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He may say, “ I suppose, that I should believe if I understood it," that is, he supposes, the words are capable of conveying to some understandings a proposition which is true in itself
, and which those understandings would therefore assent to. But this is not belief. The case is the same when the proposition is couched in the vernacular tongue, the English for instance; except that one or more words are in a foreign idiom which is not understood—as if I were to tell a plain man that an onion contained forty lamina, and ask him whether this was true. He could give me no answer, until I explained to him, that the lamina were the coats of which the vegetable is composed.
All these cases are clear. Now suppose the unintelligible word or phrase be not taken from any other language, but be a word in the vernacular tongue, having a definite and well known signification, but not used in its customary sense, nor in any sense which can be explained; as if I assert, that every circle contains ten wishes. The proposition is evidently unmeaning, or, in other words, is no proposition.
The principles of evidence and the means of arriving at truth are the same in matters of religion and in the ordinary concerns of human life. To hold otherwise is to hold to preternatural in spiration of religious knowledge at the present day; and persons of this opinion are not to be reasoned with. These principles are as applicable to religious truth as to any other. It will not be pretended, that an ordinary man could be called upon to express his belief of a passage read to bim from the Old Testament in the Hebrew. If this be not so, then the complaint of protestants against the Roman Catholics for using the latin version of the scriptures is unfounded.
If, then, these principles are correct and applicable to the subject, let us apply them." There are three persons in one God.” The word person is to be understood as it is used in its ordinary signification ; for it would destroy the end of language to use it in any other; or if it be used in any other, most assuredly the persons thus using it in some new and unknown sense must define the meaning of the term they employ. The proposition, then, is contradictory in terms. The word person' means an intelligent being, and includes the idea of separateness or individuality. God is a person. This surely cannot be denied by those who say that “God the son is a person.” The affirmation then is, that there are three persons in one person ; which is a contradiction.
This may appear yet more clearly upon a fuller statement. It is affirmed that the Godhead is composed of three persons—that these persons are, God the Father, God the Son, and God the
Holy Ghost-and yet that these three (Gods] are but one [God.) Now if these words are used in their ordinary sense, the contradiction is explicit-nay, the contradiction is explicit if they are used in any sense which is uniform throughout the sentence ; for even if it be allowed that we have no idea of God, still we may affirm of any unknown thing, that it cannot be three in the same sense in which it is one.
But, say the more intelligent advocates of the doctrine, when pressed by this argument, “ We do not use the word “person' in the ordinary sense. We regret, indeed, that the word was ever introduced in the expression of this article of belief. We freely confess that we cannot understand it."
To this we answer: If this word be not the proper one, select that which is proper. If the word taken in this connection has no intelligible meaning, then, as we have shewn, there is no proposition, and can therefore be no affirmation or denial,-and of consequence it cannot be the subject of belief.
These principles cannot be controverted; at least, we have known very few persons ever attempt directly to controvert them. The legends of the Romish Catholic Church record, that St. Patrick silenced the heretical Unitarians of his day by shewing a shamrock (a stalk of clover) and calling on them to observe, that although there was but one, yet there were three. It is not stated whether any of the objectors ventured to reply, that the division was into three leaves and the union in one plant, and that three leaves did not and could not constitute one leaf. Remarks and illustrations similar to those of St. Patrick, and as easily shown to be inapplicable, we have often heard from sons of gross apprehensions and unskilled in controversy.*
The usual resort bowever, at this stage of the discussion, is to confuse and darken the conception by the introduction of subjects concerning which our ideas are supposed to be least clear and definite. We are told, for instance, that we believe in God, eternity, &c. &c. and yet that we do not understand what God and eternity are.
We think that this point may be made very intelligible by a little reflection. Without entering into an inquiry in regard to the nature of human knowledge, this is clear: We do not, strictly speaking, understand the cause of any thing, or the
* And sometimes from those whom one would have thought that reflection must have taught better. A Doctor of Divinity, in the city of NewYork, in a recent attempt to explain this subject to his hearers, said that although there were in that city ten wards, yet there was but one city, Here his illustration ended. It should have proceeded further, and have sbown that each ward was the whole city.
manner of its existence, which is perhaps the same thing. We know not why nor how water moistens, or fire burns, or grass grows ; why sparks fly upwards, nor why heavy bodies descend; and upon these subjects, i. e. the causes of these things, we have no belief whatever. The facts we know, and they furnish intelligible propositions to our minds.
Another thing is equally certain--our knowledge may be very clear and useful, and at the same time very inadequate or imperfect. In truth it is always imperfect to a degree of which none but intelligent and well informed minds can form any conception. We all understand what is meant by the word
man," and still how little do we know of the wonders of his animal, intellectual, and moral nature, and of the union of all these!' We all understand the conversation when a country is spoken of--England, or France, for instance and still we have no adequate or perfect idea of such a country with the objects of nature and of art contained therein, with the varieties of character and condition in the inhabitants,-their laws, customs and religion, their wealth occupations and modes of life, and the innumerable particulars which the general term comprizes. It would require an extent of knowledge very far above what man can even conceive.
Now if we are again asked whether we understand what God is, we answer, with reverence, but without hesitation or doubt, -Yes; our ideas of God, of an over-ruling intelligence above us and the system of things with which we are conversant are as clear and definite as any ideas which we entertain upon any subject. If they were not so, we could not believe clearly and firmly in his existence, or in any of his attributes. That these ideas are beyond expression imperfect and inadequate, we are well aware. How inadequate, none but the Infinite intelligence itself can even know.
So it is of Eternity. We have a clear idea of duration or time, and from our conception of it we reject the idea of a termination. This is Eternity.* And it is not more logical to say, that you have no idea of eternity, because you cannot comprehend the whole extent of it in your mind, than to say that you have no idea of a man or France, because you cannot comprehend in your mind the whole extent of the subjects designated by these words.
* It is very well remarked by some writer, we believe Bishop Butler, that so far from its being impossible for the human mind to form a conception of eternity, it was impossible to conceive that it did not exist, Can this be said of the trinity ?
Similar remarks will apply to another comparison which is often made. We are told that we cannot understand the union of the human soul and body, and still we believe it. What do we believe? Nothing whatever as to the mode of this union, but simply the fact of its existence, and this we can clearly conceive and understand.
We hope that we have now indicated a sufficient clue, by which an intelligent and accurate observer may always guide himself out of these bewildering labyrinths.
The scriptures teach us to know God and eternal life, and common sense teaches, that, if we can understand nothing of them, they can furnish no motives to conduct, and that we can make them not even the subjects of thought, much less of conversation.
The doctrine of the trinity is therefore a contradiction in terms, or a mere repetition of words. If it be a duty to repeat these words and to pretend to believe them, it is evident that it should be done in the language in which they were first uttered--for translation is impossible. The very use and idea of translation is to render the meaning of words used in one language into another; and there can be no translation unless the translator understands the meaning of the terms used in the original, and unless he substitute for them intelligible terms in another language. But,' say you, we can find no such words in the primitive language, and if they were there, upon your own principles we could not distinguish them; not by the sound, for it is a foreign language--not by the meaning, for they have none that we can understand.' True, and therefore there is no such doctrine.
As might be expected, the Trinitarians, who know and think any thing upon the subject, are divided into two leading divisions ; to wit, First, those who really believe in three Gods, formed to preserve the resemblance of unity into a sort of council or family ; which council or family, by a variation in the meaning or application of the term, they also call God. But these persons
do not believe each of these to be God supreme, for no one ever did or could believe in three Supreme Gods. Second, those who hold strictly to the unity of the Deity, and repeat the words concerning his division into three persons, as words without any meaning, and to which they attach no ideas whatever; or if they have some misty notions upon the subject they consider them as designating three different attributes, as the wisdom of God, the love of God, and the power of God; or three different modes of manifestation; or, in the still more unmeaning words of a late celebrated and really intelligent wri
ter, three distinctions, which he does not understand and cannot tell wherein they consist. To this there can be no objection except that it means nothing, and there is no good reason why we should not say, there are thirty distinctions, or three hundred as well as three.
The rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity proceeds from no arrogance in our trust in the human understanding. On the contrary, it is, perhaps true, that we rate its powers lower than our opponents. But then we measure its duties, so to speak, by its powers. We think it important to discriminate clearly the boundary line of human intellect-to do all that can be done within the allowed limits--and reverently to stop where we have reached the bound of which the Creator who erected it has said, “ this you shall not pass--you shall go no further.” We do not call words knowledge, nor conjectures, religion. In all the revelations of God to man, and especially in the Holy Scriptures, he has clearly expressed that which He would have clearly understood. He has condescended to use human language, and to adapt his instructions to the human understanding. If it were not so, it would not be REVELATION.
EXTRACTS RELATIVE TO SIR ISAAC NEWTON'S THEOLO
Hopton Haynes, Esq. was the King's Assay-Master to the Mint, during the period that Sir Isaac Newton filled the office of Master of the Mint; and as there must have been continual intercourse between these two persons, it could hardly be but their conversation would sometimes touch upon religious topics; especially as both of them dedicated much of their time to the reading of the Bible, and were sincere in their belief of Divine Revelation, whilst each took the liberty of judging for himself, and, in many things, differed widely from the doctrines established by the civil power.* This presumption of an amicable correspondence between two such persons, so many years together in the same office, is only mentioned as tending to corroborate the following facts, and testi
* In proof of this assertion, so far as regards Hopton Haynes, see his Scripture Account of the Attributes and Worship of God, and of the Character and offices of Jesus Christ,” including the preface.
“ Newton was thoroughly persuaded of the truth of Revelation; and, amidst the great variety of books which he had constantly before him, that which he studied with the greatest application was the Bible.”
Gen. Dict. Art. Newton.