Page images
PDF
EPUB

were guilty. His own nature sets limits to the exercise of his power. We are under a moral Governor, who will do what is right. But within these limits, there is ample room for the exercise of sovereignty towards men in their present state of depravity. God may assign any condition to any individual. "He may bestow good upon one, and inflict evil upon another. He may distribute good and evil in all different proportions. He may place one man in advantageous circumstances, and expose another to difficulties, temptations, and disappointment. He

may make one a freeman and another a slave, one noble and another base, one rich and another poor, one healthy and another diseased. He may take away one in infancy, and permit another to live to old age. When we turn to the actual state of things, which is not the effect of chance, but of his over-ruling providence, we observe all these instances of sovereign disposal; and our objections are answered by the question, “ Who art thou, O man! that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus ? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour ?"'*

I have endeavoured, in the preceding lectures, to demonstrate the existence, and to illustrate the perfections of God. Comparatively little has been said upon a subject so ample, and nothing suitable to its transcendent dignity. Who is worthy to declare the glory of God but himself? yet from the humble thoughts and grovelling language of a mortal, faintly attempting to portray infinitude, you may perceive, that of all beings God is the greatest, and the most wonderful; one of whom we should never think without the deepest awe, and whose approbation it should be the object of our most anxious solicitude to obtain. Wherever we are, this Being is present with us, whether we dwell in the city or in the wilderness; present at the midnight hour when we are shrouded in darkness, and in the secret place to which we have retired from human observation. As he is now a Witness, he will hereafter exercise the office of a Judge, and his sentence will be final and irresistible. He is an enemy more to be dreaded than hosts of men, and legions of devils: he is a friend in whose wisdom and power we shall have a sure resource amidst distresses and perplexities, and in all conditions an immoveable foundation of hope. He is the God of those who believe in his Son; their shield and their exceeding great reward. His infinite perfections are engaged on their side, and are working out their present and future good. Let us look up to him as reconciled through the atonement, and beseech him to regard us with a gracious eye. Let us commit ourselves to his merciful disposal during our transitory existence upon earth; and when the hour of death comes, let us throw ourselves into the arms of his love.

Now unto the King Eternal, Immortal, and Invisible, the only Wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

• Rom. ix, 20, 21.

LECTURE XXVIII.

ON THE TRINITY.

Meaning and Origin of the term, Trinity-Traces of the Doctrine among the Heathens-Evi

dences of it in the Old and New Testament.

God is the most wonderful of all beings; and we have proceeded but a short way in our inquiries, when we are compelled, by the mysterious nature of the subject, to exclaim, “Who can by searching find him out? who can find out the Almighty to perfection ?” There is some proportion between our conceptions of the most excellent creatures and the objects of thought, because, although exalted above us, they are still finite like ourselves; but of Him who is uncreated, self-existent, and all-perfect, we can obtain only faint and partial glimpses. Of the imperfection of our knowledge, we must have been frequently convinced during the preceding review of the nature and character of our Maker; and it may be, that in not a few instances, when our ideas appear to ourselves to be sublime, they are mean and grovelling in the estimation of such of our fellow-creatures as are possessed of superior understanding; and that our reasonings are erroneous when we are most confident that they amount to demonstration. But we are now to enter upon a subject which, if we may speak of degrees where all is beyond the range of our faculties, is still more incomprehensible than any which has yet engaged our attention. The selfexistence of God, his underived, independent, necessary existence, undoubtedly baffles our utmost efforts to conceive it, because there is nothing analogous to it among creatures ; but we understand that he does exist, and the fact is es tablished by arguments clear and satisfactory. Of some of his natural, and all his moral perfections, there is a faint resemblance in ourselves; so that we do not use words without meaning when we speak of his power, his knowledge, his goodness, and his justice. We also understand our own words when we speak of his unity, and affirm, that there is one Being possessed of all possible perfection, and that there are not, and cannot be more than one. But the next step which we take under the conduct of revelation presents a mystery which astonishes reason, and upon which no exertion of intellect can throw a single ray of light. You remember the story of the philosopher, who being asked, what God is ? requested time to consider, and after repeated delays confessed, that the more he meditated the more he was perplexed. We are not surprised that he found it impossible to answer the question, when we reflect that he had no better guide than the light of nature, and besides was einbarassed by the vain and false speculations which abounded among his countrymen. Even revelation, although it has corrected many errors, has not solved all our doubts ; nor could it have been possible for any revelation to enable a finite to comprehend an infinite Being. It may even be said to have augmented the difficulty, by at least one discovery so new and strange, that reasoning is useless and presumptuous, and the doctrine can be received only by a humble faith. We are satisfied by the arguments for the unity of God, that there is only one Being who created the heavens and the earth, and is entitled to the religious homage of their inhabitants. But as soon as we open the Bible, a doctrine meets our eye which seems opposed to this primary truth; for while our arguments for the unity are confirmed by its most express declarations, and polytheism is everywhere condemned, the true God himself is represented as, in some respect, more than one. This at least is the view which we take of many passages; although great efforts have been made to put a different sense upon them. As these efforts shew that this is the apparent sense, the sense which naturally occurs to the reader, for they would have been uncalled for if there had been nothing in the mode of expression which could be construed to imply plurality; so it is remarkable that in this light they have been regarded by the great majority of Christians, and the doctrine of the Trinity has been an article of faith in every age of the church. This single circumstance is a reason for inquiring into the subject. It is surely of some importance to ascertain whether so many wise, and learned, and holy men, who have maintained this doctrine, with the countless thousands of less distinguished individuals who have professed the same faith, were right or wrong in their conclusions. It is a higher consideration, that our conceptions of God should in all things be conformable to the notices which he has given of himself; that if the Scriptures associate in their account of him the ideas of unity and plurality, we are bound to admit the fact, however incapable we may be of understanding it; and that on the hypothesis of such an association, the notion of absolute unity, unity of person as well as of essence, is false, and the Being of whom it is predicated exists only in the imagination. If the Scriptures teach that there are three persons in the Divine Essence, and we believe that there is only one, our God and the God of revelation are not the same.

The doctrine which I am about to illustrate, is thus expressed in our Confession of Faith. “In the unity of the Godhead, there be three persons, of one substance, power and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son." * The sum of this definition is, that while there is only one Divine nature, there are three subsistences or persons, called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, who possess not a similar, but the same numerical essence; and that the distinction between them is not merely nominal but real. The term which has been chosen to express this doctrine is Trinity, a compound Latin word, signifying three in unity. The Greeks use the word spits which serves the purpose ; although it does not so explicitly convey the idea of a three-fold distinction in unity, its proper meaning being numerus ternarius or ternio, the number three. Some think that the word Trinity was first used in a synod which met at Alexandria in the year 317; but others assign to it an earlier date, and give as the author Theophilus of Antioch, who flourished about the year 162. “ He was the first,” says the translator of Mosheim, “ who made use of the word Trinity, to express the distinction of what divines call persons in the Godhead. The Christian church is very little obliged to him for his invention. The use of this and other unscriptural terms, to which men attach either no ideas or false ones, has wounded charity and peace, without promoting truth and knowledge. It has produced heresies of the very worst kind.” Reflections of this nature you will meet with in many books : they are apt to gain upon the unexperienced, by an apparent desire to guard the word of God against human corruptions, and to regulate our conceptions and expressions in religion solely by the unerring standard. But beware of being imposed upon. A little attention will convince you, that the principle, admitted in its full extent, would set aside all human explanations of Scripture; and that the real objection is, not to the terms which have been invented to express certain doctrines clearly and concisely, but to the doctrines themselves. This is the true cause of the outery against tpies, oscuries, and other words and phrases which have been employed in stating the articles of faith in opposition to heresies. Had Theophilus invented the doctrine in question, the indignation of this author would have been

• Westminster Confession, chap. ü. $ 3.

justifiable, and much stronger language might have been properly used in condemning him; but the contrivance of a convenient term to express what we know to be a scriptural truth, was surely quite harmless, provided that the term was appropriate, and could excite displeasure only in the minds of men who were disaffected to the Trinity itself.

As the Trinity is confessedly a doctrine of revelation, all our arguments for it must be derived from the Scriptures. It is remarkable, however, that some traces of it are to be found among the heathens. These will not prove the doctrine to be true; but they are curious, and if properly authenticated, will lead to the conclusion, that they had been conveyed to them by tradition, for we can account for them in no other way; and consequently, that the Trinity was a doctrine of the primeval religion. Zoroaster, the reformer of the Persian religion, is said to have taught that the first divine Agent created all things by his wisdom and love; “ which names," it has been observed, " are so correspondent to the characters of the second and third persons of the Trinity exhibited in the Bible, that we cannot doubt but they must have been derived from some remains of divine revelation, afforded to the patriarchs from the beginning." The Magi maintained that the Deity existed in a first, a second, and a third mind. " The first was super-essential in itself, and the principle of all essence; the second was the filial mind, generated by the first, the Creator of the material world; and the third was the efficient wisdom and power of the other two." The person called Thoth, Theuth, or Hermes Trismegistus, who was celebrated among the Egyptians as the author of their learning and arts, is said to have obtained his title of thrice greatest,' chiefly on account of his doctrine concerning the Deity. He held, we are informed, “ that there were three principal powers, virtues, or forms in God, and that the name of the ineffable Creator implied one Deity.” This was his name, “I am all that will be, is, and was ; " and it is the same with Jehovah, which is explained in the New Testament by this periphrasis, “ He that was, and is, and is to come.' Among the Romans, I know not whether we should suppose their three principal gods who ruled over all nature, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, and their triform images, to be vestiges of the primitive doctrine. They are so faint, and so remote from the truth, that it is hardly proper to mention them. There is one passage in the writings of Seneca, which is too remarkable to be passed over. 6. Believe me,” he says, “ this is done by him, whoever he was, that formed the universe, whether the Almighty God himself, or the incorporeal Reason," for so the Latins translated acgos, “which was the artificer of those vast operations," the Supercupyos the Greeks, and the all-creating Word of the Christians,

or the Divine Spirit, diffused through the least as well as the greatest of all things.” †

It is unnecessary to enumerate all the semblances of this doctrine which have been pointed out in the creeds of different nations. The Cabiri or Mighty Ones of Sanchoniathon might be mentioned. They were three in number, and the name Cabiri is evidently of Hebrew origin. In the book of Job, God is called_732-68, El-cabbir, “ the mighty God,"I and Cabiri or Cabirim is the plural. I shall only add, what has chiefly engaged the attention of critics on this subject, the Platonic Trinity as taught by Plato himself, and more fully by his followers. These philosophers held that there were three principles in the Divine nature, the first to agaderthe second óvous or onczos, and the third s fuxen, corres

"*

• Rev. i. 8.

† Seneca Consolatio ad Helviam, 8. The whole pas age is as follows :—“Id actum est, mihi crede, ab illo, quisquis formator universi fuit, sive ille Deus est potens omnium. sive incorporalis Ratio ingentium operum artifex, sive Divinus Spiritus per omnia maxima ac minima, æquali intentione diffusus, sive fatum et mutabilis causarum inter se cohærentium congeries; id inquam, actum est,” &c.

# Job xxxvi. 5.

ponding to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. These were all included in the to Odcv, or the Divine nature. Dr. Priestley maintained, in his controversy with Dr. Horsley, “ that it was never imagined that the three component members of the Platonic Trinity, are either equal to each other, or strictly speaking, one.” To this his antagonist replied, “ They are more strictly speaking, one, than any thing in nature of which unity may be predicated. No one of them can be supposed without the other two. The second and third being, the first is necessarily supposed; and the first (Agober) being, the second and third (Neus and tuxn) must come forth. Concerning their equality, I will not say that the Platonists have spoken with the same accuracy which the Christian Fathers use; but they include the three principles in the Divine nature, in the To Okov; and this notion implies the same equality which we maintain; at the same time I confess, that the circumstance of their equality was not always strictly adhered to by the younger Platonists."

We can hardly doubt, that a notion prevailed in the heathen world, not only of a plurality of gods, for this was openly avowed, but of some distinction in the nature of him who was called the Supreme God, and of whom contemplative men entertained more sublime ideas than the vulgar. It is surprising that they should have in any degree approximated to the truth, that they should have obtained a glimpse of the subject; and we cannot wonder at their mistakes and inaccuracies, when we reflect upon their general ignorance relative to religion, and remember that all their knowledge was derived from tradition.

The Trinity is, as we have said, a doctrine of pure revelation ; it is a secret of the Divine nature of which not a suspicion would have been entertained, if God had not been pleased to disclose it; it is not made manifest, like his existence, and wisdom, and goodness, by the works of creation and providence.

Our first step is to search the Scriptures, with a view to ascertain whether this doctrine is found in them. Let us begin with the Old Testament, in which we may expect to meet with some traces of it at least, if it should not be so clearly revealed as in the New.-Many have considered the plural names of God as an intimation of a plurality of persons in the Godhead. One of these names occurs in the first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning o'aba, Elohim," literally the Gods, “ created the heavens and the earth ; "t and it is construed with a singular verb 70, bara. It would be endless to enumerate parallel passages ; for in fact this name is rarely used in the singular, ass, Eloah. It is plural throughout the whole first chapter of Genesis, where it is so often introduced, and in a thousand other places. The singular is not preserred, even when the design is to assert in the most solemn manner the unity of God: “ Hear, O Israel, Jehovah our Elohim, 1968, is one Jehovah." I This is not the only name which assumes the plural form when it is applied to the Supreme Being. “Let Israel rejoice in Him that made him," veya, in his Makers. “For thy Maker is thy husband,” goog Tobya, thy Makers is thy husbands.! “Remember thy Creator,” 78913-7x, thy Creators, “in the days of thy youth.”[ In places which it would be tedious to cite, God is called Dunn, Adonim or Lords. Many learned men, however, as Calvin, the two Buxtorfs, and others, have maintained that these names afford no satisfactory proof of a plurality in the Divine essence; and that they are to be accounted for by a peculiarity in the Hebrew language, which expresses in this manner dignity and majesty, a variety of powers, and a multitude of operations. They object, that when Diabx Elohim in the plural number is applied to God, it cannot always be understood to denote a plurality of persons, because it is used exclusively of one person. “yoobs onss, Elohim, Eloheiha, God, thy God hath anointed thee."'** This is evidently the Father. “Thy throne, diabx, Elohim, O God, • Tracts in controversy with Priestley, p. 247. edit. 1812. + Gen. i. 1. # Deut. vi. 4. Psalm cxlix. 2. | Isa. liv, 5.

| Eccl. xii. 1.

** Psalm xlv. 7

« PreviousContinue »