British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

A review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah online

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to substitute services founded on mere natural religion, without an immediate
separation of those who approved from those who disapproved of the mea-
sure; that is, without the friends of the measure meeting avowedly as Deists,
which they are at liberty to do, so far as we are concerned, whenever they
judge it expedient. An attempt artfully to introduce, as a Christian
minister, a person not really deserving of that name, would be inconsistent
with that character and those views which alone can lead men to worship
God at all, and is, therefore, not likely to be made ; whilst it could hardly



14

fail to be delected, and consequently, if made, could only end in the dis-
grace of its authors. All who attend on the services of religion are equally
interested in the minister who is to conduct them possessing such character,
attainments, and address, as will give most weight to his instructions, most
dignity and usefulness to his office. In the pursuit of these objects all may
join, and theory combines with experience to prove that, in the case now
under our consideration, no injurious consequences are to be apprehended.
As to the other supposed means of injury — if ministers are capable of modi-
fying their doctrines according to the supposed taste of any of their hearers,
they may just as easily modify their moral instructions on the same prin-
ciple, and the utility of their office is at an end. We think it is not without
reason that better things are expected from them. We have great confi-
dence in the effects of their pecuhar studies and habits of thought, in enno-
bling, purifying, and strengthening the mind ; we have great confidence in
their knowledge, that, in a vast majority of cases, the honest and faithful
performance of their duty is the way to secure the esteem and affection of
the great body of their hearers, and there is abundant proof from experience
that the confidence we express is justly placed. We conclude the whole
subject with the observation, that it is notorious that Unitarianism has
brought numbers to a joyful and grateful acknov/ledgement of revelation,
who had been driven to reject it by the revolting character of more pre-
valent forms of Christianity, whilst very few pass from Unitarianism to
Unbelief, and with those few it appears to be the result of peculiarities of
individual character or circumstances, not of any natural current setting
from the one doctrine towards the other. We are by no means sure that on
this important subject we have expressed the general sentiments of the
Unitarian body ; though, believing that we have expressed the dictates of
justice and charity, we would hope that our brethren do not widely differ
from us. Many, no doubt, reo;ard Unbelievers with a sort of horror — pro-
bably from an opinion that none become so but from wilful obstinacy and
moral corruption. That these are the causes of a great deal of unbelief is
unquestionable; but a sceptical turn of mind, unfavourable impressions
made at the most critical period of life, and disgust at doctrines represented
as essential, cause a good deal more ; and those Unbelievers who shew any
disposition to come amongst us, are generally persons possessing a real
respect for religion, and desire to improve by its exercises. We do not,
therefore, wish to see them condemned or rejected, and we have great
doubt as to the advantage of the only measure which could secure a separa-
tion between us and them — the adoption of a profession of faith and a sys-
tem of church-membership. We do not question the right to adopt this
measure, and we do not venture to decide on its expediency, but we think
we have abundantly shewn that there is nothing which either party need be
ashamed of in the circumstance of our societies, open as they now are,
having been in some places joined by individuals not professing to believe
in revelation, nothing which throws the smallest imputation on the sincerity
of our own faith, or gives the least cause for exultation to our adversaries.

Passing by much matter of a merely personal character, which, though in
our opinion both unjust and illiberal, can hardly be thought to require the
answer which it would occupy much space to give, we shall now offer a
few remarks on Dr. Smith's " Observations on the Introduction to the Calm
Inquiry."

Mr. Belsham very judiciously reminds his readers, that since " all Chris-
tians agree that Jesus of Nazareth was to outward appearance a man like



r5

other men/' and that his prophetic office, miracles, and resurrection, do not
necessarily im])ly his superiority of nature, " it follows, that in this inquiry
the whole burden of proof lies upon those who assert the pre-existence,
the original dignity, and the divinity of Jesus Christ." The Unitarian finds
nothing more in the Scriptures than what all acknowledge to be there —
others imagine that much more is to be found — it is their business to bring
forward their proofs : we estabhsh our own doctrine, if we only shew those
alleged proofs to be insufficient.

*' In this controversy, therefore," continues Mr. B., " the proper province
of the Arian and Trinitarian is to propose the evidence of their respective
hypotheses ; that is, to state those passages of Scripture which they conceive
to be conclusive in favour of their doctrines. The sole concern of the Unita-
rian is, to shew that these arguments are inconclusive." — (Calm Inquiry, p. 2.)

It would hardly seem possible to extract from these words any oiher
meaning than that the Unitarian, himself fully convinced that his own is the
doctrine of Scripture, will have done every thing required for convincing his
opponents when he has shewn the inconclusiveness of the texts brought
forward by them, since by general confession what remains, after the pecu-
liar evidence for reputed orthodoxy is taken away, is Unitarianism. Yet
upon this observation, perfectly just as a logical position, and, one might
have thought, altogether inoffensive in its mode of expression, Dr. Smith has
the following remarks :

'* This might be proper, if controvertists had no love to truth, nor sense of
its value ; if they were theological prize-fighters, who cared for nothing but
victory or the sem])lance of victory. But ill do such expressions comport
with the mind and motives of a sincere and serious and * calm inquirer'
after an object so momentous as sacred and eternal truth. To obtain
that object ought to be the sole concern of Unitarians, and of all other men ;
and it solemnly behoves those who are pleased with this consequential flip-
pancy of assertion, to examine well the state of their own hearts before him
who will not be mocked."

It is a strange misapprehension of Mr. B.'s meaning, which has given
occasion to this vituperative language. We need not point out the disposi-
tions to which the error may be traced,

Another very important caution of Mr. B., which has also excited Dr.
Smith's wrath, is the following :

" Impartial and sincere inquirers after truth must he particularly upon
their guard against what is called the natural signification of words and
phrases. The connexion between words and ideas is perfectly arbitrary : so
that the natural sense of any word to any person means nothing more than
the sense in which he has been accustomed to understand it. But it is very
possible that men who lived two thousand years ago might annex very differ-
ent ideas to the same words and phrases; so that the sense which appears
most foreign to us might he most natural to them."

** If," says Dr. S., " the Calm Inquirer means only to assert that the in-
terpretation of a language must proceed on an enlightened acquaintance with
its idioms, he has said no more than a school-boy knows and practises every
day. But it is doing no service to the improvement of reason or the investi-
gation of truth to represent the phrases ' natural signification,' and ' natural
sense,' as if they were properly or usually applied to the bald and blundering
methods of translation, which betray those who use them to he ignorant of
the principles of language. I am greatly mistaken if the established use of
those expressions, with correct speakers, is not to denote that sense of a word



If)

or phrase which it would carry, at the time, and under all the circumstances,
in the minds of the persons to whom it was originally addressed."

The author goes on to shew that the connexion between words and ideas
depends on the laws of association, and that we are possessed of means by
which a moral certainty may be attained as to the true meaning of words
and phrases in ancient writingrs, all which is in perfect agreement with Mr.
B.'s principles : indeed, it is acknowledged in a note " that the Calm In-
quirer has, in another of his observations, recognized the principal rules of
interpretation."

Mr. B. warns the impartial inquirer against " what is called the natural
signification of words and phrases."

We read the Bible daily from childhood upwards, and it may be hoped
that we do not read it without attaching some meaning to the words. The
sense in which we first take its various parts must either be that which is
suggested by parents and instructors, or that which occurs to ourselves at a
time when neither our knowledge nor judgment is much to be relied upon.
This sense is by frequent perusal strongly associated with the words and
phrases, and immediately occurs to us as belonging to them whenever we
consider them ; it is what is called their natural sense, and is in general, to a
great degree, the sense ascribed to them by those amongst whom we live :
but if we are serious inquirers after divine truth, we shall examine and
correct it by a faithful application of the just principles of interpretation,
which will often shew us that the sense which seemed natural to us, has
little pretensions to be accounted the true one. Now, there is nothing more
common than to object to the best-founded and most valuable explanations
of Scripture, that they are unnatural, that they give to the words a forced and
unnatural sense, when nothing is really intended but that they are not fami-
liar to us, and are opposed to our established associations. Dr. S. must, on
reflection, be well aware that feelings of this kind are among the most for-
midable obstacles to the right understanding of Scripture, and he will hardly
say that they do not furnish the most common answers to Unitarian exposi-
tions of Scripture : he certainly will not maintain that an answer founded on
them is sufficient : let him then be ashamed of his angry declamation, and
acknowledge that the Calm Inquirer's remark is neither *' a mere truism,"
nor " a denial of all certainty in philological studies," but a useful prac-
tical caution of which most readers who are not critical scholars, and not a
few who are, stand greatly in need.

Dr. S. is greatly scandalized at the expression, " the incarceration of the
Creator of the world in the body of a helpless, puling infant," employed by
Mr. B. in describing the orthodox doctrine. We do not wish to defend any
thing which needlessly hurts the feelings of others, but as Dr. S. talks of
misrepresentation, we must remind him that the language is justified by that
seriously used by very orthodox writers. What is to be thought of the fol-
lowing language from Bacon }

** The Christian believes a Virgin to be the mother of a Son ; and that very
Son of hers her Maker. He helieves him to have been shut up in a narrow
cell, whom heaven and earth could not contain. He believes him to have been
born in time, who was and is from eternity. He believes him to have been a
weak child and carried in arms, who is Alrmghty ; and him once to have died,
who alone has life and immortality.'"

When such is the language of orthodox piety, the Unitarian may surely
be excused some little strength of expression on the subject.



17

Dr. S. concludes his observations on Mr. B.'s introduction, and with them
the first great division of his work, in these words :

** It would have been no disparagement to the writer of the Calm Inquiry^
had he urged the duty of cherishing impartiality, sincerity, and the love of
truth, hij the meam of assiduous prayer to the Author of truth, a recollec-
tion of our amenahleness to his tribunal, and a holy state of our mental feel-
ings, in referoicc to his presence and perfections. Without these moral
cautions, can it be expected that our inquiries will be really impartial or will
terminate successfully ? The principles of human nature and the righteous-
ness of the Divine government equally forbid the expectation. Happy will
those be who realize the devotion and faith of him who said, * With thee is
the fountain of life ; in thy light we shall see light P But on such sulijects
the Calm Inquiry observes the silence of death."

Mr. B. recommends impartiality, and the sincere, disinterested love of
truth ; he does not enter on the means of attaining and cultivating these
qualities, because those means are not unknown or much disputed : he was
writing a controversial, not a practical work, and he meant to confine himself
to one volume of moderate size, where he could not, like Dr. S., give 200
pages to introductory considerations. Nothing can be found in his book
unfavourable to habits of devotion or feelings of piety. The impartiality
which he recommends— the love of truth, without regard to external advan-
tages, sensual pleasures, or the gratification of ambition and vanity — is itself
a liohj state of the mental feelings, and it is hard to reproach him with the
silence of death when he speaks learnedly and ably on the subject he under-
takes to discuss, because he does not digress into a practical treatise on devo-
tion and faith. Sincere devotion, and prayer, its noblest exercise and best
excitement, are most valuable means of producing the dispositions which
aid us in the search for truth ; but it must be remembered, that there is a
Sort of prayer often employed in what is called religious inquiry, which is
no more than a mustering of fears and prejudices against the admission of
any new light, or an attempt to overpower the resistance of reason to popular
opinions by an accumulation of distempered and enthusiastic feelings. There
are many also who pray indeed for help from God in the understanding of
his word ; but, entertaining the unfounded expectation of that help being
afforded in the form of immediate and supernatural assistance, instead of
improving by their pious exercises in the humble and diligent application of
the means of knowledge, are puffed up with a vain conceit of their infahi-
biHty, and led to ascribe to their own crudest conceptions the authority of
divine communication. As these are faults into which those who agree with
Dr. S. are peculiarly apt to fall, we have at least as good reason for won-
dering that he did' not guard against such common and dangerous abuses of
what he justly recommends, as he had for reproaching Mr. B. with his
silence on a subject which his plan did not oblige him to introduce.

We have been able to notice but a few of the more important passages in
that portion of Dr. Smith's work which has now engaged our attention.
There is hardly a page in which something does not call for animadversion,
and there are some subjects of very high interest, as the Unitarian views of
the perfections of God, and the inspiration of the Scriptures, which demand
distinct essays to do them any justice. We hope, however, that what we
have done may be sufficient to make known the true character of what is
represented as a formidable attack on our opinions, to expose the treatment
which Mr. Belsham has received from one who would willingly be thought
a candid adversary, and to repel some charges which, though glaringly

c



18

false, may be said to be admitted, because Unitarians have not thought it
needful to give them a distinct denial— because, in short, no one has yet
undertaken the labour of a reply, which must occupy at least three volumes,
and when finished, might probably be neglected— by our friends, because
they are already fully satisfied— by our opponents, because very few of them
desire to know any thing of our side of the question.

The Introduction to Dr. Smith's second book is chiefly occupied with an
attack on Mr. Belsham for not having gone over all the same ground with
the author, and for having dismissed the few passages he has noticed from
the Old Testament, with an expression respecting their application in this
controversy, nearly approaching to contempt.

It must be recollected that the object of Mr. B.'s work is not to collect
every thing in Scripture relating to the Messiah, but to examine the prin-
cipal arguments which have been adduced in support of the notions of his
superhuman or divine nature. When we consider, therefore, not only how
precarious are the grounds for applying to the Messiah at all many of the
passages brought forward by Dr. S., but how small a proportion of them,
granting the interpretation put upon them, supply any substantial argument
respecting his nature, and that of those which are made to appear most im-
portant, many have not been insisted upon by the best writers in defence
of reputed orthodoxy, previous to our learned and ingenious author, we
cannot be much surprised that Mr. B. did not feel himself called upon to
devote any distinct portion of his work to the Old Testament. As to his
manner of expression, every writer feels himself authorized to express his
opinion on the comparative force of the arguments which pass under his
consideration : it is agreed, on all hands, that learned and able men have
often been " imposed upon by miserable sophisms," and the statement of
our belief that this has happened in a particular case, the whole matter being
submitted to the judgment of the reader, cannot be considered as going be-
yond what is allowable in controversy. When, indeed, we attribute what
we regard as the errors of our opponents to pride or other evil passions, or
represent them as wilfully perverting the truth, and misrepresenting the
Sacred Records, we are chargeable with passing the bounds of fair discussion,
and contending for victory with unlawful weapons. Of any such charge as
this, we think the " Calm Inquirer" must be acquitted even by his enemies.
Dr. Smith, as appears from what we have already brought forward, by no
means comes before the tribunal of the public with so good a case. We
most sincerely give him credit for much amiable and truly Christian feeling,
but a man who talks so much of candour as he does, can hardly be excused
in so often forgetting its dictates.

The enumeration of passages is prefaced by the following statement :

** In this enumeration it is proposed to bring forwards, not every text
which has been adduced by biblical interpreters as referring to the Messiah,
but only those which, according to the criteria above (in the preceding chap-
ter) laid down, carry certain, or, at least, probable evidence of having been
so designed. The degrees of that evidence will of course be various : but if
the passages which appear to be of the least convincing kind, be struck out of
the following list, still it is apprehended that enough will remain to furnish a
satisfactory conclusion. The number might be greatly reduced without at all
diminishing the weight of the argument."

In reviewing this enumeration, our narrow limits will oblige us to pass by
without notice all such passages, however interesting in themselves, as have
no direct bearing on the questions concerning the person of the Messiah,



19

and the nature or mode of the dehverance he effected for mankind. Inter-
pretations, however doubtful, or even in our estimation decidedly false,
which might be received by a Unitarian consistently with his general views
of Christian truth, we do not undertake now to examine, but we shall en-
deavour to neglect no passage among thirty-two (exclusive of the sections on
the " angel of Jehovah," and on the plural names) which Dr. Smith pro-
duces, in which we could not, as Unitarians, receive his interpretation,
without our characteristic opinions being in any degree affected. We may
safely presume that Dr. Smith has not omitted any thing of much impor-
tance. We shall endeavour to assist tlie intelligent and candid reader in
estimating the value of what he has produced.

Sect. ii. Gen. iv. 1 : '' I have obtained a man Jehovah." '* From the
special record of this exclamation of Eve on the birth of her first son, and
from the very marked importance which is given to it," [it is preserved
merely as an explanation of the name Cain, acquisition, and the signs of any
very peculiar importance being attached to it are not obvious,] " it may rea-
sonably be considered as the expression of her eager and pious, though mis-
taken, expectation that the promise, (cli. iii. 15,) which could not but have
created the strongest feelings of interest and hope," [it is a matter, never-
theless, of very great doubt whether the words referred to imply any promise
at all,] ** was now beginning to be accomplished. The primary, proper, and
usual force of the particle (n^) placed here before Jehovah, is to designate
an object in the most demonstrative and emphatical manner." ** It is true,
that in subsequent periods of the language, this particle came to be used as a
preposition, to denote tvith or % the instrumentality of ; but this was but a
secondary idiom, and many of its supposed instances, on a closer considera-
tion, fall into the ordinary construction. There seems, therefore, no option
to an interpreter who is resolved to follow faithfully the fair and strict gram-
matical signification of the words before him, but to translate the passage as
it is given above." — Scrip, Test. Vol. I. p. 235.

What can Dr. S. mean by saying that the primary and proper sense of
the particle [HN] is to designate an object " in the most demonstrative and
emphatical manner" > For this purpose it is most usually employed: but
it has, without doubt, orifjinally been a noun independently significant, and
all its uses as a particle, whether as the sign of a case, or mere emphatic
accompaniment of a noun, or as a preposition, are but certain applications
of the original and proper sense, of which, though one may have become
much more common, we have no right on that account merely to say that it
is either older or better established. It appears to be sufficiently proved,
that DX, in at least two passages besides the one under consideration, bears
the sense of/rom, and in several others hy means of, either of which would
remove all difficulty from this passage — in one of these ways too it has been
understood by most of the ancient translators. Yet, because the particle is
of much more frequent occurrence as an emphatic ascompaniment of nouns,
(an argument which, if consistently followed up, would never allow us to
give to any word more than one sense,) we are called upon to admit a
translation which, understood literally, is in the highest degree revolting and
absurd, and from which no rational and probable meaning can be extracted.
That the applications of the particle as a preposition are secondary and of a
later age, is a mere arbitrary assumption ; and, after all, how is it to be
proved to us that the documents employed by Moses had not their expres-
sion in any degree altered by him, or even, as their antiquity must have
been so extraordinary, that they had not previously to his time existed only
in hieroglyphics .^ It is enough for us, however, that there is not the slightest



20

foundation for Dr. S/s assertion as to the necessity of the extraordinary
translation he has adopted. Eve said, " I have acquired a man from (or
through) Jehovah ;" she therefore called his name Cain (acquisition). It
was quite natural for her thus to express her joy at receiving what she could
not but regard as a great comfort and blessing, and there is no reason for
seeking any mystery in the words, or for supposing that whatever hopes
they may be thought to imply related to the approaching fulfilment of any
divine promises.

We pass to Sect. viii. 2 Sam. xxiii. 1 — 7. The passage contains what
is believed to be the latest written of the poems of David. It apparently
relates to his confidence in the fulfilment of God's promises respecting the
future glory of his family, but is thought by many to be prophetic of the
reign of the Messiah, in which view it is brought forward by our airthor.
Its interpretation is attended with great difficulty, owing probably to the


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Online LibraryBritish and Foreign Unitarian AssociationA review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah → online text (page 3 of 15)