« PreviousContinue »
drink his blood we have no life in us?" How do all understand his saying that he "came not to send peace but a sword;" that we must " hate father and mother," and "pluck out the right eye," &c., &c.? Hence, where there is a variety of possible interpretations, the Unitarian exercises no greater freedom of selection than any other Christian; he selects that which he conceives accords best with the nature of the case, with the connexion of the passage, with the general strain of Scripture, and with the known and obvious laws of God and Nature. "In other words," proceeds Channing, "we believe that God never contradicts in one part of Scripture, what he teaches in another; and never contradicts, in revelation, what He teaches in his works and Providence. And we, therefore, distrust every interpretation which, after deliberate attention, seems repugnant to any established truth. We reason about the Bible precisely as civilians do about the Constitution under which we live; who are accustomed to limit one provision of that venerable instrument by others, and to fix the precise import of its parts by inquiring into its general spirit, into the intentions of its authors, and into the prevalent feelings, impressions, and circumstances of the time when it was framed. Without these principles of interpretation, we frankly acknowledge that we cannot defend the divine authority of the Scriptures. Deny us this latitude, and we must abandon this book to its enemies."
Religion, being paramount to all other things, surely requires the most diligent exercise of our highest faculties in its concerns. We might, with comparative innocence, abandon our understanding in the pursuits of philosophy or science, receiving their propositions with a blind and credulous assent. But wilfully to suppress the exercise of our reason on the infinitely important subject which is so closely allied to our temporal and eternal happiness, would be more than inexcusable. But even they, we repeat, who blame Unitarians for a too free use of the principles of criticism above explained, in determining the sense of Scripture, do themselves use them in their controversies with infidels; and most frequently, too, in the construction and support of their own system of opinions. Indeed, none reason more than these sects of Christians. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine of infer
ence, which could not stand a moment without the aid of reason—a doctrine, indeed, of reason and reasoning, and not of Scripture. Upon how slight a foundation has been framed the prevailing theory of original sin; and the same may be said of the other distinguishing dogmas of Calvinism, doctrines which are incapable of support but by the most subtle and refined arguments.
"We, indeed, grant," says Channing, "that the use of reason in religion is accompanied with danger. But we ask any honest man to look back on the history of the Church, and say whether the renunciation of it be not still more dangerous. The worst errors have sprung up in that Church which proscribes reason, and demands from its members implicit faith. Besides, it is a plain fact, that men reason as erroneously on all subjects as on religion. Who does not know the wild and groundless theories which have been framed in physical and political science? But who ever supposed that we must cease to exercise reason in nature and society, because men have erred for ages in explaining them? Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril. Revelation is addressed to us as rational beings. We may wish in our sloth, that God had given us a system, demanding no labour of comparing, limiting, and inferring. But such a system would be at variance with the whole character of our present existence; and it is the part of wisdom to take revelation as it is given to us, and to interpret it by the help of the faculties which it everywhere supposes, and on which it is founded."
What, then, are the great truths which, according to the principles of scriptural interpretation above expounded, the Unitarians believe the New Testament to contain, and Jesus to have taught as he was taught of God?
1st. They believe in one God, and one only; that is, that he is one spirit, one being, one essence, and in no respect is he two, or three, or four; that he is underived or self-existent; that he always did and always will exist; and that he is ever the same, the infinite, eternal, immutable One, who created, and sustains, and blesses the universe. They consequently reject the doctrine of the Trinity, both on account of its inherent incredibility, and because it has no foundation in Scripture. They regard
it as having originated in heathenism, in the dreams of Plato and his disciples, and taken up and improved upon by the Christian fathers, who were converts from Paganism. It was not, however, till the Council of Nice, in 325, that it received a definite, tangible shape. Mr. Wilson, in his admirable work on "Scripture Proofs and Scriptural Illustrations of Unitarianism" (which the reader will do well to consult), has adduced not fewer than fourteen or fifteen texts from the New Testament only, in which the Almighty Author of Universal Nature is expressly styled One: whereas it is impossible, with the utmost ingenuity, he proceeds to say, "To extract from the Sacred Scriptures, even a solitary text in which the Deity is explicitly called Three. He is, indeed, pronounced to be Three by the decisions of councils and synods, by the dogmatism of creeds and confessions, and by the dicta of learned but fallible men; but, on the other hand, he is declared to be One by much higher authority -by Moses and Christ, by Paul and other inspired individuals, as well as by the Jews who lived in our Saviour's time, and whose God and Father was the very Being whom Jesus himself recognised as his own God and Father. Moreover, Unitarians believe this one God, whose unity they thus deduce from the combined testimony of reason and of Scripture, to be the only object of their worship. They are of opinion that to worship any other being is a violation of the second command. Jesus worshipped God only; and he solemnly enjoins us to worship the Father. The Unitarians have full faith in what are called the moral attributes of God. Believing Him to be infinite in power and wisdom, omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal, they also conceive Him as a being of perfect benevolence, holiness, justice, and truth, of mercy and compassion; and that the happiness of his creatures, now and hereafter, is the great and only aim of his providential plan. They accordingly reject the five doctrines of Calvinism, because they invade and destroy these delightful attributes of the Deity, and are founded, it is believed, on a most mistaken system of Scriptural interpretation, and on an entire misapprehension of the language of the Bible."
Such, then, in a very few words, is the great leading article of Unitarian belief. And now it may be asked,
what we have to say in regard to Jesus Christ? next, therefore, and2ndly. As to the Person of Christ.-All Unitarians unite in denying that he is the Supreme God. All adopt the language of the New Testament, and say that he is the Messiah, or Anointed-the son of God; our Mediator, and Saviour; since all these names are understood as compatible with his inferiority to the Father, nay, as teaching it. All Unitarians deny the Deity, though not the Divinity of Christ; some, as Milton for instance, suppose that he pre-existed in great power and glory, was either Creator of this and other worlds, or some great Spirit, and, in the fulfilment of the purposes of Heaven, at the appointed time, veiled his high nature in the humble form of a man, was born of the Virgin, and became our Saviour and teacher. Milton thus represents the Father addressing the Son:
'Thou, therefore, whom thou only canst redeem,
And again, in another part of the same book:
"Thee next they sang of all creation first,
In whose conspicuous countenance, without cloud
But against this view of our Lord's nature and person others seriously object, and hold that the New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ was a man divinely inspired, to make known the will of God as it was imparted to him, and to be the founder, the first herald and preacher, of a new religion. They believe that he came in the name, and was endowed with the wisdom and power of the Father; that he spoke as he was moved by the Father; that the works or miracles he performed were by the power of the Father, manifested through him; in short, that in all that Jesus did, said, and taught, he was an instrument in
the hand of God; and that all the doctrines, precepts, instructions of his ministry, were the suggestions of the Spirit of God dwelling within him. Hence, his religion is divine, and from God, though his person be not.
The difference between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism in this particular may be thought, on the first view of the matter, to be of slight moment to the interests of mankind. But Unitarians do not think so; and their belief in the inferiority of the Son to the Father, and in the Divinity of the Saviour's Mission and Authority, unites them in strenuous and persevering efforts to establish the grand truth of the unity of God, from the deep conviction they entertain of the immense importance of that truth to the interests of virtue (which Dr. Channing has indeed so ably illustrated and explained in many parts of his writings), as well as to the reception of Christianity itself by enlightened and reflecting men.
We come, next, to the office and character of Jesus, a subject which our space compels us to dismiss in a very few words. All Unitarians regard him as the Mediator between God and man-that is, the medium through which mercy and pardon and peace were conveyed to our sinning
All acknowledge, and receive him as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Anointed Prophet long-expected by Israel. They accept him as their instructor and guide in religious truth; as their Saviour from sin and folly in this state of existence and their punishment in a future life.
Unitarians estimate the character of the Saviour at its highest value. They regard it as one of perfect moral purity and holiness. He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." His spotless example they are anxious to hold up as a faultless model for the imitation of the Christian. The great use to be made of this perfect pattern set before us, is to emulate his virtues, strive to conform ourselves to his likeness, and to suffer the dispositions and affections that were manifested in him, to become rooted and grounded in our hearts.
3rdly. In no respect, perhaps, do Unitarians differ more from what are called orthodox believers, than in their opinions with regard to the nature and condition of man. They believe the Bible teaches that man comes into being with a nature neither holy nor unholy, but with the