March 21, 2010

Samuel Miller is an ideal example of how Christians should discuss their differences in public.  In 1821 he wrote a book  entitled, ‘Letters on Unitarianism.’  In it he made some brief comments about the eternal Sonship of Christ and took issue with some of the means of defending that doctrine which Moses Stuart had given in his book against the Unitarian, W.E. Channing, in 1819.

Stuart thought Miller had dealt with him rather harshly, so in 1822, he wrote a defense of his views in a work entitled, ‘Letters on the Eternal Sonship of the Son of God Addressed to the Rev. Samuel Miller, D.D.’

Miller responded in 1823 and took up the issue of Christ’s Eternal Sonship at greater length with the publication of ‘Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ.’  This is a book that is well worth reading for the doctrine it expounds, but I would like to share with you selections showing how Miller responded to Stuart’s complaint, as well as, what he wrote about engaging in theological controversy.  I have outlined his discussion with summary statements of key parts of his discussion.  I have altered the structure of Miller’s Preface.  I hope that the outline of principles will help in digesting and remembering the principles laid out by Miller.  There are 14 such principles.   Caveat lector!

1.   Theological debate with those who are generally orthodox should be marked by esteem and respect for the other, notwithstanding significant differences on points of doctrine.

“I have read with serious and most respectful attention the ‘Letters’ which you addressed to me on ‘the Eternal Generation of the Son of God.’… And, as one whom I regard with so much cordial esteem… it is incumbent on me to say something in its defense.  In attempting this, though I do not venture to hope that what I have to offer will produce a revolution in your opinion, it will at least serve to show the reasons of mine.  Before I proceed further, allow me heartily to thank you for the fraternal respect and urbanity with which you have written on this subject.  I thank you for the honor you have done me by your manner of addressing me.  I congratulate you on the still greater honor you have done yourself, by maintaining, throughout, with such perfect success, the temper and language of a gentleman and a Christian.  And, most of all, I rejoice in the honor you have done our common Christianity, by showing the enemies of the truth with what freedom from unhallowed feelings a friend of general orthodoxy can plead for his opinions.”

2.   Understand the inevitably of disagreements and purpose in your conscience to distinguish between disputation and discussion.

“It shall be as you say.  We will discuss, not dispute.  And I do sincerely hope that those timid friends, who have apprehended that this discussion would prove injurious to the cause of truth, will be agreeably disappointed.  Why should it be productive of injury?  Have not differences of opinion existed in all ages, among the best of men, as well as among those of an opposite character?  Do not the Orthodoxy universally acknowledge that diversity of views, as to many points, is quite consistent, not only with real, but also with ardent piety?  What, then, should prevent brethren who respect and love one another from engaging in the amicable investigation of doctrines concerning which they may differ?  They can be useful, though sometimes attended with circumstances which render them irksome.  I will not give up the hope that you and I can, by the grace of God, with some degree of Christian meekness and affection, compare opinions and examine the grounds on which they rest; and that the way of truth will not be evil spoken of on our account…. I cherish a confident hope that our Unitarian neighbors will have no just cause for triumph.”

3.   Be hesitant to enter into controversy, giving careful consideration to the harm, as well as the good that controversy can produce.

“I received letters from different and distant parts of the country… urging the propriety of some publication fitted to counteract the influence of such of its parts as were thought to be erroneous.  I read these communications with no little anxiety; but not considering myself as either bound or qualified to enter the lists on this subject; and feeling peculiar reluctance to engage in a discussion which might be viewed with pain, by some of the friends of truth, and would, pretty certainly, be hailed by its enemies with joy; I resolved to lament in silence what was going on, rather than run the risk of impairing the cordiality of fellowship between brethren who certainly ought not to be divided.”

4.   In Christian debate we must be very clear about the reasons for which we have entered into controversy.

I will not disguise, however, that something which you had said in one of your ‘Letters to Dr. Channing,’ was partly in my view in what I wrote.  And as you have set me so noble an example of candor, I will frankly inform you by what considerations I was induced to touch on the subject under discussion, in my cursory remarks on the doctrine of the Trinity…. I must confess that my pleasure in perusing your ‘Letters to Dr. Channing’ suffered considerable deduction on account of several things which they contained.  I thought that you had made some concessions to the enemies of truth, which could not fail to impair the strength of your cause and that, in defending that cause, you had abandoned some of the old, and as I verily believed, scriptural, positions and language which I had been long accustomed to see the Orthodox maintain, and which I could not but regard as of great value in their system…. But I do fear, my respected friend, as I shall hereafter more fully state, that some of your opinions and reasoning will turn out to be weapons put into the hands of Unitarians.  I do fear, that, whatever may be thought of the leading doctrine which you maintain, your manner of conducting the defense of it, will be found to aid a very different cause from that which you and I profess to love.  It is painful for me to say this.  But I entered on the present correspondence with the resolution to keep nothing back, but to pour out the fullness of my heart to a brother, toward whom, however he may differ from me in opinion, I cannot help feeling the most cordial and unreserved confidence.”

5.   The goal of public disagreement among Christians of general orthodoxy must be truth, not victory.

“May I be enabled to execute my purpose in a manner which shall evince that the attainment of truth and not victory is my aim!”

6.   Although the Bible is infallible, we, its interpreters are not, therefore, we should always be willing to re-examine the reasons for our beliefs.

“The longer I have reflected and inquired on the subject, the more firm has been my confidence that my original instruction was sound and scriptural.  But I am not unwilling again to examine into the correctness of that instruction.  I rejoice that our lot is cast in an age and a country in which the most unlimited freedom of inquiry reigns.  May this freedom never be abridged!  If I do not deceive myself, I hold no opinion which I am not heartily willing to have examined to the bottom.  No man will ever forfeit either my esteem or affection, by kindly and respectfully calling me to re-investigate any article in my creed, however long since I may have supposed it to be settled…. ‘Let us prove all things and hold fast that which is good.  Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased.’”

7.   Likewise, we should not be opposed in principle to there being new discoveries in the interpretation of the Bible without falling into the opposite error of embracing whatever is new because it is new.

“…one thing is certain, that, neither as Protestants, nor as Christians, ought we to allow ourselves to shut our eyes against the light, or to be blindly governed by the authority of our fathers…. And, allow me to add, that, as we evidently ought to teach our pupils, not to rely on the decisions of Councils or Synods, or on human authority in any shape, but to examine with solemn care the only infallible Rule of faith and practice; so, in my opinion, we are equally bound to guard them against that spirit of rash and hasty innovation, either in faith or practice, which has so often proved the bane of the church of Christ…. While free inquiry is commendable and a Christian duty; a rage for novelty, an ardent love of originality, as such, is one of the most unhappy symptoms… that a candidate for the ministry can well exhibit.  I would not, for my right hand, exhort a young man always to adhere, whatever new light he may receive, to the old theological landmarks which our fathers have set up; but I would certainly and most earnestly exhort him, if he saw good reason to depart from them, to do it slowly, cautiously, respectfully and with the most solemn and prayerful deliberation.”

8.   Remember, that, though possible, it is not an easy thing to go beyond the great scholars of our tradition.

“You observe that ‘dwarfs,’ as we of modern times may be thought, compared with the ‘giants of yore,’ yet that ‘we stand, at least, upon the shoulders of those ancient giants and must needs have a somewhat more extended horizon than they.’  I am not quite sure, my dear Sir, that the fact is really so.  It does not appear to me an easy thing to get ‘on the shoulders of those giants.’  I suspect very few mount so high.  Before we can claim to have attained so elevated a station and to enjoy ‘a more extended horizon’ than they, we must not only have their ponderous volumes on our shelves, but we must have in our heads and in our hearts, all that they had.  For one, I lament that I have not a better claim myself to this honor; and feel bound to cultivate in my own mind, as well as in the minds of those whom I may be called to counsel in their studies, a more enlarged and deep acquaintance with what those ‘giants’ have really attained and published; as well as a more profound acquaintance with those Scriptures of truth, which they studied, I have no doubt, at least as diligently and candidly, if not with quite so many helps, as we have done.”

9.   Seek the good and think charitably of the intention and effort of a brother of general orthodoxy, notwithstanding that you think him in serious error.

“…I read your ‘Letters to Dr. Channing’ with high respect for the learning and talent which they manifested and with no little gratitude to a brother, who was willing to employ his time and his strength in so good a cause.”

10.   Christian courtesy does not prohibit frank statements of disagreement.  Yet, frank statements of serious concerns, do not permit harsh and uncharitable language.

“But while I make this acknowledgment, and make it with unfeigned pleasure, I must say that your arguments have totally failed of convincing me that the positions which I laid down in my ‘Letters on Unitarianism,’ on the Eternal Sonship of Christ, are untenable.  Nay – pardon me, my dear Sir, for saying, what candor and a conscientious regard to truth extort from me – Your pamphlet has impressed me with a stronger conviction than ever of the unsoundness of the cause which it is intended to support and of the questionable tendency – to speak in the most guarded terms, – of some of the opinions which it contains, and especially of some of the means to which you have resorted for maintaining them.”

11.   Be very careful to avoid writing in such a manner as would likely offend a brother with whom you disagree.

“I, therefore, felt myself called upon, as it fairly came in my way, briefly but decisively to express an opinion on the subject.  The thought of offending, even the most zealous and fastidious adherent to the doctrine which you hold, never entered my mind.  To deliver my conscience and to avert from myself unjust suspicion, without wounding the feelings of a human being, formed the sum total of my purpose.  If I failed of attaining it, I must regret the failure, but cannot reproach myself with any intention different from what has been stated….   Least of all did I think of assailing any one with language which ought certainly to be excluded from the fellowship of brethren.”

12.   A frank and decided defense of one’s position must not prohibit true humility that is willing to frankly acknowledge incautious or offensive language.

“It has been the occasion of no small regret to me, that my mode of expressing myself, in my ‘Letters,’ should be considered by any as liable to the charge of undue severity, or as deficient in Christian courtesy…. “Nothing, I can declare, was more remote from my intention or wish than writing a line which might justly be construed as an offensive attack on any one, or which would be likely to provoke controversy…. But I was really prompted, my dear Sir, to make the remarks I did, not by any love of controversy; far less by any disposition to engage in controversy with you.  I intended no such thing; anticipated no such thing.”

13.   If someone has misconstrued our purpose in writing, we should do all in our power to explain the cause of the misunderstanding and to rectify it, not simply assert that we have been misunderstood.

(Miller addresses the sentences to which Stuart objected.  He quotes the sentences in full and points out that) “upon every principle of fair construction, the epithets, ‘unphilosophical’ and ‘impious’ are applied, (as they certainly were intended to be) only to the assertion that God   the Father, though he is from eternity, could not act from eternity.  Now you declare that neither you, nor those who think with you, either assert or believe any such thing; and yet you seem to insist on applying the offensive epithets to yourselves.  This I most sincerely regret.  Nothing, I can solemnly assure you, my dear Sir, was ever further from my thoughts than such an application.  The epithets in question were only meant to be applied to those who maintained certain opinions which I never for one moment, imagined that you or your friends maintained.  It never occurred to my mind that any reader would think of applying them to you.  I never could permit myself to use such language in reference to one toward whom I feel those sentiments of cordial respect and friendship which I have the pleasure of cherishing for you…. I had in view two classes of opponents – Unitarians, and those pious and otherwise orthodox brethren of New England and elsewhere, who, I was sensible thought differently from me on this subject….

Yet, after all, with the most perfect consciousness of innocence, as to my intention, in this case, I can now see, on a review of my language, that it might have been more carefully guarded; and I do sincerely wish it had been differently modified; and especially that the two-fold purpose just alluded to, had been more intelligibly and precisely stated.  I hope, therefore, you will not only acquit me of all designed incivility, but that you will once for all, be persuaded that I am incapable of employing any turn of expression calculated, in the least degree to wound your feelings.  My cause needs no such weapons, and my heart, if I do not deceive myself, instinctively revolts from them.”

(Miller explains that he had been called upon to give some lectures on Unitarianism in Baltimore.  At first he had no intention of addressing the eternal Sonship of Christ, but as he prepared the lectures he found that “the interests of truth” required him to say something on the subject.)

14.   We should enter into such discussion with much sincere prayer.

“While, therefore, I write, I desire to look up to the Holy Spirit of promise, that He may guide my heart and my pen into all truth; that He may guard me from all that irascible feeling, and all that un-candid, caviling spirit, which I think I hate and desire to avoid; and that our mutual edification and the honor of religion may be promoted by whatever shall be written.”



  1. […] Here is a very helpful post on Samuel Miller’s advise to those who wish to engage in controversial debates. Jim O’Brien has done a great service by writing this post. I was certainly convicted and instructed by it. […]

    • I am glad you found it helpful. Tell me, how did you find my blog? It’s inherently interesting to learn how people discover things on the internet.

      Warmest regards,


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