My last post, Highlights from Sir Isaac Newton Concerning the Trinity, featured a number of highlights from Sir Isaac Newton’s personal writings, relating to his research in theology and church history. One of those quotes is, in my opinion, an especially noteworthy observation:
“This Being [God] governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator [Greek word usually translated “Almighty”], or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually a signifies Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God.” (Newton, General Scholium)
Newton’s observation is a valuable one: in the scriptures, the word “God” is used as something relative, relating to authority. To be “God” is to have dominion; “deity” or “Godhood” is dominion, not some metaphysical quality relating to a being’s substance.
Newton went so far as to suggest that God’s metaphysical substance is something which to us is unknown, neither being known by our senses, nor elucidated on in the scriptures:
“We have ideas of his [God’s] attributes, but what the real substance of any thing is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours. We hear only the sounds. We touch only their outward surfaces. We smell only the smells, and taste the flavours; but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds: much less, then, have we any idea of the substance of God.” (Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. tr. Andrew Motte (3 vols.; London, 1803), II, Bk. III, 312-13.)
Samuel Clarke, a personal friend of Newton, made similar observations in his published work The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. Clarke’s theology is summed up in 55 theses, a couple of which deal with this same point:
“4. 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 them always, by their Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes.”
“25. The Reason why the Son in the New Testament is sometimes stiled God, is not upon account of his metaphysical Substance, how Divine soever; but of his relative Attributes and Divine Authority (communicated to him from the Father) over Us.”
A section of Clarke’s note on thesis 25 is also of interest:
“The word, God, when spoken of the Father Himself, is never intended in Scripture to express Philosophically his abstract metaphysical Attributes; but to raise in us a Notion of his Attributes Relative to us, his Supreme Dominion, Authority, Power, Justice, Goodness, &c.”
The point that Clarke and Newton make is a compelling one. If “Godhood” in scripture pertains to authority rather than metaphysical nature, then verses which speak of the Father and Son as each being “God” cannot be taken as referring to metaphysical substance or essence at all. While throughout the scriptures, the “Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes” of God and His Son are spoken of, none of these amount to a treatment of the metaphysical nature of either person. Thus, if we limit ourselves to what God has revealed in the scriptures, rather than philosophical speculation, we will be left with agnosticism as to the metaphysical nature of God and His Son.
Such a view was by no means a novelty of Clarke and Newton. In the trinitarian debates of the fourth century, the leading view for a time, which gained the ecumenical approval of the church, was basically that of Clarke and Newton. After a few decades of bickering over the philosophical categories of ousia and hypostasis, and whether substance, or essence, or ousia, should be understood to be like or the same, whether homoousias denoted numerical or generic unity, etc, the bulk of the church was tired of the confusing and extra-biblical debates that had rent the unity of the church asunder. The majority of bishops, east and west, were willing to recognise that the church had erred by making matters of philosophical conjecture into dogma. These bishops- called ‘homoians’, for their favoring of simply describing the Son as “like” the Father, without reference to metaphysical nature- recognised that the scriptures do not speak of God’s essence, as such. They tell us about Who God is, what He is like, what His attributes are, what He has done and will do, etc, and likewise, the same sorts of things about His Son- but all without giving lessons on metaphysics.
Rather than pry into things which God has left a mystery to man, this majority of bishops agreed to end the divisive debates by repenting of the previous decisions to make matters of philosophical speculation about the metaphysical essence of God’s Son into dogma. The term “ousia” was to be eschewed altogether, and scriptural language about God and His Son was to be maintained.
Thus the ‘Homoian Creed’ of Constantinople in 360 declared that the Son was “begotten as only-begotten, only from the Father only, God from God, like to the Father that begat Him according to the Scriptures”, and went on to say:
“But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach”
This decision remained the official position of the churches within the Roman empire until the ascension of emperor Theodosius and subsequent changes he made to the church and her doctrine in 381.