18/02/2010

18th Century Trinitarianism

By and large the Trinitarianism of the Nicene Creed remained unchallenged until the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Even during that most tumultuous of theological eras, the Reformation, this particular area of Christian belief did not come into general dispute, though there were a few, like Michael Servetus (1511–1553) in the sixteenth century, who rejected Trinitarianism for a unitarian perspective on the Godhead. In the rationalistic atmosphere of the eighteenth century, however, the doctrine was heavily attacked and ridiculed as illogical. During this period the English-speaking world saw the re-emergence of Arianism, the heresy of the fourth century which affirmed the creaturehood of Christ, as well as the rapid spread of Unitarianism. By the early nineteenth century the doctrine of the Trinity “had become an embarrassment, and the way was open to dismiss it as a philosophical construction by the early church.”
Orthodox response to this attack on what was rightly considered to be one of the foundational truths of Christianity was varied. In certain evangelical circles the doctrine was an essential part of catechetical instruction. In 1752 Benjamin Beddome (1717–95), the pastor of a Calvinistic Baptist work in Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, drew up A Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism by Way of Question and Answer. This catechism basically reproduced the wording and substance of an earlier catechism written by the seventeenth-century Baptist Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), but added various sub-questions and answers to each of the questions in Keach’s catechism. The Scriptural Exposition proved to be fairly popular. There were two editions during Beddome’s lifetime, the second of which was widely used at the Bristol Baptist Academy, the sole British Baptist seminary for much of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century it was reprinted once in the British Isles and twice in the United States, the last printing being in 1849.
To the question, “How many persons are there in the Godhead?,” Keach’s catechism gave the answer, “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one, the same in essence, equal in power and glory.” Beddome faithfully reproduces this question and answer, but then adds five paragraphs of questions and Scripture texts as a further delineation of the subject.
(1) In the opening paragraph he argues first for the triunity of God from such passages as Genesis 1:26, where we have the statement “Let us make man” (KJV), and the Comma Johanneum, as 1 John 5:7 in the KJV is known. The latter verse is an unfortunate choice since this text is undoubtedly spurious. Then, on the basis of Psalm 110:1 and John 14:26, Beddome affirms the distinct personhood of the Son and the Spirit respectively. This train of argument logically raises the question, “May it with any propriety then be said, that there are three Gods?” To this Beddome answers with a resounding, “No,” and in support of his answer he cites
Zechariah 14:9 (KJV): “There shall be one Lord, and his name one.”
(2) The next paragraph adduces texts where both the Son and the Holy Spirit are referred to as God. “Is the Son called God? Yes. Who is over all God blessed for evermore. (Romans 9:5). Is the Spirit called God? Yes. Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lye to the Holy Ghost, thou hast not lyed unto men but unto God. (Acts 5:3–4).” As we have noted above, there are a number of texts that Beddome could have cited as proof that the New Testament calls the Son “God.” With regard to the Spirit, though, apart from this passage from Acts there is no clear attribution of the title “God” to the person of the Spirit in the New Testament.
(3) The divine attributes and activities that the Spirit and the Son share with the Father and are the sole prerogative of a divine being are the subject of the third paragraph.
Is the Son eternal as well as the Father? Yes. Before Abraham was, I am, (John 8:58). Is the Spirit eternal? Yes. He is called the eternal Spirit, (Hebrews 9:14). Is the Son omnipresent? Yes. Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I, (Matthew 18:20). Is the Spirit so too? Yes. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit, (Psalm 139:7) Is the Son omniscient? Yes. Thou knowest all things, (John 21:17). And is the Spirit so? Yes. He searcheth all things, (1 Corinthians 2:10). Is the work of creation ascribed to the Son? Yes. All things were made by him,(John 13). Is it also ascribed to the Spirit? Yes. The Spirit of God hath made me, (Job 33:4). And is creation a work peculiar to God? Yes. He that hath built all things is God, (Hebrews 3:4).
(4) The fourth paragraph seeks to prove the deity of the Son and the Spirit from the fact that both of them are the object of prayer in the Scriptures. To show this of the Son is relatively easy, and Beddome can refer to a passage like Acts 7:59 (KJV), where Stephen, the first martyr, prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” To find a text where the Spirit is actually the object of prayer is far more difficult. Beddome cites Revelation 1:4, where the “seven spirits,” which Beddome rightly understands to be a symbolic representation of the “one holy and eternal Spirit,” are included along with God the Father and Jesus Christ in a salutation to the seven churches in Asia Minor. As we have noted above, this passage clearly has significant Trinitarian import. But it does not really serve Beddome’s purpose, for a salutation is simply not equivalent to a prayer.
(5) The fifth and final paragraph gives further scriptural support for the fact that there is a plurality within the Godhead. “Are divine blessings derived from all three persons in the Godhead? Yes. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:13). Have each of these their distinct province in the affair of man’s salvation? Yes. Thro’ him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Ephesians 2:18).”

1 comment:

Robert said...

Hi,

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