Recent experiences made me go back to look at a little gem of a book from 1780, which encapsulates much from the trinitarian-unitarian debates in England c. 1689-1780.
It is obvious that there were plenty of wordy hotheads back then too, and yet it was in some ways, because of the Enlightenment, less of a reason-hating era. So, there were many interesting, sometimes even mutually respectful arguments, and David James, a Baptist minister, had read most of them. And, he pulled this off without coming to hate any of those involved.
It’s a bit depressing how little has changed since then, except for the worse! Obfuscation and confusion abound, for many reasons, and the positions James clearly lays out are oftentimes not clearly distinguished in people’s minds. The book is a testament to plain speaking, brevity (102 pages!), real and not feigned modesty, and unpretentious reasoning.
Eventually, you find out what his view is. Put you have to read carefully for it, and it comes towards the end. He explains his fairly simple, scriptural grounds for rejecting the other views, but he rejects those views without trashing them or those who believe them.
In a way, he thinks that these theories make less of a practical difference to the Christian life than some suppose. (pp. 72-6) And he has an interesting Appendix on worship and idolatry. (77-102) In the end, he thinks that scripture is sufficient to guide Christian worship, and that Christians should be careful in going beyond what is written. (40, 102) Like many early modern Protestants, he’s wary of appeals to mystery, the memory being fresh of Catholics appealing to mystery in defense of transubstantiation. (49, 68)
Is it a perfect book? No. For my part, I’m not persuaded by all of his arguments, and he doesn’t consider all the possible views, or all the views which are out there nowadays. Still, it’s a worthy little book, and deserves to be read. Here are some of his words from near the start of the book:
It is well known, that the doctrine of the Trinity, from the fourth century to the present time, has been the occasion of much debate and enmity among Christians.
…Christians are not yet agreed whether the one God whom the worship be one person, or three persons, or neither, but one essence; whether Jesus Christ be a mere man, or Almighty God and Man united in one person; or neither, but a super-angelic spirit made flesh; whether the Holy Ghost be a distinct spirit from the Father and the Son, or a mere attribute and energy of the Father.
Perhaps the divine being has permitted these differences as a part of men’s trial; that the lazy and implicit believer might be discriminated from the serious and inteligent enquirer, and that christians, in maintaining their several opinions of the trinity, might have an opportunity of exercising the virtues of meekness and candour, toleration and benevolance towards each other. To accomplish this desirable end, [in this book] the several tenets of Tritheists, Sabellians, Trinitarians, Arians, and Socinians are made to pass in review before the reader. The advantage proposed from this review is the attainment of a precise and determinate idea of what the doctrine of the trinity is in itself, as received by those who have been generally approved for their learning and soundness; and what the extremes are on either side of it. It is certain, there are many among the unlearned who are very zealous for the doctrine itself, without any specifick idea of what it is; while those who have such ideas… run into the extremes… many of those who use the same orthodox terms to express the doctrine, entertain opposite notions of it.
…The great difficulty is to keep clear of these several extremes in our ideas of the Trinity. If this difficulty were perceived, in a perspicuous manner, it seemed probable to the author, it would do more towards promoting a spirit of candour and benevolence among christians of different opinions on the subject under consideration, than a thousand pious exhortations, however just and proper, to that end. …In the apprehension of the author, it seems hardly possible for a person of an ingenious, unbigotted, and intelligent mind, who clearly perceived the facility of erring… could seriously believe that all who were not of his persuasion were either fools, or knaves, and that, without doubt, they should perish everlastingly.
The controversy relating to the Trinity is become very voluminous. …the truth of God needs not passionate invectives and malignant reproaches for its support and defence. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. The end of the commandment is charity. Every man is to examine and judge in the best manner he can for himself, as every man is to stand or fall to his own master. “The lowest understanding,” (to use the words of Dr. Dodderidge) “the meanest education, the most contemptible abilities, may suffice to give hard names, and to pronounce severe censures; a harsh anathema may be learnt by heart, and furiously repeated by one that could scare read it, and as was in the truth the case in some ancient councils, may be signed by those that cannot write their Names.” (David James, A Short View of the Tenets of Tritheists, Sabellians, Trinitarians, Arians, and Socinians: Intended to assist plain Christians in forming a general Idea of the principal Opinions held on the Trinity, and of the Difficulties attending them, and to promote Candour and Charity among those who differ in their Apprehensions of that Subject, pp. 5-11, bold added)
How’s that for a title?