Lecture on “The Divine Nature”

The following is a lecture, which I have abridged and edited, on “The Divine Nature” delivered by Andrew Preston Peabody, an American unitarian Christian minister of the 19th century. Peabody graduated from Harvard University in 1826 at the age of 15, the youngest graduate of Harvard with a single exception. He was pastor of South Parish of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from 1833 to 1860. From 1860 to 1881 he was preacher to Harvard University and the Plummer professor of Christian morals, and he was professor emeritus from 1881 until his death.


The Divine Nature

Ephesians 4:6

“One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

Our text implies the unity of God. There is no need of defending this doctrine against Polytheism. But there has grown up in the Christian church a doctrine, which to those who reject it seems as much opposed to the divine unity as any form of Polytheism. I mean the doctrine of the Trinity. This will be my subject this evening. We will first inquire whether the Bible teaches or implies the view of the divine nature designated by this word, and if it shall appear that the Bible teaches no such doctrine we will then endeavor to ascertain where it comes from.

We ought at the outset to define the Trinity. But here we are thrown into confusion, for hardly any two writers will agree upon the same definition. We may, however, classify the definitions given, and may thus show the different senses in which this doctrine has been professed and held.

1. There are many professed Trinitarians, particularly of the English church, who maintain the supremacy of the first person of the Trinity and the subordinate rank of the other two. This was the belief of Bishop Bull, who wrote much upon the subject, was called in England a Trinitarian, and was deemed an able defender of the creed of his own church, but whose writings would pass (and justly) as Unitarian on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, his is nearly the same doctrine on account of which Rev. Noah and Thomas Worcester of our own state[1] were thirty or forty years ago cast out as heretics by their clerical brethren; and a singular fact it is that for similar views similarly expressed Christian ministers should on one side of the Atlantic be crowned with fame and honor in a Trinitarian church as defenders of the faith, and on the other side should be compelled to take up the cross of persecution and bear the reproach of heresy. But our American clergy were right. The second and third persons of the Trinity either are self-existent or were created. If self-existent they must be independent. Having within themselves the cause of their own existence, they must be complete and self-sufficient so that they cannot have come into subjection to any other being. But according to Bishop Bull they are subordinate, and if subordinate they are not self-existent, but must have been created, cannot then have existed from eternity, and therefore are not God. Bishop Bull, indeed, admits that they were derived from the divine essence, which is merely an obscure and involved way of saying that they were created out of nothing.

2. There are others (and they are very numerous in our own country) who understand by the Trinity a threefold classification of the divine attributes.[2] According to this view, God, being still one and the same being, in nature and providence, is called the Father; in the work of redemption, the Son; and in his converting and sanctifying influences, the Holy Spirit. Thus we have God the Creator and Preserver, God manifest in the flesh, and God dwelling and working in human beings; and these three are not separate beings but the same being regarded in three different aspects. This is the view presented in that very popular doctrinal work, Abbot’s Corner Stone; and from the general acceptance which this book has found I infer that this view of the Trinity is not deemed heretical.

3. Another form in which the Trinity has been held supposes three distinct and equal divine minds united by a mutual consciousness of each other’s volitions and acts.[3] Sherlock, an eminent divine of the Church of England, says:

“To say that there are three divine persons and not three distinct infinite minds is both heresy and nonsense. The distinction of persons cannot be more truly and aptly represented than by the distinction between three men; for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are as really distinct persons, as Peter, James, and John. We must allow the divine persons to be real, substantial beings.”

Howe, the celebrated Calvinistic divine, speaks of the three divine persons as “distinct, individual, necessarily existing, spiritual beings, forming together “the most delicious society.” This comes nearer an intelligible doctrine than most statements of the Trinity. But it sounds strangely like Tritheism,[4] and I hardly know how those who maintain it can be said to believe in the unity of God.

4. There is another class of Trinitarians, probably the largest of all, who profess to believe the doctrine without attempting to understand or explain it; that is, they hold the phraseology of the doctrine sacred but attach no meaning to it. The nearest approach that they can make to a definition of the Trinity is to say that it is three somewhats somehow united.

Such are the various forms, in which the doctrine of the Trinity is held in the Christian church, — forms so diverse from each other that were we to define the Trinity so as to include the views of all who profess to believe in it we could only say that it denotes God to be both three and one.

Let us now see whether the Bible teaches a Trinity. This doctrine, if it be true, is of the utmost interest and moment and ought to mould and shape all our religious notions and be recognized in all our praises and our prayers. We should, therefore, expect to see it very clearly set forth in a revelation purporting to come from God. But so far is this from being the case that Trinitarians do not quote a single text as declarative of this prime article of their creed. They admit that it is nowhere distinctly stated in the Bible. Formerly, the three stories of Noah’s Ark and the proverb “A threefold cord is not easily broken,” occupied a prominent place among Trinitarian proof-texts; but no one would think of using them now, and there remains not a single text from the Old Testament which Trinitarians now cite as designating a threefold distinction in the divine nature.

There are, however, numerous instances in which when the Almighty is spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures a plural form is used, — sometimes a plural noun connected with a singular verb, — sometimes a plural pronoun with a plural verb when God is represented as speaking in the first person. The Hebrew word in the Old Testament most frequently translated God, is Elohim, a plural noun literally meaning gods; but it is usually connected with verbs in the singular so as to indicate that but one person is denoted by the plural noun. There are also several instances in which we find such forms of speech as these: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” — “Let us go down and there confound their language.” Now though this form of speech has often been quoted to prove a plurality of persons in the divine nature, I can hardly conceive of its being quoted with such a purpose by any person moderately well acquainted with the Hebrew tongue. This plural form is a common Hebrew idiom employed whenever anything of peculiar dignity or magnitude is spoken of. Grammarians call it the plural of excellence or majesty, and truly learned and candid Trinitarians admit that it is nothing more. Calvin sets aside this argument for the Trinity. Professor Stuart in his Hebrew Grammar speaks of this form as simply denoting dignity or majesty and as having no connection with the idea of plurality.

Permit me to give you one or two examples of the way in which this plural of excellence is employed. You all remember in the book of Job the description of the behemoth by which is probably meant the hippopotamus. Behemoth is the plural of behemah, which means a beast. As used in Job it is a plural noun joined with singular verbs and pronouns, and evidently means a great beast, and the hippopotamus was denoted by this indefinite word expressing his vast size and strength because there was no name for him in the Hebrew. The same plural form is used when false gods are spoken of. Baalim and Ashtaroth are plural nouns. “The lords of the Philistines gathered them together to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god,” literally gods.[5] The same plural word is used when the Almighty says to Moses, “See, I have made you a god, literally gods, (elohim) to Pharaoh.”[6] Where it is said that the butler and the baker “had offended their lord the king of Egypt,”[7] the Hebrew word is lords (one of the plural titles of the Almighty), and so it is where Joseph’s brethren say of him, “The man who is the lord, literally lords, of the land spoke roughly unto us.”[8] Many of you well know what the Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament made by learned Jews long prior to the Christian era. These Jews must of course have understood their own language and must have known whether there was any mysterious signification couched in Elohim and other kindred forms; but they invariably render these Hebrew plurals by Greek nouns in the singular without any additional qualifying words.

There is another consideration of great weight with reference, not to this point alone, but to the Old Testament generally, and one which demonstrates beyond dispute that the Trinity was not taught in the Jewish scriptures. It is this: the Jews, in general, both in ancient and modern times, have been opposed to this doctrine, have left no trace of it in their standard commentaries and religious works, and have resisted the use of their sacred writings in proof of it. There was indeed a seeming exception to this remark in a numerous sect of Platonistic Jews whose head quarters were at Alexandria. They, in common with the later Platonists generally, maintained a Trinity, yet less as a theological than as a philosophical dogma drawing their authority for it less from Moses and the prophets than from Plato and his disciples, from whom, as I believe, it crept into the Christian church. These Trinitarian Jews have had a few successors in more recent times. But to the Jews in general, the Trinity has been for ages, and still is, the greatest impediment in the way of their conversion to Christianity. It is universally admitted that a very large part of the early Jewish converts rejected the Trinity, and it is a striking and significant fact that great numbers of the Jews continued to become Christians up to the date when, as we believe, the Trinity was foisted into the Christian system, while since that date the conversion of a single Jew has been one of the rarest of events.

These facts indicate that the Trinity could have formed no part of the Jewish revelation. But, if this were the case, we should expect to find this doctrine formally and explicitly announced in the New Testament and occupying there the prominent place which of right belongs to a radically new view of the divine nature. But how is this? It is not pretended that there is in the New Testament any express declaration of this doctrine; and there are quoted but two texts, in which the names of the three persons are said to be placed together in such a way, as strongly to imply a trinity in unity.

The text most relied on is the form of baptism “in or into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost or Spirit.”[9] One would think at first sight that this form implied anything rather than three equal persons, for what mean the terms Father and Son? If they mean anything, must they not denote the derived and subordinate existence of him who is termed the Son? It is of no avail to call this an unsearchable mystery. The words Father and Son as used in this connection either mean something or nothing. If nothing, then does the Bible mock man’s ignorance by the wanton use of words without meaning. But if they mean anything, they must at least denote that the Son owes his existence to a Father, therefore is not self- existent, and consequently is not God. Yet more, the words employed in this text to denote the Holy Spirit are, in the original, a neuter noun and adjective; and, though words in the neuter gender might naturally be used to signify a divine influence, we can hardly suppose that they would be selected to designate a divine person.

Is it said that the sacred writers could not have thus connected unequal names? What shall we say then of this passage, — “All the congregation worshipped the Lord and the king”?[10] Or of this,”I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels”?[11] Is it said that since baptism is a form of dedication the sacred writers could not have connected it with any but divine names? I reply that the Israelites are said by the Apostle Paul to have been “baptized unto Moses”[12] and that he also speaks of the disciples of Christ as having been “baptized into his death.”[13] In the former instance, men are said to be baptized into one who confessedly is not God, and in the latter, into what, it must be admitted, is not a person.

The form of baptism depends not for its appropriateness on the doctrine of the Trinity. The infant or the convert, on being initiated into the church of Christ, is most naturally and fittingly consecrated to the Father God whom Jesus revealed and manifested, to the great Teacher himself, and to the regenerating and sanctifying influence from heaven without which one cannot truly be a Christian.[14]

The other Trinitarian proof-text is the apostolic benediction: ‘”The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all.”[15] This proves nothing. Had a formal statement of the Trinity been here intended the second person would not have been placed first. The obvious sense of the benediction is: “May the favor of the great Head of the church, the love of his God and your God, and the free and constant participation of his sanctifying influences, be yours forever.”

These are the only texts which Trinitarians in general cite as declarative of a threefold distinction in the divine nature.[16] You must, I think, see with me on how frail a foundation the scriptural argument for the Trinity rests. But whence crept the Trinity into the Christian fold? This question I shall now answer by giving as brief a sketch as possible of the history of the Trinity. But the first part of my history must be that of simple Unitarianism, for vestiges of no other form of doctrine can be traced back farther than the third century, nor can we find any evidence that the doctrine of three equal persons in the Godhead was maintained till late in the fourth century. I am prepared to state without fear of contradiction that the doctrine of the equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be found in any work of the first three centuries, and that there cannot be found, with reference to the divine nature, in any genuine Christian work of the first two centuries, any statement of doctrine, equivalent, or approaching to, or consistent with the modern doctrine of the Trinity.

There is yet another remark of importance to be made with regard to the early Christian writings. They consisted not only of works for the edification of those within the church but many of them were written for the defense and propagation of the new faith and were addressed to Jews and Pagans—to the opposers and persecutors of the church. In writings of this class, the most important doctrine of the whole Christian system could not have been passed over in silence. It must needs have been clearly stated and expounded for the benefit of the uninitiated, and elaborately defended against doubts and objections. Let us see then what kind of language the early advocates of Christianity used in propagating and defending their religion.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter addressed a confused, skeptical, and mocking multitude, many of whom had come from afar, and were utter strangers to the new religion. Hear his simple statement, which made, we are told, three thousand converts: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as you yourselves also know; him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain, whom God hath raised up.”[17] Hear also in what terms Paul preached Jesus for the first time before the superstitious and idolatrous Athenians. “He has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he has ordained, whereof he has given assurance unto all men in that he has raised him from the dead.”[18] Hear also Paul’s synopsis of his own preaching in that bold defense before Agrippa, in which you will all feel that it was infinitely beneath the apostle’s character to have used concealment or equivocation: “I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead and should show light unto the people and to the Gentiles.”[19]Saying none other things”—could Paul have honestly made such a denial as this if he had preached so novel and momentous a view of the divine nature as the Trinity unfolds, especially when it is considered that this must have been an entirely unknown doctrine to Agrippa?

The only other Christian apologist whom I have time to quote is Justin Martyr, who addressed a defense of Christianity to Antonius Pius about the year 140, and about the same time wrote a defense of Christianity against Jewish objections in the form of a dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Justin, I remark in passing, has always held an unquestioned rank among the fathers. Speaking of Jesus (in the dialogue with Trypho) he says: “The Father is the author to him, both of his existence and of his being powerful and of his being Lord and divine.” “He was subordinate to the Father and a minister to his will.”

I will now offer you a few extracts from the fathers of the first three or four centuries, premising that I shall quote from no reputed heretic, but only from those, whom the Trinitarians regard as representatives of the Orthodoxy of their times. I shall have no difficulty I think in showing you that these fathers were what we now call Unitarians.

Clement of Rome, a personal friend of Paul, styles Jesus “the scepter of the majesty of God.” We find, towards the close of his epistle to the Corinthians, the following doxology, — could a Trinitarian have written it? “Now God, the Inspector of all things, the Father of all spirits, and the Lord of all flesh, who has chosen our Lord Jesus Christ, and us by him, to be his peculiar people, grant to everyone who calls upon his glorious and holy name, faith, fear, peace, long-suffering, patience, temperance, holiness, and sobriety, unto all well-pleasing in his sight, through our High Priest and Protector Christ Jesus, by whom be glory, and majesty, and power, and honor unto him, now and forever.”

Origen, the most learned of the fathers, wrote about the year 225. He says: “The Father only is the Good; and the Savior, as he is the image of the invisible God, so is he the image of his goodness.” “If we know what prayer is, we must not pray to any created being, not to Christ himself, but only to God, the Father of all, to whom our Savior himself prayed.” “We are not to pray to a brother, who has the same Father with ourselves, Jesus himself saying that we must pray to the Father through the Son.” If this be not Unitarianism, what is it?

I had marked for quotation many more extracts from the same and other fathers of the church, but I omit them for the sake of brevity. And now let me ask, could these fathers have been Trinitarians in the modern sense of that word? Could a modern Trinitarian have written the passages which I have now quoted? Had I quoted them, without naming their authors, would you not have taken them for extracts from the writings of Unitarian theologians? I trust that there is no need of my saying that I have endeavored to represent the opinions of those times impartially. During the second and third centuries, from a source which I shall shortly indicate, there was a gradual introduction of Trinitarian phraseology into the church. From the time of Justin downward, there was a gradual departure from the simplicity of the gospel and a tendency towards mystical views of the divine nature and towards the recognition of a threefold distinction therein, yet I believe, that, down to the end of the second century at least, if not of the third, the doctrine of three equal persons in the Godhead would have been deemed as grossly heretical, as that of the undivided unity of God is anywhere regarded at the present time.

We have now reached the period of the Arian controversy, and the celebrated Council of Nicea. The Arian controversy was on this wise. Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, in an assembly of his presbyters, maintained that the Son was of the same essence with the Father. This assertion was opposed by Arius, one of his presbyters, who maintained that the Son was totally and essentially distinct from the Father, being the first and noblest of his creatures. The dispute waxed warm until at length Alexander summoned a numerous council and deposed Arius and his adherents from their offices in the church. Upon this the controversy spread like wildfire, inflamed the whole church, and finally led to the summoning of the Council of Nicea, which met in the year 325, condemned by vote of the majority the doctrine of Arius, procured his banishment, and established what is called the Nicene creed—a creed not strictly Trinitarian, though strongly tending that way. This creed applies the title God to our Savior, but calls him God out of or derived from God, and thus does not make him a self-existent and independent being, so that this last step towards the full development of the Trinity still remained to be taken. There was a large number of the council that dissented from this creed, though it was backed by the authority of the emperor Constantine, who took an active part in the session. Only five years afterwards, the emperor, having become an Arian, repealed the laws against Arius and instituted a series of oppressive measures against the partisans of the Nicene creed. Ten years after the session of the Council of Nice, the Council of Tyre deposed Athanasius, Alexander’s successor, and reinstated Arius and his adherents in their former offices and honors in the Alexandrian church. From this time, for a period of more than forty years, the Arian party generally had the supremacy and the Nicene creed could not, therefore, have been called the creed of the church until near the close of the fourth century.

The Athanasian Creed is the oldest monument extant of the doctrine of three literally equal persons in the Godhead. This was probably written by Hi-lary, who died in the latter part of the fourth century. It has been recognized in the Catholic Church as an authentic summary of faith since the ninth or tenth century. It is retained in the English book of common prayer. It is a very long and verbose document, and I cannot burden you with the whole of it; yet I am going to give you a pretty long extract from it, for two reasons, first, that you may see in its own canonical language what absurdities and contradictions the doctrine of the Trinity involves, and, secondly, that you may contrast it, as I read it, with “the simplicity that is in Christ.”

“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Spirit uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated; but one uncreate and one incomprehensible. So likewise, the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet there are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; and yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every person by himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic religion to say, There be three Gods or three Lords . . . And in this Trinity, none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal together and coequal. . . . Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” The only appropriate response to this would be in the words of the apostles, “Who then can be saved?”

We have now seen that the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in the Bible and that it formed no part of the Christian system as maintained by the primitive church. Whence then came it? I have no hesitation in referring it to the Platonic philosophy. Plato had written much about three divine principles, which he had styled the One or the Good, Mind or Word, and Soul or Spirit. His followers had talked and written mystically about these same three principles until the number three had become with them a sacred number, and a divine Trinity had assumed a prominent place among the doctrines of the later Platonists, insomuch that it may be traced in all their works. In process of time, many eminent Platonists became Christians. Justin Martyr was a devoted disciple of Plato. Alexandria, which, as we have seen, was the birth-place of the Christian Trinity, was the head quarters of Platonism; and the early Trinitarian fathers were all Platonists and were therefore Trinitarians before they became Christians. These fathers, having been much and long in the schools of philosophy, could not come to Jesus with the simplicity of little children. They were unwilling to be disciples of Christ alone. They quoted Plato and Jesus Christ in the same breath, believed in both with equally unhesitating assurance, incorporated the Platonic Trinity into their religious creed, remodeled the Christian system in the Platonic mould, and then complimented the memory of Plato on his having anticipated the essential doctrines of the gospel. That this statement is not exaggerated will appear from the fact that in their extant writings the early Trinitarian fathers always quote Plato and his followers as freely as they do the New Testament on the subject of the Trinity. Augustine expressly says that he was in the dark with regard to the Trinity until he found the true doctrine concerning the divine Word in a Latin translation of some Platonic writings, which the providence of God had thrown in his way. I might, had I time, adduce numerous quotations from the Christian fathers to the same effect.

I have now accomplished, as far as possible within the limits of a single lecture, the work proposed. I have shown you, as I think, that the Trinity is not a doctrine of the Bible, that it was not believed or taught by the early Christian fathers, and that it derived its technical phraseology, its ideas and its ultimate form, from the Platonic philosophy. One word in conclusion. If the view which I have now presented be just, ours is no new doctrine, but the faith first delivered to the saints. What we believe, was the creed of the church in those days, when there were tongues of fire and hearts all zeal, when the word was quick and powerful, when the disciples offered their all upon the altar of their faith, and multitudes of such as should be saved were daily added to the company of the believers. Why may not the same creed bear like fruits now, and among us? May it not, God helping, if we are faithful to our light? Let us not, if we think that we have the truth, idly boast of our superior discernment; for it only makes our negligence and sluggishness the more blameworthy. Were we blind, we should have less sin. But now that we say, We see, our sin remains. If we have the light, let us walk as children of the light. If we deem ourselves, in our views of religious doctrine, more faithful than our fellow Christians to the sublime declaration of Moses, “The Lord our God is one Lord,” let us be no less faithful to the commandment, which he adds to that declaration, — “You shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”


[1] New Hampshire (editor)

[2] This is Sabellianism, also known as modalism, modalistic monarchianism, or modal monarchism. (editor)

[3] This would be called “social trinitarianism” today. Representative contemporary advocates are Richard Swinburne and William Hasker. (editor)

[4] A charged leveled by critics then and now against this theory of the trinity. (editor)

[5] Judges 16:23

[6] Exodus 7:1

[7] Genesis 40:1

[8] Genesis 42:30

[9] Matthew 28:19

[10] 1 Chronicles 29:20

[11] 1 Timothy 5:21

[12] 1 Corinthians 10:2

[13] Romans 6:3

[14] Since the time Peabody wrote, many scholars of the New Testament, including trinitarian scholars, have concluded that Matthew 28:19 is not original to the text but rather a later addition made to support an increasingly-trinitarian Church. “It has been customary to trace the institution of the practice [of baptism] to the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 28:19. But the authenticity of this passage has been challenged on historical as well as on textual grounds. It must be acknowledged that the formula of the threefold name, which is here enjoined, does not appear to have been employed by the primitive Church, which, so far as our information goes, baptized ‘in’ or ‘into the name of Jesus’ (or ‘Jesus Christ’ or Lord Jesus’: Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5, 1 Cor. 1:13, 15) (The Dictionary of the Bible, 1947, page 83). (editor)

[15] 1 Corinthians 13:14

[16] It is now admitted on all sides that the received version of 1 John 5:7 (“There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one”) formed no part of the original text of the document but, like Matthew 28:19, is a later trinitarian corruption.

[17] Acts 2:22-24

[18] Acts 17:31

[19] Acts 26:22-23