Re: Newton's theology

Murphy (
Mon, 17 Mar 1997 11:16:46 -0500 wrote:
> George Murphy offered the view that post-3rd [I think
> he meant 4th] century Christians can't go back and view
> things (such as christology) from an earlier standpoint.

To be pedantic, I said we can't go back _to_ the 3rd century
(to, e.g., Origen, who was not of course an "Arian" but whose ideas
could be read as Arian by later writers).

> Interestingly, this is just what Newton did. When he
> assumed the Lucasian professorship at Trinity, he was
> obligated to take holy orders within a specified time.
> Never one to take someone else's word for something,
> he undertook exhaustive studies of early church history,
> to satisfy himself that they had gotten things right,
> and concluded that they hadn't, at least with regard
> to the Trinity. He found Arius to be more correct than
> Athanasius, and ultimately ranked the Trinity along with
> the Papacy as one of the two greatest heresies in the
> history of Christianity.

Unfortunately Newton - & many others in the western theological
tradition - started out with a lack of awareness of why the doctrine of
the Trinity was supposed to be important. It's commonly been the case
that the orthodox have insisted that the doctrine _is_ essential, cited
proof texts for it, &c - & then have made no connection between it &
anything else of the Christian faith. It's treated as just a piece of
mystical algebra. & if that's the case, then debates about it reduce to
philosophical issues & questions about whether or not I Jn.5:7 is
genuine (which of course it isn't). The basic soteriological concerns
which I noted earlier aren't part of the discussion.
While I certainly don't buy all of Newman's _Essay on the
Development of Doctrine_, IMO he was right that there is a sense in
which doctrines have developed legitimately, & that such development can
be distinguished from what he called "degeneration". & it seems to me
that the course of both classical Arianism & even more of unitarianism
since the late 18th century are examples of degeneration which reveal
the flaws in their basic unitarian premises.
BTW, it's rather surprising that Newton & later unitarians who
spent great amounts of time criticizing appeals to I Jn.5:7 didn't
appreciate the significance of the fact that the Nicene Council &
Athanasius of course never made any appeal to it (not surprisingly,
since it was not part of the Greek mss tradition). The idea that it
played any role at all in the debates of the 4th century is quite wrong.
George Murphy