On the first Chapter of Hebrews

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Lectures on The Principles of Unitarianism
Lecture 12 – (By J. S. Hyndman, 1824)

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]

Hebrews 1:1 and 2
(1) God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
(2) Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…

Triumphantly as this chapter has been produced to prove the Godhead of Jesus, when fairly examined in all its parts, I am persuaded you will be convinced that it affords the most satisfactory evidence to the contrary. The very first words of it are inconsistent with the notion of Christ’s Deity; for surely nothing can be more evident than that he who is the Son of another, is not the being whose Son he is—is not his Father—is not in dignity and underived existence and perfections equal to his Father. The very application of the title ‘Son’ to Jesus Christ, is clearly demonstrative of his inferiority of nature and attributes to him who is his Father. And were there nothing more on which to ground Anti-Trinitarianism than the appellation ‘Son of God’ being given to the supposed second person of the Trinity, candor and justice would, I think, demand the acknowledgment of its being more than sufficient.

Nor is this the only argument for the truth of our system that the very commencement of this chapter affords. ‘God spake through the prophets,’ says the writer, ‘God spake through his Son.’ The relation to God here stated to have been sustained by the prophets is that of being the media of divine communications to mankind. They were not the primary agents in authoritatively speaking to men; they were not the authors of their prophecies; they were but the organs of God. As such they acted in a capacity inferior to the Almighty. And does it not appear plain and indisputable that Christ is here spoken of in a character and capacity subordinate to God? Is he not compared to the prophets? Was he anything more than Heaven’s oracle in revealing to mankind the Gospel of grace? As the prophets were inferior to the Almighty, so was he; as God only spoke through him as he did through them, he was not the primary author of his doctrines—he spoke, like the prophets, by an authority and knowledge that were imparted to him by God.

This position receives further confirmation, when we consider that God is here distinguished from Jesus by the absolute name of supremacy; and that Jesus is distinguished from God as the mediator between him and men, with respect to divine communications. One being is here called God; that being alone must therefore be what the name denotes; for there is but one Supreme. If the circumstance of one being bearing this name in this instance proves that being to be what the name denotes; surely the circumstance of another’s not receiving the name, as certainly proves that he is not God. Especially is this the case when we consider that the Father is here distinguished from the Son considered of course as a person and not a nature; and the Son, be it observed also, is spoken of in his highest character and capacity, which, nevertheless, are evidently inferior and subordinate to God. The Son, then is as inferior to the Father as he who bears the name of God is superior to him who bears it not—as he who is distinguished from another by an appellation which denotes supremacy is superior to him who has no such appellation given him to denote his nature and his powers.

The passage goes on, “whom he hath appointed heir of all things.” In order to understand the meaning of these words it is necessary to remark that ‘heir’ and ‘lord’ were, in Roman law, synonymous terms, as is distinctly remarked by Justinian. Accordingly, in reference to this, Paul says that “the heir differeth nothing from a servant, and is under tutors and governors, though he be lord of all.” And in reference to the Spiritual dominion of Christ, we find the Psalmist declaring in the person of the Almighty, “I will make him, my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.” This expression firstborn is equivalent to heir, because the firstborn of a family was always the heir of the paternal estate.

The doctrine, then, taught in this passage is just what is taught in that sentence of the Apostle’s, “God hath made that same Jesus whom ye crucified, both Lord and Christ.” But he that is constituted ‘the firstborn or Lord’ of God’s spiritual creation; he that is appointed ‘heir of all things’ in the Christian dispensation, cannot himself be possessed of underived dignity, dominion and glory. Had he been the Almighty, therefore, heirship or constituted lordship could not have been his; for who could have appointed him to dignity, or who could have raised him who, in the nature of things must necessarily be raiseless. He who is “appointed heir of all things,” he to whom “all authority is given in heaven and in earth,” must be a creature dependent on the Almighty. Previous to receiving the spiritual dominion, he had it not; after he received it, therefore, it was only his at the pleasure of God, by whom he was “appointed heir of all things.”

“Through whom he made the worlds.” It is really curious to observe the confidence with which this passage is brought forward in support of the idea that Jesus not only existed before he appeared as a man, but also that he created the material universe. The preposition which is here used in connection with epoisen is dia, which universally denotes instrumental agency, by way of distinction from hypo, which is almost universally used to signify primary or original causation. Supposing, then, that the notion of creation is conveyed by the original of the word translated ‘made,’ and supposing also that ‘worlds’ is a correct translation of the Greek noun which occurs in the passage, what, I ask, would be the doctrine of the words? Would it be that the Son created the world as an original artificer? Surely not; but that God created it by the agency or means of Jesus Christ.

This verse is parallel in the mode of its phraseology to the first verse. Now, as when it is said, “God spake through the Son,” the universal doctrine of the New Testament is expressed respecting the source of our Savior’s knowledge, viz. that it was derived from him that was greater than he, and that he was not the original fountain of his communications. So when it is said, “God made the worlds through his Son,” it is no less clear and no less incontrovertible that all that is attributed to Jesus in the passage is an agency that is secondary and subordinate to that of the Supreme. Indeed, as in the former sentence, so in this, the very form and structure of the phraseology are more than sufficient to determine this point.

No one ever yet supposed that he who is said to do a thing through another is the very being through whom he does it; or that when a person is said to do a thing through another, the sense in which they are said to do it is precisely the same. An artist constructs a piece of mechanism. If he employs his servants to do it, we naturally enough say, he did the work through his servants; whereas, had the work been done by his own hands, it would be said, the work was done by him, or he did the work. Not in fact to admit that the words, “through whom also he made the worlds,” convey the idea of instrumental agency in the Son, is either to make the sentence perfectly unintelligible or absurd. Christ, then, did not create the world by his own inherent energy and might, but by power and wisdom that were communicated by God.

To the objection that creation is a work, the performance of which cannot be predicated of a creature, it might indeed be said, that all the words necessarily imply, when understood in the sense in which we are at present taking them, is, that Christ disposed and arranged the materials, which God spoke into existence, into that form and order that now constitute the universe; or that he acted as the organ or medium of the Divinity when matter was spoken into existence. Be these, however, as they may, the difficulty may be removed, because the foundation of it may be shewn to be weak or unsound. In the first place, the word translated ‘made’ is not that which denotes absolute creation. It is indeed used in the Septuagint in the cosmogony of Moses; but, from the whole, it seems more probable that nothing more is intended by it than the combination of matter into that structure and form in which we now see that part of it that constitutes the world. The word may be fairly and most properly translated constituted or disposed.

The proper and literal rendering of aiones, translated ‘worlds’ is ages or dispensations. This is its natural and only proper meaning. It is so translated in almost all its occurrences in the New Testament, and in many instances must be so as to make sense and coherency in the sentences with which it stands connected. Why then should it not be so translated here? Taking the word in this sense, in which the Apostle almost universally uses it in all his Epistles, and which is its strict and natural signification, the passage may be translated, ‘through whom he constituted or disposed the ages.’

The grand object of the writer of the Epistle is to show the superiority of the Christian dispensation to the Jewish. That dispensation was called one of the ages into which the Jews were accustomed to divide time. He terms the Christian dispensation “the age to come,” thus adopting the terms in which that dispensation had been spoken of by the Jews. And now he introduces the comparison between the Mosaic and Christian ages by the declaration that Jesus Christ, a person of dignity and high moral excellence, was the author of the new dispensation; that by him, as an authorized ambassador of God, the old dispensation was made an end of, and the new one instituted; that God, by the medium of Jesus, had now abolished the old ceremonial mode of worship, and had commenced or laid the foundation of a religion which, though not attended with the visible tokens and manifestations of the divine favor, presence, and majesty, was yet more morally glorious in its nature, as being a system in the doctrine of which, and in the miracles which confirmed them, were discovered and were to be seen shining forth the moral attributes of the Supreme.

“Who being the brightness (or an effulgent ray) of his glory, and the express image of his person.” Do these words declare Jesus Christ to be of the same essence with God? Surely not. Is brightness the essence or the substance of light? Is it not rather the appearance of it? Or is a bright ray any thing else than an emanation from the fountain of light—any thing but the particular direction of part of the sun’s light? Christ, then, is only a being who shines forth in derived glory. He is not God; he only displays and manifests the essential and underived glory of the Supreme.

In the words, “the express image of his person,” which are, like the words in connection with them, merely figurative, Trinitarians conceive they find foundation for the doctrine of the unity of the substance of the Son and the Father; or for the complete communication of the attributes and essence of the Deity from the Father to the Son, so as to make the latter in personality an exact representation of the other. On this principle Justin Martyr and other fathers of the Christian church, anxiously desirous to make the comparison of Christ to the brightness of the sun comport with the doctrine of his Deity, maintained that he proceeded from the Father as the light of the sun, without division or separation from him. In like manner, the Nicene Creed speaks of him being “light of light,” and hence they argue his consubstantiality with the Father, who, they held, produced not another essence or substance in the Son, but communicated the same substance to him. To this it has been well replied, that if Christ had been generated out of the essence of the Father, he must have taken either a part of it, or the whole. But he could not have taken a part of it, because the Divine Essence is indivisible. Neither could he have taken the whole; for in this case the Father would have ceased to be the Father, and would have become the Son. And again, since the Divine Essence is numerically one, and therefore incommunicable, this could by no means have happened.

We certainly have reason to say, in opposition to those metaphysical dogmas, that he who is the image of another cannot in any sense be the identical being whose image he is; and that, as there is one God, he cannot be that God who is the image of that God. He who is distinguished from him who bears the title God in its absolute sense, can be neither God in essence nor in personality. In saying so, indeed, Trinitarians involve themselves in inextricable difficulties; for, as the essence and personality make up the complete image of God, Christ, if God, must be the image of his Fathers’ essence or of his Father’s personality. But he cannot be the image of his Father’s essence; for this were to assert that the essence of each is different, since to speak of one essence being the image of the same essence, is absurd.

A passage parallel to this occurs in Col. i. 16, where it is said that “Jesus is the image of the invisible God.” The passages, it will be acknowledged, have both reference to the same thing. Now if Jesus is called the image of the invisible God in respect of his essence, what consistency is there in the declaration? The essence of God being necessarily invisible, if Jesus were really God, his essence being indeed that of the Father’s, would be as necessarily invisible as the Father’s. It is clear also that Christ cannot be said to be the image of the Father’s personality; for sure it is, that, according to all the ideas of common sense, sonship is no image of paternity, nor a being of derived properties an image of underived perfections.

Jesus, then, it evidently appears, is called “the image of the invisible God,” because in him, considered as the teacher of the world, God’s moral glories are reflected, as it were. The idea is more plainly expressed by the Apostle when he says, “For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” 2 Cor. iv. 6. To the manner in which he appeared as the image of God, Christ refers when he said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” and “He that seeth me, seeth him that hath sent me,” John xiv. 9 & xii. 45. These expressions no one can reasonably deny to be figurative. Were they taken literally, they would contradict reason, and oppose Scripture, which declares that “God is invisible, dwelling in that light which is inaccessible and full of glory;” or they would make the mere body of Christ, which is all that could literally be seen, to be the Father.

Nothing is more common in the New Testament than the figurative use of the word seen, which corresponds to the figure ‘image and brightness.’ “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” “I speak (saith Christ) that which I have seen with my Father; and ye do that which you have seen with your father.” “Hereafter ye shall see the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man,” &c. The sense, then, in which the Father was seen in Christ, is not that of beholding an image of the Father’s essence or of the Father’s personality, but of that of beholding the displays of God’s wisdom and power. In Jesus we see God in a spiritual or intellectual sense, either by apprehending the divine authority of his mission, we see the moral glories of the Supreme as they appear in that view of his character and will which Jesus has given us; or as in seeing the miracles wrought in confirmation of his mission we see the displays of the power of God. We see God manifesting himself in the only possible way in which he can manifest himself to his creatures.

As the image of God, Jesus displayed by his doctrines and his works the moral and natural perfection of God. In this sense, and in this sense alone, it is that Jesus uses such expressions as we are noticing. Accordingly in reference to the revelation of God’s will he made to mankind, and using a figure exactly corresponding to that of image or brightness, Jesus says, “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth in me should not abide in darkness;” clearly intimating that the sense in which his Father was seen was a moral one, such as corresponded to that in which he was shown to the world by the exhibition of his will, and attributes, and government, and such as is expressed by another declaration of Christ, “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also,” John xiv. 7, words which, you will observe, occur as the preceding context of the words that we have noticed, and which are evidently synonymous with the concluding sentence, “ye have seen him.”

Were any thing more necessary to illustrate the sense in which Jesus declared that the Father was seen in him, I should advert to his own formal illustration which was given to Philip, “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you, I speak not of myself; but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works;” that is, the works confirming the truth of the words. From all which it seems clear that Jesus was the image of God, or that in him God was seen, not because the miracles he wrought or the doctrines he taught were the productions of his own deity in unison and co-operation with that of the Father; not because they were the works and words of the second person in the Trinity united to the man Jesus. His whole words go to prove, in the most unequivocal manner, that he acted merely as the agent of the Almighty; and yet in this character and capacity it is in which he implies that he is “the image of God,” or in which it is true that “he who hath seen him hath seen the Father.”

“Upholding all things by the word of his power.” The word here translated upholding, might be rendered conducting or governing. ‘All things’ have no doubt an exclusive reference to all things connected with the Christian dispensation, especially its progress and security, and the extension of its blessings. Whose the power is that is spoken of, is not quite clear. It seems to be that of God, and not that of Christ. Supposing, however, that the power is that of Christ, and that upholding sufficiently well conveys the meaning of the original, the doctrine of the passage would be no more than this, that Christ by the power imparted in him by his Father upheld all things in the Christian dispensation, so as that under his conduct the blessings of Christianity should be imparted to the world. It seems, I think, decidedly clear that the passage has no reference whatever to the upholding of the natural universe; and even though it had, in order to make one part of the passage consistent with the other, we should be necessitated to understand that in continuing to regulate the course of nature he acted merely in the same character in which he is supposed to have disposed the world at first, viz. as a secondary agent; and the power may even on grammatical principles be referred to God, we have an additional reason for so understanding it.

“When he had by himself made a cleansing of our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.” What is here implied by the phrase ‘by himself,’ seems to be a natural inquiry. And simple as it is, the answer seems wholly incompatible with the double view that is taken of the person of Christ. The words have some meaning, else they would not have been introduced; and what meaning can they have that does not naturally involve the supposition or idea that Christ suffered in his whole person? The Epistle represents this cleansing of sin as having been especially accomplished by his death, which confirmed the covenant of everlasting mercy. And this death, according to the import of the words ‘by himself,’ must have been the death of his whole person. Whatever dignity he possessed, whether two natures, or ten, ‘by himself’ includes the whole. But the death of Deity involves inconsistencies and absurdities. As God, therefore, he cannot be spoken of in the preceding verses. He was rewarded for his meritorious sufferings; he was exalted by God, and to God’s right hand;—the same himself that is previously spoken of. To say that the human nature was rewarded for the humiliation of the divine, is to speak most inconsistently; and to suppose that the divine was exalted, is a notion too absurd to enter the mind.

“Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” It is impossible that the Almighty is he of whom the writer thus speaks. Can the creator of the universe be once brought into comparison with the very highest of his creatures? Can infinite be compared to finite? More properly may the light of the sun be compared to the feeble glimmering of a taper; or immensity to a mathematical point. To the angels or the messengers of the old dispensation, Christ may be compared; his glory and his dignity are superior to theirs; his is a nobler name; his is a more honorable dominion. To the powers of heaven he may be compared, and as far as concerns the glory and the honor arising from connexion with our world, he is superior to them. But to conceive that God is compared to his creatures is singular in the extreme!

“For unto which of his angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?” The words are quoted from Psalm ii. 7, 8. And certainly nothing can be more evident than that they speak of Jesus in a character wholly inferior to the Supreme, though it be the highest which Christ sustains. “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.” Here is appointment to an office. “Jehovah hath said unto me.” Here is the one Jehovah (and there are not two) clearly distinguished from the Son. “Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Here is perfect inequality intimated; here is a supplicant; and here is therefore one who is distinct from the Supreme God, and is wholly dependant on the Almighty. Surely this cannot be God himself that is spoken of; surely God cannot ask of himself; surely the second person of the Trinity cannot ask a favor of the first. No. “The Lord God will give unto him the throne of his father David,” is the language of another Psalm. “God hath exalted him a spiritual prince and a savior,” is the language of the Apostles.

“This day have I begotten thee.” No wonder that the doctrine of “eternal sonship” is exploded. Surely to maintain it, is to say that time and eternity are synonymous terms. An eternal day must first appear to be intelligible words, or to convey a meaning that is consistent with the dictates of reason, before an eternal sonship can stand. What absurdities do such a singular hypothesis involve! The plain truth contained in this passage, with respect to the sonship of Christ, is this, that he was the first-begotten from the dead, never to die any more; he was or became this on the day of his resurrection. In this sense the phrase was evidently applied by Paul in Acts xiii. 33. & Heb. v. 5.

“I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son.” These words form part of an address of Nathan to David. They promise Solomon a kingdom to be established for ever; and Christ being understood by the writer to be the antitype of Solomon, the words are applied to him as expressive of his regal dignity. Now, I ask, how the application of this passage to Christ is consistent with the idea of his being spoken of as God? Was the circumstance of these words being addressed to Solomon, any proof that Solomon was more than man? If so, how can they prove the antitype more? How do they not naturally prove him to have been in nature the same? Surely the appellation here given to the antitype, involves the conclusion that the meaning of it when given to the antitype is not more than when it is given to the type.

“And when he bringeth in the first begotten into the world, he saith, and let all the angels of God worship him.” ‘Going hence’ or ‘going out of the world,’ Psal. xxix. 18, 1 Cor. v. 10, are the common expressions to signify death, and God being said to beget Christ when he raised him from the dead, this may fitly be called a second introduction of him into the world. The words are expressly to be found in the original Hebrew, Deut. xxxii. 43, as they are here cited, and refer to the children of Israel figuratively represented under the character of one being, God’s anointed. This being the case, they prove nothing at all respecting the Deity of Christ; and instead of showing that he was entitled to supreme worship, they show that he was to be worshipped in the same sense in which the children of Israel were.

Even allowing that the command or exhortation was given in reference to Christ, still what is proved? The word translated ‘worship’ generally means nothing more than homage of any kind, profound reverence and respect, expressed in any particular way. Indeed the very circumstance of this command to worship Christ being given only when he was brought back into the world shows of itself that supreme worship is not meant; for supreme worship, which alone belongs to God, would not only have been given to Jesus when he was raised from the dead, but would have been his from eternity, had he been the Supreme. Had he been naturally entitled to this worship, how was it that he required the command of another in order to procure it for him? The command shows of itself, indeed, that he was a distinct being from him who ushered it forth in his behalf; and nothing can be more obvious than that the receiving of this worship is part of his exaltation; a circumstance that can have no reference to him whose dignity is unchangeable and infinite.

“Unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever, a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of thy kingdom.” This verse stands disjunctively conjoined with the preceding. The verses draw a contrast between the sacredness of the title ‘angel’ and that of ‘the Son.’ The former verse should be translated, “Who maketh the winds his messengers, and flames of fire his ministers.” The idea of the writer seems to be, that so little sacredness is there in the appellation ‘angels,’ that it is given to inanimate objects, because they were employed by Jehovah to execute his purposes. Thence he takes occasion to illustrate the dignity of the Son, by showing that the terms in which he is addressed are such as intimate the superiority of the capacity he holds.

The passage has been translated by some very learned divines, “God is thy throne,” which would convey the idea of God being the support and stability of Christ’s throne, in the same figurative manner in which God is called the shield, the buckler, the hiding place, and the portion of his people. Most certainly the one translation is as warrantable as the other, but it signifies little in the argument which we adopt. Supposing, therefore, the common translation to be correct, what does this passage prove? Nothing more than it proved with respect to Solomon; for to him the words were originally addressed, of which anyone who reads the passage throughout will be convinced. It is a quotation from Psal. xlv. and can apply to no other than Solomon; so that, if it prove the Deity of Jesus, it also proves that of Solomon. To those who recollect that the title ‘God’ is, in the Old Testament, a common designation of persons of power, eminence, and dignity, and that Christ claimed the application of the title to himself, only in this sense, it will appear not in the least surprising, that Jesus should be here denominated. And that the name is given him only in its common inferior sense in this place, is as evident as that it is given in its supreme sense to him who anointed Jesus. For as the God who anointed him is supreme, Jesus who was anointed cannot be so also, there being confessedly but one Supreme.

That the term ‘God’ is applied to Christ in an inferior sense, is as evident as that it is said to be “his God” who anointed him. He who had a God could not have had applied to him the appellation ‘God’ in the same sense in which it is applied to the Father. Who could impart anything to Jehovah? Yet Jesus was anointed. To whom could Jehovah render obedience? Yet Jesus is here said to have been anointed; because of his having loved righteousness and hated iniquity. Who could have been the superior of the Supreme? Yet Jesus is here spoken of as having a God. To whom can the Infinite Sovereign of the world be equaled? Yet Jesus is here said to have ‘fellows,’ above whom he was anointed. And are not these considerations more than sufficient to prove the subordination of Jesus to the Father. Here he is spoken of, all must admit, in his highest character—considered also of course as a whole person, of which the same things cannot be predicated and not predicated at the same time.

“Thou, Lord, hast laid the foundation of the earth.” The writer implies that Solomon was a type of Jesus, and affirms that the Scripture makes this address in reference to Jesus; as made to Solomon the type, the address had a reference to Jesus the antitype, though not made to Jesus. That the address was made to the Son, is an idea founded on the mistranslation of pros, which being correctly translated of in the former verse, should have been so rendered here. And thus the notion that the address in the tenth verse was made to the Son, appears to be wholly vain. The address was made to the Father concerning or in reference to the Son; and the idea of the writer plainly is, that the eternity and immutability of Jehovah are a pledge of the perpetuity of the reign of Christ, because he is endowed with his authority and supported in the dignity of his office by the will and decree of Jehovah; and the perpetuity of his reign is one circumstance that proves his superiority to angels.

“Now unto the KING eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise GOD, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]