old Socinians. It was with this view that they had recourse to the pantheism and neology of Germany, which, combining easily with a sort of mystical supersensualism, was fitted to interest the feelings, and to bring into exercise the emotional department of our nature. This is the sort of religion that is now obtruded upon the more literary portion of our community instead of the old Socinianism, which was addressed exclusively to the understanding, and was fitted to exercise and gratify the pride of human reason. It is well to know something of the peculiar form and dress which error in religious matters assumes in our own age and country; but it may tend to guard us against the deluding influence of transcendentalism in religion, if we are satisfied—as a very little reflection may convince us—that, with a considerable difference in its dress and garnishing, with a larger infusion of Scripture phraseology, and with much more of an apparent sense and feeling of the unseen and the infinite, it is just, in its substance, the old Socinianism, both with respect to the way and manner of knowing divine things, and with respect to the actual knowledge of them obtained in this way. It does not constitute an essential difference, that, instead of giving to reason, or the understanding, a supremacy over revelation, and making it the final immediate judge of all truth, the new system extends this controlling power to man's whole nature, to his susceptibilities as well as his faculties, and assigns a large influence in judging of divine things to his intuitions and emotions; and the vague and mystic style of contemplation in which it indulges about God, and Christ, and eternity, does not prevent its actual theological system from being fairly described as involving a denial of the guilt and depravity of man, the divinity and atonement of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit, and an assertion of man's full capacity to work out for himself, without any satisfaction for his sins, or any renovation of his moral nature, the full enjoyment of God's favour, and the highest happiness of which he is capable; while the only point in which it does differ essentially from the old Socinianism—namely, the denial of a supernatural revelation, attested by real miracles, which are established by satisfactory historical evidence—should remove at once every feeling of doubt or difficulty about the propriety of denouncing it as a system of open infidelity.
Sec. 5.—Distinction of Persons in the Godhead.
Though I have thought it of some importance to give a brief sketch of Socinian theology in general, viewed as a system, and embodying positive doctrines and not mere negations, in regard to all the leading topics which are usually discussed in theological systems, yet I do not mean to enter into anything like a detailed examination and refutation of all the different doctrines of which it is composed, but to confine myself to those with which, in popular apprehension, the name of Socinianism is usually associated,—namely, the Trinity, and the person and atonement of Christ. Their doctrines upon these points may be said to form the chief peculiarities of the Socinians; and their whole system of doctrine is intimately connected with their views upon these subjects. Besides, I have already had occasion to consider most of the other branches of the Socinian system of theology under other heads,—as in examining the Pelagian controversy, where we met with errors and heresies, substantially the same as those taught by modern Socinians, in regard to the natural character and capacities of man, and the operation and influence of divine grace in preparing men for the enjoyment of happiness;—and still more fully in examining the Popish system of doctrine as contrasted with the theology of the Reformation. The Church of Rome teaches defective and erroneous doctrines concerning the natural guilt and depravity of man, his natural power or ability to do the will of God, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and everything connected with his justification, or the way and manner in which men individually obtain or receive the forgiveness of sin and admission to the enjoyment of God's favour,—although the formal Popish doctrine upon most of these subjects is not so flatly and plainly opposed to the word of God as that held upon the same points by Socinians, and even by many who have passed under the name of Arminians. But as we then endeavoured not only to point out the errors of the Church of Rome upon these topics, but also to explain and illustrate the true doctrines of Scripture respecting them, as taught by the Reformers and laid down in our Confession of Faith, we have said as much as is necessary for the purpose of exposing Pelagian and Socinian errors regarding them. The subject of the Trinity and the person of Christ we have also had occasion to consider, in adverting to the Arian, Nestorian, and Eutychian controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries. We have not, however, discussed these doctrines so fully as their importance demands in some of their general aspects; and we propose now to devote some space to an explanation of the way and manner in which these important doctrines have been discussed in more modern times.
We proceed, then, to consider the doctrine of the distinction of persons in the Godhead. This is commonly discussed in systems of theology under the head "De Deo" as it is a portion of the information given us in Scripture with respect to the Godhead, or the divine nature; and the knowledge of it is necessary, if the commonly received doctrine be true, in order to our being acquainted with the whole of what Scripture teaches us concerning God. If there be such a distinction in the Godhead or divine nature, as the received doctrine of the Trinity asserts, then this distinction, as a reality, ought to enter into our conceptions of God. We ought to be aware of its existence,—to understand it, as far as we have the capacity and the means of doing so; and we ought to take it into account in forming our conception of God, even independently of its connection with the arrangements of the scheme of redemption, though it is in these that it is most fully unfolded, and that its nature and importance most clearly appear.
There are one or two obvious reflections, suggested by the general nature and character of the subject, to which it may be proper to advert, though it is not necessary to enlarge upon them. The subject, from its very nature, not only relates immediately to the infinite and incomprehensible Godhead, but concerns what may be regarded as the penetralia or innermost recesses of the divine nature,—the most recondite and inaccessible department of all that we have ever learned or heard concerning God, It is a subject about which reason or natural theology—in other words, the works of nature and providence, with the exercise of our faculties upon them—give us no information, and about which we know, and can know, nothing, except in so far as God Himself may have been pleased to give us a direct and immediate revelation concerning it. These considerations are surely well fitted to repress any tendency to indulge in presumptuous speculations with respect to what may be true, or possible, or probable, in regard to this profoundly mysterious subject; and to constrain us to preserve an attitude of profound humility, while we give ourselves to the only process by which we can learn anything with certainty regarding it,—namely, the careful study of God's word,—anxious only to know what God has said about it, what conceptions He intended to convey to us regarding it,—and ready to receive with implicit submission whatever it shall appear that He has declared or indicated upon the subject.
The way in which this question ought to be studied is by collecting together all the statements in Scripture that seem to be in any way connected with it,—that seem, or have been alleged, to assert or to indicate some distinction in the Godhead or divine nature,—to investigate carefully and accurately the precise meaning of all these statements by the diligent and faithful application of all the appropriate rules and materials,—to compare them with each other,—to collect their joint or aggregate results,—and to embody these results in propositions which may set forth accurately the substance of all that Scripture really makes known to us regarding it. It is only when we have gone through such a process as this, that we can be said to have done full justice to the question,—that we have really formed our views of it from the word of God, the only source of knowledge respecting it,—and that we can be regarded as fully qualified to defend the opinions we may profess to entertain upon it.
The first point which we are naturally called upon to advert to is the status questionis, or what it is precisely that is respectively asserted and maintained by the contending parties. And here we may, in the first instance, view it simply as a question between Trinitarians on the one side, and anti-Trinitarians on the other, without any reference to the differences subsisting among the various sections of the anti-Trinitarians, such as the Arians and the Socinians, about the person of Christ. The substance of what the supporters of the doctrine of the Trinity contend for is, that in the unity of the Godhead there are three distinct persons, who all possess the divine nature or essence, and that these three persons are not three Gods, but are the one God; while the doctrine maintained on the other side is, that the Scripture does not reveal any such distinction in the divine nature, but that God is one in person as well as in essence or substance; and that the divine nature, or true and proper divinity, is really possessed by no person except by Him who is styled in Scripture the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now here, before going further, it is to be observed that there is brought out an intelligible difference of opinion, even though the subject treated of be in its nature and bearings incomprehensible, and though we may not be able to give a precise and exact definition of all the terms employed in the statement of the proposition,—such as the word person in the application here made of it. These two opposite propositions are at least intelligible thus far, that we can form a pretty definite conception of what is the general import of the affirmation and the negation respectively, and can intelligently bring them both into contact and comparison with the evidence adduced, so as to form a judgment as to whether the affirmation or the negation ought to be received as true. But the opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity are accustomed to press us with the question, What do you mean by persons, when you assert that there are three persons in the unity of the Godhead? Now the answer commonly given to this question by the most judicious divines is this: First, they maintain that they are not bound to give a precise and exact definition of the word persons as here employed,—namely, in its application to the divine nature,—since this is not necessary to make the proposition so far intelligible as to admit of its being made the subject of distinct argumentation, and having its truth or falsehood determined by the examination of the appropriate evidence,—a position this, which, though denied in words, is practically conceded by our opponents, when they assert that they can prove from Scripture that no such personal distinction as Trinitarians contend for attaches to the divine nature. Secondly, they admit that they cannot give a full and exact definition of the import of the word persons, or of the idea of distinct personality, as predicated of the divine nature; and can say little more about it than that it expresses a distinction not identical with, but in some respects analogous to, that subsisting among three different persons among men.
Many of the defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity, following the example of the schoolmen, have indulged to a very great and unwarrantable extent in definitions, explanations, and speculations upon this mysterious and incomprehensible subject; and these attempts at definition and explanation have furnished great advantages to the opponents of the doctrine,—both because their mere variety and inconsistency with each other threw an air of uncertainty and insecurity around the whole doctrine with which they were connected, and because many of them, taken singly, afforded plausible, and sometimes even solid, grounds for objection. Anti-Trinitarians, in consequence, have usually manifested some annoyance and irritation when the defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity took care to confine themselves, in their definitions and explanations upon the subject, within the limits of what strict logic required of them, and of what the Scriptures seemed to indicate as the real state of the case,—the whole amount of what was revealed regarding it. They have laboured to draw them out into explanations and speculations upon points not revealed; and with this view have not scrupled to ridicule their caution, and to ascribe it—as indeed Mr. Belsham17 does expressly—to "an unworthy fear of the result of these inquiries, and a secret suspicion that the question will not bear examination." This allegation, however, is really an unfair and unworthy artifice on his part. It is indeed true, that one or two defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity, in their just disapprobation of the extent to which some friends of truth have carried their definitions and explanations upon the subject, have leant somewhat to the opposite extreme, and manifested an unnecessary and unreasonable shrinking even from the use of terms and statements commonly employed and generally sanctioned upon this point, as if afraid to speak about it in any other terms than the ipsissima verba of Scripture. But nothing of this sort applies to the great body of the more cautious defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity. They do not pretend to know anything upon this subject but what they find asserted or indicated in Scripture. They aim at no other or higher object than just to embody, in the most appropriate and accurate words which human language furnishes, the substance of what Scripture teaches; and they are under no obligation to explain or defend anything but what they themselves profess to have found in Scripture, and only in so far as they profess to find in Scripture materials for doing so. They find the doctrine of the divine unity clearly taught in Scripture, and therefore they receive this as a great truth which they are bound and determined to maintain, resolved at the same time to admit no doctrine which can be clearly demonstrated to be necessarily contradictory to, or inconsistent with, the position that God, the Creator and Governor of the world, the object of religious worship, is one. But then they profess to find also in Scripture, evidence that Christ is truly and properly God, a possessor of the divine nature; and that the Holy Ghost is also God in the highest sense, and not a mere quality or attribute of God. These two positions about Jesus Christ the Son of God, and about the Holy Ghost, constitute the main and proper field of controversial discussion, in so far as the investigation of the precise meaning of scriptural statements is concerned; but at present, in considering the state of the question, we must assume that the Trinitarian doctrines upon these two points have been established from Scripture; for the discussion as to the state of the question really turns substantially on this: Supposing these positions about the Son and the Holy Ghost proved, as we believe them to be, in what way should the teaching of Scripture upon these points be expressed and embodied, so as, when conjoined with the Scripture doctrine of the divine unity (if they can be combined), to bring out the whole doctrine which the Scripture teaches concerning the Godhead, or the divine nature? God is one; and therefore, if Christ be God, and if the Holy Ghost be God, they must be, with the Father, in some sense the one God, and not separate or additional Gods.
This general consideration seems naturally to indicate or imply, and of course to warrant, the position that, while there is unity in the Godhead or divine nature, there is also in it, or attaching to it, some distinction. But Scripture, by affording materials for establishing these positions about the Son and the Holy Ghost, enables us to go somewhat further in explaining or developing this distinction. There is no indication in the Scriptures that proper divinity, or the divine nature or essence, belongs to, or is possessed by, any except the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and therefore we say, in setting forth the substance of what Scripture teaches, that the distinction in the Godhead is a threefold distinction, or that there are three, and neither more nor fewer, who are represented to us as having the divine nature, or as possessed of proper divinity. Assuming it to be proved that Christ is God, and that the Holy Ghost is God, it seems necessary, and therefore warrantable, if any expression is to be given in human language to the doctrine thus revealed, to say that there are three which possess the divine nature, and are the one God.
It may indeed be contended that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, though divinity is ascribed to them, are merely three different names of one and the same object, and do not designate three realities which are in any respect different, except merely in name or in verbal representation. And this is the doctrine which commonly passes under the name of Sabellianism. But then it is contended, on the other hand, that this does not come up to, or correspond with, the representation which the Scripture gives us of the nature and amount of the distinction subsisting in the Godhead or divine nature. It seems very manifest that, if we are to submit our minds to the fair impressions of the scriptural representations upon this subject, the distinction subsisting among the three of whom proper divinity is predicated, is something more than a nominal or verbal distinction,—that it is a reality, and not a mere name,—and that it is set before us as analogous to the distinction subsisting among three men, or three human beings, to whom we usually ascribe distinct personality; and as there is nothing else within the sphere of our knowledge to which it is represented as analogous or similar, we are constrained to say —if we are to attempt to give any expression in language of the idea or impres- sion which the scriptural representations upon the subject seem plainly intended to make upon our minds—that in the unity of the Godhead there is a personal distinction,—there are three persons. And this, accordingly, is the form in which the doctrine of the Trinity has been usually expressed. It is not intended by this form of expression to indicate that the distinction represented as subsisting among the three who are described as possessing the divine nature, is the same as that subsisting among three persons among men. On the contrary, the identity of the distinction in the two cases is denied, as not being suitable to the divine nature, and more especially as this would be inconsistent with the doctrine of the divine unity; for as three distinct persons among men are three men, so, were the distinction in the Godhead held to be identical with this, the three persons in the Godhead must be three Gods. It is merely contended that the threefold distinction in the Godhead is analogous or similar in some respects to the distinction between three human persons; and the ground of this assertion is, that the scriptural representations upon the subject convey to us such an idea or impression of this distinction subsisting in the Godhead or divine nature,—that this language we cannot but regard as making the nearest approach to expressing it correctly,—that, in fact, from the nature and necessities of the case, we have not the capacity or the means of expressing or describing it in any other way.
We cannot define or describe positively or particularly the nature of the distinction subsisting among the three who are represented as all possessing the divine nature, because, from the necessity of the case, the nature of this distinction must be incomprehensible by us, and because God in His word has not given us any materials for doing so. We just embody in human language the substance of what the word of God indicates to us upon the subject,—we profess to do nothing more,—and we are not called upon to attempt more; to do so, would be unwarrantable and sinful presumption. We are called upon to conform our statements as much as possible to what Scripture indicates, neither asserting what Scripture does not teach, nor refusing to assert what it does teach,—though ready not only to admit, but to point out precisely, as far as Scripture affords us materials for doing so, the imperfection or defectiveness of the language which we may be obliged to employ because we have no other; and to apply, as far as our powers of thought and the capacities of the language, which we must employ in expressing our conceptions, admit of it, any limitations or qualifications which Scripture may suggest in the explanation of our statement. It is not from cowardice or timidity, then, or in order to secure an unfair advantage in argument, as our opponents allege, that we refuse to attempt definitions or explanations in regard to the distinction which Scripture makes known to us as subsisting, in combination with unity, in the divine nature. We assert all that Scripture seems to us to sanction or to indicate; and we not only are not bound, but we are not warranted, to do more. We assert the unity of the Godhead. We assent the existence of a threefold distinction in the Godhead, or the possession of the divine nature and essence by three,—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and that these three are represented to us in Scripture as distinguished from each other in a manner analogous to the distinction subsisting among three different persons among men. We express all this, as it is expressed in our Confession of Faith, by saying that, "In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity,—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost." This is the whole of what our Confession sets forth as the doctrine of Scripture on the subject of the Trinity in general,—for I omit at present any reference to the personal properties by which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are distinguished from each other,—and this is all which any judicious supporter of the doctrine of the Trinity will consider himself called upon to maintain or defend. All that he has to do is just to show that Scripture, fairly and correctly interpreted, warrants and requires him to assent to these positions; and that there is nothing in the clear deductions of reason, or in the teaching of Scripture, either in its particular statements or in its general assertion of the divine unity, which requires him to reject any of them.
The reason why the opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity are so anxious to draw its defenders into definitions and explanations in regard to the precise nature of the distinction alleged to subsist in the Godhead, is because they hope in this way to get materials for involving them in difficulties and contradictions,—for showing that the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily leads either to Tritheism on the one hand, or to Sabellianism on the other,—or, more generally, that it necessarily involves a contradiction, or is inconsistent with the divine unity; while the unwarrantable and injudicious extent to which the friends of the doctrine have often carried their attempts to define the nature of the distinction, and to propound theories for the purpose of explaining the consistency of the distinction with the unity, have afforded too good grounds for the expectations which its opponents have cherished. Anti-Trinitarians are fond of alleging that there is no intermediate position between Tritheism and Sabellianism,—that is, between the view which would introduce three Gods, and thereby flatly contradict the doctrine of the divine unity,—and that which, in order to preserve the unity unimpaired, would virtually explain away the distinction of persons, and make it merely nominal. And it cannot be disputed, that some who have propounded theories in explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, have exhibited symptoms of leaning to one or other of these sides, —have afforded some plausible grounds for charging them with one or other of these errors.
Tritheism is of course a deadly and fundamental error, as it contradicts the doctrine of the divine unity, and accordingly it has scarcely ever been openly and formally taught; but there have been men who, entering into presumptuous speculations about the nature of the distinction subsisting in the Godhead, and being anxious to make this distinction clear and palpable, have been led to lay down positions which could scarcely be said to come short of asserting practically, to all intents and purposes, the existence of three Gods. And as the enemies of the doctrine of the Trinity usually allege that it involves or leads to Tritheism, they catch at such representations as confirm this allegation. And when other divines, leaning to the other extreme, and being more careful to preserve the unity than the distinction, have so explained and refined the distinction as to make it little if anything more than a merely verbal or nominal one,—a tendency observable in the present day in some of the best and soundest of the German divines, such as Neander and Tholuck,18 and of which there are also to be found not obscure indications among ourselves,—then anti-Trinitarians allege, with some plausibility, that this is just abandoning the doctrine of the Trinity, because, as they say, it cannot be maintained. Indeed, Sabellianism, when it is really held, is consistent enough both with Arianism and Socinianism; for neither the Arians, who believe Christ to be a superangelic creature, nor the Socinians, who believe Him to be a mere man, need contend much against an alleged nominal distinction in the divine nature, as this does not necessarily exclude anything which their peculiar opinions lead them to maintain; and, accordingly, Mr. Belsham says19 that Sabellianism "differs only in words from proper Unitarianism." Unitarians, indeed, are accustomed to distort and misrepresent the views of Trinitarian divines, in order to have more plausible grounds for charging them with a leaning either to Tritheism or Sabellianism; and Mr. Belsham formally classes the great body of the Trinitarians20 under the two heads of Realists and Nominalists, insinuating that the doctrine of the first class is virtually Tritheistic, and that of the second virtually Sabellian; while it would be no difficult matter to show, in regard to some of the most eminent divines whom he has put into those opposite classes, that they did not really differ from each other substantially in the views which they held upon this subject.
A good deal of controversy took place in England, in the end of the seventeenth century, upon this particular aspect of the question,—Dr. Wallis, an eminent mathematician, having propounded a theory or mode of explanation upon the subject, which had somewhat the appearance of making the distinction of persons merely nominal; and Dean Sherlock, in opposing it, having appeared to countenance such a distinction or division in the Godhead, as seemed to infringe upon the divine unity, and having been, in consequence, censured by a decree of the University of Oxford. Unitarians have ever since continued to represent this decree as deciding in favour of Sabellianism, and thereby virtually sanctioning Unitarianism, or being a denial of a real personal distinction in the divine nature; while the truth is, that though both parties went into an extreme, by carrying their attempts at explanation much too far, in different directions,—and were thus led to make unwarrantable and dangerous statements,—they did not differ from each other nearly so much as Unitarians commonly allege, and did not afford any sufficient ground for a charge either of Tritheism or of Sabellianism. Neither party, certainly, intended to assert anything different from, or inconsistent with, the scriptural doctrine laid down in the first of the Thirty-nine Articles, that "in the unity of this Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity,—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost;" though it would have been much better had they confined themselves to an exposition of the scriptural evidence in support of the specific positions which make up, or are involved in, this general statement, and restricted their more abstract speculations to the one precise and definite object of merely bringing out what was indispensable to show that none of the positions taught in Scripture, and embodied in this general statement, could be proved necessarily to involve a contradiction or a denial of the divine unity. The controversy to which I have referred, engaged the attention and called forth the energies of some very eminent men,—South supporting Wallis, and Bingham, the author of the great work on Christian Antiquities, defending Sherlock; while two greater men than any of these—namely, Stillingfleet and Howe—may be said to have moderated between the parties. This discussion afforded a handle to the enemies of the doctrine of the Trinity at the time, who made it the subject of a plausible pamphlet, entitled Considerations on the different Explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity22 and it is still occasionally referred to by them with some triumph; but it seems, in its ultimate results, to have exerted a wholesome influence upon the mode of conducting this controversy, leading to more caution, wisdom, and judgment on the part of the defenders of the truth,—a more careful abstinence from baseless and presumptuous theories and explanations,—and a more uniform regard to the great principles and objects which have just been stated, as those that ought to regulate the exposition and investigation of this important subject.
Sec. 6.—Trinity and Unity.
The importance of attending carefully to the true and exact state of the question in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, is fully evinced by this consideration, that the opponents of the doctrine base, directly and immediately upon the state of the question, a charge of its involving a contradiction, and of its being inconsistent with the admitted truth of the unity of God. The duty of Trinitarians, in regard to this subject of settling, so far as they are concerned, the state of the question, ought to be regulated by far higher considerations than those which originate in a regard to the advantages that may result from it in controversial discussion. The positions which we undertake to maintain and defend in the matter—and this, of course, settles the state of the question in so far as we are concerned—should be those only, and neither more nor less, which we believe to be truly contained in, or certainly deducible from, the statements of Scripture,—those only which the word of God seems to require us to maintain and defend, without any intermixture of mere human speculations or attempts, however ingenious and plausible, at definitions, explanations, or theories, beyond what the Scripture clearly sanctions or demands. The defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity have often neglected or violated this rule, by indulging in unwarranted explanations and theories upon the subject, and have thereby afforded great advantages to its opponents, of which they have not been slow to avail themselves. And when, warned of their error by the difficulties in which they found themselves involved, and the advantages which their opponents, who have generally been careful to act simply as defenders or respondents, seemed in consequence to enjoy, they curtailed their speculations within narrower limits, and adhered more closely to the maintenance of scriptural positions, their opponents have represented this as the effect of conscious weakness or of controversial artifice. The truth, however, is, that this mode of procedure is the intrinsically right course, which ought never to have been departed from,—which they were bound to return to, from a sense of imperative duty, and not merely from a regard to safety or advantage, whenever, by any means, their deviation from it was brought home to them,—and which it is not the less incumbent upon us to adhere to, because the errors and excesses of former defenders of the truth, and the advantages furnished by these means to opponents, may have been, in some measure, the occasion of leading theologians to see more clearly, and to pursue more steadily, what was in itself, and on the ground of its own intrinsic excellence, the undoubted path of duty in the matter.
But though anti-Trinitarians are much fonder of dealing with the particular definitions, explanations, and theories of individual theologians upon this subject, than with those general and well-weighed statements which we have quoted both from the English Articles and our own Confession of Faith,—and which certainly contain the substance of all that Scripture teaches, and consequently of all that we should undertake to maintain and defend,—yet it must be acknowledged that they commonly allege that the doctrine of the Trinity, even when most cautiously and carefully stated, involves a contradiction in itself, and is inconsistent with the doctrine of the divine unity; and to this we would now advert.
It will be understood, from the exposition of principles formerly given, that we do not deny that such allegations are relevant, and that they must in some way or other be disposed of; and it will also be remembered that sufficient grounds have been adduced for maintaining the two following positions upon this point: First, that when the Scripture is admitted in any fair sense to be the rule of faith, the first step should be simply to ascertain, in the faithful and honest use of all appropriate means, what it teaches, or was intended to teach, upon the subject,—that this investigation should be prosecuted fairly to its conclusion, without being disturbed by the introduction of collateral considerations derived from other sources, until a clear result is reached,—that an allegation of intrinsic contradiction or of contrariety to known truth, if adduced against the result as brought out in this way, should be kept in its proper place as an objection, and dealt with as such,—that, if established, it should be fairly and honestly applied, not to the effect of reversing the judgment, already adopted upon competent and appropriate grounds, as to what it is that Scripture teaches (for that is irrational and illogical), but to the effect of rejecting the divine authority of the Scriptures. Secondly, that in conducting the latter part of the process of investigation above described, we are entitled to argue upon the assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity has been really established by scriptural authority,—we are under no obligation to do more than simply to show that the allegation of contradiction, or of inconsistency, with other truths, has not been proved; and we should attempt nothing more than what is thus logically incumbent upon us. As we are not called upon to enter into an exposition of the scriptural evidence, we have no opportunity of applying the principles laid down under the former of these two heads, though it is very important that they should be remembered. It is chiefly by the positions laid down in the second head that we must be guided in considering this allegation of our opponents.
We assume, then,—as we are entitled, upon the principles explained, to do, in discussing this point,—that it has been established, by satisfactory evidence, as a doctrine taught in Scripture, that true and proper divinity is possessed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; that the divine nature and perfections are possessed by three; and that, while there is only one God, and while these three, therefore, are the one God, there is yet such a distinction among them, as is, in some respects, analogous to the distinction subsisting between three persons among men,—such a distinction as lays a foundation for attributing to each of them some things which are not attributable to the others, and for applying to them the distinct personal pronouns, I, Thou, and He. This is the substance of what Scripture seems plainly to teach upon the subject; and we embody it in such statements as these, just because we cannot possibly represent or express it in any other way. Now it is alleged that this doctrine—which, in the meantime, we are entitled to assume, is taught in Scripture—involves a contradiction in itself, and is inconsistent with the divine unity; and upon the principles which have been explained, we have merely to show that this allegation is not substantiated—is not proved.
The first part of the allegation—namely, that the doctrine directly and in itself involves a contradiction—is very easily disposed of, as it is manifestly destitute of any solid foundation. In order to constitute a contradiction, it is necessary that there be both an affirmation and a negation, not only concerning the same thing, but concerning the same thing in the same respect. To say that one God is three Gods, or that three persons are one person, is, of course, an express contradiction, or, as it is commonly called, a contradiction in terms. To affirm, directly or by plain implication, that God is one in the same respect in which He is three, would also amount to a plain contradiction, and, of course, could not be rationally believed. But to assert that God is in one respect one, and in another and different respect three,—that He is one in nature, essence, or substance,—and that He is three with respect to personality, or personal distinction (and this is all that the received doctrine of the Trinity requires or implies),—can never be shown to contain or involve a contradiction. It certainly does not contain a contradiction in terms; for we not only do not assert, but expressly deny, that God is one and three in the same respect, that He is one in the same respect in which He is three, or that He is three in the same respect in which He is one; and when the defenders of the doctrine adhere, as they ought to do, to a simple assertion of what they believe to be taught or indicated in Scripture, and of what is declared in our symbolical books, without indulging in unwarranted explanations and baseless theories, it is impossible to show that the doctrine involves, by necessary implication, any appearance of a contradiction.
Accordingly, the opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity are more disposed to dwell upon the other part of the allegation,—namely, that it is inconsistent with the known and admitted truth of the divine unity; and it is chiefly by pressing this position, that they have succeeded in drawing the supporters of the doctrine into the field of explanations and theories, directed to the object of making, in some measure, intelligible how it is that unity and personal distinction—unity in one respect and trinity in another—are consistent with each other. The temptation to attempt this is, to ingenious men, somewhat strong; but the results of the attempts which have been made have always, in consequence of the limited amount of the information which God has been pleased to reveal to us upon the subject, and the imperfection of the human faculties and of human language, proved wholly unsuccessful in effecting anything really substantial and valuable; and have commonly been attended only with mischief, as serving to furnish plausible grounds to opponents to allege, either that, to adopt the language of the Athanasian creed, we confound the persons, or divide the substance,—that is, fall, or seem to fall, into the opposite extremes of Sabellianism or Tritheism.
Of course very different measures of wisdom and caution have been exhibited by different defenders of the Trinity in the exposition and application of these explanations and theories, illustrations and analogies, which they have brought to bear upon this subject. They have been propounded with some diversity of spirit, and they have been applied to different purposes. Sometimes they have been put forth boldly, dogmatically, and recklessly; and at other times with much more modesty, diffidence, and circumspection. Sometimes they have been urged as if they afforded positive proofs, or at least strong presumptions, of the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the combination of unity and distinction which it implies, and sometimes they have been adduced merely as affording proofs or presumptions of its possibility; while at other times, again, they have been brought forward, not as proofs or presumptions of anything, but merely as illustrations of what it was that was meant to be asserted. When applied to the last of these purposes, and used merely as illustrations of what is meant, there is no great harm done, provided they are restricted carefully to this purpose. When adduced for the first of these purposes,—namely, as presumptions or proofs of the truth of the doctrine,—this, from the nature of the case, can lead only to baseless and presumptuous speculation.
But even when applied only to the second of these purposes,—namely, to afford proofs or presumptions of possibility,—they ought to be regarded as unnecessary, unsafe, and inexpedient. Strictly speaking, we are not bound to produce positive proof even of the possibility of such a combination of unity and distinction as the doctrine of the Trinity predicates of the divine nature, but merely to show negatively that the impossibility of it, alleged upon the other side, has not been established; and the whole history of the controversy shows the great practical importance of our restricting ourselves within the limits beyond which the rules of strict reasoning do not require us to advance. The only question which we will ever consent to discuss with our opponents upon this point—apart, of course, from the investigation of the meaning of Scripture—is this: Has it been clearly proved that the received doctrine of the Trinity, as set forth in our symbolical books, necessarily involves anything inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead? And there need be no hesitation in answering this question in the negative. No proof of the allegation has been produced resting upon a firm and solid basis,—no argument that can be shown to be logically connected with any principles of which we have clear and adequate ideas. It is the divine nature—the nature of the infinite and incomprehensible God—which the question respects; and on this ground there is the strongest presumption against the warrantableness of positive assertions on the part of men as to what is possible or impossible in the matter. The substance of the allegation of our opponents is, that it is impossible that there can be such a distinction in the divine nature as the doctrine of the Trinity asserts, because God is one; and they must establish this position by making out a clear and certain bond of connection between the admitted unity of God and the impossibility of the distinction asserted. The substance of what we maintain upon the point is this,—that every attempt to establish this logical bond of connection, involves the use of positions which cannot be proved; and which cannot be proved, just because they assume a larger amount of clear and certain knowledge, both with respect to the unity and the distinction, than men possess, or have the capacity and the means of attaining.
The unity of the Godhead or divine nature being universally admitted, men are very apt to suppose that they understand it fully,—that they know more of what it means and implies than they do. But the unity of the Godhead is really as incomprehensible by men as any of His other attributes,—a position confirmed and illustrated by the fact, that it is doubtful whether the proper nature and ground of the divine unity can, in any strict and proper sense, be ascertained and established by natural reason. There has been a very general sense, among the greatest men who have discussed this subject, of the difficulty of establishing the strict and proper unity of the Godhead on mere rational grounds, apart from revelation. It has generally been regarded, indeed, as easy enough to establish that there is one Being (and not more) who is the actual Creator and Governor of the world; but it has commonly been felt to be somewhat difficult to deduce certainly, from anything cognizable by the natural faculties of man, a proposition asserting unity, in any definite sense, of the Godhead, or divine nature, intrinsically, and as such. And this fact is fitted to show us that it is not so easy to comprehend what the divine unity is, or implies, as it might at first sight appear to be. The Scriptures plainly declare the divine unity by informing us, not merely that the world was created, and has ever been governed, by one Being, but that the Godhead, or divine nature, is essentially one. But they give us no detailed or specific information as to the nature and grounds of this unity,—as to what it consists in; and of course they afford us no definite materials for determining what is, and what is not, consistent with it. And if it be true, as we are entitled at present to assume, that the same revelation which alone certainly makes known to us the strict and proper unity of the divine nature, does also reveal to us a certain distinction existing in that nature, the fair inference is,—that the unity and the distinction are quite consistent with each other, though we may not be able to make this consistency palpable either to ourselves or others.
It is scarcely alleged, though it is sometimes insinuated, by our opponents, that the admitted unity of the divine nature necessarily excludes all distinctions of every kind and degree. It is very manifest, in general, from the nature of the case,—the exhalted and incomprehensible character of the subject, and the scanty amount of information which God has been pleased to communicate to us regarding it, or which, perhaps, we were capable of receiving,—that we have no very adequate or certain materials for determining positively, in any case, that any particular alleged distinction is inconsistent with the divine unity; and, in these circumstances, and under these conditions, the position of our opponents is, and must be, that they undertake to prove that the particular distinction implied in the doctrine of the Trinity is inconsistent with the unity of God. Now, if the scriptural doctrine were to be identified with the explanations and theories about it which have been sometimes propounded by its friends, it might be admitted that considerations have been adduced, in support of the alleged inconsistency, that were possessed not only of plausibility, but of weight; but against the doctrine itself, as taught in Scripture and as set forth in our standards, nothing of real weight has been, or can be, adduced,—nothing but arguments ab ignorantia and ad ignorantiam. We profess to give no further explanation of the nature of the distinction, except this, that it is set before us in Scripture as a real, and not a merely nominal distinction,—a distinction of existences and objects, and not of mere names and manifestations,—and as analogous in some respects, though not in all, to the distinction subsisting between three persons among men; and there is nothing in any one of these ideas to which a definite argument, clearly inferring incompatibility with unity, can be shown to be logically attachable. It would be no difficult matter to show—but it is not worth while—that the attempts which have been made to establish such a connection, either, in the first place, proceed upon certain conceptions of the precise nature of the distinction of persons, which we disclaim, and are under no sort of obligation to admit; or, secondly, resolve into vague and general assertions on points which are beyond our cognizance and comprehension, and on which it seems equally unwarrantable and presumptuous to affirm or deny anything; or, thirdly and finally, are reducible to the extravagant position, more or less openly asserted and maintained, that the divine unity necessarily excludes all distinction, of every kind, and in every degree.
The steady application of these general considerations to the actual attempts which have been made by anti-Trinitarians to prove that the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily involves what is inconsistent with the divine unity, will easily enable us to see that they have not proved their position. And here we should rest, relying for the positive proof of all that we believe and maintain, upon the authority of God in His word,—revealing Himself to us,—making known to us concerning Himself what we could not know in any measure from any other source, or by any other means, but an immediate supernatural revelation. The doctrine is above reason; it could not have been discovered by it, and cannot be fully comprehended by it, even after it has been revealed; but it cannot be proved to be contrary to reason, or to be inconsistent with any other truth which, from any source, we know regarding God. We can, of course, form no definite or adequate conception of this mysterious distinction attaching to the divine nature; but we have no reason to expect that we should,—we have every reason to expect that we should not, since we have no definite or adequate conceptions of many other things about God, even though these things are discoverable, in some measure, by the exercise of our natural faculties. We find great, or rather insuperable, difficulties in attempting to explain, in words, the nature of this distinction in the Godhead; because, independently of the very inadequate conceptions which alone we could form of such a subject from the nature of the case, it has, of necessity, been made known to us, in so far as we do know it, through the imperfect medium of human language, and by means of representations which are necessarily derived from what takes place or is realized among men, and must therefore very imperfectly apply to the divine nature. In this, as well as in other matters connected with God, we must exclude from our conceptions everything that results from, or savours of, the peculiar qualities of man's finite and dependent nature, and admit nothing into our conceptions inconsistent with the known perfections and properties of God; while at the same time we must take care to exclude nothing which He has really made known to us concerning Himself, on the ground of our not being able fully to comprehend how it is, that all the truths which He has made known to us concerning Himself can be combined in Him. He has revealed to us that He is one, but He has also revealed to us that there are three who have true and proper divinity,—who have the divine nature and perfections. We, in consequence, maintain that, in the unity of the Godhead—in the common possession of the one undivided and indivisible divine nature—there are three persons; and without meaning to assert—nay, while expressly denying—that the idea of distinct personality applies to the divine nature in the same sense as to the human, we use this mode of expression, because it is really the only way in which we can embody the idea, which scriptural statements convey to us, of the distinction existing in the Godhead,—namely, as being analogous in some respects to the distinction subsisting among three different persons among men,—an idea, however, to be always regulated and controlled by the principle, that the three to whom divinity is ascribed, though called persons, because we have no other expressions that would convey any portion of the idea which Scripture sets before us on the subject, are not three Gods,—as three persons among men are three men,—but are the one God.
It may perhaps be supposed, that though, upon principles formerly explained, Trinitarians are not obliged to give any full or exact definition of what they mean by persons, or by distinct personality, as predicated of the divine nature, when they merely lay down the general position, that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, yet that they are bound to attempt something more precise or specific in defining or describing personality, when they lay down the position that the Holy Ghost is a person, since the idea of personality is in this position more distinctly held up, as the precise point to be established. Now it is true, that the proof that the Holy Ghost is a person, is a fundamental point in the proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is scarcely disputed that the Holy Ghost is God, is divine; the main controversy turns upon the question of His personality, which is usually denied by anti-Trinitarians. But the personality of the Spirit can be proved satisfactorily by appropriate evidence, without our being under the necessity of giving any exact definition of what personality means, as applied to the divine nature. It is to be observed, that the discussion about the personality of the Spirit necessarily involves the maintenance of one or other of two alternatives, which really exhaust the subject. The Holy Spirit either is a mere attribute or power of God, or is a distinct person from the Father and the Son. Now we can form a pretty definite conception of the general import of these two opposite or alternative propositions, without needing or being able to define precisely and positively wherein the idea of distinct personality, as applied to the divine nature, differs from the same idea as applied to the human nature,—so far, at least, as to be able intelligently to estimate the bearing and the weight of the evidence adduced for and against them respectively. Upon this state of the question, without any exact or adequate idea of personality, we are able to adduce satisfactory evidence from Scripture, that the Holy Ghost is not a mere power or attribute of God, or to disprove one of the alternative positions. And this of itself is warrant enough for maintaining the truth of the other, which is the only alternative, especially as it holds generally of a large portion of our knowledge of God, that we approximate to an accurate statement of what we know of Him chiefly by negatives; while, at the same time, the scriptural evidence, which proves that the Spirit is not a mere power or attribute, manifestly brings Him before our minds, viewed in His relations to the Father and the Son, in an aspect analogous in some respects to the idea we entertain of the relation subsisting between distinct persons among men; and this warrants the application of the idea,—of course with the necessary modification,—and also of the phraseology of distinct personality.
Sec. 7.—Evidence for the Divinity of Christ.
I have endeavoured, in what has been said upon the subject of the Trinity, to guard against the tendency to indulge in unwarranted definitions, explanations, and theories upon this topic,—a tendency which too many of the defenders of the truth have exhibited,—by pointing out not only its inexpediency and danger, so far as mere controversial objects are concerned, but its unwarrantableness and impropriety, on higher grounds, as a matter of duty. I have attempted to mark out precisely the extent to which the supporters of the doctrine of the Trinity are called upon, in strict reasoning, to go, in the discussion of abstract points connected with this matter; and have, I think, rigidly confined my own observations upon it within the limits thus defined. But still I have some apprehension that, since I am not to enter into a detailed examination of the scriptural evidence in support of the doctrine, the prominence which has been given to abstract discussions regarding it, may convey an erroneous impression of the comparative importance of the different departments of inquiry that constitute a full investigation of the subject, and may lead some to overlook the paramount, the supreme importance of making themselves acquainted with the scriptural evidence of the different positions, which may be said to constitute the doctrine, as it is generally received amongst us. On this account, I wish again to advert to the considerations, that this doctrine is one of pure revelation; that we know, and can know, nothing about the distinction in the divine nature which it asserts, except what is taught us in the sacred Scriptures; and that the first step that ought to be taken in a full investigation of the subject, should be to collect the scriptural statements which bear upon it,—to examine carefully their meaning and import,—and then to embody the substance of the different positions thus ascertained, as constituting the doctrine which we believe and maintain upon the subject. The doctrine which we believe and maintain should be reached or got at in this way; and the materials by which we defend it should be all derived from this source. We should hold nothing upon the subject which is not taught in Scripture; and we should be so familiar with the scriptural grounds of all that we profess to believe regarding it, as to be able to defend, from the word of God, the whole of what we believe, against all who may assail it. I have already made some general observations upon the Socinian method of interpreting Scripture, and given a warning against some of the general plausibilities by which they usually endeavour to defend their system against the force of scriptural arguments, and to obscure or diminish the strength of the support which Scripture gives to the scheme of doctrine that has been generally maintained in the Christian church; and on the subject of the Scripture evidence, I can now only make a few observations of a similar kind, bearing more immediately upon the doctrine of the Trinity, and directed, not to the object of stating, illustrating, and enforcing the evidence itself, but merely suggesting some considerations that may be useful in the study of it.
The great fundamental position which we assert and undertake to prove from Scripture is this,—that true and proper divinity is ascribed to, that the divine nature is possessed by, three,—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the basis or foundation, or rather, it is the sum and substance, of the doctrine of the Trinity; and everything, of course, depends upon the establishment of this position. The deity of the Father is not a matter of controversy; it is universally admitted. The question, so far as the Holy Spirit is concerned, turns, as I have already explained, more upon His personality than upon His divinity; for that the Spirit is God, in the highest sense, or is truly divine, is scarcely disputed. For these and other reasons, the main field of controversial discussion on this whole subject of the Trinity, has been the true and proper divinity of the Son,—that is, of Jesus Christ the Saviour of sinners. Of course all the general objections usually adduced against the doctrine of the Trinity, apply in all their force to the ascription of proper Godhead, or of the divine nature, to any person but the Father; so that, when the divinity of the Son is proved, all further controversy about the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit, so far as these general topics are concerned, is practically at an end. When a plurality of divine persons has been established, all the leading general points on which anti-Trinitarians insist are virtually negatived, and excluded from the field. If it be proved that there is more than one person in the Godhead, there can be no general reason why there should not be a third; and it is on this account that the investigation of the proper scriptural evidence in regard to the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit has been usually somewhat less disturbed by extraneous and collateral considerations, by allegations of the impossibility of the doctrine contended for being true, and by violent efforts at perversion which these allegations were thought to justify, than the investigation into the scriptural evidence for the divinity of the Son.
But while the divinity of Jesus Christ has thus become, per haps, the principal battlefield on this whole question, and while, therefore, the evidence bearing upon it ought to be examined with peculiar care, it is right to remark that Trinitarians profess to find evidence in Scripture bearing directly upon the doctrine of the Trinity in general,—that is, bearing generally upon a plurality, and, more particularly, upon a trinity of persons in the Godhead, independently of the specific evidence for the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is common in writers who enter fully into the discussion of this subject, to divide the scriptural evidence in support of the doctrine of the Trinity into two heads: first, that derived from passages which appear to intimate a plurality of persons in the Godhead, and from those which seem to speak of the three persons together, or in conjunction; and, secondly, that derived from passages which are alleged to assert or imply the divinity of Christ, and the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit,—the second of these heads comprising much the larger amount of scriptural materials. The principal thing in the Bible which has been regarded by many as intimating a plurality of persons in the Godhead in general, without conveying to us any further or more definite information upon the subject, is the frequent use in the Old Testament of the plural appellation, as it is called, Elohim, or Aleim, the ordinary name of God, used in the plural form, and joined with nouns and verbs in the singular. Some Trinitarians have disclaimed any assistance from this branch of evidence, explaining the peculiarity by what they call the plural of majesty or excellence; while others, and among the rest Dr. John Pye Smith,—who commonly leans to the extreme of caution, and is very careful to put no more weight upon a proof than it is clearly and certainly able to bear,—have, with apparently better reason, been of opinion that this singular construction has some real weight in the proof of the doctrine of the Trinity; or, as Dr. Smith says, that "this peculiarity of idiom originated in a design to intimate a plurality in the nature of the One God; and that thus, in connection with other circumstances calculated to suggest the same conception, it was intended to excite and prepare the minds of men for the more full declaration of this unsearchable mystery, which should in proper time be granted."23
The chief proofs which are usually adduced in support of three distinct persons, or in which the three persons of the Godhead appear to be spoken of together, or in conjunction, and yet are distinguished from each other, are the formula of baptism and the apostolic benediction, as they are commonly called (for most Trinitarians now admit that there is a decided preponderance of critical evidence against the genuineness of 1 John v. 7, usually spoken of as the three heavenly witnesses). And here, too, there has been some difference of opinion among Trinitarians as to the weight of the evidence furnished by the passages referred to,—some thinking that these passages by themselves do not furnish what can be properly called a proof, a distinct and independent proof, of the doctrine, but only a presumption; and that, after it has been proved by a clearer and more conclusive evidence that the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is possessed of divinity and personality, these passages may be regarded as corroborating the conclusion, and confirming the general mass of evidence; while others are of opinion—and, I think, upon sufficient grounds—that the language employed upon these occasions,—the manner and circumstances in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are there conjoined,—are plainly fitted, and should therefore be held as having been intended, to convey to us the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, and that they are possessed of equal power and dignity, or, in other words, that they equally possess the same divine nature.
Still, the difference of opinion that has been exhibited by Trinitarians as to the validity and sufficiency of these proofs of the doctrine of the Trinity in general, has concurred with other causes formerly mentioned, in bringing about the result that the controversy has usually turned mainly upon the passages of Scripture classed under the second head, as those which are regarded as establishing the true and proper divinity of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, and especially of Jesus Christ. All the supporters of the doctrine of the Trinity of course profess, and undertake to prove from Scripture, that Jesus Christ is truly and properly divine,—that He is God, not in any secondary or subordinate, but in the proper and highest, sense; and is thus, equally with the Father, a possessor of the one divine nature or substance; and they have agreed harmoniously, in the main, in selecting, classifying, and applying the varied and abundant scriptural evidence by which this great truth is established. They have been in the habit of classifying the evidence under four heads, and there is probably no better mode of classifying it.
First, The proof from Scripture that divine names and titles are applied to Christ; and under this head the points to be established are these two: first, that names and titles are ascribed to Christ which are exclusively appropriated to the one true God; and, secondly, that names and titles are applied to Christ which, though not exclusively appropriated to the one true God, and sometimes applied to creatures in a secondary and subordinate sense, are yet applied to Christ in such circumstances, in such a manner, and with such accompanying adjuncts, as to furnish evidence that the Scriptures were fitted, and of course intended, to impress upon us the conviction that they apply to Christ in a sense in which they do not, and cannot, apply to any creature,—in the same sense in which they are applied to the Father.
Secondly, The proof that divine qualities and attributes, such as omnipotence and omniscience, are ascribed to Christ; attributes which manifestly cannot belong to any finite or created being, and must be exclusively appropriated to the divine nature,—to the one true God.
Thirdly, The proof that acts, or works, are ascribed to Christ, which are not competent to any finite or created being; and which require or imply the possession and exercise of divine perfections and prerogatives,—such as the creation and government of the world, and the determining the everlasting destinies of men.
Fourthly, The proof that Christ is entitled to divine worship and homage, to the adoration and the confidence, the submission and the obedience, which creatures ought to give to their Creator, and to none else, and which are claimed in Scripture as due exclusively to the one true God.
Any one of these departments of proof, when really established by a careful investigation of the precise meaning and import of particular statements, would be sufficient to settle the question of the true and proper divinity of Christ; but when each and all of these positions can be established, as has been often proved, by various and abundant scriptural evidence,—formal and incidental, palpable and recondite,—by many passages of all different degrees of clearness and explicitness,—by many proofs, corroborated by innumerable presumptions, there is presented a mass of evidence which, it is not to be wondered at, has satisfied the great body of those who, in any age, have investigated the subject, and have assumed the name of Jesus,—that He whom they call their Lord and Master is indeed God over all, blessed for evermore.
Of course the establishment of each of these four leading positions concerning Christ, depends wholly upon the particular scriptural evidence adduced in support of it,—upon the result of a careful examination of the precise meaning and import of particular statements contained in Scripture,—upon the proof that can be adduced that there are statements contained in Scripture which, when investigated in the fair and honest application of all the principles and rules of sound interpretation, bring out, as the general result, that if the Scriptures were fitted and designed to be our rule of faith, it was then wished, intended, and expected that we should believe all this concerning Jesus Christ.
All the various scriptural statements which have been adduced in support of these positions concerning Christ, have been made the subjects of controversial discussion. It has been contended by Socinians, that there is nothing in Scripture which, rightly interpreted, furnishes sufficient or satisfactory evidence that Jesus Christ had any existence until He was born in Bethlehem,—that He had any other nature than the human,—that He was anything more than a mere man; and it has been contended by Arians, that while Christ existed in a higher nature than the human before the creation of the world. He still belonged to the class of creatures,—that He is called God only in a secondary or subordinate sense,—and is not possessed of true and proper divinity,—is not a possessor of the one divine nature; and both these parties have exerted themselves to clear away the scriptural evidence adduced in support of Christ's proper divinity. The Arians, indeed, join with the Trinitarians in proving, against the Socinians, that there are scriptural statements which clearly and certainly prove that Jesus Christ existed before the creation of the world, and was possessed of a nature higher and more exalted than the human. And in giving a detailed and digested exposition of the Scripture evidence concerning Christ, it is perhaps best and most expedient to begin with establishing those positions which Arians concur with us in holding in opposition to the Socinians, by proving Christ's pre-existence and superhuman dignity; and then, abandoning the Arians, to proceed to the proof that He had a nature not only superhuman, but truly and properly divine, by adducing and expounding the evidence of the four leading positions regarding Him formerly stated. But, of course, the proof of His true and proper divinity shuts out at once not only Socinianism, but all the various gradations of Arianism, as it necessarily implies that He was, as our Confession of Faith says, "of one substance, power, and eternity with the Father." And the general features of the method of disposing of the Scripture evidence for the divinity of Christ, to which alone we can here advert, are substantially the same, in the case of all the different classes of anti-Trinitarians.
I need not add anything to the general observations formerly made about the Socinian practice, usually followed also by the Arians, of mixing up the general objections to the doctrine upon abstract grounds, with the investigation of the proper meaning of scriptural statements,—of insisting that the doctrine, if true, would have been more frequently mentioned and more clearly asserted,—and of demanding that we shall prove, in regard to the scriptural passages we adduce, not only that they may, but that they must, bear the meaning we assign to them, and cannot possibly admit of any other. All these different features of the method they employ, which they lay down beforehand as general principles, are directed to one single object,—namely, to diminish a little the amount of torture which it may be necessary to apply to particular scriptural statements, with the view of showing that they do not furnish any satisfactory evidence for Christ's divinity. It is evident that, if these general principles were conceded to them in all the latitude of construction which they commonly put upon them, a smaller amount of perverting power would be necessary to make out a plausible case in support of the positions they maintain. They are pretty distinctly conscious that it is necessary for them to subject scriptural statements to a considerable amount of pressure, in order to distort and pervert them to such an extent, as that they shall appear to give no very certain sound in support of Christ's divinity; and as they are aware that this is rather apt to disgust honest men, they are naturally solicitous to do with as little of it as they can. It was evidently with this view that they devised those principles of interpretation to which we have referred; for if these be well founded, a smaller amount of distortion and perversion will be necessary for accomplishing their object. It is enough to remember, upon the other side, that all that we are called upon to do in order to establish the doctrine of Christ's divinity, is just to show that Scripture, fairly and honestly explained, according to the recognised principles and rules of sound interpretation, does teach, and was intended to teach it.
The opponents of Christ's divinity, after having attempted by these general considerations to make provision for effecting their object with the minimum of perversion, proceed to the work of showing, minutely and in detail, that the scriptural statements we adduce do not teach, or at least do not necessarily teach, the doctrine of Christ's divinity. They are not unfrequently somewhat skilled in the technicalities and minutiŠ of biblical criticism; and some of them have manifested very considerable ingenuity in applying all these to the object they have in view, which may be said to be, in general, to involve the meaning of scriptural statements in obscurity,—to show that no certain meaning can be brought out of them,—and, more particularly, that it is not by any means clear or certain that they bear the meaning which Trinitarians assign to them. I cannot enter into any detail of the various methods they have employed for this purpose. I may merely mention a specimen.
One very common course they adopt is, to break down a statement into its separate words, phrases, and clauses, and then to try to get up some evidence that the particular words, phrases, or clauses, or some of them, have been employed in some other passages of Scripture in a somewhat different sense from that in which Trinitarians understand them in the passage under consideration; and then they usually reckon this—aided, of course, by an insinuation of the impossibility or incredibility of the doctrine of their opponents—as sufficient ground for maintaining that there is nothing in the passage to support it; while, in such cases, Trinitarians have undertaken to prove, and have proved, either that the words, phrases, or clauses are never used in Scripture in the sense which Socinians and Arians would ascribe to them; or that, even though this sense might be, in certain circumstances, admissible, yet that it is precluded, in the passage under consideration, by a fair application to it of the acknowledged rules of grammar, philology, and exegesis; and that these rules, fairly applied to the whole passage, viewed in connection with the context, establish that the Trinitarian interpretation brings out its true meaning and import. The great leading impression which the Socinian mode of dealing with the Scripture evidence for the divinity of Christ is fitted to produce in the minds of those who may be somewhat influenced by it, and may thus have become disposed to regard it with favour, is this,—that most of the passages which they may have been accustomed to regard as evidences of Christ's divinity, have been so dealt with singly and separately as to be neutralized or withdrawn, to be thrown into the background, or taken out of the way; so that, while there is much in Scripture, as Socinians admit, which would no doubt concur and harmonize with the Trinitarian view, if that view were once established, yet that there are few, if any, passages which seem to afford a clear and positive proof of it, and that thus the foundation is taken away, and the whole superstructure, of course, must fall to the ground. This is the impression which is sometimes apt to be produced when we read a plausible Socinian commentary upon the scriptural statements adduced in support of Christ's divinity, and find that every one of them has been tampered with, with more or less plausibility, and that a great variety of considerations have been suggested, wearing a critical aspect, and all tending to render the Trinitarian interpretation of them uncertain or precarious. Now the considerations that ought to be applied to, counteract this impression, are chiefly these two:—
First, There are some passages of Scripture under each of the four leading divisions of the proof which cannot be explained away without a manifest violation of the recognised principles of interpretation; and these constitute a firm and stable foundation, on which the whole mass of cumulative and corroborating evidence may securely rest. Trinitarians, of course, do not maintain that all the Scripture passages usually adduced in support of Christ's divinity are equally clear and explicit,—are equally unassailable by objections and presumptions; and they do not deny that there are some which, taken by themselves, and apart from the rest, might admit of being explained away, or understood in a different sense. All the defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity do not attach the same weight to all the different passages commonly adduced as proofs of it; and some discrimination and knowledge of the subject are necessary in fixing, amid the huge mass of evidence, upon the true dicta probantia, the real proof passages,—those which, after all the arts and appliances of Socinian criticism have been brought to bear upon them, can be really shown to have successfully resisted all their attempts, and to stand, after the most searching application of the principles of sound interpretation, as impregnable bulwarks of Christ's divinity,—as manifestly intended to teach us that He is indeed the true God, the mighty God, Jehovah of hosts. There is a considerable number of such passages both in the Old and the New Testaments. They must necessarily constitute the main strength of the case; and no man can consider himself thoroughly versant in this subject, until, after having surveyed the whole evidence commonly adduced in the discussion, he has made up his own mind, as the result of careful study and meditation, as to what the passages are which of themselves afford clear and conclusive proof of Christ's divinity, as distinguished from those which are rather corroborative than probative; and has made himself familiar with those exegetical principles and materials, by the application of which the true meaning of these passages may be brought out and established, and all the common Socinian glosses and attempts at perverting or neutralizing them may be exposed.
Secondly, the full and complete evidence for Christ's divinity is brought out only by a survey of the whole of the scriptural materials which bear upon this subject. Socinians are in the habit of assailing each text singly and separately, and labour to convey the impression that they have succeeded conclusively in disposing of all the proofs one by one; while they usually strive to keep in the background, and to conceal from view, the evidence in its entireness and completeness. It is of course quite right and necessary that every Scripture text adduced should be subjected to a careful and deliberate examination, and that its real meaning and import should be correctly ascertained. It is also necessary, as we have explained under the last head, that we should be prepared, in maintaining our doctrine, with particular texts, which, taken singly and of themselves, afford conclusive proofs of the truth. But it is not right that the entire discussion should be restricted to the examination of particular texts, without this being accompanied and followed by a general survey of the whole evidence, taken complexly and in the mass. When the Socinians have only a single text to deal with, they can usually get up something more or less plausible to involve its meaning in obscurity or uncertainty; but when their denial of Christ's divinity is brought into contact with the full blaze of the whole word of God, as it bears upon this subject, it then appears in all its gross deformity and palpable falsehood. There is perhaps no more conclusive and satisfactory way of bringing out and establishing the divinity of Christ, than just to collect together, and to read over in combination, a considerable number of the passages of Scripture which speak of Him, and then to call on men to submit their understandings, honestly and unreservedly, to the fair impression of the views of Christ which are thus brought before them, and to put to themselves the simple question: Is it possible that the Bible could really have been fitted and designed to be our rule of faith, if these statements about Christ, taken in combination, were not intended to teach us, and to constrain us to believe, that He is the one true and supreme God, possessed of the divine nature, and of all divine perfections? A minute and careful examination of the precise import and bearing of scriptural statements, will bring out a great deal of evidence in support of Christ's divinity that is not very obvious at first sight,—will show that this great doctrine is interwoven with the whole texture of revelation, and that the more direct and palpable proof is corroborated by evidence, possessed, indeed, of different degrees of strength in the different portions of which it is composed, but all combining to place this great doctrine upon an immoveable foundation; but there is nothing better fitted to assure the mind, to impress the understanding and the heart, to satisfy us that we are not following a cunningly-devised fable, when we rely upon Him as an almighty Saviour, and confide in the infinity of His perfections, than just to peruse the plain statements of God's word regarding Him, and to submit our minds honestly and unreservedly to the impressions which they are manifestly fitted and intended to produce. We should take care, then, while giving a due measure of time and attention to the exact and critical investigation of the precise meaning of particular texts, to contemplate also the evidence of Christ's divinity in its fulness and completeness, that we may see the more clearly, and feel the more deeply, the whole of what God has revealed to us concerning His Son.
There is one other general observation which I wish to make in regard to the study of this subject. It will be found occasionally, in perusing works written in vindication of Christ's divinity, that some texts which are founded on by one author as proofs of the doctrine, are regarded by another as affording only a presumption of its truth, and perhaps by a third as having no bearing upon the question; and this fact suggests the consideration, that there are two different and opposite tendencies upon this subject, both of which ought to be guarded against. The one is, that of pertinacity in adhering to everything that has ever been adduced as a proof or argument, though it may not be able to stand a searching critical investigation; and the other is, that of undue facility in giving up, as inconclusive or irrelevant, arguments that really are possessed of some weight and relevancy. Both of these tendencies have been manifested by the defenders of the truth, and both of them operate injuriously. Some men seem to think that it is nothing less than treachery to the doctrine itself, to doubt the validity of any arguments that have ever at any time been brought forward in support of it; while others, again, seem to think that they manifest a more than ordinary skill in biblical criticism, and a larger measure of candour and liberality, in abandoning some posts which Trinitarians have commonly defended. Of course no general rule can be laid down for the regulation of this subject; for the only rule applicable to the matter is, that every man is bound, by the most solemn obligations, to use the utmost impartiality, care, and diligence, to ascertain the true and correct meaning and import of everything contained in the word of God. It is enough to point out these tendencies and dangers, and exhort men to guard carefully against being misled or perverted by either of them; while they should judge charitably of those who may seem not to have escaped wholly uninjured by them, provided they have given no sufficient reason to doubt (for, in some instances, the second of these tendencies has been carried so far as to afford reasonable ground for suspicion on this point) that they are honest and cordial friends of the great doctrine itself. There is enough of scriptural evidence for the doctrine of the supreme divinity of our blessed Saviour,—evidence that has ever stood, and will ever stand, the most searching critical investigation,—to satisfy all its supporters that there is no temptation whatever to deviate from the strictest impartiality in the investigation of the meaning of scriptural statements,—no reason why they should pertinaciously contend for the validity of every atom of proof that has ever been adduced in support of it, or hesitate about abandoning any argument that cannot be shown to stand the test of a searching application of all the sound principles both of criticism and exegesis.
The doctrine of the divinity of Christ is a peculiarly interesting topic of investigation, both from the intrinsic importance of the subject, and its intimate connection with the whole scheme of revealed truth, and from the way and manner in which the investigation has been, and of course must be, conducted. There is perhaps no doctrine of Scripture which has called forth a larger amount of discussion,—the whole evidence about which has been more thoroughly sifted; there is none which has been more vigorously and perseveringly attacked,—none which has been more triumphantly defended and more conclusively established. Viewed simply as a subject of theological discussion, apart from its practical importance, this doctrine perhaps presents fully as much to interest and attract as any other that has been made a subject of controversy.
The evidence bearing upon it extends nearly over the whole Bible,—the Old Testament as well as the New; for a great deal of evidence has been produced from the Old Testament, that the Messiah promised to the fathers was a possessor of the divine nature, of divine perfections and prerogatives, and fully entitled to have applied to Him the incommunicable name of Jehovah. A great deal of learning and ability have been brought to bear upon the discussion of this question, both in establishing the truth, and in labouring to undermine and overthrow it. All the resources of minute criticism have been applied to the subject, and to everything that seemed to bear upon it; materials of all different kinds, and from all various sources, have been heaped up in the investigation of it. The discussion thus presents a sort of compendium of the whole science and art of biblical criticism, in the widest sense of the word,—the settling of the true text, in some important passages, by an examination of various readings,—the philological investigation of the true meaning of a considerable number of important words,—the application of grammatical and exegetical principles and rules to a great number of phrases, clauses, and sentences. All this is comprehended in a full discussion of the subject of our Lord's proper divinity. And there is perhaps no one doctrine to the disproof or overthrow of which materials of these different kinds, and from these various sources, have been more skilfully and perseveringly applied,—none in regard to which, by a better, and sounder, and more effective application of the same materials, a more certain and decisive victory has been gained for the cause of truth. Every point has been contested, and contested with some skill and vigour; but this has only made the establishment of. the truth, in the ultimate result, the more palpable and the more undoubted.
For these reasons I have always been inclined to think, in opposition to some views put forth by Dr. Chalmers,24 that it is very desirable that a pretty full investigation of the subject of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ should come in at an early period in the study of the system of Christian theology. The study of this subject leads to the consideration and application of many important principles, both of a more general and comprehensive, and of a more minute and special kind, intimately connected with the investigation of divine truth, and the critical interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, and is thus fitted to teach important lessons that bear upon the whole field of theological discussion. To the humble and honest reader of God's word, the divinity of the Saviour seems to be very plainly and fully taught there; and when men are first brought into contact with Socinian perversions, they are apt, if they have not previously studied the subject critically, to be startled with the plausibility attaching to some of their attempts to involve the evidences of the doctrine, or at least the precise meaning of some particular passages of Scripture, in doubt and uncertainty. On this account, it is all the more satisfactory in itself, and all the better fitted to suggest useful lessons of general application, to find, as the result of a more thorough and searching investigation, and of the most stringent application of the recognised rules of critical inquiry, that our first and most natural impressions of the meaning and import of scriptural statements are fully confirmed and conclusively established,—that the criticism, the learning, and the ingenuity of opponents are met and overborne, on the part of the advocates of the truth, by all these qualities in a much superior degree,—and thus to be brought deliberately and rationally to the conclusion, that what has been in all ages the faith of the humbly devout, though not learned and critical, readers of God's word, is indeed its true meaning, and can be satisfactorily established in all its parts by the highest learning, and the most accomplished and searching criticism.
One leading consideration that ought to be kept in view in the investigation of the scriptural evidence bearing on this subject is this,—that the object to be aimed at is to find out, from an examination of the whole word of God, what it is that He wished and intended us to believe regarding it. The Scriptures are manifestly not constructed upon the principle of giving us, in formal general statements, or in single passages, the substance of what they are designed to teach us upon any particular topic. It was manifestly God's design, in the construction of His word, that men, in using it for the purpose which it was intended to serve, should be called upon to exercise diligence and research in collecting and combining the scattered rays of light, possessed of different degrees of intensity, that bear upon any particular point, and in estimating from the combination of the whole the real character, complexion, and position of the object presented. This consideration is fitted to impress upon our minds the unreasonableness and unfairness of selecting a few particular statements,—laying them down as a basis or foundation,—and then setting ourselves to pervert or explain away all other statements which, at first view, it may not seem very easy to. reconcile with those we may have thought proper to select as our favourites, in place of investigating all fairly and impartially,—ascertaining the combined result of all that the Bible has stated or indicated upon the subject,—and then dealing with this result in one or other of the only two ways which can be regarded as in any sense rational in such a case, namely, either submitting implicitly to the doctrine as revealed by God, or else rejecting wholly the revelation which contains it.
In accordance with this view, it is proper to give prominence to this general consideration, which ought ever to be remembered and applied,—namely, that Socinian and Arian doctrines, in regard to the Trinity and the person of Christ, are founded only upon a partial selection of scriptural statements, to the neglect and disregard, or rather, what is much worse, to the perversion and distortion, of many others; while the orthodox doctrine exhibits accurately and fully the combined result of all, giving to every class of scriptural statements its true and fair meaning and its right place; and by this very quality or circumstance is proved to be the true key for interpreting Scripture, and solving all the difficulties that may occur in the investigation of its various statements. That Jesus Christ is a man, a true and real man,—that He had a true body, and a reasonable or rational soul,—is a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture, because it is manifestly implied in, and absolutely indispensable to, a fair and honest interpretation of many of its statements; and it is accordingly held by all who call themselves Christians, by Trinitarians as well as by Socinians and Arians. But there are also passages which, when fairly interpreted, afford satisfactory evidence that Jesus Christ existed, and was in heaven, before He was born at Bethlehem, and before the creation of the world; and that in this state of pre-existence He possessed a superhuman nature,—a nature higher and more exalted than that in which He presented Himself to men while upon earth. Now all such statements the Socinians refuse to take into account, in forming their conceptions or in settling their general doctrines about Christ; and they labour to vindicate their conduct in doing so, by exerting their utmost ingenuity in distorting and perverting their meaning, in order to make out some plausible grounds for alleging that they convey no such ideas as have been commonly deduced from them, and as they seem very evidently fitted to convey.
The Arians agree with us in holding, in opposition to the Socinians, that those passages do prove the pre-existence and superhuman dignity of Christ; and accordingly they admit these additional ideas—additional, I mean, to that of His mere humanity—into their doctrine concerning Him. But here they stop; and this is stopping short—far short—of the whole of what Scripture teaches us regarding Him, for it still leaves Him in the class of creatures. And we assert, and undertake to prove, that, in addition to those passages which prove His pre-existence and superhuman dignity,—and which perhaps, taken by themselves, prove nothing more,—there are many passages which cannot be fairly and impartially investigated according to the strictest principles of criticism, without constraining men to believe that they were intended to represent to us Christ as possessed of true and proper divinity,—a possessor of the one divine nature, with all divine perfections and prerogatives. Of course, upon this ground, we insist that the Arian account of Christ, though fuller and more accurate than the Socinian, is yet fundamentally defective; and we maintain that, in order to express and embody the substance of all that Scripture teaches us concerning Him, we must hold that He existed not merely before the creation of the world, but from eternity,—not only in the possession of a superhuman, but of the one properly divine nature. This doctrine, and this alone, comes up to the full import of what is taught or indicated in Scripture concerning Him. When any part of it is left out or denied, then there are some scriptural statements—more or less few, of course, according to the extent of the omission or negation—to which torture must be applied, in order to show that they do not express the ideas which they seem plainly fitted and intended to convey; whereas, when this great doctrine is admitted in all its extent, the whole demands of Scripture are satisfied,—no distortion or perversion is required,—and there is the full satisfaction of having investigated fairly and honestly everything that God has said to us upon the subject, and of having implicitly submitted our understandings to His authority. What a mass of confusion and inconsistency the Bible presents,—how thoroughly unfitted is it to be the standard or directory of our faith,—if it be indeed true that Christ was a mere man, and that the Bible was intended to teach us this; whereas, if we admit and apply the orthodox doctrine that He was God and man in one person, then order and consist- ency at once appear,—difficulties are solved, otherwise insoluble,—apparent contradictions are removed,—and the whole body of the scriptural statements concerning Him are seen to be in entire harmony with each other, and to concur, all without force or straining, in forming one consistent and harmonious whole.
The same general consideration may be applied to other points comprehended in the doctrine commonly received upon this subject. Take, for instance, the personality of the Holy Spirit. It cannot be disputed that there are passages of Scripture which speak of the Spirit of God, and which contain, taken by themselves, no sufficient evidence of distinct personality. But if men rest here, and upon this ground deny that the Spirit is a distinct person in the Godhead, then they are refusing to take into account, and to receive in their fair and legitimate import, other passages in which the idea of distinct personality is clearly indicated, and which cannot, without great and unwarrantable straining, be interpreted so as to exclude or omit it. The same principle applies to the denial of Christ's eternal Sonship by those who admit His true and proper divinity. By admitting His true and proper divinity, they interpret rightly a large number of the scriptural statements regarding Him, which Socinians and Arians distort and pervert; and they receive what must be admitted to be most essential and fundamental truth in the scriptural views of Christ. But still, as we believe, they come short of what Scripture teaches concerning Him, by refusing to admit that, even as God, He is the Son of the Father,—that there existed from eternity a relation between the first and second persons of the Godhead, analogous in some respects to that subsisting between a father and a son among men; and we are persuaded that there are passages in Scripture to which a considerable amount of straining must be applied in order to exclude this idea.
The Scripture, however, was evidently constructed upon the principle not only of requiring, and thereby testing, men's diligence and impartiality in collecting and examining, in taking into account and applying, the whole of the materials which it furnishes, for regulating our judgment upon any particular point; but likewise upon the principle of requiring, and thereby testing, their real candour and love of truth, by providing only reasonable and satisfactory, and not overwhelming, evidence of the doctrines it was designed to teach. The peculiar doctrines of Christianity are not set forth in Scripture in such a way as to constrain the immediate assent of all who read its words, and are in some sense capable of understanding them; they are not there set forth in such a way as at once to preclude all difference of opinion and all cavilling, or to bid defiance to all attempts at distorting and perverting its statements. In short, startling as the position may at first sight appear, there is not one of the peculiar doctrines of the Christian system which is set forth in Scripture with such an amount of explicitness, and with such overwhelming evidence, as it was abstractly possible to have given to the statement and the proof of it, or in such a way as to deprive men who are averse to the reception of its doctrines, of all plausible pretences for explaining away and perverting its statements, even while admitting their divine authority. No sane man ever doubted that the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession teach, and were intended to teach, by those who framed them, the true and proper divinity of the Son. But many men, to whom we cannot deny the possession of mental sanity, while we cannot but regard them as labouring under some ruinously perverting influences, have denied that the Scripture teaches this doctrine; they have argued strenuously in support of this denial, and have been able to produce some considerations in favour of their views, which are not altogether destitute of plausibility.
The explanation of this is, that Scripture was constructed upon the principle of testing our candour and love of truth, by leaving some opening for men who had little or no candour or love of truth rejecting the doctrines it was designed to teach, without either formally denying its authority, or openly renouncing all claim to sense or rationality, by advocating views in support of which nothing that was possessed even of plausibility could be alleged. The doctrine of the divinity of the Son, in common with all the other peculiar doctrines of the Christian system, is set forth in Scripture with a force of evidence amply sufficient to satisfy every candid man—every man who really desires to know the truth, to know what God has revealed regarding it—with such evidence as that the rejection of it, of itself, proves the existence and operation of a sinful state of mind, of a hatred of truth, and imposes a fearful responsibility; but not with such evidence as at once to secure and compel the assent of all who look at it, and to cut off the possibility of the assignation of some plausible grounds for rejecting it when men are led, by their dislike of the doctrine, and what it implies, to reject it. God is fully warranted in requiring us to believe whatever He has revealed, and accompanied with sufficient evidence of its truth, and to punish us for refusing our assent in these circumstances; and it is in accordance with the general principles of His moral administration, to test or try men by giving them evidence of what He wishes and requires them to believe, that is amply sufficient, without being necessarily overwhelming,—that shall certainly satisfy all who examine it with candour and a real desire to know the truth,—and that may leave in ignorance and error those who do not bring these qualities to the investigation.
The Socinians would demand for the proof of Christ's divinity a kind and amount of evidence that is altogether unreasonable. We formerly had occasion, in considering the general principles on which Socinians proceed in the interpretation of Scripture, to expose the unreasonableness of their demand, that we must show that the scriptural statements which we produce in support of our doctrines, not only may, but must, bear the meaning we ascribe to them, and cannot possibly admit of any other. We acknowledge, indeed, that it is not enough for us to show that Scripture statements may bear the meaning we attach to them; and we contend that there are statements about Christ of which it might be fairly said that they must bear our sense, and cannot possibly—that is, consistently with the principles of sound criticism and the dictates of common sense—admit of any other. But we do not acknowledge that the establishment of this second position is indispensable to making out our case, for there is a medium between the two extremes,—of proving merely, on the one hand, that certain statements may possibly admit of the meaning we ascribe to them; and, on the other hand, proving that they cannot possibly admit of any other meaning. This intermediate position is this,—that upon a fair examination of the statements, and an impartial application to them of the recognised principles and rules of interpretation, we have sufficient materials for satisfying ourselves, and for convincing others, that this, and not anything different from it, is their true meaning,—the meaning which it is right and proper, if we would act uprightly and impartially, to ascribe to them. This is enough. This should satisfy reasonable and candid men. This fully warrants us to maintain, as it affords us sufficient materials to prove, that this is the meaning which they were intended to bear,—that these are the ideas which they were intended to convey to us. It must of course be assumed, in all such investigations, that the one object to be aimed at is to ascertain the true meaning of Scripture,—the meaning which the words bear, and were intended to bear. When this is once ascertained, we have what we are bound to regard as the doctrine which the Author of Scripture wished, intended, and expected us to adopt upon His authority. It must further be assumed that the words were intended to convey to us the meaning which they are fitted to convey; so that the inquiry is virtually limited to this: What is the meaning which these words, in themselves and in their connection, are fitted to convey to us, when fairly and impartially investigated by the recognised rules of philology, grammar, and criticism, as they apply to this matter?
The results brought out in this way we are bound to receive as exhibiting the true, real, and intended meaning of Scripture, and to deal with them accordingly. Cases may occur in which we may not be able to reach any very certain conclusion as to the true meaning of a particular statement,—in which, of several senses that may be suggested, we may, after examining the matter, be at a loss to decide which is the true meaning,—that is, we may not be able to attain to more than probability upon the point. There are such statements in Scripture, and of course they must be dealt with honestly, according to their true character, and the real evidence of the case, as it fairly applies to them. But these statements are very few, and comparatively unimportant. We can, in general, in the fair, diligent, and persevering use of appropriate materials, attain to a clear conviction as to what the true meaning of scriptural statements is,—what is the sense which they are fitted, and of course intended, to convey to us; and this we should regard as settling the question, and satisfying our judgment, even though there may remain some ground for cavilling,—something not altogether destitute of plausibility that might be alleged in favour of the possibility of their bearing a different sense. In regard to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the evidence is full, complete, and conclusive, that the Scriptures are fitted to teach us these doctrines,—to convey to us, to impress upon us, the ideas that constitute them; and of course that the Author of the Scriptures intended and expected, nay, demands at our peril, that we shall believe upon His authority, that "in the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity,—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost; and that God the Son became man."
We conclude with a few remarks upon the importance of this doctrine, and the responsibility connected with the admission or denial of it. When we reflect upon the fulness and clearness with which the divinity of Christ—which, as we formerly explained, may be said practically to carry with it the whole doctrine of the Trinity—is revealed to us in Scripture, we cannot regard those who refuse to receive it in any other light than as men who have determined that they will not submit their understandings to the revelation which God has given us. They are refusing to receive the record which He has given us concerning Himself and concerning His Son, in its substance and fundamental features; and they are doing so under the influence of motives and tendencies which manifestly imply determined rebellion against God's authority, and which would effectually lead them to reject any revelation He might give that did not harmonize with their fancies and inclinations. It is evident from the nature of the case, and from the statements of Scripture, that the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ are of essential and fundamental importance in the Christian scheme. Whether we view the gospel theoretically, as a system of doctrines intended to enlighten our understandings in the knowledge of God and of divine things, or more practically, as intended to bear upon the formation of the character and the regulation of the motives of men, the admission or denial of the doctrine of three distinct persons in the unity of the Godhead, and of the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ, must evidently affect fundamentally its whole character and influence. To the second person in the Godhead is assigned the work of satisfying divine justice, and of reconciling us to God; and to the third person is assigned the work of renewing our moral natures, and preparing us for the enjoyment of happiness. And God has made our enjoyment of the blessings of salvation dependent upon our knowing something of the nature of these blessings, and of the way and manner in which they have been procured and are bestowed.
If the Son and the Holy Ghost are not truly divine,—partakers of the one divine nature,—we are guilty of idolatry in bestowing upon them divine honours; and if they are divine, we are, in refusing to pay them divine honours, robbing God of what is due to Him, and of what He is demanding of us. Christ has Himself uttered this most solemn and impressive declaration, "that God hath committed all judgment unto the Son, that (in order that, or with a view to secure that) all men might honour the Son, even as they honour the Father;" where we are plainly enjoined to give the same honour to the Son as to the Father, and where the injunction is sanctioned by an express assertion of the certainty of its bearing upon the proceedings of the day of judgment, and the decision then to be pronounced upon our eternal destinies. What, indeed, is Christianity without a divine Saviour? In what essential respect does it differ, if Christ was a mere man, or even a creature, from Mahommedanism, or from the mere light of nature? How-can two systems of doctrine, or two provisions for accomplishing any moral object, have the same influence and result, which are, and must be, so different, so opposite in their fundamental views and arrangements, as the doctrines maintained by the advocates and opponents of Christ's proper Godhead. Accordingly, it has held universally, that according as men admitted or denied the divinity of Christ, have their whole notions about the gospel method of salvation been affected. On the divinity of Christ are evidently suspended the doctrine of atonement, or satisfaction for sin, and the whole method of justification; in short, everything that bears most vitally upon men's eternal welfare. Our Saviour Himself has expressly declared, "It is eternal life to know Thee (addressing His Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent,"25—a statement which does not prove, as anti-Trinitarians allege, that the Father is the only true God, to the exclusion of the Son, because this is not necessarily involved in it, and because to interpret it in this way would make Scripture contradict itself, as in another passage it expressly calls Jesus Christ the true God and eternal life,26 and affords us most abundant materials for believing that He is so; but which does prove that a knowledge of Jesus Christ must consist in the perception, the maintenance, and the application of the real views regarding Him, which are actually taught in the sacred Scriptures,—in knowing Him as He is there revealed,—and in cherishing towards Him all those feelings, and discharging towards Him all those duties, which the scriptural representations of His nature and person are fitted to produce or to impose. This is eternal life; and the men who, having in their hands the record which God has given concerning His Son, refuse to honour Him, even as they honour the Father,—to pay Him divine honour, as being a possessor of the divine nature,—and to confide in Him, as a divine and almighty Saviour,—must be regarded as judging themselves unworthy of this eternal life, as deliberately casting it away from them.