Alexander Campbell The Trinitarian System (1827)


C H R I S T I A N   B A P T I S T.


      Style no man on earth your Father; for he alone is your Father who is in heaven: and all ye are brethren. Assume not the title of Rabbi; for ye have only One Teacher; neither assume the title of Leader; for ye have only One Leader--The Messiah.

The Trinitarian System.

      DEAR SIR,--IN one of your fireside conversations, when interrogated on your views of "the Trinity," you gave an exposition of the first verse of the first chapter of John's Testimony, with which myself, and, I believe all present, were much delighted. In conversing with those present on that occasion, I found that they, as well as myself, had forgotten some of the more prominent ideas. You will confer no ordinary favor on us all, and no doubt it will be pleasing to many of your readers, to give it in writing as nearly as possible to what you spoke on the subject. Do, then, oblige us so far as to give us the same in your next number of the Christian Baptist.

            Yours, most affectionately,

      Kentucky, March 1, 1827.


To Timothy.

      DEAR SIR,--YOU will recollect that when I was interrogated on that subject, I gave sundry reasons why I felt reluctant to speculate on the incomprehensible Jehovah. It was also stated that there was no topic in common estimation so awfully sacred as that of the doctrine of "the Trinity," and if a man did not speak in a very fixed and set phrase on this subject, he endangered his whole christian reputation and his own usefulness. At the same time I remarked that I was very far from being afraid either to think upon this subject or to express my thoughts, although it was deemed so unpardonable to depart even in one monosyllable from the orthodox views. I moreover stated that I disliked any thing like speculation upon this topic in particular, because, if I differed in the least from the orthodox, I introduced something like a new theory, or something that would be treated as such, and either approved or rejected on theoretic grounds. If, however, you will neither make a new theory out of my expositions, nor contend for any speculations on the subject, nor carry the views farther than where I leave off, I will gratify you and other friends with my views of the first sentence in John's Preface to his Testimony--"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."

      1. In the first place I object to the Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity for the same reasons they object to the Arians and Socinians. They object to these, because their views derogate in their judgment from the eternal glory of the Founder of the christian religion. They will not allow the Saviour to have been a creature, however exalted, because they conceive this character is unbecoming him, and contrary to the scriptural statements concerning him. They wish to give him more glory than they think the Arians are willing to do. Now I object to their making him and calling him an "Eternal Son" because I think that if he were only the Son of God from all eternity, he is entitled to very little, if any more glory, than what the Arians give him. I wish to give him more glory than the Calvinists give him. They are as far below his real glory, in my judgment, as the Arians are in their judgment.

      2. But in the second place, I have an insuperable objection to the Arian and Calvinistic phraseology--On the doctrine of the first relation existing between the Father and the Saviour of Men, because it confounds things human and divine, and gives new ideas to bible terms unthought of by the inspired writers. The names Jesus, Christ, or Messiah, Only Begotten Son, Son of God, belong to the Founder of the christian religion, and to none else. They express not a relation existing before the christian era, but relations which commenced at that time. To understand the relation betwixt the Saviour and his Father, which existed before time, and that relation which began in time, is impossible on [333] either of these theories. There was no Jesus, no Messiah, no Christ, no Son of God, no Only Begotten, before the reign of Augustus Cesar. The relation that was before the christian era, was not that of a son and a father, terms which always imply disparity; but it was that expressed by John in the sentence under consideration. The relation was that of God, and the "word of God." This phraseology unfolds a relation quite different from that of a father and a son--a relation perfectly intimate, equal, and glorious. This naturally leads me to the first sentence of John. And here I must state a few postulata.

      1. No relation amongst human beings can perfectly exhibit the relation which the Saviour held to the God and Father of All anterior to his birth. The reason is, that relation is not homogenial, or of the same kind with relations originating from creation. All relations we know any thing of are created, such as that of father and son. Now I object as much to a created relation as I do to a creature in reference to the original relation of God and the word of God. This relation is an uncreated and unoriginated relation.

      2. When in the fulness of time it became necessary in the wisdom of God to exhibit a Saviour, it became expedient to give some view of the original and eternal dignity of this wonderful visitant of the human race. And as this view must be given in human language, inadequate as it was, the whole vocabulary of human speech must be examined for suitable terms.

      3. Of these terms expressive of relations, the most suitable must be, and most unquestionably was, selected. And as the relation wag spiritual and not carnal, such terms only were eligible which had respect to mental or spiritual relations. Of this sort there is but one in all the archives of human knowledge, and that is the one selected.

      4. The Holy Spirit selected the name Word, and therefore we may safely assert that this is the best, if not the only term, in the whole vocabulary of human speech at all adapted to express that relation which existed "in the beginning," or before time, between our Saviour and his God.

      These postulata being stated, I proceed to inquire what sort of a relation does this term represent? And here every thing is plain and easy of comprehension. I shall state numerically a few things universally admitted by the reflecting part of mankind:

      1st. A word is a sign or representative of a thought or an idea, and is the idea in an audible or visible form. It is the exact image of that invisible thought which is a perfect secret to all the world until it is expressed.

      2d. All men think or form ideas by means of words or images; so that no man can think without words or symbols of some sort.

      3d. Hence it follows that the word and the idea which it represents, are co-etaneous, or of the same age or antiquity. It is true the word may not be uttered or born for years or ages after the idea exists, but still the word is just as old as the idea.

      4th. The idea and the word are nevertheless distinct from each other, though the relation between them is the nearest known on earth. An idea cannot exist without a word, nor a word without an idea.

      5th. He that is acquainted with the word, is acquainted with the idea, for the idea is wholly in the word.

      Now let it be most attentively observed and remembered, that these remarks are solely intended to exhibit the relation which exists between a word and an idea, and that this relation is of a mental nature, and more akin to the spiritual system than any relation created, of which we know any thing. It is a relation of the most sublime order; and no doubt the reason why the name Word is adopted by the apostle in this sentence was because of its superior ability to represent to us the divine relation existing between God and the Saviour prior to his becoming the Son of God. By putting together the above remarks on the term word, we have a full view of what John intended to communicate. As a word is an exact image of an idea, so is "The Word" an exact image of the invisible God. As a word cannot exist without an idea, nor an idea without a word, so God never was without "The Word," nor "The Word" without God; or as a word is of equal age, or co-etaneous with its idea, so "The Word" and God are co-eternal. And as an idea does not create its word nor a word its idea; so God did not create "The Word," nor the "Word" God.

      Such a view does the language used by John suggest. And to this do all the scriptures agree. For "The Word" was made flesh, and in consequence of becoming incarnate, he is styled the Son of God, the only Begotten of the Father. As from eternity God was manifest in and by "The Word," so now God is manifest in the flesh. As God was always with "The Word," so when "The Word" becomes flesh, he is Emanuel, God with us. As God was never manifest but by "The Word," so the heavens and the earth, and all things were created by "The Word." And as "The Word" ever was the effulgence or representation of the invisible God, so he will ever be known and adored as "The Word of God." So much for the divine and eternal relation between the Saviour and God. You will easily perceive that I carry these views no farther than to explain the nature of that relation uncreated and unoriginated which the inspired language inculcates.

      These views place us on a lofty eminence whence we look down upon the Calvinistic ideas of "eternal filiation," "eternal Generation," "eternal Son," as midway betwixt us and Arianism. From this sublime and lofty eminence we see the Socinian moving upon a hillock; the Arian upon a hill; and the Calvinist, upon a mountain; all of which lose their disproportion to each other because of the immense height above them to which this view elevates us. The first sentence of John I paraphrase thus: From eternity was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was, I say, from eternity with God. By him all things were made, and he became flesh and dwelt among us. He became a child born and a son of man. As such he is called Emanuel, Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, Only Begotten of the Father.

      I can give the above views upon no other authority than my own reasonings. I learned them from nobody--I found them in no book. It is true, indeed, I have held the idea for sixteen years that Jesus is called the Son of God, not because of an "eternal generation," (which I conceive to be nonsense,) but because he was born as the angel described to Mary. This is now pretty generally received by a great many christians. Nor would I dispute or contend for this as a theory or speculation with any body. I could, indeed, amplify considerably, and perhaps obviate some difficulties by following up farther the hints submitted; but such are my views of [334] the import of the beginning of John's testimony. You will remember that I make no systems, and although there are some abstract reasonings upon terms (as indeed much of our reasonings about language are) in the preceding, it is only for the purpose of getting into the sacred import of a style from which we have been proscribed by a speculating philosophy. I have acceded to our request with more ease than I could have done, had it not been for a few prating bodies who are always striving to undo my influence by the cry of Unitarianism, or Socinianism, or some other obnoxious ism. From all isms may the Lord save us!

            Yours truly,


[The Christian Baptist 4 (May 1827): 333-335.]


      Alexander Campbell's "The Trinitarian System" was first published in The Christian Baptist, Vol. 4, No. 10, May 1827. The electronic version of the letter has been transcribed from the College Press (1983) reprint of The Christian Baptist, ed. Alexander Campbell (Cincinnati: D. S. Burnet, 1835), pp. 333-335.

      Pagination in the electronic version has been represented by placing the page number in brackets following the last complete word on the printed page. I have let stand variations and inconsistencies in the author's (or editor's) use of italics, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling in the letter. Emendations are as follows:

            Printed Text [ Electronic Text
 p. 333:    particu lar, [ particular,

      Addenda and corrigenda are earnestly solicited.

Ernie Stefanik
Derry, PA

Created 8 September 1998.
Updated 6 July 2003.

Alexander Campbell The Trinitarian System (1827)

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