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CALVINISTIC AND SOCINIAN
INTRODUCTION AND GENERAL REMARKS.
Christian Brethren, Much has been written of late years on the Socinian controversy; so much, that the attention of the Christian world has, to a considerable degree, been drawn towards it.
There is no reason, however, for considering this circumstance as a matter of wonder, or regret. Not of wonder : for supposing the deity and atonement of Christ to be divine truths, they are of such importance in the Christian scheme, as to induce the adversaries of the gospel to bend their main force against them, as against the rock on which Christ hath built his church. Not of regret: for, whatever partial evils
may arise from a full discussion of a subject, the interests of truth will, doubtless, in the end prevail ; and the prevalence of truth is a good that will outweigh all the ills that may have attended its discovery. Controversy engages a number of persons of different talents and turns of mind; and, by this means, the subject is likely to be considered in every view in which it is capable of being exhibited to advantage.
The point of light in which the subject will be considered in these letters, namely, as influencing the heart and life, has been frequently glanced at on both sides. I do not recollect, bowever, to have seen this view of it, professedly and separately handled.
In the great controversy in the time of Elijah, recourse was had to an expedient by which the question was decided. Each party built an altar, cut in pieces a bullock, and laid the victim upon the wood, but put no fire under; and the God that should answer by fire, was to be acknowledged as the true God. We cannot bring our controversies to such a criterion as this : we may bring them to one, however, which, though not so suddenly, is not much less sensibly evident. The tempers and lives of men are books for common people to read; and they will read them, even though they should read nothing else. They are, indeed, warranted by the scriptures themselves to judge of the nature of doctrines, by their holy or unholy tendency. The true gospel is to be known by its being a doctrine according to godliness ; teaching those who embrace it to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously and godly in the present world Those, on the other hand, who believe not the truth, are said to have pleasure in unrighteousness. Profane and vain babblings, as the ministrations of false teachers are called, will increase unto more ungodliness ; and their word will eat as doth a canker. * To this
may be added, that the parties themselves, engaged in this controversy, have virtually acknowledged the justice and importance of the above criterion ; in that both sides have incidentally endeavoured to avail themselves of it. A criterion, then, by which the common people will judge, by which the scripture authorises them to judge, and by which both sides, in effect, agree to be judged, cannot but be wortby of particular attention.
I feel, for my own part, satisfied, not only of the truth and importance of the doctrines in question, but also of their holy tendency. I am aware, however, that others think differently; and that a considerable part of what I have to advance must be on the defensive.
“Admitting the truth," says Dr. Priestly, “of a trinity of persons in the Godhead, original sin, arbitrary predestination, atonement by the death of Christ, and the plenary inspiration of the scriptures; their value, estimated by their influence on the morals of men, cannot be supposed, even by the admirers of them, to be of any moment, compared to the doctrine of the resurrection of the human race to a life of retribution : and, in the opinion of those who reject them, they have a very unfavourable tendency; giving wrong impressions concerning the character and moral government of God, and such as might tend, if they have any effect, to relax the obligations of virtue."*
* 1 Tim. vi. 3.
Titus ii. 12.
2 Thes. ii. 2.
1 Tim. ii. 16, 17.
In many instances Dr. Priestly deserves applause for his frank: ness and fairness as a disputant: in this passage, however, as well, as in some others, the admirers of the doctrines he mentions are unfairly represented. They who embrace the other doctrines, are supposed to hold that of arbitrary predestination ; but this suppotion is not true. The term arbitrary conveys the idea of caprice; and, in this connexion denotes, that, in predestination, according to the Calvinistic notion of it, God resolves upon the fates of men, and appoints them to this or that, without any reason for so doing. But there is no justice in this representation. There is no decree in the divine mind that we consider as void of reason. Predestination to death is on account of sin; and as to predestination to life, though it be not on account of any works of righteousness which we have done, yet it does not follow that God has no reason whatever for what he does. The sovereignty of God is a wise, and not a capricious sovereignty. If he hide the glory of the gospel from the wise and prudent, and reveal it unto babes, is because it seemeth good in his sight. But if it seem good in the sight of God, it must, all things considered, be good; for the judg. ment of God is according to truth.
It is asserted also, that the admirers of the forementioned doctrines cannot, and do not, consider them as of equal importance with that of the resurrection of the human race to a life of retribution. But this, I am satisfied, is not the case : for, whatever Dr. Priestly may think, they consider them, or at least some of them, as essential to true holiness; and of such consequence, even to the doctrine of the resurrection of the human race to a life of retribution, that, without them, such a resurrection would be a curse to mankind, rather than a blessing.
* Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever Part II, p. 33. 35.
There is one thing, however, in the above passage, wherein we all unite ; and this is—that the value or importance of religious principles is to be estimated by their influence on the morals of men. By this rule let the forementioned doctrines, with their opposites, be tried. If either those or these will not abide the trial, they ought to be rejected.
Before we enter upon a particular examination of the subject, however, I would make three or four general observations.
First, Whatever Dr. Priestly or any others have said of the immoral tendency of our principles, I am persuaded that I may take it for granted, they do not mean to suggest, that we are not good members of civil society, or worthy of the most perfect toleration in the state ; nor have I any such meaning in what may be suggested concerning theirs. I do not know any religious denomination of men, who are unworthy of civil protection. So long as their practices do not disturb the peace of society, and there be nothing in their avowed principles inconsistent with their giving security for their good behavior, they, doubtless, ought to be protected in the enjoyment of every civil right to which their fellowcitizens at large are entitled.
Secondly, It is not the bad conduct of a few individuals, ip any denomination of Christians, that proves any thing on either side; even though they may be zealous advocates for the peculiar tenets of the party which they espouse. It is the conduct of the general body, from which we ought to form our estimate. That there are men of bad character who attend on our preaching, is not denied ; perhaps, some of the worst : but if it be so, it proves nothing to the dishonour of our principles. Those, who, in the first ages of Christianity, were not humbled by the gospel, were generally hardened by it. Nay, were it allowed that we have a greater number of hypocrites than the Socinians, (as it has been insinuated that the hypocrisy and preciseness, of some people afford matter of just disgust to speculative Unitarians,) I do not think this supposition, any more than the other, dishonourable to our principles. The defect of hypocrites lies not so much in the thing professed, as in the sincerity of their profession. The thing professed may be excellent, and, perhaps, is the more likely