Essay / Theology

William Burkitt: Observe and Learn Hence

William Burkitt was born this day (July 25) in 1650. Burkitt was a graduate of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and an Anglican minister. He was the author of the celebrated Expository Notes on the New Testament, published in two volumes about 1700. Later luminaries such as Matthew Henry and Charles Spurgeon recommended this work highly.

Burkitt launched his work without an elaborate prologue or declaration of his intentions in writing a voluminous commentary on the New Testament. He just started right in at Matthew 1 and kept going through Revelation. But he did provide one of those looooong sub-titles which tell the whole story:

Expository Notes, with Practical Observations, on the New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ,

Wherein the Sacred Text is at Large Recited, The Sense Explained, and the Instructive Example of the Blessed Jesus, and His Holy Apostles, to our Imitation Recommended.

The Whole Designed to Encourage the Reading of the Scriptures in Private Families, and to Render the Daily Perusal of Them Profitable and Delightful.

For an idea of how he intended “the reading of the scriptures in private families” to be conducted, you can see the relevant chapter of his book, A Help and Guide to Christian Families.

Burkitt was an ardent church-of-England man, and his notes on the New Testament are designed to assist readers in knowing the mind of the church even as they read alone. The notes are like a very full study Bible.

Nineteenth-century printings of the Expository Notes are available online through Google Books (volume 1, volume 2). A while ago, I used their in-book search function to see how often Burkitt used the word “Trinity” in his exposition of the New Testament. It’s a pretty good window into the status of the doctrine in the minds of conservative Christians around the year 1700. Beyond that historical interest, though, William Burkitt is a good Bible teacher, so reading his notes has lasting value. His handling of the doctrine of the Trinity is roughly how a responsible pastor ought to handle the doctrine today. Burkitt is a skillful and cautious interpreter of Scripture; he is patient, but has an especially keen eye for the practical things.

If you want the short version of Burkitt’s view of the Trinity, here it is: He’s for it. You may now go and read something else.

If you want to see the details, here they are. He mentions the Trinity about 19 times in his Notes. That may not seem like a lot of press for such an important doctrine, but remember that my electronic search only found the word Trinity, not the concept. That’s always an important distinction (“O, Don Carson, deliver us from the dreaded word-concept fallacy!”), but it is especially germane to the Trinity, which is a Bible idea but not a Bible word. The passage where we might most expect Burkitt to use the T-word, John 1:1, does not show up on a word-search. But at that passage, he says “Learn hence,” that is, from this passage you should learn, “That the Son is a Person distinct from the Father, but of the same essence and nature with the Father; he is God of God, very God of very God; being of one substance with the Father,” and so on, using the language of the Nicene Creed to explain the sense of John’s prologue. Burkitt even goes out of his way to denounce Socinians and other anti-Trinitarians, but all without using the T-word.

Another thing to note before looking at the nineteen passages is that Burkitt is committed to staying within the bounds of Scripture. According to his sub-title, he intends to “recite the sacred text at large,” that is, print the entire New Testament verbatim, and then explain the sense. “Observe,” he says, and “note,” or “learn hence,” or “from this we learn that…” He does not want to add a layer of human tradition over the top of the text and its sense. He is convinced, however, that the church’s tradition has rightly given the sense, the real meaning, of the New Testament. Specifically, he thinks the Church of England has got it right: He takes the New Testament to teach the Protestant positions over against the Catholic ones, and the Anglican ones over against the Baptist ones, and so on. Cynical readers will say the game is fixed in advance, and Burkitt’s Anglican decoder ring will make everything come out Anglican. But cynical readers are no help to anyone, least of all themselves.

In the first few pages of the Notes there is an interesting application of this principle of staying within the bounds of Scripture. In commenting on the first chapter of Matthew (1:25), Burkitt teaches about the virgin birth of Christ, and goes on to note that many readers have thought that Mary continued to be a virgin for the rest of her life. He sketches out a number of arguments in favor of this view, including the grammar of this passage, other biblical evidence, possible objections, and the opinions of some church fathers. But after quoting Augustine on the perpetual virginity of Mary, Burkitt also quotes his warning that “What the Virgin was afterwards is of small concern to the mystery, therefore not to be enquired after.” The perpetual virginity of Mary, that is, is “piously believed, though not in Scripture positively asserted.” As such, Burkitt objects strongly to the Roman Catholic church pronouncing it to be an article of faith, necessary for Christians to believe. It is pretty clear that William Burkitt believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary, but admits that since it is not directly taught in Scripture, no teacher has authority to teach it as if it is a truth certainly revealed to the faithful.

But when he turns to the Trinity, Burkitt has no such reticence. He teaches it as the true sense of the words of Scripture, clearly revealed and therefore binding as an article of faith on all believers. The full divinity of the Son, the true personality of the Spirit, the triunity of the one divine essence, and the eternal generation of the Son are all presented here as the meaning of what is said in Scripture.

Of the nineteen page-occurrences of “Trinity” in the Notes, three are from the Baptism of Christ in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Burkitt says the same words in his notes on all three synoptics: That the baptism in the Jordan is “the solemn inauguration of Christ into his prophetic office,” marked by a threefold miracle: the open heaven, the descent of the dove, and the voice of the Father. The open heaven signifies the reversal of the curse: “As the first Adam shuts us out of heaven, the second Adam lets us into it; he opened heaven to us by his meritorious passion, and he keeps it open by his prevailing intercession.”

The descent of the dove is “an evidence of the blessed Trinity; the Father speaks from heaven, the Son comes out of the water, and the Holy Ghost appears upon him. Hence we gather, That the Holy Ghost is not a quality or an operation, but a person, and a person really distinct from the Father and the Son.”

And the voice of the Father pronounces

1. The nearness of Christ’s relation to himself, This is my Son, not by adoption, but by eternal generation.
2. The endearedness of his person, This is my beloved Son.
3. The fruit and benefit of this near and dear relation unto us, In him I am well pleased.
Note, 1. That there is no possibility for any person to please God out of Christ; both our persons and our performances find acceptance only for his sake. 2. That in and through Christ, God is well pleased with all believers: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, &c.

The baptism of Christ has always been a favorite passage for adoptionists, people who teach that Jesus was merely a human who later became divine when he received a special anointing from God at the beginning of his ministry. Burkitt waves that interpretation aside with the phrase, “my Son, not by adoption, but by eternal generation.” The Sonship of Jesus is not temporal or adventitious; it is eternal and belonging to the essence of Godhead.

The next occurrence is at the other end of Matthew, in the great commission of Matthew 28. Here, Burkitt (good Anglican that he is) has much to say about how, in the case of infants, you don’t have to teach and make disciples out of them before you can baptize them. Then he turns his energy to the triune name, and says:

Observe farther, In whose name persons are to be baptized: In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Where we have a profession of our belief in the Holy Trinity, a dedication of the person to the worship and service of the Holy Trinity, and a stipulation or covenant-promise that we will continue faithful in the service of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to our lives’ end.

Burkitt’s practical orientation is on fine display here: We are to believe in the Trinity, be dedicated to worship and serve the Trinity, and as Christians we have pledged to spend our lives in faithfulness to the Trinity.

In Mark 13:32, Jesus says that nobody knows the day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man, not even the Son, but only the Father. Here Burkitt provides the traditional explanation for how Jesus could be ignorant:

Christ himself did not know it as man, but as God only. The knowledge and revelation of this was no part of Christ’s prophetic office, it being one of those times and seasons which the Father has put in his own power, Acts i.7. Consider Christ as God, or the second Person in the Trinity, and to affirm that there is any thing which he does not know, is blasphemy; but to consider him as the Messias, and to say that there were some things which Christ, as such, did not know, is no blasphemy. For though Christ as God was equal with the Father, yet as Messias, or God-man, he was inferior to the Father, his servant, or messenger, and could do nothing of himself, and did not know all things.

Burkitt uses the phrase, “second Person in the Trinity” to secure the deity of Christ in an absolute way. He uses the phrase for similar purposes in his note on Col. 1:22, where he says “In order to our reconciliation with God, it pleased Christ, the second person in the ever-glorious Trinity, to assume a body of flesh, that he might be of the same nature with us…”

In the first chapter of Luke, Gabriel announces to Mary that the Spirit will come over her (in the KJV) “that holy thing” to be born of her will be the Son of God. Burkitt wants to make it clear that the entire Trinity is at work in bringing about the incarnation, but he has a good explanation for why the Bible and the creed (with its summary phrase “he was conceived by the Holy Ghost”) specify the Spirit as the agent who effected the incarnation: because the forming of the physical body of the incarnate Christ was a work of sanctifying, setting apart:

…that is, the Holy Ghost shall prepare and sanctify so much of thy flesh, blood, or seed, as shall constitute the body of Christ. For though it was a work of the whole Trinity, yet it is ascribed particularly to the Holy Ghost, sanctification being his peculiar work. And the title and epithet of ‘that holy thing,’ showeth the purity and immaculateness of Christ’s human nature, and that none was ever born thus holy and immaculate but Christ only; because none had ever such a way and means of conception, but only he: therefore, that holy thing shall be called the Son of God; not constituted and made, but evidenced and declared. Christ was God before he assumed flesh, even from eternity; but his taking flesh in this manner evidences him to be the Son of God.

Burkitt’s comments on the gospel of John are of a fine trinitarian character throughout, as they would have to be if they are to be in the spirit of that gospel. Chapter 1 and Chapter 5 are especially rich in Burkitt’s notes, and his avoidance of the word in those contexts seems to be almost a deliberate act of restraint. The first occurrence of the word Trinity is in the note on John 16:14-15, “where Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “he shall glorify me, for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine…” Burkitt find here the distinction of the persons as well as their equality:

Hence learn, That, although the union in essence amongst the Persons in the Trinity is the same, yet the order of their subsistence and operation is distinct; the Son being from the Father and the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son: For all things that the Father hath are mine; and the Spirit shall take of mine and shall shew it unto you. Observe farther, That these words afford a strong argument to prove the divinity of Christ: All things which the Father hath are mine. Where Christ challenges to himself the incommunicable attributes of God, and consequently that essence which is inseparable from them.

Likewise, Burkitt makes it through almost eight chapters of Romans before he comes to the verse “”If the Spirit of him, that raised up Jesus from the dead, dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” Here Burkitt draws out several points: The Holy Spirit is here called the Spirit of the Father “because the Father is the fountain and original of the Deity, and doth communicate it both to the Son and to the Spirit, to teach us to seek unto the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit, he being the donor and dispenser of it.” He goes on to point out that at various places in Scripture, the resurrection of Christ is ascribed “to all the three persons in the glorious Trinity:

the Father raised him, Acts x. 40. Him God raised up the third day.
Christ raised himself, John x. 18. I have power to lay down my life and to take it up again.
The Holy Ghost raised up Christ, 1 Pet. iii.18. He was put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.

And as a last observation on this verse, Burkitt notes that if the Spirit dwells in us, this “proves him to be really God, for none but a God possesses a temple; and also to be a distinct person, not an energy or operation, for none but a person can be said to inhabit or dwell.” He will make a similar point at Ephesians 1:13-14, commenting on the phrase “after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance…” He says “To sanctify, to seal, to confirm our hearts, are divine operations; he that doth these, must be a divine Person,” and even goes on to say that “he proceedeth from the Father and Son,” though the manner of his deity and personal procession “cannot be comprehended by our reason and shallow understandings.”

A golden text for the New Testament’s doctrine of the Trinity is II Cor 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen.” First, Burkett states quite directly and powerfully the experiential trinitarianism that is at the heart of New Testament experience:

Here are the highest blessings and benefits wished to, and prayed for, in behalf of the Corinthians, which they could possibly be made partakers of: namely, all that love which doth or can flow from the Father; all that grace which was purchased by the Son; and all that fellowship and communion with, and communication from, the Holy Spirit, which might render them meet for the service of Christ on earth, and for the full fruition and final enjoyment of him in heaven.

The apostles were all about this: “the highest blessings an benefits” of the new covenant are love flowing from the Father, grace purchased by Christ, as communicated by the Spirit. Burkitt says all this with great warmth, before turning to use the word Trinity. But when he does, he is not shy about the formalized doctrine. In fact, he thanks God for it and opens his Book of Common Prayer:

Observe here a full text for the holy Trinity: the names of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are here distinctly mentioned, as in the commission for, and in the form of, baptism Matt. xxviii.19. Here the apostle calls the Father God, the Son Lord, and the Spirit the Holy Ghost; and as he attributes love to the Father, grace to the Son, so fellowship to the Holy Ghost; therefore we have no reason to doubt of the personality of either or any of them.

But when we consider how many at this day with impudence and impunity deny the divinity of the second, and the personality of the third Person, in the blessed Trinity, we have reason to pray, as our church has taught us, for our own establishment, in the Collect for Trinity Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity; We beseech thee that thou wouldest keep us steadfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest One God, world without end. Amen.

Less famous than that 2 Corinthians doxology is Titus 3:4-6, “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared.. he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour.” Burkitt does not miss the trinitarian cadence: “Here observe, How every person in the Trinity acts distinctly in the work of our salvation,” and again works through the three appropriations:

1. The fontal cause, the spring and source of our happiness, lies in the kindness and love of God the Father. 2. The meritorious and procuring cause of the application of this love, is Jesus Christ, in the work of redemption and mediation. 3. The immediate and efficient cause of the communication of that love of God the Father, procured through the mediation of Christ the Son, is the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration.

There is an odd occurrence of the Trinity in Burkitt’s note on Hebrews 6, where the apostle mentions the “elementary doctrine” of the faith (repentance, faith in God, washings, laying on of hands, resurrection, judgement). Burkitt is committed to making that list of six items into a robust list of the six most important fundamentals of the faith. This takes a bit of work, and is probably not the best way to handle the text. He crams a whole soteriology into the word “repentance,” and when he gets to “faith in God,” he says expansively, “that is, in the whole Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Particularly, faith in the first original promise of God, to send Christ into the world to save us from our sins…”

The next occurrence of the word Trinity is even less usable, because it is I John 5:7. Burkitt has a lot to say about it, but this is one area in which the progress made since 1700 in the field of text criticism renders his work out of date. He does have a very nice rhetorical riff when he announces “that the doctrine of the blessed Trinity stands built upon Holy scripture, as a firm basis and impregnable rock, and the doctrine of the Anti-Trinitarians falls to the ground like Dagon before the ark. Lord, let our understandings evermore stoop and yield to this divine revelation, though it contain such a doctrine as doth exceed the comprehension of human reason.”

A handful of the Trinity occurrences are fairly trivial, not contributing to our understanding of Burkitt’s view of the doctrine. For example, in Luke 16 Jesus says “Make to yourselves friends of the unrighteous mammon, that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.” Burkitt quips, “What they? Some understand it of the Holy Trinity, others of the blessed angels…” but he sets this suggestion aside. In Acts 26, Burkitt says (with no apparent connection to the context) “Great is the dignity of gospel-ministers, they are God’s messengers; their commission is sealed by the whole Trinity…” At Colossians 2:12, Burkitt muses on how the ancients performed baptism, including “immersion, or putting the person three times under water, either as our Saviour was under the earth three days, or in allusion to the Three persons in the Trinity, in whose name we are baptized…”

Finally, two passages of the Revelation elicit trinitarian comments. At Revelation 1:1, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him…” Burkitt notes that “the primary author of this revelation, God the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, he revealed it.” Next, in the great vision of Revelation 5, Burkitt says “here in the text and context are all the three Persons in the Holy Trinity, whose divinity we believe, and in whom we trust; God the Father upon the throne, with a book in his hand: Christ the Lamb in the midst of the throne, opening the book; and the Seven Spirits, or Holy Ghost, distinct from the two former.”

All told, Burkitt’s Notes on the New Testament do a great job of guiding readers into understanding the doctrine of the Trinity as a genuine New Testament doctrine. He has learned from church tradition, but his standard of judgment is the words of Scripture. Today’s exegetes would no doubt find some of his judgments to be naive and pre-critical, but Burkitt knew what he was about. He would counter-charge that today’s exegetes are naive if they think they can resist anti-Trinitarian readings of Scripture after they have jettisoned judgments like eternal generation and consubstantiality. When you consider that Burkitt is writing at a popular level and has a lot to accomplish in his 1500 pages of Notes, his ability to deliver the broad outlines of trinitarianism is exemplary.

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