3. Mr. Abbott's "Corner Stone"

Section 2

{72} HERE then we have arrived at a point where we part company with Mr. Erskine, and join Mr. Abbott, who advances further in a most perilous career. The principle with which Mr. Erskine began has been above discovered to issue in a view or theory of the Gospel, which may be contemplated apart from that principle. That the human mind may criticize and systematize the Divine Revelation, that it may identify it with the Dispensation, that it may limit the uses of the latter to its workings through our own reason and affections, and such workings as we can ascertain and comprehend,—in a word, that the Gospel is a manifestation, this is the fundamental principle of Mr. Erskine's Essay. Mr. Jacob Abbott seems so fully to take this principle for granted, that it would be idle to do more than notice his doing so; it will be more to the purpose to direct attention to his treatment of the Theory, in which Mr. Erskine's principle seems to issue, viz., that the Gospel is a collection of facts. I am now referring to Mr. Abbott's work called "The Corner Stone," which I do not hesitate to say approaches within a hair's breadth of Socinianism: a charge which I would by no means urge against Mr. Erskine, whatever be the tendency of his speculations. {73}


In the work in question, Mr. Abbott disclaims entering into theological questions, properly so called (Preface, p. vi.); nor is there any necessity for his entering into them, so that the line of discussion which he does take, does not intrude upon them or provoke them.

"I have made this exhibition of the Gospel," he says, "with reference to its moral effect on human hearts, and not for the purpose of taking sides in a controversy between different parties of Christians."


"A system of theology is a map or plan, in which every feature of the country must be laid down in its proper place and proportion; this work is, on the other hand, a series of views, as a traveller sees them in passing over a certain road. In this case, the road which I have taken leads indeed through the heart of the country, but it does not by any means bring to view all which is interesting or important. The reader will perceive that the history of Jesus Christ is the clue which I have endeavoured to follow; that is, the work is intended to exhibit religious truth, as it is connected with the various events in the life of our Saviour. In first introducing Him to the scene, I consider His exalted nature as the great moral Manifestation of the Divinity to us. Then follows a view of His personal character, and of His views of religious duty," etc.—Pp. vi. vii.

Let us observe here the similarity of language between the two writers I am speaking of. They are evidently of the same school. They both direct their view to the Gospel history as a Manifestation of the Divine Character; and though, in the above extracts, Mr. Abbott uses language more guarded than Mr. Erskine, there will be found to be little or no practical difference between them. But there seems this most important distinction in their respective applications of their Theory, though not very distinct or observable at first sight; that Mr. Erskine admits into the range of his Divine {74} facts such as are not of this world, as the voluntary descent of Christ from heaven to earth, and His Incarnation, whereas Mr. Abbott virtually limits it to the witnessed history of Christ upon earth. This, so far as it exists, is all the difference between orthodoxy and Socinianism.

For this encroachment Mr. Erskine indeed had prepared the way; for he certainly throws the high doctrines of religion into the background; and the word "Manifestation" far more naturally fits on to a history witnessed by human beings, than to dispositions made in the unseen world. But Mr. Erskine certainly has not taught this explicitly.

If we wish to express the sacred Mystery of the Incarnation accurately, we should rather say that God is man, than that man is God. Not that the latter proposition is not altogether Catholic in its wording, but the former expresses the history of the Economy, (if I may so call it,) and confines our Lord's personality to His divine nature, making His manhood an adjunct; whereas to say that man is God, does the contrary of both of these,—leads us to consider Him a man primarily and personally, with some vast and unknown dignity superadded, and that acquired of course after His coming into existence as man. The difference between these two modes of speaking is well illustrated by a recent Unitarian author, whom on account of the truth and importance of his remarks, I am led, with whatever pain, to quote:

"A quick child, though not acquainted with logic, ... will perceive the absurdity of saying that Edward is John ... As the young pupil must be prepared to infer from the New Testament that a perfect man is perfect God, he ... must be imperceptibly led to consider the word God as expressing a quality, or an aggregate {75} of qualities, which may be predicated of more than one, as the name of a species; just as when we say John is man, Peter is man, Andrew is man ... And so it is, with the exception of a few who, in this country, are still acquainted with that ingeniously perverse system of words by means of which the truly scholastic Trinitarians (such as Bishop Bull and Waterland, who had accurately studied the fathers and the schoolmen,) appear to evade the logical contradictions with which the doctrine of the Trinity abounds; all, as I have observed for many years, take the word God, in regard to Christ, as the name of a species, and more frequently of a dignity."—Heresy and Orthodoxy, p. 91.

It will be observed of this passage, that the writer [Note 1] implies that the Catholic mode of speaking of the Incarnation is not exposed to a certain consequence, to which the mode at present popular is exposed, viz., the tendency to explain away Christ's divinity. Man is God, is the popular mode of speech; God is man, is the Catholic.


To return. It seems then that Mr. Erskine proceeds in the orthodox way, illustrating the doctrine that God became man; Mr. Abbott, starting with the earthly existence of our Lord, does but enlarge upon the doctrine that a man is God. Mr. Erskine enforces the Atonement, as a Manifestation of God's moral character; Mr. Abbott the life of Christ with the same purpose,—with but slight reference to the doctrine of the Expiation, for of course he whose life began with his birth from Mary, had given up nothing, and died merely because other men die. Here then is something very like Socinianisrn at first sight.

But again, let us see how he conducts his argument. Here again he differs from Mr. Erskine. The latter considers the incarnation of the Son of God to be a manifestation of God's mercy. Here then in his view, which {76} so far is correct, there is a double Manifestation—of the Son of God personally in human nature, and of God morally in the history and circumstances of His incarnation; though Mr. Erskine's argument leads him to insist on the latter. Mr. Abbott assumes the latter as the sole Manifestation, thus bringing out the tendency of Mr. Erskine's argument. In other words, he considers our Lord Jesus Christ as a man primarily, not indeed a mere man, any more than the conversion of the world was a mere human work, but not more than a man aided by God, just as the conversion of the world was a human work aided and blessed by God; a man in intimate union, nay in mysterious union with God, as Moses might be on the Mount, but not more than Moses except in degree. He considers that certain attributes of the Godhead were manifested in Jesus Christ, in the sense in which the solar system manifests His power, or the animal economy His wisdom; which is a poorly concealed Socinianism.—So this, it appears, is what really comes of declaiming against "metaphysical" notions of the Revelation, and enlarging on its moral character!

That I may not be unfair to Mr. Abbott, I proceed to cite his words:

"In the first place, let us take a survey of the visible universe, that we may see what manifestations of God appear in it. Let us imagine that we can see with the naked eye all that the telescope would show us; and then, in order that we may obtain an uninterrupted view, let us leave this earth, and, ascending from its surface, take a station where we can look, without obstruction, upon all around. As we rise above the summits of the loftiest mountains, the bright and verdant regions of the earth begin to grow dim. City after city, etc. ... Our globe itself cuts off one-half of the visible universe at all times, and the air spreads over us a deep canopy of blue, which during the day shuts out entirely the other half. But were the field open we should see in every direction the {77} endless perspective of suns and stars as I have described them ... God is everywhere ... The Deity is the All-pervading Power which lives and acts throughout the whole. He is not a separate existence, having a special habitation in a part of it ... God is a Spirit. A Spirit; that is, He has no form, no place, no throne. Where He acts, there only can we see Him. He is the wide-spread omnipresent power which is everywhere employed, but which we can never see, and never know, except so far as He shall manifest Himself by His doings.

"If we thus succeed in obtaining just conceptions of the Deity as the invisible and universal power, pervading all space, and existing in all time, we shall at once perceive that the only way by which He can make Himself known to His creatures is by acting Himself out, as it were, in His works; and of course the nature of the Manifestation which is made will depend upon the nature of the works. In the structure of a solar system, with its blazing centre and revolving worlds, the Deity, invisible itself, acts out its mighty power, and the unerring perfection of its intellectual skill. At the same time, while it is carrying on these mighty movements, it is exercising, in a very different scene, its untiring industry, and unrivalled taste, in clothing a mighty forest with verdure, etc., etc. ... And so everywhere this unseen and universal essence acts out its various attributes by its different works. We can learn its nature only by the character of the effects which spring from it.

"This universal essence, then, must display to us its nature, by acting itself out in a thousand places by such manifestations of itself as it wishes us to understand. Does God desire to impress us with the idea of His power? He darts the lightning, etc. etc. Does He wish to beam upon us in love? What can be more expressive than the sweet summer sunset, etc.? … How can He make us acquainted with His benevolence and skill? Why, by acting them out in some mechanism which exhibits them. He may construct an eye or a hand for man, etc. How can He give us some conception of His intellectual powers? He can plan the motions of the planets, etc. etc. ... But the great question, after all, is to come. It is the one to which we have meant that all we have been saying should ultimately tend. How can such a Being exhibit the moral principle by which His mighty energies are all controlled?"—Pp. 6-14.

This is eloquent writing; but this is not the place for {78} dwelling on this quality of it; as to its doctrine, to speak plainly, it savours unpleasantly of pantheism. It treats the Almighty, not as the great God, but as some vast physical and psychological phenomenon. However, we are immediately concerned with the author's views, not on Natural, but on Revealed Religion. He continues thus:

"He is an unseen, universal power, utterly invisible to us, and imperceptible, except so far as He shall act out His attributes in what He does. How shall He act out moral principle? It is easy, by His material creation, to make any impression upon us which material objects can make; but how shall He exhibit to us the moral beauty of justice and benevolence and mercy between man and man? ... He might declare His moral attributes, as He might have declared His power; but if He would bring home to us the one as vividly and distinctly as the other, He must act out His moral principles by a moral Manifestation, in a moral scene; and the great beauty of Christianity is, that it represents Him as doing so. He brings out the purity, and spotlessness, and moral glory of the Divinity, through the workings of the human mind called into existence for this purpose, and stationed in a most conspicuous attitude among men ... Thus the moral perfections of Divinity show themselves to us in the only way by which, so far as we can see, it is possible directly to show them, by coming out in action, in the very field of human duty, by a mysterious union with a human intellect and human powers. It is God manifest in the flesh—the visible moral image of an all-pervading moral Deity, Himself for ever invisible."—Pp. 14, 15.

On this explanation of the Incarnation, now, alas! not unpopular even in our own Church, viz., that "God manifest in the flesh" is "the visible moral image" of God, let us hear the judgment of one who was a Trinitarian, and has lately avowed himself a convert to Unitarianism. He thus relates the change in his own religious profession:

"In my anxiety to avoid a separation from the Church by the deliberate surrender of my mind to my old Unitarian convictions, I took refuge in a modification of the Sabellian theory, and availed {79} myself of the moral unity which I believe to exist between God the Father and Christ, joined to the consideration that Christ is called in the New Testament the Image of God, and addressed my prayers to God as appearing in that image. I left nothing untried to cultivate and encourage this feeling by devotional means. But such efforts of mere feeling (and I confess with shame their frequency on my part for the sake of what seemed most religious) were always vain and fruitless. Sooner or later my reason has not only frustrated but punished them. In the last-mentioned instance the devout contrivance would not bear examination. Sabellianism is only Unitarianism disguised in words: and as for the worship of an image in its absence, the idea is most unsatisfactory. In this state, however, I passed five or six years; but the return to the clear and definite Unitarianism in which I had formerly been, was as easy as it was natural."—Heresy and Orthodoxy, p. viii.

This passage proves thus much, not perhaps, that the philosophising in question leads to Socinianism, but that it is a philosophy under which Socinianism may lie hid, even from a man's own consciousness; and this is just the use I wish to make of it against Mr. Abbott. He ends as follows:

"The substance of the view which I have been wishing to impress upon your minds is, that we are to expect to see Him solely through the Manifestation He makes of Himself in His works. We have seen in what way some of the traits of His character are displayed in the visible creation, and how at last He determined to manifest His moral character, by bringing it into action through the medium of a human soul. The plan was carried into effect, and the mysterious person thus formed appears for the first time to our view in the extraordinary boy," etc.—Pp. 15, 16.

In these passages it seems to be clearly maintained that our Lord is a Manifestation of God in precisely that way in which His creatures are, though in a different respect, viz., as regards His moral attributes,—a Manifestation, not having anything in it essentially peculiar and incommunicable, and therefore "a Manifestation," {80} as he in one passage expresses himself, not the Manifestation of the Father.

Further, he expressly disclaims any opinion concerning the essential and superhuman relation, or (as he calls it) the "metaphysical" relation of the Son to the Father, in a passage which involves a slight upon other doctrines of a most important, though not of such a sacred character:

"Another source of endless and fruitless discussion is disputing about questions which can be of no practical consequence, however they may be decided; such as the origin of sin, the state of the soul between death and the resurrection, the salvation of infants, the precise metaphysical relationship of the Son to the Father."—P. 323 [Note 2].

Why called metaphysical, I do not understand. Is Almighty God Himself then, in Mr. Abbott's view, physical? But we have been already introduced to this word by Mr. Erskine, whose original fallacy also, be it observed, is faithfully preserved in this passage;—"questions which can be of no practical consequence," as if we have any warrant thus to limit, or to decide upon, the gracious revelations of God. He continues:

"We have said they are of no practical consequence; of course an ingenious reasoner can contrive to connect practical consequences with any subject whatever, and in his zeal he will exaggerate the importance of the connection;"

I interrupt the reader, to remind him that the subjects spoken of in this careless, self-satisfied way, are those which from the first have been preserved in Creeds and Confessions as the most necessary, most solemn truths;—

"in fact every subject in the moral world is more or less connected with every other one; nothing stands out entirely detached and isolated, and consequently a question which its arguers will admit to be merely a theoretical one, will never be found."—P. 324. {81}

But if so, who shall draw the line between truths practical and theoretical? Shall we trust the work to such as Mr. Abbott? Surely this passage refutes his own doctrine. We also say that there are no two subjects in religion but may be connected by our minds, and therefore, for what we know, perchance are connected in fact. All we maintain in addition, is, that evidence of the fact of that connexion is not necessary for the proof of their importance to us, and further, that we have no right to pronounce that they are revealed merely with a view to their importance to us.

He disposes of the Catholic doctrine of Christ's eternal Sonship by calling it metaphysical; how he escapes from the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation we have already seen,—he resolves it into a moral Manifestation of God in the person of Christ. But his view requires a few more words of explanation. First, as I have already had occasion to notice, he speaks of God in pantheistic language, as an Anima Mundi, or universal essence, who has no known existence except in His works, as an all-pervading power or principle, not external to the created world, but in it, and developed through it. He goes on to say that this Almighty, who is thus illimitable and incomprehensible, is exhibited in personal attributes in Christ, as if all the laws and provisions, in which he energizes in nature impersonally, were condensed and exemplified in a real personal being. Hence he calls our Lord by a strange term, the personification of God, i.e. (I suppose) the personal image, or the manifestation in a person. In other words, God, whose Person is unknown in nature, in spite of His works, is revealed in Christ, who is the express image of His Person; and just in this, and (as I conceive) nothing more, would he conceive there was a difference between the manifestation of God in {82} Christ, and the manifestation of Him in a plant or flower. Christ is a personal Manifestation. Whether there be any elements of truth in this theory, I do not concern myself to decide; thus much is evident, that he so applies it as utterly to explain away the real divinity of our Lord. The passages are as follow:

"It is by Jesus Christ that we have access to the Father. This vivid exhibition of His character, this personification of His moral attributes, opens to us the way. Here we see a manifestation of divinity, an image of the invisible God, which comes as it were down to us; it meets our feeble faculties with a personification." etc.—P. 40.

"We accordingly commenced with His childhood, and were led at once into a train of reflection on the nature and the character of that eternal and invisible Essence whose attributes were personified in Him."—P. 192.

"The human mind ... reaches forward for some vision of the Divinity, the great unseen and inconceivable Essence. Jesus Christ is the personification of the divinity for us, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person."—P. 200.


Next, as to his opinions concerning the doctrine of the Atonement. I will not deny, I am glad to perceive, that some of his general expressions are correct, and taken by themselves, would be satisfactory; but they are invalidated altogether by what he has at other times advanced. It may be recollected that Mr. Erskine in his treatise on Internal Evidence, lays such a stress upon the use of the Atonement as a Manifestation, as to throw the real doctrine itself into the shade. Viewed in itself, Christ's death is, we believe, a sacrifice acting in some unknown way for the expiation of human sin; but Mr. Erskine views it (as indeed it may well be viewed, but as exclusively it should not be viewed,) as a mark and pledge of God's {83} love to us, which it would be, though it were not an Expiation. Even though Christ's incarnation issued in nothing more than His preaching to the world and sealing His doctrine with His blood, it would be a great sign of His love, and a pledge now of our receiving blessings through Him; for why should He die except He meant to be merciful to us? but this would not involve the necessity of an expiation. St. Paul died for the Church, and showed his love for it in this sense. When then the view of the Christian is limited, as Mr. Erskine would almost wish it to be, to the Manifestation of the Atonement, or the effect of the Atonement on our minds, no higher doctrine is of necessity elicited than that of its being a sign of God's mercy, as the rainbow might be, and a way is laid, by obscuring, to obliterate the true doctrine concerning it. So far Mr. Erskine proceeds, not denying it (far from it), but putting it aside in his philosophical Evidence: Mr. Abbott, upon the very same basis, is bolder in his language, and almost, if not altogether, gets rid of it.

In the following passage he applies Mr. Erskine's doctrine of the moral lesson, taught in Christ's death, of the justice and mercy of God: and he will be found distinctly to assert that the virtue of it lay in this, viz., that it was a declaration of God's hatred of sin, the same in kind as the punishment of the sinner would have been, only more perfect, as a means of impressing on us His hatred of sin: not as if it really reconciled us to an offended Creator.

"The balm for your wounded spirit is this, that the moral impression in respect to the nature and tendencies of sin, which is the only possible reason God can have in leaving you to suffer its penalties,"

(one should think the reason might be that "the wages of sin is death,") {84}

"is accomplished far better by the life and death of His Son;"—

(surely it is a greater balm to know that Christ has put away the wrath of God, as Scripture says, than to theorize about "moral impressions" beyond the word of Scripture. Observe too, he says, "the life and death," excluding the proper idea of Atonement, which lies in the death of Christ, and so tending to resolve it into a Manifestation,)

"God never could have wished to punish you for the sake of doing evil;"—

(God punishes the sinner, not indeed for the sake of evil, but as a just and holy God,)

"and all the good which He could have accomplished by it is already effected in another and a better way."—P. 179. [Note 3]

Here is the same assumption which was just now instanced from Mr. Erskine, viz., that God cannot inflict punishment except in order to effect a greater good, or (as Mr. Abbott himself has expressed it just before) "because the welfare of His government requires" it, which is a mere hypothesis.


"A knowledge of the death of Christ, with the explanation of it given in the Scriptures, touches men's hearts, it shows the nature and tendencies of sin, it produces fear of God's displeasure, and resolution to return to duty; and thus produces effects by which justice is satisfied,"—

(observe, not by an expiation, but by the repentance of the offender in consequence of the "moral impression" made on him by the "Manifestation" of Christ's death,—)

"and the authority of the law sustained far better in fact than it would be by the severest punishment of the guilty sinner."—P. 174. {85}

"Look at the moral effect of this great sacrifice, and feel that it takes off all the necessity of punishment, and all the burden of your guilt."—P. 190.

The necessity of punishment is (according to Mr. Abbott) the well-being of the Universe: and the virtue of the great sacrifice is, not expiation, atonement in God's sight, but the moral effect of Christ's death on those who believe in it. So again, in a passage lately quoted for another purpose, he says:

"It is by Jesus Christ that we have access to the Father. This vivid exhibition of His character, this personification of His moral attributes, opens to us the way."—P. 40.

Lastly, we have the same stress laid upon the facts of the Gospel as in Mr. Erskine's work, with this difference, that Mr. Erskine supposes the orthodox doctrine, or what he considers such, to be conveyed in the facts; Mr. Abbott, with the liberalism to which his predecessor leads, but which is more characteristic of this day than of fifteen years ago, seems to think that various theories may be raised about the facts, whether orthodox or otherwise, but that the facts alone are of consequence to us.

"Such are the three great Manifestations of Himself to man which the one Unseen All-pervading Essence has made and exhibited to us in the Bible, and in our own experience and observation."—

(—This sentence, be it observed in passing, savours strongly of Sabellianism; he has spoken of what he calls three Manifestations of Almighty God, as our natural Governor, as influencing the heart, and as in Jesus Christ, without there being anything in his way of speaking to show that he attributed these Manifestations respectively to Three Persons. He proceeds:)

"Though there have been interminable disputes in the Christian {86} Church about the language which has been employed to describe these facts, there has been comparatively little dispute among even nominal Christians about the facts themselves."—P. 39.

Such is the theology to which Mr. Erskine's principle is found to lead in the hands of Mr. Abbott; a theology (so to name it) which violently robs the Christian Creed of all it contains, except those outward historical facts through which its divine truths were fulfilled and revealed to man.


This brief explanation of Mr. Abbott's theological system may be fitly followed up by some specimens of the temper and tone of his religious sentiments. In this way we shall be able to ascertain the character of mind which such speculations presuppose and foster.

"Jesus Christ had a taste for beauty, both of nature and art; He admired the magnificent architecture of the Temple, and deeply lamented the necessity of its overthrow, and His dress was at least of such a character that the disposal of it was a subject of importance to the well-paid soldiers who crucified Him."—Pp. 50, 51.

Let us think seriously, is Christ God, or is He not? if so, can we dare talk of Him as having "a taste for nature"? It is true Mr. Abbott does speak in this way of the Almighty Father also; so that it may be said rather to prove that he has a low conception of God than of Christ. Perhaps it will be more truly said that his want of reverence towards the Saviour, has led on to the other more direct profaneness. Yet a "taste for beauty of art," for "architecture"! This of the Eternal Son of God, the Creator; will it be said that He is man also? true;—but His personality is in His Godhead, if I may express myself in theological language. He did not undo what He was before, He did not cease to be the infinite God, but He added to Him the substance of a {87} man, and thus participated in human thoughts and feelings, yet without impairing (God forbid) His divine perfection. The Incarnation was not "a conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but a taking of the manhood into God." It seems there is need of the Athanasian Creed in these dangerous times. A mystery, indeed, results from this view, for certain attributes of Divinity and of manhood seem incompatible; and there may be instances in our Lord's history on earth of less than divine thought and operation: but because of all this we never must speak, we have utterly no warrant to speak, of the Person of the Eternal Word as thinking and feeling like a mere man, like a child, or a boy, as simply ignorant, imperfect, and dependent on the creature, which is Mr. Abbott's way. To proceed:

"Jesus Christ was in some respects the most bold, energetic, decided, and courageous man that ever lived; but in others he was the most flexible, submissive, and yielding."—P. 51.

The Son of God made flesh, though a man, is beyond comparison with other men; His person is not human; but to say "most of all men" is to compare.

"There never was a mission, or an enterprise of any kind, conducted with a more bold, energetic, fearless spirit, than the Saviour's mission."—P. 52.

This sentence may not seem objectionable to many people, and as it is similar to many others in the work, it may be right to remark upon it. The truth is, we have got into a way of, what may be called, panegyrizing our Lord's conduct, from our familiarity with treatises on External Evidence. It has been the fashion of the day to speak as to unbelievers, and, therefore, to level the sacred history to the rank of a human record, by way of argument. Hence we have learned to view the truth {88} merely externally, that is, as an unbeliever would view it; and so to view and treat it even when we are not arguing; which involves, of course, an habitual disrespect towards what we hold to be divine, and ought to treat as such. This will in part account for the tone in which the History of the Jews is sometimes set forth. And it is remarkably illustrated in the work before us, which, though pointedly addressed only to those who "have confessed their sins and asked forgiveness," who "strive against temptation, and seek help from above," (vid. p. 1,) yet is continually wandering into the external view of Christ's conduct, and assumes in a didactic treatise, what is only accidentally allowable in controversy. To return:—

"There is something very bold and energetic in the measures He adopted in accomplishing His work ... In fact, there perhaps never was so great a moral effect produced in three years, on any community so extensive, if we consider at all the disadvantages incident to the customs of those days. There was no press, no modes of extensive written communication, no regularly organized channels of intercourse whatever between the different portions of the community. He acted under every disadvantage."—Pp. 53, 54.

Under no disadvantage, if He were God. But this is only part of one great error under which this writer lies. "There was no press"! What notions does this imply concerning the nature, the strength, and the propagation of moral truth!

"He sought solitude, He shrunk from observation: in fact, almost the only enjoyment which He seemed really to love, was His lonely ramble at midnight, for rest and prayer ... It is not surprising, that after the healed crowds and exhausting labours of the day, He should love to retire to silence and seclusion, to enjoy the cool and balmy air, the refreshing stillness, and all the beauties and glories of midnight among the solitudes of the Galilean hills, to find there happy communion with His Father," etc.—P, 55. {89}

The more ordinary and commonplace, the more like vulgar life, the more carnal the history of the Eternal Son of God is made, the more does this writer exult in it. He exults in sinking the higher notion of Christ, and in making the flesh the hegemonic of a Divine Essence. Even a prophet or apostle might be conceived to subdue the innocent enjoyments of His lower nature to the sovereignty of faith, and enjoy this world only as an emblem and instrument of the unseen. But it is the triumph of Rationalism to level everything to the lowest and most tangible form into which it can be cast, and to view our Lord Himself, not in His mysterious greatness, acting by means of human nature, and ministered unto by Angels in it, but as what I dare not draw out, lest profane words be necessary,—as akin to those lower natures which have but an animal existence.

"Another thing which exhibits the boldness and enterprise that characterized His plans for making an impression on the community, was the peculiarly new and original style of public speaking He adopted."—P. 55.

"This, then, is the key to the character of Jesus Christ in respect to spirit and decision."—P. 57.

"For the real sublimity of courage, the spectacle of this deserted and defenceless sufferer coming at midnight to meet the betrayer and his band, far exceeds that of Napoleon urging on his columns over the bridge of Lodi, or even that of Regulus returning to his chains."—Pp. 59, 60.

Who could have conceived that there was any possible category under which the image of our Lord could be associated with that of Napoleon?

"He evidently observed and enjoyed nature. There are many allusions to His solitary walks in the fields, and on the mountains, and by the seaside; but the greatest evidence of His love for nature is to be seen in the manner in which he speaks of its beauties. A man's metaphors are drawn from the sources with which he is most familiar, or which interest him most."—P. 60. {90}

"We learn in the same manner how distinct were the impressions of beauty or sublimity, which the works of nature made upon the Saviour, by the manner in which He alluded to them ... Look at the lilies of the field, says He ... A cold heartless man, without taste or sensibility, would not have said such a thing as that. He could not; and we may be as sure, that Jesus Christ had stopped to examine and admire the grace and beauty of the plant," etc.—Pp. 61, 62.

"Now Jesus Christ noticed these things. He perceived their beauty and enjoyed it."—P. 62.

Surely such passages as these are simply inconsistent with faith in the Son of God. Does any one feel curiosity or wonder, does any one search and examine, in the case of things fully known to him? Could the Creator of nature "stop to examine" and "enjoy the grace and beauty" of His own work? Were indeed this said of Him in Scripture, we should say, "Here is one of the Mysteries which attend on the Incarnation;" but since we cannot suspect such writers as Mr. Abbott of inventing a Mystery for the sake of it, we must take it as evidence of an earthly and Socinian bias in his view of the Saviour of mankind.

"He observed everything, and His imagination was stored with an inexhaustible supply of images, drawn from every source, and with these He illustrated and enforced His principles in a manner altogether unparalleled by any writings, sacred or profane."—P. 63.

So this is the ashes to be given as children's meat, to those who "confess" and repent, and try to know God's will in the Gospel!

"Even His disciples, till they came to see Him die, had no conception of His love. They learned it at last, however. They saw Him suffer and die; and inspiration from above explained to them something about the influence of His death …

"It is hard to tell which touches our gratitude most sensibly; {91} the ardent love which led Him to do what he did, or the delicacy with which He refrained from speaking of it to those who were to reap its fruits."—P. 94.

—that is, the delicacy towards sinners of an injured Creator, coming to atone in some mysterious way by His own sufferings for their sins in the sight of His God and Father.

"There is, in fact, no moral or spiritual safety without these feelings, and our Saviour knew this full well."—P. 204.

"Jesus Christ understood human nature better ... He was wiser than the builders of the Pyramids ... The Saviour did the work, and did it better, by a few parting words."—P. 217.


Such are the feelings which this author ventures to express concerning Him, who is his Lord and his God. In reprobating them, however, I have neither wish nor occasion to speak against him as an individual. For we have no concern with him. We know nothing of his opportunities of knowing better, nor how far what appears in his writings is a true index of his mind. We need only consider him as the organ, involuntary (if you will) or unwitting, but still the organ, of the spirit of the age, the voice of that scornful, arrogant, and self-trusting spirit, which has been unchained during these latter ages, and waxes stronger in power day by day, till it is fain to stamp under foot all the host of heaven. This spirit we may steadily contemplate to our great edification; but to do more than denounce it as such, to judge or revile its instruments would involve another sin besides uncharitableness. For surely, this is a spirit which has tempted others besides those who have yielded to its influences; and, like an infection of the air, it has perchance ere now, in some degree, not perhaps as regards the high doctrines {92} of the Gospel, but in some way or other, breathed upon those who, at the present crisis of things, feel themselves called upon solemnly to resist it. The books of the day are so full of its evil doctrine in a modified shape, if not in its grosser forms,—the principles (I may say) of the nation are so instinct with it or based on it,—that the best perhaps that can be said of any of us, or at most of all but a few, is, that they have escaped from it, "so as by fire," and that the loudness of their warning is but a consequence of past danger, terror, and flight.

I would view, then, works such as this, whether in their publication, or in their general reception, as signs of the religious temper of this Age. What shall be said of the praise that has been lavished on them? the popularity they have acquired? Granting that there are many things in them, from which a religious mind may gain some good (for no one accuses Mr. Abbott of being deficient in quickness and intelligence, and he evidently has had opportunities of studying human nature, whatever success has attended him in it,—and it must be confessed that his first work published here was of a less objectionable character, and might well interest at first sight those who "thought no evil,") but, allowing all this, yet it may be fairly asked, is the book from which I have cited, one which can come very near to Christian minds without frightening them? How is it then that so many men professing strict religion, have embraced and dwelt on its statements without smelling the taint of death which is in them? And is there not something of a self-convicted mischief in that view of religion which its upholders (independent of each other, and disagreeing with each other materially in other points of doctrine and discipline) attempt to support by editing a book, as conducive to it, which turns out to be all but Socinian? {93} The reason (I believe) why many pious persons tolerate teaching such as this, is, that they have so fully identified spirituality of mind with the use of certain phrases and professions, that they cannot believe that any one whatever can use them freely without the teaching of the Holy Spirit: to believe it otherwise, would be unsettling their minds from the very foundation,—which indeed must take place sooner or later, whether they will or not.

With some quotations from the preface of one of Mr. Abbott's editors, one of the most learned, orthodox, and moderate of the Dissenters of the day, I will bring this discussion to an end.

"Mr. Abbott has so much of originality in his manner of thinking, and of unguarded simplicity in his style of expression," [as render a friendly editor useful,] "there might be peril that without such a precaution some readers would take a premature alarm, when they found some essential doctrines of Christianity conveyed in terms of simplicity, and elucidated by very familiar analogies, which appear considerably removed from our accredited phraseology … Whatever use we make of the language of the theological schools, we should never go beyond our ability to translate it into the plain speech of common life."

As far as the words go, this means, when duly explained, though the writer could not of course intend it, that Mr. Abbott's merit consists in having translated Trinitarianism into Socinianism. And that this is no unfair interpretation of the words, is plain from what presently follows, in which he speaks of the prejudice which the orthodox language and doctrine of divinity create against orthodoxy in the minds of those who are orthodox, all but receiving these orthodox statements. In other words, expressly specifying the Unitarians, he requires us to adopt Mr. Abbott's language in order to reconcile them to us. I quote his words: {94}

"But there is one department in the inseparable domain of theology and religion upon Mr. Abbott's treatment of which I should be very blameable were I to withhold my convictions. Among us, as well as in the New England States, there is a body, large and respectable if considered absolutely, but far from large when viewed in comparison with the numbers of other professed Christians. It consists of those who disbelieve the doctrines held, as to their essential principles, by all other Christian denominations, with respect to the way in which sinful, guilty, degraded mankind may regain the favour of God and the pure felicity of the world to come; the doctrines of a divine Saviour, His assumption of our nature, His propitiation and righteousness, and the restoration of holiness and happiness by His all-gracious Spirit. This class of persons is treated by some public men, and in some influential writings, chiefly periodical, with scorn and contumely, and are held up to hatred, not to say persecution; they are continually represented as blasphemers and infidels, alike dangerous to the State and inimical to all vital religion. Hence thousands of excellent persons, deriving their only knowledge from the source to which I have alluded, regard this portion of their neighbours with horror, never think of treating them with tenderness, never attempt to obtain a lodgment for truth and holy affections in their hearts. Ah! little think these well-meaning persons, etc. This is a state of things full of mischief and danger. Surely it is a pressing duty to do all that we can for clearing away the clouds of ignorance and misrepresentation which, with so dire effect, discolour and distort the objects seen through them.

"For this purpose it is to me an heartfelt pleasure to say that Mr. Abbott's 'Corner Stone' is admirably adapted. Notions producing feelings, and those feelings of deep and wide activity in the formation of religious sentiments, have been derived from Pelagius, Socinus, and Episcopius, from Clarke, Law, and Watson, from Lardner, Priestley, and Channing; and it is the thoroughly pervading influence on the mind of those mutually acting feelings and sentiments which produces all that is formidable in the theoretical objections, and much of that which is effective in the practical repugnance, which are entertained by many against the doctrines of grace and holiness through the Atonement and the Spirit of Christ. How desirable to meet those feelings in their germinating principle; to anticipate those sentiments, by the dissolution of the causes which would form them! This is what our author has done. {95} His reasonings and illustrations upon the personal and official attributes of our Lord and Saviour are such as may be compared to the correctness of anatomical knowledge, the delicacy of touch, and the astonishing preciseness of applying the probe and the knife, which we admire in the first surgeons of the age."

A correct and memorable witness, indeed, to the kind of treatment offered by these religionists to Him, whom, after His exposure on the cross, His true disciples reverently "took down," and "wrapped in fine linen," and "laid in a sepulchre wherein never man before was laid."

I will conclude by summing up in one sentence, which must be pardoned me if in appearance harsh, what the foregoing discussion is intended to show. There is a widely, though irregularly spread School of doctrine among us, within and without the Church, which aims at and professes peculiar piety as directing its attention to the heart itself, not to anything external to us, whether creed, actions, or ritual. I do not hesitate to assert that this doctrine is based upon error, that it is really a specious form of trusting man rather than God, that it is in its nature Rationalistic, and that it tends to Socinianism. How the individual supporters of it will act as time goes on is another matter,—the good will be separated from the bad; but the School, as such, will pass through Sabellianism, to that "God-denying Apostasy," to use the ancient phrase, to which in the beginning of its career it professed to be especially opposed.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


{96} Since the above Essay was in type, an American periodical [Note 4], has been put into the writer's hands, containing an account of Dr. Schleiermacher's view of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

It seems, indeed, impossible to doubt that a serious doctrinal error is coming as a snare over the whole of the Protestant division of Christendom, (every part, at least, which is not fallen into worse and more avowed heterodoxy,) being the result of an attempt of the intellect to delineate, philosophise, and justify that religion (so called) of the heart and feelings, which has long prevailed. All over the Protestant world,—among ourselves, in Ireland, in Scotland, in Germany, in British America,—the revival of religious feeling during the last century took a peculiar form, difficult indeed to describe or denote by any distinct appellation, but familiarly known to all who ever so little attend to what is going on in the general Church. It spread, not by talents or learning in its upholders, but by their piety, zeal, and sincerity, and its own incidental and partial truth. At length, as was natural, its professors have been led to a direct contemplation of it, to a reflection upon their own feelings and belief and the genius of their system; and thence {97} has issued that philosophy of which Mr. Erskine and Mr. Abbott have in the foregoing pages afforded specimens.

The American publication above alluded to is a melancholy evidence that the theologians of the United States are bringing the learning and genius of Germany to bear in favour of this same (as the writer must call it) spurious Christianity. Some passages from it shall be here extracted, which will be found to tend to one or other of these three objects, all of them more or less professed in the two works above analysed.

1. That the one object of the Christian Revelation, or Dispensation, is to stir the affections, and soothe the heart.

2. That it really contains nothing which is unintelligible to the intellect.

3. That misbelievers, such as Unitarians, etc., are made so, for the most part, by Creeds; which are to be considered as the great impediments to the spread of the Gospel, both as being stumbling-blocks to the reason, and shackles and weights on the affections.

1. "With regard to Schleiermacher's views as a Trinitarian, I can truly say that I have met with scarcely any writer, ancient or modern, who appears to have a deeper conviction of, or more hearty belief in, the doctrine of the real Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ... 'God manifest in the flesh,' seems to be inscribed, in his view, on every great truth of the Gospel, and to enter as a necessary ingredient into the composition of its essential nature. Yet Schleiermacher was not made a Trinitarian by creeds and confessions. Neither the Nicene nor Athanasian symbol, nor any succeeding formula of Trinitarian doctrine, built on this, appears to have had any influence in the formation of his views. From the Scriptures, and from arguments flowing, as he believed, out of Scriptural premises, he became, and lived, and died, a hearty and constant believer in the One Living and True God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost ... He ventured {98} to inquire whether, in the vehemence of dispute, and in the midst of philosophical mists, the former survey had been in all respects made with thorough and exact skill and care, and whether a report of it in all respects intelligible and consistent had been made out."—Translator, No. 18, pp. 268, 269.

2. "After defending in various places, in the most explicit manner, and with great ability, the doctrine of the Godhead of the Son and Spirit, and showing that such a development of the Deity is demanded by our moral wants, as sinners, in order that we may obtain peace and sanctification; he concludes," etc.—Ibid.

3. "Of his view of the Trinity, we may at least say that it is intelligible. But who will venture to say, that any of the definitions heretofore given of personality in the Godhead in itself considered, I mean such definitions as have their basis in the Nicene or Athanasian Creeds, are intelligible and satisfactory to the mind?"—P. 277.

4. "The sum of Schleiermacher's opinions ... is that ... the Unity ... is God in se ipso; ... but as to the Trinity, the Father is God as revealed in the works of creation, providence, and legislation; the Son is God in human flesh, the divine Logos incarnate; the Holy Ghost is God the Sanctifier, who renovates the hearts of sinners, and dwells in the hearts of believers. The personality of the Godhead consists in these developments, made in time, and made to intelligent and rational beings. Strictly speaking, personality is not in his view eternal; and from the nature of the case as thus viewed, it could not be, because it consists in developments of the Godhead to intelligent beings," etc.—P. 317.

5. "That God has developed Himself in these three different ways, is what they [Sabellius and Schleiermacher] believe to be taught in the Scriptures, and to be commended to our spiritual consciences by the nature of our wants, woes, and sins."—No. 19, p. 81.

6. "Dr. Schleiermacher asks, with deep emotion, what more is demanded? what more is necessary? what more can further the interest of practical piety?"—P. 82.

7. "I can see no contradiction, no absurdity, nothing even incongruous in the supposition that the Divine nature has manifested itself as Father," etc.—P. 88.

8. "Why should it ever have any more been overlooked that the names Father, etc., are names that have a relative sense … than that such names as Creator," etc.—P. 110. {99}

9. "It may be proper for me to say, that the results of this reexamination of the doctrine of the Trinity are, in their essential parts, the same which I some years since advocated in my letters addressed to the Rev. Dr. Channing," etc.—P. 115.

These extracts are perhaps sufficient to justify the apprehensions above expressed, as far as the more religious part of Protestant America is concerned. It is believed that Protestant France also would afford similar evidence of the Sabellian tendencies of the day.

February 2, 1836.

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Note on Essay II

{100} THE author of the second of the works criticised in the foregoing Essay met my strictures with a Christian forbearance and a generosity which I never can forget. He went out of his way, when in England, in 1843, to find me out at Littlemore, and to give me the assurance, both by that act and by word of mouth, that he did not take offence at what many a man would have thought justified serious displeasure. I think he felt what really was the case, that I had no unkind feelings towards him, but spoke of his works simply in illustration of a widely-spread sentiment in religious circles, then as now, which seemed to me dangerous to gospel faith.

I have no other record of the incident, than the following two paragraphs in a well-known newspaper of the day.

(From "The English Churchman.")

"A few Sundays ago, a stranger, who had been observed joining very attentively both in the morning and afternoon services at Littlemore, begged permission in the evening to introduce himself to Mr. Newman. It proved to be none other than the well-known author of the 'Corner Stone,' and the 'Young Christian,' and the object of his call was to express his deep and sincere obligations to Mr. Newman for the severe strictures which had been made upon his work some time since in the 'Tracts for the Times.' He confessed that they had the greatest effect upon his mind, and that he should write very differently now. Mr. Newman asked if there were anything he would wish altered in a subsequent edition of {101} the Tract, but Mr. Abbott admitted the entire fairness of the review, and wished nothing to be withdrawn or altered."

To the Editor of "The English Churchman."

"Sir,—I am very sorry to observe a paragraph in your paper of yesterday on the subject of the call with which I was favoured in this place, some time since, by Mr. Abbott. It has been evidently sent to you with a friendly feeling towards myself, to which I am not at all insensible, but it is kinder to me than it is respectful towards Mr. Abbott. What I saw of him impressed me with such feelings in his favour, that it would grieve me indeed did he think, from anything that has got abroad, that he had reason to charge me (in my report of our conversation) with rudeness, or want of consideration towards himself. I will add what I stated to him, that if in my remarks in the 'Tracts for the Times' upon one of his publications, I was betrayed into any expressions which might be considered personal, instead of confining myself to the work itself which I was criticising, I am sorry for them, and wish them unsaid. I saw him but for half an hour in his rapid passage across the country; but wherever he is, and whether I shall see him again or no, he has my good wishes and my kind remembrances.—I am, etc.,
"Littlemore, Oct. 6."

I should add, that the exciting cause of my writing the above criticisms on works of Mr. Erskine and Mr. Abbott was my deep and increasing apprehension, that the religious philosophy, on which they are based, was making its way into Oxford, and through Oxford among the clergy, by the writings of Dr. Whately, Dr. Hampden's Bampton Lectures, and Mr. Blanco White's (then) recent publications. This explains, for instance, supr. pp. 69, 85, and 91. Vid. "Apologia," pp. 57, 385-6.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


1. Mr. Blanco White.
Return to text

2. Vide also p. 197.
Return to text

3. Vide also p. 173.
Return to text

4. The Biblical Repository, Nos. 18 and 19; in which is translated and reviewed "Schleiermacher's Comparison of the Athanasian and Sabellian Views of the Trinity."
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.