Joseph Priestley 

The Logos Bible Doctrine
Plain and Obvious A River in Egypt
Doubts and Fears Assail Plato's Trinity
Jewish Church Filled with the Spirit
Thomas Jefferson Draft Board
Person and Being Religious Liberty
Who You Calling Idiots? Absence of Evidence

Joseph Priestley
 A History of Opinions 
  Relating to Christ  

The Logos

The evangelist John sets forth the parameters of the Christian doctrine of the Word in the prologue to his gospel:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    The same was in the beginning with God.
  • “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
    In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
  • “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
  • “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
    The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
    He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
    That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
  • “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
    He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
  • “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
    Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
  • “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.
  • “John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
    And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
  • “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
  • (John 1:1-17).

The simple-hearted reader might be forgiven for imagining John intends to communicate the fact that Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate. But, of course, we know John really intended to communicate. . .exactly the opposite!

"That very system, indeed, which made Christ to have been the eternal reason, or logos of the Father, did not, probably, exist in the time of the apostle John, but was introduced from the principles of Platonism afterwards." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, A History of Opinions Relating to Jesus Christ, Section 1).

Purportedly, John wrote this prologue to refute the idea that that Logos was a separate being from God the Father:

"On the contrary, it seems very evident that, in that introduction, the apostle alludes to the very same system of opinions, which he had censured in his epistle, the fundamental principle of which was that, not the Supreme Being himself, but an emanation from him, to which they gave the name of Logos, and which they supposed to be the Christ, inhabited the body of Jesus, and was the maker of all things; whereas he there affirms, that the Logos by which all things were made, was not a being distinct from God, but God himself, that is, an attribute of God, or the divine power and wisdom. . .It is, therefore, almost certain, that the apostle John had frequently heard this term made use of, in some erroneous representations of the system of Christianity that were current in his time, and therefore he might choose to introduce the same term in its proper sense, as an attribute of the Deity, or God himself, and not a distinct being that sprung from him.  And this writer is not to be blamed if, afterwards, that very attribute was personified in a different manner, and not as a figure of speech, and consequently his language was made to convey a very different meaning from that which he affixed to it." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, A History of Opinions Relating to Jesus Christ, Section 1).

Although trinitarians do not believe the Word of God is a separate being from God the Father, Priestley perceives this as a frontal assault. . .upon a view which did not as yet exist, according to him! Having noted the Logos is not "a being distinct from God," Priestley sails onward as if he had proved Jesus was not the Word incarnate, which John plainly and unambiguously teaches that He is. He expects the reader to follow him in this conceit, that John wrote his prologue precisely to nip in the bud any suspicion anyone might have formed that Jesus is the incarnate Word; but how many can?

Bible Doctrine

Joseph Priestley defends Unitarian doctrine: that Jesus Christ was a mere man, who never claimed to be anything more than a mere man. Is this indeed what the Bible teaches?

Jesus Christ is God!

Jesus Christ is God!

The Son is God.

Your Throne, O God The Work of Your Hands Let Angels Worship
True God Express Image Visible and Invisible
For Himself Son of God Kiss the Son
A Son is born Honor the Son Only-begotten God
Pantocrator Believe on the Son Only Savior
The Dead were Judged Everlasting to Everlasting

Jesus is Jehovah.

A Voice Crying Temple Visitor Stone of Stumbling
The Rock of Israel The First and the Last Lord of all
The LORD our Righteousness Holy, holy, holy Captivity Captive
House of David Answered prayers With all His saints
Israel's Savior Giver of Life Every Knee Shall Bow
Pastoral Supply I send you prophets Who forgives sin
I am He He is Lord Call upon the Name
Doxology God with Us Lawgiver
Great Shepherd You Only Lawful worship
Builder I AM THAT I AM Moses' Veil
Wine Press Lord Willing Secret Things
Boasting Excluded King of Israel Fount of Living Waters
Searches the Heart Till Death Do us Part Angel of the LORD
Take Refuge Has Reigned On His Forehead
Me Whom they have Pierced Stretched Out My Hands Head
Keeper of Israel The Amen

Jesus Christ is God.

The Eyes of the Blind Thought it not Robbery Eternally Blessed God
Fulness of the Godhead Great God and Savior Faith in Him
Redeemed King of Kings Spirit of Christ
Destroyed by Serpents Lord of Glory Renewed in the Image
New Jerusalem's Lamp Now is Christ risen Upholding all Things
Light to the Gentiles My Companion Miracles
Prosecutors' Indictment Sun of Righteousness Thirty Pieces
Testator's Death Author of Life The Blood of God
My Lord and My God One Mystery of godliness
God was in Christ The Word was God Shared Glory
Omniscience Omnipotence Omnipresence
Change Not Yesterday, Today and Forever Whose Hand?
Not of Man Receive my Spirit Believe in God
Only Holy Sole Proprietor Priests
Walk on the Water

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, William Holman Hunt
The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, William Holman Hunt

The objections to the deity of Jesus Christ are a standard brand, and have been so ever since the Muslims standardized them. They carry less weight than these people suppose:

  • “And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
  • “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
  • “And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.
  • “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
  • (John 20:26-29).

Plain and Obvious

Joseph Priestley might find it possible to 'explain' the prologue to John as John's effort to rule out any possible idea that anyone might form that Jesus had pre-existed His incarnation as the Logos, however there were precious few who could follow him in this approach. Priestley himself commended adopting the "plainest and most obvious sense of the Scriptures," but then offered naught but strained and incredible ones of the 'pre-existence' texts:

"Do not think that, by recommending the use of reason, I am about to decry the Scriptures. My appeal shall be to both, upon every subject on which I address you; and I think you cannot but see that the plainest and most obvious sense of the Scriptures is in favor of those doctrines which are most agreeable to reason. A good man will rejoice to see them thus go hand in hand, mutually illustrating and enforcing one another." (Joseph Priestley, p. 7, An Appeal to the Serious and Candid Professors of Christianity, by Dr. Joseph Priestley.)

The Vineyard Without beginning of days
From Everlasting Same Yesterday, Today and Forever
Behold, I come With the Father
Eternal Life Son of God
By Him all things were created In the Beginning
Thy throne Mind in Christ
Before me My Redeemer
First and Last Before Abraham was
Enduring Love Downward Mobility
Beginning Where He was before
Came down from Heaven In the Wilderness
Temple Vision The Firstborn
The Word Stands Forever From the Womb
At the Beginning of His way The Reproach of Christ
Root and Offspring Sons and Slaves
The Ending of the Sonship?

A River in Egypt

"But Lardner, with great probability, supposes, "there never was any such heresy" [Hist, of Heretics, p. 416. Works, IX. p. 516.] as that of the Alogi, or rather that those to whom Epiphanius gave that name, were unjustly charged by him with rejecting the writings of the apostle John, since no other person before him makes any mention of such a thing, and he produces nothing but mere hearsay in support of it." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, A History of Opinions Relating to Jesus Christ, Section 1).

When faced with history that doesn't come out his way, Priestley's strategy is simple: deny. It worked wonderfully for him, and it continues in avid practice by his successors in the Jesus Seminar, who deny whole reams of ancient history on grounds that they don't think it happened that way.

Doubts and Fears Assail

Justin Martyr wrote a 'Dialogue with Trypho, a Learned Jew,' in which he seeks to prove from the Old Testament, the only scripture received by Trypho, that the Messiah is eternal God incarnate. It might surprise even some Christians to know that this can be proven from the Old Testament.

"But now, by means of the contents of those Scriptures esteemed holy and prophetic amongst you, I attempt to prove all [that I have adduced], in the hope that some one of you may be found to be of that remnant which has been left by the grace of the Lord of Sabaoth for the eternal salvation." (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 32).

There is of course a 'catch:' it's easy enough to convince a Christian audience that a given Old Testament passage is Messianic, if the New Testament says that it is. But Trypho, who does not receive the New Testament as scripture, need only say the passage in question concerns "Hezekiah," and its utility as a Christian proof-text is negated. Justin can, and does, point out that none of the attributes of the figure discussed 'fit' with Hezekiah, but if Trypho continues to insist it's Hezekiah, a point of immobility is reached. But Joseph Priestley wants to take the understandable diffidence Justin expresses at the task before him as if it were his own diffidence, as if he's the one who can't quite make up his mind whether Jesus Christ is God! In Priestley's account, Justin Martyr is the first Christian to believe that Jesus is God:

"This language has all the appearance of an apology for an opinion contrary to the general and prevailing one, as that of the humanity of Christ (at least with the belief of the miraculous conception) probably was in his time. This writer even speaks of his own opinion of the pre-existence of Christ, (and he is the first that we certainly know to have maintained it, on the principles on which it was generally received afterwards,) as a doubtful one, and by no means a necessary article of Christian faith. "Jesus," says he, "may still be the Christ of God, though I should not be able to prove his pre-existence, as the Son of God who made all things. For though I should not prove that he had pre-existed, it will be right to say that, in this respect only, I have been deceived, and not to deny that he is the Christ, if he appears to be a man born of men, and to have become Christ by election." This is not the language of a man very confident of his opinion, and who had the sanction of the majority along with him." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, A History of Opinions Relating to Jesus Christ, Section 1).

No one who reads the Dialogue with Trypho can share this conclusion.

Plato's Trinity

If you talk to anti-trinitarians, you will hear all about how the pagan philosopher Plato invented the trinity. If you ask, may I have a citation, please?— prepare to wait a long time, indefinitely even, because the place in Plato's writings, either spurious or genuine, where he says anything about the triunity of God is surprisingly hard to locate. No one has yet done so. To give Priestley credit, he does not exactly say that Plato was a trinitarian, rather he claims that the Christian concept of the Logos is borrowed from Plato. Assenting to this proposition, however, will require us to do a little dance, a hip-hop hop-scotch. Who taught that God created by his Logos? A first century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt, named Philo, is widely known for this view. But the Hebrew Bible teaches that God created by His word, and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this comes out as 'Logos,' a Greek word whose wide meaning encompasses word, reason, ratio. While this word is unavoidable in philosophical discussion, at heart this is Bible doctrine: "By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth." (Psalm 33:6). Philo's works consist mostly of close commentary on the Old Testament, which, as it happens, teaches the very doctrine here explicated. But Philo, a neo-Platonist, is willing to make a connection with another figure, found in Plato's writings: an Architect, who first conceived and then built:

  • “First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask, What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is. Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect; but when he looks to the created only, and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect. Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or by any other more appropriate name—assuming the name, I am asking a question which has to be asked at the beginning of an enquiry about anything—was the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning? or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible; and all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense and are in a process of creation and created. Now that which is created must, as we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause. But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. And there is still a question to be asked about him: Which of the patterns had the artificer in view when he made the world,—the pattern of the unchangeable, or of that which is created? If the world be indeed fair and the artificer good, it is manifest that he must have looked to that which is eternal; but if what cannot be said without blasphemy is true, then to the created pattern. Every one will see that he must have looked to the eternal; for the world is the fairest of creations and he is the best of causes.”
  • (Timaeus, speaking in Plato's Dialogue Timaeus)

While Philo does seem willing to conflate the Bible figure of the 'Logos' with Plato's Architect, this scarcely gives Plato any claim to authorship of the original Biblical template. The accusation that the Christian trinity was in some sense 'borrowed' from the pagan philosopher Plato is one of those persistent myths publicized by the new religious movements which has permeated the consciousness of mankind, although lacking any basis in fact:

Jerome said, "Either Plato philonizes or Philo platonizes." Philo is properly classed as a neo-Platonist; the original doctrine, with its multiplicity of self-subsistent, eternal entities, embarrasses monotheists, so it was reconfigured to make the 'forms' into 'ideas' resident in God's mind. While Philo's theology might be viewed as a rough, first draft of the trinity, and Philo is without controversy a neo-Platonist, these two valid observations do not suffice to make the trinity Platonic. If I may offer an analogy, Augustine is like Philo a neo-Platonist, and Augustine believed in the doctrine of original sin. But where did Augustine find this doctrine: in Plato, who had no inkling of it, or in the Bible? If an author who is unobjectionably classed as a Platonist believes in a doctrine never taught or suspected by Plato, the doctrine cannot be back-dated and attributed to Plato, if it is missing from his work. In this case, the Bible itself clearly teaches that God spoke the worlds into being. The source being thus known, no other source for the Logos doctrine, taught with power and clarity by Philo, need be sought.

The pagan philosopher Plato's legacy is decided mixed, with the totalitarian politics of 'The Republic' and the apologetic for child abuse of 'The Symposium' counting as major black marks against him. However, he was right about innate ideas. The association theory of learning collapsed because in practice it just doesn't work; no one today believes that an infant is a blank slate. The mythical matrix in which Plato embedded this theory, the cycle of rebirth, holds no positive value. Plato himself, however, described this paradigm as a myth, a story. In the end he could not get away from the assumption that we learn by forming associations, and if we did not form these associations in this life, we must have done so in a prior life. In this computer age, it has become blindingly obvious that information can be hard-wired into the system. And Plato's perception that the very structure of reality is noetic: first comes the blueprint, then its instantiation,— is solid. Today, even the most scrupulous of atheists explain that DNA is a "language" encoding a blueprint for life: "Crick later developed this idea in his famous 'sequence hypothesis,' according to which the chemical parts of DNA (the nucleotide bases) function like letters in a written language or symbols in a computer code." (Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell, p. 12). These things cannot be talked about otherwise.

Sometimes casual observers, startled by the language of Platonism, take it for granted that nominalism must have won out historically, because no hard-headed modern could abide this description of the structure of reality. To be sure, the vocabulary has changed. But in reality very few people today would be able to recover the mind-set of the medieval nominalists who theorized that one tiger actually has very little to do with another tiger, so far as we know, except that we find it convenient to lump them together. People today take it for granted that it is the blueprint 'tiger,' encoded in a decipherable language, which has made these things to be what they are. Contra the nominalists, one tiger is indeed very much like another tiger, only a few letters in the specification having been transposed. The fact that people today think they have a materialistic explanation for this gives them an 'out,' permission to acknowledge the obvious. As it fell out, the discoveries that enabled deciphering the genetic code went hand in hand with the development of the computer industry. It became possible to talk about 'information' alongside 'matter' and 'energy;' people who think they are reductive materialists, people who want to be reductive materialists, accepted the vocabulary, not recognizing it as a Trojan horse. There is no way to talk about why living things are the way they are without using noumenal, intentional terms like 'code;' like all languages, this code has a 'meaning:' "These instructions can be effective only in a molecular environment capable of interpreting the meaning in the genetic code. The origin question rises to the top at this point. 'The problem of how meaningful or semantic information can emerge spontaneously from a collection of mindless molecules subject to blind and purposeless forces presents a deep conceptual challenge.'" (Anthony Flew, There is a God, quotation of Paul Davies, pp. 128-129).  So rather than blame and shame Philo for being a neo-Platonist, I say 'right on.'

Philo Judaeus is a very interesting author in his own right. While his allegorical method of scriptural interpretation is viewed with deserved suspicion by modern readers, his writings nonetheless contains nuggets worth mining, insights derived from a life-time of devoted Bible study:

Who was Philo Judaeus? God the Father
God the Word God the Holy Spirit
There is only One God Trinity
Philo the Heretic   A Philo Miscellany  

  • “And if any one were to desire to use more undisguised terms, he would not call the world, which is perceptible only to the intellect, any thing else but the reason of God, already occupied in the creation of the world; for neither is a city, while only perceptible to the intellect, anything else but the reason of the architect, who is already designing to build one perceptible to the external senses, on the model of that which is so only to the intellect -- this is the doctrine of Moses, not mine.”
  • (A Treatise on the Creation of the World, Philo Judaeus, Chapter VI).

Jewish Church

Just as, lazing on the grass under the summer sun, we feel free to see pigs, whales and centrifuges in the passing clouds, because their outline is indistinct and unformed, so observers feel free to make the original Jewish church anything they want it to be. There are few if any literary remains from this church still extant, exclusive of the New Testament. Some of the documents which might seem to originate from within these circles, like the Clementine literature, are pseudepigraphic. Our author, of course, has discovered that they were Unitarians. This is a discovery he will repeat for every group whose sketchy history defeats fact-checking.

The heresy-hunters of the early church era know of a sect they call the 'Ebionites:'

"Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavor to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practice circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 26, Section 2).

The doctrines of Cerinthus are gnostic and adoptionist, "He [Cerinthus] represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 26, Section 1).

The early Jewish church called themselves the 'Poor,' i.e., 'Ebionim,' no doubt in hopes of inheriting a blessing. That later sects should adopt the same name is scarcely surprising, whatever their origin may have been. Today's 'Oneness' Pentecostals call themselves 'Apostolics,' although their movement has no history prior to 1913. It would be naive for a latter-day explorer to stumble into a UPCI church and exclaim, 'We've discovered the church of the apostles!' To be sure they call themselves that. I used to drive by a church with a sign out from which proclaimed, in great big letters, 'CHURCH OF GOD.' I used to wonder, if that's the church of God, then what are all the other churches? But merely choosing such a name does not make this church genuine and all the others spurious. It requires further investigation to determine whether the various groups calling themselves 'the Ebionim,' which differ from one another, are survivals or innovations.

Origen confirms the presence, in his day, of Jewish believers who observed the law of Moses:

"Here he has not observed that the Jewish converts have not deserted the law of their fathers, inasmuch as they live according to its prescriptions, receiving their very name from the poverty of the law, according to the literal acceptation of the word; for Ebion signifies “poor” among the Jews, and those Jews who have received Jesus as Christ are called by the name of Ebionites. Nay, Peter himself seems to have observed for a considerable time the Jewish observances enjoined by the law of Moses, not having yet learned from Jesus to ascend from the law that is regulated according to the letter, to that which is interpreted according to the spirit, — a fact which we learn from the Acts of the Apostles." (Origen, Against Celsus, Book II, Chapter 1).

That the bulk of the Jewish church continued to uphold the law of Moses is apparent from Acts,

"And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs." (Acts 21:20-21).

Celsus, a pagan detractor of Christianity, had reproached the Jewish Christians with apostasy from their ancestral religion: “'What induced you, my fellow-citizens, to abandon the law of your fathers, and to allow your minds to be led captive by him with whom we have just conversed, and thus be most ridiculously deluded, so as to become deserters from us to another name, and the practices of another life?'” (Origen, Against Celsus, Book II, Chapter 1). While Origen defends Christianity by rebutting this assertion, it does appear there is some 'bite' to it, because the dominant church, that associated with Peter and Paul (though Peter seems to have waffled somewhat), did end by encouraging Jews to abandon the law, which exceeded the compromise enacted at the Jerusalem Council. That consensus decision permitted Gentile converts to escape the yoke of the law, but in no wise suggested it would be prudent for Jewish converts to join them. These two issues: fealty to the law, and Christology, are not the same, but there is likely an interplay between them. (Of course, Christians continue to respect the moral law, only not the ceremonial or ritual law.) The various defective Christologies ascribed to the late 'Ebionite' sects have no early attestation comparable to that available for Torah compliance.

The New Testament testifies to the existence of Jewish believers who did believe Jesus to be God incarnate. There is additional indirect evidence showing that, if indeed it is true that some early Jewish believers considered Jesus to be a.) the Messiah AND b.) only a mere man, still this was not the only view amongst this group. The Gospel of Thomas is an apocryphal work, unpopular with the orthodox for its gnostic tendencies, which nonetheless testifies to the deity of Jesus Christ:

"Jesus said, 'I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 77).

Yet the author's loyalties do not lie with Peter and Paul. Matthew's gospel affixes a 'Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval' to the ministry of Peter, from Jesus' lips: "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18). This passage is mostly familiar from its whimsical application to the Bishop of Rome, but the original intent must have been to validate Peter's version of Christianity. 'Thomas' also includes a Quality Stamp, but with a different address:

"The disciples said to Jesus, 'We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?'
"Jesus said to them, 'No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.'" (Gospel of Thomas, 12).

Of course, while 'Thomas' loves James, there is no guarantee this affection is requited: that James loves 'Thomas' right back. However, it is understandable, if James, the bishop of Jerusalem, ran a 'big tent' operation where various flavors of Christianity, including gnosticism and even Unitarianism, could peaceably co-exist.

Judaism normally recognizes 'orthopraxy,' i.e., right practice, versus the Christian concern with 'orthodoxy,' i.e., right doctrine. For example, the Kabbalah is a medieval revival of gnosticism; yet the Kabbalists observe the law, so they are tolerated in Judaism, even though their theology is anything but Biblical. If this preference for 'orthopraxy' were already in place in the early Christian centuries, it would tend to select for those Christian sects who continued to obey the ceremonial law, and likely also those who refrained from making 'blasphemous' claims for Jesus. So while Celsus may well have observed Jews gravitating toward the Peter/Paul axis in the church, later, Origen could not find Celsus' Jewish Christians, but only those who had continued under Moses' ceremonial law. The Jewish sects which survived long enough to attract the attention of the heresy-hunters were not a cross-section of the early church, but those only who could come to terms with a persecuting religious establishment.

Filled with the Spirit

Joseph Priestley finds it impossible to conceive of the Holy Spirit as a person, given that believers are said to be 'filled,' 'baptized,' etc., by Him:

"Also, the figurative language in which the Holy Spirit and his operations are sometimes described by them, is inconsistent with the idea of his being a separate person; as being baptized with the spirit, being filled with the spirit, quenching the spirit, &c., in all which the idea is evidently that of a power, and not that of a person." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, A History of Opinions Relating to Jesus Christ, Section VII, p. 58).

But similar things are said of Jesus Christ, whom no one has ever doubted is a person. He fills all things: "(Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)" (Ephesians 4:9-10); believers are baptized into Him: "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Galatians 3:27).:

Thomas Jefferson

The most famous attendee who warmed a pew in Joseph Priestley's Philadelphia church was Thomas Jefferson, at that time Vice President of the United States. Later elected the third President of the United States, Jefferson seems to have absorbed Priestley's lessons well. He did go further than his teacher, however; Jefferson was willing to admit that the Bible, taken as a whole, does not teach Unitarianiam. He was particularly angry at Paul. The Unitarians of a later era would follow Jefferson's lead in making these admissions, so that at present and indeed for a very long time, no one could ever describe the Unitarian-Universalists as 'Bible-believing.'

Americans are a tolerant people, and members of minority religions, such as Richard Nixon's Quakers, have been able to attain the highest office. Others, like Dwight Eisenhower, raised in the Jehovah's Witnesses, but baptized a Presbyterian in the nick of time, found it prudent to fudge a bit on the history of their religious affiliations. It would be impressive indeed if Thomas Jefferson had stood staunchly on his religious convictions, and nevertheless won re-election; however, he did not. He employed ill-informed proxies to vouch for his religious fidelity, evidently feeling that what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them:

Three of Six The Problem
Sister Heresy Then and Now
The Face of God Church Government
All Paths He Says
Mary in the Koran Post-Modernism
David Barton Et Tu
Desire of Nations Restoration

Thomas Jefferson
Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse

Draft Board

Historian David Barton has written a controversial revisionist account of Thomas Jefferson called 'The Jefferson Lies.' What David Barton does is best categorized as 'special pleading;' this is bad to be sure, but into the same category of historical literature fall many eminent persons who have laid the foundations for entire fields, like Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson's sometime pastor. This gentleman wrote a History of the Corruptions of Christianity which provided the framework for secular Jesus-study ever since. And his methodology makes David Barton seem a prince among historians. Socianian Unitarians,— those who deny the deity and pre-existence of Jesus Christ,— are present in the early church era, though quite sparse; for instance there is Theodotus the tanner, of whom it is said,

"(According to this, Theodotus maintains) that Jesus was a (mere) man, born of a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, and that after he had lived promiscuously with all men, and had become pre-eminently religious, he subsequently at his baptism in Jordan received Christ, who came from above and descended (upon him) in form of a dove. And this was the reason, (according to Theodotus,) why (miraculous) powers did not operate within him prior to the manifestation in him of that Spirit which descended, (and) which proclaims him to be the Christ." (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book 7, Chapter 23).

But this will not do, Joseph Priestley wants in understood that the entire early church, not just a few individuals, was Unitarian; and so adherents of an entirely different heresy are dragooned into the ranks, the Modalists. These men were actually Socinians, you see; it is only the calumnies of Tertullian and others that has ever misclassified them into their own distinct group:

"Praxeas the Montanist, and a man of genius and learning, against whom Tertullian writes, was an Unitarian, and so probably were many others of that sect." (Joseph Priestly, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, History of Opinions Concerning Christ, Section V, p. 49).

"Both Noetus and Sabellius were charged by their adversaries with being Patripassians: but the Unitarians of that age asserting, as the Socinians now do, that all the divinity of the Son, was that of the Father residing in him, and acting by him, was sufficient to give a handle for that injurious representation of their opinion." (Joseph Priestly, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, History of Opinions Concerning Christ, Section V, p. 50).

"At the same time Sabellius might mean nothing more than the most avowed Socinians mean by such language at this day." (Joseph Priestly, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, History of Opinions Concerning Christ, Section V, pp. 50-51).

"That these ancient Unitarians, under all the names by which their adversaries thought proper to distinguish them, have been greatly misrepresented, is acknowledged by all who are candid among the moderns. The learned Beausobre, himself a Trinitarian, is satisfied that it was a zeal for the unity of God that actuated the Sabellians (who were no more than Unitarians under a particular denomination). Epiphanius says, that when a Sabellian met the orthodox, they would say, " My friends, do we believe one God or three?" (Joseph Priestly, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, History of Opinions Concerning Christ, Section IV, p. 42)

Just like that, the whole lot are swept up into the fold of Socinians; the Sabellians were "no more than Unitarians under a particular denomination." After all, the documented views of Noetus are so very implausible, who could possibly have believed them? But these believers have been drafted into the Unitarian ranks, they did not enlist voluntarily. The trouble is, both groups maintain a following even in the present day, and if you gathered together Modalists from the United Pentecostal Church and Socinians, if any such can still be found, from the Unitarian Universalists, the resulting conclave would not be a love-fest. The Socinians say that they believe Jesus Christ is a mere man, while the Modalists insist that He is God the Father. This is not a small difference, although there is one amongst the manifold forms of modalism, that promoted by Pope Callistus I, which does have a tendency to collapse into Unitarianism. The original form of the heresy, Patripassianism, shows no such tendency. Impressing all the Modalists into the Socinian ranks, in an effort to plump up the numbers, is not 'history,' but this very effort by Joseph Priestley took the academic world by storm. The Modalists return the favor when they do 'history,' explaining that because everybody knows that Jesus is God, those reported to have disagreed have been grievously insulted, a calumny which must be rectified by reclassifying these folks as Modalists. Impressing the Unitarians, who have their own history going back to Faustus Socinus of the radical Reformation, into the Restorationist ranks is a very similar project. But this naked display of bias on Priestley's part is why you pick up the newspaper and read about Constantine elevating Jesus to 'God' status. What David Barton does is respectable by comparison.

The doctrine of the Trinity may be likened to an island fortress enduring assault from all sides: from the left come the modalists, from the right the Unitarians, sneaking up to the side are the Arians, and paddling off into the distance are the tritheists. The strategy for anti-Trinitarians is to reduce this diversity: they must identify other heresies with their own if at all possible. If not possible, and they must frankly acknowledge the divergence, as Joseph Priestley does with the Arians, then they are equally as appalled as are Trinitarians by the rank heresy. The goal is to position their own heresy as the default position; but why not the Mormon view, why not the Arian? Priestley cannot swallow the Arians as he does the modalists because there were Arians in his day, but few organized modalists. It has been tough to revive the Arian heresy in the modern era, as the Jehovah's Witnesses can testify: according to research by the Pew organization, they find it difficult to retain their own children in their organization. Only atheists do worse. In an ancient world still dominated by the pagans, it was a given that the word 'god' could be used in a weak sense, as when people talked of 'god-like Achilles.' It was hard for people to jump out of their own culture to examine objectively whether the Bible really shared this popular usage. With the waning of pagan polytheism, it has been harder to make that connection. But William Whiston was an Arian, John Locke was an Arian, Isaac Newton was an Arian; Priestley could not cozy up to such a bristly crew. I suspect if he were to run into a modern 'Oneness' advocate, the good vibes would not last long. Though he is correct in noticing the difference between their view and his pertains more to terminology than to substance, they will insist ferociously on clinging to their terminology and will not adopt his.

Person and Being

Speaking of a time frame inhabited by Tertullian, Eusebius, Novatus and Sabellius, Priestley writes,

"The distinction between person and being, which is the salvo at present, was not then known. Some persons in opposing Sabellius, having made three hypostases, which we now render persons, separate from each other, Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, quoted with approbation by Athanasius himself, said that it was making three Gods." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, History of Opinions Concerning Christ, Section IV, p. 46).

Is this account accurate: that the distinction between person and being, so common today in clarifying the deity of the three persons, was not known to Tertullian? Of course not:

"As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds." (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Section II).

One "substance" and three "persons" is phraseology that goes back to Tertullian, so what can it mean to say it "was not then known"?

The English word 'person' translates the Latin persona and the Greek prosopon, and in addition serves as functional equivalent to the Greek hypostasis. This word had been in uncontroversial use among the orthodox,— and it was even, evidently, accepted by the modalist Sabellius,— for more than a hundred years before the time period when he says it was not known. The Greeks, countering Sabellius, adopted the stronger hypostasis, but the Latins, whether alarmed by the stronger term or lamenting the poverty of the Latin tongue, continued to use persona, which did not thereby cease to mean itself or cease to be the very word Tertullian had used. Incidentally, notice how anti-Trintarians always try to make the doctrine of the Trinity hinge upon some recondite, elusive and unfamiliar controversy, decided late or never decided at all. Most Christians, challenged as to the appropriate use of unfamiliar Greek terms, will demur to offer an opinion, because they do not know Greek. But on the simple points where Unitarians hop off the Bible bus: the deity of Jesus Christ and His eternal pre-existence,— modern believers join a solid phalanx of witnesses stretching back into antiquity, who affirm these two points and indignantly deny the Unitarian confession that Jesus is a "mere man." None of the early witnesses report more than a scattered few Socinian Unitarians at any time in the early church. Mr. Priestley's vast scholarship is junk history. Yet it was very influential; after the Unitarians, having lost the argument on the nature of God, were chased out of the churches, they found refuge in the only safe hiding place where they could escape embarrassment by Bible literate challengers, namely academia. They founded the modern secular scholarly 'Jesus' industry. It is assumed in this field today that Jesus never claimed to be God, that His followers promoted Him to this status, because of this junk history.

Religious Liberty

Religious minorities can be reliably counted upon to advocate for religious liberty, and the Unitarian Universalists, always a small sect although their votaries optimistically projected becoming the majority in very short order, are no exception. Readers old enough to remember the Cold War will recall that even atheistic Communists, a very small minority in this country, were vocal and eloquent advocates for free speech. When reminded that countries where their preferred system prevailed were remarkable for the uniformity with which the grateful populace praised their Party overlords, because no officially Communist government ever respected anybody's right to free speech, they still demanded free speech rights here, and quite sincerely. There is nothing about Unitarianism innately congruent with religious liberty; the faultlessly Unitarian Muslims have very little of it. Still, in this country, Unitarians played a positive role in the defense of the First Amendment:

The Deist Jean Jacques Rousseau did not believe you can have 'political' toleration, i.e., that the various sects need not fear being proscribed by law, simultaneously with 'theological' toleration, i.e., liberalism, the religious indifferentism that insists all paths (except fundamentalism) meet at the mountain-top:

"The duty of adopting and respecting the religion of our country does not extend to such tenets as are contrary to moral virtue; such as that of persecution. It is this horrible dogma which arms mankind inhumanly against each other, and renders them destructive to the human race. The distinction between political and theological toleration is puerile and ridiculous, as they are inseparable, so that one cannot be admitted without the other." (Jean Jacques Rousseau, Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, Footnote 8).

Rousseau allows his Roman Catholic priest to remain a nominal Christian, although he does not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, by the dodge that we must respect the observances of our country. Is it possible that the road to religious toleration leads through the terrain of requiring everyone to adopt the same religious views, or does that one demand turn the procession around into the opposite direction?:

Isaac Backus
 An Appeal to the Public 
  for Religious Liberty  

It should be apparent that the project of religious toleration, done the French way, is self-defeating. If the state is prepared to tolerate the citizen's chosen religion, provided the various sects conform their teachings to the doctrinal paradigm the state lays down, then there is no religious toleration at all, rather the state is dictating what people must believe. The French Revolution proved the point.

The proof that you can have political toleration, wtihout imposing theological toleration,— that is, without refusing to tolerate the beliefs of those who give credit to Jesus when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:9),— is America, which has one and not the other:

Who You Calling Idiots?

It is an article of faith with anti-Trinitarians that the trinity was a new concept introduced by Tertullian. Why, he even admits it:

"It is well known, and mentioned by Eusebius, that the Unitarians in the primitive church, always pretended to be the oldest Christians, that the apostles themselves had taught their doctrine, and that it generally prevailed till the time of Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome, but that from that time it was corrupted; and as these Unitarians are called Idiotae (common and ignorant people) by Tertullian, it is more natural to look for ancient opinions among them, than among the learned who are more apt to innovate." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, History of Opinions Concerning Christ, Section I, page 22.)

Where does this come from? Where does Tertullian concede the common people were "Unitarians"?:

  • “The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own oikonomia.  The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity; whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually supported by it.  They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God; just as if the Unity itself with irrational deductions did not produce heresy, and the Trinity rationally considered constitute the truth.  We, say they, maintain the Monarchy (or, sole government of God).”
  • (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Section III).

If this snippet were all that survived of 'Against Praxeas,' then it might well be possible to sustain the interpretation that the 'simple' were 'Oneness' believers (not Unitarians; recall, Priestley impresses all and sundry to his standard on grounds that it is a 'calumny' to report Praxeas believed what he believed as opposed to the far more rational beliefs of Priestley). Already in the passage itself, it is apparent the 'they' have been set adrift; who are the 'they' who maintain the 'Monarchy'? Is it the 'simple' who resort to Greek theological terms? Earlier, Tertullian brings up this very question, who was first? His answer is, certainly not Praxeas:

"That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas.  In this principle also we must henceforth find a presumption of equal force against all heresies whatsoever -- that whatever is first is true, whereas that is spurious which is later in date." (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Section II).

If Praxeas' heresy is "absolutely novel," then Praxeas cannot be defending the conservative views of the 'simple' and 'common' folk. That this interpretation is ruled out by a more comprehensive view of the text in no way diminishes the enthusiasm of anti-Trinitarians for using the passage as a proof-text of the antiquity of their own particular heresy, whichever it may be. Tertullian seems frustrated with the 'simple;' he barks at them to lead, follow or get out of the way. They were not quick to adopt this "absolutely novel" new heresy, but neither were they adept at debunking it; they distrusted Tertullian's terminological innovations, but without them tended just to fall down and clog up the thoroughfares. As is clear from Tertullian's account in 'Against Praxeas,' the modalists made their pitch to the 'simple,' as well as the learned, on the basis of two common, shared beliefs: that Jesus is God, and that there is only one God. No Unitarians in sight.

Three distinct waves of the modalist heresy crashed upon the church. The first was Noetus' patripassianism: God the Father suffered upon the cross. That this was so fraught with paradox as scarcely to be defended is no proof it is a 'calumny' which no one actually believed. Rocked back on their heels by orthodox scorn, the modalists came back with Pope Callistus's scheme of Son/flesh and Father/spirit. This is far more amenable to Socinian Unitarianism, but not because these modalists will join Faustus Socinus in confessing Jesus is a mere man: they will not. The third wave was Sabellius' subtle and complex heresy, which conceded a great deal to orthodox terminology: Sabellius was willing to confess one God in three persons (prosopa). But Sabellius spoke of a 'monad' dilating into a 'dyad:' God was Father-only in the Old Testament, became Father and Son when a child was born in Bethlehem, and then Father-Son-Spirit on the day of Pentecost. . .and will ultimately collapse back into Father-only when Jesus hands over the kingdom. This 'changing God for changing times' is no more Biblical than the original Father-only patripassian paradigm. Though none of these three theologies can simply be identified with Socinian Unitarianism without further qualification, Priestley must impress these people into his fold to have more than scattering of troops in the field. His willingness to make them into what he wants them to be is also David Barton's original sin. Yet Joseph Priestley is not a scorned confabulator but a founder of the respectable academic field of secular Jesus-study. Evidently having a vivid imagination does not disqualify one from participation in this field, unless that imagination runs in unpopular channels.

The ground upon which Joseph Priestley took his stand could not be held; Unitarianism cannot be defended as a Biblical faith. The Unitarians would ultimately themselves concede this point and abandoned that ground, moving on to criticism of the Bible. By this point they are so far from Biblical literalism that many people find difficulty believing that they ever so positioned themselves. But so they did, and it wasn't without a fight that they gave it up.

A lucid presentation of next generation Unitarian thinking is made by William Ellery Channing. Their orbit would become even more eccentric with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and at the present day they themselves do not as a rule self-identify as Christians:

 William Ellery Channing 
  Unitarian Christianity  

Absence of Evidence

There is evidence for the presence of Socinian Unitarians in the early church, but it is sparse; Justin Martyr mentions them, and several of the 'heresy-hunters' report small sects here and there. Taken at face value, history reports them as small potatoes compared to big-time operations like the Arian heresy. But Joseph Priestley wants them to be the early church in its entirety. How to massage the evidence: reports of scattered individuals of this persuasion, with the desired result? The dog that did not bark: just as the fish never notices the water, this very silence, profoundly still and empty, enduring for centuries, is the very proof sought-for, that Unitarianism was the universal belief of the early church. The absence of evidence is evidence of. . . orthodoxy. The apostle John denounces the docetists, who denied that Christ was come in the flesh. . .but he omits to mention the Unitarians! Why, they must have been everywhere, "all the Jewish Christians" if you please, or why else would John fail to mention them?

"Could it rouse the indignation of the apostle John so much as to call those Antichrist, who held that Christ was not come in the flesh, or was not truly man; and would he have passed uncensured those who denied the divinity of his Lord and Master, if he himself had thought him to be true and very God, his Maker as well as his Redeemer? We may therefore safely conclude that an opinion allowed to have prevailed in his time, and maintained by all the Jewish Christians afterwards, was what he himself and the other apostles had taught them, and therefore that it is the very truth; and consequently that the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, or of his being any more than a man, is an innovation, in whatever manner it may have been introduced." (Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Part One, A History of Opinions Relating to Christ, Section 1).

Uh-oh. . .neither does John think to mention free love, vegetarianism or nudist colonies. The whole effort is of this character. Is an ancient book lost? Conclusive proof that its author taught Unitarianism. Does an early author praise a church for its orthodoxy? Why, its members must have been Unitarians, because who is as orthodox as they? The delight with which Joseph Priestley receives each new discovery reminds the reader how a fixed idea, like a collapsing giant star, bends matter, light and gravity all around it. Yet this circular fashion of reasoning was met, not with scorn, but with credit and avid imitation.