I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.
Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.’” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.
Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. One of Pfizenmaier’s main goals in his book is to undercut this reading of Clarke, and I have to say it is fascinating. It has been a little while since I’ve read Clarke’s Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity, but I remember it well. Clarke is attempting to navigate tri-theism and modalism, and is convinced that both errors were being perpetuated in theology in his day. One of the most interesting aspect of Pfizenmaier’s thesis is that he narrates the close personal friendship Clarke had with Newton. In doing so, he develops Newton’s trinitarian thought alongside of Clarke’s (Newton wrote over one-million words of theology but never published it). Rather than being Arian, Pfizenmaier suggests, Newton and Clarke were both concerned with the twin errors of trinitarian thought, and they came to believe that the problem lay with a certain reading of Nicea.
Pfizenmaier quotes from a letter Clarke wrote to some Mr. Nelson. I will quote it here at length:
And that article in the Nicene Creed, [of one substance with the Father,] is now (through the ambiguity of the Latin and English translation,) by most men taken much otherwise, than the council intended it; For the greater part of modern Christians, (if we may judge by the writings of eminent divines,) understand it as if it had been “tautohousios” to signify, of one individual substance with the Father; Whereas all learned men know, that the Greek word [homoousios] never had any such signification, and that the Council meant no such thing; but, of the same kind of substance with the Father [ek tou ousia tou patros, so the Council of Nice explained themselves, though those words are now left out of the Creed;] The Son was, they said…from the substance of the Father: And therefore was not (which notion was then universally condemned) himself that individual substance from which he was begotten. But their meaning was; he was produced, not from any other substance, as man was formed from the dust of the earth,) but, after an ineffable manner, from the substance of the Father only. Which sense of theirs, is now generally mistaken” (173).
Clarke, and Newton, were homoiousians. They believed that persons and substances went together such that three persons and one substance was incoherent. Futhermore, they held that the Son was eternally willed by the Father from his own substance. The Son was still on the Creator-creature divide because the Son was not created out of nothing nor out of created matter, but out of God’s own substance. Furthermore, it is inaccurate to call Clarke an Arian because he did not believe that “there was a time when the Son was not.” Rather, the Son always was because he was always willed eternally.When Clarke was attacked on this point for leaving the Son’s existence in a precarious position, he responded with the immutable will of God, and suggested that being willed eternally by the Father was not, if anything, precarious, but incredibly stable.
Furthermore, rather than seeing Athanasius as the father of orthodoxy, Newton and Clarke saw him as the problem. Eusebius was the rightful interpreter of Nicea, and, in their minds, a Pro-Nicene theology, to use modern parlance, was a distinctively Eusebian and homoiousian theology. Note Eusebius’ explanation of the council:
When they had set this formulary, [the Nicene Creed] we did not leave without examination that passage in which it is said that the Son is of the substance of the Father, and consubstantial with the Father. Questions and arguments thence arose, and the meaning of the terms was exactly tested. Accordingly they were led to confess that the word consubstantial [homoousios] signifies that the Son is of the Father, but not as being a part of the Father. We deemed it right to receive this opinion; for that is sound doctrine which teaches that the Son is of the Father, but not part of His substance. From the love of peace, and lest we should fall from the true belief, we also accept this view, neither do we reject the term ‘consubstantial.’ For the same reason we admitted the expression, ‘begotten, but not made;’ for they alleged that the word ‘made’ applies generally to all things which are created by the Son, to which the Son is in no respect similar; and that consequently He is not a created thing, like the things made by Him, but is of a substance superior to all created objects. The Holy Scriptures teach Him to be begotten of the Father, by a mode of generation which is incomprehensible and inexplicable to all created beings. So also the term ‘of one substance with the Father,’ when investigated, was accepted not in accordance with bodily relations or similarity to mortal beings. For it was also shown that is does not either imply division of substance, or abscission, nor any modification or change or diminution in the power of the Father, all of which are alien from the nature of the unbeggotten Father. It was concluded that the expression ‘being of one substance with the Father,’ implies that the Son of God does not resemble, in any one respect, the creatures which He has made; but that to the Father alone, who begat Him, He is in all points perfectly like: for He is of the essence and of the substance of none save the Father” (93).
Clarke, therefore, with Newton, believed that their views were truly Nicene, if by “truly” we mean that Nicea as recast through Eusebius. As critical as Newton and Clarke both were to Athanasius, it is interesting that Athanasius would refer to their position as within the bounds of orthodoxy. The main line of their thought derived from the biblical argument that the word “God” in scripture meant “Father,” and that the economic subordination hinted to a real subordination in the Trinity (but not one which led to Arianism), coupled with the anti-speculative line Clarke was determined to hold, led him to forge an ancient via media between modalism and tri-theism without degrading into Arianism. Of course, in the midst of harsh polemics, such detailed argumenation does not do well. Clarke was deemed an Arian, even though he explicitly argued against Arianism, and his views, with his friend Newton’s, were lumped in with the anti-trinitarian sentiments of 17th-18th century thought.
So, any thoughts about this? What if someone wrote this book today? What would be the response?