Samuel Clarke’s ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’

Samuel Clarke was an eighteenth century Anglican clergyman and philosopher, and a friend of Sir Isaac Newton. He participated in the trinitarian debates following the Reformation, and authored his book The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity to sum up, prove, and defend his views on the Trinity.

The book is divided into three parts, proceeded by an introduction, in which he lays out the principle of sola scriptura as necessary for a right understanding of Christian doctrine, and qualifies certain aspects of the following work. In the first part of the book, he endeavors to extensively categorize all New Testament texts which refer to the Trinity or some aspect of it. In the second part, he gives a series of theses or propositions, in which he states his views. He grounds these propositions in the texts listed in the first section. In the third section, he compares his views, which he believes to be none other than what scripture teaches regarding the Trinity, with the liturgy and doctrinal standards of the church of England, wherein he shows firstly the many areas of agreement, and then treats those which appear to disagree.

Samuel Clarke’s book on the Trinity is one of the best written in the last millennium, in the opinion of this author. He is careful in his examination of scripture, precise in his articulation and argumentation, and is generally correct on nearly all the points he contends for.

One severe shortcoming of the work is Clarke’s hesitancy to treat the issue of essence, and the divine nature. He maintains that God’s metaphysical essence, as beyond our comprehension, is not safely made a point of dogma. He may perhaps be blamed on this point more for overcautiousness than unorthodoxy; scripture does speak of God’s incomprehensibility and infinitude, and this should cause us to approach such high topics as God’s divine nature with humility and caution. But scripture does speak of the divine nature in abstract, and give us the revelation needed to be able to speak with certainty and clarity on the fact that the Son is of the very same divinity, or divine nature, as the Father. So while we should exercise more caution than many, such as the scholastics, exercised when speaking of God’s essence, we ought to speak of what we can deduce clearly as proven from the holy scriptures.

Clarke insists on limiting the discussion to the persons and Their attributes, roles, and properties. As this is the way scripture usully speaks of the Trinity, this is helpful. Although his lack of treatment of the issue of God’s essence leaves a feeling of incompleteness, it stems perhaps from an understandable overreaction to the trend to emphasized God’s divine nature considered in itself, and treated as a person, over everything else. Clarke’s avoidance of this makes his book unique in its approach to the Trinity, reminiscent of pre-nicene treatments of the subject.

Here are some highlights from Clarke’s 55 propositions:

I. There is one Supreme Cause and Original of Things; One simple, uncompounded, undivided, intelligent Being, or Person; who is the Author of all Being, and the Fountain of all Power.

II. With This First and Supreme Cause or Father of all Things, there has existed from the Beginning, a Second divine Person, which is his Word or Son.

III. With the Father and the Son, there has existed from the Beginning, a Third divine Person, which is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

IV. What the proper Metaphysical Nature, Essence, or Substance of any of these divine Persons is, the scripture has no where at all declared; but describes and distinguishes then always, by their Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes.

V. The Father (or First Person) Alone is Self-existent, Underived, Unoriginated, Independent; made of None, begotten of None, Proceeding from None.

VI. The Father (or First Person) is the Sole Origin of all Power and Authority, and is the Author and Principle of whatsoever is done by the Son or by the Spirit.

VII. The Father (or first person) Alone, is in the highest, strict, and proper sense, absolutely Supreme over All.

VIII. The Father (or First Person) is absolutely speaking, the God of the Universe; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Israel; of Moses, of the Prophets and Apostles; and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

IX. The scripture, when it mentions the One God, or the Only God, always means the Supreme Person of the Father.

X. Whenever the Word, God, is mentioned in Scripture, with any High Epithet, Title, or Attribute annex’d to it; it generally (if not always) means the Person of the Father.

XI. The Scripture, when it mentions GOD, absolutely and by way of Eminence, always means the Person of the Father.

XII. The Son (or second Person) is not self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence, and all his Attributes, from the Father, as from the Supreme Cause.

XIII. In what particular Metaphysical Manner, the Son derives his Being or Essence from the Father, the Scripture has no where distinctly declared; and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to define.

XIV. They are therefore equally worthy of Censure, who either on the one hand presume to affirm, that the Son was made out of Nothing; or, on the other hand, that He is the Self-existent Substance.

XV. The Scripture, in declaring the Son’s Derivation from the Father, never makes mention of any Limitation of Time; but always supposes and affirms him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning, and before All Worlds.

XVI. They therefore have also justly been censured, who pretending to be wise above what is written, and intruding into things which they have not seen; have presumed to affirm that there was a time when he Son was not.

XVII. Whether the Son derives his Being from the Father, by Necessity of Nature, or by the Power of his Will, the Scripture hath no where expressly declared.

XVIII. The Word or Son of the Father, sent into the World to assume our Flesh, and die for the Sins of Mankind; was not the internal Reason or Wisdom of God, an Attribute or Power of the Father; but a real Person, the same who from the Beginning had been the Word, or Revealer of the Will, of the Father to World.

XIX. The Holy Spirit (or Third Person,) is not Self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence from the Father, (by the Son,) as from the Supreme Cause.

XX. The Scripture, speaking of the Spirit of God, never mentions any Limitation of Time, when he derived his Being or Essence from the Father; but supposes him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning.

XXI. In what particular metaphysical Manner the Holy Spirit derives his Being from the Father, the Scripture hath no where at all defined, and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to explain.

XXII. The Holy Spirit of God does not in scripture generlly signify a mere Power or Operation of the Father, but a real Person.

XXIII. They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errours of the Arians, affirm (in the contrary extreme) the Son and Holy Spirit to be (individually with the Father) the Self-existent Being: These, seeming in the Words to magnify the Name of the Son and Holy Spirit, in reality take away their very Existence; and so fall unawares into Sabellianism, (which is the same with Socinianism.)

XXIV. The Word, God, in the New Testament, sometimes signifies the Person of the Son.

XXXIII. The Word, God, in Scripture, never signifies a complex Notion of more persons than One; but always means One person only, viz. either the person of the Father singly, or the person of the Son singly.

XXXIV. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Essence or Substance be, and whatever divine Greatness and Dignity is ascribed to him in Scripture; yet in This He is evidently Subordinate to the Father, that He derives his Being and Attributes from the Father, the Father Nothing from Him.

XXXV. Every Action of the Son, both in making the World, and in all other his Operations; is only thr Exercise of the Father’s Power, communicated to him after an ineffable manner.

XXXVI. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Nature or Essence be; yet, in this while Dispensation, in the Creation and Redemption of the Worl, acts in all things according to the Wil, and by the Mission or Authority of the Father.

XXXVII. The Son, how great soever the metaphysical Dignity of his Nature was, yet in the whole Dispensation entirely directed all his Actions to the Glory of the Father.

XXXIX. The reason why the Scripture, though it styles the Father God, and also stiles the Son God, yet at the same time always declares there is but one God; is because in the Monarchy of the Universe, there is but One Authority, original in the Father, derivative in the Son: The Power of the Son being, not Another Power opposite to That of the Father, nor Another Power co-ordinate to That of the Father; but it self The Power and Authority of the Father, communicated to, manifested in, and exercised by the Son.

XLIII. Upon These Grounds, absolutely Supreme Honour is due to the Person of the Father singly, as being Alone the Supreme Author of all Being and Power.

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