As, in matters of speculation and philosophical inquiry, the only judge of what is right or wrong, is reason and experience; so in matters either of human testimony or divine Revelation, the only certain rule of truth is the testimony or the revelation itself.
The Christian revelation, is the doctrine of Christ and his apostles; that is, the will of God made known to mankind by Christ, and by those whom Christ instructed with infallible authority to teach it. For the right apprehending of which doctrine, men are (as in other matters of the greatest importance to them) sincerely to make use of their best understanding; and, in order thereunto, to take in all the helps they can find, either from living instructors or ancient writers: But this, only as a means to assist and clear up their own understanding, not to over-rule it; as a means to afford them light to see what Christ has taught them, not to prejudice them with supposing that Christ has taught any thing, which, after the strictest inquiry and most careful examination, they cannot find to be delivered in his doctrine.
If in all things absolutely necessary to be believed and practiced in order to salvation, the revelation of Christ was not itself so clear, as that every sincere person, using the best helps and assistances he can meet with, could sufficiently understand it; it would follow, that God had not at all made sufficient provision for the salvation of men. For the doctrine of Christ and his apostles being the only foundation we have to go upon, and no man since pretending to have had any new revelation; ’tis evident there can never possibly be any authority upon upon earth, sufficient to oblige any man to receive any thing as of divine revelation, which it cannot make appear to that man’s own understanding (sincerely studying and inquiring after the truth,) to be included in that revelation. For if any man can by any external authority be bound to believe any thing to be the doctrine of Christ, which at the same time his best understanding necessitates him to believe is not that doctrine; he is unavoidably under the absurdity of being obliged to obey two contrary masters, and to follow two inconsistent rules at once. The only Rule of Faith therefore to every Christian, is the doctrine of Christ; and that doctrine, as applied to him by his own understanding. In which matter, to preserve his understanding from erring, he is obliged indeed, at his utmost peril, to lay aside all vice and prejudice, and to make use of the best assistances he can procure: but after he has done all that can be done, he must of necessity at last understand with his own understanding, and believe with his own, not another’s, faith. For (whatever has sometimes been absurdly pretended to the contrary,) ’tis evidently as impossible in nature, that in these things any one person should submit himself to another, as that one man should see or taste, should live or breathe for another.
Wherefore in every inquiry, doubt, question or controversy concerning religion, every man that is solicitous to avoid erring, is obliged to have recourse (according to the best of his capacity) to the rule itself, to the original revelation. Using (as is before said) all the helps and assistances he can obtain; but still taking care to use them, only as helps and assistances; not confounding and blending them with the rule itself. Where that rule is to be found by every sincere Christian, is very evident. Whatever our Lord himself taught, (because his miracles proved his divine authority,) was infallibly true, and to us (in matters of religion) the rule of truth. Whatever his apostles preached, (because they were inspired by the same Spirit, and proved their commission by the like testimony of miracles,) was likewise a part of the rule of truth. Whatever the apostles wrote, (because they wrote under the direction of the same Spirit by which they preached,) was in like manner a part of the rule of truth. Now in the Books of the Scripture is conveyed down to us the sum of what our Savior taught, and of what the apostles preached and wrote: and were there as good evidence, by any certain means of tradition whatsoever, of any other things taught by Christ or his apostles, as there is for those delivered down to us in these writings; it could not be denied but that such tradition would be of the same authority, and in every respect as much a part of the rule of truth, as scripture itself. But since there is no such tradition (and indeed in the nature of things there can be no such tradition) at this distance of time; therefore the Books of Scripture are to us now not only the rule, but the whole and the only rule of truth in matters of religion.
This notion is well expressed by Irenaeus: “We have not [saith he] been taught the method of our salvation by any others, than by those from whom the Gospel itself was delivered to us: which the apostles, at first, preached; and afterwards, by the will of God, delivered down to us in writing, that it might be the foundation and pillar of our faith. And it is impious to imagine, that they preached before they had perfect knowledge of what they were to deliver; as some, who boast themselves to be the amenders of the apostles doctrine, have presumed to affirm. For after our Lord was risen from the dead, and they were indued by the Holy Spirit with power from on high; they were fully instructed, and had perfect knowledge in all things; and went forth into the ends of the world, declaring the good things which God hath provided for us, and preaching peace from heaven unto men; having all and each of them the Gospel of God. Thus Matthew set forth the Gospel in Writing, etc.”
Nevertheless, though the whole Scripture us the rule of truth; and whatever is there delivered, is infallibly true; yet because there is contained in those writings great variety of things, and many occasional doctrines and decisions of controversies, which though all equally true, yet are not all equally necessary to be known and understood by all Christians of all capacities; therefore the church from the beginning, has out of scripture selected those plain fundamental doctrines, which were delivered as of necessity to be known and understood by all Christians whatsoever. And these, all persons were taught in their Baptismal Creed: Which was therefore usually called, the rule of faith: not that itself was of any authority, any otherwise than as it expressed the sense of scripture; but that it was agreed to be such an extract of the rule of truth, as contained all the things immediately, fundamentally, and universally necessary to be understood and believed distinctly by every Christian.
As in process of time men grew less pious, and more contentious; so in the several churches, they enlarged their creeds, and confessions of faith; and grew more minute, in determining unnecessary controversies; and made more and more things explicitly understood; and (under pretense of explaining authoritatively,) imposed things much harder to be understood than the scripture itself; and became more uncharitable in their censures; and the farther they departed from the fountain of catholic unity, the apostolical form of sound words, the more uncertain and unintelligible their definitions grew; and good men found no where to rest the sole of their foot, but in having recourse to the original words of Christ himself and of the Spirit of Truth, in which the Wisdom of God had thought fit to express itself.
For, matters of speculation indeed, of philosophy, or art; things of human invention, experience, or disquisition; improve generally from small beginnings, to greater and greater certainty, and arrive at perfection by degrees: but matters of revelation and divine testimony, are on the contrary complete at first; and Christian Religion, was most perfect at the beginning; and the words of God, are most proper significations of his will, and adequate expressions of his own intention; and the forms of worship set down in scripture, by way of either precept or example, are the best and most unexceptionable manner of serving him.
In the days of the apostles, therefore, Christianity was perfect; and continued for some ages, in a tolerable simplicity and purity of faith and manners; supported by singular holiness of life, by charity in matters of form and opinions, and by the extraordinary guidance of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Peace, Holiness and Love. But needless contentions, soon began to arise; and faith became more intricate; and charity diminished; and human authority and temporal power increased; and the regards of this life grew greater, and of the next life less; and religion decayed continually more and more, till at last (according to the predictions of the apostles) is was swallowed up in apostasy. Out of which, it began to recover at the reformation; when the doctrine of Christ and his apostles was . again declared to be the only rule of truth, in which were clearly contained all things necessary to faith and manners. And had that declaration constantly been adhered to, and human authority in matters of faith been disclaimed in deeds as well as words; there had been, possibly, no more schism in the church of God; nor divisions, of any considerable moment, among Protestants.
But although contentions and uncharitableness have prevailed in practice, yet (thanks be to God) the Root of Unity has continued amongst us; and the Scripture hath universally been declared to be the only rule of truth, a sufficient guide both in faith and practice; and those who differ in opinion, have done so only because each party has thought their own opinion founded in Scripture; and men are required to receive things for no other cause and upon no other authority, than because they are found (and consequently in no other sense than wherein they are found) in the Holy Scriptures. Wherefore in any question of controversies in a matter of faith, Protestants are obliged (for the deciding of it) to have recourse to no other authority whatsoever, but to that of the Scripture only.
The incomparable Arch-Bishop Tillotson, has made this sufficiently appear, in his Rule of Faith; particularly, Part I, Sect. 3; and Part IV, Sect. 2.
And the very learned and judicious Bp Wake: “I choose rather [saith he in the Name of ever Christian,] to regulate my faith by what God hath delivered, than by what man hath defined.” Comment. on Ch. Catech. pag. 21.
And the excellent Mr Chillingsworth: “By the religion of Protestants [saith he,] I do not understand the doctrine of Luther, or Calvin, or Melancthon; nor the Confession of Augusta, or Geneva; nor the Catechism of Heidelberg; nor the Articles of the Church of England; no, nor the harmony of Protestant Confessions: but that wherein they all subscribe with a greater harmony, as a perfect rule of their faith and actions; that is, the Bible. The Bible, I say, the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants. Whatsoever else they believe besides it, and the plain, irrefragable, indubitable consequences of it; well may they hold it as a matter of opinion: but as matter of faith and religion, neither can they, with coherence to their own grounds, believe it themselves; nor require the belief of it of others, without most high and most schismatical presumption. I, for my part, after a long and (as I verily believe and hope) impartial search of the true way to eternal happiness, do profess plainly, that I cannot find any rest for the sole of my foot, but upon this Rock only. I see plainly and with mine own eyes, that there are Popes against Popes, Councils against Councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age against the church of another age. Traditive interpretations of Scripture are pretended, but there are few or none to be found. No tradition, but only of Scripture, can derive itself from the fountain; but may be plainly proved, either to have been brought in, in such an age after Christ; or, that in such an age it was not in. In a word, there is no sufficient certainty but of Scripture only, for any considering man to build upon. This therefore, and this only, I have reason to believe: this I will profess; according to this, I will live; and for this, if there be occasion, I will not only willingly, but even gladly lose my life; though I should be sorry that Christians should take it from me. Propose me any thing out of this book, and require whether I believe it or no; and seem it never so incomprehensible to human reason, I will subscribe to it hand and heart: as knowing no demonstration can be stronger than this; God hath said so, therefore it is true. In other things, I will take no mans liberty of judgement from him; neither shall any man take mine from me. I will think no man the worse man, nor the worse Christian: I will love no man the less, for differing in opinion from me. And what measure I mete to others, I expect from them again. I am fully assured that God does not, and therefore that men ought not, to require any more of any an than this; to believe the Scripture to be God’s word, to endeavor to find the true sense of it, and to live according to it.” Ch. 6. S 56.
In the Statutes given by Queen Elizabeth of glorious memory, to Trinity-College in the University of Cambridge, the following oath is appointed to be taken by every fellow in the chapel, before his admission. “I, N. N. do swear and promise in the presence of God, that I will heartily and steadfastly adhere to the true religion of Christ, and will prefer the authority of Holy Scripture before the opinions of men; that I will make the Word of God the rule of my faith and practice, and look upon other things, which are not proved out of the Word of God, as human only; —- that I will readily and with all my power oppose doctrines contrary to the Word of God; that, in matters of religion, I will prefer truth before custom, what is written before what is not written; etc”
And, in the same university, ever Doctor of Divinity, at his taking that degree, does [profiteri in Theologia] make his profession in the following words: “In the Name of God, Amen: I A. B. do from my heart receive the whole sacred Canonical Scriptures of the old and new Testament: And do hold, or reject, all that the True, Holy, and Apostolical Church of Christ, subject to the Word of God, and being governed by it, holds or rejects: And in this profession I will persevere to my lives end, God of his great mercy giving me grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And every Priest at his ordination, (and Bishop at his consecration,) being solemnly asked, “Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity to eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach (or maintain) nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?” answers in the following words; “I am so persuaded, and have so determined by God’s grace.”
And the whole church, in the 6th, the 20th, and the 21st Articles, declares; that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; So that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an Article of the Faith, or be though requisite or necessary to salvation: That it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s word written; neither may it so expound one place of scripture, that it be repugnant to another: wherefore, although the church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of salvation: that even general councils, —- [forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and the Word of God,] may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God: Wherefore things ordained by them, as necessary to salvation, have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”
To apply this general doctrine (which is the whole foundation of the Protestant and of the Christian Religion,) to the controversies which have been raised in particular, with great animosity and uncharitableness, concerning the manner of explaining the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity; I have in the first part of the following treatise, (that it might appear what was, not the sound of single texts which may easily be mistaken, but the whole tenour of the Scripture,) collected all the texts that relate to that matter, (which I am not sensible has been done before,) and set them before the reader in one view, with such references and critical observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of their true meaning.
In the second part, is collected into methodological propositions the sum of doctrine, which (upon the carefullest consideration of the whole matter) appears to me to be fully contained in the texts cited in the first part. And I have illustrated each proposition with many testimonies out of the ancient writers, both before and after the Council of Nice; especially out of Athanasius and Basil; of which, are several not taken notice of either by Petavius or the learned Bp Bull. Concerning all which, I desire it may be observed, that they are not alleged as proofs of any propositions, (for proofs are to be taken from the Scripture alone,) but as illustrations only; and to show how easy and natural that notion must be allowed to be, which so many writers could not forbear expressing so clearly and distinctly, even frequently when at the time they were about to affirm, and endeavoring to prove, something not very consistent with it. The greatest part of the writers before and at the time of the Council of Nice, were (I think) really of that opinion, (though they do not always speak very clearly and confidently,) which I have endeavored to set forth in those propositions. But as to the writers after that time, the reader must not wonder, if many passages not consistent with (nay, perhaps contrary to) those which are here cited, shall by any one be alleged out of the same authors. For I do not cite places out of these authors, so much to show what was the opinion of the writers themselves, as to show how naturally truth sometimes prevails by its own native clearness and evidence, even against the strongest and most settled prejudices: according to that of Basil: “I am persuaded [saith he] that the strength of the doctrine delivered down to us, has often compelled men to contradict their own assertions.” (De Spiritu Sancto, cap. 29.)
In the third part there is, first, brought together a great number of passages out of the Liturgy of the Church of England, wherein the doctrine set forth in the former parts is expressly affirmed; and then in the next place are collected the principle passages, which may seem at first sight to differ from that doctrine: and these latter I have endeavored to reconcile with the former, by showing how they may be understood in a sense consistent both with the doctrine of Scripture, and with the other before-cited expressions of the liturgy. And this is absolutely necessary to be done by every one, who when he prays with his mouth, desires to pray with his understanding also.
It is a thing very destructive of religion, and the cause of almost all divisions among Christians; when young persons at their first entering upon the study of divinity, look upon human and perhaps modern forms of speaking, as the rule of their faith; understanding these also according to the accidental sound of the words, or according to the notions which happen at any particular time to prevail among the vulgar; and then picking out (as proofs) some few single texts of Scripture, which to minds already strongly prejudiced must needs seem to sound, or may easily be accommodated, the same way; while they attend not impartially to the whole scope and general tenour of Scripture. Whereas on the contrary, were the Scriptures first thoroughly studied, and seriously considered, as the rule and the only rule of truth in matters of religion; and the sense of all human forms and expressions, deduced from thence; the greatest part of the uncharitable divisions that have happened among Christians, might in all probability have been prevented. The different states, which controversies concerning predestination, original sin, free will, faith and good works, and the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity, have at different times gone through, are a sufficient evidence of this truth.
The Church of Rome indeed requires men to receive her particular doctrines (or explications of doctrines) and traditions, as part of the rule itself of their faith: and therefore with them no good Christian can possibly comply. But the Protestant Churches, utterly disclaiming all such authority; and requiring men to comply with their forms, merely upon account of their being agreeable to Scripture; ’tis plain that every person may reasonably agree to such forms, whenever he can in any sense at all reconcile them with Scripture.
The first Reformers, when they had laid aside what to them seemed intolerable in the doctrines of the Church of Rome, in other matters chose to retain the words they found; yet declaring that they meant thereby to express only the sense of Scripture, and not that of tradition of the schools. If tradition or custom, if carelessness or mistake, either in the compiler or receiver, happen at any time to put a sense upon any human forms, different from that of the Scripture, which those very forms were intended to explain, and which is at the same time declared to be the only rule of truth; ‘its evident no man can be bound to understand those forms in such a sense; nay, on the contrary, he is indispensably bound not to understand or receive them in such a sense. For (as the learned Mr Thorndike rightly observes,) “That which once was not matter of faith, can never by process of time, or any act the church can do, (or by any interpretation of words, that custom or carelessness or contentiousness may have introduced,) become matter of faith.” Epilog. Part II. pag. 155.
As in reading a comment upon any book whatsoever, he that would thence understand the true meaning of the text, must not barely consider what the words of the comment may of themselves possibly happen to signify; but how they may be so understood, as to be a consistent interpretation of the text they are to explain: so in considering all forms of human composition in matters of religion, it is not of importance what the words may in themselves possibly most obviously signify, or what they may vulgarly and carelessly be understood to mean; (for there is in almost all words, some ambiguity;) but in what sense they can be consistent expositions of those texts of Scripture, which they were intended and are professed to interpret. Otherwise it may easily happen, that a comment may in effect come into the place of the text, and another interpretation afterwards into the place of that comment; till in process of time, men by insensible degrees depart entirely from the meaning of the text, and human authority swallows up that which is divine. Which evil can no otherwise be prevented, than by having recourse perpetually to the original itself; and allowing no authority to any interpretation, any further than ’tis evidently agreeable to the text itself.
Not to mention many examples of this kind, in almost all the confessions of faith that ever were published; there is one very remarkable instance of it, in the Apostles Creed itself. The word, Hell, in the English language, signifies always the place or state of the damned; and every vulgar English reader, when he professes his belief that Christ descended into hell, is apt to understand the article, as signifying Christ’s descending into the place of the damned: and probably they who first put the article into the Creed, about the beginning of the fourth century, might mean and intend it should be so understood. Nevertheless, since all learned men are satisfied, that the Greek word (hades) in those texts of Scripture upon which this article was founded, does not signify Hell, but in general only the invisible state of those departed out of this world; they now with great reason think themselves obliged to understand it in the Creed, not as the word my in modern speech seem to sound to the vulgar, but as it really signifies in the original Texts of Scripture.
The same is to be understood of every part of all human compositions whatsoever. According to that excellent observation of the learned Bp. Pearson: “I observe [saith he] that whatsoever is delivered in the Creed, we therefore believe, because it is contained in the Scriptures; and consequently must so believe it, as it is contained there: whence all this exposition of the whole, is nothing else but an illustration and proof of every particular part of the Creed, by such Scriptures as deliver the same, according to the true interpretation of them.” Expos. on the Creed, 4th Edit. pag. 227.
And the whole church has made the like declaration, in the 6th, the 20th, and 21st of the 39 Articles, before-cited; and in the eighth Article, which declares that the creeds ought only to be received and believed, “because [and consequently only in such sense wherein] they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”
In what sense the most difficult passages in the liturgy, concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, can be understood agreeably to the doctrine of Scripture, I have endeavored to show in the following papers. And (as I think the sincerity of a Christian obliges me to declare, ) I desire it may be observed that my assent to the forms by law appointed, and to all words of human institution, is given only because they are, and in that sense wherein they are, (according to the following application,) agreeable to that which appears to me (upon the most careful and serious consideration of the whole matter) to be the doctrine of Scripture; and not in that sense which the popish schoolmen, (affecting, for the sake of transubstantiation, to make everything look like a contradiction,) endeavored to introduce into the church.
Every sincere Christian, assenting (for the sake of peace and order) to the use of any forms of words; must take care to assent to them in such a sense, as may make them consistent with the Scripture; (otherwise he assents to what is false:) and in such a sense, as may make them consistent with themselves; (otherwise he assents to nothing.) This is what I have attempted to do in the third part: and I am sure it is no more a putting of violence upon the expressions cited in the second chapter of that part, to make them consistent with Scripture, and with the expressions of the liturgy cited in the first chapter of that part; than it is on the contrary a putting of violence upon Scripture and upon the expression cited in the first chapter of that section, to make them consistent with the expressions cited in the second chapter of that section.
I am well aware it may to many seem needless, to enter into questions of this nature; and that, in matters of such nicety and difficulty as this, it were better (in their opinion) to let every man frame to himself such obscure notions as he can, and not perplex him with subtle speculations. And indeed, with regard to Scholastic and philosophical inquiries concerning the metaphysical nature and substance of each of the Three Persons in the ever-blessed Trinity, this manner of judging is so right and true, that had these things never been meddled with, and had men contented themselves with what is plainly revealed in the Scripture, (more than which, they can never certainly know;) the peace of the Catholic Church, and the simplicity of the Christian Faith, had possibly never been disturbed. But that which is properly theological in this matter; viz. the distinct powers and offices of each of the Three Persons, in the creation, government, redemption, sanctification, and salvation of man; and the proper honor due consequently from us to each of Them distinctly; this is the great foundation, and the main economy of the Christian Religion; the doctrine, into which we were baptized; and which every sincere Christian ought, according to the best of his ability and the means he has of informing himself, to endeavor thoroughly to understand. The Supremacy of God the Father over all, and our Reconciliation and Subjection to him as such our Supreme Governor; the Redemption purchased by the Son; and the Sanctification worked in us by the Holy Spirit; are the three great articles of our Creed: and in maintaining these rightly, so as seriously to affect men’s understandings, and influence their lives accordingly; is the honor of God, and the interest of True Religion greatly concerned. Tritheism, Sabellianism, Arianism, and Socinianism, have, to the great disparagement of Christianity, puzzled the plain and practical doctrine of Scripture, with endless speculative disputes: and it has been no small injury to religion, in the midst of those disputes; that as on the one hand, men by guarding unwarily against Tritheism, have often in the other extreme run into Socinianism, to the diminution of the honor of the Son of God, and to the taking away the very Being of the Holy Spirit; so on the contrary, incautious writers in their zeal against Socinianism and Arianism, have no less frequently laid themselves open to Sabellianism or Tritheism, by neglecting to maintain the honor and supremacy of the Father. The design of the following papers, is to show how this evil may be prevented, and in what manner both extremes may rationally be avoided.
There are others who have thought, that we ought not at all to treat concerning any of these matters, because they are mysterious. By which if they meant, that the words of God were mysterious, and that therefore we ought not to be wise beyond what is written; no man could say that herein they judged amiss. But if they mean, that the words of men are mysterious; and that we must not reason concerning them, nor inquire whether or no, and in what sense, they are agreeable to the words of God: what is this, but substituting another mystery in the stead of the true one; and paying deference to the mystery of man’s making, instead of the mystery of God? The true veneration of mysteries consists, not in making them ourselves, and in receiving blindly the words of men without understanding them; but it consists, either in taking care there to stop, where the Scripture itself has stoped, without presuming to go further at all; or else, in taking care to understand all words of human institution in such a sense, as that they be sure to signify neither more nor less than the words of Scripture necessarily and indisputably do. Whosoever puts any meaning upon words of human institution, which does not appear to another (upon his sincerest and most careful examination) to be the same with the sense of the words of Scripture; must not complain that the other opposes his own reason to the authority of God, when indeed he opposes it only to those who would make human authority the same with divine. Affecting to speak unintelligibly, where the Scripture itself has not done so; is indeed promoting skepticism only, not true religion: nor can there be any other so effectual a way of confuting all heresies, as it would be to restrain men within the bounds of the uncontested doctrine of Scripture; and give them as few advantages as possible, of raising objection against human and fallible forms of speaking.
Lastly; as to those, who, in the whole, are of opinion that every man ought to study and consider these things according to his ability; and yet, in the particulars of the explication, have quite different notions from those which I have thought reasonable and necessary to set forth in the following papers; I have, with regard to such persons as these, endeavored to express myself with all modesty and due submission. And if any learned person, who thinks me in an error, shall in the Spirit of Meekness and Christianity, propose a different interpretation of all the texts I have produced, and deduce consequences therefrom different from those which seem to me unavoidably to follow; I shall think myself obliged, either to return him a clear and distinct answer in the same Spirit of Meekness and Candor, or else fairly and publicly to retract whatsoever is not capable of being so defended. But if, on the contrary, any nameless or careless writer shall, in the spirit of popery, contend only that men must never use their own understandings, that is, must have no religion of their own; but, without regarding what is right or wrong, must always plead for what notions happen at any time to prevail; I shall have no reason, in such case, to think myself under the same obligation of answering him.