The Trinity and Reason
By John Miller
The Trinity Not To Be Judged By Reason
I wish to set forward the statement, that I am moved to write this book by Scripture. In order to do this, I hold the ground that the Trinity is not to be judged by reason. In order to do this, I follow that statement, and show that it is very peculiar. Everything is to be judged by reason. Until it is true that the eye is no judge of color, it will never be true that reason is no judge of anything; for, in fact, there is no judge of anything but reason; and of all that our race can conceive, reason is the sole and universal arbiter.
What is meant, therefore, by reason being no judge of the Trinity? Let me explain by the instance of gravitation. Reaching far back to absolute sight, and to those most obstinate of all demonstrators of truth, mathematical figures, the mind has been forced into the faith that there is gravitation. It is no judge of the phenomena, afterward. The man who is prolific of difficulties, and tells us that gravitation is impossible; and who backs up his thought by saying that the sun is ninety-four millions of miles away, and that is grappling the earth over that distance is a sheer conceit, we laugh at. Let the sun get over its own difficulties. We have forever demonstrated the truth, that it does attract; and all inter-situated puzzles we neglect. Reason is a judge of everything; but, having made her judgment back at the original truth, we know what we mean by saying, that she is no judge of the doctrine afterward.
So of the Trinity. In a way that is universal and confessed, reason has made her judgment of the Word of God. This is a broad field; and she has examined it thoroughly. This is the all-comprehensive fact; and she bas established it by outward and inward evidence. She has come to the strongest faith (and no disciple of the Redeemer will lightly quibble over it), that the Bible is the voice of the Almighty; and this, not by mystic partialities, but by reasonable tests, which lift her ever afterward above the fear of what is contained in the recognized canon.
This is what is meant by reason being no judge of the Trinity.
The Papist has a kindred submissiveness. He does not deny the authority of reason; but he has spent all her power in examining into the authority of the Church. There has been his original question. He holds you to be right in testing him there. And, if you would witness patience, you have but to look at his books on the church. Where you are building up the authority of Scripture, he is laying the corner stone of Zion; and it is only after you have accepted the church, that he lays his hand upon your mouth, and tells you that you have no right of private judgment afterward.
And to show how sincere we are in all this, we say plainly, If the Mass were in the Bible, we would believe the Mass. The Papist believes it on the authority of the Church. We would believe it on the authority of Scripture. And, in either case, man’s appeal is to his rational nature; for, in the one case, it has led him to accept the Church, and in the other, Scripture; and it is only on the lower ground, that he denies, in such things as the Trinity and the Mass, any right to the judgments of the mind.
But it may be said, What if a doctrine seems flat against reason? Even then I would not disown it. We have seen the reasonableness of this in the instance of gravitation. If Paul tells me to persecute the heretic, I will do so, as the voice of the Almighty; if he pronounces boldly upon the truth of Jacobitism, I am a Jacobite; if he tells me that Christ is in the wafer, I believe it: and my principle is here: I am under a great hardship, and my conscience revolts at the texts, but I am the devotee of a great process.
I have gone through all labored proofs. My conscience, and everything besides, pronounces for the Bible; and, when that great huge fact comes athwart that lesser one, a belief in transubstantiation, I yield. Bring me any miserable faith that does not positively deny the grace of the Almighty, and, if you can deceive me so far as to make it Scriptural, I will accept it; and on the sheer base that I have accepted the Word of God as “the only infallible rule or faith and practice.”
The Trinity to Give Some Idea of Itself to Reason
But, though we admit that the Trinity is not to be judged by reason; and though the fact of transubstantiation, if you will prove that it is taught in the Word of God, I will compound for as made possible by some mysterious miracle; though I will become an Inquisitor, in spite of all its contradiction of conscience, and will get over this difficulty by remembering that heretics are the property of God; though I will believe in the right of kings, to the extent of enduring a bad king even though I could unseat him, if you will convince me that God ordains it; and I will hold He is the Lord of Providence, and can adjust the consequences of all His commands,”yet there is one right that reason retains, and that is, to know distinctly what it is that it believes. To say, I believe in the Mass, and to be left with nothing but the four letters; or to say, I am a Jacobite, or, if you please, I am an Inquisitor, and leave me no idea under the formula professed,” is of course the most awful solecism.
And, therefore, coming now to the case of the Trinity, if when you come to propound the doctrine, you give me positively no conception of it; it is preposterous beyond the need of a discussion. I wish to draw a distinction between understanding a doctrine, and having a conception of it. I understand no doctrine under the sun. I have a conception of every doctrine. That is to say, no doctrine can possibly be embraced, that remains wrapped up in an expression, so that positively no thought comes out from what is spoken. I wish to insist upon this, upon the very outset of our teaching.
What is the Trinity? It may be said, it is the doctrine of the Three in One. Of course our first landing place is upon the reserve that God is Three in a different sense from His being One. But when we come to remember, this is a mere speech, this is a mere exsiccated shell; this is no form of thought, till we say what the sense is. And there, now, precisely is our position. Reason is no judge of that sense after it is once announced. But the Trinity is no doctrine at all, and, therefore, in the court of intellect must be held by hypocrites; or else some conception must be given, in what sense God can be Three, and yet the most simple of all possible existence.
Think of excommunicating a man from the Church for failing to believe that of which you can give him no idea!
Trinitarians in Disunity over Doctrinal Specifics
And I am the more confirmed in this careful preliminary, because every idea of Trinitarianism that has ever been held, has been declared to be no idea at all by accepted Trinitarians. I confess that this is no positive argument. In the first place, it is impossible to declare who are accepted Trinitarians. In the second place, the argument would not be positive, if we could. There might be ten men that held a particular doctrine; and each nine might denounce the tenth, in turn, as holding it in a form that is perfectly unmeaning. This would not amount to refutation. All the classes of nine might be wrong, and yet, if one reflects a moment; one man of the ten might survive as right.
Let me illustrate. (1) Our Confession speaks of the “Eternally Begotten.” The idea there contained is that the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally derived. Hosts of thinkers pronounce that unmeaning. And one of our most distinguished divines disagrees with Turrettin; would conceive derivation unthinkable; and boldly declares that it is not taught in the word of God (Hodge, Theol. V. i: p. 486). It will be noticed, therefore, that a man who denies the Trinity altogether, is but denying that which, in one form or other, has been denounced as senseless by the most pious of the orthodox.
(2) The Trinity has been held to be the one conscious Divinity. Sherlock objected to this; and denied, in that case, the possibility of threeness. He found in the Bible separate wills; and proclaimed, as his notion of all that could be thought of as three, separate consciousnesses. John Howe partially defended him. The Church broke out against him. And, yet, he never lost his See: and, though his belief was unvarnished Polytheism, yet it was distinctly enforced, on the principle we mentioned, that the opposite was unmeaning; that a belief requires something to be conceived; and that, if God is Three Persons, it is like saying He is a magician, or Abracadabra, unless it is a tri-personal Three, in the sense of separate intelligence.
(3) Andover has furnished another theory. Schleiermacher, explaining Sabellius, has rather adopted his thought, that the Trinity became a Trinity in time: that God did not eternally create; and that He did not eternally redeem: that, therefore, He became each of these in time: that the Trinity is the Creator and Redeemer and Sanctifier; and that, therefore, God grew to be these; and that this is the meaning of the inspired Trinity.
Moses Stuart modified this into a scheme. He said; and this was the foundation of His system; that what God lived to become in time, He was fitted to become from all eternity. And, therefore, His fitness to become this or that was His trine relation. Accordingly, without pursuing this account, it will still further illustrate our understood position. This learned man’s appeal was to the uselessness of the unmeaning; and, seeming to forget that God was fit for a multiplicity of things from all eternity; that He came to paint black, and to paint yellow; that He came to make stars, and to make flowers; and that it was impossible to distinguish between what might be called Trinitarian fitness’s, and fitness’s for less hypostatic things, He nevertheless continued in the church, unchallenged; and yet managed to add another whole theory to the faith, which lived only by denouncing everything else as vague and notion-less.
The Trinity with No Shelter of Infallibility
Thus the doctrine is like Maelzell’s Chess-Player. We open each door in turn, and there is nothing in it. Yes, some one will say, there was a man in the Chess-Player, after all. I grant it; but on terms that no avowed Trinitarian will be willing to admit. There was a man in the Chess-Player, because, before each opening, he altered his position. A man proposes a Trinity: another man exposes it. He offers his in turn, and some third man shows there is nothing in it. He asserts another, and a fourth man opens that door, and finds it empty. Now, a notion can be supported in this way; but it is, as a missile is, by flying through the air. I do not make a point of all this; and I discard reason as an intermediary. But this I do say, that reason ought not to be suborned against us.
Try any company.
Go among twenty ministers, and say, our fellow presbyter has denied the doctrine of the Trinity. The very first bubbling up of censure will be from that form of reason which is embalmed in the vote of the vast body of believers. The arrogance of the presbyter! is the first thing that will strike every body. But how long should this outcry last? Always, if the Church is infallible; and, past doubt, the Church is infallible in vital matters. Let us consider this.
There has always been a church. There cannot be a church without a gospel. There cannot be a gospel if there be damning error. Immunity from damning error is of the very faith of the gospel. And, therefore, when Papists claim infallibility, they are groping after some truth. And he is not hastily advised, who, convinced of the piety of his Zion, claims that Christ keeps it (Matthew 16:18; 28:20), and holds that, let the Trinity be among the vitals of the scheme of grace, it is among the infallibilities of true believers.
But now, definitely, there is covered up the very question.
The ritualist holds that baptism is of necessity to grace. If so, it is vital. And if so, some church will possess it.
The orthodox hold, that Christ is necessary to pardon. If so, that is vital. And if so, the Church will never lose that doctrine.
It is this true figure of infallibility that moves darkly in the background, and gives rancor to religious hate; for when a man has been sufficiently ridiculed for pitting himself against the profound and pious, then this that is ghostly comes in, and he is made to tremble for his pride in arraying himself against the church of the Redeemer.
How, then, may we meet infallibility? By rejoicing and trusting in it; and by singing psalms to God that we are invulnerable through our infallible Redeemer: but not in any way that is prescriptive. Paul gives the rule:” “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good…” (I Thessalonians 5:21). Doctrine must be vital first; infallible afterward. Otherwise Luther was apostate.
Here is a fellow presbyter. He comes to us in the fairest way. He invites us to the closest scrutiny. He says, here is my system of Christ. I believe that the Trinity, like the Old Man of the Sea, has jumped upon the back of Sinbad, and made Christianity coarse and heavy through its entire journey. I believe it is a robbery of the heathen. I believe it awakened Mohammed. I believe it has worn out missionaries. I believe it has kept back Pagans, who were obliged to perish in their sins, while their nation waited to learn an “unsanctioned fable” (I Timothy 4:7).
I believe the great God in heaven was born Himself into Jesus, “and so was and continueth to be, God and man, in two distinct natures, and one person, forever” (Sh. Catechism, Qu. 21). I believe just this is sufficient; and that ransom, and grace, and divine power, and all that was needed of sacrifice, and that all that there will ever be of glory, is sufficiently secured in this One Person, Jehovah.
And if a Christian says to me, “You are a heretic,” and never examines my faith, and never says, “Is this discrimination sufficient?” If he never says, “Is not the Trinity with this man a minor doctrine?” and, even if he be in error, does he not hold the chief truths? And has he not a well knit system; and does he not seem to say all for Christ except that there is a hypostatic difference between Him and the Father if he has never done any thing for me like that, I’ll tell you what he is like; he is like the man that threw the first stone at Stephen, because he proclaimed the Galilean; he is like the court that imprisoned Ken because he refused the Declaration; he is like the priests that burned Huss on the plea that he decried the sacrament.
And there is a family likeness which I wish particularly to press; which claims a just infallibility, but which sins only in this, that it brings within the reach of that blessing of God minor things, under the claim that these are of the essentials of salvation.
Men are not to choose how able shall be the man who discovers error. The mouse is not to be weighed who eats the lion out of the net. Galileans bearded Jewry. A miner’s son shook St. Peter’s. Poor peasant women sickened the world of martyrdoms. And if the humblest minister can put the Trinity alongside of the consecrated wafer, and make both seem figments of the sense, the Church has nothing to do but to examine it, and, laying all prerogative apart, give thanks for her infallible life, when she has thoroughly understood and thoroughly made good that it is fatal.1
The Trinity Accounted For By History
Any of us would say, before study, that the Trinity is revealed in the Old Testament. Any of us would at least declare, that it was revealed in the Bible. Any of us would suppose, that it was taught in the first age of the church.
Now, to cut off all wandering, and to confine ourselves to the testimony of Scripture, I would say that all these things have been doubted, and doubted, too by Trinitarians themselves. Athanasius holds that the Jews knew nothing of a Trinity. I mention other names in the margin.2 Bellarmin holds that it is no where taught in Scripture. He builds it on tradition. Petavius holds that it was not taught by tradition. That is, he quotes from the fathers, and shows that it was not known in the first age of the church.3 Now what does that prove? Why, that tradition is very colorless; and that reason can do very little, on that tack, to relieve the faith.
Now, another matter.
History accounts for things.
If I am waked up by Scripture, and utter a cry. Why, where is the Trinity? and suddenly search, and find myself deserted of the idea, I naturally ask, How did it arise? and not in a way that we can pronounce decisive, and yet in quite a sufficient way, we find how it could have arisen.
Plato invented a Trinity: some think, by himself; some think, out of a spark of tradition. It is not in a form that Christians love; and many deny that it had any common origin with ours. While Plato was working in the schools, Rabbis were working in the Law, and making changes in it; that is, they were writing Targums, that is to say, paraphrases of the text. These were read in the Synagogues.
One of the changes that the paraphrases made was, to put “Word of Jehovah” for “Jehovah.” They found it once or twice (Psalm 33:6; 105:19), and it fell in with reigning thought, and they took out the word “Jehovah,” and they put in “Word of Jehovah” two hundred times. The Jewish ear, accordingly, was accustomed to it; and, when Alexandria was built, and the Septuagint was written, and the Alexandria Jews became the repositories of law, Philo and the men that preceded him worked upon these Targums, and brought in Platonic aid; and the writings remain which actually cast the Scriptures into Platonic moulds.
Now, what was the result? Confessedly a species of Arianism. These men deified the Word: not as I do, by making it a name of God; but contrariwise, by making it an emanation. They did not all agree: and Philo himself was better than others of the school; but the tendency was this, to say, The Word was an emanation. It was not God: and It was not man; but It was between them. It was not God; and It was not a creature; but It was an emanation. It was not eternal; and It was not yet to arise; but It was intermediate and in time. The distinct teaching was, that the Word was an emanation from God; subordinate; intermediate; and the origin of all the creatures.
Thence bring it to account that this teaching was in all the schools; and that John came upon the stage when pious thought was helplessly saturated with all these ideas.
What was he to do with them? Reply? Why, they were chameleon-like; and had no fixed expression. Not reply? Why, that would be to be waterlogged with hopeless prevarications. What could he do? Precisely what he did do. “In the beginning was the Word;” thus shearing away all thought of an emanation in time: “And the Word was with God” (E.V). Let me alter that at once. The preposition never means with.4
We have the expression, “things pertaining to God” (Hebrews 2:17; 5:1). The preposition means “towards,” or “pertaining to.” Let us read it so. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word pertained to God.” That is, It did not emanate and go out and become subordinate and intermediate, but It was simply God’s word. It was like God’s arm, or God’s power. It was just God expressing Himself, and God revealing Himself, as though He had said, like Paul, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts 17:23).
But, to cut off all mistake, he gives another and most trenchant expression. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word pertained to God, and God was the Word.” Alford admits that, if it be translated this way, it denies the Trinity! And old Middleton has, for decades, stood like a tower, to say that the Greek must be reversed. It is a judgment upon the Greek article; but the finest scholars have now reversed that opinion (Winer, Glassius, etc.). The old Vulgate never obeyed it. And the article has another way to account for itself, viz., that it is the specific mark that it is “the” Word in the great reigning sense, which, John would teach, was nothing but the Almighty.
But we are anticipating. We are not among Scriptures yet. We quote this in the way of historic elucidation.
We verily believe much could be made of history; and that we could trace the Trinity like the fossils in a rock. Indeed, we think that it is impossible that it was an apostolic dogma, if for no other reason than that it is thought vital, and that it is laid down so infinitely not so in their books. But let all this pass. We are now finishing our account of reason; and all we wish to do is, to bind it hand and foot, now that we have got out of it a decision for the canon, while we ask, simply, what that canon says. Let us suppose an idea. Let us imagine that we apprehend it. Let it be, with more or less sense, triplicity in unity; and while with reverent appeal we beg to be enlightened in the Word, let reason, on the other side, not treat us in any way we do not deserve, after our appeal, like Paul’s, has gone to a higher tribunal.
This article The Trinity and Reason by John Miller, was excerpted from the book Is God a Trinity? It may be used for study & research purposes only.
1 Is there not something that proves the Trinity a superstition in the very Creed of Athanasius, and in the fact that the church has not awoke her thunders against that long ago. Let us quote a part of it. “Whosoever will be saved must hold the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith is this,that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there are three persons, but one Godhead. The Father is neither made, created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding; and in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. This is the Catholic faith, WHICH EXCEPT A MAN BELIEVE FAITHFULLY, HE CANNOT BE SAVED.” That This spurious creed, fraudulently palmed upon the church, and which, whatever Athanasius might have thought of it, never saw Athanasius, and was written centuries after he was dead, should survive with vigor, and be treated with general respect, is itself an invitation, I think, to a reinvestigation of the whole subject; and to a strong suspicion of a faith that speaks so definitely of inconceivable things; and wields so insolently the anathemas of heaven for that of which the good people of an earlier world must certainly have had no idea.
2 “The Papist deny that the doctrine of the Trinity is to be found in Scripture. See this plainly taught and urged by Card. Hosius, de Auth. S. Scrip. L. III: p. 33: Gordonius Hunlaeus, Cont. Tim. Comb. de Verbo Dei, c. 19; Gretserus and Zanerus, in Colloquio Ratisbon; Vega, Possevin, Wickius. . .These learned men, especially Bellarmin, and Wickius after him, have urged all the Scriptures they could, with the utmost industry, find out in this cause, and yet, after all, they acknowledge their insufficiency and obscurity.” Locke’s Commonplace Book. King’s Life of Locke, Vol. II. p. 104.
3 Pet de Trin. I. 5, 7: 8, 2.
4 Perhaps I had better temper this by saying, that the few exceptions that might be imagined (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:56), are not absolute exceptions; and perhaps I had better refer, for the facts about this preposition, to Gesenius. He is a fair party to quote, because his very principles are, to the very utmost bent, to supply the force of “with” in this very passage. And yet the strict reader will see, for all that, which way his authority inclines. See, also, Winer.