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A half-century of the Unitarian controversy: with particular reference to ... online

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and the infallibility of the Bible which honest truth
will allow, and we may safely affirm that there is not
a single right-minded person in the community who
would turn coldly away from it, or willingly do or say
anything to detract ifrom it.

But the very occasion for making such an appeal
is an intimation that it relies not wholly on fact, but
somewhat on feeling and fear, and on a conscious mis-
giving as to its entire validity. The appeal could



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MOTIVES OF UNITARIAN CRITICS. 237

not avert criticism, and it cannot stifle it. Doubt and
inquiry had the start of the appeal, and had already
preoccupied the ground. The strife began at this very
point. Apprehension got the better of courage, and re-
monstrances, often charged with abuse, were substituted
for arguments. The question forced itself upon trial,
not whether the Bible could be rescued from the schol-
ar's or the sceptic's touch, but whether it could fairly
and fearlessly stand the test, which it ought not for one
moment to dread, if it were worthy of the confidence
claimed for it. If God had written it, his hand and
mind might safely be left to vindicate their work. If
it had passed unharmed through the risks of ages, of
transcription and translation, it need not quail before
the dictionary, the grammar, or the commentary. The
explorer of the Egyptian catacombs, the curious anti-
quarian digging away the sand from the plains of As-
syria, or marking out the sites of the seven churches
of Asia, could not discredit the record. The chronologist
by old-world cycles, eclipses, and royal dynasties, the
geologist gathering up the medals of creation, the mari-
ner on the Mediterranean, and the traveUer through
Southern Italy, would never unsettle the Scriptures of
Moses or Paul. The timidity of the champions of the
Bible would bring its claims into peril far more than
would the boldness of its challengers.

So far as the discussions connected with the Unita-
rian Controversy are had in view, we feel at liberty to
say that Unitarians as a class have made a loyal recog-
nition of the paramount importance of true Scriptural
knowledge by the labors they have spent upon the origi-
nal text, and by their scholarly zeal to authenticate
and interpret it. In view of facts, of which unfortu-
nately the evidence is painfully abundant in current re-
ligious literature, it is the sincere conviction of Unita-
rians, uncharitable as the confession of it may seem.



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238 UNITAMAir VIEW OP THE SCRIPTURES.

that many Orthodox writers, for the sake of sustaining
unimpaired the authority of the Bible, deal disingenu-
ously with difficulties to which they really cannot close ,
their own eyes or those of common readers. Orthodoxy
attempts to hide from observation, or to make too light
of, some of the perplexities which the Scriptures present
to many conscientious and serious persons; while the
obtrusion of these perplexities is regarded by the Or-
thodox as proof that they cannot be proposed by any
really conscientious or serious person, but indicates of
itself a depraved heart The Orthodox in general
insist that faith in the Bible, and love for it, should shut
the eyes of all readers to the misgivings which their
theory of its infallibility creates, and should reconcile
them to encounter, unexplained and unrelieved, every
embarrassing suggestion. It is claimed that the same
Christian submission which reconciles us to bear bodily
affliction and bereavement from God, ought to make us
docile and tolerant over the seeming flaws in an infalli-
ble record. We are asked not only to accept the Bible
under the highest character which we can intelligently
assign to it, but as burdened with claims which Or-
thodoxy has set up for it ; and in trying to uphold these
claims Orthodoxy does not deal fairly with many of the
difficulties which, not the BibUy but the Orthodox theory
of the Bible, presents. Orthodoxy gives the Bible a
weak side at that very point where it takes up the
championship of the Bible.

We will now frankly state the position which Unita-
rians have in general affirmed, which they have main-
tained against many opponents, which they believe those
opponents must and will sooner or later be compelled
to accept, and which has in fact within the last quar-
ter of a century received either an outspoken or an
implied recognition from the most competent biblical
students of various Christian communions. It .is, that



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ASPERSIONS ON UNITAKIAN CBITICS. 239

the prevailing popular view of the authority, the inspira-
tion, and the infallibility of the Bible, has been Buper-
stitiously attached to it, that it did not originate in the
Bible, is not claimed by the contents of the Bible, and
cannot be sustained by any fair dealing with them;
while the special pleading, the subterfuges, the arti-
fices, the evasions, the forced constructions, and the
actual violence to truth and fact, needed to uphold the
popular view, are the very scorn of many intelligent per-
sons and the grief of many pious persons. That posi-
tion stands attested by overwhelming truth, and he who
is competent to pronounce upon it must be something
more than a bold man, and something worse than a
weak man, who will now venture to question it. Is it
now the pride of reason, the rebellion of a sinful heart,
the entering into a controversy with God, which has in-
stigated biblical criticism, and led Unitarians to adopt
those general views about the composition, the author-
ity, and the inspiration of the Bible that are identified
with their position in this controversy? Let us try to
answer this question.

We regret again to have to say, that an unjust asper-
sion was cast upon the motives of those who, in our
doctrinal discussions, advanced the usual and now very
familiar terms of biblical criticism, in suggesting the
possibility of error, of mistranslations, perversions, and
corruptions in the text of Scripture. It is to be granted
that such suggestions may be made in the spirit of cavil-
ling, of hypercriticism, of contempt and poor conceit of
mind. But they may also be prompted by the highest
conscientiousness, by the most intelligent candor, and by
a most reverent and sincere intent. The instigating mo-
tive and spirit of them must be inferred firom the char-
acters, the professed design, and the language of those
who offer them. It requires but a Uttle discernment to
distinguish between a reckless and a captious disputant.



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240 C0KTB0VEB3T ON BIBLICAL CRITICISM.

and an honest, humble doubter over perplexities, —
though both may ask the same questions and make
similar assertions. But the charge quite confidently
and indignantly uttered against the Unitarians in pages
of '' The Panoplist " and " The Spirit of the Pilgrims »
was in substance this : ^' You are flattering the pride
of human reason, you are judging the word of Grod by
your own prejudices, and making your own taste or in-
telligence or conscience the measure and test of revealed
truth ; you wish to warp and twist Scripture, to perplex
the unlearned, and to unsettle the foundations of faith
and reverence, leaving us all to the mercy of private
judgment and a sort of freedom which Protestantism
never contemplated."

In answer to this aspersion upon their motives. Uni-
tarians replied, in general, that it was unjust and bigot*
ed ; that in the issue they would be found to be the
wiser Mends of the Bible ; that the object which they
had in view in proposing some discrimination in the
contents and the popular estimate of that book, and in
arguing for certain textual constructions and emenda-
tions, was simple truth, to meet the actual emergencies
and exactions of the case ; that the Scriptures were ex-
posed to harm and to abuse, were open to honest criti-
cism as to a safeguard, and that the human elements in
them were subject to examination and revision by the hu-
man faculties. They also urged, that, whatever was the
authority of the original inspiration, unless we were pre-
pared to claim that all transcribers, translators, and
printers of the Bible, as well as the collectors who first
pronounced upon the canonical documents, were divinely
watched over, restrained, and helped, there must have
been risk of error and consequent material for criticism.
Whether Unitarianism or Trinitarianism would gain or
lose by the processes proposed, was an issue entirely
subordinated to the Christian scholar's loyalty to his
appropriate work.



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UNITABIAN VIEWS OF SCRIPTURE. 241

Thus the whole question coDcerning the authority,
the inspiration, and the interpretation of the Bible was
fdlly opened, though prejudiced in the tone of its dis-
cussion by this unfair imputation of motives. In con-
ducting their arguments, founded on textual criticism.
Unitarians suggested the following and similar consid-
erations : — That some books and some portions of books
in the Bible are of doubtful authority, and probably spu-
rious ; that the collection is of a miscellaneous character,
of unequal value, credit, and present authority ; that sci-
ence, history, chronology, geography, and even morality
and piety, can propose valid objections to more or less im-
portant contents of the Bible, if the letter is insisted upon
and a plenary inspiraiion is claimed for it ; that inspira-
tion could not be ascribed equally to all its contents, and
was not needed in some of them, while the nature and
measure and proof of inspiration itself were all unsettled
and difficult of determination by any formula ; that the
tmters used Orientalisms and figures of speech, exag-
gerations and metaphors, which would mislead us if
rigidly interpreted into more literal forms of language ;
that what Christ said is more authoritative than any-
thing that comes from any other source ; that he may
have conformed in language to views and conceptions
then prevailing in the world, without always authenti-
cating such views and conceptions as his language im-
plied ; that possibly his own words had sometimes been
misunderstood or misreported, or affected by transcrip-
tion or translation ; that there are discrepancies, even in
the New Testament, which cannot fairly be reconciled
into a perfect consistency with the entire infallibility
claimed for the writers; that the strict rules of logic
were not always observed by the writers in their rea-
sorfing ; that they were liable to mistake if they went
out of the range within which their inspiration was lim-
ited ; and that on one point at least the Apostles were
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242 REASON AND REVELATION.

manifestly in error in expecting the end of the world in
their generation, and in speaking of it as certain.

When the controversy, leaving these broad fields, was
concentrated upon some specific issue, a dispute was
raised as to the proper province of reason in dealing
with the Bible and its contents. Unitarians insisted
upon an undefined, but still a real and legitimate fac-
ulty in a human being, not to judge Divine Truth, but to
judge upon what other men offered to it as Divine Truth,
— upon its message and its vehicle, upon its consistency
with reason and with the elementary constitution of that
nature which God had given and which God addressed.
Unitarians accord with the judicious Hooker in a belief
in " the primary revelation of the human understanding."
Holding to this as, though a vague and undetermined,
still a vitally essential right, some Unitarians have been
wont to express themselves very strongly to this effect :
If the Bible could be proved to teach this or that doctrine,
professedly drawn firom it, so inconsistent with its other
contents, with the attributes of God and the nature of
man, and so shocking to human reason, then the ne-
cessary inference would follow, that the Bible is not
from God. Unitarians were replied to by their oppo-
nents, that, if a book advancing the claims of the Bi-
ble were found to contain such monstrous doctrines, its
Divine authority would of course be perilled. This
being yielded as an hypothesis, it was then denied that
the Bible had any such contents, and when, notwith-
standing, the Orthodox continued to press upon Unita-
rians doctrines as from the Bible which to the latter had
that character and aspect, the revulsion of heart, mind,
and soul against them was not allowed to discredit the
doctrines or the Bible which was supposed to teach
them, but was referred to the pride of carnal reason
and a haughty heart. The doctrines, nevertheless, came
from God, and were good doctrines, and the Bible was



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REASON APPUBD TO THE BIBLE. 243

all the more precions for teaching them; and until a
man could choke them down, he was unmistakably in
a hopeless state of reprobation.

When the discussion reached this point, it was a
blessed thing for both parties that there was such a
door of relief opened as that of bibliccd criticism. God
be thanked for the understanding he has given to man,
as well as for the inspiration he has given to his Word ;
for the faculty to interpret, as well as for the oracle ; for
the certain expounder of its uncertain sounds. The
great question presents itself. What doctrines does the
Bible teach ? So that, beside all the broad issues relat-
ing to the authenticity and authority of the different
books of Scripture, there came in for discussion a large
range of topics connected with interpretation. The di-
rection of these discussions and the spirit brought to
them may be inferred from the following instance.
There appeared in " The Spirit of the Pilgrims " * a
very censorious review of Milman's History of the Jews,
written in the spirit of an alarmist In that review the
liberal-minded and intelligent author, though, as a dis-
tinguished clergyman of the Church of England, he be-
longed then as now to a nominally Orthodox commun-
ion, was severely handled for venturing to make some
concessions of a semi-rationalistic character. The re-
viewer expresses his own opinion in this sentence: "We
know that, of all impossible vagaries of a learned fancy,
that of making the Bible a book which infidels will be-
lieve is the wildest" This remark is made concerning
the efforts of the critic, in allowing for the Orientalisms
of the record, to reduce some apparently marvellous, le-
gendary, or exaggerated details to a more credible self-
consistency. Suppose now we invert the remark of the
reviewer, and say that, Of all the most objectionable

* Vol. m. p. 487.



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344 ANTAGOKISTIG VIBWS 01* THE BIBLE.

ways of viewing and treating the Bible, that is the
most harmful which fosters infidelity and burdens a
vigorous and effective faith in its substantial truth with
a slavish bondage to the letter of all its contents. Is
not this assertion of ours as true as that of the reviewer?
And is not the truth in it as worthy of practical regard
and caution from the defenders of the Bible ? The ad«
vocates of the Bible have found occasion in many cases
to be its apologists. They ought to be furnished for both
these offices, as were the great ministers of the Christian
Church in the centuries after the Aposties. But it is a
curious fact, that many divines who have been most
ready to write upon the evidences of Christianity have
been the least tolerant of the harder tasks of the biblical
critic. While those who are already firm and assured
in their Scriptural faith of course may look to their re-
ligious teachers for instruction founded on their faith, it
would seem as if those who are tried by doubts, but are
anxious to believe if their difficulties can be removed,
deserved some sympathy from the friends and cham-
pions of revelation. Some of our divines, however,
seem to have acted on the principle, that the harder
they made the terms of biblical faith to the sceptical,
the more precious those terms would be to the believer.
On the same page of the same review just quoted, we
read the following sentence : ^< Let the defender of the
inspiration of the Bible take the highest ground ; he wiU
find it easiest to maintain." But what is the highest
ground ? The writer evidently means by the expression
to recommend the boldest assertion, the most unquali-
fied, unscrupulous, and dogmatic assertion, of plenary in-
spiration. This, however, would be to our minds the
lowest ground, lowest in the scale of reason, truth, value,
and evidence. Who shall be judge in any case whether
an obstinate and rigid adherence to an unintelligent and
a reckless theory, or a candid concession to a recon-



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THE LBTTBR AND THE SPIRIT OF SCRIPTURE. 245

sidered and a reconstmcted theory, be the truest ground ?
— for the truest will be the highest. An issue raised by
common sense concerning hundreds of passages in Scrip-
ture, asks whether they are to be interpreted literally or
Jiguratively ; and if figuratively, how we are to choose,
out of an infinite number of harder prosaical forms of
language, a cast into which to compress the poetic figure.
Thus, twice does the Bible affirm that the Ten Com-
mandments were " written with the finger of God " on
tables of stone. (Exod. xxxi. 18 ; Deut ix. 10.) If we
insist upon the letter^ we must say that God took into
his hands those slabs of stone, and actually engraved
upon them with his own finger the Ten Command-
ments. But if we yield the literal for some figurative
interpretation, we have abandoned logic with the letter,
and we follow our fancies as they rove in a thousand
directions to seek the proper shaping of an image for
expressing God's agency in acting through man as an
engraver or scribe, a dictator or oracle. How vain, then,
is the attempt to trammel such ventures as those of Mil-
man, provided they are reverential, with the broken
bonds of literalism ! Over and over again we find the
Deity represented in the Old Testament as rising early
in the morning light, as if, like a man who had a task, he
determined to start apace and make a long day of it.
No one interprets such language literally. But when we
abandon the letter, the alternative is not to insist upon
some specific, figurative form, but to launch freely into
the expanse of devout and reverent imagery.

Suppose a serious reader of the Bible, with a burden
on his mind, comes to his minister with this question :
" How can the Bible twice repeat the assertion, that
* David was a man after God's own heart, fulfilling all
his will,' (1 Sam. xiii. 14, Acts xiii. 22,) when the
same Bible presents David to us as an adulterer and
a murderer, and tells us that he was expressly forbidden
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346 INSPIRATION OF THB BIBLB.

to baild a temple for God, because he was ^ a man of
blood ' ? " Doubtless the minister in the age of our
fathers would have replied, that ^ God sanctified all bis
instruments," and would have let the matter drop there.
A minister of our own time would be likely to reply,
that the English words " a man after Grod*s own heart "
do not convey exactly the Hebraism in the original;
which means, more strictly rendered, a man of OodPs
choice for fulfilling his purpose in one or more directions.
The relief is appreciable and sufficient But is not this
a use of your reason for removing a seeming inconsist-
ency in the record, a trial of your own skill and wisdom
to improve upon what your fathers left you ? It surely
is. Suppose, then, you try the same intelligence upon
the popular notion that David's fierce imprecations upon
his enemies in some of the Psalms come from inspira-
tion of God, and so are of edifying use in Christian
churches for the devotion of Christians at this day. Of
the nine verses in that exquisite and heart-moving lyric,
Psalm cxxxvii., the first six might have come from a
soul kindled by the fire of the divine altar. But what
shall we say of the last verse, — ^< O daughter of Babylon,
happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
against the stones" ?

We can give but a few paragraphs to that element of
the great controversy before us which involves the sub-
ject of Inspuration, though a volume might be filled by
that topic alone. All clear, distinguishing, and satisfac-
tory views on this topic are embarrassed by the unset-
tled and undefined senses attached by different persons
to Inspiration when ascribed to the Bible. The most
encouraging reason for hoping that we have made ap-
proximation to a true theory of Inspiration, and to more
accordance of opinion and belief in reference to it, is
found in the fact that we have given over our attempts
at a rigid definition of its substance, scope, or limitations.



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INSPtBATION AND TB6TIH0KT. 347

And yet, till we have something like such a definition,
we can argue, advocate, and object to but vague conclu-
sions. Who will tell us, to the content of all, what is
meant by Inspiis^tion ? We all know what we mean to
mean by it. We all have a clouded sense of its august,
oracular source, its exalted authority, and its intended
uses, as abiding in a writing whose words, or at least
whose contents, have a Divine sanction. But what rigid
exposition can be given of its method, its operation, its
limits, its distinguishing marks and tokens ? What are
the securities of its tenure for human use? Is it re-
stricted to the communication and the sanction of one
class of truths, namely, religious truths, and even, by a
rigid analysis, to that class of religious truths which we
call the highest, that is, the spiritual as distinguished from
the moral ? Does the inspiration by the Divine Mind of
a human mind, as a channel or organ for the communis
cation of religious truth, affect all the views and utter*
ances of that mind, and make all its judgments and
opinions infallible? Does this inspiration intermingle
with the knowledge and the wisdom derived by the in-
spired man from other sources ? How does such inspi-
ration pass from the mind into speech or writing, using
the vocables of a language and its grammatical forms,
and words and images which have a variety of significa-
tions and associations ? Does this inspiration confine
its authority to the actual utterances and to the original
record made by the subject of it, or is it of such a nature
as to admit of being perpetuated unimpaired in a toler-
ably faithful translation of the record ?

The Apostles affirmed, on an occasion when evidence
was all important, that two sorts of it were offered in
the cause of the Gospel. Thus, " WE are his witnesses
of these things ; and so is also the HOLY GHOST,
whom God hath given to them that obey him." (Acts
V. 32.) Here they evidently distinguish between their



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248 "THE WORD OF OOD/'

own testimony as competent witnesses to what they had
seen, heard, and known, and the assurance of belief
which God gave by inspiration to the obedient. St.
Paul often makes a distinction between what he teaches
as a man, speaking by his own judgment and prompt^
ing, and what he teaches through the Spirit of God.
Thus the personal Apostolic testimony is made to be
that of independent, veritable eyewitnesses, who had
cognizance of facts transpiring within their own obser-
vation, and of intelligent judges of truth as to matters
level to human comprehension. The testimony of the
Holy Ghost stands in some sense apart, as to a degree
authenticating what the Apostles knew, and to a de-
gree adding to their knowledge, their power, and their
ability to teach, and attaching a demonstration to
their testimony. Is there not here a fair distinction
between the contents of the Bible as embracing alike
what is taught, from human sources, of history, wisdom,
moral precept and doctrine, and what came by imme-
diate inspiration from God ? And if that distinction be
allowed, then Inspiration must be restricted to a portion
of the contents of the Bible, while what the book con-
tains of mere human teaching or writing must be sub-
ject to the conditions attaching to all the operations of
the human intellect

The old Orthodox theory wavered and oscillated be-
tween a verbal inspiration and a plermrt/ inspiration of
all the contents of the Bible, and either epithet attached
to inspiration has been the warrant with the Orthodox
of all parties for speaking of the Bible as " the Word of
God," which, as the careful reader knows very well, has
no Scripture warrant for its use.* The usual form of



Online LibraryGeorge Edward EllisA half-century of the Unitarian controversy: with particular reference to ... → online text (page 21 of 44)