By: Dr. Amtul Q Farhat
Dr Joseph priestly (1733–1804), was a British Scientist, Natural Philosopher and Theologian who first discovered Oxygen gas. As a Unitarian Theologian, Dr Priestley wanted to return Christianity to its “primitive” or “pure” form by eliminating the “corruptions” which had accumulated over many centuries.
One of his major works the Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religions first published in 1771 shocked and appalled many readers, primarily because it challenged basic Christian orthodoxies such as the divinity of Christ. The History of Corruptions of Christianity was initially added as the fourth part of this book. It became so voluminous that he had to issue it separately. First published in 1782, Dr Priestley believed that The History of Corruptions of Christianity was “the most valuable” work he ever published.
The two volume book has various sections tracing history of distortions and corruptions in all the major doctrines of Christianity such as Trinity, Atonement, Baptism, Grace, Original Sin, Veneration of saints, angles and relics, State of Dead and the Lord’s Supper to its origins. Dr Priestly retrieves the sequential details of history as to how the corruptions were gradually incorporated in to a monotheistic religion of Jesus; both unintentionally and intentionally. The work is original and the evidence has been taken either from New Testament or from the writings of scholars and theologians of the apostolic age and around 500 years after that. It contains more than 1800 original quotes regarding unity of God alone. Dr Priestly writes:
“——– I have taken a good deal of pains to read, or at least look carefully through, many of the most capital works of the ancient Christian writers, in order to form a just idea of their general principles and turn of thinking, and to collect such passages as might occur for my purpose”. —- (p-xii)
Some of his excerpts regarding Trinity and Atonement are presented here.
The Doctrine of Trinity:
The doctrine of the Trinity is commonly expressed as: “One God, three Persons”. The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible and does not make philosophical sense. It was first used by Tertullian (c.155-230). The doctrine was formally defined in the Nicene Creed, which declared Jesus to be: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”Dr Priestly was of purely humanitarian view of Jesus and he sees Jesus as a mere man and nothing more than a mere man. He argues that that the Trinity Doctrine has not been commanded like the Doctrine of Unity of God which has been commanded repeatedly and forcefully and linked to severe punishments in the scriptures:
“Why was not the doctrine of the Trinity taught as explicitly, and in as definite a manner, in the New Testament at least, as the doctrine of the divine Unity is taught in both the Old and New Testaments, if it be a truth? And why is the doctrine of the Unity always delivered in so unguarded a manner, and without any exception made in favour of the Trinity, to prevent any mistake with respect to it, as is always now done in our orthodox catechisms, creeds, and discourses on the subject?” (P-321)
Dr. Priestly writes that the original apostles and Gentiles considered Jesus only a man and the Promised Messiah. He writes:
“—–Not only do we find no trace of so prodigious a change in the ideas which the apostles entertained concerning Christ, as from that of a man like themselves, (which it must be acknowledged were the first that they entertained,) to that of the most high God, or one who was in any sense their maker or preserver, that when their minds were most fully enlightened, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, and to the latest period of their ministry, they continued to speak of him in the same style; even when it is evident they must have intended to speak of him in a manner suited to his state of greatest exaltation and glory”. (P-14)
The doctrine was incorporated gradually even though it is claimed that it was taught by early apostles. The first step made was the personification of Logos. However, before the council of Nice when the Divinity was added to the status of Jesus Christ, supremacy was always ascribed to the Father.
“There is a pretty easy gradation in the progress of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ; as he was first thought to be a God in some qualified sense of the word, a distinguished emanation from the supreme mind, and then the logos or wisdom of God personified; and it was not till near four hundred years after Christ that he was thought to be properly equal to the Father. Whereas, on the other hand, it is now pretended, that the apostles taught the doctrine of the proper divinity of Christ; and yet it cannot be denied that, in the very times of the apostles, the Jewish church, and many of the Gentiles, held the opinion of his being a mere man” (p-313)
Dr Priestly reveals that a crucified man was considered an obstacle for propagation of Christianity and that image had to be nullified.
“— All the early heresies arose from men who wished well to the gospel, and who meant to recommend it to the Heathens, and especially to philosophers among them, whose prejudices they found great difficulty in conquering. ……. The more philosophical part of them, stumbled the most, was the doctrine of a crucified Saviour. They could not submit to become the disciples of a man who had been exposed upon a cross, like the vilest malefactor. Of this objection to Christianity we find traces in all the early writers, who wrote in defence of the gospel against the unbelievers of their age, to the time of Lactantius; and probably it may be found much later. He says, “I know that many fly from the truth out of their abhorrence of the cross.”1 “We, who only learn from history that crucifixion was a kind of death to which slaves and the vilest of malefactors were exposed, can but very imperfectly enter into their prejudices, so as to feel what they must have done with respect to it. The idea of a man executed at Tyburn, without anything to distinguish him from other malefactors, is but an approach to the case of our Saviour.
The apostle Paul speaks of the crucifixion of’ Christ as the great obstacle to the reception of the gospel…..” (Section 2 p 24)