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THE EFFECT OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE INCARNATION UPON THE CONCEPTION OF GOD
THE Christian doctrine of God is a form of Monotheism. Although Christians profess to believe in a Triune God—a God who, though one, is yet three-this view of the Divine nature stands in no relation whatever with Polytheism. Christianity, though it asserted the Divinity of our Lord quite early in its history, was never accused of Polytheism. The accusations with which the Acts have made us familiar turned upon the changes produced by Christianity in the customs which Moses delivered, in the Temple worship and the ceremonial law, and not at all upon Theology strictly so called. Again, S. Paul in his Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians, contrasts the faith which his converts have accepted with the following of idol-worship, as they had done in the past. His language implies that Christ is Divine, but he has no idea that this will in any way involve him in comparison with polytheistic worships. The Trinitarian idea then, however formulated, arose in immediate connexion with the Monotheism of Judæa, -as stern and unmodified a system as has ever prevailed in any place or time. The whole tendency to Polytheism, which had been strong among the Jews at
an earlier day, had been eradicated from their consciousness since the Captivity, and their mind was full of contempt and hatred of the unenlightened Gentiles who worshipped stocks and stones, among whom Polytheism flourished.
The Trinitarian idea must be discussed, therefore, in close connexion with the Monotheism out of which it arose -with which alone it has definite historical associations.
The first question to be raised will be to ascertain how far the Hebrew Monotheism showed signs of a development in the direction of plurality of persons. The only facts which can be brought forward in this interest are those which we have already mentioned in another connexion the ideas of the Word and the Wisdom of God. It has been customary to allege as symptoms of Trinitarian tendency the plural name of God (Elohim) — the expressions of deliberation in Genesis, Let us make man-Let us go down and confound their language the appearance of three angels to Abraham, etc. But it seems difficult to regard any of these as decisive. The plural name may be either a survival from a polytheistic stage in the history of Judaism, or simply a plural of majesty. At any rate it is a bare plural; the number is not defined. And the plural in the expressions of deliberation can hardly be pressed. It occurs in strongly anthropomorphic surroundings, and may possibly, therefore, be explained as a survival. The Alexandrine interpreters, such as Philo, interpreted the phrases of the powers of God, or the angels, and this has a certain measure of support among patristic commentators. The other case is more interesting, where the number three is definitely fixed. But it is difficult even there to lay great emphasis upon the
number, since in similar cases with Lot, with Jacob, with Joshua and Manoah, the number of angelic visitors is different, being in Lot's case two, and in the others one.
Justin Martyr, whose fixed principle of interpretation was that the Word was the medium of all the Old Testament revelations, explains these theophanies as manifestations of the Word of God, giving various accounts of the different numbers.1 Leaving, then, these plural expressions in the Old Testament on one side, we ask whether the Doctrine of the Word and of the Wisdom of God may be held to lead up directly to a notion of plurality in the Godhead. Our answer must be conditional. The doctrine of the Word flourished in Alexandria, as we have already seen, and cannot be regarded as lending itself to plurality in the Godhead. It is rather a means of preserving the absolute unity of God without detaching Him from all contact with the material world. If it be true, then, that there is no specially Palestinian Logos-doctrine, we cannot use it without considerable difficulty as an indication of Trinitarian tendency. On the other hand, if, as some contend, the Palestinian Logos-doctrine involves a radically different conception of God from that of Alexandria, it is possible that there is in it a preparation for the Christian Theology. But we have omitted, of necessity, this special discussion (see note, page 101).
It will be a simpler plan, therefore, to begin with Christianity at once, and, when we have stated its doctrine so far as may be, to trace its historical affinities and the various consequences which may be drawn from it.
1 Cf. Dial. c. Tryph. chs. 56-61. A similar method of explanation occurs in many other patristic writers.
The Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity is, then, an expanded statement of the Incarnation. If the Incarnation, in the Christian sense, be true, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is true also. For there is no break between them; they are parts of one and the same truth. Were it not for this it might become a serious question whether we have or can have any such knowledge of the nature of God as Trinitarianism implies and demands. We must dwell on this point somewhat carefully.
The nature of God, it may be argued, so far transcends our possibilities of attainment, that though we may be certain or reasonably clear that He is, we cannot possibly enter into any definite details as to His character and attributes. A few moments' consideration will show that the value of this argument depends absolutely upon the attitude which we assume towards the doctrine of the Incarnation. If that be a vague and idle dream, we are in a state of drifting uncertainty as to the real nature of God. We have already not only admitted this, but insisted upon it. It is the position in which natural religion leaves us,
-which is of the very essence of natural religion. For by natural religion we mean the exercise of our natural powers in the religious field without authoritative rules or guidance. And in this region we can never tell whether an anthropomorphic taint is or is not clinging to our highest and most abstract conceptions of the Divine nature. The most philosophical theory of God's nature may be as anthropomorphic as that of the crudest savage, for all we know; as tightly bound, that is, by human limitations. It does not matter at this stage whether we use the loftier powers of the human mind
or the ordinary facts of human life to give definiteness. to our belief in God; the one is as distinctly human as the other, and apart from positive information we do not know which to choose. Xenophanes discovered a flaw in the current Polytheism of his day, but it may be questioned whether the idea of God which he substituted that of a hollow sphere was in reality less crude and earth-bound: and so Mr. Herbert Spencer makes merry over mediæval representations of the Christian Trinity, but it may be doubted whether his Infinite, Eternal, and Unknowable Power is less anthropomorphic.1 In the one case human characteristics were rashly imported into the notion of God; in the other they are simply left out, and there is no clear rule for saying whether or why one is better than the other. In the strict sense of the word, of course, neither the hollow sphere nor the Infinite, etc., are in the form of man; but the principle of error in anthropomorphism covers much more than the use of the human form, it is involved in all human speculations which originate in and do not transcend the mere use of human faculties.
On the other hand, our historical sketch of the efforts to define the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation has already shown us one case where the faith of the Church has served to correct an anthropomorphic tendency. The generation of the Son seemed to involve the use of the human idea of time in describing God. The Church decided against this use; but in so deciding left the facts precisely where they were. Though not generated in time, the Son is generated. The facts which the forms of human thought are too narrow to hold are not altered; they do not come into suspicion. 1 Cf. Study of Sociology, p. 137. First Principles, Part I, chap. v.