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Trinity and Unity by William Cunningham

The Attributes of God and the Doctrine of God

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Trinity and Unity by William Cunningham

The importance of attending carefully to the true and exact state of the question in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, is fully evinced by this consideration, that the opponents of the doctrine, base, directly and immediately upon the state of the question, a charge of its involving a contradiction, and of its being inconsistent with the admitted truth of the unity of God.

The duty of Trinitarians, in regard to this subject of settling, so far as they are concerned, the state of the question, ought to be regulated by far higher considerations than those which originate in a regard to the advantages that may result from it in controversial discussion. The positions which we undertake to maintain and defend in the matter, —and this, of course, settles the state of the question in so far as we are concerned, —should be those only, and neither more nor less, which we believe to be truly contained in, or certainly deducible from, the statements of Scripture, —those only which the word of God seems to require us to maintain and defend, without any intermixture of mere human speculations or attempts, however ingenious and plausible, at definitions, explanations, or theories, beyond what the Scripture clearly sanctions or demands. The defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity have often neglected or violated this rule, by indulging in unwarranted explanations and theories upon the subject, and have thereby afforded great advantages to its opponents, of which they have not been slow to avail themselves. And when, warned of their error by the difficulties in which they found themselves involved, and the advantages which their opponents, who have generally been careful to act simply as defenders or respondents, seemed in consequence to enjoy, they curtailed their speculations within narrower limits, and adhered more closely to the maintenance of scriptural positions, their opponents have represented this as the effect of conscious weakness or of controversial artifice. The truth, however, is, that this mode of procedure is the intrinsically right course, which ought never to have been departed from, —which they were bound to return to, from a sense of imperative duty, and not merely from a regard to safety or advantage, whenever, by any means, their deviation from it was brought home to them, —and which it is not the less incumbent upon us to adhere to, because the errors and excesses of former defenders of the truth, and the advantages furnished by these means to opponents, may have been, in some measure, the occasion of leading theologians to see more clearly, and to pursue more steadily, what was in itself, and on the ground of its own intrinsic excellence, the undoubted path of duty in the matter.

But though anti-Trinitarians are much fonder of dealing with the particular definitions, explanations, and theories of individual theologians upon this subject, than with those general and well-weighed statements which we have quoted both from the English Articles and our own Confession of Faith, —and which certainly contain the substance of all that Scripture teaches, and consequently of all that we should undertake to maintain and defend; yet it must be acknowledged that they commonly allege that the doctrine of the Trinity, even when most cautiously and carefully stated, involves a contradiction in itself, and is inconsistent with the doctrine of the divine unity; and to this we would now advert.

It will be understood, from the exposition of the principles formerly given, that we do not deny that such allegations are relevant, and that they must in some way or other be disposed of; and it will also be remembered, that sufficient grounds have been adduced for maintaining the two following positions upon this point: First, that when the Scripture is admitted in any fair sense to be the rule of faith, the first step should be simply to ascertain, in the faithful and honest use of all appropriate means, what it teaches, or was intended to teach, upon the subject, —that this investigation should be prosecuted fairly to its conclusion, without being disturbed by the introduction of collateral considerations derived from other sources, until a clear result is reached, —that an allegation of intrinsic contradiction or of contrariety to known truth, if adduced against the result as brought out in this way, should be kept in its proper place as an objection, and dealt with as such, —that, if established, it should be fairly and honestly applied, not to the effect of reversing the judgment, already adopted upon competent and appropriate grounds, as to what it is that Scripture teaches (for that is irrational and illogical), but to the effect of rejecting the divine authority of the Scriptures. Secondly, that in conducting the latter part of the process of investigation above described, we are entitled to argue upon the assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity has been really established by scriptural authority, —we are under no obligation to do more than simply to show that the allegation of contradiction, or of inconsistency, with other truths, has not been proved; and we should attempt nothing more than what is thus logically incumbent upon us. As we are not called upon to enter into an exposition of the scriptural evidence, we have no opportunity of applying the principles laid down under the former of these two heads, though it is very important that they should be remembered. It is chiefly by the positions laid down in the second head, that we must be guided in considering this allegation of our opponents.

We assume, then, —as we are entitled, upon the principles explained, to do, in discussing this point, —that it has been established, by satisfactory evidence, as a doctrine taught in Scripture, that true and proper divinity is possessed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; that the divine nature and perfections are possessed by three; and that, while there is only one God, and while these three, therefore, are the one God, there is yet such a distinction among them, as is, in some respects, analogous to the distinction subsisting between three persons among men, —such a distinction as lays a foundation for attributing to each of them some things which are not attributable to the others, and for applying to them the distinct personal pronouns, I, Thou, and he. This is the substance of what Scripture seems plainly to teach upon the subject; and we embody it in such statements as these, just because we cannot possibly represent or express it in any other way. Now, it is alleged that this doctrine, —which, in the meantime, we are entitled to assume, is taught in Scripture, —involves a contradiction in itself, and is inconsistent with the divine unity; and upon the principles which have been explained, we have merely to show that this allegation is not substantiated— is not proved.

The first part of the allegation, —namely, that the doctrine directly and in itself involves a contradiction, —is very easily disposed of, as it is manifestly destitute of any solid foundation. In order to constitute a contradiction, it is necessary that there be both an affirmation and a negation, not only concerning the same thing, but concerning the same thing in the same respect. To say that one God is three Gods, or that three persons are one person, is, of course, an express contradiction, or, as it is commonly called, a contradiction in terms. To affirm, directly or by plain implication, that God is one in the same respect in which he is three, would also amount to a plain contradiction, and, of course, could not be rationally believed. But to assert that God is in one respect one, and jn another and different respect three, —that he is one in nature, essence, or substance, —and that He is three with respect to personality, or personal distinction (and this is all that the received doctrine of the Trinity requires or implies), —can never be shown to contain or involve a contradiction. It certainly does not contain a contradiction in terms; for we not only do not assert, but expressly deny, that God is one and three in the same respect, that He is one in the same respect in which He is three, or that He is three in the same respect in which He is one: and when the defenders of the doctrine adhere, as they ought to do, to a simple assertion of what they believe to be taught or indicated in Scripture, and of what is declared in our symbolical books, without indulging in unwarranted explanations and baseless theories, it is impossible to show that the doctrine involves, by necessary implication, any appearance of a contradiction.

Accordingly, the opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity are more disposed to dwell upon the other part of the allegation, —namely, that it is inconsistent with the known and admitted truth of the divine unity; and it is chiefly by pressing this position that they have succeeded in drawing the supporters of the doctrine into the field of explanations and theories, directed to the object of making, in some measure, intelligible how it is that unity and personal distinction, —unity in one respect and trinity in another, —are consistent with each other. The temptation to attempt this is, to ingenious men, somewhat strong; but the results of the attempts which have been made have always, in consequence of the limited amount of the information which God has been pleased to reveal to us upon the subject, and the imperfection of the human faculties and of human language, proved wholly unsuccessful in effecting anything really substantial and valuable; and have commonly been attended only with mischief, as serving to furnish plausible grounds to opponents to allege, either that, to adopt the language of the Athanasian creed, we confound the persons, or divide the substance, —that is, fall, or seem to fall, into the opposite extremes of Sabellianism or Tritheism.

Of course very different measures of wisdom and caution have been exhibited by different defenders of the Trinity in the exposition and application of these explanations and theories, illustrations and analogies, which they have brought to bear upon this subject.

They have been propounded with some diversity of spirit, and they have been applied to different purposes. Sometimes they have been put forth boldly, dogmatically, and recklessly; and at other times with much more modesty, diffidence, and circumspection. Sometimes they have been urged as if they afforded positive proofs, or at least strong presumptions, of the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the combination of unity and distinction which it implies, and sometimes they have been adduced merely as affording proofs or presumptions of its possibility; while at other times, again, they have been brought forward, not as proofs or presumptions of anything, but merely as illustrations of what it was that was meant to be asserted. When applied to the last of these purposes, and used merely as illustrations of what is meant, there is no great harm done, provided they are restricted carefully to this purpose. When adduced for the first of these purposes, —namely, as presumptions or proofs of the truth of the doctrine, —this, from the nature of the case, can lead only to baseless and presumptuous speculation.

But even when applied only to the second of these purposes, —namely, to afford proofs or presumptions of possibility, —they ought to be regarded as unnecessary, unsafe, and inexpedient. Strictly speaking, we are not bound to produce positive proof even of the possibility of such a combination of unity and distinction as the doctrine of the Trinity predicates of the divine nature, but merely to show negatively that the impossibility of it, alleged upon the other side, has not been established; and the whole history of the controversy shows the great practical importance of our restricting ourselves within the limits beyond which the rules of strict reasoning do not require us to advance. The only question which we will ever consent to discuss with our opponents upon this point, —apart, of course, from the investigation of the meaning of Scripture, —is this: Has it been clearly proved that the received doctrine of the Trinity, as set forth in our symbolical books, necessarily involves anything inconsistent with the unity of the God-head? And there need be no hesitation in answering this question in the negative. No proof of the allegation has been produced resting upon a firm and solid basis, —no argument that can be shown to be logically connected with any principles of which we have clear and adequate ideas. It is the divine nature, —the nature of the infinite and incomprehensible God, —which the question respects; and on this ground there is the strongest presumption against the warrantableness of positive assertions on the part of men as to what is possible or impossible in the matter. The sub. stance of the allegation of our opponents is, that it is impossible that there can be such a distinction in the divine nature as the doctrine of the Trinity asserts, because God is one: and they must establish this position by making out a clear and certain bond of connection between the admitted unity of God and the impossibility of the distinction asserted. The substance of what we maintain upon the point is this, —that every attempt to establish this logical bond of connection, involves the use of positions which cannot be proved; and which cannot be proved, just because they assume a larger amount of clear and certain knowledge, both with respect to the unity and the distinction, than men possess, or have the capacity and the means of attaining.

The unity of the Godhead or divine nature being universally admitted, men are very apt to suppose that they understand it fully, —that they know more of what it means and implies than they do. But the unity of the Godhead is really as incomprehensible by men as any of His other attributes, —a position confirmed and illustrated by the fact, that it is doubtful whether the proper nature and ground of the divine unity can, in any strict and proper sense, be ascertained and established by natural reason. There has been a very general sense, among the greatest men who have discussed this subject, of the difficulty of establishing the strict and proper unity of the Godhead on mere rational grounds, apart from revelation. It has generally been regarded, indeed, as easy enough to establish that there is one Being (and not more) who is the actual Creator and Governor of the world; but it has commonly been felt to be somewhat difficult to deduce certainly, from anything cognisable by the natural faculties of man, a proposition asserting unity, in any definite sense, of the Godhead, or divine nature, intrinsically, and as such. And this fact is fitted to show us that it is not so easy to comprehend what the divine unity is, or implies, as it might at first sight appear to be. The Scriptures plainly declare the divine unity by informing us, not merely that the world was created, and has ever been governed, by one Being, but that the Godhead, or divine nature, is essentially one. But they give us no detailed or specific information as to the nature and grounds of this unity, —as to what it consists in: and of course they afford us no definite materials for determining what is, and what is not, consistent with it. And if it be true, as we are entitled at present to assume, that the same revelation which alone certainly makes known to us the strict and proper unity of the divine nature, does also reveal to us a certain distinction existing in that nature, the fair inference is, —that the unity and the distinction are quite consistent with each other, though we may not be able to make this consistency palpable either to ourselves or others.

It is scarcely alleged, though it is sometimes insinuated, by our opponents, that the admitted unity of the divine nature necessarily excludes all distinctions of every kind anti degree. It is very manifest, in general, from the nature of the case, —the exalted and incomprehensible character of the subject, and the scanty amount of information which God has been pleased to communicate to us regarding it, or which, perhaps, we were capable of o receiving, —that we have no very adequate or certain materials for determining positively, in any case, that any particular alleged distinction is inconsistent with the divine unity; and, in these circumstances, and under these conditions, the position of our opponents is, and must be, that they undertake to prove, that the particular distinction implied in the doctrine of the Trinity is inconsistent with the unity of God. Now, if the scriptural doctrine were to be identified with the explanations and theories about it which have been sometimes propounded by its friends, it might be admitted that considerations have been adduced, in support of the alleged inconsistency, that were possessed not only of plausibility but of weight; but against the doctrine itself, as taught in Scripture and as set forth in our standards, nothing of real weight has been, or can be, adduced, —nothing but arguments ab ignorantia and ad ignorantiam. We profess to give no further explanation of the nature of the distinction, except this, that it is set before us in Scripture as a real, and not a merely nominal distinction, —a distinction of existences and objects, and not of mere names and manifestations, —and as analogous in some respects, though not in all, to the distinction subsisting between three persons among men; and there is nothing in any one of these ideas to which a definite argument, clearly inferring incompatibility with unity, can be shown to be logically attachable. It would be no difficult matter to show, —but it is not worth while, —that the attempts which have been made to establish such a connection, either, in the first place, proceed upon certain conceptions of the precise nature of the distinction of persons, which we disclaim, and are under no sort of obligation to admit; or, secondly, resolve into vague and general assertions on points which are beyond our cognisance and comprehension, and on which it seems equally unwarrantable and presumptuous to affirm or deny anything; or, thirdly and finally, are reducible to the extravagant position, more or less openly asserted and maintained, that the divine unity necessarily excludes all distinction, of every kind, and in every degree.

The steady application of these general considerations to the actual attempts which have been made by anti-Trinitarians to prove that the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily involves what is inconsistent with the divine unity, will easily enable us to see that they have not proved their position. And here we should rest, relying for the positive proof of all that we believe and maintain, upon the authority of God in His word, —revealing Himself to us, —making known to us concerning Himself what we could not know in any measure from any other source, or by any other means, but an immediate supernatural revelation. The doctrines above reason; it could not have been discovered by it, and cannot be fully comprehended by it, even after it has been revealed; but it cannot be proved to be contrary to reason, or to be inconsistent with any other truth which, from any source, we know regarding God. We can, of course, form no definite or adequate conception of this mysterious distinction attaching to the divine nature; but we have no reason to expect that we should, —we have every reason to expect that we should not, since we have no definite or adequate conceptions of many other things about God, even though these things are discoverable, in some measure, by the exercise of our natural faculties. We find great, or rather, insuperable, difficulties in attempting to explain, in words, the nature of this distinction in the Godhead; because, independently of the very inadequate conceptions which alone we could form of such a subject from the nature of the case, it has, of necessity, been made known to us, in so far as we do know it, through the imperfect medium of human language, and by means of representations which are necessarily derived from what takes place or is realized among men, and must therefore very imperfectly apply to the divine nature. In this, as well as in other matters connected with God, we must exclude from our conceptions everything that results from, or savours of, the peculiar qualities of man’s finite and dependent nature, and admit nothing into our conceptions inconsistent with the known perfections and properties of God; while, at the same time, we must take care to exclude nothing which He has really made known to us concerning Himself, on the ground of our not being able fully to comprehend how it is, that all the truths which He has made known to us concerning Himself can be combined in Him. he has revealed to us that He is one, but He has also revealed to us that there are three who have true and proper divinity, —who have the divine nature and perfections. We, in consequence, maintain that, in the unity of the Godhead, —in the common possession of the one undivided and indivisible divine nature, —there are three persons; and without meaning to assert, —nay, while expressly denying, —that the idea of distinct personality applies to the divine nature in the same sense as to the human, we use this mode of expression, because it is really the only way in which we can embody the idea, which scriptural statements convey to us of the distinction existing in the Godhead, —namely, as being analogous in some respects to the distinction subsisting among three different persons among men, —an idea, however, to be always regulated and controlled by the principle, that the three to whom divinity is ascribed, though called persons, because we have no other expressions that would convey any portion of the idea which Scripture sets before us on the subject, are not three Gods— as three persons among men are three men, —but are the one God.

It may perhaps be supposed, that though, upon principles formerly explained, Trinitarians are not obliged to give any full or exact definition of what they mean by persons, or by distinct personality, as predicated of the divine nature, when they merely lay down the general position, that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, yet that they are bound to attempt something more precise or specific in defining or describing personality, when they lay down the position that the Holy Ghost in a person, since the idea of personality is in this position more distinctly held up, as the precise point to be established. Now it is true, that the proof that the Holy Ghost is a person, is a fundamental point in the proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is scarcely disputed that the Holy Ghost is God, is divine; the main controversy turns upon the question of His personality, which is usually denied by anti-Trinitarians. But the personality of the Spirit can be proved satisfactorily by appropriate evidence, without our being under the necessity of giving any exact definition of what personality means, as applied to the divine nature. It is to be observed, that the discussion about the personality of the Spirit necessarily involves the maintenance of one or other of two alternative, which really exhaust the subject. The Holy Spirit either is a men attribute or power of God, or is a distinct person from the Father and the Son. Now, we can form a pretty definite conception of the general import of these two opposite or alternative propositions, without needing or being able to define precisely and positively wherein the idea of distinct personality, as applied to the divine nature, differs from the same idea as applied to the human nature, —so far, at least, as to be able intelligently to estimate the bearing and the weight of the evidence adduced for, and against, them respectively. Upon this state of the question, without any exact or adequate idea of personality, we are able to adduce satisfactory evidence from Scripture, that the Holy Ghost is not a mere power or attribute of God, or to disprove one of the alternative positions. And this of itself is warrant enough for maintaining the truth of the other, which is the only alternative, especially as it holds generally of a large portion of our knowledge of God, that we approximate to an accurate statement of what we know of Him chiefly by negatives; while, at the same time, the scriptural evidence, which proves that the Spirit is not a men power or attribute, manifestly brings Him before our minds, viewed in His relations to the Father and the Son, in an aspect analogous in some respect. to the idea we entertain of the relation subsisting between distinct persons among men; and this warrants tin application of the idea, —of course with the necessary modification, —and also of the phraseology of distinct personality.

Excerpt taken from Historical Theology, by William Cunningham

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