Thoughts On Samuel Clarke’s 55 Theses, Part 1: Theses 1-15

As I noted in the preface I wrote to the introduction of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, I am in general agreement with Clarke. Such being the case I am able to highly endorse his book as an excellent resource on the doctrine of the Trinity. However, I also mentioned in that preface, that there are a number of details within the grand scheme of our doctrine with which I disagree with Clarke. It is my hope in this article to briefly outline the main point of disagreement with his first 15 theses.

Firstly, in thesis one, Clarke begins with the a priori assumption that in addition to being the uncaused Cause of all, and autotheos, the person of God is “simple, uncompounded, and undivided”. This one detail, of divine simplicity, seems to me to contradict one of the most fundamental premises of Clarke’s entire work, which is that all our doctrine is to be drawn from the Holy Scriptures, and we ought not go beyond what can be demonstrated from them. I believe Clarke is correct in stating that the rest of thesis 1, minus this clause, is assumed throughout scripture, and moreover it can be demonstrated from the same. But that God is “simple, uncompounded, and undivided,” scripture has nowhere declared. As such, it remains a plausible theory, but it must be acknowledged that, without any positive demonstration from scripture, it remains a merely tentative notion.

In theses 2-3, it should be noted simply for sake of clarity, that when Clarke speaks of the Son and Spirit being with the Father “from the beginning”, this should not suggest to the reader that Their eternality is denied. As can be seen later on, Clarke does not deny it, and it is an important point of revealed doctrine that the Son and Holy Spirit, together with the Father, the one God, are eternal. We may fairly speak of Them as having been “from the beginning”, however, not only in emulation of scripture’s own language, but more technically, in the sense that prior to the beginning, when time was created by God through the Son, there was no space of time which we may properly speak of any person of the Trinity existing in, but They existed before, outside of, and apart from time together, prior to its creation. And it was in this atemporal or pretemporal state in which the Son was uniquely begotten from the Father, and the Spirit drew His origin from the Father.

In thesis 5, Clarke begins employing the somewhat problematic language of “self-existence”, something which ascribes to that Father alone, and later denies to the Son. This is problematic because the bare phrase “self-existent” can be taken in two senses, either in reference to self-caused, or rather, uncaused existence, or in reference to self-sustained existence, and these are two distinct notions. Perhaps one of the greatest flaws of Clarke’s work is his failure to clearly delineate between these two concepts. In the explanatory notes, however, we may observe that Clarke a couple of times equates self-existence with “unbegotten”, which gives us indication that he may have indeed intended it as a way of denoting the idea of uncaused existence. So long as that is how the term is understood, Clarke’s usage of it is accurate; the Father alone is without cause, source, or origin, while the Son has the Father as His own Cause, Source, and Origin. In this usage of “self-existent”, to affirm it of the Father and deny it to the Son is quite true and quite scriptural.

However, we must note that the term can also bear the meaning of self-sustained existence, and must remember that this quality, unlike uncaused existence, is indeed communicable, and was communicated by the Father to the Son. We read in John 5:26 (NASB) “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself;” this life in oneself, this other sort of ‘self-existence’, we might say, belongs to the Son as well as the Father, because the Father gave it to Him. The very fact that it is received from the Father precludes all possibility of confounding ‘life in oneself’ with uncaused existence, for the Son does not have this quality without cause, source, or origin, but from the Father as His personal Cause, Source, and Origin. This quality of self-sustained existence then deals with perpetual existence; we know that God sustains the existence of all creation perpetually, through the Son. Creation does not possess ‘life in itself’, but is wholly dependent upon the constant action of God, through the Son, in upholding the existence of all things (Heb 1:3). The Son is not like this, He does not stand in need, as creatures do, of being perpetually upheld and sustained in His existence by the Father; having once, before the ages, received life from the Father in His ineffable generation, He forevermore has “life in Himself”, self-sustained existence, as the Father has “life in Himself”, dependent on no other being to sustain or uphold His life whatsoever.

It should simply be noted, for sake of clarity, that in the many places where Clarke speaks “absolutely”, this is an antiquated way of saying, without qualification, such as that when the term “God” is used absolutely, eg, without qualification, it always or almost always refers to the person of the Father.

Relatedly, in thesis 8, Clarke says that the title “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, when used absolutely, belongs to the Father alone. This is probably correct, so long as we understand then that at the burning bush, the title is not used absolutely, but is modified by the earlier introduction in the passage that the one speaking is the Angel of the LORD, who came down from heaven, the pre-incarnate Son.

In thesis 14, Clarke says that those who hold Christ to be “the self-existent Substance” are worthy of censure. The language of “Substance” is somewhat unclear, but it is quite likely to take that as a reference not to an abstract metaphysical substance, a generic substance or secondary substance, but in reference to a primary substance, an individual, in this case, the Father. I believe it should be understood in the latter sense, especially when we consider that in thesis 4 Clarke simply eschews discussion of secondary substance altogether as going into the area of theory and speculation beyond what we have revealed in the scriptures. To then suppose that he here denies generic co-essentiality outright, would seem to make him contradict himself; while to read “Substance” here as a synonym for person, (as in antiquity especially, it often was), is to read Clarke’s theses in a manner most consistent with themselves. The theory of the generic co-essentiality of the Son with the Father, remains a wholly plausible one.

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