John Wilson.

Unitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches online

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attempts to free itself from difficulties, is it obliged to acknowledge
principles wliich war against, and tend to destroy, its own elements.

We are not unaware, that the various parties mto which Trinitarians
are divided — clearly percei\ing and pointing out, as they do, the
errors and absurdities of their brethren, but with only a dim recogni-
tion of their o^vn — have each felt un^villing to regard the others as
orthodox,* and have been often disposed to shut them out from their
own fold, or to throw them into the ranks of their professed opponents,
the Antitrinitarians. But, however they may differ in their exphca-
tions of . the doctrine from wliich they are denominated, and — in
then* several attempts to exjolain the unexplainable, and reconcile the
irreconcilable and absurd — give out, in spite of themselves, glimmer-
ings of Scriptural truth, or yield up positions serviceable to the cause
of Unitarianism, — we venture to affirm, that, whether favorable to the
views of Athanasius or of Sabellius, of Sherlock or of South, of Bishop
Bull or of Archbishop Whately, they are ah, with but few exceptions,
properly classed under the general designation of Trinitarian, and not
Unitarian. They have aU acknowledged themselves to be Trinitarian,
and many of them have gloried in the name, — have all belonged to
Truiitarian churches, — have all subscribed to, or acknowledged a
belief in, the dogma of a Triime God, — have all professed Jesus
Christ to be, personally, Almighty God, or equal to him, — and have
all refrained from being ujiited to churches or to individuals who
openly and unequivocally regard God as one, and only one; and
who believe the Lord Jesus, whether as human or superhuman, to be

* The term " Orthodox," ■whether as a noun, or an adjective, ■will be ■used, in our
©■wn remarks, not to imply literal somidness of doctrine, or, as commonly employed
in the New-England States, to distinguish Trinitarian from Unitarian Congregation-
alists, hut merely to indicate a belief in the doctrine of a Triune God, of ■whatever
character that doctrine may be, as opposed to the opinions of Unitarians, ■who are
regarded by their opponents as heterodox, or unsound in the faith. In other -words,
the term, when used by us, is to be regarded as a mere quotation, ■whether marked
as such or not.


a created being, inferior to the God wlio gave him his existence and
his powers.

To state, however, Trinitarianism in its most general form, and with
an accuracy sufficient for om* present pm'pose, it is the doctrine which
teaches that in the one God there are three co-essential, co-equal, and
co-etemal persons, the second of whom became, in the fulness of time,
the Messiah. To uphold this doctrine, tiie stores of erudition, the
subtilties of philosophy, the eloquence of the pulpit, and the pro-
ductions of the press, — not to mention the decrees of synods and of
councils, the articles of one church, and the confessions and catechisms
of others, — have aU been called into requisition. On behalf of this
doctrine, in particular, have treatises and comments unnumbered been
written and pubKshed. For this purpose the Bible has been opened,
ransacked, and re-ransacked ; and its texts — in fractions, in units, and
in thousands — have been brought into logical and metaphysic play.
The first words in Genesis have been deemed to intimate a pliu-aHty
of persons in the Godhead ; the last in the book of the Apocalypse,
the Deity of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we might say, almost without a
rhetorical figm-e, that nearly every sentence in the Sacred Records has
been adduced, either by itself or in combination with others, to prove,
confirm, or defend the dogma of a Triune God.*

Had the doctrine adverted to not been impugned, all this vast
apparatus of learning, of j)hilosophizing, of decreeing, of catechizing,
of writing, of preaching, and of printing, would not, of course, have
been brought into operation. Accordingly, it has been found, that, in
all ages of the Christian church, even when the hand of power melded
its weapons of silence, extermination, and death against "heretics,"
there were witnesses for the contrary doctrine, — that God is one,
not three; and that our Lord Jesus Christ, "anointed with the oil

* John Wesley, in his Sermons on Several Occasions, vol. i. p. 238, says that the
" Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity, [is] discovered to us in the very first line
of his [God's] written word, ... as well as in everij part of his subsequent revelations,
given by the mouth of all his holy prophets and apostles."


of gladness above Ms fellows," was inferior, in nature and in attributes,
to the Infinite Beiag whom he called his Father and his God. Many
of these T^itnesses have also, in the most pubHc manner, declared their
reasons for their behef ; have apjoealed to Scripture passages wliich they
regarded as proving the simple Oneness of God, and his unqualified
Supremacy over all other beiugs ; and have endeavored to interpret
such texts as were adduced in fevor of a Trinity in Unity, and of the
Deity of Christ and the Holy Ghost, in harmony with what they
thought to be the dictates of reason and the teachings of revelation.

The usual mode of answering the arguments and interpretations of
Unitarians has probably been that to which we have just adverted, —
the adducing of an immense quantity and variety of proof, of which a
large portion had no possible relation to the subject. But, imhappily,
this lack of discrimination in judging of evidence, this wholesale
treatment of Sacred Scriptm'e, — so common, indeed, amongst all
sects and on aU theological subjects, — was not a matter the most
objectionable. Unacquainted with the principles of a generous tole-
ration, or forgetful of the mild and beneficent spirit of then' great
Master, the dominant party, when they did not happen to use the
sword of the civil magistrate, were frequently tempted to employ other
weapons equally effective in the subjugation of free thought, and the
annihilation of opinions regarded as heretical. Many of the older
books of polemical Trinitarians are filled with accusations against their
opponents, of denjing the Lord that bought them, — of wilfully
wresting the Scriptm-es to their own destruction, — of being dis-
believers in the Bible ; schismatics, blasj)hemers, infidels ; who, unless
converted to the true faith, — or, as we should interpret it, unless they
believed in opposition to the evidence presented to their own minds,
or professed opinions contrary to their own convictions, — would be
consigned by the God of love to everlasting woe.

In speaking thus, we should regret to be thought justly chargeable
witli the ver)' fault which we condemn. "We do not mention it for
the pin-pose of throwing any odium either on Triuitarianism or on ita


advocates. The truth is, that in past times the principles of a genuine
religious liberty were but famtly understood, — scarcely recognized
except by a few of those who suffered for their adherence to an
unpopular cause. Had Unitarians been the prevailing sect, it is not
improbable, that — though, from the more benign character of their
behef and their professions of greater HberaKty, less worthy of excuse
— they might have been equally, or nearly as, regardless of the claims
of brotherly love and universal toleration. "We would not, therefore,
rake up the evils, of the past, hi order to blame the present; we
would not collect the errors of the fathers, to accimiulate them on
the heads of their children ; but show, on the contrar}', that though
stiH, now and then, may be heard the cry of heresy and the doom
of damnation, a more kind, charitable, considerate, and Christian
spu'it is working its way into the hearts of all sects ; and that, despite
of a theology which would exclude fr'om heaven aU who spurn at
priestly -power and creed-control, many Trinitarians are actuated by a
generous impulse — the impulse of Christian principle — to overthrow
the barriers wiiich separate them fr'om Unitarians, and, whilst sincerely
attached to the characteristics of their faith, glad to acknowledge, that
out of the pale of their own temple, as well as within its precincts,
there are great and good men ; smcere disciples of the Lord Jesus j
and heirs, with themselves, of the same immortal glory.

Accordingly, in the foUoTving pages, a portion of the beautiful and
noble lessons which have issued fr'om the more cathoHc minds of the
class to wliich we have referred will be presented for two reasons :
Fnst, To aid and encom-age the reader to cherish a spnit, which, while
it j)rayerfully and disjaassionately seeks for hght, mcreasmg hght, and
brooks no hirnian control over its own thoughts and utterances, would
grant to others the same privileges which it claims for itself; humble
in the possession of its faith, zealous in the promotion of what it
deems to be truth, and universal in its love. Secondly, To show, that,
if, according to the admissions of their opponents, Unitarians are many
of them pm'e, devout Clnistians, as well as mtuous and honorable


men, it is possible that the particukr views of religion which they
profess may not, after all, be so bad as they have been represented |
that Unitarianism, though often vilified as the refuge of fools and
scioKsts, and the half-way house to infidelity, if not to atheism, may
contain some of the elements of truth ; nay, may perliaps be the very
truth, though now imperfectly conceived and uttered, which was once
proclaimed by Heaven through the hps and writings of prophets and
apostles, and manifested in the teachings, the works, the prayers, the
sufferings, the life and death, of the Son of God.

We have said, that, along with a great deal of uncharitable language,
it was usual to reply to the argmnents and interpretations of Unitarians,
by adducing from the Bible, in Ji,vor of a Trinity in Unity, a vast
number of passages, which had nothing whatever to do with the
question at issue. Li the heat of controversy, where victory is aimed
at as much as the possession of truth, and where sectarian passions
are as likely as the qualities of discretion and sober judgment to be
enlisted in the cause of dogmas, this over-doing in the collection of
proof-texts is to be more or less expected, not only from Trinitarians
as such, but fr'om all who, with more zeal than knowledge, are engaged
in the defence or the demolition of particular points in theology.
Amongst aU denominations will be found men who have more intensity
and warmth of feeling than candor or wisdom, — more zeal to j)ropa-
gate their opinions by every means at hand, than a disposition to
acknowledge difficulties, or a spuit to welcome truth f-'om whatever
quarter it may proceed. But it wiU not follow, that, because some
portions of the evidence adduced for a certain doctrine are sophistical
or irrelevant, all the other portions are equally false or invalid, and
the doctrine itself without any foundation. The fallacy of one
argument does not imj^ly the fallacy of all other arguments. When,
therefore, an injudicious commentator or controversialist adduces
Ps, xxxvi. 9 (" With thee is the fountain of life : in thy light shall
we see light ") in favor of a personal Trinity, or Ps. xlv. 1 (" My
heart is inditing a good matter ") in favor of a plurality of hj^ostasea


m the Godhead, or of the etepial generation of Christ, it would by
no means be justifiable for one to infer, that all other ajDpeals to
Scripture, in support of these doctrines, are as futile and absurd.
The only fair and legitimate effect of the production of arguments so
obviously groundless should be, not disbelief in the doctrines them-
selves, but an apprehension of the possibility that there may be a lack
of more substantial evidence, when so much stress is laid on what is
obviously trifling ; and a determination, on the part of the inquirer^
to examine and sift that testimony which appears to bear greater
marks of plausibility or of truth.

This much we are willing to concede j for it is an unquestionable
fact, that every good and great cau^se — every truth in science, in
morals, or in rehgion — is liable to be injured by the production
of unnecessary and futile evidence. It is therefore not impossible,
that, while for its support much of what is insignificant and useless
has been adduced, the doctrine itself of a Triune God may yet be
true. It is not impossible that the removal of the false supports
which have been placed in the temple of Trinitarianism, — their de-
struction by the hands of the candid and distinguished of those
who worship at its altar, — may have the tendency rather to exhibit
the strength and durabihty of the fabric than the weakness of its

We freely admit aU this, in order to show that we would not extend
the argument against Trinitarianism, employed in this work, beyond
its legitimate bounds. But, at the same time, we have no hesitation
in affirming, that this argument — drawn from the involuntary con-
cessions of our opponents — assumes an air of far greater probability,
and rises into evidence which may justly be considered as presumptive,
when it is derived from the startling and unquestionable fact, that the
texts on which Trinitarianism must rest if there be any truth at all
in the doctrine, have been disposed of in a precisely similar way as
those to which we have referred. Let us suppose, for example, what
will scarcely be denied, that there is no passage in the whole compass


of the Bible so likely to countenance, the doctrine of Christ's iden-
tity of nature with the essence of the Father as John x. 30, " I and
the Father are one." Now, if it be found that the behevers ia thip
doctrine — those amongst them who by universal consent are regarded
as the most learned and judicious critics — are forced to acknowledge
that the oneness spoken of is a moral, not a metaphysical, union, —
a union sunUar to that which Christ prayed to God might subsist
between his followers and himself, — then is there a strong presump-
tion that the Scriptures contain no evidence whatever for the dogma
of Christ's real or essential identity with the Father.

Let us take another illustration, m respect to the evidence for the
docti'ine of a Trimie God. We wiU assume as a fact, what indeed no
one can gainsay, that the grounds for controversy on this pomt lm,ve
been greatly narrowed. AU, at any rate, adniit that certain texts are,
or appear to be, much more favorable than others to the doctrine in
question. Of these it is impossible to select two which are more to
the pm-pose than Matt, xxviii. 19, and 1 John v. 7 ; — the former
containmg the command of Jesus to the apostles, that they should
" teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the
Son, and of the Holy Ghost ; " and the latter stating that " there are
three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the
Holy Ghost ; and these thi'ee are one." If, m the volume of divine
revelation, there be any thing which approaches in phraseology or in
meaning to the terms used in the formulas of modern Orthodoxy, it
is surely the language and significance of these passages ; and, more
regardful of the nominal resemblances than of the real differences, a
Trinitarian might, with some show of reason, exclaim, " Here, here, at
least, if nowhere else in the Bible, God the Father, God the Son, and
God the Holy Ghost, are declared to be three persons in one God, the
same in substance, and equal in power and glory." And yet v/hat are
the facts of the case, as admitted by the interpretations and criticisms
of not a few Trinitarians themselves ? That neither of these passages
demonstrates the doctrine in question ; that neither of these contains


a (Syllable respecting equality of perfections, or unity of essence ; that
neither utters a word about the essential Deity of the Son or of the
Holy Ghost; that neither teaches the dogma of there bemg three
persons in one God; — that the baptismal formula merely impHes
the great truth, which all believers were to profess, that Christianity
originated from God, was communicated to men by Christ, and was
confirmed by the gifts and influences of the Holy Sphit; and that
the oneness of the three heavenly witnesses was nothing more tlmn a
unity of testimony.*

But not only have many learned, judicious, and candid writers in
the orthodox body been unable to discern satisfactory proof for the
doctrines of a Triune God, and the personal Deity of Christ and
the Holy Ghost, in those texts, singly and separately considered,
which have been deemed by others as perfectly demonstrative : not
a few have conceded that there are whole classes of passages and
entfre books of the Bible winch afford no evidence whatever for
Trinitarianism. Thus it has been aclaiowledged not only by Roman
CathoHc but by Protestant divines, of whom the number is increasing
every day with the increase of knowledge as to the true modes
of investigating the sense of Scripture, that the Old Testament affords
nought but the faintest glimmerings of the dogma of a Triune God ;
by others that it is altogether silent on the subject of a plurahty in
the divine natiure ; by others, again, that the great Teacher himself, the
Foimder and Perfecter of our Faith, taught not these and other re-
lated tenets of Orthodoxy ; and that the apostles, even after they were
furnished with the fullest suppHes of inspu'ation, when they obtained

* For the sake of illustration, and to give the utmost possible benefit to the
Trinitarian argument, we have taken for granted that the passage was written by
St. John. But, by a majority of critics of all denominations, this is denied ; and the
amount of evidence which they adduce for their opinion cannot but be regarded
as sufficient to banish it for ever from a place in the Sacred Volume. Strict accuracy
requires it to be said, that the interpolation is contained in a portion both of the
seventh and the eighth verse, as follows : — "In heaven, the Father, the Word, and
the Holy Ghost ; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness
in earth "


sucli ideas of the nature of Christ's kingdom as they had been incapable
of comprehending from the Hps of then- JNIaster, did not, in their oral
discom'ses, deKver those doctrmes concerning God, Christ, and the
Sphit, which have been commonly regarded by " eyangehcal " \mters
as sa\ing truths of the gospel. The emment and good men who make
these admissions rest their faith chiefly on a few texts in the ^vritings of
John and Paul, — texts, however, of a kind wliich, from their obscmity
or then' suscejptibility of being rendered or explained in different and
contrary ways, cannot, according to prmciples professedly adopted by
almost all Christians of the present da)^ be consistently regarded as
aflForditig undoubted evidence for the truth of any controverted point.
Generally speaking, indeed, the principles of interpretation which are
now laid do^vn by the most mteUigent and the most esteemed critics
in orthodox chm-ches, while leaving intact the web of di^dne truth, as
to the Unity of God, which is so beautifully woven by patriarchs,
prophets, 6vangehsts, and apostles, necessarily sweep away unnumbered
cobwebs as to essences, hj'postases, personahties, and distinctions, which
have been spun by dogmatic and mystical divines, and hung by them
on every leaf of Sacred "Writ.

But stiU more : with scarcely a dissentient voice, the most distin-
guished theologians of all sects have acknowledged that reason
and revelation alike proclaim the existence of one, and of only one,
Supreme ]\ihid, one self-existent Being, one um-ivailed and infinite
IntelKgence, the original Som-ce of all existence, — of all that is great
and good and blessed ; and, with a harmony but partially mterrupted,
they have also acknowledged, — what, indeed, seems inseparable
from the former admission, — that the doctrine of three co-equal and
co-eternal persons in the divine natm-e — the doctrine that calls one
person, God; another person, God; and a thu'd, God; and which
pronounces these three to be only one God — is a doctrine that
cannot be discovered by the use of the liighest powers of the himian
intellect ; is a mystery respectmg which philosoj)hy and metaphysics
may speculate, but which they cannot prove to be true ; on which the


heavens shed no light; and at which "Reason stands aghast, and
Faith herself is half confounded."

Now, we would ask if it be at all probable that a doctrine can
be founded in truth, — can with propriety be termed a doctrine
of revelation, — can really be an article of the Jewish or the Clnistian
feith, which so many of its clearest-sighted advoci&.tes concede to be
undeveloped in the universe of matter and of mind, — not recognized
by Abraham and the other patriarchs, — not announced by Moses or
any of his fellow-prophets, — in :&ct, not known to any of the ancient
Hebrews, — not revealed by Jesus dm^ing his ministry, or preached
by his earHest disciples ; and which is to be inferred only from a few
dark and ambiguous passages in the New Testament, or rather in
the writings of but two of the apostles.

We would, however, avoid rashness in drawing the inference, — so
as to settle the question at issue, — that Trinitarianism is unquestion-
ably fiilse because its best and most judicious advocates have rejected
as irrelevant so much of that Scriptm-al proof vrhich had so frequently
been insisted on by others in every variety of form. But at the same
time we cannot avoid concluding, that the whole fabric of Trinitarian-
ism must be exceedingly weak, and rest on an insecure foundation,
when those supports which have been deemed the strongest are
acknowledged by its owners to be altogether powerless; when not
only beam after beam, but pillar after pillar, are overthrown, not by
the rude, unhallowed hands of " heretics," but by the softer and more
gentle toucties of those who would fain be sheltered under its roof;
and when the firmest ground on which their temple stands has been
proved to be, not a rock, but sand, by the clear-sightedness and candor
of the very men who, amid the falling ruins and crumbling fragments,
seem vainly to think that they will find a reftige under those wings
from which others of their friends have been glad to escape.

It may appear strange, that, after giving up as weak and irrelevant
the strongest and the most pertinent proofs that can be adduced in
support of an opinion, good and wise men should still cling to it with



a tenacity which cannot be loosened by evidence of a contrary nature j
that, after abandoning their best arms as perfectly useless, and their
most secm'e positions as wholly untenable, they should not at last be
constraiaed to jield up the whole matter of debate, with all their
instrmnents of aggression and defence, instead of havuig recourse, as
they do, to ground unfirm as a morass, and to weapons weak as straw.
But this inconsistency is often observable in predilections of various
kinds. Every day do we see men, judicious and sensible in. other
respects, tenaciously holding ojDinions, which they have been in the
habit of cherishing from an early period, not only in reUgion and
theology, but m pohtics, in Hteratm-e, in matters of business, and in
the common aflEiu's of life, long after they have acknowledged that
the main groimds for then' adherence to them have given way.
And thus it seems to be in regard to those who, abandoning proof
after proof, text after text, — some of these being passages of
Scriptm-e which have been generally adduced as the very bulwarks
of the Trinitarian doctrine, — stiU cling with affection, if not wth
ardor, to the doctrine itself. To then* minds it may be hallowed by
the sentiment of filial love, by the reminiscences of youthful piety,
by the associations of kindred and of social brotherhood, and by the
sphitual nutriment which they have drawn from such portions of truth
as have been blended and incorporated with it, but which, by an
illusion of the imagination, they suppose to be derived ft^om the
doctrine itself. The mere fact, then, of a behef in dogmas whose

Online LibraryJohn WilsonUnitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches → online text (page 2 of 55)