Sometimes I think I'm a freak when I delve into the deep theological waters and try to wrap my mind around these concepts. But when I read the works of great theologians I see they were even freakier. Jonathan Mayhew, the great unitarian heretic who so monumentally influenced America's Founding, for instance.
This is a LONG excerpt of his where he tries to explain his views on the atonement.
If I ever engage in a formal controversy with any person, it shall be with one who appears to me to have both a better head and honester heart than you have discovered in this specimen of your abilities, and your zeal for what you call orthodoxy. Yet I do not think it proper to be entirely silent. Though my sermons need no elaborate, argumentative defence against your impertinent criticisms, yet so much rudeness and insolence, so much misrepresentation and slander, falsehood and forgery, as your libel contains, should not, methinks, be passed over without some animadversions; especially, as it is probable many will read your essay, who never perused my sermons: and it is chiefly for this reason, that I give you and myself the present trouble: my principal aim being not to dispute with, but to chastize and admonish you, for your good, and to make you an example and warning to others. If, in doing this, I shall transiently touch upon the merits of the case, theologically considered, you are not to flatter yourself that I mean to controvert such points with you, whom I consider unworthy to be reasoned with about them, any farther than is requisite to show your dishonesty and wickedness with regard to them.
'If I had really published any materials in point of doctrine, let me tell you, Mr. Cleaveland, that you are a most unsuitable person to undertake a confutation of them, or to set yourself up for an author: though you say you have an undoubted right to do so. I am sensible that British subjects have an undoubted legal right to expose themselves in print, on politics, divinity, or any other subject; and if this is what you insist upon as a privilege, I would not, by any means, have your liberty or that of the press restrained. You speak of divines of indisputable ability, for such an undertaking as that of vindicating the truth against me. Can you, then, possibly think it became you, an obscure .person, lately from another province, and one so unlettered as you are; an outcast from a college to which you were a disgrace; for some time a rambling itinerant, and promoter of disorders and confusion among us, so raw and unstudied in divinity; and one hardly ever heard of among us, but in the frequent reports of your follies, and extravagances; can you possibly think it became you to turn author on this occasion, and take this necessary work out of the hands of able divines, of defending the most important principles of the protestant religion against me? What an unaccountable vanity and infatuation was this! And you have passed an implicit censure on those divines, also, by saying, 'I marvel that some of our divines of great ability, have not attempted to vindicate the truth against him.' Is not this proof that none of our able divines thought there was any occasion for opposition to me?
'If it were my intention to write to you as a scholar, logician, or divine, I would take some notice of the confusion and want of method, so apparent throughout your libel. But it is as much beneath me to play the critic on such a performance, as it would be particularly to expose the vanity of your criticisms on my sermons. Let me here just observe, that if I agree with you in so many things, as you say I do, this is better presumptive evidence that I am under some mistakes, than any which you have produced. For I can hardly suppose it possible for any one to be of your opinion in many points of doctrine, without being in the wrong as to some.
'But I will proceed to the main business of this letter, which is to set your falsehoods and evil surmises respecting my sermons, in some order before your eyes; and to administer the reproof and correction which you deserve; or rather a part of it; for it is only they who hold the sword of public justice can punish wickedness to the extent of its demerits. Your wickedness, in this affair, appears written, as one may say, on your forehead—I mean in your title-page; in which you represent me to the world, as an enemy to ' the most important principles of the protestant religion;' particularly the doctrine of Christ's atonement; and on which you say I cast 'injurious aspersions.' After the word atonement, you indeed insert these clauses, viz., 'as being absolutely necessary to the pardon of sin, consistently with God's infinite rectitude,' that you might have an hole to creep out at But this will not serve your turn. You know in your conscience that I did not deny any necessity of atonement, arising from wisdom, fitness, the ends of government, or the moral character of God; but rather said what implies it, as will appear to your confusion, unless you are past all shame. How then could you have the confidence, because my expressions concerning atonement do not exactly agree with yours, to represent me to the world as casting injurious aspersions on it ?—by which you doubtles intended something beyond a simple denial of it. Indeed, nothing is more manifest, than that it was your intention to asperse me, as an enemy to some of the most important doctrines of the gospel; which you, accordingly, attempt to defend against the supposed 'injurious aspersions' cast on them in my sermons. You must be sensible that this is a high charge to be brought against one, who is, by his station and profession at least, a minister of the gospel. But I have the less reason to be uneasy at your dislike of my sermons, because I think it pretty evident you do not well like the text itself, in its plain and obvious sense; or, in other words, that you do not really believe, 'The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies over all his works.' Had you believed this to be strictly true, I do not think you would have made such an outcry against those sermons.
'You are pleased to say, that my design evidently was to represent the divine goodness in such a light as to show there was no absolute necessity for the sacrifice of Christ, to make atonement, or to satisfy divine justice, in order to God's forgiving the sins of men consistently with his moral goodness.* ["* The scriptures make use of no such language as Christ's satisfying divine justice. But I am not disposed to dispute about words. If they who use the phrase, mean no more by the satisfaction of Christ, than is implied in his sacrifice or atonement, I make no objection to it: but I have asserted the doctrine in my sermons, which have been so outrageously attacked.']
'I might remark, on this charge, that if I had asserted the non-necessity of atonement, or satisfaction, in order to the forgiveness of sins, this would have been no more than some eminent divines have done; even calvinistic divines, whom I suppose you account the most reformed of any. I will refer to only one, the famous Dr. Twisse, who was prolocutor of the assembly of divines at Westminster. And his opinion ought, perhaps, to have almost as much weight as that of Mr. Cleaveland, of Ipswich. In his defence of the doctrines of grace, he says, that 'God can forgive sins by his absolute power, even without satisfaction.' And again, 'That God can forgive sins, without satisfaction, by his absolute power, appears so manifest to me, that I should think it a point beyond all controversy.' And still further, 'If God cannot forgive sin without satisfaction, it is either because he cannot as it respects his power, or as respects justice; but neither of these can be affirmed.'
'It is here manifest, that this eminent calvinistic divine ,was full and positive in his opinion that sin might have been forgiven without any satisfaction; and particularly that the justice of God did not indispensably require it. If I had asserted the same thing, did it become you, I say you, Mr. Cleaveland, to inveigh against me for it, and to load me with so much obloquy? Could you not differ from me in opinion, and yet observe some sort of decency and modesty in your opposition? But let me remind you, that I did not assert the possibility of forgiveness without atonement. So far from it, that the manner in which I expressed myself on the subject, rather implied a moral necessity thereof in order to forgiveness. And surely you will not assert any other kind of necessity; or a natural one, as contradistinguished from moral. At least, I am persuaded that no man who understands what he says, supposes any other. That I denied not such a necessity, but rather supposed it, will fully appear, together with your wilful falsehood and iniquity with reference to it.
'I must notice the method you take to prove that I had the design which you charge on me. You infer this from what I said of divine justice, as a branch of goodness: which opinion you suppose, but without reason, to be inconsistent with the doctrine of atonement. But what an iniquitous method of proceeding is this! On supposition I was mistaken about divine justice, (which I believe no one can show,) is this a sufficient ground to charge me with such a design as you speak of? This is the same kind of dishonesty that it would be in any one to accuse you of atheism, because he supposed some of your principles, pursued to their just consequences, would terminate in it; which probably may be the case. Yet I should think it injurious to charge you with a design to propagate atheism, while you profess the contrary, even though you have shown so little regard to truth and integrity, as you have done in many parts of your libel. One instance of this I must refer to.
'You insinuate that I hold every act of punitive justice in God to be intended for the good of the individual, on whom it terminates. Now would not any one, who never read my sermons, (on the divine goodness,) and took you for an honest man, conclude that I supposed it would be unjust for God to punish a sinner more than would be for his own good? Indeed, you say expressly, that, according to my principles, 'God would not be perfectly good, but cruel, if he should punish sinners any farther than could be for their good, or happiness.'
'Now, are you not ashamed, Mr. Cleaveland, of such prevarication as this? I did, indeed, compare God's acts of punitive justice to those of a wise and good earthly parent, or sovereign, who has always some good or benevolent design in punishing. But I expressly guarded, as you well know, against the supposition that all acts of punitive justice, whether in God or man, are acts of kindness to the suffering individuals. I said, in my sermons, (when speaking of the motive from which a wise and good parent punishes his children,) 'Is it not to reform and do them good; or, at least, with a view to the benefit of his other children, or those of his household, that they may be under due subjection? &c.—So that, in a good parent, there is no such quality as justice, really distinct from goodness; not even in punishing; for it is goodness which gives the blow.' This last clause you dishonestly introduce, as if I had not only used it expressly concerning God, but had thereby intended to assert that he never punishes a sinner but for his own good, in distinction from the public or common. And is not this a wicked, wilful perversion of my evident meaning?
'Speaking, just after, of a wise and good earthly sovereign, I said, 'he does not inflict punishments, but such as he considers needful for the support of his government; if not for the particular good of those who suffer, as in capital cases, yet for the good of his people in general, by way of example and terror, that good order may be preserved. So that, even in this case of capital punishment, the justice of the sovereign is not a quality distinct from goodness. It is goodness, or a regard to the common good, that takes off the head of the traitor,' &c.