Lectures on The Principles of Unitarianism
Lecture 3 – (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does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]
1 Timothy 2:5
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
Trinitarians do not deny that the unity of God is the doctrine of Scripture. They do deny, however, his personal unity, or that he is one intelligent being. They maintain that their sentiments are supported by positive assertions of Sacred Writ, and that the adoption of them is necessary to the salvation of mankind; and yet they themselves have engaged in the most violent disputes and entertained the most discordant opinions concerning the Trinity.
The Sabellians, whose doctrine received the sanction of the University of Oxford, maintain that in the Godhead there are not three distinct intelligent agents, but that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are only modes or relations of God to his creatures. Others who hold the subsistence of something different from unity in the Divine essence, yet maintain that it is impossible for us to comprehend what that something is. One thing they allow, that there cannot be absolutely three distinct persons in the Divine Being, taking these terms in anything like their usual sense. Others with Bishop Burgess maintain, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are persons but not beings, while these three personal nonentities make one perfect being. Some will have it, that the three persons of the Trinity are only parts of the Divine essence; while others, with Bishop Gastrell and Dr. Moysey, hold, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each individually includes the whole idea of God and something more, while all together they make up one complete God and nothing more.
Some will have it, that the Son and Holy Spirit are absolutely eternal, unoriginated beings, while Dr. Horsley and his followers affirm, that the Father produced the Son by contemplating his own perfections; and creeds declare that the former is begotten from the Father, and that the latter proceeds from both. Dr. Watts and Bishop Burnett hold, that the Son and Holy Spirit are created beings, and are Gods only by the indwelling of the Father’s Godhead.
Without attempting to travel through all these metaphysical labyrinths, which would be a task as impracticable as it would be useless, I shall refer only to the real Trinitarian system as contained in the Athanasian Creed. Now this doctrine, we maintain, implies contradictions and absurdities. It involves one of four different conclusions. First, that there are more Gods than one, or, second, that three beings and one being are identical; third, that there can exist more than one infinite being; or, fourth, that none of the persons of the Trinity is infinite. With respect to the first it may be observed, that when it is affirmed that ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God,’ the term ‘God’ used in the sentence must be understood in all its occurrences to express identically the same ideas. Here, then, in the most unequivocal manner it is stated that there are three Sovereigns of the universe, a doctrine which is directly inconsistent with the Christian system. Athanasius does indeed say that though each person in the Trinity is perfect God of himself, there is nevertheless but one God. But the assertion of Athanasius or any one else cannot alter the intuitive perceptions of the human mind; and nothing certainly can be more evident to anyone who attaches meaning to words, than that both propositions cannot be true, that they are necessarily destructive the one of the other. There is no possible method of escaping from this dilemma without being involved in the second monstrous conclusion, viz. that three and one are identical terms.
For though it be affirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are not more than one God, but are only persons in the divine essence; yet it must be evident, that, unless the word ‘person’ is used in some extraordinary sense, it follows from the statements of Trinitarians, that three persons constitute one person. A person, according to Locke and the apprehension of all mankind, is a thinking intelligent human being, that can consider itself as itself. A divine person must consequently denote an intelligent being, possessed of all the attributes of Deity; and if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are each a person, the mathematical absurdity is produced—of three intelligent existences being one intelligent existence.
Nor does either the third or fourth conclusion less clearly and obviously flow from the statements of the Trinity given by its advocates. With respect to the former it may be observed, that if the Son, for example, be equal to the Father, he must separately and alone fill all space. Thus we have not only the absurdity that there is a plurality of infinities, but also that the same space is filled and occupied by three beings in all respects the same, and equal each to each; or else we are necessitated to adopt the latter mentioned conclusion, that neither of these persons or beings is omnipresent; that they are each circumscribed in their existence, and severally occupy their own separate and proper portion of the measureless immensity of space.
A consequence of the same absurd notion necessarily follows from the statements of the orthodox with respect to the power of God. We ascribe infinite power to the Deity, because the very reasons which prove that such a being must exist, demonstrate with equal force that he must possess inherently in his constitution energies of irresistible might, adequate to the production of every possible effect. Now Trinitarianism, by affirming that the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, are each almighty, not only maintain the existence of what is unnecessary as well as impossible, but by affirming of the Father that he could not save his erring children from endless misery without the assistance of the Son to atone for their guilt—by affirming of the Son that he could not complete by his vicarious sacrifice the work of their salvation without the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost—and of the Holy Ghost, that his sanctifying influence could not have availed for the salvation of men without the interposition of the Son to turn aside by his meritorious death the vengeance-teeming hand of the incensed and inexorable Father—the conclusion is necessarily implied that there was something in the case of each of these persons which they could not do, something to which their powers were not competent. Neither of them, on this scheme, is almighty; and if the persons of the Trinity are not separately almighty, the Godhead which they form when united cannot be almighty; for it were absurd to suppose that one infinitely powerful human being could be formed by three beings whose respective and separate powers are finite and limited.
Trinitarianism also involves the inconsistency of two persons besides the Father being infinite in existence, uncreated, and absolutely eternal, or else it derogates from the perfection and dignity of the Divine Being. And that it does the latter especially, Unitarians conceive to be very evident indeed. Every notion of God which in any way excludes the self-existence of his being, is defective, and withholds from him one of his highest and most distinguishing excellencies. Now the attributes of self-existence is indeed claimed for one of the persons of the Trinity, the Father; but it has been generally admitted by those whose notions have placed them highest on the scale of reputed orthodoxy that the Son is in some way indebted to the Father for his existence, it having been maintained by them in language wholly unintelligible to common minds and clearly self-contradictory, that he is begotten of the Father from everlasting; whilst the Holy Ghost is said to have derived his being from the Father, or from the Father and the Son, having proceeded from both, according to the received creeds of the churches of the west. Now whatever sense is to be put upon the expressions begotten and proceeding, if the words in their theological application have a meaning at all analogous to that which in the ordinary use of them they are understood to convey, they must import a derivation of being. They necessarily annihilate the idea of self-existence so far as relates to the two persons who are said respectively to have been begotten and to have proceeded. For whatever the Athanasian Creed may say to the contrary as to ‘none of the persons being afore or after the other,’ the intuitive perception of every mind will repel the sophistry, and will recognize as incontrovertible the principle, that the being who is generated and the being who proceeds must be subsequent in the order of time to the being by whom the one is generated and from whom the other proceeds. The attribute of self-existence cannot then in the nature of things belong to the Son and the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Godhead of which these two persons, who are confessedly dependant and derived, are essential parts, cannot upon the Trinitarian hypothesis be as a whole self-existent. 
Can you, my brethren, think it quite right to admit into your creed the notion of a begotten God; a derived infinite essence; the identity of a Father and a Son; the possibility of the former not preceding the latter in point of time, and not being superior in dignity to him; one producing a part of himself, or rather himself absolutely—becoming cause and effect too, and so the copy giving being to the original; a father being the son of himself? Can you, I say, give credence to a system that so obviously involves consequences so extravagant and absurd? Such a system carries on its front the motto of Plato’s philosophy; and to those who prefer unintelligible and contradictory jargon to the simplicity of the Apostle’s creed, I would only say, leave Unitarians to enjoy their own opinions without molestation. and excuse the weakness of their understandings, which not being able to attach distinct ideas to the terms of orthodox propositions, cannot consequently believe them. The doctrine of the Trinity, observes a celebrated writer, confounds reason and prompts it to revolt. If there be any visible difficulties, they are those which are contained in that mystery, that three persons really distinct have one and the same essence, and that this essence being the same thing in each person, all the relations that distinguish them may be communicated without the communication of the relations which distinguish the persons. If human reason consults herself, she will rise up against these inconceivable statements; if she pretends to make use of her own light to penetrate them, it will furnish her with arms to overthrow them. Wherefore in order to believe them she ought to bind herself to stifle all her powers of investigation, and to depress and sink herself under the weight of spiritual authority. 
We now proceed to examine another branch of orthodoxy intimately connected with the Trinity, which is the hypostatic union of the second person of the Trinity with the man Christ Jesus. The opponents of anti-Trinitarianism cannot deny that Jesus is frequently spoken of in Scripture as a man, and as distinct from and inferior to the Being who is usually spoken of under the name of ‘God.’ But they maintain also that the names and titles, the attributes, the works, and the worship of the Father are also given to the Son. Hence they are led to suppose that he was constituted of a nature both human and divine, which constitution of his person took place at his birth of the Virgin Mary, by his taking the manhood into the Godhead, or by his taking the human nature into union with his Deity.
Now we maintain that the hypostatical union involves in it palpable contradictions. It necessarily supposes that the Deity was actually changed in the mode of his subsistence; thus destroying the Divine immutability. But as whatever principles militate against any of the acknowledged perfections of God, must be false, this must certainly be so.
The hypostatic union is directly inconsistent with the Divine immensity. For if the presence of God is infinite, if indeed there is no point of space in the universe where God is not, how, without contradiction, can it be supposed that he was really in unity of subsistence with the human soul of Jesus? The consequence that God was more especially present with Christ Jesus than with any other intelligence; that a universally extended being was confined within the boundaries of man’s system of intellect; that the Deity was contracted, bounded, circumscribed, necessarily flows from the hypostatical union; and as thus destroying the immensity of God, we reject the doctrine.
Alas! that ever a system was formed which subverts the adorable attributes of the Godhead, while its professed object is to display them!—that the ingenuity of man ever employed itself in clouding the glory of infinite perfections, and with the view of magnifying them has stamped mutation on Jehovah’s being, and struck out limits to his presence!
The hypostatic union is destructive of the spirituality of God. It holds out to us a being who is ‘without body, parts, or passions,’ becoming incarnate, uniting himself to and becoming one person with the man Christ Jesus. Even on these grounds alone, we should think ourselves warranted to reject the doctrine of the hypostatical union. There are, however, other considerations tending to shew the falsity of the doctrine, arising from its very nature; to these therefore we advert.
Now by the nature of a thing we mean its qualities. To say therefore that Christ possesses both a divine and a human nature, is to say that he possesses both the qualities of God and the qualities of man; that the same mind consequently is both created and uncreated, both finite and infinite, both dependant and independent, both changeable and unchangeable, both mortal and immortal, both susceptible of pain and incapable of it, both able to do all things and not able, both acquainted with all things and not acquainted with them. Here is one of the persons of the Trinity united to the person of the man; here there is a person or mind both finite and infinite. Now, to use the words of another in expressing my own sentiments, if it be not certain that such a doctrine as this is false, there is no certainty on any subject. It is in vain to call it a mystery; it is an absurdity—it is an impossibility. According to my ideas of propriety and duty, by assenting to it I should culpably abuse those faculties of understanding which God has given me to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and error.
But the hypostatic union, not content with making one mind both human and divine, makes one person of two persons—the one infinite person of the Trinity and the person of the man Jesus strictly and literally only one subsistence; thus producing the absurdity, that finite may be identified with infinite. The only conceivable method of escaping the absurdity of the first, is to say that Christ’s person consisted of more minds than one. This, however, Trinitarians cannot admit. And the only method of removing the inconsistency of the other is to adopt the opinion of the Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by that of Ephesus, viz. that Christ consisted of two persons. But neither will Trinitarians adopt this plan of averting the absurd consequences of this part of their system; and though they should, it would defeat the purpose which the doctrine of the hypostatic union is intended to answer, viz. to serve as a principle of interpretation of what they conceive to be apparently discordant passages of Scripture. How inconsistent are Trinitarians, not only with Scripture but with themselves. While the statements of their doctrine respecting the Trinity imply that three persons constitute but one nature, in the hypostatic union we find two natures constituting but one person.
And with respect to this most strange and confused hypothesis, I now proceed to remark, in the first place, that it is invented. It is not stated in any part of Scripture that in the one person of Christ there is a nature both divine and human, though from the difficulty, apparent contradiction, singularity, and importance of the doctrine, we should have expected clearness, precision, and repetition of statement respecting it. This wonderful key is not to be found in all the sacred premises. But did not ‘the Word become flesh?’ the Trinitarian will say. Not precisely become so, I reply; but according to translation of ginomai in three of its occurrences in the first chapter of John, and according to the general translation of it in John’s Gospel, the sentence should run, ‘the Word was flesh.’ Moreover, who is meant by the Word? I ask. Is it certain Christ is spoken of? Several eminent defenders of orthodoxy have themselves said not, and have understood the Word to mean, either the eternal reason of the Almighty, or the active commanding power of God displayed in its creating energy. And even though Jesus is meant by the Logos, I cannot see how the passage could prove even his pre-existence, far less his having united himself to the human nature or his having taken the manhood into the Godhead. First, because, as I have already noticed, ‘was flesh‘ is the most natural rendering of the original. Secondly, because whether egeneto be rendered ‘was made’ or ‘became,’ the sentence would not convey more than is implied in the words of David when he says with respect to mankind in general, that ‘man was made a little lower than the angels;’ or in the words of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who speaks of mankind as ‘partakers of flesh and blood,’ an expression which, like the assertion ‘the Word became flesh,’ seems to convey the notion of voluntary incarnation, but at the same time does not express that idea.
And supposing the expression did prove Christ having voluntarily assumed a human body, and consequently his pre-existence; what then? Would this be a proof of his two natures? Not at all, but the reverse. For supposing egeneto to be properly rendered ‘was made,’ this would imply that he was not uncreated in the strictest sense. And whether the word be rendered ‘was made’ or ‘became,’ the clause would afford no ground for the idea of incarnation, which clearly signifies entering into the flesh, or being in it. The expression would affirm that he was flesh altogether; and if the clause translated either way be understood in the sense of having existed before as one substance, and having subsequently become or been made another, this would convey no other idea than that of transmutation, like that of water being made wine, or stones, bread; and not at all that of entering into and being in another unchanged, which is proper incarnation. And indeed the supposed assumption of the manhood into the Godhead is the reverse of the incarnation, which supposes the entering of the divine nature into the human, and remaining there incarnate.  The words of John give no support to either notion. Upon what weak and fanciful grounds does the whole superstructure of orthodoxy rest!
Let us now proceed to inquire how far the invention of an hypothesis as a key of interpretation to the Scriptures is consistent with the character of God as our teacher, and with the nature and design of a revelation. In the first place, then, I remark that the giving to mankind a book, which, like the secret despatches of a diplomatist, is full of enigma and obscurity, without the use of a key known only to those who are versed in the art of deciphering, is not in consonance with the veracity of God, because there being no formal intimation in the book itself that the use of the key is necessary to the right understanding of its meaning, the reader is led to suppose that the mode to be adopted in order to comprehend its statements is similar to that employed in the study of other books.
Thus at the very commencement of his inquiries and investigations, he is necessarily misled and deceived, and there is nothing that can prevent itself in his subsequent study of the volume to guide him aright and direct his course of examination; for the constitution of the book is different from that of any other, and he has no means of ascertaining this. There is no other book to the study of which we proceed upon the idea that we must find out its meaning by trying whether it will accord with this or that hypothesis. All that we think necessary is to understand the language in which it is written, and then to open and read it. In the same manner we must enter upon the study of the New Testament, presuming, till some good reason is assigned for believing the contrary, that its principal doctrines lie upon its surface, and will be obvious to every unprejudiced reader.
The character of God as a teacher is further involved in giving us a book of such singularity, inasmuch as the book claims for itself the character of plainness and simplicity; it professes also to be a revelation, which implies the giving of light, and by its demanding faith in its contents, it naturally leads one to believe the practicality of at once understanding what those contents are. Thus the hypothesis of any subtle principle of interpretation being necessary, makes the Scripture belie itself and deceive those who read it.
The adopting of such a principle can never indeed lead to truth. It fills the mind with a theory which must prevent it from attaining the truth, should the truth be contrary to the theory. It must uniformly and as a matter of course bring the text to the system, and not the system to the text. It cannot say, what does the Scripture say on this point or that—what the precise import of the terms—what the scope of this argument—what the object of this series of observation—what should I think if I had never heard of systems, this ism or that? But how can this passage be reconciled with the hypothesis—how may the key be introduced to move along the wards of this intricate lock without a touch of interpretation? Thus it places an hypothesis, previously assumed, above the revelation it affects to explain. Every man will necessarily be led in the choice of his hypothesis by his particular prejudice and likings. These will lead him to find his favourite dogmas where no trace of them exists.
Again, the necessity of a previously assumed hypothesis as a principle of interpreting Scripture is inconsistent with the goodness of God as our teacher.
1. Because truth must always be more conducive to happiness than error, from which, under the guidance of such a principle, we can never be guarded.
2. Because the examination of the Scripture by the guidance of such a principle must necessarily be attended with doubt and perplexity, and certainly freedom from these on a subject like religion, which concerns our present and future happiness, is essential to our peace and comfort.
3. Because, if according to Trinitarians the belief of certain articles be necessary to salvation, and this principle be essential to the right understanding of what those articles are, God has left our salvation at great hazard, we being placed in circumstances in which there are no certain means of arriving at essential truth. Finally, the supposition that the doctrines of Scripture can only be ascertained by the use of a particular hypothesis as a key of interpretation, is contrary to the very nature and design of revelation, which is a gift of light, and cannot, therefore, multiply our perplexities; which is intended to supersede the use of our judgments so far as the discovery of truths is concerned; which has for its object the making known of something; not the bewildering of the human mind.
I now proceed to remark, that, supposing the adoption of a previously assumed hypothesis as a principle of interpretation to be in certain cases in itself admissible, it can find no place with respect to the passages connected with the present subject that it is used to explain, because it is unnecessary. By appealing to the sources and rules of just criticism, the Unitarian is able to shew that the few passages which seem at variance with the obvious and prominent doctrines of Scripture are perfectly consistent with them. Even with regard to the few passages the Trinitarian adduces to confound him, he only wishes to have them correctly translated from a correct text, and he receives even them in their simple and obvious meaning, which truly is widely different indeed from the case of Trinitarians. We maintain indeed that the greater number of those passages which they adduce as the foundation of their system are actually inconsistent with that system, and tend directly to support the contrary side of the question. Once more, we have seen that the hypothesis assumed, viz. the constitution of Christ’s person by two distinct natures is absolutely absurd. Supposing then that there are some passages that teach inconsistent doctrines, a thing we positively deny, how can they ever be reconciled by what is in itself irreconcilable? Can they be helped by a contradiction? Or for the purpose of reconciling a few scattered passages, which a just criticism can explain, must we invent an hypothesis inconceivably difficult and involving gross absurdity? Must we find our way out of a supposed labyrinth by a path that conducts us into mazes wholly inextricable?
Moreover, there arises this important question: Would the application of this singular hypothesis as a principle of interpretation, after all, answer its purpose, supposing it to be necessary and just, and in all respects admissible? I confidently say it would not. I found my assertion, in the first place, upon these plain principles. 1. That a nature is a mere abstraction, of which nothing active can be predicated. I have already said that by the nature of a thing we mean its qualities. To affirm then, for example, that when it is said of Christ that he prayed to his Heavenly Father, we are to understand that his human nature only supplicated Heaven, &c. is to speak downright nonsense, it being to say that the qualities of a being, instead of the being himself, did this or that. 2. That different and inconsistent things cannot be predicated of the same existence at the same time. For instance, we find Jesus asserting, that of the day and hour of final judgment no one knew, “no, not the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”
Now unless Jesus had actually two minds, which no one admits, how could he be acquainted with an event and ignorant of it at the same time?
4. The supposition of the divine nature is unnecessary, because it answered no purpose. We read, for example, that an angel strengthened Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. But had he possessed divinity in conjunction with humanity, such assistance would have been wholly unnecessary.
5. Because Christ is spoken of as inferior to and distinct from God, and as a man even when he is spoken of confessedly in his highest character, and in reference to what Trinitarians suppose to be applicable to his divine nature, or to his divine nature and his human together. Take, for example, one of the passages adduced, “of that day, &c.” Here Jesus is spoken of in that character in which he ranked above the angels in heaven, which was certainly his highest, and also in the capacity of the Son of God, which is supposed to denote his divine nature, and yet he was not omniscient.
6. Because, granting his pre-existence, the passages understood to prove it plainly state or imply that before he had any human nature or sustained the office of mediator, he was distinct from and inferior to God. For instance, Jesus is usually understood to assert his pre-existence in these words of John xvii. 5. “Glorify me, &c.” But we have only to consult ver. 22. in order to be convinced that supposing he had glory really before the world began that glory was even then given him. The phrases “I came out from thee, I proceeded forth and came from God,” and such like, supposing they prove the pre-existence of Christ, prove him also to have been in his pre-existent state an inferior being. The word ‘God’ is applied to one person. There being but one God, he who came out from the one God, cannot himself be that being to whom in the sentence the appellation ‘God’ is exclusively given. And to ‘come out’ from a place (for heaven is supposed) is not the act of a being who is every where equally present
7. Because in those passages where he is spoken of as an inferior being, personal pronouns are used in relation to him. Thus, “My Father is greater than I” implies that Christ is speaking of himself as a person. The pronoun I implies this. Now whether Christ had two natures or ten, he confessedly formed but one person. Therefore the assertion before us is this, that the Father is greater than the Son considered in his whole person.
8. Because the sense and connexion of many of the texts which state his inferiority, and the correlation of the propositions contained in them to others in which personality is confessedly implied, shew undeniably that Jesus is spoken of and considered as a whole person. Take, for example, 1 Cor. xv. “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father—then shall the Son also himself be subject to him who hath put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” Here the Father meaning a person, the Son must be spoken of considered as a person also. Personal actions are attributed to him also. The term ‘God’ is restricted to one being in distinction from ‘the Son of God,’ and there being but one Jehovah, he who is afterwards spoken of cannot be God also.
And finally I remark, that although these considerations did not manifest the inutility of the assumed hypothesis as a principle of interpretation, nevertheless, it could serve no purpose, because to none of the grand branches of the evidence of Unitarianism can it possibly apply, as I shall soon have occasion to shew.
[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.]
1. See “Objections to the Doctrine of the Trinity,” by Thomas Rees, LL. D. F. A. S. London, 1823. Back to top
2. Nicolle perpetuite de la soi, p.118, Ed. 1666. Back to top
3. See “Letters on Unitarianism,” by another Barrister. Back to top