Saturday, November 29, 2008

Joseph Priestley's Biblical Defense of Unitarianism

Theological unitarians disproportionately influenced the American Founding. Joseph Priestley (co-discoverer of oxygen) was the theological mentor to Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. Madison appealed to the Arian heretic Samuel Clarke (not John Witherspoon) when asked to put his theological cards on the table. Richard Price was especially influential. And of course John Locke and Isaac Newton, figures revered by America's Founders were likely secret unitarians. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson never really gave serious philosophical or biblical rebuttals to the doctrine of the Trinity. They tended to bitterly mock it and related orthodox doctrines, seeing it as a self evident falsehood.

Their theological mentor Joseph Priestley however, did get into the philosophical trenches and argue against the Trinity (and Jefferson & J. Adams tended to simply appeal to his authority). Though Priestley, like America's key Founders, didn't believe the Bible infallible -- indeed he held the "plenary inspiration of the Bible" to be a classic "corruption of Christianity" -- he did make a strong biblical case AGAINST Trinitarianism. You may read it here and here.


Brad Hart said...

Sounds like Priestley was very much a supporter of Arian doctrine, which historian Sydney Ahlstrom states is one of the primary roots of unitarian faith.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Actually he was a Socinian, and criticized the Arians. Though as a unitarian, he thought Arianism one step closer to the truth than Trinitarianism. For instance, while he didn't have much of an affinity for the Trinitarians. He DID maintain a strong affinity for his Arian friend, Richard Price.

Brad Hart said...

I'll have to look it up to make sure I am getting it right, but I remember reading in Sydney Ahlstrom's book that Socinianism stemmed from Arianism, which had evolved over the years to reject Trinitarianism. Again, I need to look through the book to make sure I am getting it right.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Arianism certainly came first because it traced back to the early Church Fathers and "Arius" (AD 250 or 256 - 336). The Nicene Creed was done in large part to rebut Arius' position.

Socinianism traces to Faustus Socinus (December 5, 1539 – March 4, 1604).

Brad Hart said...

Yes, they are separated by over 1000 years. Ahlstrom states that is was during these 1000 years that the Arian doctrine evolved. I am still looking for the source.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I know Jefferson makes the following "biblical" argument, so I suppose Priestley does too. Here's the rub:


John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

So, all you have to do is claim that John 1:14 is a "corruption," and you've proved your point.

But of course you haven't proved anything. All you've done is invalidate direct evidence that you don't like. You can win any argument that way, and in fact it reminds me of what goes on around here all too frequently.

If the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us [Jesus], arguments to the contrary aren't biblical.

[Jefferson writes of John 1:1-13 in a letter to John Adams. Apparently he didn't make it as far as John 1:14, or if he did, he ignored it.]

Christopher Smith said...

Priestley was an Arian before he became a Socinian.