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TRINITARIANISM EITHER UNINTELLIGIBLE OR SELF
SECT. I. VARIOUS AND OPPOSITE STATEMENTS OR DEFINITIONS OF
THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY.
When men have several faiths, to find the true,
SIR W. DAVENANT.
In pages 2 and 3, we gave a brief abstract of the principal theories of a Triune God which have been set forth in the writings of eminent theologians. In the present section, it will be our aim to exhibit these theories in the words of their respective authors, or of those to whom they have been attributed.
We shall, in the first place, present the formulas of two of the most ancient ecclesiastic symbols, the Apostolical, so called, and the Nicene; each of these containing a profession of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; namely, in a kind of Trinity, but not in a Triune God; — the first and oldest of these creeds being, in its statement of the Deity, Unitarian; and the second, Dualistic. We shall then quote a variety of propositions emanating from very different sources, but all acknowledging belief in the dogma of a Trinity in Unity; and shall endeavor to show that these propositions are either so obscure and unintelligible as to express no ideas, and afford no ground whatever for belief, or that they contain such affirmations and such principles of reasoning as lead to conclusions very different from that which they are intended to recommend; that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so far from their subsisting as three co-equal and co-eternal persons in one God, according to the usual representation of the Trinitarian doctrine, are, by virtue of the statements, the admissions, or the reasonings of Trinitarians themselves, either I. Only one divine person or agent with three names; II. Three finite intelligences, each, considered in himself, imperfect, but all constituting one God; III. Three unequal beings, of whom only one is the absolutely True, the Self-existent, the Supreme God; or, IV. Three co-equal, co-eternal, and infinite Gods.
It is painful to argue on this subject; but, if men will depart from the sublime simplicity of Scripture and from the teachings of enlightened reason, it seems almost impossible to point out the conclusions fairly deducible from their phraseology, without using such expressions as, though meant to apply only to the figments of the human brain, jar on those sentiments of profound reverence which every devout mind must feel in speaking of the Most High.
All Trinitarians say, reluctantly or unreluctantly, that "there are three persons in one God." In using this word "person," they, of course, annex, or they do not annex, to it certain ideas. They use the word either in its ordinary acceptation, or in some other sense, or in no sense at all. Some Trinitarians have no hesitation in defining the conceptions which they attach to it; while others content themselves with the remark, that it expresses a distinction in the Godhead which is so mysterious as to be incapable of being defined or explained. In the latter case, the proposition, of which the word "person" forms the chief element, is, as a matter of course, unintelligible. It means nothing. It consists of letters or sounds which have no signification. It addresses no faculty of the mind, touches no affection of the heart, calls into action no aspiration of the soul, no principle of faith or hope or love.
In the other cases, in which "person" is defined, the proposition under notice expresses a sentiment which can be pronounced congruous or incongruous with itself, true or false, according to the ideas which it is made to represent, and to its agreement or disagreement with the principles of reason and the statements of revelation.
I. If, in the proposition, “There are three persons in one God," by the word " person" is meant a character, phase, or relation of the Deity; a peculiar mode in which God discloses himself to his intelligent offspring; a manifestation of some one of his characteristics or attributes, then will the doctrine, that the three persons, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, are one God, be perfectly intelligible, and consistent with itself; for the one Supreme Being unquestionably acts towards man in the three capacities of a creating, a redeeming, and a sanctifying God. But this theory of a Trinity in Unity, which has been suggested in a variety of forms, though all essentially alike, is liable to strong objections. It departs from the ordinary sense of the word "person," without assigning a satisfactory reason. restricts the relations of the Deity to three, when, in point of fact, they exceed that number: for God is not only our Creator, but our Governor; not only our Redeemer, but our Preserver; not only our Sanctifier, but our Consoler and our Judge; so that there would be at least as much propriety in saying that there are six or more persons, as in maintaining that there are only three, in the Godhead. Moreover, the terms "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," the original subject of the proposition (not the substituted words "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier "), when spoken of as mere characters or relations of the Deity, and not as intelligent agents, convey no ideas which can be apprehended by the human mind. The Father, the Son, or
the Spirit of a relation or a mode; their co-equality and co-essentiality; the self-existence or the supremacy of the first relation, the eternal generation of the second and procession of the third relation, — each of these being God, and yet constituting altogether only one God; the one mode or manifestation sending the others, or appointing them to certain trusts, and all having communications one with another in the great acts of creation, providence, and redemption, these or similar representations of God, which may justly be inferred from the language used by believers in a nominal Trinity, if consistent with their main principle, and not meaning to speak of three real, conscious agents or beings, are so repugnant to the dictates of common sense and of universal language as to justify any reasonable man in refusing to believe a doctrine which involves such absurdities.
II. and III. If, on the contrary, it is affirmed that the word "person" should be understood to denote an intelligent agent, but that, though three intelligent agents exist in the Godhead, and each of these is God, they are not three Gods, but only one God, it will necessarily follow, unless, in spite of the denial, we understand the proposition to convey the incompatible notion that three infinite Gods are only one infinite God, — that the word "God" is used here in two very different senses; and that the proposition means either, 1. That each of the three persons or agents is not by himself an infinite being, but is called God in a lower sense of the term, and that the Supreme and Self-existent One is neither the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Ghost, but the true God compounded of the three persons or agents; in other words, that, taken individually, neither of them is the true God, but that, collectively, the three constitute the true God; the three highest but finite beings, from whom all existence is derived, making altogether one Infinite Being. Or, 2. That only the first of the intelligent agents in the Trinity is God, agreeably to the strictest sense of that word; that he only is a self-existent and independent being, the second and the third, derived and dependent; but that these belong to the Godhead, because they were superior to all other finite beings, and had, by the will of the Father, and in a peculiar and ineffable manner, partaken of all his attributes, with the single exception of self-existence. According to the first of these. alternatives, a manifest contradiction is involved in the terms of the proposition; according to the second, the three persons are not equal to each other. Strange that a doctrine leading to such conclusions should have been avowedly held by a majority of Trinitarian writers!
IV. If, agreeably to another phasis of the doctrine of the Trinity, the word "person" is explained to mean an eternal, infinite agent, mind, spirit, or being, and it is asserted that there are three such intelligent existences in the Godhead, equal to each other in all divine perfections, the result will be, unless the words have a meaning directly adverse to what we usually attribute to them, that there are three infinite Gods; and that, by saying there is only one God, we either contradict ourselves, or intend merely to affirm that the three Gods harmonize so completely in their wills and modes of operation, that they are in effect but one essentially Divine Being, one God.
We have not attempted to trace a tithe of the consequences resulting from the various explanations of the word "person," as used by its supporters in stating the doctrine of a Triune God; nor have we, in all cases, employed the phraseology which they adopt. The copious statements of the Trinity, however, from orthodox authorities, with some of the objections made to them by other professed Trinitarians, which are now to be presented, will, we think, justify what has been already said, and, in a great measure, supply what has been omitted.
§ 1. THE APOSTOLIC OR UNITARIAN TRINITY.
I believe in God, the Father, Almighty; and in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Ghost, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, buried, arose from the dead on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and sits at the right hand of the Father, whence he will come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the body. — THE APOSTLES' CREED (so called).
The "Apostles' Creed" we have given as it appears in a note to Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History (vol. i. p. 80), translated by Dr. MURDOCK, who says that this was "the common form of it in the fourth century, as used in most churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa, except some slight verbal discrepancies." It was once the prevailing opinion, that this creed was actually the production of the apostles; but, though it was undoubtedly in use at a very early age of the church, the evidence for its genuineness as an apostolic composition seems not to be valid. It is, however, with the exception of the creeds of the New Testament, the simplest of all existing forms (see pp. 243-6 of the present work); and it is remarkable that it says nothing whatever of a Trinity in Unity, of the Deity of Christ, or of the separate personality of the Holy Spirit. It is strictly and thoroughly Unitarian: "I believe in God, the Father, Almighty; and in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, ...; and in the Holy Spirit."
As for the parts thereof [of the Apostles' Creed] which were undoubtedly most ancient, the matter of them is so manifestly contained in the Scripture, and, supposing the truth of Christianity itself, they are so certain, that they need no other authority to support them than what Christianity itself subsists upon; and, for other points afterwards added, they cannot, by virtue of being inserted there, pretend to apostolic authority. DR. ISAAC BARROW: Exposition of the Creed; in Works, p. 572.
That the unity of the Godhead is concluded in this article is apparent, not only because the Nicene Council so expressed it by way of exposition, but also because this creed in the churches of the East, before the Council of Nice, had that addition in it, "I believe in one God." BISHOP PEARSON: Exposition of the Creed, Art. I. p. 32.
It will be convenient to take notice of the observation of Rufinus, "that, in all the Eastern creeds, it is, I believe in one God, the Father;'" where, if by the Eastern he means the Nicene or Constantinopolitan, it is certainly true; or, if he means the ancient creeds used before either of those, it is true not only of the Eastern, but of the Western also; for in all the most primitive creeds, whether Latin or Greek, this article runs, "I believe in one God," or "in the only God; " as in the two creeds of Irenæus, and three of Origen's, Eva veòv, one God; and in three of Tertullian's, unum or unicum Deum, one or the only God. SIR PETER KING: History of the Apostles' Creed, page 50.
From the Apostles' Creed it may be possible to deduce the catholic doctrine of the Trinity; but assuredly it is not fully expressed therein. ... It has, as it appears to me, indirectly favored Arianism and Socinianism. S. T. COLERIDGE: Literary Remains; in Works, vol. v. pp. 229, 421.
A Trinity, such as is acknowledged by Christian Unitarians, may be easily deduced from this creed; but how it can be possible to deduce from it Trinitarianism, or a Trinity of persons in the Godhead, is to us as inconceivable as it would be to infer this dogma from the simple declaration of the Apostle Peter, that "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy spirit and with power."
I believe that the Apostles' Creed may be taken as a specimen of truths held by the general consent of Christians; for every thing there (except the descent into hell, which was a later insertion) is in almost the very words of Scripture. DR. THOMAS ARNOLD: Letter 156; in Life and Correspondence, p. 298.
The Apostles' Creed... is a most valuable monument of the church, because it shows what in the early ages were considered as the great, the peculiar, and the essential doctrines of the gospel, viz., those all-important facts which are summarily recounted in this creed. - DR. MURDOCK, in his Translation of Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, vol. i. pp. 79, 80, note.
If we examine the history of these first ages, we find them speaking, in the utmost simplicity, of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;