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The Bible and Explaining It Away

by George Burnap

Excerpted from the University of Michigan Making of America online collection, available free of charge at:

-John xvii. 17.

THE charges against Unitarians which I am this evening to meet and answer are, that they mutilate the Scriptures in some instances, and explain them away in others, in order to sustain their peculiar doctrines. Sometimes it is said, that we do not use the same Bible which is used by the rest of the Christian world. The impression intended to be conveyed by all these representations is, that the Scriptures are so plainly against us that they must be disposed of in some unfair way before our doctrines can be established, and where a text makes against us, we either deny its genuineness, or put some forced and unnatural construction upon it, to make it square with our faith. It is the object of this discourse to examine and confute these charges, to show that we are more zealous than any other sect for the purity of God's word, that where the accusation can be made against us of straining the words of Scripture from their obvious meaning, the same charge may be made a hundred times as often against those who accuse us; that we are never compelled by our system to explain away the Scriptures, but only to explain them; whereas there is hardly a page in the Bible which Trinitarians are not compelled to explain away.

We begin with the integrity of the text. It is not pretended by the advocates of the Trinity that there is one single text in the Bible in which it is plainly taught. There is no such word as Trinity in the Bible, from beginning to end. Such a word was never coined till many ages after the Bible was written. Both the great Reformers, Luther and Calvin, were dissatisfied with it and disapproved of its use. Luther says, "The word Trinity sounds oddly, and is a human invention; it were better to call the Almighty, God, than Trinity." Calvin says he has no objection to its being disused, or "buried," and, in another place:" I like not this prayer, O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity! It savors of barbarism. The word Trinity is barbarous, insipid, profane, a human invention, grounded on no testimony of the word of God."

The Catholics, the most numerous branch of the Christian Church, do not pretend that the doctrine of the Trinity can be proved from the Scriptures. They confess that it is received by their church on the ground of tradition alone. The Protestants, with singular inconsistency, deny tradition, but hold the doctrine of the Trinity, when the foundation upon which the Catholics rested it is taken away. There is only one text in the Bible which expresses any thing like a Trinity, and that is the seventh verse of the fifth chapter of the First Epistle of John: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one." But this text is spurious, and made no part of the original Epistle of John. All scholars, of all parties and sects, who have examined the evidence, have abandoned this text as making no part of the word of God. Still, it is cited and preached from, as being genuine, by clergymen who ought to be acquainted with this fact. Certainly, under these circumstances, we have a right to retort the charge of irreverence to the sacred Scriptures. It is quite as disrespectful to the Scriptures to attempt to interpolate a passage into them of mere human device, as to expunge a passage that is genuine, which the Unitarians have never done.

The New Testament, as you well know, was written in the Greek language, and we have manuscripts of it written more than a thousand years ago. We have translations made from it still earlier into various languages. This verse is not found in any one of them. It is needless to add, that its reception cannot be sustained for a moment. And it seems to be a fact ominous to the cause of Trinitarianism, that the only text to which it can appeal as direct testimony turns out to be a manifest interpolation. How can it be justified for a moment, that a minister of God's truth should stand up and quote this text in proof of the Trinity, without giving any intimation of its being an interpolation?

There is another passage which is often quoted in the Trinitarian controversy, to which no weight ought to be attached. It is found in First Timothy, third chapter, sixteenth verse: "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory." There are no less than three variations of the ancient manuscripts, on which most reliance is placed in settling the text of the New Testament. One reading is, "He who was manifested in the flesh was justified in the spirit. "Another: "Great is the mystery of godliness, which was manifested in the flesh." The other is the common reading: "God was manifested in the flesh." The whole Catholic Church, throughout the world, shows no other reading than, "Great is the mystery of godliness, which was manifested in the flesh," as any of you may easily ascertain by examining a Catholic Bible at the place referred to Sir Isaac Newton, one of the best as well as most learned of men, wrote a distinct treatise to show that the common reading -- "God was manifested in the flesh" -- is a corruption of the text, and was unknown in the churches for the first three hundred years. By the best critics, this reading is rejected, and no honest man, who knows the whole ground, will ever quote this text as having any bearing on the Trinitarian controversy, or quote it at all without noticing the fact, that the reading is so doubtful, that no argument ought to be drawn from it.

There is another passage which is situated in the same way. It is found in the twentieth chapter, twenty-eighth verse, of Acts: "Feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." This reading is of modern origin. The true reading, according to the most ancient manuscripts, is, "Feed the church of the Lord, which he hath purchased with his own blood," referring, of course, to Christ. These three passages of the New Testament are admitted, by the best critical scholars, to be corruptions of the text. All honest men ought to unite in giving them their true character. No honest scholar can allow them to be quoted as of any authority in the Trinitarian controversy. If the doctrine of the Trinity were anywhere plainly taught, then an argument might be allowed some force which was itself doubtful. But to sustain a doubtful doctrine by a text which is itself of doubtful authority, is by no means to be allowed. We do not mutilate the Scripture, then, when we insist that these texts shall be set aside. We are doing all that in us lies to restore it to its primitive integrity.

We now come to the second charge, that we explain away those passages which we do not deny and expunge. That is to say, we put a forced construction on them, and depart from their natural meaning to a degree wholly unjustifiable. Let us examine this matter carefully, and see how it stands. In the first place, I would observe that the Unitarian has very little to explain away. It is not pretended that there is a single text in the Bible in which the doctrine of the Trinity is plainly taught. The Unitarian, then, can have but very little that is really difficult to explain away. It is not pretended that the Trinity is any thing other than a doctrine of inference. An inference may be a mistaken inference, and it is a very different thing to explain away an inference from explaining away a plain, direct, and positive declaration.

Let us try two or three of the strongest Trinitarian texts. The benediction at the close of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians has always been considered as containing one of the strongest arguments for the Trinity: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all." Here, it is said, there are the three persons of the Trinity brought together, and a blessing implored from each of them. In the first place, we observe, that the order is wrong. The Lord Jesus Christ is put first. He is thought to be the second person of the Trinity. And the second person of this Trinity is God, the whole Deity. "The love of GOD." God, the whole Deity, cannot be a person of the Trinity. If the second person of this Trinity is God, the whole Deity, and is connected with Christ and the Holy Ghost by the particle "and," Christ and the Holy Ghost cannot be God at all, by the very terms of the proposition. Instead, then, of being one of the strongest arguments for the Trinity, this passage, when analyzed, is found to be one of the strongest arguments against it. Had the language been, " the love of the Father," then the second clause might have designated a person of the Trinity, according to that hypothesis; but being God, the whole Deity, the second person excludes the other persons, or whatever you may call them, from the Deity altogether.

In giving this analysis, you perceive, we do not explain away the Scripture. We simply explain it, and show its true meaning; and, in doing so, we explain away the argument which it is thought to contain in favor of the Trinity.

Let us now take up the introduction to the Gospel of John. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." This is considered as one of the principal proof-texts of the Trinity, which the Unitarian must use much ingenuity to explain away. But it teaches no Trinity. The word "God" occurs three times in it, but with no intimation of any plurality in the Divine nature. The word "God" comprehends here, as it does in other cases, the whole Deity. What, then, is affirmed? That the Word was with God and was God. The first question to settle is, Is the Word represented as a person? "The Word" is not a proper name, not the name of a person, but of a thing. But let us understand it as a person, the second person of the Trinity. "In the beginning was the second person of the Trinity, and the second person of the Trinity was with God, and the second person of the Trinity was God." This becomes a contradiction in terms. The second person of the Trinity could not be with GOD, for he must then have been a person of the very God with whom he was. The very words of this passage, then, instead of sustaining the doctrine of the Trinity, contradict it. There is no Trinitarian argument, therefore, in the passage to explain away.

In order to understand it, we must find out what is meant by the term "Word" How is God represented as making the world? By his word. He said," Let there be light, and there was light." But a little reflection will convince us that this is a figurative expression. Literally interpreted, it would teach that God spoke through human organs, which would involve the supposition that God is material. Commands are addressed to human or intelligent beings, and not to inanimate matter. The Scripture does not mean to say that God created the universe by speaking, when it says, "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth"; but merely to represent the exertion of God's creative power under a human similitude. The term "Word," therefore, represents those attributes of God which were exerted in the creation, his wisdom and power. Through them God created the world. By the "Word," then, in this sense of God's wisdom and power, which after all are nothing else or different from God himself, all things were made.

The same attributes of wisdom and power gave being to the human soul, and when it was created gave it intelligence and will. "In it was life, and the life was the light of men." The same sense is expressed in other words: "The inspiration of the Almighty hath given him understanding." It was the same which gave inspiration to the prophets of the Old Testament. But it was especially manifest in Jesus Christ, inasmuch that in him it became incarnate. Divine power and wisdom came and dwelt among us in human form. Such full communications of Divine power and wisdom did Jesus enjoy, that he seemed to the beholders to be the peculiar favorite of Heaven, to be in such favor as an only son is with his father. And he made as much more perfect a revelation to men, as his communion with God seemed more near and intimate," For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." That there was no personal manifestation of God appears by what comes after. "No man hath seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

"God" and "Father" are here used as synonymous expressions. To be in the bosom of another is not to share his nature, but his confidence. The Son, as the second person of the Trinity, could not derive his superior knowledge of God from the fact that he was in the bosom of God, for he must have been that very God in whose bosom he was. There is no Trinitarianism, then, in this passage. It is not said that God is three in any sense. The term "Father" is used as applied to God, and it means, not a person of a trinity, but the whole Deity, and is synonymous with the word "God." The term "Son" is applied to Christ, but not as a person of the Trinity, but as a person deriving superior knowledge of God from the fullness of the communications which he had received from the whole Deity. All that is asserted in it, when analyzed, amounts to this: that, through Christ, God made the most perfect revelation of himself that had ever been given to man, more perfect than in physical nature, more perfect than in the human soul, and more perfect than in the Mosaic dispensation.

This is the natural exposition of the whole passage, when considered part by part. This is explaining Scripture, not explaining it away. Any other explanation introduces confusion into theology and into humanity, besides being forced upon the language of the Scriptures.

Another passage, which is thought most explicitly to teach the Trinity, is the form of baptism. Baptizing them "in the name," or rather into the name, "of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Here at least, it is said, are the three persons of the Trinity made all equal, and the disciples are commanded to be baptized into the name of them all. Here is a trinity asserted, and no amount of ingenuity can explain it away. But you note that it is not asserted that each one of these is God, or that they all three are one God. There is, then, no trinity of persons asserted, and of course there is none to explain away. The doctrine of the Trinity is an inference, then, as far as this passage is concerned, and it is a human, fallible inference, and may not be a true inference.

Baptism, in the time of Christ and his Apostles, was a form of public profession. John's baptism was a baptism into repentance, or a profession of repentance, in anticipation of the advent of Christ. To be baptized into Christ, or into Christianity, was to be baptized into a profession of belief in Jesus as the true Messiah. Such was the case with the Jews in their baptism, it is not probable that any more than the name of Jesus was used, as Peter says to them, on the day of Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Then they which gladly received the word were baptized."

Now, if we consider the form of baptism to relate entirely to the Divine nature, to what will it amount? That God exists in three persons, that one of these persons is son to the other, and the other person is called the Holy Ghost. The form of baptism, under this view of it, is a mere abstract proposition, as to the mode of the Divine existence. It has no relation to the Christian religion, nor to our salvation. It is a mere metaphysical theory, and a theory itself embarrassed with insuperable difficulties.

But interpreting the sonship of Christ of his office, his being sent of God, and the Holy Ghost as the seal of his mission, then the form of baptism becomes significant. It becomes a declaration of belief in God as the true God, in Jesus as having been sent and commissioned by him to promulgate and establish Christianity, and in those miraculous events ascribed to the Holy Ghost, by which Christianity was established in the earth.

To this exposition there are no metaphysical objections, no mysterious and incomprehensible Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity. It explains the Bible, and does not explain it away; for it is not pretended that the doctrine of the Trinity is positively asserted, or that it is any thing more than an inference from the form of baptism. If the doctrine of the Trinity were anywhere plainly asserted, then an objection might lie against Unitarianism as explaining away the Bible. All it has to do is to explain away an inference which fallible men have drawn from certain parts of the Scriptures, and which inference in itself involves inconsistencies and contradictions.

Perhaps the nearest approach which the Unitarian makes to being obnoxious to the charge of explaining away the Scriptures is in his exposition of Thomas's exclamation, recorded in the twentieth chapter of John. "And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God." Here the appellation "God" is applied to Christ. The question between the Unitarian and the Trinitarian is, What did Thomas mean by it? Did he mean to recognize Jesus as the Jehovah of the Jews, the Creator and Sovereign of the universe? or did he mean to apply the appellation "God" to him as the Jews did the same appellation to kings and magistrates, as a title of the highest respect? Or was it merely an exclamation of surprise which escaped his lips in a moment of sudden transport, and not intended as a logical affirmation of any proposition in regard to Christ's nature?

Most Unitarians adopt the second explanation. The word "God " in the Bible is not exclusively appropriated to Jehovah. It is likewise applied to kings and magistrates. " God standeth in the congregation of the mighty, he judgeth among the Gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked?" "I have said, Ye are Gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and perish like one of the people." In a psalm composed in honor of one of the reigning monarchs of Israel, the writer speaks thus: "My heart is indicting a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer. Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever." "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever, the scepter of thy kingdom is a right scepter. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows." This passage is quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews and applied to Christ. It must be applied to Christ, then, not in his divine nature, but his Messianic dignity, for in it is contained this expression: "Therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows." Christ, in his divine nature, cannot have a God, cannot be exalted, cannot have fellows. Thomas, then, may have applied the epithet "God" to Christ in the same sense, not meaning to address him as Jehovah, but as one whom Jehovah had exalted to the highest dignity.

The circumstances which determine my mind to this interpretation are these. The point at issue between Thomas and his fellow-disciples was not the Deity of Jesus, but whether he were risen from the dead. "But Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples, therefore, said unto him, We have seen the Lord." That the disciples had seen Jesus was no evidence that he was Jehovah, "whom no man hath seen, or can see," but only that he had risen from the dead. "But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." This evidence was given him. He saw and felt, he had the concurrent testimony of two of his senses -- to what? that Jesus was Jehovah? Jehovah can neither be touched nor seen. No; but that Jesus was risen from the dead, and of consequence must be the true Messiah. His words, then, are to be interpreted as an exclamation of satisfaction as to the point upon which he had doubted, that his Master was risen from the dead. And putting any meaning upon this passage, it does not assert that God is three in any sense, and leaves the Unitarian nothing to explain away.

What John, who was a witness to this transaction, considered to be proved by it, is evident from the next verse but one: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, that ye might believe," -- what? -- that Jesus is God? No; but "that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name." To believe in Jesus as the Christ is to believe, not that he is God, but the anointed of God. The phrase "Son of God," is merely a synonym for "Messiah."

But the Trinitarian has an infinitely harder task before him. He has something to explain away. The doctrine of the unity of God is not a doctrine of inference. It is directly asserted over and over, and there is scarcely a page of the Bible on which it is not either expressed or taken for granted. The Trinitarian, in order to sustain his creed, has all these texts, not only to explain, but to explain away.

The word "God" occurs more than two thousand times in the Old Testament, and nowhere with any intimations of a trinity of persons in his nature. All these texts are arguments for the unity of God, and must by the Trinitarian be explained away. One of the chief precepts written down in the book of the law was, "Jehovah, our God, Jehovah is one." Here is a positive affirmation of the unity of God, in the most absolute sense. This is not only to be explained, but explained away. And the explanation that is usually given of it is, that it is not intended to contradict the idea that there may be three persons in God, but only that there is one God, in opposition to the many gods of the heathen.

But there is another text, indeed, many other texts, in which a trinity of persons is equally contradicted. In the bush, God gives his name as "I AM," and tells Moses to say to the children of Israel, " I Am hath sent me." If there were three persons in God, is there any possible way in which the God of truth could have so effectually misled Moses and the Israelites as to the unity or plurality of the Divine nature, if he really were a trinity of persons, as in the use of such language as this, designating his very essence by the name, "I AM"?

Accordingly, neither Moses nor the Jews ever had the least conception of a trinity of persons in God, from that day to this.

We now come down to the New Testament. Did Jesus teach any new doctrine with respect to the Divine nature? He made the unity of God the foundation-stone of his religion, as Moses had done of his. He quotes the very words of Moses: "The first of all the commandments is, Jehovah, your God, Jehovah is one." This passage must not only be explained, but explained away, before there can be any room to prove the Trinity. Here is a positive assertion, by Christ himself, of the unity of God. To explain away a positive assertion is a very different thing from explaining away a mere inference.

Christ prayed, and often. But then, to explain that recorded fact, it is said that he prayed in his human nature. We answer, that it is mere assumption to imagine that he had two natures. Such a fact is nowhere stated in. the Bible, and cannot be assumed till it is proved. But if he taught a trinity, and knew that a trinity existed, if he prayed in his human nature, he ought to have prayed to a trinity. But he never prayed to a trinity.

In order to make the Bible bear a Trinitarian explanation, another hypothesis is invented, that the word "Father," when applied to God, sometimes means the first person of a trinity, and sometimes the whole Deity. But that hypothesis, too, ought first to be proved before it is used. At least, one passage ought to be shown in which the word "Father" means the first person of a trinity, for the moment it is allowed that the words "God" and "Father" are coextensive in the New Testament, the doctrine of the Trinity is abandoned.

Let us try a few passages. To the woman of Samaria Christ said, "the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship THE FATHER in spirit and in truth. GOD is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." Here "God " and "Father" are used as equal and coextensive terms. If the term "Father" be taken to mean the first person of a trinity, then it would follow that the first person only is an object of worship. "No man hath seen GOD at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of THE FATHER, he hath declared him." Here the word "him" refers to God, whom no one hath seen, and "Father" is coextensive with "God." The second person of a trinity cannot be in the bosom of the first, and thus derive his knowledge from him, for they are equal and the same. Such phraseology as this, so far from being an argument in favor of the Trinity, and requiring of the Unitarian to be explained away, contains a strong argument for the unity of God, and therefore must be explained away by the Trinitarian before his hypothesis can be received.

The Lord's prayer contains a strong argument for the Unitarian faith: "Our Father which art in heaven." "Father" here either stands for the whole Deity, or it authorizes us to worship only the first person of the Trinity. If it is conceded that it comprehends the whole Deity, then it must be admitted, that in order to sustain the doctrine of the Trinity, the meaning of the term "Father" must be shifted to meet circumstances -- sometimes be taken to mean the first person of a trinity, and sometimes the whole Deity. Such a mode of interpretation does not suit the dignity of the word of God. With these considerations in our minds, let us go to Christ's last prayer with his disciples: "Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee. As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." Here there can be no doubt that the term "Father" embraces the whole Deity, for he calls him "the only true God." If the Father is the only true God, then the term "Father" either includes the Son and Holy Ghost, or shuts them out of Deity altogether. Christ prayed either in his human or his divine nature. If he prayed in his divine nature, then his divine nature was not God; for he prays to the only true God to glorify him with the glory that he had with him before the world was. One equal person of a trinity could not have received glory from the only true God before the world was. If he did not pray in his divine nature, he prayed in his human nature, and applied the term "Son" to his human nature: -- "Glorify thy Son," -- afterwards, "Glorify me." If the title "Son" is applied to his human nature here, it may be in every case, and thus be no argument for the Trinity anywhere. If the term "Father," when applied to God, here embraces the whole Deity, it may in every case, and the doctrine of the Trinity falls in pieces by the simple analysis of the terms in which it is expressed.  So in this case, as in every other, the Unitarian is not obliged to explain away the Bible, but only to explain it, and that very explanation explains away the Trinity.

There are hosts of passages equally strong. "There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." It is impossible to explain this away. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." A person of the Trinity cannot have a God. But this passage affirms that the Lord Jesus Christ not only has a Father, but a God.

Another is found in the first chapter of the Apocalypse: "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him." The advocates of the Trinity have never been able to give a satisfactory exposition of this passage. There are two difficulties, either of which is insurmountable. One is, that this revelation is represented as having been given to Christ years after his ascension and exaltation to heaven. If Christ were God, or an equal person of the Trinity, no such revelation could possibly have been made to him, for he must have been essentially omniscient.

The other difficulty is, that the revelation is made to Jesus Christ by God; not by the Father, but by GOD, the whole Trinity. Jesus Christ, then, is shut out of Deity, both by the facts related and by the language used; by his receiving a revelation at all, and his receiving it from GOD, the undivided Deity. Here the usual resort to the distinction between the human and divine nature of Christ will not avail.

Professor Stuart of Andover tells us that Christ, though exalted to heaven, will be a dependent being in his mediatorial capacity till the consummation of all things. But this, to my mind, is no explanation how omniscience can be assumed and laid aside at pleasure, or can be conferred and recalled, since it must be an essential and inherent attribute, or not be possessed at all.

There is another passage, which has given the defenders of the Trinity greater trouble, and has never yet found a satisfactory solution. It is found in the thirteenth chapter of Mark: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only." Here omniscience is expressly denied of the " Son." Without some explanation, this passage is fatal to the doctrine of the Trinity, and to the Deity of Christ. In order to evade the force of it, Trinitarians give two explanations. One is, that Christ says this of his human nature, and does not mean to deny omniscience to his divine nature. This, however, would bear hard on his veracity and plain-dealing. It would admit that the title "Son," when used of Christ in connection with the title "Father" when applied to God, means nothing more than his human nature. And this would greatly weaken the force of the argument derived from the form of baptism," Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son." That it is applied to him in his highest capacity would seem to he intimated by the climax, in which Christ is put between the angels in heaven and God.

The other exposition is, that Christ did not know when the day of judgment or the destruction of Jerusalem was to be, in the sense of not being commissioned to make it known. But philologists have sought in vain, in all Greek literature, for a single instance of the use of the word here rendered "knoweth" with any such meaning. This text, therefore, must remain as it is, wholly incapable of any explanation consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity. It cannot be explained away.

I trust that I have now sufficiently answered the charge made against Unitarians, of mutilating and explaining away the Scriptures. I have shown that the Unitarian has very little to explain away. The Trinitarian, on the other hand, has the current language of the Bible against him, and many passages of which no satisfactory explanation has ever been given.

2003 American Unitarian Conference