Monday, April 01, 2013

Ridgley on the Trinity

Thomas Ridgley (1687-1743)

The period of English history in which Thomas Ridgley lived is generally regarded as inglorious from a religious and theological point of view. The Puritan aspirations were punctured by the Act of Uniformity, and the political and theological reaction to Puritanism accelerated its decline. 1662-1689 was a period of severe discrimination and persecution of those who dissented fron the Anglican re-establishment. After toleration came in as part of the 1688 settlement, a period of theological decline was evident. Former Puritan congregations became unitarian. Baxter's Kidderminster congregation is unitarian still. Ridgley was one who upheld Puritan Orthodoxy, and I suppose that a closer examination of dissenting religious life would find numerous men who upheld the faith of their fathers. Despite the headlines, the beginning of the 18th century it was not all latitudinarianism or hyper-Calvinism. 

 Thomas Ridgley  was an   Independent divine. On the death of Isaac Chauncy he was elected (in 1712) divinity tutor to the Fund Academy in Tenter Alley, Moorfields, established by the London Congregational Fund board in 1696.  He wrote A Body of Divinity Wherein the Doctrines of the Christian Religion Are Explained and Defended, Being the Substance of Several Lectures on the Assembly’s Larger Catechism. This post examines aspects of Ridgeley's (1687-1734) trinitarianism.

The Nicene Creed contains the following clauses,
…the only-begotten Son of God, ‘Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…The Holy Ghost….proceedeth from the Father and the Son….
The Reformed, starting with Calvin, were concerned about the way in which phrases such as 'God of God’ had a tendency to diminish the fully divine character of the Son. Calvin settled for the view that the Son was begotten of the Father as regards his person, not his divine being He went a stage further than Calvin in gently insisting on the underived deity of the person of the Son and the Spirit. Ridgeley was concerned about what the expression of the Son's eternal begottenness could possibly mean, and likewise the proceeding of the Spirit, sometimes referred to as ‘spiration’. He has this to say about the Nicene doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit.
….so that the principal thing, in which I am obliged, till I receive farther conviction to differ from many others, is, whether the Son and Spirit have a communicated or derived Personality: this many assert, but, I think, without sufficient truth; for I cannot but conclude that the divine Personality, not only of the Father, but of the Son and Spirit, is as much independent, and underived, as the divine essence. (I. 263)
He himself understands ‘communication’ as
the divine perfections are communicated to, or predicated of, the Father, the Son and the Spirit….the other sense of communication viz. imparting, conveying or giving the divine essence, I shall be ready to fall in with, when the apparent difficulties, which, to me seem to lie in the way thereof, some of which have been already considered, are removed’ (I.262 )
And he says this, of the language of the eternal generation of the Son, and the eternal spiration of the Spirit:

There is indeed one thing that must be enquired into, and that is, whatever be the explication given of the eternal generation of the Son, and procession of the Holy Ghost; whether they are each of them self-existent, or, as some call it, autotheos, and it is generally determined that the Son and the Holy Ghost have the same self-existent divine nature: but with respect to their manner of having it, some say the Son has his divine nature from the Father, and the Holy Ghost from the Father and Son; or that the Father only is self-existent, as some speak; or as most others say, that he is self-subsistent; and that this is his personal property, as he is distinguished from the Son and Holy Ghost, whom they conclude not to be self-subsistent, but the one to subsist from the other, and the other from the Father and the Son. Thus is the generally received opinion; notwithstanding I must confess myself to be at a loss to account for it.(262-3)

I hope, it will appear, that we assert nothing but what tends to the glory of the Son and Spirit, establisheth the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity, agrees with the commonly received faith, so far as it is founded on scripture, without being tenacious of those modes of speaking, which have the sanction of venerable antiquity, and are supported by the reputation of those who have used them... (I.267)

Ridgley was a firm and clear Trinitarian, but absent from his understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity was any suggestion of causal or ontological dependence of the deity of the Son or Spirit, on the person of the Father (for are they not three persons of the one God?) or of their persons (‘Personalities’) on the person of the Father (or, in the case of the Spirit) on those of the Father and the Son, for were not each ‘as much independent, and underived, as the divine essence’?  He thought that the Nicene assertion of the eternal begottenenss of the Son called this into question.

As with all friends of orthodoxy who deviate a little from the line of their day, Ridgeley runs risks in writing like this. The orthodox are all too likely to damn a writer like Ridgeley with charges of ‘rationalism’, ‘reductionism’, free-thinking, and the like. But his gracious, careful, respectful, cautious style are to his credit, as well as his preparedness to think for himself.

It is sometimes said that the great strength of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity helps establish and preserve the deity of the Son. But Ridgley  did not regard the doctrine of the Trinity as in need of such help, even if it was available. The deity of Christ is taught in Scripture, and that was sufficient for him. And despite his reservations he regards the Trinity as of the ‘highest importance’ .

Further, the doctrine of eternal generation has not stopped those who hold it from giving hostages to Arianism in their writings. So in Pearson on the Creed  the author writes of ‘the communication of the divine essence by the Father, is the generation of the Son, and Christ, who was eternally God, not from himself, but from the Father’. (London 1842) (206) In
Pearson's book there is much more of this sort of thing. Pearson is not an authority, but his exposition has been very influential. For him at least Nicaea does not guard against ontological subordination. But the Father’s coeternity with the Son can be secured on the grounds of their equal eternal divinity as taught in Scripture, without the issue of generation needing to arise.

Economic relations between the Trinitarian persons, as in the Covenant of Redemption, are not necessary to establish the eternal divine relations,  but economic relations are sufficient to discriminate these relations. They identify the parties as three distinct, divine persons. The Father sends the Son who becomes incarnate as the Mediator, and the Spirit undertakes the task of applying what the Son has achieved to those chosen in Christ before the world was. But these relations so displayed are not are eternal, ontological distinctions of the Trinity in se. What these economic relations show and even entail, are the operations ad extra of a tri-personal God. From the economic language regarding Sonship we can infer that there is an eternal Logos who in his economic role is also human through the overshadowing and power of the Holy Spirit.

In a new post I hope to develop some of Ridgley's worries further.

[For those who care to read further what Ridgley says,  a copy of his three-volume work can be found on Google Books]