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Oldest Opinions concerning Christ.
In the Preface to my late History of the Corruptions of Christianity, I observed, that “ in a subject so copious as this, I am far from supposing it probable that I have made no mistakes, notwithstanding I have used all the care and precaution that I could. If any such be pointed out to me, whether it be by a friend or an enemy, I shall be glad to avail myself of the intimation, in case there should be a demand for a second edition.”
I now sit down to fulfil this promise, even before that demand be made, that I may give the earliest proof of my attachment to truth, and of my readiness to correct any oversight that I may have been guilty of. But those which I have hitherto been convinced of are so very few, and so very inconsiderable, (not in the least affecting my main object, or any one position or argument of moment in it,) that this early appearance before the public requires an apology, and this is two-fold : first, to answer some plausible charges of much greater errors and imperfections, but chiefly to take this opportunity of advancing some additional observations in support of one principal object in my work ; which was to produce evidence in favour of the doctrine of the proper and simple humanity of Christ having been the original belief of both the Jewish and Gentile churches.
After an introduction calculated to turn my attempt into ridicule,t the writer of the Monthly Review for June 1783, says, “ Dr. Priestley's sentiments on this doctrine,” (meaning the Socinian,)“ are well known, and if repetition could enforce conviction, he would long ere now have seen the wishes of his heart accomplished.”! I do own that I • Vol. V. pp. 11, 12.
+ By applying to it some remarks of Scultetus. See Mon. Rev. LXVIII. pp. 515, 516.
1 Ibid. p. 516. (P.)
have no wish nearer to my heart than this, arising from the fullest persuasion, that such, and such only, is the doctrine of the Scriptures concerning Christ ; that every thing that has been added to the primitive idea of the nature of Christ, has been derived from the vain imaginations of speculative but inconsiderate men ; who did not reflect that the proper glory of Christ is his being the messenger of God, speaking and acting by him ; and who, by giving him a divine and super-angelic nature, have raised such difficulties to the reception of the gospel by Jews, Mahometans, and Heathens, as can never be removed but by going back to the primitive faith on this subject.
Disagreeable as this publication must, from the nature of it, be to me, I rejoice that it gives me another opportunity of bearing my testimony to the great and important truth of the proper humanity of Christ, commonly called Socinianism, though I am far from considering myself as being, what this writer calls me, its great advocate. * There is another person who has borne a very different, and a much more powerful kind of testimony to it, than any that I have done; and on this account I shall always honour him as the first Socinian, and I will add, one of the first Christians of this age and country. +
I shall now proceed to mention all the mistakes with which I have been charged, and shall with great frankness plead guilty wherever I do not feel myself innocent.
SECTION I. Of the Nazarenes, Ebionites, and Alogi. I am told, that “ Toland, the infidel, in his Nazarenus, (so well answered by Mosheim,) has laboured to prove that the Nazarenes and Ebionites were the same class of Christians, and the true original believers in Jesus.”I
This piece of Toland's & I do not recollect to have seen, nor have I ever met with Mosheim's answer to it ;||
• Mon. Rev. LXVIII. pp. 515, 516.
+ Here, I apprehend,'Dr. Priestley alludes to Mr. Lindsey and his eminent sacrifices to Christian principle. See Vol. V. p. 3.
| Mon. Rev. LXVIII. p. 516, Note t. (P.) S“ Nazarenus; or Jewish, Gentile or Mahometan Christianity; containing the History of the ancient Gospel of Barnabas, and the modern Gospel of the Mahometans, attributed to the same Apostle. Also the original Plan of Christianity occasionally explained in the Nazarenes, &c." 1718. See Gen. Biog. Dict. XII. Pp. 246, 247. || Mosheim, not satisfied with answering Nazarenus, took occasion, iu his History, How then have I been so “ precipitate," as this writer says I have been, “in concluding that the Nazarenes and Ebionites were the same people”? He says, “ We have strong reason to suppose that the early members of both sects differed very considerably in articles of faith.”|| I can to insult the memory of the author, by contrasting “ the brutal rusticity and uncouth turn of John Toland, with the amiable elegance and specious refinement" of Lord Shaftesbury. The translator of Mosheim condescends to follow the example, denouncing Toland, as “ that contemptible author.” Afterwards he thus endeavours to excite vulgar prejudice; a conduct quite unbecoming a fair historian :
but the opinion of Mr. Toland that the Nazarenes and Ebionites were the same people, is maintained by Le Clerc and other eminent critics, so that few persons at this time, have, I believe, much doubt on the subject. It must, I think, be right for this obvious reason, viz. that their peculiar opinions are represented by the most respectable authorities as the very same; only some have thought that the Nazarenes believed the miraculous conception, and the Ebionites not. But Epiphanius says he does not know whether the Nazarenes believed Christ to be a mere man, or to have had a miraculous conception ;* and the Ebionites are expressly described both by Origen and Eusebius as consisting of two sorts, one of which held that Christ was the son of Joseph and Mary, and the other that his conception was miraculous.t Epiphanius also expressly says, that Ebion, (whom he took to be the father of the Ebionites,) held the same opinion with the Nazarenes. $ I also think it may be clearly inferred from Jerome's epistle to Austin, that the Ebionites, the Minei, and the Nazarenes, were all the same people.
“ It is,” says Dr. Maclaine, “ remarkable, that, according to that maxim of Juvenal, Nemo repentè fuit turpissimus, Toland arrived only gradually, and by a progressive motion, at the summit of Infidelity. His first step was Socinianism, which appeared in his book, entitled, Christianity not Mysterious." Eccles. Hist. C. xvii. Sect. i. Note f, IV. p. 248. It is, however, remarkable, that those who were properly denominated Socinians are mentioned by Toland only as objects of censure. In his first Chapter on “The Absurdity and Effects of admitting any real or seeming Contradictions in Religion," he says, (p. 25,) “ Though the Socinians disown this practice, I am mistaken if either they or the Arians can make their notions of a dignified and Creature-God capable of divine worship, appear more reasonable than the extravagancies of other sects touching the article of the Trinity." See further on Toland, especially his character by Archdeacon Blackburne, Vol. X.
• Hær. xxix. Sect. vii. Opera, I. p. 123. (P.)
+ See Origen contra Celsum, L. v. p. 272, in Matt., Tract. xiii. C. xx. Opera, II. p. 88; Eusebii Hist. Eccles. L. iii. C. xxvii. p. 121. (P.) See Lardner, VII. pp. 19, 20. 1. Hær. xxx. Sect. i. Opera, I. p. 125. (P.)
Š Ep. Ixxxix. Opera, I. p. 634. (P.) See Vol. VI., where Jerome is quoted at length. Early Opinions, B. iii. Ch. viii.
Il Mon. Rev. LXVIII. p. 520.
only say that I should be glad to see, and have an opportunity of examining this strong reason.
This writer wishes to know “in what part of Origen's works” I “ find any mention made of the Nazarenes.”* I answer, that as he describes the opinions of the Ebionites as being the same with those which others ascribe to the Nazarenes, he sufficiently appears to have had no idea of any difference between them ; but I own I expressed myself rather incorrectly, when I said he acknowledged that there was no difference between them. t. Tillemont says, that Origen seems to have confounded the two sects, & so that his expression is pretty nearly the same with my own.
No person, I think, can reflect upon this subject with proper seriousness, without thinking it a little extraordinary, that the Jewish Christians, in so early an age as they are spoken of, should be acknowledged to believe nothing either of the divinity, or even of the pre-existence of Christ, if either of those doctrines had been taught them by the apostles. Could they so soon have deserted so important an article of their faith, and so lately delivered to the Saints ; and, having once believed Christ to be either the Supreme God, or a super-angelic spirit, have, contrary to the general propensity of human nature, which has always been to aggrandize, rather than to degrade, a Lord and Master, (because it is, in fact, to aggrandize themselves,) come so generally, if not universally, to believe him to be nothing more than a mere man, and even the Son of Joseph and Mary?
That the Alogi were those Gentiles who held the same tenets with the Ebionites, or Nazarenes, among the Jews, is universally acknowledged. S. Athanasius represents all the Jewish believers as having held that Christ was only a man, || and says that they drew the Gentiles into the same opinion; and this is mentioned by him not in controversy, but incidentally, though very much at large. It is, therefore, the more worthy of credit ; and especially as he himself does not seem to have been aware of the very obvious inference that may be drawn from his concession. Accordingly, it is not denied that these Alogi were considered as part of the body of Gentile Christians, without having ever been excommunicated; so that it is plain that they were not deemed heretics. A heretic, the apostle Paul says, (Titus iii. 10,) was to be rejected “ after the first and second admonition," and the early Christians were but too ready to use, and to extend, any direction of this kind.
• Mon. Rev. LXVIII. p. 516, Note t.
Origen and Epiphanius acknowledge that the Nazarenes and Ebionites were the same people." History, 1782, altered according to the author's corrections, Vol. V.
pp. 16, 17. | Mémoires, IV. p. 192. (P.) “ Origène (in Cels. L. ii. p. 56, c.) paroit même avoir confondu ces deux sectes, lorsqu'il dit que les Juifs qui croyoient en J. C. vivoient conformément àl a loi, et etoient appellés Ebionites.” Mem. Ed. 2, 1701. II. p. 107.
See Vol. V. pp. 20, 21, 23. ll The Reviewer rejoins that these were not “ Jewish believers” but “ Jews;" for which he quotes the Greek of Athanasius. Mon. Rev. LXIX. p. 234. See Lardner, (Logos, Note 20,) XI. p. 110.
Let any person at all acquainted with the eager, contentious spirit of those times, and particularly the attention that was universally given to every thing that savoured of heresy, think, whether it be at all probable, that if the majority of Christians in those days had held the doctrine of the divinity, or super-angelic nature of Christ, they would have suffered to continue in communion with them, persons who openly denied those favourite doctrines, and whose rise and progress they could easily trace. On the contrary, these early Unitarian Christians were not only tolerated, but we find them mentioned with respect, and even apologies are made to them by those who held the doctrine of the Trinity; which appears to have shocked these Unitarians very much. But the generality of these Unitarians were what Tertullian calls idiote, unlearned, * and therefore we have none of their complaints from themselves.
SECTION II. Of the inference from Hegesippus. I have inferred † from the silence of Hegesippus, with respect to the Nazarenes or Ebionites, in his list of heretics, that he, being a Jewish Christian, was one of them; and this is ascribed by my critic, to my “ zeal to support a system, at all hazards.” # This, however, I cannot help thinking to be highly probable. He, being a Jewish Christian himself, could not but be well acquainted with the prevailing opinions of the Jewish Christians, the most conspicuous of which, it cannot be denied, was the opinion of Christ's being a mere man. Now can it be supposed that
• Sec Vol. V. p. 22.
+ Ibid. p. 17. | Mon, Rev. LXVIII. p. 520. (P.)