"Deficiencies of Unitarian Theology” [Published as CLAIMS OF THE NEW CHURCH UPON UNITARIANS: A FRAGMENT.]
Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Jersey City, NJ
Berry Street Essay, 1858
Read before the Ministerial Conference in Berry Street held at
Bedford Street, Boston
May 26, 1858
[This piece was published anonymously, but the note upon original publication says it is "from one of our most respected Unitarian preachers and scholars, and will not fail to interest the readers of the Magazine. It was originally read before an Association of Unitarian Ministers." The topic, like the title we know from other sources for this essay, is deficiencies of Unitarian Theology. While we cannot be certain that this is Frothingham's essay, it is consistent with other references he made to Swedenborgian theology. It will of course be withdrawn if a better candidate for this essay is discovered. - Paul Sprecher]
So large a subject as the evidences for the truth and authority of that system of Christianity entitled the New Church by its adherents, but popularly known as Swedenborgianism, must not be expected to be discussed in these few pages. I am to confine myself now to the special claims which this system seems to me to have upon Unitarians,— claims which at least demand a candid hearing, though they should not win a cordial assent. The interest which the doctrines of the New Church have already excited among Unitarians is well known to have been deep and wide, in some cases leading to an open avowal of belief in these doctrines, in others simply modifying the opinions which they had previously held. And may we not reasonably infer from this, that there is some peculiar preparation in Unitarianism for the reception of New Church views, if not even some special affinity between the one and the other? Such an inference my own experience and observation have led me to make, and therefore I name it as the first of the reasons why the New Church has claims upon Unitarians.
1. Because it has so many points of agreement with them. It asserts, for example, as strenuously as they have asserted, the simple, undivided unity of God, in opposition to any tripersonality whatever. Hence, in the strict etymological meaning of the word, "Swedenborgians” are Unitarians. The writings of the New Church repeatedly declare, that the belief in a tripersonal God is and can be nothing less than tritheism, however earnestly such a term may be repudiated; and they insist that the foundation of true religion is, that God is one. It is true that these writings also affirm a trinity in the Divine nature. They represent that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are names for three essential distinctions, or, as they phrase it, "three distinct essentials” in one Divine Person; comparing it to the trinity in man, of body, spirit, and the operation or action proceeding from these two. Love, Wisdom, and Power are other forms of expressing the same truth. That there is nothing in this doctrine repugnant to Unitarianism is sufficiently evident from the fact that many of late years who call themselves Unitarians have held views differing scarcely any, if at all, from these; though it is at the same time true, that the majority of the Unitarian denomination would probably object to what they would consider too mystical or philosophical a view of God. Again, there is an agreement between Unitarians and the New Church in the rejection of the doctrine of a vicarious atonement. Both alike believe that there was no Divine wrath to be appeased, or offended justice to be vindicated, by the death of Christ; that it was man, not God, who needed to be reconciled; that there is no obstacle but personal transgression to a full and entire pardon of the sinner; and both alike dissent from the Calvinism which lays such peculiar stress upon the death of the Saviour, as distinguished from his life. The New Church holds it to be strictly true, that man was made in the image of God, and that therefore justice in God must be the same quality as in man, only that in God it must be infinitely pure. Has anything been more comprehensively and admirably said by any Unitarian upon this subject, than the following passage which I find in a writer of the New Church? "Justice in man consists,” says he, "not in enforcing to the utmost every demand which we may have against others, but in answering faithfully every demand which they may have upon us. So justice in the Lord consists, not in being ‘extreme to mark what is done amiss,’ and to levy punishment for it, but in a readiness to do everything which Infinite Goodness can do for the benefit of his creatures, and to supply man with the means of salvation.” Again, I find an agreement between the New Church and the Unitarians in that both put charity before faith, and emphatically renounce the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Against no error of the Church, perhaps, is Swedenborg so severe, as against this dogma. It is to him the very "abomination of desolation,” — enough of itself to bring to destruction any church which should maintain it, — full of all manner of practical evils of the worst kind. And surely we shall agree with him, that whatever tends to degrade charity, or true love to our neighbor, is fatally opposed to all spiritual life. Once more, there is an essential accordance between the New Church and the Unitarian views of retribution. Both alike assert that retribution is never arbitrary or vindictive, but is the operation of certain fixed and irrevocable spiritual laws; that man makes his own hell or his own heaven, both here and hereafter; that there is no place of torment created for the purpose of future punishment, still less that there are any beings called devils who were created full of malice and wickedness; but that hell and heaven are spiritual states, not to be conceived as existing in any special locality; and none are now devils but those who were once men. The Lord makes every one just as happy as he is capable of being made without violation of his free will; and hell itself would exist no longer, if those who are in it were only willing to live the life of heaven. Such I understand to be the teaching of Swedenborg upon this vital subject. Is it not essentially in agreement with the doctrine of all who are called Liberal Christians? And can there be an agreement of a more practical character than this? But finally it should be noted, how close the affinity between these two Christian bodies in respect to what the New Church calls the Doctrine of Life. They equally regard a man’s living as the test of his believing. They equally abhor all pretended substitutes for a pure and holy life. They strikingly resemble each other in the approval of recreations and amusements and natural cheerfulness, as opposed to the asceticism which has so long been associated with the saintly character. Swedenborg’s saints do not wear long faces, or speak in sepulchral tones, or refuse to mix with "worldly” people, or reject all worldly occupations. Far from it. "The life of religion is to do good,” — that is one of the most prominent maxims of the New Church; and nowhere else, I believe, is it so consistently and uniformly maintained. The ritual of religion, the forms and ordinances of an outward service, are by no means undervalued in that communion; but they are distinctly and repeatedly declared to be subordinate to spiritual worship,—the allegiance and the homage manifested in daily life. The thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians is a marked anticipation of the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.
2. But I must pass to the second division of my essay. No religious system can have claims upon the attention and investigation of those who stand outside of it merely on the ground of resemblances. These have been mentioned simply to show how much affinity already exists between Unitarians and the New Church, with the hope that this may lead to a more intimate acquaintance. Let it be said further, then, that the New Church seems to me to supply, as no other system can, some of the peculiar deficiencies of the Unitarian theology as generally recognized. Such a statement, of course, would have no influence upon those who do not admit that these deficiencies exist. But I have supposed that few religious bodies were more ready to make this admission than the Unitarians. They have not usually regarded themselves as having already attained to the full truth, but as inquirers after the truth; and the introspection, and self-criticism, and sensitiveness, which have been so characteristic of the denomination, encourage one to think that there is peculiar openness here for new and rational and Scriptural doctrines. To illustrate this, let us take, for our first instance, the doctrine concerning Christ. If there are any among the Unitarians who are perfectly satisfied with that view of him which makes him to have been simply a remarkable "religions genius,” — a man, and nothing more than man, — who, by his own innate spiritual force, rose to that unparalleled height which he now occupies in the thought of the world, — then indeed it were vain to point out to these the peculiar excellence of the New Church doctrine of the Lord. They who maintain the opinion here referred to occupy an entirely clear and intelligible ground. But we know that there are many minds among the Unitarians who reject this view most emphatically, as leading to rationalism and deism; and these minds, while they cannot accept an Orthodox Trinity or a Calvinistic Atonement, yet cling to the conviction that Christ is somehow divine. They cannot think him simply a man, however richly endowed. They find evidence in his life and in his Church, that he sustained a relation to the Father of Spirits such as no mere man ever did sustain. And if I should try to give utterance to the question which haunts some of these inquirers at the present time, it would be in such form as this: How can I believe, consistently, logically, Scripturally, in the Divinity of Christ, and yet not believe him to be "very God”? Where, in other words, shall the line be drawn between Divinity and Deity,— yet so as not to ascribe divinity to Christ in that inferior sense in which we call every being divine that proceeds from God. I know that some are impatient of "lines,” and of all exactness. They consider it degrading the subject to define it. But should it not be the effort of every rational mind to use all language with as much precision as the case will allow? Can it be denied that clearness is better than confusion? And does not the reluctance to a more exact statement upon this great theme proceed sometimes from a fear of the logical consequences of pushing on the inquiry, or at least from an unjustifiable intellectual indolence? It does seem to me a most unworthy fear, in the present age of the world, that piety or faith will suffer by the most scientific exactness which can be given to religious truths. Vagueness may have been once available for devotion; now, the more light, the more love. Now the Church of the New Jerusalem does, it seems to me, offer a solution of this great problem, which claims at least our most careful consideration. It affirms Jesus Christ to be the revealed God. Its doctrine is, that God in his interior essence and nature as unknowable and unapproachable, — no proper object of faith or worship; but that when the fulness of time had come, it pleased him to be incarnated in a human form, — to be born into our world as a man, in every respect; — that he could not, conformably to the conditions of humanity, be at once manifested in all his fulness; but by degrees, as the human became "glorified,” the divine shone out more conspicuously, till, by the resurrection and ascension, the divine and the human were made entirely one. I aim here at the greatest conciseness of statement consistent with any tolerable clearness; for pages would not suffice to present the doctrine in so full a manner as to answer all the objections which at once come up. One only objection I wish to anticipate, — or rather let me say that this doctrine of the New Church does already anticipate and answer an objection made to the strict and proper divinity of Christ; namely, that, according to the obvious sense of the New Testament, Jesus speaks of the Father as a being distinct from himself and superior to himself. The fact is undeniable; the explanation of the New Church is, that the appearance of distinctness and subordination arose from the gradual nature of the process of "glorification.” Jesus, while living in this world, spoke (sometimes, at least) as though he were not God; because the human nature, in which the Divine revealed itself, was not yet fully assimilated to the Divine, —was not yet (if I may so express it) pliant and expressive of God. When he said, "My Father is greater than I,” he referred to this uncompleted union. When he said, "I and my Father are one,” he recognized the unity as complete and entire.
Leaving now this absolutely exhaustless subject, let me mention next a still more striking instance of a deficiency in the system called Unitarianism, which the New Church seems to me to supply. I refer to its absence of any pneumatology. Most Unitarians evidently have no definite belief in regard to angels and spirits, — whether clothed in flesh or unclothed, — and therefore no positive ideas concerning the nature of the life after death. What is more remarkable, they do not care to have any; they hold it to be only superstition and self-delusion which can pretend to any knowledge of the future world. A self-satisfied ignorance or unbelief I should not seek to invade; but there can be few who are not sometimes visited with longings for a clearer insight into the spiritual world, its laws and modes of existence. Swedenborg professes to unveil those laws. He professes to have "seen and heard” spirits in that world who once were inhabitants of this, and to have had authority from the Lord to declare what was thus heard and seen. Now there is one thing about these revelations which I wish to remind you of: that many persons have accepted them as substantially true, who were not prepared to admit Swedenborg’s full claims as an interpreter of divine things. They accepted them because of their wonderful and beautiful accordance with the known laws and facts of our spiritual nature. What was professedly revealed by authority was seen by these persons intuitively; precisely as one who goes into a foreign country, and brings home an account of it, makes his account credible to us because we find by it that human nature is essentially the same there as here. The New Church does not in these respects contradict anything which Unitarians have taught; but it wonderfully supplies what they did not pretend to know. If it is still asked, "How do we know that these things are true?” my answer would be, "Read and understand.” The more we read, the more shall we be convinced that Swedenborg, for some specific purpose, was permitted to declare things hitherto unknown, relating to the spiritual life and the spiritual world. I am persuaded that one who should read his writings without any prejudice or prepossession would be amazed at the self-evident character of the knowledge they impart, and would feel that where he cannot understand, he must still defer to so wonderful a person, of whom we may almost say with reverence, "Come, see a man who told me all things that ever I did.”
Finally, — for I have only space to select here and there, — let me adduce one other instance of a deficiency in Unitarianism which is supplied by Swedenborg, namely, by his doctrine concerning the Scriptures. It will hardly be questioned that the tendency of the "Liberal school,” so called, is to a depreciation of the strictly divine authority of the Bible, or of any part of it. Inspiration among most Unitarians has hardly any distinctive and preeminent meaning, as applied to the sacred volume; and the more conservative of the denomination seem to me sadly in want of some rational ground on which they can maintain themselves against a lapse into extreme naturalism. Between Andrews Norton and Theodore Parker I am unable to see any radical difference, so far as their views of the Scriptures are concerned. They agree with each other, and with hundreds, not to say thousands, of the "Liberal” body, in rejecting, almost with scorn, any thought of "plenary” or verbal inspiration. They therefore take away all that could justify us in calling the Bible strictly the Word of God. They leave us a book of more or less authentic history, poetry, prophecy, and ethics; but wholly inadequate to settle definitely any great questions of theology or religion. Far different is the New Church doctrine. It holds that those parts of the Bible which are truly God’s word are known to be such by having an internal or spiritual sense beneath the letter; and that in some places, (particularly in the first eleven chapters of Genesis,) this spiritual sense alone is intended to be conveyed,— the account of the creation, e. g., not being true in the literal sense,— not intended, therefore, to describe the natural creation, but only the spiritual. It does not deny that in other places a true history and valuable lessons of faith and life are given by the literal meaning of the sacred books; but it holds this quite subordinate to the deeper sense, which was intended not for Jew or Gentile alone, but for all time,— nay, for men in the spiritual world too. Swedenborg is indeed the authority for taking this view; but it is claimed that an enlightened reason also confirms it, and makes it indispensable to a true reconciliation of science and faith. I cannot pretend even to indicate the course of argument by which this is sustained. But allow me to quote here from one of the most learned, intelligent, and truly liberal men of the New Church, Dr. Wilkinson of London, who seems to me, in a few words, to have admirably put the case in regard to the Biblical critics: "If it be found that Christianity is the theory of the world; that the Divine Man is Lord of the sciences; that the Biblical revelation is the truth of truths, which opens a Shekinah of light to the later races more than to the first; that the Gospel alone can rule the nations with a rod of iron;— then the finding of this from age to age will sufficiently conserve the text against the stings of the Straussian school. The more so, because if their principles of criticism first, and faith afterwards, were admitted, the result must be atheistic confusion. For if, on account of what contradicts our notions of convenience in Scripture, the Bible be untrue, then for the same reason nature, being full of contradictory essences, tigers and lambs, men and vermin, is no work of God; but a single flea is enough to trip over the nature-textuary into the abysses of denial. The armor of these greatest truths is not, however, so ill-jointed as to let in such lances. It demands that the critic shall try his criticism by not only accounting for, but ruling, the world. If he cannot do these two things, his rack of texts proves as good as nothing.”
 This article is from one of our most respected Unitarian preachers and scholars, and will not fail to interest the readers of the Magazine. It was originally read before an Association of Unitarian Ministers.—Ed. [Original footnote], from
The Monthly Religious Magazine and Independent Journal, Vol. XXIII, ed. Rev. E.H. Sears and Rev. Rufus Ellis, pp. 306-314.