John Henry Newman

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter II
Section 2

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John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter II:
The Teaching of the Ante-Nicene Church in Its Relation to the Arian Heresy

Section 2:
The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity

I begin by laying out the matter of evidence for the Catholic Doctrine, as it is found in Scripture; that is, assuming it to be there contained, let us trace out the form in which it has been communicated to us,—the disposition of the phenomena, which imply it, on the face of the Revelation. And here be it observed, in reference to what has already been admitted concerning the obscurity of the inspired documents, that it is nothing to the purpose whether or not we should have been able to draw the following view of the doctrine from them, had it never been suggested to us in the Creeds. For it has been (providentially) so suggested to all of us; and the question is not, what we should have done, had we never had external assistance, but, taking things as we find them, whether, the clue to the meaning of Scripture being given, (as it ever has been given,) we may not deduce the doctrine thence, by as argumentative a process as that which enables us to verify the received theory of gravitation, which perhaps we could never have discovered for ourselves, though possessed of the data from which the inventor drew his conclusions. Indeed, such a state of the case is analogous to that in which the evidence for Natural Religion is presented to us. It is very doubtful, whether the phenomena of the visible world would in themselves have brought us to a knowledge of the Creator; but the universal tradition of His existence has been from the beginning His own comment upon them, graciously preceding the study of the evidence. With this remark I address myself to an arduous undertaking.

First, let it be assumed as agreeable both to reason and revelation, that there are Attributes and Operations, or by whatever more suitable term we designate them, peculiar to the Deity; for instance, creative and preserving power, absolute prescience, moral sovereignty, and the like. These are ever included in our notion of the incommunicable nature of God; and, by a figure of speech, were there occasion for using it, might be called one with God, present, actively co-operating, and exerting their own distinguishing influence, in all His laws, providences, and acts. Thus, if He be eternal, or omnipresent, we consider His knowledge, goodness, and holiness, to be co-eternal and co-extensive with Him. Moreover, it would be an absurdity to form a comparison between these and God Himself; to regard them as numerically distinct from Him; to investigate the particular mode of their existence in the Divine Mind; or to treat them as parts of God, inasmuch as they are all included in the idea of the one Indivisible Godhead. And, lastly, subtle and unmeaning questions might be raised about some of these; for instance, God’s power: whether, that is, it did or did not exist from eternity, on the ground, that bearing a relation to things created, it could not be said to have existence before the era of creation.

Next, it is to be remarked, that the Jewish Scriptures introduce to our notice certain peculiar Attributes or Manifestations (as they would seem) of the Deity, corresponding in some measure to those already mentioned as conveyed to us by Natural Religion, though of a more obscure character. Such is what is called “the Spirit of God”; a phrase which denotes sometimes the Divine energy, sometimes creative or preserving power, sometimes the assemblage of Divine gifts, moral and intellectual, vouchsafed to mankind; having in all cases a general connexion with the notion of the vivifying principle of nature. Such again, is “the Wisdom of God,” as introduced into the book of Proverbs; and such is the “Name,” the “Word,” the “Glory,” of God.

Further, these peculiar Manifestations (to give them a name) are sometimes in the same elder Scriptures singularly invested with the properties of personality; and, although the expressions of the sacred text may in some places be interpreted figuratively, yet there are passages so strangely worded, as at first sight to be inconsistent with themselves, and such as would be ascribed, in an uninspired work, to forgetfulness or inaccuracy in the writer;—as, for instance, when what is first called the Glory of God is subsequently spoken of as an intelligent Agent, often with the characteristics, or even the name of an Angel. On the other hand, it elsewhere occurs, that what is introduced as an Angel, is afterwards described as God Himself.

Now, when we pass on to the New Testament, we find these peculiar Manifestations of the Divine Essence concentrated and fixed in two, called the Word, and the Spirit. At the same time, the apparent Personality ascribed to Them in the Old Testament, is changed for a real Personality, so clearly and explicitly marked as to resist all critical experiments upon the language, all attempts at allegorical interpretation. Here too the Word is also called the Son of God, and appears to possess such strict personal attributes, as to be able voluntarily to descend from heaven, and assume our nature without ceasing to be identically what He was before; so as to speak of Himself, though a man, as one and the same with the Divine Word who existed in the beginning. The Personality of the Spirit in some true and sufficient sense is as accurately revealed; and that the Son is not the Spirit, is also evident from the fixed relations which are described as separating Them from each other in the Divine Essence.

Reviewing this process of revelation, Gregory Nazianzen, somewhat after the manner of the foregoing account, remarks that, as Almighty God has in the course of His dispensations changed the ritual of religion by successive abrogations, so He has changed its theology by continual additions till it has come to perfection. “Under the Old Dispensation,” he proceeds, “the Father was openly revealed, and the Son but obscurely. When the New was given, the Son was manifested, but the Divinity of the Spirit intimated only. Now the Spirit dwells with us, affording us clearer evidence about Himself,…that by gradual additions, and flights, as David says, and by advancing and progressing from glory to glory, the radiance of the Trinity might shine out on those who are illuminated.”

Now from this peculiar method in which the doctrine is unfolded to us in Scripture, we learn so much as this in our contemplation of it; viz. the absurdity, as well as the presumption, of inquiring minutely about the actual relations subsisting between God and His Son and Spirit, and drawing large inferences from what is told us of Them. Whether They are equal to Him or unequal, whether posterior to Him in existence or coeval, such inquiries (though often they must be answered when once started) are in their origin as superfluous as similar questions concerning the Almighty’s relation to His own attributes (which still we answer as far as we can, when asked); for the Son and the Spirit are one with Him, the ideas of number and comparison being excluded. Yet this statement must be qualified from the evidence of Scripture, by two additional remarks. On the one hand, the Son and Spirit are represented to us in the Economy of Revelation, as ministering to God, and as, so far, personally subordinate to Him; and on the other hand, in spite of this personal inequality, yet, as being partakers of the fulness of the Father, they are equal to Him in nature, and in Their claims upon our faith and obedience, as is sufficiently proved by the form of baptism.

The mysteriousness of the doctrine evidently lies in our inability to conceive a sense of the word person, such, as to be more than a mere character, yet less than an individual intelligent being; our own notions, as gathered from our experience of human agents, leading us to consider personality as equivalent, in its very idea, to the unity and independence of the immaterial substance of which it is predicated.

Chapter II
Section 1

Chapter II
Section 3