British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

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

. (page 5 of 15)
Online LibraryBritish and Foreign Unitarian AssociationA review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah → online text (page 5 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

extreme uncertainty, there can be no doubt that this Epistle was written by
a sincere and pious Christian before the destruction of Jerusalem ; and
from the general diffusion of miraculous gifts in that first period of the
church, and his having been a person of suthcient importance to offer advice
to others, we see no reason to doubt that he was one who had experienced
personal divine communications, or displayed supernatural powers. What
he wrote, then, cannot but be read by us with interest and respect, as being
sure to contain just views of Christian doctrine, and valuable instructions
which we may all apply to our own improvement. But we know not upon
what authority any one can affirm that he made, or was entitled to make,
any pretensions to divine guidance as a write?^ d.nd we think there is scarcely
any portion of the sacred volume which requires to be read with more cau-
tion, lest we should pervert the meaning of the author through ignorance of
the circumstances under which he v/rote, and the customs or opinions of the
age, and of the people whom he addressed. We are not bound always to
assume, nor can we in all cases consistently with our own reason and know-
ledge admit, the soundness of the arguments employed even by writers to
whose authority, as religious instructors, we implicitly defer, and this dis-
tinction has been ol'ten pointed out by learned and judicious divines. Thus
Bishop Burnet :

*' When divine writers argue upon any point, we are always bound to be-
lieve the conclusions that their reasonings end in, as parts of divine revelation;
but we are not bound to be able to make out, or even to assent to, all the
premises made use of by them in their whole extent; unless it appears plainly
that they affirm the premises expressly as they do the conclusions proved by

And Paley,

*' In reading the apostolic writings we should carefully distinguish between
their doctrines and their arguments. Their doctrines came to them by reve-
lation, properly so called ; yet in propounding these doctrines in their writ-
ings or discourses, they were wont to illustrate, support, and enforce them by
such analogies, arguments, and considerations, as their own thoughts sug-


" St. Paul, I am apt to believe, has been sometimes accused of inconclusive
reasoning, by our mistaking that for reasoning which was only intended for
illustration. He is not to be read as a man whose own persuasion of the truth
of what he taught always or solely depended on the views under which he
represents it in his writings. Taking for granted the certainty of his doc-
trine as resting upon the revelation that had been imparted to him, he exhi-
bits it frequently to the conceptions of his readers under images and alle-
gories, in which if an analogy may he perceived, or even sometimes a poetic
resemblance be found, it is aU, perhaps, that is required."

Now, there is no part of the New Testament where considerations such as
these are so much required as in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and there is
no subject which demands more caution and care, if we wish not to be
greatly misled, and to pervert the authorities to which we appeal, than the
use made of passages from the Old Testament. The Jews, in our Lord's


lime, considered the greatest part of their Scriptures as applicable in a se-
condary and mystical sense to their expected Messiah. The Christian wri-
ters often argued with them from their own concessions, or illustrated and
recommended what they taught by expressing it in the words of the Old
Testament. ^ The Epistle to the Hebrews is altogether an attempt to render
the gospel interesting to Jews by an application to its truths (much in the
manner of the applications of Scripture which are now so common among
most sects) of the words of the ancient sacred books, and by finding analo-
gies between them and the principles or ceremonies of the law.

In this light it has been considered by some of the most distinguished
theologians, and thus only it appears to us that we can obtain an intelligible
and rational view of its character and purpose.

" Long before our Saviour's time," says Dr. Hey, late Norrisian Professor
of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, *' it seems probable that the Jews
had some sort of traditions; traditional narratives, prophecies, or modes of
interpreting prophecies; modes of arranging, construing, and applying the
Psalms, and other parts of Holy Writ ; methods of aUeg-orhmg ; all these
cm- Saviour and his apostles seem to have so far adopted as to make use of
them in reasoning with the Jews."

Le Clerc, in his edition of Hammond's Paraphrase and Notes, says, (Heb.
ix. 16,)

" All the principles of Christian doctrine which the author of this Epistle
defends, are most true, and may be proved from other parts of Scripture ;
but the method by which he illustrates them, is manifestly conformed to the
custom of those times, as we see it in Philo, whose works 'abound in this sort
of accommodations of passages of Scripture, and in reasonings derived from
them, in which there is no regard paid to the grammatical sense, nor is any
thing else attended to but the truth of the principle thus illustrated."

This passage is quoted with approbation by Rosenmiiller ; the same prin-
ciple is defended by Sykes ; and Paley's opinion may be gathered from what
he says of the epistle of Barnabas :

" It is in its subject, and general composition, much like the Ejmtle to the
Hebrews; an allegorical application of divers passages of the Jewish history,
of their law and ritual, to those parts of the Christian dispensation in which
the author perceived a resemblance."— {Evidences of Christianity, B.iii. Ch.v.)

But although we do not admit the Epistle to the Hebrews as an authority
with respect to the original sense or prophetic character of the portions of
ancient Scripture which it quotes, it should still, according to the principles
we have laid down, be authoritative in favour of the Christian doctrines
which bij means of these quotations it conveys, and if it applies unreservedly
to Christ the names God and Lord, (representing Jehovah J there is at least
the testimony of the Christian writer, if not of the passages from the Old
Testament, to the deity of our Saviour. This is readily granted : but the
very means which the writer employed to attract and conciliate those whom
he immediately addressed have thrown such obscurity over his style that, per-
haps unavoidably, we, in these distant times, are influenced in our mode of
understanding him by the opinions we have formed on the great subjects of
Christian doctrine from the study of other parts of Scripture. We have en-
deavoured to the utmost of our power to divest ourselves of prejudice, and
to consider what is the most natural, consistent, and suitable sense : we are
ourselves well satisfied that we have chosen the right interpretation, but we
have little hope of convincing those who come to the subject impressed with


a firm belief of doctrines which we do not find in Scripture, but which the
ambiguiiy of some of the language here employed may naturally enough
seem to them to favour.

The first proposition of the writer seems to be the superiority of Christ's
office to that of all previous messengers of God's will to his creatures, which
he illustrates by fanciful applications of passages from the Old Testament,
availing himself for this purpose of the double meaning of the word
" crngfe/," sometimes applied to //Mmrm, sometimes to spiritual messengers;
sometimes to the elements executing the purposes of the Almighty ; some-
times to an order of superior intelligences ever ready to fulfil his commands.
We shall give what we apprehend to be the sense of the passage (ch i. 4 —
14) which contains the quotations now under our consideration. "Being
made so much better ilian those messengers," (the prophets by whom God
had previously spoken,) " inasmuch as he hath by inheritance obtained"
(acquired, as belonging naturally to his office) " a more excellent name
than they" (they being only called messengers or servants, his superiority
being marked by the name of Son J. " For unto which of those messengers,
said he, at any time, ' Thou art my son, this day have 1 begotten thee ?'
And again, ' 1 will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a Son.'" — (An
appeal to the prevalent Jewish opinion that these words, taken from Ps. ii.
and 2 Sam. vii. 14, were applicable in their highest sense to the Messiah, an
opinion which, so far as relates to the last-mentioned passage, we can have no
diflSculty in pronouncing to be erroneous.) " And when he introduces again
the hisi-bcgotten into the world," (a reference to the resurrection,) " he
saith, * Let all the angels of God worship him' " (rather, " do homage
to him." It is somewhat doubtful whence these words are taken. Dr. S.
considers them as a loose quotation from Ps. xcvii, 7. " The diflference
of the words," he says, '* is immaterial to the sense, and is not greater
than occurs in some instances of passages from the Old Testament introduced
into the New." It is possible he may be right. The literal translation from
the Hebrew in that passage is, " Worship him, all ye Gods;"" but the LXX.
render it ayyeXoi, angels. It is not certain whether the original here intends
by " Gods," princes, magistrates, ov prophets ; but there is little reason to
suppose that it can mean angels in our sense of that word. Whoever they
are, it is clear that they are called upon to praise Jehovah, and there is no
pretence for supposing any reference of the Psalm to the Messiah ; nor will
the opinion of certain Jews, at a period when they were disposed to refer
every thing in their Scriptures to this expected prince, and which applies
equally to all the neighbouring Psalms, be thought of much importance.
Our author's attempt to explain the introduction oi' ihe Jirst-begotten into the
world, as implied in the Psalm, is, we should think, too far-fetched and fanci-
ful to satisfy even those who are most willing to be led by him. But it is
upon the whole the most probable supposition, adopted by Mr. Belsham after
Sykes, that the words in the Epistle are taken from the LXX. version of
Deut. xxxii. 43, where they are found exactly, though there is nothing cor-
responding in the purest Hebrew copies, or in the other ancient versions ;
and if we suppose the clause not to be genuine as a part of the passage in
Deuteronomy, that is no reason why it may not have been quoted and ap-
plied by the author of the epistle, finding it, as we have no reason to doubt
that he did, in his Greek copy, from whence he has drawn all his quotations.*

* Dr. Smith thinks " its variations in tiie ditferent I\1SS. of tlieLXX. itself afford
a presumption against its genuineness" (i. e. as a part of the original LXX.)- May


Mr. Belsham agrees with Dr. Sykes in supposing that the homage from all
the messengers of God, is, in the passage of Deut., required to be paid to the
chosen people, whose father God is called in this very chapter, and who are
elsewhere in the book of Exodus collectively spoken of as God's Jirst-born
son ; that the introducing again into the world is the restoration of their
prosperity after their afflictions, which is the subject of this part of the Song
of Moses, and that the application of the words to the resurrection of Christ
is an accommodation. Our doubt is, whether the writer of the epistle makes
any reference at all to the original connexion of the words he quotes. He
may mean merely, that by the resurrection of Christ he was so gloriously
exalted, that those words of Scripture might well be applied to him, " Let
all the messengers of God do homage to him." When he introduceth again
the first-begotten (from the dead) into the world, he saith, the Scripture saiih,
i. e. we may apply the words of Scripture, " Let all the messengers of God
do homage to him"). " And concerning these messengers the Scripture
saith, ' Who maketh his messengers winds, and his ministers a flame of hre.' "
(It represents them as mere servants fulfilling his commands, like the winds
and the lightning. The quotation is from the LXX. version of the 104th Ps.
The proper translation of the Hebrew seems to be, " who maketh the winds
his messengers, and flames of fire, i. e. hghtnings, his servants." The author
of the epistle means no more than that the condition of previous messengers,
as compared with that of the Son, might be expressed in these words of Scrip-
ture.) " But concerning the Son it saith, ' Thy throne, O God, is for ever
and ever,' " &c., (whichever construction of the words we adopt, the person
referred to is spoken of as of exalted rank, and as distinguished by the favour
of his God, treated not as a servant, but with distinguished honour, the pas-
sage being reputed among the Jews as a prophecy of the Messiah, and ca-
pable of being really so understood, though originally applied to Solomon,
was the more to the writer's purpose,) " and ' Thou, Lord, in the beginning,
hast laid the foundations of the earth,' " &c. (The 102nd Ps., from which
this passage is taken, cannot, without extreme violence, be considered as ap-
plicable to Christ, and no authority possessed by the writer of this epistle
could cause those who are not blinded by prejudice to understand it so.
Some have supposed the words to be by accommodation employed to ex-
press, still more strongly than the preceding quotation had done, the perma-
nence and glory of Christ's kingdom, and to ascribe to him a new and moral
creation ; but this is forced ; and besides it is very unlikely, as Mr. Belsham
justly observes, that any Writer, addressing himself to Jews, should " presume
to hold that language concerning a prophet, however dignified, which, in
their sacred writings, was uniformly appropriated to the Deity." Much more
probable is the interpretation of Emlyn and others, that "the immutability
of God is here declared as a pledge of the immutability of the kingdom of
Christ." " The God last mentioned," says Emlyn, " was Christ's God, who
had anointed him ; and the author thereupon, addressing himself to this
God, breaks out into the celebration of his power, and especially his un-
changeable duration ; which he dwells upon as what he principally cites the

it not be more justly said, looking at Dr. S.'s own comparison of the present Hebrew
with the Aldine, Vatican, and Alexandrine editions of the LXX., that the parallelism
between the two first sentences, one of which is retained in the Hebrew, the other
in the Aldine Greek, is favourable to the genuineness of both, the same sort of paral-
lelism being found in the following clauses, and that the difference between the Va-
tican and Alexandrine— " be strouy in him"— " strengthen them," proves the ex-
istence of an original in another language, of which both these are translations ?


text for ; in order, I conceive, to prove the stability of the Son's kingdom'
before spoken of." — Emlyn's Works, Vol. II. p. 340. This deserves atten-
tion, but we are disposed to think that this passacre should ratlier be connect-
ed with what follows than with what precedes it. The writer quotes a re-
markable declaration of the power, majesty, and immutability of God, and
then argues in confirmation of what he had before said, that this great Being
condescended to place the Son at his right hand, to exalt him and cause him to
triumph, whilst other messengers were but ministers of his will for the service
of those who were "to become heirs of salvation,"— to be admitted to enjoy
the blessings of the Gospel.) " But to which of those messengers, said he,
at any time, ' Sit thou on my right hand till I make thine enemies thy foot-
stool' ?" (Applying a clause from the 2nd Ps., which, though originally re-
lating to David, was believed to have a secondary application to the Messiah.)
*' Are not they all ministering spirits" (probably mmistering lomrZ^— servants
swift as winds, in allusion to ver. 7) "sent forth to minister for them who
shall be heirs of salvation ?"

We have given what we consider as the most consistent and satisfactory
interpretation of the passage : respecting the author's mode of quoting and
applying texts from the Old Testament, we feel no hesitation. With some-
what less confidence, though upon the whole with a feeling that the evidence
for it decidedly preponderates, we follow Wakefield, Simson, and Belsham,
in explaining " angels" as here meaning the ancient prophets. Dr. S.'s ob-
jection to this, from the change in the sense of the word in ch. ii. 5, we do
not think of much weight as regards such a writer as the author of this epis-
tle ; but the comparison of Heb. ii. 2, with Gal. iii. 19, and (which reference
he omits) Acts vii. 53, if those passages are to be understood according to the
general opinion of commentators, apparently supported by Jewish traditions,
is much more to the purpose ; and as we have doubts on the subject, we re-
quest our readers to observe, that admitting, throughout, the translation "an-
gels," and understanding the passage to affirm the superiority of Christ to
spiritual beings employed in accomplishing the Divine purposes under the
former dispensations, it is still the superiority of Christ's office, and the dig-
nity to which God has exalted him, which are spoken of, and no inference
can be thence fairly drawn respecting his nature.

Undoubtedly, if the New Testament distinctly teaches the Deity of Christ,
the allusions of the writer to the Hebrev/s will be understood as confirming
that doctrine. But the present question is, whether the doctrine is taught in
the Old Testament, and what we hope we have proved is, that the passages
treated of in Dr. S.'s xivth, xvth, and xvith sections, neither in themselves
appear to teach it, nor are proved to contain it by the use made of them in
the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The xviith section is on Ps. ex., usually regarded as prophetic of the Mes-
siah, and quoted by our Lord himself, to confound the Jews by the acknow-
ledgment here made by David of his superiority. We cannot, however, per-
ceive that this Psalm contains any thing; which exalts the Messiah in any
other sense than as all Christians believe that he is exalted. That, although
the descendant of David, he was much greater than David, and might pro-
perly in prophetic vision be called by him Lord, and be represented as
his superior, his sovereign, is universally acknowledged. Even the Jews
would not have denied this. But the difficulty proposed was, how could
David address, as his Lord, one not then existing, his own descendant in distant
times } The Jews had no answer ready; the Orthodox now answer, because
Christ, being God, then existed in heaven, as was well known to David.


In opposition to them is Mr. Belsham's judicious note : " The proper answer
seems to be, tliat the Psalmist was transported in vision to the age of the Mes-
siah, and speaks as though he were contemporary with Christ. This mode of
writing was not unusual with the prophets." The Cairn Inquirer's note
does not then " proceed on a wrong assumption of the point under consider-
ation," but is a solid answer to the argument usually drawn from our Lord's
question in favour of his superiority of nature, and we do not see that Dr.
Smith has made the case any stronger. The priesthood, according to the
order of Melchisedek, of course refers to the office and work, not to the na-
ture of the Messiah, and as explained by the writer to the Hebrews, implies
nothing which Unitarians do not fully believe. It only remains for us to no-
tice Dr. Smith's gloss on the fifth verse of the Psalm :

" The Lord (Adonai, which he afterwards observes is * the name appro-
priated to the living and true God') is on thy right hand : (the address is now
turned to Jehovah :) He smiteth kings in the day of his wrath," &c.

He would have us understand, that "the Lord" here is the same person
spoken of by the Psalmist as " my Lord" in ver. 1st, and that he is here dis-
tinguished by a name peculiarly appropriated to the Supreme God. The
reason, we presume, for this construction is, that " the Lord" is here said to
be " on the right hand ;" whereas in the first verse we find " Jehovah said
to my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand." " The Lord," therefore, in the se-
cond place, must signify the same person who was before placed at God's
right hand, and the words addressed to Jehovah who called him there.

In opposition to this we observe, that as the whole of the rest of the Psalm
(and manifestly both the preceding and following clauses) is addressed to the
great personage who is its subject, it is most unreasonable and unnatural to
suppose these few words to be differently addressed, and there is no occasion,
as we have elsewhere the very expression here employed of God heing at
the right hand of those whom he favoured, and it is a different phrase from
that in the first verse. Ps. xvi. 8 : " Because he (Jehovah) is at my right
hand, I shall not be moved." Ps. cix. 31 : " He (Jehovah) shall stand at
the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul."
It is then evident, that ver. 5 is not addressed to Jehovah, but speaks of him
as supporting that great personage whose exaltation had been described ; and
to put this beyond doubt, the fact is, that for JJd.onai, a great many MSS.
have Jehovah, which there is every reason to believe to be the true reading,
and which is adopted by Dathe.

Section xviii. Isa. vi. 1 — 5. This passage relates a vision of Isaiah,
by means of which he was commissioned to the prophetic office, and which
consisted in a visible manifestation of the Divine presence, so that he said
(ver. 5), " Mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts." In John xii.
41, after quoting two passages from Isaiah, the last of them, respecting the
obsiinacy of the Jews in rejecting Christ, taken from this chapter, the Apos-
tle writes, " These things said Isaiah when he saw his glory and spake of
him," the person spoken of being apparently Christ, whence it has been
concluded that Christ was Jehovah. The argument is generally employed
by the defenders of the deity of Christ, and has been variously replied to by
difl'erent Unitarian writers. The trudi is, that if we believe on other grounds
in the identity of Christ with Jehovah, this passage will appear to us to con-
firm that opinion, but a reference of this kind, which might so naturally and
easily have been made witliout intending to teach such a doctrine, will never
convince any one who finds that doctrine repugnant to the general tenor of


Scripture, Dr. S. speaks severely of the Unitarian interpretations, as " in-
vented in order to serve a system," " evasive, arbitrary, incongruous, and
inadequate to the intention." The first charge means that a full conviction,
arising from the careful study of other parts of Scripture, that Christ and
Jehovah were distinct beings, disposed the minds of Unitarian commentators
to seek and accept a sense of the words, not implying their identity : which
may be true, but is far from being a reproach to them, or an objection to the
interpretation. The other charges are no more than unsupported assertions
expressing the feeling of a writer on one side of the question. We quote
an expression of feeling on the other side, from the note on Isa. vi., of the
learned and excellent Michael Dodson, He gives the words of Bishops
Lowth and Pearce, affirming Christ to be called Jehovah, and goes on
thus :

" How absurd ! Is Christ, who suffered death on the cross, the king
Jehovah, (iod of hosts ? Did the seraphims address themselves to him when
they cried, saying,

Holy, holy, holy Jehovah, God of hosts !
The whole earth is full of his glory !

** It is wonderful, indeed, that such learned and good men should have satis-
fied themselves in shutting their eyes against the clearest light ; and in thus
otFering to the world an interpretation which they must have known to be
liable to great objections. How easy and natural is the interpretation of
John vii. 41, given by Dr. Clarke, in his * Scripture Doctrine of the Tri-

He then gives the passage from Clarke, whom Unitarians in general

" The true meaning is ; when Esaias saw the glory of God the Father re-
vealing to him the coming of Christ, he then saw the glory of him who was
to come in the glory his Father (Matt. xvi. 2/). Esaius, in beholding the
glory of God, and in receiving from him a revelation of the coming of Christ,

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryBritish and Foreign Unitarian AssociationA review of Dr. J.P. Smith's Scripture testimony to the Messiah → online text (page 5 of 15)