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ON THE EVIDENCE PROPER TO THIS INQUIRY.
The light of nature furnishes no information on the mode of existence of the
Supreme Being.–Our entire ignorance of all real essences, and, à fortiori, of the essence of the Deity.—No antecedent incredibility in the belief of a plurality in the Divine Unity.—Caution against unfounded assumptions on the subject of this Inquiry.—The Scriptures our only source of information, and sufficient for that purpose.
It has been frequently shewn, that Natural Theology can furnish numerous and complete arguments, by which any man of plain understanding and honest heart may be convinced that a Deity exists, that the universe is his creation, and that he exercises over it a government of moral authority, as well as of supreme intelligence
We have no reason, however, to expect, from the unassisted light of nature, even in the most favourable circumstances, any more than general conclusions, well calculated to excite
attention and solicitude, but not capable of satisfying the feelings of religious principle, or the reasonable inquiries of the understanding, however chastised by humble and modest piety. This is eminently the case with regard to our speculations on the nature of the Supreme Being. We cannot reasonably doubt of the Unity of God, in every sense in which unity is a perfection : but to the exact determination of that sense, we are not competent. A manifest unity of intelligence, design, and active power, does not warrant the inference that unity, in all respects, without modification, is to be attributed to the Deity. For any thing that we know, or are entitled to presume, there may be a sense of the term unity, which implies restriction, and would be incompatible with the possession of all possible perfection.*
What is the essence of the Infinite Being ? and what is the mode of his existence? Every thinking man must soon become sensible, either that the solution of these questions lies above his faculties, or that natural considerations cannot supply the materials for the purpose. All the objects of created nature are known to us only by their properties and accidents. Of their real essences, we can observe nothing in fact; we can conceive nothing in imagination. Yet, that real essences exist, we cannot deny without being entangled in contradiction and manifest absur
* See Note (A) at the end of this Chapter.
dity. We are equally ignorant of those ever active principles or powers, which, under the agency of the all-presiding Mind, I may venture to denominate the prima mobilia of the physical universe. That which we call the attraction of gravitation is, confessedly, but an effect. It forms the dewdrop, and it holds together the planetary systems, through the inconceivable immensity of space : but what is its proximate cause? What is the nerus which equally unites contiguous particles, and worlds whose distance from each other, imagination cannot reach? By what mode of operation is a very small number of substances assimilated and evolved, in the admirable variety and perpetual change of organized bodies ? Every child knows the fact: but how the fact takes place, true philosophy confesses that she knows not.
Can it, then, be thought surprising, that the natural powers of man can discover nothing, as to the essence and the mode of existence of the Infinite and Necessary Being ? Rather, would it not be held an unreasonable and incredible pretension, should any affirm that he had made such a discovery? The infinity of the Deity is, to us, an inconceivable idea: yet can it be with reason denied? The mode of knowledge in the divine mind must differ from all our notions of perception, association, and intelligence; and this
* See Note [B] at the end of this Chapter.
difference arises from its very perfection; yet this is to us a subject absolutely incomprehensible.*
In applying these analogies to this profound and awful subject, we have a sanction from no mean authority; an authority which the Christian, at least, will reverentially regard.
« Who hath ascended to the heavens, and hath descended ? Who hath collected the wind in the hollows of his hands? Who hath bound the waters in a close vestment? Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is HIS NAME? And what the NAME of His Son ? For knowest thou ?”— Prov. xxx. 4.
These remarks have been made with a view to shew that there is no antecedent incredibilitet
the supposition, that the infinite and unknown essence of the Deity may comprize a plurality,—not of separate beings,—but of hypostases, subsistences, persons ; or, since many wise and good men deem it safest and most becoming to use no specific term for this ineffable subject,—of distinctions; always remembering that such distinctions alter not the Unity of the Divine Nature. For any thing that we know, or have a right to assume, this may be one of the unique properties of the Divine Essence; a necessary part of that Sole Perfection which must include every real, every possible excellence; a circumstance peculiar to the Deity,
* See Note [C] at the end of this Chapter.
and distinguishing the mode of His existence from that of the existence of all dependent beings.
These remarks may not appear superfluous, if it be considered that the impossibility of the Trinitarian doctrine is boldly affirmed by its opponents. * Were this position self-evident, or could it be established by proofs,t it would be unnecessary to go into inquiries and arguments to determine what is the doctrine of the holy
* “ The doctrine of the Trinity, if it had been found there [in the Scriptures], it would have been impossible for any reasonable man to believe, as it implies a contradiction, which no miracles can prove.” Dr. Priestley's History of Early Opinions, vol. i. p. 48.
+ The Polish Socinians, and after them the sceptic Bayle, made the strongest charges of contradiction and absolute impossibility against our doctrine. But probably no writer has represented the argument in a manner more perspicuous or striking than Dr. Priestley has done in the section of his History of Early Opinions referred to in the preceding note. But it appears to me, that the whole of this boasted argument proceeds on false assumptions : viz. that unity in one respect implies unity in all respects ;—that the Deity is to be judged of by the rules and reasonings which are derived from, and are applicable to, finite subjects ; thus overlooking the necessary INFINITY of the Divine Nature ;—that the term person is to be taken in its ordinary acceptation as it is currently used among men, though Trinitarian authors have generally been careful to guard against such a supposition, and to advise their readers that they accept the word as one of expediency, not of strict propriety, and that they use it in a sense entirely sui generis ;—and that the infinite Deity cannot possess properties under one mode of consideration, different from those which it has under another mode of consideration.