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BY JOHN W. NEVIN, PROF. OP BIBLICAL LITERATURE IN THE WEST. THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY,
THE TRINITARIAN AND UNITARIAN DOCTRINES
CONCERNING JESUS CHRIST. Romans 9: 5. Of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
We have in this passage of scripture, a most direct and explicit testimony to the truth of what may be called the trinitarian view of the person of Jesus Christ. It ascribes to him a perfect man. hood and a true deity. Under the one aspect, it contemplates him as proceeding from a human parentage, and clothed with all the attributes of human nature; under the other, it regards him as the supreme God, to whom, and to whom alone, all honor and worship are due.
The passage itself is one which all criticism is constrained to acknowledge genuine. It can bear only one interpretation that is strictly grammatical. That interpretation, too, is the only one that harmonizes with the context, or falls in with the requirements of logical propriety. The testimony, then, is decisive.
Still, the doctrine is rejected by many. It is in its nature high and strange; and it stands closely related to other religious views, with which multitudes in every age have been offended. It has been represented, accordingly, to be incredible and contradictory to reason. Infidels have maintained, that it is of such a character in this respect as absolutely to overthrow the pretensions of christianity itself to be from God. Others, professing the christian faith, have, with the same sort of feeling toward this doctrine, expelled it utterly from their creed. According to them, it is as unscriptural as it is incomprehensible and absurd; and they undertake, accordingly, to put such an interpretation upon the bible, as may, in their apprehension, relieve it entirely from the reproach of its enemies on this ground. Every effort has been made, and still is made, to overthrow the credit which this
ancient article of faith has found in the church. Hence it has been found necessary in every age, to vindicate it from objection and abuse, and to maintain by argument its claims to be received and acknowledged as a part of the faith originally delivered to the saints. It is proposed to do so, briefly, in this sermon. The argument, of course, is too extensive for a full view; but some of its general principles may be glanced at, so as to aid at least and direct the serious inquirer in investigating the truth.
The plan I propose to pursue, is, to attempt, in the first place, the removal of some obstructions, which are found frequently lying in the way of all direct argument on this subject, and hindering the proper force of evidence in men's minds. The argument itself will then be presented, by a general statement of what I conceive to be the testimony of the scriptures about the person of Jesus Christ, and a notice of several considerations which conspire to show that the true and proper sense of it has not been mistaken.
I. I AM TO ATTEMPT THE REMOVAL OF SOME OBSTRUCTIONS, BY WHICH THE FORCE OF EVIDENCE IS FREQUENTLY HINDERED ON THIS SUBJECT. These obstructions lie chiefly in wrong views of the doctrine in question, or in an inadequate sense of its importance. In attempting to remove them, then, it is necessary, in the first place, to have the doctrine itself fairly stated.
According to the trinitarian belief, there is but one God, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being and in all his attributes. In this divine Unity there exists, at the same time, the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as three subjects or persons; and these three have equally, and in common with one another, the nature and perfections of supreme divinity. In the great work of accomplishing man's redemption, the second person of this blessed Trinity condescended to clothe himself with the human nature, for the purpose of making a suitable expiation for sin. This was done in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Ghost, and comprehended in himself the two distinct natures of God and man. By this union he was qualified to stand as a Mediator between the parties, and eventually accomplished by his death the reconciliation which was needed for a lost world.
1. Now I remark, that no contradiction to reason is offered by the view just given. It has been frequently affirmed, indeed, that the trinitarian view labors under this objection. Those who embrace it have been represented as holding notions directly contradictory to each other, and putting terms together that involve a gross absurdity. They are charged with the offence of outraging reason and common sense, by maintaining that three may be one and one may be three. But charges of this kind proceed upon a wrong apprehension of the doctrine itself. It is not to be credited, indeed, that it could have gained the approbation and belief of so many wise men of every age, if it were really so grossly repug.
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nant to reason as some have represented it to be. Names are not sufficient, I admit, to establish the truth of the doctrine itself; but they ought at least to shield it from the imputation of being absurd and monstrous; and when an article of faith stands forth to view, like this, as a part of the creed of almost the whole christian world, sanctioned by the learning and piety of every age and nation, it stands entitled, certainly, to some reverence and respect.
The doctrine of the Trinity, properly contemplated, involves no contradiction. If it were affirmed in that doctrine, that God is one and three in the same sense, something would be affirmed contrary to reason. But this is not affirmed. On the contrary, it is expressly stated, that God is three in a way that leaves the unity of his nature untouched. We confess ourselves unable to understand how God is three and how he is one. We give credit to the fact merely, as that fact is revealed, without attempting to comprehend the mode in which it exists. We admit our entire ignorance of the manner of the Divine subsistence. We employ the term “ person,” in speaking of God as three, but we do not suppose that this, or any other term we might use, can at all express the thing itself concerning which it is used. How should it be imagined that any analogies within the range of our experience, so limited and so low, should be sufficient to give us any notion of the mode in which the eternal God subsists? We confess, that what we hold as a fact on this subject is above reason. But, on that very account, we maintain that no man has a right to charge us with holding what is contrary to reason. This charge proceeds upon the supposition that we undertake to define the mode of the Divine subsistence; a thing which we solemnly disclaim.
As to the other branch of the trinitarian doctrine concerning the person of Christ, it is admitted to be in like manner mysterious, incomprehensible, and above reason; but most certainly it cannot be said, with any propriety, to be at war with reason. It offers no violence to any of the laws of thought. When we say, that Jesus Christ was “ God manifest in the flesh," we do not pretend to understand how a union of the two natures could take place. We simply assert a fact; and we deny that the statement of the thing as a fact is repugnant to reason. There can be no room for such a charge, so long as the manner of Divine subsistence is not understood; and whenever the charge is made, it involves an arrogant pretension on the part of those who make it, of having this knowledge. How, should they affirm what can be, or what cannot be, in the manner of God's subsistence, except by reason of their having had a full understanding of his nature?
2. Again I observe, that the mysterious and incomprehensible character of the facts believed in this case constitutes no sufficient objection to the trinitarian faith. If we reject this doctrine just because we cannot fully comprehend the manner of the facts it teaches, I ask where we shall find a fact, presented to us with any sort of evidence whatever, which on the same principle we are not bound to hold incredible? Is not all nature a mystery in this sense-a deep and unfathomable secret, hidden from the penetration of the most profoundly wise? Facts may be ascertained; but the secret nature of things, and the mode of their existence-what they are in themselves, and how they are-are absolutely incomprehensible. What are the most complete of human sciences but histories of facts ascertained on their own proper evidence? When science has accomplished her utmost research, she has not instructed us what is the interior nature of the smallest atom of matter. Every blade of grass that springs forth from the earth is as full of mystery in this respect to the mind of the philosopher, minutely acquainted with all the laws of vegetable life, as it is to the eye of the child that rests only on its outward form and color. And when we ascend from the contemplation of matter to the contemplation of mind, is our ignorance less complete? What know we of the secret nature of our own souls? We watch their operations as they take place under our daily consciousness, and the results of these observations we arrange into a system of science, and call it philosophy. But after all, what have we learned of the nature of the soul itself, or of the manner of its subsistence? And, then, when we stretch our thoughts to the Infinite God the Great First Cause, in which Life resides as in its original fountain, independent, underived, and eternally activewhat can we know? There is not a single attribute of his nature which we can fully understand. The most universally acknowledged facts in relation to his existence are wrapped in impenetrable mystery to our throughts, as soon as we come to ask how they can be. God, we say, is an omnipresent being-he exists fully, in all the perfections of his nature, in all places at the same moment. The fact is certain; it lies at the foundation of the whole doctrine of the divine existence. And yet who can explain or conceive the manner of that fact! Is it less incomprehensible than the doctrine of the Trinity itself! Is it less mysterious to affirm, that God exists undiffused and undivided in every point of space, than to say that there is in his nature the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, possessing equally and in common with one another, the attributes of supreme divinity? Is it less mysterious to affirm, that the Infinite One can be present with all his illimitable fulness in any particular place, than it is to say with believers in the trinitarian doctrine, that he might come into union with the finite nature of man, and in this way make himself manifest in human flesh? All these things are alike incomprehensible; and why may they not be equally true?
But the doctrine in question is not merely incomprehensible; it is new, and strange, and unsupported by any analogies drawn from the range of our past knowledge. I admit the fact, and ask, Shall We reject it on this account? If so, then must we reject all rever
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lation, and hold it impossible for God to reveal to men any truth entirely new. A revelation is no revelation at all unless it make known new truths, and such aş must of necessity for that very reason appear strange. And why should it be imagined, that facts may not have place beyond the sphere of human observation, to which nothing can be found analogous within that sphere; or that such facts may not be made known to men, if God see proper to reveal them? Have we a right to restrain truth to the boundaries of our own experience! Especially, when a revelation undertakes to give men information concerning God himself, is it to be thought strange that it should declare facts entirely new and unimaginable before? Mystery, in this sense of the term, must characterize as a matter of course all true revelation.
3. It must appear from the statement of the case, that the question proposed for consideration is of fundamental importance. Many opposers of the trinitarian doctrine have affirmed, that the question between themselves and us does not enter so essentially into the constitution of christianity itself as to involve our final salvation in its decision. Error, they tell us, on whichever side it may lie, ought not to be looked upon as ruinous to the soul, and should not be regarded as excluding those who hold it from the christian church. It may be true, indeed, that according to that view of the divine character and government, which is generally held by Unitarians, the trinitarian belief, if wrong, would not issue in everlasting death, and might be considered, therefore, a comparatively safe error; but still it cannot be denied, that it would be a very monstrous error, and extremely offensive to God, as being nothing less than idolatry itself; and every serious man, accordingly, should feel it a matter of deep concern not to be mistaken in a case of so much consequence. But if we reverse the supposition, and imagine the trinitarian view to be the true one, it is manifest that the error of those who reject it, is an error which shuts them at once out of all interest in the christian salvation. It is nothing less than the error of infidelity itself under the disguise of a christian name, It subverts the entire gospel of Christ, and substitutes in its place a scheme of religion utterly different. It ought not to be deemed strange, therefore, that Trinitarians refuse to embrace those who hold what they conceive to be such an error, as members of the christian family. They may honor them and love them as men; but how can it be required that they should own fellowship with them as christians? To do so, would imply, in the very act, an abandonment of the entire constitution of christianity itself, in their own minds.
When Unitarians tell us, that men's faith on this subject is not a matter of vital interest, they betray an entire misapprehension of the place which the trinitarian doctrine occupies in the system of religion to which it belongs. In that system, it is not a mere opiniona speculative dogma, to be received, and treasured up