Polemics and Irenics
James Freeman Clarke
Berry Street lecture, 1854
read before the Ministerial Conference
May 31, 1854
Having been requested to deliver the Theological Address at this annual meeting of the Ministerial Conference, let me commence by considering some of the theological defects and theological capabilities of our position as a body. If I speak rather of our capabilities than of our defects, it will be because I think our chief want is encouragement. We need faith, hope, courage. We need to see what we are able to do, what are the special advantages of our position. Our open fault is want of zeal; the hidden defect out of which it springs, want of faith in our own ideas.
I believe that we want, as a denomination, faith and hope; that we are for the time being a discouraged denomination. But the want of courage is a great want; the victory which overcomes the world is faith. This is especially the case with a sect holding views which differ from those of the majority. An old system can be carried on by the force of mere routine; but a new one is saved by hope, lives by looking forward and by going forward. When it ceases to be aggressive, hopes for no new conquest, stands only on the defensive, its power is gone.
Now I see, as I think, some things in our position which may inspire hope. I think that God has something for us to do for the Church and for the world; that, if we are faithful, we may occupy an important position in the Church of Christ. Let me give some of my reasons for this opinion.
In the first place, then, we are an honest denomination. The basis of Unitarianism was honesty. It did not spring up out of a new zeal, out of new religious feelings and emotions, nor from any profound intellectual insight, but from honesty. The early Unitarians were willing to say what a great many others thought, but were afraid to say. While Paley, a man of matchless practical sense and worldly wisdom, taught that it was right for men to sign creeds which they did not believe; Priestley, a man of matchless honesty, abhorring this prudence and in love with truth, gladly accepted the consequences of truth-telling. The scourge of sharp tongues, the rage of the Birmingham rabble, maddened by dark lies, could not shake his solid mind. "Patriot, saint, and sage,” (as Coleridge calls him,) he retired calm and pitying, and held fast his integrity at whatever cost. He was no profound philosopher, his system of belief was somewhat bald and cheerless, but he was a true John the Baptist, a genuine pioneer of progress. The work of an exploring party, wading through swamp and stream, and hewing its way through tangled underwood, is not agreeable. But the company which comes some years after, borne along over the same ground, seated in comfortable cars, the wheels of which cannot deviate from their iron track, may well forgive their predecessors if they sometimes lost their way in that wilderness. What Priestley was to us, we are to the rest of the Church. I think we have held fast somewhat to his integrity; I think that we are an honest denomination. We have not pretended to believe what we did not believe. We have professed no more faith than we had. There is nothing of sham about us, nothing of sectarian tactics, no outward show of activity or unity to impose on the world, no pretence of great piety or great solemnity wherewith to make an impression. We have shown the world all our faults, all our differences among ourselves, confessed our discouragements, admitted frankly our uncertainty and doubt. If not wise as serpents, we have at least been harmless as doves. Now this honesty clears the ground, and the ground must be cleared before it can be planted. A field full of stumps or deadened timber is not as picturesque as the wild forest, nor as cheerful as the cultivated field, but it is necessary as a transition from one to the other, — it is a step onward.
Now that "honesty is the best policy” in the long run, is as true of sects as of individuals. Whoever plants himself on that instinct may be sure that, sooner or later, "the great world will come round to him.” We are denounced and abused; the whole Church goes another way, and leaves us, and we think ourselves all alone; but presently we see the leaders of opinion — Coleridge, Moses Stuart, the Beechers, Bushnell, Maurice, Arnold, Morell, Park, and I know not how many more — coming in our direction. Somehow we find ourselves all at once near the head of the procession, when we thought ourselves at the rear. The hunt has come round our way, and we are as likely as any one else to be in at the death.
In fact, some of our seeming discouragements are real advantages. The smallness of the body, for instance, is perhaps no great evil. All depends upon the end you have in view. If you regard your denomination as a tree on which all the birds of the air are to sit, or as a net which is to catch all the fish of the sea, then, of course, its smallness is a bad thing. But if it is the leaven which is to leaven the mass, then there might be too much of it as well as too little. As soon as a denomination grows large, it grows conservative,— it has to consider its denominational interests. Wealth produces timidity always. Wordsworth says truly that riches are akin "To fear, to change, to cowardice, and death;”
and this is true of all sorts of riches. A denomination possessing a great many churches and a great many communicants must necessarily be timid as regards innovation. Such a denomination can never be the pioneer corps of the advancing army, or the forlorn hope in the attack on error. Now we are certainly in no immediate danger of such an embarras des richesses; but if our two hundred and fifty churches were all active and strong, and were scattered more equally through the country, they would perhaps be numerous enough for our work. A denomination, therefore, may sometimes be "conveniently small,” as well as a political party. It is with the size of the denominations in the Church, as with the number of individuals in a denomination. If some benign power should permit us to choose the multiple with which to multiply each of our leaders, we might wish to multiply such men as the late Dr. Parker of Portsmouth, or the late Henry Ware Jr., by a hundred, and such a man as the late Bernard Whitman by ten. But Dr. Channing we would not wish to multiply at all, nor Andrews Norton, for one of each is enough for a denomination. So two hundred Unitarian churches are perhaps as good for the Church at large as two thousand.
Another advantage of our position is, that we are confirmed and incorrigible heretics. I wish that some competent person would write an essay on the "Temptations, Dangers, Duties, and Opportunities of a Heretic.” It would be an interesting and useful subject. No doubt, to be a heretic exposes one to temptation, and involves mental and moral dangers. But it also furnishes grand opportunities. An avowed heretic is behind the scenes. What is concealed from the orthodox, he hears and knows. Men come to him with their doubts, and he is able thus to throw light into many a perplexed mind. It was not without reason that Jesus chose the rationalist Thomas as one of his Apostles, nor that Providence has permitted in every age the existence of rationalizing and heretical sects. But one of our main advantages, as heretics, is freedom from the care of our reputation. How much time the orthodox lose in avoiding or rebutting the charge of heresy! How the fear of that charge hangs fetters on the freest limb, palsies the boldest tongue! Now we lose no time nor strength in that way. Our Yankees speak of enjoying bad health. We enjoy already as bad a reputation as we can. We are already infidels and deists in the popular esteem. The theologians have already prejudiced the public against us as much as possible; and no matter what we say, they cannot make the matter worse. Thus we are saved from the necessity of watching our own shadow, and can go boldly forward, following truth. Moreover, a little sharp censure is like an advertisement, calling attention to our views. This advantage is so well known, that people for the sake of it sometimes court persecution, and carefully nurse and tend their martyrdoms. Thus the Roman Catholics are obliged to pet their only American persecution, the burning of their Charlestown convent, and to keep the ruins thereof, on Mount Benedict, in good repair.
The want of a doctrinal reputation having thus set us free from the influence of other sects, we are also set free as regards each other by the want of a common creed and a combined church organization. For while sects govern each other by their common wish for a good sectarian reputation, they govern themselves by means of their creed and their church organization. As Congregationalists, we are not constrained by a church organization; as Unitarians, we are not governed by a creed. The first freedom we have inherited, the second we have attained; and thus all questions in theology are to us open questions.
As a religious body, we have faith in God, but the ground of that faith is an open question. As a Christian body, we believe in Jesus as our head; but in what way he is our head is an open question. As Protestants, we accept the Scriptures as a source of faith; but all questions which concern the canon of Scripture, its inspiration and authority, are open questions. We neither have nor can have a creed in either of the objectionable uses of a creed; that is, either as a test of Christian character or as a bond of Christian union. For a creed has a threefold use and meaning. Its first use, as a test of Christian character, is to pronounce judgment on individuals in their relations to God and Christ, qualifying some as Christians, others as infidels. A creed, in this use and meaning of it, we should instantly reject, probably with unanimity. A creed in the second sense, as a bond of union, —which shall draw a line round those who may have Christian intercourse together, — may be desired by some among us, but is a manifest impossibility. Make it what you will, it will shut out more than it will include, and probably would shut out the very persons whom everybody wishes to include; —
"For he who stems a stream with sand,
And fetters flame with flaxen band,
Has still a sterner task to prove;” —
namely, to stem the stream of individualism in our body, and to fetter that free movement which makes every man determined to go his own way. So that there remains as a possibility for us only the third and very innocent use of a creed as a declaration of present opinions, held or supposed to be held by the majority of the body. I may write a sermon or an essay giving an account of the opinions of Unitarians, and it will be doubtless a very innocent affair. I may put it in the form of articles, and it is equally harmless. Half a dozen other gentlemen may accept it as their view of the matter, and print it, and still no injury will arise; for it is still a matter of private opinion; it binds nobody, excludes nobody, is a test of nothing, and may be rejected tomorrow even by those who accepted it today. The statement of opinions put forth last year by the Executive Committee of the American Unitarian Association was, I suppose, intended in this sense, and as such I can see to it no objection.
No doubt freedom has its disadvantages, and no doubt there are some among us who would therefore wish to dispense with it. There are some Unitarians so afraid of Naturalism that they would give up freedom to escape from it. There are some who, having run to one extreme, follow the oscillatory law of their nature by going presently to the other. There are some who tire of endless seeking, of the labor of thought, of the responsibility of self-direction, and who go to Orthodoxy, to Episcopacy, or to Rome, according as their strength is sufficient for a longer or a shorter journey.
But our advantages of position are manifestly those of freedom. We are suited for progress, for advance; not to man fortresses, but to lead the van. But this supposes that the Church is in motion, that it is not to remain where it is, either in its opinions, its ritual, or its life. If the Church is to remain permanently in its present form, or if any sect in its present form is to conquer and swal1low all the rest, then there is not much for us to do. But this is impossible. That the Church is to remain always in its present divided and inefficient state is to disbelieve the promises of Christ, and to distrust the providence of God. How, for instance, can the Roman Church conquer Protestantism in the nineteenth century, when it could not hold its own in the sixteenth? And how can any one form of Protestantism conquer the rest, when each has its root in some special tendency or instinct of the human soul which the rest cannot satisfy? The nature of man, the instincts of the human soul, the unappeasable appetites of the mind and heart, forbid that we should either stay where we are or go backward. Therefore the only alternative for the Church is to go forward to a higher ground, to a larger synthesis, a richer life, a fuller activity, a grander union. And this must be preceded by new creeds and new ideas. Deeper thought must precede larger action. There is, then, a pioneer work still to be done in theology, — unapproached problems to be examined, and old problems to be re-examined.
Let us take a survey of this domain, glancing at some of these problems which need to be examined, or to be re-examined. We shall find that there is no department of theology which is not in motion; nothing scientifically and permanently ascertained; that there is a current of thought setting it all forward. We are not therefore called upon to do this great work of theological reform alone, or by main strength, and by the power of mere intellect. If we were, we might well despair. No great work of any kind is ever done so. There is a Divine power behind all human thought and action, setting forward the currents of human opinion; and we have only to suffer our minds to be borne forward without haste or rest, by that Divine Providence. Then the thoughts which come to us will come also to others. Without rashness on the one hand, or fear on the other, following the leadings of Providence, we shall find all things working together for good in the sphere of thought no less than in that of action.
And now I will consider with you, during the remainder of this address, the tendency of this Theology of the Future, and the form which some of its special problems will probably assume.
In one word, I would call past theology Polemic Theology, or War Theology; future theology I would call Irenic Theology, or Peace Theology.
For there is a certain process in human thought, a certain law by which it advances, which made it natural and necessary that the Polemic Theology should precede the Irenic in the historic development of Church doctrines. According to this law, first comes the THESIS, then the ANTITHESIS, and lastly the SYNTHESIS, or Reconciliation. The Christian intellect — earnest, honest, but limited and narrow —sees first the most obvious view of truth which presents itself. This constitutes the Thesis,--- the positive view, the ground position in theology. This Thesis contains truth, but only one side of truth. At first it delights by its clearness, afterwards it dissatisfies by its narrowness. A want is felt, unsupplied by this view, and the opposite and antagonist elements of truth call for their rights. These assert themselves as the Antithesis, and almost necessarily in the way of opposition, contradiction, battle. The Thesis has possession of the ground, and claims the whole as its own; the Antithesis has therefore to fight for a place. Hence the great struggles in the Church, between the Trinity and Unity, Arianism and Sabellianism, Augustinianism and Pelagianism, Calvinism and Arminianism, Naturalism and Supernaturalism, Universalism and Partialism, the Catholic and the Protestant Church-systems. The theology of the Church has thus far been a polemic theology, originating in the heat of controversy. But if we believe in a Providence which rules the world of mind as fully as that of matter, we must suppose these antitheses to be moving forward toward a reconciliation in a higher synthesis. It were atheism of the worst kind to doubt it. To believe that all is left to accident and caprice in the world of thought, while in the world of sense not a sparrow falls without the Father, — that he numbers the hairs on the head, careless of the thoughts within, — is a very godless theory of human opinions, and one to which thoughtful men cannot easily subscribe.
But what will be the nature of this Irenic or Peace Theology? — what the character of the Syntheses which are to reconcile present antagonisms?
Peace Theology will be founded on the conviction that every system which has been widely received and long retained must have within it a kernel of truth; that men gravitate toward truth, not toward error; that the error in a system comes rather from its omissions than its assertions; that what is seen and said has truth in it; that falsehood is mostly to be found, therefore, on the negative, and not on the positive, side of a system. But this Peace Theology will not be a neutral theology, — not weak, undecided, or shifting, — not a yes and no theology, which knows not what it would say, — not a medley of opinions taken from all quarters. But it will be a high, overlooking theology, which finds truth, not in the middle, but on both sides; which is fed out of the large resources of a deep Christian experience, a wide observation of men, and a generous faith in human nature. The Peace thus founded will be deep and lasting; not a compromise, but the joyful concord of different yet harmonious convictions.
Antecedent to all questions in theology is the question of the nature of theology itself. Here the conflict is between the dogmatist on the one side and the skeptic on the other. The first sees the immense importance of truth, but confounds the truth which he sees and feels with his own imperfect verbal statements of it, and so becomes necessarily a bigot. The other, revolting from these narrow statements, rejects all positive opinion, and makes his religion a matter of mere feeling or external action. The synthesis which shall reconcile this conflict will, I think, be found in the distinction between Religion and Theology, between Faith and Belief, between the internal conviction and the formal expression of it. This distinction, which is now becoming clear to most thoughtful minds, will enable men to place Theology where it belongs, as a progressive science, with a fixed substance but a varying form. This being recognized, men will neither fight for the letter nor doubt of the spirit; will neither dogmatize nor despair; will be fixed in central truth, yet move freely through the phases of advancing and enlarging knowledge.
I. The nature of theology being thus ascertained, the first great question of theology comes, concerning the evidence of the Divine Existence. Here, while the Theist asserts the existence of God, the Atheist denies the evidence of it; and because he can find no proof which completely satisfies his intellect, he thinks himself bound to deny the fact itself. But perhaps this controversy may be reconciled when it is seen that the knowledge of God is one thing, and the proof of the Divine existence quite a different thing. And, strange as it may seem, the past has given us no satisfactory results on this fundamental question. Four of the greatest thinkers the world has known — Anselm, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz—have professed themselves satisfied with the ontological proof; of the Divine existence. But Kant pronounces this to be unsatisfactory, for reasons to which most thinkers now assent. But Kant's own proof, drawn from the moral nature of man, has given as little satisfaction. Dr. Clarke's argument from Necessary Existence has had no better success. The deepest thinkers have found fault with the argument for design drawn from the adaptations of the outward universe. Theology, therefore, has not yet furnished us with any proof of its fundamental proposition which theologians themselves will generally admit to be satisfactory. But this very failure prepares the way for a better success, showing us that God exists to us, not as we think, but as we live; that our faith in God is not a belief based upon arguments, but a. knowledge wrought out of action. Theology is to show us that the pure in heart see God; that the righteous man dedicating life to his service, the martyr dying for his truth, the soul flying to him in prayer, the Indian mother calling to the great Everywhere to save her drowning child, — that these know God. Theology will thus base itself, not on dead speculation, but on living intuition and experience, on man's nature in its healthy exercise. The knowledge of God, it is to be seen, comes not to us, but out of us; not from without, but from within. One of our leading theologians has said: "We must start in religion from our own souls. In these is the fountain of all divine truth. The only, God whom our thoughts can rest on, and our hearts can cling to, and our consciences can recognize, is the God whose image dwells in our own souls. The grand ideas of Power, Reason, Wisdom, Love, Rectitude, Holiness, Blessedness, that is, of all God's attributes, come from within, from the action of our own spiritual nature.” This statement of Dr. Channing makes the existence of God something to be known by the action of the soul itself, that is, an Experience. It is this view which is to become the basis of theology, and to overthrow both speculative and practical atheism.
II. Next to the question of the Divine Being comes that of Divine Revelation. And here, also, theology is moving forward. That she has as yet by no means uttered her last word on this subject appears from the disputes, as yet unreconciled, between the advocates of Natural and Supernatural Revelation. One class contends that all kinds of Divine Revelation are strictly natural, and identical with each other; that all proceed according to law, and without miracles; and that the revelation in Christ was the same in kind with the revelation in Socrates. The others distinguish Natural from Revealed Religion to such an extent as to make the first no revelation, and to make the second not only supernatural, but unnatural. But the best theology of our time seeks to reconcile the truths of Naturalism with those of Supernaturalism. It distinguishes God's revelations without dividing them, — shows that God speaks to us, not the same word, but different words, in Nature, in Christ, and in the Soul. It also shows that these revelations are in harmony and not in conflict with each other; that each is needed to complete the others. It accepts NATURE as a revelation of God; but as the God of the race rather than of the individual, God as a bountiful order rather than as a personal friend. In CHRIST, again, it finds the Personal God, acting according to freedom as well as according to law, — able, therefore, to pardon the sinner, to answer prayer, and to meet the occasions of Time by new incursions of a higher life out of Eternity. These incursions are miracles, which are not arbitrary nor lawless phenomena, but openings into a higher world, glimpses of a higher order. So, again, God reveals himself in the SOUL, adding greatly to the knowledge which we have of him through Nature and through Christ, —adding to it, but not setting it aside. And hence results the true doctrine of the TRINITY, as a threefold manifestation of God, a doctrine rooted in the nature of things, and which, when truly understood, will be the foundation of union; as hitherto, in its false form, it has been the source of division.
III. Christianity being thus accepted as one of the three great revelations of God, the next question which arises regards its SOURCES. Where are we to find Christ? Here, again, are several distinct and opposing answers which theology is to reconcile. The Churchman answers, "In the Church”; the Protestant says, "In the Scriptures”; the man of piety replies, "In Religious Experience”; and the Rationalist answers, "In the Reason.”
Protestant theology must reconsider its famous statement, that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. This is a polemic statement, rising as an antithesis to the Roman Catholic statement that the CHURCH and the Scriptures are the rule of faith; and, like all other polemic statements, it is a half-truth, not a whole one. For what does it mean? That the Scriptures are the only source of our knowledge of Christ and Christianity? But this is not true. The Scriptures themselves speak of another source, namely, the Holy Spirit. Jesus declares that this is to lead us into all truth. But this Holy Spirit, which is the source of the authority of the New Testament writers, is not limited to those writers, but is given to all Christians. The truth which is in the New Testament cannot be understood deeply, except by a similar experience in our own hearts, for spiritual truth must be spiritually discerned. Christian experience, therefore, in individuals, and in the combination of individuals which composes the Church, is a source of Christian knowledge no less than the Scriptures.
But the Protestant statement may imply that the Scripture is the only rule of faith in the sense of its being the final judge and arbiter of faith, meaning that, where there is a conflict, the final appeal is to the Scripture. But the question still remains, Who is to decide what the Scripture teaches? Admitting that, when the sense of Scripture in regard to any disputed point is ascertained, it is authoritative, the question still comes, Who is to ascertain it? The Scripture is not a judge, but a law. For a judge, we need, not a book, but a man,—a living tribunal which can meet the present question. This living tribunal must be either the Church or the individual; and the last decision must be given either by the tribunals of the Church in its corporate capacity, or by the private judgment of the individual. Now, though Protestants assert in theory the right of private judgment, in practice they wholly renounce it. If a member of any Protestant church exercises the right of private judgment, and declares that the Scriptures do not teach the Trinity, or the Deity of Christ, he is excommunicated. And even among Unitarians, if a man professing to be a Christian, in the exercise of private judgment, denies the miracles, he is virtually excommunicated. Such are the inconsistencies of Protestantism, showing that its famous statement concerning the Scripture needs to be revised. The result of this revision will probably be that we shall receive the Scripture, Christian Experience, and the Faith of the Church, as coordinate SOURCES of Christian truth, and Private Reason or Judgment as the ultimate judge of Christian truth. That is, in seeking for truth we are to go to the Scripture, to our own Christian experience, and to the faith of the Church, as the three sources of knowledge. In deciding what these say, each man must finally use his own judgment, or reason. Thus Protestants will concede to Catholics that the Church is an authority as well as the Scripture, as a source of truth. Catholics will concede to Protestants, and Protestants to each other, that individual reason or private judgment is the final judge of truth. The Protestants will not concede too much in conceding this, for opinions which have been widely held and long retained must contain within them some important truth; that is, they are sources of truth. They are placers where gold is to be found, though perhaps mixed with earth and stone. Nor will the Catholic concede too much in granting private judgment, for it is a law of human nature, that, if men believe at all, they must believe with their own minds. Where private judgment ends, there individual belief ends also. The authority of the Church may cause men to assent, but cannot cause them to believe. It can prevent them from expressing their opinions, it may induce them to acquiesce in its own, but this is all. This is evidently only conformity, not conviction.
IV. The sources and standard of truth being determined, the next question concerns the Substance of Truth, or the Doctrines of Christianity. Here the great controversy is between that general scheme of Orthodoxy, which we may call for convenience Calvinism, — since its culminating point and most logical expression is in Calvin's Institutes, — and those schemes of Heresy which we may call for convenience Unitarianism.
Now to me, as a Unitarian, it has long been manifest that Calvinism contained some most important truths, and that these must be seen, known, and extricated by theology, so that we may accept them before we shall ever be able to conquer Calvinism. Calvinism, as a whole, I reject, for its false views of God and of men; but its essential truths I feel to be profoundly needed for a full Christian development and a thorough Christian experience. What are they?
The essential truths of Calvinism I hold to be these:—
1. It asserts the necessity of a radical change in man before he can be capable of happiness, of holiness, or of usefulness. It asserts that mere development is not enough, that conversion is necessary;— that depravity is to be rooted out, as well as good taken in; — that education is not enough, that inner transformation is necessary, — a change of motive, a change of aim, a change of heart;— and that we cannot do this alone, or apart from God; that we must be depending on God, in order to draw in this new life, and that this life flows from God into the soul, — is not pumped up by our own manual labor out of any well within the heart, but descends, shower like, from the heavens.
In this statement, I conceive, is contained all that is essential in the Orthodox doctrines of Depravity, Regeneration, and Divine Influence. Total Depravity means only this, — that until we turn round, and walk in the right way, we are going wholly wrong; that until we act from a really generous and conscientious motive, instead of a selfish one, all our conduct is tainted with evil: and that is true. Hereditary Depravity means essentially this, — that we are born into a stream of impure and corrupt life; that the inward organization is tainted by the results of past ancestral sins; that outward influences, the atmosphere of thought and feeling which surround's us, the social life and thought which feeds our mind and heart, are tainted by evil examples and habits: and that is true. Regeneration means essentially that, beside an outward change of conduct, an inward change of motive is necessary; that we must not only begin to do what is right from conscience, but love what is right, and enjoy doing it. And Divine Influence means that this new love must be poured into the heart by God, in answer to the sincere prayer of one who hungers and thirsts after goodness. And all this seems to me to be profoundly true.
2. Secondly, Calvinism, or Orthodoxy, asserts the possibility of this radical change by means of what Christ has done arid suffered. It asserts that every obstacle, outward and inward, in the way of our becoming filled with love, peace, light, has been abolished by the work of Christ; that every-wall separating us from God, separating us from men, has been thrown down in Jesus Christ; that his life and death have redeemed us, first from the guilt, and secondly from the power, of sin.
In this statement I find all that is essential in the Orthodox doctrine of Atonement. Disputing with Unitarians, the Orthodox assert more to be necessary. Discussing among themselves and attempting to reconcile their own differences, they are unable to take a single step beyond this.
And this I hold to be true. Christ has made satisfaction, that is, he has done enough. He has removed the obstacles, whatever they are. The practical faith in the Atonement is to believe that the obstacles are removed by Christ; that the way to God is open ; that we can have pardon, peace, bliss, and holiness, no matter how sinful and impure we have been. When we can believe this, we believe the Atonement.
3. And thirdly, Orthodoxy asserts the union of the human and the divine in Christ; asserts that in him God was man, and man God; asserts that the fullness of the Divine nature was in him, and that thus he is the King of the world, the Head of the human family, the central figure of all human history.
In this statement I find all that is essential in the doctrine of the Deity of Christ, and of the Trinity, so far forth as based on it. Many of the Orthodox themselves would admit this to be an exhaustive statement of their doctrine.
And this statement, also, I find to be true. Christ I believe to have been the providential man, selected before all worlds, in the Divine decree, to be thus united intimately with God, and become a partaker of the Divine nature. Thus he is a manifestation of our Father; of the personal, loving Father, of the pardoning, life-giving Father, who draws us all up to himself in a tender embrace of love. This Father we see manifest in the Son; and the awful infinity and eternity, the terrible order of the universe, is changed into a friend in the face of Jesus. God takes personality in Christ. I am not a Pantheist. I believe in the personality of God because I believe in Christ. He who has seen him has seen the Father.
Here are the three essential doctrines of Orthodoxy. First, the Depravity of Man, making a true conversion necessary. Second, the Atonement, or the work of Christ, making this conversion possible. Third, the Deity in Christ, or God manifest in the flesh.
But if these are the essentials of Orthodoxy, and if these are all true, why was Unitarianism necessary, and in what sense can Unitarianism be a growth, a reform, and a system of truth also?
The essential thing in Unitarianism is, that it is the antithesis to Orthodoxy, — that it states another side of truth, and a side which had been omitted by Orthodoxy.
For the philosophy of progress in human opinion is as we have seen. The falsehood of all great systems of opinion is not in what they assert, but in what they deny or omit to assert. The mind of man is so made, that it sees and loves truth. Truth attracts it, and truth only. If it accepts error, it is for the sake of some truth mingled with it. But the mind of man is also narrow; it knows in part, and teaches only in part. It sees one side of truth; and thus a great system, like Calvinism, is accepted and earnestly believed because of the truth which it contains, which is found to be food and strength to the soul. But after a while its deficiencies come to be felt. It is found to be narrow, to be insufficient to supply all the wants of the soul. A hunger for something else arises; the long-stifled appetite can no longer be resisted; the want, long left unfilled, can no longer be neglected; and, then there comes up another system, adapted to feed and satisfy this side of man's nature.
It was in this way that Unitarianism came. The thesis of Orthodoxy had omitted certain truths, and this omission, this negation, was the cause of the new movement forward. The attraction of a new truth, vaguely seen, but felt to be the thing needed, draws the minds of men onward, till it takes form in some leading minds, and then becomes the banner of a new reform.
Now Calvinism, in its strong statement of human depravity, omitted to state human capacity; in stating the sinfulness of man's nature, it omitted the goodness of man's nature. In demanding conversion, it neglected progress. In calling for a new life, it omitted growth, or development of that life. In stating that Christ was the only Atonement, it omitted the preparation for Christ in reason, nature, moral effort, and the beautiful tendencies of the original soul. In asserting the divinity of Jesus, it did not assert the divinity of humanity and the soul. In saying that God was in Christ, it forgot to say that God was also manifest in nature and the human soul. But God is in nature and the soul, and these are also revelations of Him. When these revelations were ignored and passed over, it became a necessity that there should be a movement to assert them.
For it follows of necessity that Calvinism, not recognizing God in nature or in the soul, takes religion out of the sphere of morality and into that of piety. Religion
is divorced from morality, faith from works, revelation from reason. Hence its power to reform the world is crippled; hence it is thought man's business to save his own soul, and not to do good to his fellow-man. Hence social sins and wrongs and evils are suffered to remain unrebuked. Hence war and slavery and intemperance and debauchery have become part of the established institutions of Christian nations. All these things are considered to have nothing to do with the Gospel, nor the Gospel with them. And so it happens today, that if a man in the pulpit attacks these wrongs, and seeks to show their unchristian character, he is told that his business is to "preach the Gospel,” and not to meddle with such matters. And thus only can it be explained, that all the Orthodox denominations in the land, with scarcely an exception, are at the South avowed defenders of slavery, and at the North silent and quiet in relation to it.
Hence Unitarianism; which is essentially the assertion of that which is divine in nature and man, and that the office of Christ is to save the soul in this world no less than in the other. Not that Unitarianism saw, or sees, all the work it is destined to do. No reform ever does see its own destiny, as no prophet can foretell his own fate. "Had I known,” said Luther, "what I should have had to do, ten horses should not have dragged me to preaching the Reformation.”
But why should Unitarianism spring up just here, and not in other places? It came here as a part of the Church, as a movement within the Church, because here the principles of Puritan freedom and Congregational independence made it possible. Elsewhere it has come up, but as a silent protest outside of the Church, and has been classed with worldly and irreligious tendencies. But here it was able to take form as a distinct religious protest, and so became a new denominational movement.
But Unitarianism, having to contend against a great and powerful organization, was obliged, not merely to attack doctrines, but to announce principles. By the grandeur of the principles which it declared, it was able to awaken an interest and enthusiasm. The breadth of the principle concealed the narrowness of the party.
And what are its essential principles?
1. First, that the test of true Christianity is LIFE, and not CREEDS. By this principle we unite all hearts who love the spirit better than the form, the essence better than the accident. The mere logical theologian will contend for his creed, but the spiritual Christian feels that there is something deeper and better.
2. Secondly, that Christianity is Rational, and thirdly, that it is Progressive. On the basis of Progress we contend against every attempt to limit and restrain inquiry. On the basis of Reason we contend against everything unintelligible, contradictory, and opposed to the instincts of the soul. So we have these three principles:—
Life, and not Creeds, the essence of Christianity;
Christianity a Reasonable Religion;
Christianity a Progressive Religion.
Standing on this basis of principle, we protested against the Scholastic theology, embalmed in the of the churches. We criticized the Trinity, the Vicarious Atonement, the doctrines of Election, Depravity, and Everlasting Punishment, and those criticisms remain in a great measure unanswered and unanswerable. And this protest has caused the creeds to be greatly modified.
But while this is doing, another movement arises among us. It seems that Unitarianism, too, has its defects. It has omitted certain truths, and this omission has made a third doctrinal movement inevitable. The TRANSCENDENTAL-REFORMATORY movement has come up here, and has taken form in a religious body, the child of Unitarianism, just as Unitarianism was the child of Orthodoxy.
What did Unitarianism omit in its statements. It was everywhere too negative, too critical, too much a system for the understanding, too little a system for the deeper heart. In its piety and its morality it has been equally narrow. It has too much denied the mysterious and incomprehensible; it has too often omitted the communion of the soul with God; and therefore it has been wanting in that deeper enthusiasm growing out of mysterious spiritual experiences. It has made religion too much a matter of expediency, prudence, calculation.
The principles of Unitarianism are positive and real; but the doctrines of Unitarianism are all too negative. Its own doctrines are not fully and forcibly brought out. It is too much a mitigated Orthodoxy. But every denomination, in order to live and advance, must have its own positive view of truth. This is the only justification of its existence as an independent body.
Has Unitarianism such a scheme of positive doctrine? It has,— developed imperfectly, and with not sufficient sharpness, in all its pulpits and writings. It only needs a sharp, clear theological development to make it a system supplementary to Orthodoxy; and in doing this, it would also take back into itself the Transcendental movement.
I can merely hint at this now; a full statement demands a volume. But these are parts of the positive doctrine which is to be developed:-
If man's actual condition involves hereditary and total depravity, his capacity is divine. There is in man's nature, in every man's nature, the seed of an infinite good.
Hence, while he is to be deeply humble in view of actual evil, he is to be greatly hopeful in view of his capacity.
This view has been developed by Dr. Channing, and it is the logical basis of human brotherhood and of all reform movements. It contains in itself the abolition of war, slavery, pauperism, the reform of criminals, and all the means for the suppression of social vices. The secret of the whole is, to regard every man as a true brother on account of the divine capacity now within him, and to treat him as such.
This is the first point of positive Unitarian theology.
The next is, Christ the Man, the Divine Man, — not only the fullness of Godhead, but the fullness of manhood; the type of the race, the prophecy of its future in all things, the first-born of many brethren.
Was he one with God? So shall we all be. Did he work miracles? So shall we all. Did he overcome evil with good? Did he reconcile the world to his Father? So shall we; that shall be our work also.
Did he read the future? Did he understand the present? Is he the Judge of the world? Did he rise on the third day? Did he ascend to heaven, and sit on God's right hand, and yet continue near to the world, advancing the cause of truth and love? In all these things he is our true precursor, elder brother, head. We are to follow him in the regeneration, to be made like him, to be one with God and him, to be filled with the fullness of God, to be partakers of the Divine nature.
Again, the work of Christ is to introduce heaven here, — heaven here first, immortality here first, — and that heaven to consist in love. Not to save the soul into a future heaven, but to save it out of selfishness and sin into life and love. This is the work of Christ.
Now, in making these statements of Unitarianism, I have stated all that is essential also, in my opinion, in the Transcendental movement. Its negations are not its essential part. Its denial of miracles, of the supernatural element in the life of Jesus, of the depravity of man, —these are not the things for which it is received and loved. No, but for its positive side, its claim of a present inspiration, its noble protest against all wrong done to man by man, its true Christian democracy, — these constitute its power. Its power is not in its INFIDELITY, but in its FIDELITY. And there is nothing on its positive side which cannot and ought not to be accepted by, the whole Unitarian body.
Thus our work, Christian friends ministers of Jesus, brother students, opens before us. It is a great and noble work, a work to be done in thought and in action. Our business is the things which make for peace, and things by which we may build up each other. Let us leave to others all destructive controversy. Let us, while we criticize with the utmost freedom, always make criticism subservient to a practical Gospel, negation subordinate to position, denial to assertion. Let us be builders, reconcilers, mediators in the Christian brotherhood. God is with us, and a great field, white for the harvest, before us. If we are faithful to these great opportunities, we shall doubtless come rejoicing, and our sheaves with us. For we have great allies, in human instincts, human reason, the hunger of the immortal soul, the spirit f the age, and the great course and current of Divine
Pardon me for detaining you so long. Pardon me the imperfections of this statement. Accept it as a brother's contribution to the studies dear to us all; and may these hints be soon forgotten in the advancing light and increasing activity of our body in all good thoughts, words, and works.
[Note. — In the discussion which followed the delivery of the foregoing address, certain charges were urged against its contents and its form. It was accused of eclecticism, of being on "all sides of all questions,” of vagueness and "mystical phraseology,” of error in undervaluing the arguments for the being of God, and in declaring the main argument for the personality of God to be derived from the revelation of God in Christ. Also, I was charged with injustice toward Unitarianism in calling it a negative system.
A few words of explanation on these points, therefore, may not be inappropriate here.
The charge of being on "all sides of all questions,” I should be glad to admit, if this were so; for, believing that there is some truth on all sides, I should rejoice in being able to discover it and receive it. But this requires the efforts, not of one, but of many minds. I therefore accept this charge as a proof that my desire of seeing the truths in all systems has been recognized.
The charge of eclecticism, as it was urged and explained, I deny. It was said, that, instead of going to the Gospel to find the truth, I recommended going to different sects, and taking from each whatever opinion seemed agreeable. I recognize the living Church, in all its branches, as the best interpreter of the Gospel. Having taken from the New Testament that which can be seen by my own narrow judgment, and which suits my own peculiar mind, I go to the Christian Church, to find in each part the truths 1vhich I have not been able to discover for myself in the Gospel. Each denomination, each party in the Church, may teach me something. I do not go to them to pick and cull, but to receive whatever truth God has given them to say to me. This is a very different thing from eclecticism.
The charge of vagueness and mysticism I leave to be confuted or established by the address itself.
I recognize the great difficulty connected with the discussion of the evidences of the Divine Being and Existence. I mean here simply to assert that the fact of the Divine Being does not belong to probabilities, but to certainties. It is not something to be proved, but something to be known. The foundation of this knowledge is in ourselves, but it is by experience that it grows into certainty.
I believe that, without the revelation of Jesus, the belief in God tends either to Polytheism or to Pantheism. The Jews were Monotheists by means of what was to them a standing revelation of a Personal Will, and they only retained a conviction of a Divine Personality by faith in a succession of arbitrary acts. God was to them out of nature. But we are able to recognize fully the Divine immanence in nature, and also the personality of God by means of the full personality of Christ, who is in this respect the image of God.
I believe that the objectionable negations of Unitarianism have consisted in their seeming to be negations for the sake of negations, instead of negations for the sake of a new assertion. I think that when we appear to be destroying the old only in order to make a place for the new, the evil of denial ceases.]