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THE UNITARIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT BASED UPON DEFECTIVE SCHOLARSHIP, OR ON DISHONEST OR UNCANDID CRITICISM.
BY THE REV. THOMAS BYRTH, M.A., F.A.S.
"GIVE ATTENDANCE TO READING."-1 Timothy, iv. 13
THE object of this Discourse is to vindicate the inspired record of Christianity from the misrepresentations of false criticism, and the errors of defective scholarship.
But let it not be supposed that I attach an undue importance to the influence which human erudition exercises upon the written Word of God. I feel not the slightest reluctance to admit that "Christianity is not the property of Critics and Scholars, but the gift of God to all Men."* On the contrary, should I fail to rescue from the dominion of perverted, or pretended learning, one single passage which it has attempted to corrupt; and if it shall be the conviction of my hearers that I have failed to dispossess those who, as critics and scholars, have laid violent hands on the text of the New Testament; I contend, nevertheless, that the peculiar doctrines of Christianity,-by which I mean, of course, the doctrines which are denied by Unitarianism,—are so inseparably wrought into the whole texture of the Bible, that it is impossible to detach them from it, and at the
* The title under which a reply to this Discourse has been announced.
same time to leave any integral part of the original fabric. The book may be altogether altered, and thus virtually destroyed; but while a fragment of it remains unchanged, we possess an indication of the character of the whole. A minute portion of the frame of one of the gigantic inhabitants of a former world, enables the physiologist, to ascertain the magnitude of the body to which it belonged; and one unadulterated portion of the Holy Book, would be unquestionable evidence of the mysterious and awful statements which pervaded all its pages. The light of saving truth may be obscured under the oppressive load of philosophy, falsely so called; but it will continue to be saving light until it be totally extinguished. To use the language of an illustrious man,* once himself a Unitarian preacher: "It appears to me impossible for any man to read the New Testament, with the common exercise of an unbiassed understanding, without being convinced of the Divinity of Christ, from the testimony of almost every page."+
And I cannot but congratulate my Unitarian friends, upon their broad admission of the noble principle for which I am prepared to contend, as strenuously as themselves. To suppose, that profound learning and philological research were necessary to the understanding of the substance and the essential doctrines of the Revelation
* Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
"In the Improved Version itself, the principal part which attracts our attention, is the copious notes by which it is accompanied; for evidently, and in some cases, not the most legitimately, as the text is improved and corrected, to one end, the establishment of the Unitarian system, we are persuaded that no honest and competent reader, would find Unitarianism in the text, were he not assisted in the discovery by the creative and plastic energy of the notes......... It is in the human part-in the decisions of poor, vilified, exploded human authority, that the whole creed of Unitarianism has its foundation."-Christian Observer, 1809. The preceding observations are too unqualified; but they contain much truth.
from heaven, would be to represent that Revelation as incapable of accomplishing its own end,-which is, to illuminate the world. To demand from every disciple of Jesus the preliminary qualification of scholastic erudition, would be to pronounce a sentence of exclusion from the school of Christ, upon the vast majority of mankind; at once depriving them of all the blessings to be obtained from the provisions of salvation, and releasing them from all the responsibility incurred by the appeals and instruction of the Saviour.
But although the learning of the schools is not necessary to enable men to understand the essential principles of a moral system, it has a peculiar and appropriate province of its own. I maintain,—what, perhaps, my opponents deny, that Christianity, as a system of revealed truth, is to be found in the Bible, and there only.* Scholarship, then, must be the instrument by which the knowledge of Christianity is transmitted from one language to another. And what learning has communicated, the same learning must be called in to defend against the assaults of its foes; while it alone can clear the truth from the misconceptions and distortions of that ignorance, which is, too frequently, as rashly ingenious in its speculations, as it is, in the laborious task of real investigation, indolent and careless.
For, if Christianity be not-as it unquestionably is not -"the property of critics and scholars," still less is it the property of false criticism and pretended scholarship. And the legitimate employment of true learning, is to
* A distinction, I understand, has been attempted to be drawn, between "the Word of God,” and “the words of God." Do our opponents intend to conceal themselves among the clouds of exploded mysticism? That, in the sense contended for, the Saviour is ever called "the Word of God," it would be difficult to prove; but the question is, are "the words of God," to be found any where but in the Bible?
vindicate from the usurpation of these the right of all men, ignorant as well as learned, in "the gift of God to all men."
And it does appear to me an extraordinary proceeding on the part of my respected opponents-respected as distinguished members of society, and honoured, according to the Divine command, as members of the great human family (would that they may allow me to add, beloved as brethren, and as adoring disciples of Him, whom the Bible teaches me to regard as the Omnipotent Lord of Life, and the Eternal King of Glory, Christ Jesus, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever!)—it does appear to me extraordinary, that my opponents should appear to complain of the introduction of critical and scholastic considerations into this discussion.
It had always been my impression, that the advocates of what is called by themselves "Unitarian Christianity," attached to this mode of treating the momentous questions at issue an importance, which, with all my deep reverence for Biblical learning, I could never assign to it. To this they appeared to me to make their ultimate appeal; except, indeed, when under their assumed, and not very modest, title of "Rational Christians," they exalted their reason above all Revelation, and presumed to decide what God ought to have revealed, and not submissively to enquire what he has been pleased to communicate; a process not peculiar to them, but which renders all revelation abortive, by presupposing it to be useless, and virtually denying its existence.
Manuscripts, idioms of languages, figures of speech, new translations, interpolated passages, ingenious conjectures, various readings, the meaning of particles; in one word, all the vast and cloudy array which the professional scholar and the haughty critic bring into the field, when
they are about to do battle in a glorious manner, seemed to be collected around the champions of Modern Unitarianism.*
Who are the preachers that have so much to do with amended constructions of the popular version of the Scriptures? who so often refer to the original text, not hesitating to correct even that? Is there, in this mighty multitude, one individual who, even for a limited period, has been an attendant upon a Unitarian ministry, without finding that Scriptural exposition has been grounded upon reasoning which implied the necessity of superior critical powers; or which quietly assumed the possession of that knowledge which is the result of their exercise? What denomination of professing Christians, more than thirty years ago, bestowed upon the world the heavy obligation of "the Improved Version" of the New Testament; thinking it, too, of so much importance, that its corrected text, and its critical and explanatory notes, should become the property of others beside scholars, that, with exemplary benevolence, they formed a fund, still existing, for its more easy and extensive circulation, as one of the chief instru
* I have never employed, in this discourse, the term Socinianism, because I understand it is offensive, as well as because it does not appear to me to express what is meant by Modern Unitarianism. But the charge which a minister, not a Trinitarian-he calls himself a Presbyterian-brings against Socinians, most assuredly applies to the majority of those who, in this country, have called themselves Unitarians. "The Trinitarians and Socinians are always at variance with one another; and value themselves on verbal criticisms, various readings, and philological disquisitions."-Sermons by William Bruce, D.D., Belfast. And yet this author indulges in these disquisitions in the very page in which he pronounces the censure. The labours of the learned, it seems, are valuable when they prove the spuriousness of the text concerning the three witnesses; they become "disputes about trifles," when they protect the sacred text from the rash conjectures which would rob the Redeemer of his Divinity!
+ If this be not so now, the type of Unitarian preaching has been greatly altered since the author knew any thing experimentally respecting it.