Essay / Theology

William Jones of Nayland on Defending the Trinity

Today (July 30) is the day William Jones was born in the year 1726. He lived until 1800, and is remembered as “Jones of Nayland,” for the last post he held, as perpetual curate of Nayland from 1777 (and because the name Jones doesn’t exactly make you easy to find in English history books).

Jones of Nayland studied at Oxford, and his collected writings run to 12 volumes that include some pretty rarefied stuff about counter-Newtonian natural philosophy and something called “Physiological Disquisitions.” He was highly respected in his time, as an urbane high churchman who opposed enlightenment rationalism on one side and “religious enthusiasm” on the other. He opposed the Deists to his left and the Methodists to his right; he couldn’t understand dissenters and he couldn’t feel any attraction to Roman Catholicism. He is said to have spent one day each year in mourning and repentance for the conspicuous role that an earlier generation of his family had played in the deposition of King Charles. Jones of Nayland pretty much wondered why everybody couldn’t just settle down and be good Anglicans!

His best book –not just my personal favorite, but also his best–is The Catholic Doctrine of A Trinity, with the epic sub-title

Proved by Above an Hundred Short and Clear Arguments Expressed in the Terms of the Holy Scriptures, Compared After a Manner Entirely New, and Digested Under the Four Following Titles:
1. The Divinity of Christ,
2. The Divinity of the Holy Ghost,
3. The Plurality of the Persons,
4. The Trinity in Unity
With a Few Reflections Occasionally Interspersed, Upon Some of the Arian Writers, Particularly Dr. S.Clarke

And later editions included also “A Letter to the Common People, In Answer to Some Popular Arguments Against the Trinity.”

Jones of Nayland’s book is a classic presentation of the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity. It stands out because, as the sub-title says, it sets out its arguments “in the terms of the Holy Scriptures,” presenting carefully selected passages from the Bible in a mutually-illuminating way. The Bible verses themselves did the arguing in Jones’ book. The title page of early editions included the passages, “Thou shalt answer for me, O Lord my God” (Ps. 38:15) and “Not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13).

How did the words of Scripture speak for themselves in this book? That is where Jones’ “Compared After a Manner Entirely New” comes in: He laid the passages side by side so that even a casual reader could see how Scripture interprets itself. The section on the deity of Christ begins, for instance, with

Isaiah 8:13-14: “Sanctify the LORD of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear… a stone of stumbling and rock of offence to both houses of Israel,”

and then prints

1 Peter 2:7-8, “The stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling and rock of offence.”

And in the section on “The Trinity in Unity,” Jones names a divine attribute and then lays down passages of Scripture applying that attribute to each of the three persons: Life, for example.

The Father: Deut. 30:20, “Love the LORD thy God; for He is thy life.”
The Son: Col. 3:4, “When Christ who is our life shall appear…”
The Spirit: Rom. 8:10, “The Spirit is life.”

There are, as Jones says, over a hundred of these. Some are only of devotional value for those who already believe in the Trinity, but many of them carry real argumentative force and persuasive power. When the comparisons require explanation, Jones provides them, but the others he simply lets stand.

This way of presenting the key insights of comparing Scripture with Scripture would have been a great idea no matter who had it, or when they had it. But Jones of Nayland’s book, by stripping the argument down as far as possible, to almost the mere presentation of juxtaposed Bible verses, engaged the contemporary disputes about the doctrine of the Trinity at a strategic level. One of the most influential books casting doubt on trinitarian theology in the eighteenth century was “the immortal” Dr. Samuel Clarke’s 1712 book called The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. Clarke boasted that he had printed and interpreted “ALL the texts in the New Testament, relating to that doctrine” in his 500-page book, and each verse was conspicuously printed at the top of the pages, above Clarke’s detailed explanations of how they should be interpreted. Compared to that, Jones of Nayland’s book was much shorter, and had much less of the modern author’s voice interfering. If Clarke had persuaded people by his ability to print ALL the relevant Scriptures, Jones outdid him by printing them in a way that enriched the understanding without the need for elaborate interpretive maneuvers. You want a verse fight, you got a verse fight!

The other major contribution that The Catholic Doctrine of a Trinity makes is its innovative use of the Old Testament. Old Testament proofs of the Trinity have always been a difficult issue for theologians. On the one hand, though there are hints and adumbrations of the Trinity throughout the Old Testament, there is nothing like the clear revelation that comes when the Son of God and the Spirit of God appear in person for the New Testament. So in light of the progressive character of the revelation of the Trinity, it doesn’t make sense to use passages from the Old Testament to demonstrate the triunity of God (any more than it would make sense to spell out a theology of Israel’s Davidic monarchy from the book of Exodus). So OT passages shouldn’t show up in a Trinity book.

On the other hand, the apostles, following the instruction of Jesus himself, did in fact use the Old Testament as the basis of their arguments that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God in an unprecedented sense, and is co-eternal with the Lord. So OT passages had better show up in a Trinity book.

What Jones of Nayland’s comparative method enables him to do is use the Old Testament passages in a way that links them to New Testament fulfillment. This gives his proofs the depth of the Old Testament, when God was triune but not saying so, along with the clarity of the New Testament, when God sent his Son and Spirit to fulfill his promises.

The best proofs for trinitarian theology, Jones of Nayland saw, lie precisely in the way the New Testament makes use of the Old Testament. He had theorized extensively (and in my opinion not very helpfully) on the character of the Old Testament, but for The Catholic Doctrine of a Trinity he simply laid out the passages and let them do their own work. Even the title of the book, by the way, is an under-stated swat at Clarke: Clarke had named his anti-trinitarian verse-collating exercise The Scripture-Doctrine of The Trinity, but Jones pointed out that Clarke’s book only made use of the New Testament, or half of the Bible (even less, by weight). Therefore its title should have been “The Half-Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity,” which of course yields a non-Trinity. Jones replied with the title, The Catholic Doctrine of a Trinity, using the word “catholic” to point, not to Roman Catholicism of course, or even to the authority of church tradition over against Scripture, but to the universal belief of the entire Christian church based on the entire Bible.

Jones’ Letter to the Common People in Answer to some Common Arguments Against the Trinity is also excellent, though it is tied a bit too closely to the immediate context of eighteenth-century controversy. Jones deftly reveals to the average person the way anti-trinitarians are making spurious appeals and pulling rhetorical tricks in order to persuade them to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Argument after argument, he sets the anti-trinitarian appeals aside and brings everything back to the only basis for proof in this area: the interpretation of Scripture.

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