LETTER III: SCOTT AND WHITBY
[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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]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 have shown you how, to my mind, the passages you have mentioned may be reconciled with the doctrine of the subordinate nature of the Son of God. My mother has requested me to read prayerfully the Gospel of St. John, with the notes and comments of Dr. Scott. I have done so, but no new light has been introduced into my mind, and my sentiments remain unaltered. I find that a great many of the notes touching the supreme divinity of the Messiah, are accredited to Dr. Whitby, and it strikes me that it is not quite fair in Scott to publish the sentiments of an author—to give them to the world as his opinions—when that author has formally and solemnly retracted those very opinions. This has been done by Dr. Whitby, and he has, in doing it, made use of such language as the following: “Nothing,” says he, “but the love of truth can be supposed to extort such a retraction from me, who, having already lived so long beyond the common period of life, can have nothing else to do but to prepare for my great change; and, in order thereunto, to make my peace with God, and my own conscience, before I die. To this purpose I solemnly appeal to the searcher of hearts, and call God to witness, whether I have hastily, or rashly, departed from the common opinion; or rather, whether I have not deliberately and calmly weighed the arguments on both sides drawn from Scripture and antiquity.” Now it may be that Dr. Scott has somewhere given some information to the simple and unlearned readers of his commentaries that the man, whose opinions he has so freely quoted in regard to the Deity of the Son of God, afterwards solemnly retracted those opinions; if he has not—and I have never been aware that he has—then I say it is at least a question in my mind whether the procedure was perfectly candid and honest.
Dr. Whitby says: “When I wrote my commentaries on the New Testament, I went, too hastily I own, in the common beaten road of other reputed orthodox divines; conceiving, first, that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, in one complex notion, were one and the same God, by virtue of the same individual essence communicated from the Father.” . . . . . . . . . “Then, as a natural consequence from this doctrine, I secondly, concluded that those divine persons differed only in the manner of their existence. That the difference can be only modal, even Dr. South hath fully demonstrated; and that this was the opinion generally received from the fourth century, may be seen in the close of my first part to Dr. Waterland.” Dr. Whitby then goes on to prove that the orthodox Anti-Arian fathers condemned this very doctrine as rank Sabellianism; and this he proves from the works of Athanasius and Epiphanius; both testifying, that to say the Father and the Son were of one and the same substance was Sabellianism. “And surely,” he says, “to contend that this is the doctrine of the Church of England, is to dishonor our Church, and in effect to charge her with that heresy which was exploded with scorn by the whole Church of Christ from the third to the present century.” And yet, my dear father, this doctrine is what my catechism taught me; viz., “the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”
Dr. Whitby goes on to prove, from Scripture, and the fathers of the first three centuries, incontestably, as it appears to me, that the nature and powers of Christ were entirely derived from the Father. “The primitive fathers,” says he, “of the first three centuries do also generally agree that the Son received his power from the Father, as it hath been observed already. And particularly Hippolytus, ‘that his knowledge was given him by the Father:’ to which the orthodox are forced to say that he received this power, this dominion, and these attributes, by receiving the same individual essence with the Father; which is yet a thing impossible in itself, since an individual essence cannot be communicated, for that very reason, because it is an individual; that it is one, and no more.”
Again, he says, that they who style themselves orthodox “constantly assert, that the will, power and wisdom of the whole Trinity is one and the same; and that what one wills, does, and knows, they all will, do, and know, by virtue of this unity of essence.” Again, “that the numerical essence is one and the same, the will and actions of that essence must be one and the same. And where the will and actions are numerically distinct and diverse, there the individual essence must also be distinct and different. And this Damascen declares to be the doctrine of the holy Fathers. Hence, it demonstratively follows, that, if the essence of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, be numerically one and the same, the will, and all other actions of these three, must be numerically one and the same; so that, what the Father wills and does, the Son and Holy Ghost must will and do also.”
Now, my dear father, if the three persons in the Trinity have one mind and will, how could Christ say he came not to do his own will, but the will of him that sent him? “I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which sent me.” He was speaking of a will which he came to do, and therefore must have reference to the mind and will which devised the scheme of redemption, in other words, the divine will, and this will, he says, was the will of another. Now, it has been shown, that, according to the orthodox belief, the Father and Son have the same mind and will; but Christ, by these declarations, most plainly and fully contradicts the assertion.
On the question whether the absolute equality of the Son with the Father, or the doctrine of the Trinity was known to the earliest Christian writers, I have collected from Whitby’s Last Thoughts the following remarks: “The hypostatical union” was “broached first by Cyril of Alexandria, and then by Theodoret pronounced to be a thing unknown to the Fathers that lived before him. . . . . . . . . . Origen proceeds, page 387, to show, that, among the multitude of believers, some, differing from the rest, rashly affirmed, as the Noetians did, that our Saviour was the God over all, which, saith he, ‘we Christians, or, we of the church, do not believe; as giving credit to the same Saviour who said, my Father is greater than I.’ And he saith, ‘we Christians manifestly teach, that the Son is not stronger than the Father, who is the Creator of the whole world, but inferior in power to him.’ Which words afford the clearest demonstration that the Church of that age did not believe that our Saviour was the Supreme God. Novatian is, if possible, still more express in his interpretation”—that is, of the text, I and my Father are one. “For in answer to the objection of the Sabellians from this place, he saith, ‘that unum being here put in the neuter gender, denotes not an unity of person, but a concord of society between them; they being deservedly styled one, by reason of their concord and love, and because, whatsoever the Son is, he is from the Father.’ Pamplius’s note upon these words is this: ‘Novatian did not write accurately in this place, as making no mention of the communion of the essence between the Father and the Son, but introducing an example from the apostle contrary to it; in which thing I doubt not to pronounce him erroneous, seeing the Church afterwards, in diverse councils, defined the contrary.’ Many of the ante-Nicene Fathers in effect said the same thing. Justin pronounces the Son to be ‘another from the Father in number, but not in consent.’ Because he never would do anything but what ‘the Maker of the world, above whom there is no other God, would have him do and speak.’ Eusebius pronounces the Father and Son to be one, ‘not as to the essence, but as to communion of glory.’ The council of Antioch pronounced the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be ‘three in subsistence, but one only in consent’ or concord. Novatian says, God the Father is ‘that one God, to whose greatness, majesty, and power, nothing can be compared.’ And indeed, all the Greek Fathers, from Justinian to Eusebius inclusively, do fre¬quently inform us that the Son ‘did obey the will of the Father,’ that he did ‘minister and was subservient to him,’”—Whitby.
Sir Isaac Newton’s opinions in regard to the Trinity may be gathered from his “Historical Account of Two Corruptions of Scripture.” In the number of Oct. 1823, of Sparks’s Collections, he says: “Whiston tells us of his,” Newton’s, “profound knowledge of Church history during the three first centuries of the Christian era, and of his having been convinced by his study of this history, that the doctrine of the Trinity was introduced into the Christian scheme many years after the apostles. The tenor of Newton’s writings is in accordance with this declaration, nor do they exhibit any evidence, that their author ever believed in a Trinity. The charge against Horsley of having suppressed his papers because they were adverse to this doctrine, has never been contradicted.”
You have mentioned to me, my dear father, the fact, that in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, he testifies that the early Christians worshipped Christ as God. Now that letter conveys a very different impression to my mind; and, it seems to me, is very far from proving that they made our Saviour equal with God. Bear in mind that it is the testimony of a man whose heart was filled with hatred against the Christians; so much so that he says, “it has been a question with me very problematical, whether any distinction should be made between the young and the old, the tender and the robust; whether any room should be given for repentance.” Now all that he testifies is this;- and remember too that he is only giving the testimony of those who were in the act of retracting, and of course would do their utmost endeavor to please the enemies of Christianity—”that they were accustomed, on a stated day, to meet before daylight, and to repeat among themselves a hymn to Christ, as to a God, and to bind themselves by an oath.” Bear in mind also that the term worship, (for though it is not used in Pliny’s letter, it is inferred from it,) was used in the early ages of the Church with as great latitude as the term God, and did no more always mean supreme homage than the term God always meant the supreme Being. Nebuchadnezzar “fell upon his face and worshipped Daniel,” but not as the supreme God; and the eastern sages worshipped the infant Jesus, but not as the supreme God. On the whole, this expression in Pliny’s letter, on which so much reliance is placed in all the ecclesiastical histories written by Trinitarians, goes very far towards convincing me that the early Christians did not regard Christ as equal with the Father.
I have a few remarks to make in regard to the gospel of John. It is generally supposed that the apostle John wrote his gospel to supply what had been omitted by the other evangelists. He could not have written it to prove the human nature of our Lord; that was a self-evident truth. Nor could he have written it to prove his divine nature, for the drift and tenor of the book evidently implies an inferiority of some kind to the Father. If his main object was to prove that he had two natures, it is strange that he pays so little attention to it. If that were his object, would he not, as a man of common sense, much more as a man inspired by God, have so announced it, that, at least, the proposition could be stated in his own words—not by taking detached portions of the book, laying them together, and inferring what his object was—but by the clear, explicit, unquestionable statement of the doctrine which he was writing a book to establish. It appears plain to me, that his object was to prove the divinity of the mission of his beloved master; that he came from God with full power and authority to establish a new dispensation—to create all things new. And this view throws a flood of light upon the whole book, especially upon the fourteen first verses, which can thus be explained in several ways without a resort to the perplexing and impossible ideas of three perfect beings equal to one perfect being; or of two incompatible natures, with different perceptions, existing in one of those beings. For it is only on this hypothesis that the declaration of Christ respecting the day and the hour which no man knew, neither the Son—and several other declarations—can be explained without impeaching the veracity of our blessed Lord, in whom was no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. But if the divine and human will of our Saviour were one and the same, and the will of the three persons in the Trinity—of whom he was one—was one and the same, Christ virtually said, I seek not mine own will, but the will of myself. In fact, just try to read the New Testament, with this idea, which grows naturally out of Trinitarianism, in the mind, and you will see what sad confusion it makes. May the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth.