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The Mystery of God’s Oneness – T. J. Crawford (1/2)

Category Book Excerpts
Date May 7, 2024

The following excerpt is from The Mysteries of Christianity: Revealed Truths Expounded and Defended, ‘Lecture 6: The Trinity’.

‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.’

—Deut. 6:4.

‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Ghost.’

—Matt. 28:19.

The observations I have made in five preceding lectures are, I trust, sufficient to establish the general position, that doctrines which have mystery connected with them are not to be regarded as incredible on that account, or as unworthy of a place in a revealed religion. It seems proper now to consider how far the arguments by which this general position is supported, are applicable to some of those essential articles of the Christian faith which have been commonly objected to on the ground of their mysteriousness. To these articles, indeed, we have had occasion to make incidental reference in our previous discussion. But they are worthy, by reason of their great importance, of a more particular consideration than they have yet received.

We begin with that great doctrine of Holy Scripture respecting the existence in the unity of the Godhead of a threefold plurality—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in some respects distinct from one another, but all alike possessed of divine attributes and prerogatives.

The use of the word ‘Trinity’ to indicate this doctrine has been very much objected to by some persons, on the ground that it is not a scriptural expression. There seems to be no real force, however, in this objection. The word simply means ‘three in unity,’ and is therefore as suitable a word as could be thought of for expressing, in a brief and compendious manner, the truth which it is intended to denote. If this truth be either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence deducible therefrom, in that case, the invention of a short and convenient term, albeit not a scriptural one, to give expression to it, is surely altogether reasonable and legitimate (provided the term be sufficiently definite and intelligible), and ought not, one should think, to give offence to any who are well affected to the truth which it conveys.

It is with this truth, however, and not with any expression of it in words of human invention, that we are now concerned—the truth, namely, that there is but one God, and yet that these three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are each of them possessed of the attributes and prerogatives of God.

It will not be alleged that the doctrine, as thus stated, is liable to any objection in point of phraseology, whatever exception may be taken to it in other respects. It consists of two propositions, which alike admit of being established by the clearest scriptural testimonies, and on which, in their relation to each other, we now humbly venture to make a few remarks.

Respecting the first of these two propositions, anyone who reflects on the prevalence of polytheism wherever the light of revelation has been withheld, will probably regard it as matter of serious question, whether the unity of God can be clearly ascertained and conclusively established by the unassisted powers of the human mind. There can be no doubt, however, that this doctrine, when revealed, is found to be entirely consistent with the dictates of our rational faculties, and receives from them a considerable measure of support and confirmation.

There is some plausibility even in those metaphysical arguments by which it has been attempted to show that the unity of God is an unavoidable inference from his necessary existence, his infinity, his eternity, his independence, and other high attributes essential to our conceptions of him; although it must be owned, the deductions of the human intellect cannot be very confidently relied on respecting matters so far transcending our comprehension. There seems to be still greater force in the consideration, that to suppose more than one God is altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as one Being possessed of divine attributes is sufficient to account for the origin of all other beings. And then, when we come to a survey of the divine works in all the varied departments of the universe, we find these pervaded by a unity of plan, a regularity of order, and an exactness of adaptation, which, if it does not amount to absolute proof, supplies at least the strongest presumptive evidence, that all are the productions of the same intelligent and designing agent.

It need scarcely be added, that the doctrine of the unity of God, while thus in full harmony with the dictates of enlightened reason, is one of the fundamental truths of revelation. When we read the Old Testament, we cannot fail to see that one main design of God in the calling of Abraham, in the establishment of the Mosaic law, and in his whole subsequent dealings with the race of Israel, was to preserve to Himself a peculiar people, devoted entirely and exclusively to his worship in the midst of prevailing idolatry and polytheism. And when we look into the New Testament, it is equally obvious that, to whatever other and more special purposes the Christian dispensation was meant to be conducive, its divine Author had certainly this object in view when commanding his disciples to preach the gospel among all nations, that men in every place should be instructed in the knowledge and worship of the one only living and true God.

It is not, however, the fact of the unity of God, so much as the nature or import of it, that we are now concerned with, in order to ascertain whether it be compatible with any such plurality in the Godhead as that which is implied in the doctrine of the Trinity.

I may observe, then, that there are two senses which ought to be carefully distinguished from each other, in which ‘unity’ may be ascribed to any object. An object may be said to be either ‘one in number’ or ‘one in nature.’ When we speak of it as being ‘one,’ we may refer to its numerical unity, or, in other words, to its solitariness or singularity— our purpose being, not to indicate any internal quality of the thing itself, but simply to exclude the existence, in addition to it, of any other things the same in kind. But, on the other hand, when we speak of an object as being ‘one,’ we may refer to its ‘unity of nature’—as, for example, to its symmetry, its congruity, its completeness, its entireness, its homogeneousness; our purpose being to indicate something that is characteristic of the internal constitution of the thing itself, without necessarily excluding the existence, exterior to it, of any supposable number of other things alike constituted.

Now there can be no doubt that in the former of these two senses unity is attributable to the Supreme Being. God is numerically one, exclusive of all other gods. The light of nature affords, if not a full proof, at least a very strong presumptive evidence, which the light of revelation has fully and expressly confirmed, that there is one only God, and none else. In this sense, however, the unity of God has no reference to any essential property of the divine nature. It is simply exclusive of the existence of other gods, without determining anything as to what the only true God may in Himself be. There is nothing in this numerical unity that is in any way incompatible with the distinctions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Godhead. It merely amounts to this, that whatever God may be in respect of these internal distinctions, there is no other God besides him.

As regards the other use of the word ‘unity,’ to indicate some internal quality of an object, it seems impossible for us to assign any definite signification to the expression, when applied to the unsearchable nature of the Deity. We can understand what is implied in such ‘unity’ in the case of material, finite, and created objects. When attributed to these, it may be held as indicating some such properties as symmetry of form, simplicity of structure, congruity of purpose, connection and coherence of parts. But no such notions as these can be attached to it when used with respect to a purely spiritual being, and least of all with respect to such a spiritual Being as the self-existent, infinite, and eternal God. When we try to speculate metaphysically on the unity of God as one of his essential attributes, still more when we venture to affirm that this attribute so pertains to him as to exclude any such plurality in the Godhead as the scriptural doctrine of the Trinity must be held to imply,—we evidently seem to have gone beyond our depth, and to be assuming a farther knowledge of the divine nature or mode of subsistence than the human mind is capable of attaining. For aught that we know, there may be internal distinctions in the unsearchable essence of Deity which are in no respect incompatible with the divine unity. That the Godhead cannot be three in the same sense in which it is one, is indeed a self-evident proposition. But that it may be three in one respect and one in another respect is perfectly conceivable. And though it could be confidently affirmed that in no other spiritual being that we know of is there any such combination of unity with plurality, this would be no valid objection; because in God the combination may not arise from anything which created spirits are capable of having in common with him, but from something that is peculiar to Himself alone. It may be one of the unique and incommunicable properties of the Deity, which, like those equally incomprehensible attributes of self-existence, infinity, and eternity, distinguish the mode of his existence from that of all other beings in the universe.

But farther, as regards the statements of Holy Scripture concerning the divine unity, it is by no means clear that they have any reference whatsoever to unity as pertaining to the nature of God. They rather seem to have an exclusive reference to his numerical unity, as opposed to the ‘gods many and lords many’ whom the heathens worshipped. They are simply to be considered as negativing the existence of all other gods besides that one God who is revealed in his own word as the sole object of faith and homage. And they do not appear to express or imply anything as to what this only God may in himself be.

At all events, if these statements of Holy Scripture can be viewed as referring in any way to the oneness of God as an essential attribute of the divine nature, it is most certain that they do not define it or explain it so as to enable us to form any distinct conception of what it really is, or wherein it exactly consists; and hence we are evidently not in a position to affirm anything definitively with respect to it. Assuredly we are not in a position to decide that this undefined attribute ascribed in Scripture to the Deity, is inconsistent with any other peculiarity in the divine nature or mode of subsistence which Scripture may have revealed.

But this is not all. For in those Hebrew Scriptures in which the divine unity has been most frequently and emphatically declared, there is a remarkable peculiarity of expression often occurring, which seems to indicate a plurality in the Godhead. The usual Hebrew appellation of the Deity is ‘Elohim,’ which is constantly translated ‘God’ in our English version, but which is in reality the plural of the word ‘Eloah’ or ‘Elah,’ which also occurs, though much less frequently than in the plural form, and is similarly translated. This plural appellation is generally used in agreement with singular verbs, pronouns, and adjectives; but occasionally it is construed with verbs, pronouns, and adjectives in the plural number. And it is proper to remark that a like peculiarity of expression is found in some passages in which the name ‘Elohim’ is not employed. Thus the Psalmist says, ‘Israel shall rejoice in his maker;’ and Isaiah says of Israel, ‘thy maker is thine husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;’ in which passages the words translated ‘maker’ and ‘husband’ are in the plural number. Perhaps there is no passage in which this peculiar phraseology of the Hebrew Scriptures is more remarkable than in Deuteronomy 6:4, in which this declaration occurs,— ‘Hear, O Israel: Jehovah, our God [Elohim], is one Jehovah;’ the plural name ‘Elohim’ being used at the very time when it was the purpose of the inspired lawgiver pointedly and solemnly to affirm the unity of Jehovah. I may add that God is frequently represented in Scripture as speaking of Himself in the first person plural: as when it is written, ‘God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’1The italicisation in these verses is not original to the text, but serves merely to highlight aspects of the grammar.; ‘The Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us;’ ‘Come, we will go down, and there we will confound their language.’ Some have indeed affirmed that God in these passages is to be considered as using the language of majesty, or expressing Himself after the manner of earthly potentates. It has been fully ascertained, however, by the most learned oriental critics, that the monarchical first person plural was not in use in ancient times and among Eastern nations. There is no instance of it to be met with in the Old Testament. The ordinary style of the kings of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, when issuing their authoritative mandates is, on the contrary, the use of the singular number—as, for example: ‘See, I [Pharaoh] have set thee over all the land of Egypt;’ ‘I, Nebuchadnezzar, made a decree to bring in all the wise men of Babylon before me;’ ‘I, Darius, have made a decree; let it be done with speed.’ There is much plausibility, therefore, in the supposition that this and the other peculiar expressions before noticed as applied in the Hebrew Scriptures to the Almighty may be held as referring to that mysterious truth which the Scriptures of the New Testament have fully brought to light, of the existence of a plurality in the unity of the Godhead. At the very least we may venture to affirm, that these remarkable expressions would in all probability have been avoided, if it had been intended to ascribe to the divine nature such a unity as is absolutely exclusive of every modification of plurality.

Without insisting, however, on this argument, we may confidently fall back on our former position, respecting which there can be no dispute—namely, that the scriptural affirmations of the unity of God, if they have any reference at all to oneness as an essential attribute of the divine nature, do not define or explain this oneness so as to afford us any distinct conception of it; and hence that, being left in ignorance of what it really is, or wherein it exactly consists, we cannot be warranted to say that it is incompatible with any such plurality in the Godhead as is implied in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Further reading:

‘The Mysteries of Christianity’: A Book Review – David Campbell

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