Letters from Mary Dana (1845) Letter 21

Posted


L E T T E R X X I
THE PHRASE “I AM.”

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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]

MY DEAR SIR,

I will now consider the import of the phrase “I am,” as presented in the extract which forms the subject of the foregoing letter. You remark that, “considering Christ’s audience, and their familiarity with the phrase, and the sense they invariably attached to it, you can never doubt he designed to declare himself Jehovah, when he said, before ‘Abraham was, I am.’“ It is contended by many learned men that the Greek phrase here translated, “I am,” is invariably used to mean, I am he, that is, the Messiah. Twice before, in this chapter, the same Greek phrase is introduced, and in both instances it is rendered by the translators of our common version, “I am he;” it occurs in the twenty-fourth and twenty-eighth verses. Why king James’s translators saw fit to render this verse differently from the others, it is impossible with certainty to decide, though the reason may be very easily conjectured. It certainly would not have injured the sense of the verse to add, as they had done in the two former verses, the pronoun he, and it would have prevented much controversy. To show that in the 28th verse Christ was speaking of himself as the Messiah, and not as God, he says, “then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself.” the same expression may also be found in John 4:26; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8, and in every instance it is translated, “I am he.”

In Exodus 3:14, the term “I AM,” is used as a proper name, and applied by Jehovah to himself; “thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” The sentence is perfect and complete. Whereas, if, in the verse under consideration, the phrase is to be understood in the same sense—as a proper name, the sentence is an incomplete and unmeaning one. Read it thus, understanding “I am” as a proper name, and you will discover this, for the proper noun is entirely without its corresponding verb. But read it with the pronoun he understood, and it is a complete sentence; though the use of the present tense in connection with the past strikes the ear of a grammarian singularly and unpleasantly. The biblical critic Wakefield says, “the peculiar use of the present tense in the usage of Scriptural expressions is to imply determination and certainty; as if he had said, ‘my mission was settled and certain before the birth of Abraham.’”

It is clear from Scripture, and from the early fathers that the Jews did not understand Jesus to have announced himself as the infinite God by this or any other expression. Sparks, in his “Inquiry,” plainly proves that the early Trinitarians did not think that the doctrine of the Trinity was taught, either by Christ or his Apostles, so as to be understood at the time. This is a point of much importance; and as most of my friends may not be able very easily to obtain the work to which I have alluded, I shall not scruple to avail myself and them of the erudite labors of Professor Sparks, by quoting largely from his book. The extracts I shall make are taken from a work entitled “An Inquiry into the comparative moral tendency of Trinitarian and Unitarian doctrines, in a series of letters to the Rev. Dr. Miller, of Princeton.” Those who can obtain access to the work will be amply rewarded for their labor if they will give it an attentive perusal. It cannot fail to enlarge their ideas, liberalize their minds, and add greatly, perhaps, to their store of general knowledge.

“The opinion,” he says, “that the Trinity is plainly taught in the Scriptures, has not generally prevailed till of late. So far were Trinitarians from holding such an opinion in former times, that in nothing did they exercise their ingenuity more than in devising reasons why this doctrine should be only obscurely shadowed forth by the Saviour and the Apostles, and why it should be kept concealed from the Jews.”

“This subject merits discussion,” he says, “not because it affects the Scriptural evidence in regard to the truth or falsehood of the doctrine; but because it is intimately connected with the presumption of making the Trinity a necessary article of faith, which all persons must believe before they can be called Christians, or hope for salvation. If the primitive Christians knew nothing of this doctrine, it is absurd to clothe it with so much importance; nay, it is absolutely putting a false character upon the religion of Jesus, and deceiving the humble inquirer into a fatal reliance on things which can have no good tendency on his religious or moral conduct. In this light the subject is worth pursuing.”

Professor Sparks then goes back to the time of the Saviour and of his Apostles; refers to the first believers in Christianity; to the early and later Fathers; to the Catholics after the Reformation; to some of the first reformers; to the Arminians of Holland; and to eminent English divines; and clearly shows “with how little discretion the Trinity is now affirmed to be plainly taught in the Scriptures; and with how little regard to consistency it is imposed as a necessary article of faith.”

That it is not explicitly taught in the Scriptures appears to me so plain, that all attempts to prove the fact seem superfluous; yet when men insist upon it as a fundamental article of faith, and affirm a denial of it to be “a soul ruining error,” the proof becomes important and even necessary. Professor Sparks proves that it is not thus taught. I have been glancing my eye over the pages of his work, and find every word that he says so important—so much to the point in my argument with you—and so much better said than anything I could say, that I shall probably lay the whole of it before you, trusting that I shall be excused by the author for giving myself such latitude.

“In the first place, then,” he says, “it will not be denied that the great design of the revelations, contained in the Old Testament, was to acquaint the Jews with the true nature of God; nor will it be denied, that from all these revelations, they had no conceptions of any other mode of existence, than that of his simple unity. It was perpetually enforced upon them, as a fundamental truth, that ‘the Lord their God was one.’ No history, either sacred or profane, acquaints us with a single fact, from which it can be inferred, that the Jews had any knowledge of a three-fold nature in the Deity. On the contrary, all history is against such an inference; and the demonstrable certainty, that these people, for whose light and improvement the Old Testament was expressly designed, never had the remotest suspicion of such a doctrine being contained in their sacred books, is the clearest possible evidence, that it is not plainly taught there, whatever may now be deduced from types, and shadows, and dark sayings, and Hebrew idioms, and double meanings.

“And, again, where does it appear that the people to whom our Saviour preached, understood him to describe God as existing in a three-fold nature? Or, to put the question in a more direct shape, where does it appear, that in one instance, he spoke of him as any other, than the one true God? The only history we have of the opinions of that period is contained in the gospels; and there we are made to know, as distinctly as we can be made to know, that Christ ascribes all things to one Being, whom he calls the Father and the Creator.” [1]

“The sentiments of the people, as far as we can learn, were in exact accordance with these traits of his conduct and instructions. Were their actions, or their conversation, or their behavior towards him such, as would be expected, if they believed the Supreme Jehovah to be with them in bodily presence? This question applies equally in regard to his disciples and his enemies. When he healed a sick man by a miracle, ‘the multitude marveled, and glorified God, who had given such power unto men.’ They did not marvel, that God had come down on the earth, but that he had clothed with such power a man in all appearances like themselves. Mary said to him, after the death of Lazarus, “If thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” When she spoke these words, could she have believed him to be the infinite God, who is every where equally present with his love and hispower? Many examples of this sort might be added, were it necessary; but no one, it is presumed, will undertake to prove it to have been a prevailing opinion among the contemporaries of our Saviour, that he was God, or that in the nature of God were three distinct persons. [2] The testimony and probability are against such a result; and it would be no better than presumptuous, idle conjecture, to represent the Trinity as plainly taught, if taught at all, in our Saviour’s immediate instructions.”

“When we come to the preaching of the Apostles, we hear nothing of their promulgating a Trinity. We have a minute account of their preaching written by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles; and we here look in vain for any place in which they teach the deity of Christ, or the existence of a Trinity. Nor can it be inferred from anything said or done by their hearers, that they understood them to publish such doctrines. * * * In short, it cannot be proved that the persons instructed by the Prophets, the Saviour, and the Apostles, had any notions of a Trinity; while on the contrary, almost every page of the Bible is loud in proclaiming the divine unity, and in establishing the fact, that this was the faith of all true believers. Inference in this case, cannot be admitted as argument. If the Trinity be anything, it is as essential to the divine nature as the Unity, and if one was as plainly taught as the other, we should have the same evidence of their having been equally believed. [3] We have no such evidence, but abundance to the contrary, and this is enough to justify us in affirming, that the Trinity was not preached by the Saviour and his Apostles in such a manner as to be understood at the time.”

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


Endnotes:

1. See Appendix T. Back to top

2. See Appendix U. Back to top

3. It might be added that as one is so much more incomprehensible than the other, so much the more necessary that it should be plainly taught. Back to top