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Lyman Abbott’s Dictionary on the Trinity

Lyman Abbott’s Dictionary on the Trinity

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Critics of the doctrine of the Trinity, both non-religious skeptics and advocates of anti-Trinitarian religious doctrines, routinely argue that the doctrine originated from ancient pagan religions rather than the Bible. In making that case, such critics commonly quote a variety of scholarly (and not so scholarly) works in which this allegation seems to be made. One such work is an entry on “Trinitarians” in A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Lyman Abbott and published in 1875.

Abbott’s Dictionary Quoted by Skeptic Henry Taber

The earliest such citation of this reference work in an anti-Trinitarian polemic appears to have been made by skeptic Henry Moorehouse Taber in a book published in 1897. Taber’s book originated as a series of articles in the Chicago Freethought Magazine, and has a preface by the influential skeptic Robert G. Ingersoll. In his criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity, Taber attributed the following quotation to Abbott:

Traces of belief in the Trinity are to be found in most heathen nations. It is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian, and the most ancient Grecian mythologies and is very marked in Hindooism.1

Taber later offered the following statement also from Abbott:

Precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity is, or rather how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves.2

Abbott’s Dictionary Quoted by Jehovah’s Witnesses

Two years later Charles Taze Russell, the founder and first president of the Watchtower Society (the organization that runs the religion later called the Jehovah’s Witnesses), quoted Abbott’s dictionary. We do not know if Russell had found Abbott through reading Taber, but it is not implausible. Both Abbott’s and Taber’s books were published by New York publishing houses, and Russell had gone through a period of skepticism himself before accepting a form of Adventist Christianity and eventually starting his own religious organization. In any case, Russell clearly consulted Abbott’s dictionary directly, since he quoted more of the entry than Taber had. Unlike Taber, Russell gave a reference for his quotation and identified Abbott as “one of the compilers and editors” of the work (which is not quite accurate). Here is what Russell wrote:

The Religious Dictionary, of which the Rev. Dr. Lyman Abbott, a professed Trinitarian, was one of the compilers and editors, on page 944 says—

“It was not until the beginning of the fourth century that the Trinitarian view began to be elaborated and formulated into a doctrine, and an endeavor made to reconcile it with the belief of the Church in one God…. Out of the attempt to solve this problem sprang the doctrine of the Trinity…. Trinity is a very marked feature in Hindooism, and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian and the most ancient Grecian mythologies.”3

The last sentence of this quotation was reused in a Watchtower article in 1953 and also attributed to Abbott’s Religious Dictionary. That article commented, “Yes, the trinity finds its origin in the pagan concept of a multiplicity, plurality or pantheon of gods.”4 A 1961 article in Awake! presented the quotation in the same form.5 A 1988 Awake! article made use of the same quote in a different way and corrected the title of Abbott’s work: “Abbott’s Dictionary of Religious Knowledge calls the Trinity a ‘very marked’ feature in the Hindu religion and ‘discernible’ in the ancient [pre-Christian] religions of Persia, Egypt, Rome, Japan, India, and Greece.”6 A later Watchtower publication, Should You Believe in the Trinity, quoted two other statements from the same entry, including one of the quotations that Taber had used:

Thus, A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge says: “Precisely what that doctrine is, or rather precisely how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves.” …A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge notes that many say that the Trinity “is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.”7

A 2001 article in the Watchtower repeats the quotation about the Trinity being “borrowed from the heathen religions”:

A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge notes that many say that the Trinity “is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.”8

Abbott’s Dictionary Quoted by Other Anti-Trinitarians

These three statements from the entry on “Trinitarians” in Abbott’s dictionary have been repeated verbatim in obvious dependence on the Watchtower publications by many anti-Trinitarians of various persuasions, including (in no particular order) Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, Armstrongism, Christadelphians, and Unitarians. Here are their quotations, including whatever citations they provide, presented without any editing.

Mormons (Robert Vukich):

The trinity: “is a very marked feature in Hindooism, and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian and the most ancient Grecian mythologies” (Religious Dictionary, Lyman Abbott, p944).9

Oneness Pentecostals (Larry Yates, Gary Reckart):

The Trinity “is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith” (A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, Lyman Abbott, 1875, p944).
“Precisely what the doctrine is, or precisely how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves” (A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge” (Lyman Abbott, 1875, p. 944)….
The trinity: "is a very marked feature in Hindooism, and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian and the most ancient Grecian mythologies" (Religious Dictionary, Lyman Abbott, p944).10

Armstrongites (Garner Ted Armstrong website):

A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge: “Many say that the Trinity is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.”11

Christadelphians (Oscar Dunaway, James Flint):

The Religious Dictionary of which the Rev. Dr. Lyman Abbott, a professed Trinitarian, was One of the compilers and editors, on page 944 says: ‘It was not until the beginning of the fourth century that the Trinitarian view began to be elaborated and formulated into a doctrine and an endeavor made to reconcile it with the belief of the church in one God out of the attempt to solve this problem sprang the problem of Trinity . . . Trinity is a very marked feature in Hindooism, and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian and most ancient Greek mythologies.’12

“The Trinity is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and engrafted on the Christian faith.” (A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge. Lyman Abbott; 1875. section on ‘Trinity’ p944)13

Unitarians (Juan Baixeras, Kent Ross):

A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge: "Many say that the trinity is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith."14

Trinity “is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.” (A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, Lyman Abbott, 1875, p944, as quoted in, Should You Believe in the Trinity?, Watchtower publication).
“Precisely what the doctrine is, or precisely how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves” (A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge” (Lyman Abbott, 1875, p. 944, as quoted in, Should You Believe in the Trinity?, Watchtower publication).
“Trinity is a very marked feature in Hindooism, and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian and the most ancient Grecian mythologies.” (Religious Dictionary, Lyman Abbott, p944, as quoted in by anti-Trinitarians)15

The dependence of these writers on the Watchtower is evident from the fact that it is the same three quotations and no others from the entry that keep appearing in their writings, that the quotations generally start and stop in the same places, that they use the same typographical features (e.g., “p944”), and that (as shall be documented below) the same mistakes appear in the quotations. Yet with the exception of the Unitarian writer Kent Ross, none of these anti-Trinitarians acknowledge the Watchtower publications as the source of their quotations from Abbott’s dictionary.

Lyman Abbott’s Dictionary of Religious Knowledge

The title page of A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge refers to Lyman Abbott as the editor of the work. However, the reality is somewhat more complicated. Abbott drew freely on earlier works without attribution, essentially cribbing material from a variety of sources and rewriting that material as he saw fit. He explains what he did briefly in his preface:

It is proper to add that, while free use has been made of standard authorities in the preparation of this Dictionary, it is not in any sense a compilation, nor has it been merely condensed from a larger work. Every important article in the book has been prepared with special reference to the wants of unprofessional readers; and the editor trusts that his efforts to combine the accuracy of scholarship with a simpler and popular style of presentation have not been unsuccessful.16

One can see an example of his use of an earlier work by comparing, on the same page as his entry on Trinitarians, his entry on Troas with the entry on Troas in the earlier reference work A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Bible, edited by William Smith.17

What this means is that the entry “Trinitarians” may be expected to have been adapted from earlier materials but in a way that reflected Abbott’s own editorial judgment and purposes. It appears that Abbott sought to make the dictionary a reference work acceptable to a broad readership.

Misquoting Abbott’s Dictionary Entry on Trinitarians

We are now prepared to see what Abbott’s entry on Trinitarians actually says and to compare it with the quotations by critics of the doctrine of the Trinity. The table below gives in the left column an uninterrupted quotation of the long paragraph from which anti-Trinitarians have drawn their quotations,18 and in the right column those quotations as they appear in the Watchtower publications and in the writings of other anti-Trinitarians. Verbal differences between Abbott’s entry and the anti-Trinitarian quotations, including significant omissions within the quoted material, are shown in bold type.

“Trinitarians” in Abbott’s Dictionary Anti-Trinitarian Quotations from Abbott

In the first ages of the Christian Church the followers of Christ were so much engaged in controversy with the Gentile world on the one hand, and with the Jewish world on the other, that they gave very little time or thought to the attempt to frame their faith into one consistent and harmonious system. It is certain, however, that from the apostolic times they paid worship to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, addressed to them their prayers, and included them in their doxologies.

It was not till the beginning of the fourth century that the question began to be elaborately discussed how this practice, and the experience out of which it sprung, should be formed into a doctrine, and

reconciled with the belief of the Church in one God. Out of the endeavor to solve this problem sprang the doctrine of the Trinity. Precisely what the doctrine is, or rather precisely how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves. Some, accepting in a modified form the doctrine of the Sabellians (q.v.), hold the truth to be that there is one divine being who represents himself to us in three characters; that he is thus revealed only because it is impossible that through one revelation we should get any true conception of his character. Others regard the three persons of the Trinity as one in will, but different in other elements of their being. Some, too, seem to approach a form of Arianism, by teaching that there is a subordination of the Son to the Father. It must be conceded, too, that there are others whose language is such as to render them liable to the charge of being Tritheists—i.e., believers in three gods. Still others, the Swedenborgians (q.v.), avoid these difficulties by a mysterious interpretation of the Trinity, which they sometimes compare to the union of body, mind, and soul in man. We think, on the whole, however, the view of modern Trinitarians most current may be stated thus. It is not possible for the human intellect to comprehend fully the divine nature. The Bible represents God to us as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It represents them as equally entitled to our highest reverence, affection, and allegiance. It attributes to all the same divine qualities. It even uses these titles at times interchangeably. We are to accept reverently the teaching of the Scripture in respect to their relation to us, and to pay them equal honor, and render to them equal obedience, while we leave the relation which they sustain to each other and in the eternal Godhead, among the unsolved and insoluble mysteries of the divine being—the hidden things which belong unto God. It is a curious fact that some traces of belief in the Trinity are to be found in most heathen nations. It
is very marked in Hindooism,
and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian, and the most ancient Grecian mythologies. From this fact the Trinitarians and their opponents derive, however, very opposite conclusions. The one sees in it an evidence that God has “diffused and perpetuated the evidence of this doctrine throughout the successive periods of time,” while their opponents conclude that it
is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.

In the first ages of the Christian Church the followers of Christ were so much engaged in controversy with the Gentile world on the one hand, and with the Jewish world on the other, that they gave very little time or thought to the attempt to frame their faith into one consistent and harmonious system. It is certain, however, that from the apostolic times they paid worship to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, addressed to them their prayers, and included them in their doxologies.

It was not until the beginning of the fourth century that the Trinitarian view began to be elaborated and

formulated into a doctrine, and
an endeavor made to
reconcile it with the belief of the Church in one God. Out of the attempt to solve this problem sprang the doctrine of the Trinity. Precisely what that doctrine is, or rather precisely how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves. Some, accepting in a modified form the doctrine of the Sabellians (q.v.), hold the truth to be that there is one divine being who represents himself to us in three characters; that he is thus revealed only because it is impossible that through one revelation we should get any true conception of his character. Others regard the three persons of the Trinity as one in will, but different in other elements of their being. Some, too, seem to approach a form of Arianism, by teaching that there is a subordination of the Son to the Father. It must be conceded, too, that there are others whose language is such as to render them liable to the charge of being Tritheists—i.e., believers in three gods. Still others, the Swedenborgians (q.v.), avoid these difficulties by a mysterious interpretation of the Trinity, which they sometimes compare to the union of body, mind, and soul in man. We think, on the whole, however, the view of modern Trinitarians most current may be stated thus. It is not possible for the human intellect to comprehend fully the divine nature. The Bible represents God to us as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It represents them as equally entitled to our highest reverence, affection, and allegiance. It attributes to all the same divine qualities. It even uses these titles at times interchangeably. We are to accept reverently the teaching of the Scripture in respect to their relation to us, and to pay them equal honor, and render to them equal obedience, while we leave the relation which they sustain to each other and in the eternal Godhead, among

 

Trinity

is a very marked feature in Hindooism,
and is discernible in Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian and the most ancient Grecian mythologies.

 

 

[The Trinity]
is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.

We should begin by noting the sentence immediately preceding the first sentence that Russell and other anti-Trinitarians have quoted. Abbott states, “It is certain, however, that from the apostolic times they paid worship to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, addressed to them their prayers, and included them in their doxologies.” One is not surprised to find the anti-Trinitarians omitting this statement from their quotations. One might think that the omission could be excused as simply an omission of a claim with which the anti-Trinitarian disagrees. That justification, however, fails because the statement is crucial to understanding the sentence the critics do quote—and that in fact they misquote. Here is how Russell quoted Abbott, followed by what Abbott actually said: 

Abbott: It was not until the beginning of the fourth century
that the Trinitarian view began to be elaborated and formulated into a doctrine,
and an endeavor made to reconcile it with the belief of the Church in one God.

Russell’s quotation: It was not till the beginning of the fourth century
that the question began to be elaborately discussed how this practice, and the experience out of which it sprung, should be formed into a doctrine,
and reconciled with the belief of the Church in one God.

Only the most crucial differences are emphasized here in order to focus clearly on the problem. Abbott did not say that in the fourth century the “Trinitarian view” began to be “elaborated” and an effort made to reconcile that view with the belief in one God. By putting it this way, Russell and those who have followed him have construed Abbott to mean that the doctrine of the Trinity was a postbiblical doctrine that the church struggled to reconcile with belief in one God. What Abbott in fact said was that the apostolic church itself, as well as the church in the following centuries, had from the beginning worshipped, prayed to, and praised the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without worrying about how to explain this in a formal, systematic doctrinal way. Only later did the church find it necessary to explain systematically how this apostolic “practice” was consistent with the church’s belief in one God. It was that “question” that the early church discussed especially in the fourth century. Thus, Russell’s misquotation both misrepresents what the quoted sentence was saying and misconstrues its meaning by taking it out of context.

The sentence “Precisely what that doctrine is, or rather precisely how it is to be explained, Trinitarians are not agreed among themselves” is quoted accurately but misconstrues the context. Abbott goes on after that sentence not to discuss different orthodox models of the doctrine of the Trinity (e.g., Western versus Eastern views) but to summarize the views of Sabellians, Arians, Tritheists, and Swedenborgians, all of which are regarded as heretical, non-Trinitarian positions. One may fault Abbott’s wording here, but the disagreement to which he is referring is clearly the very disparate theologies of various rivals to the doctrine of the Trinity, not the comparatively slight differences in the way the doctrine is articulated among adherents to the early Trinitarian creeds. Hence, here again the modern anti-Trinitarians who quote this sentence as though it meant that Trinitarians cannot even agree among themselves as to what the doctrine is are completely missing Abbott’s point.

Another statement that the anti-Trinitarians acknowledge is only the last part of the concluding sentence of Abbott’s paragraph. After listing some of the various heathen nations that worshiped some kind of divine triad, Abbott concludes:

From this fact the Trinitarians and their opponents derive, however, very opposite conclusions. The one sees in it an evidence that God has “diffused and perpetuated the evidence of this doctrine throughout the successive periods of time,” while their opponents conclude that it is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.

The Watchtower pamphlet Should You Believe in the Trinity? (1989) quoted only the last part of the above sentence, and as documented above many anti-Trinitarians have followed the Watchtower in doing so. Instead of acknowledging that according to Abbott it was the opponents of Trinitarianism that argued that the doctrine originated as a contamination of Christianity by heathen religions, the Watchtower blandly stated that “many say that” this was the case. In context the Watchtower’s reframing of Abbott’s partial sentence gives the impression that these “many” are simply neutral scholars, which of course is contrary to what Abbott said (and contrary to the facts as well).

The other anti-Trinitarians have taken the misrepresentation even further. Two of them actually incorporated the words “many say that” into the quotation from Abbott, thus explicitly attributing to his entry words that were not there (the Garner Ted Armstrong web page; Unitarian writer Juan Baixeras). The others have simply stated that according to Abbott’s dictionary, the Trinity “is a corruption…,” thus misrepresenting the dictionary entry as asserting this corruption to be a fact rather than the view of opponents of Trinitarianism (Mormon writer Robert Vukich; Christadelphian writer James Flint; Oneness Pentecostal writers Larry Yates and Gary Reckart; Unitarian writer Kent Ross).

The statement that Abbott’s dictionary quotes in the last sentence comes from a book of theological sermons by Timothy Dwight, president of Yale. Reading that quoted statement in the context of Dwight’s sermon proves illuminating:

The Hindoos have, from the most remote antiquity, holden a Triad in the Divine nature…. Equally known is the Persian Triad…. The Egyptians, also, acknowledged a Triad…. The Orphic Theology, the most ancient recorded in Grecian history, taught the same doctrine…. The Romans, Germans, and Gauls, acknowledged a Triad, and worshipped a Triad, in various manners…. The Japanese and Chinese anciently acknowledged a Triad…. The American Nations [i.e., Indians], also, have in several instances acknowledged a Triad…. In a serious mind it cannot, I think, fail to produce, not conviction only, but astonishment, and delight, to see the wonderful manner, in which God has diffused, and perpetuated, the evidence of this doctrine through the successive periods of time.19

Abbott’s list of “Hindooism” followed by “Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Japanese, Indian, and the most ancient Grecian mythologies” was clearly a summary of Dwight’s discussion of pagan triads, following the same order except for moving the “most ancient…Grecian” to the end. Abbott then quoted Dwight’s assessment almost verbatim, “God has ‘diffused and perpetuated the evidence of this doctrine throughout the successive periods of time.”” It turns out, then, that Abbott’s list of heathen nations with divine triads was taken from a source defending the doctrine of the Trinity! Presumably this is a fact about which the Watchtower authors were unaware—but they could see quite plainly that Abbott was simply noting that these comparisons have been made both in defense and in criticism of the doctrine. The failure to acknowledge this point is an instance of polemical zeal running ahead of scholastic honesty. The same is true of the anti-Trinitarians that made use of the Watchtower’s quotation and further misrepresented Abbott’s dictionary.

Abbott’s Dictionary and the Incarnation

We may conclude our examination of the anti-Trinitarian misrepresentations of Abbott’s dictionary by taking stock of what Abbott says elsewhere about Jesus Christ as God incarnate. This is the crucial issue dividing Trinitarianism from most anti-Trinitarian theologies.

In an entry on “Christology,” Abbott first discusses briefly three alternate views of Jesus (that he never existed; that he was just a learned teacher; that he was a semi-divine being) and then focuses on the view that is “held almost universally by the Christian Church,” namely, that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. Abbott acknowledges (as do all Christian theologians) that it is “perplexing” to understand “how the same person can be at once both God and man,” and he discusses briefly the efforts of theologians to explain this idea.20 Abbott then discusses “the Christology of the Bible,” acknowledging (as he did in the entry on “Trinitarians” we have already examined) that the Bible does not teach a systematic theological Christology of any kind (Incarnational or otherwise) but “rather affords the material from which systematic theology is composed.” Abbott then reviews what the Bible says about Jesus the Messiah, citing numerous biblical references in footnotes to each title or description:

He is there described as the Holy One of Israel; the one Shepherd; the Beloved; the King of Glory; the Light of Heaven; greater than Jonah or Solomon, greater than the Temple; mightier than John the Baptist; not only the Son of God, but the Only-begotten Son; in the form of God, the image of the invisible deity, and the brightness of his glory; the power and wisdom of God; Emmanuel, God with us; the one in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; the creator and sustainer of the universe; one with the Father; the blessed and only Potentate, King of kings, and Lord of lords; the Wonderful, the Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. It is declared that he is not of this world, but has existed from the beginning, sharing the Father’s glory before the world was, and descending to the earth from above, to manifest on earth the eternal life which was with the Father. It is declared that he is to continue forever, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the same yesterday, today, and forever; and is to come at last to judge the world, with all his holy angels. To him is also attributed those qualities which belong alone to God. He is declared to be the Just and Holy One; without sin; present always with all his people; knowing not only the intents of the heart, but knowing in very truth all things; and clothed with almighty power. He is the foundation of his Church; the vine on which every believer is ingrafted, and from which every soul derives its spiritual being. To him was rendered worship while he lived, to him are paid in heaven the highest honors saints and angels are capable of rendering.21

After reviewing the biblical statements that also clearly distinguish Jesus from the Father and that describe him as a man, Abbott concludes that “the humble student of God’s word, willing to take its declarations without modification,” will accept “Jesus Christ as perfect God and perfect man” and adore him as such.22

Abbott also has a brief but helpful entry on “Incarnation.” He writes, in part:

The orthodox opinion is, that God, in Jesus Christ his Son, assumed not merely a human body, and was subject to the limitations of the human flesh, but also that he assumed, properly, a human nature, and so that he is at once truly God and truly man. That this combination of the human and divine is a mystery which no philosophy can fully explain, is generally conceded…. The Scripture doctrine on this subject is stated briefly, among other passages, in John i.,14; Phil. 2.,5-11; and Heb. ii.,9-18.23

After referring the reader to the entry on Christology (discussed above), Abbott concludes his entry on the Incarnation with the following telling comment:

The heathen mythologies afford some trace of the idea of an incarnation, some account of which the reader will find under Brahmanism and Vishnu. A glance at the latter article will reveal how wide is the gulf between the Christian doctrine of the incarnation and the Brahmanical conception embodied in the mythological Avatas [avatars] of Vishnu.24

Recall that in his entry on Trinitarians, Abbott referred to “some traces of belief in the Trinity…found in most heathen nations.” He uses very similar language here, but comments that in actuality there is a wide “gulf” between the concept of avatars in Hindu mythology and the concept of the incarnation in Christian theology. The same happens to be true in regards to the triadic elements in pre-Christian Gentile religions as compared to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

We should also take very brief notice of an appendix in Abbott’s Dictionary entitled “The Names, Titles, and Characters of the Son of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord, in Their Variety, as Found in the Scriptures.” Section II of this appendix affirms that Jesus Christ is called “God” in numerous places in the Bible (e.g., Isa. 9:6; Matt. 1:23; John 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20), including texts that contemporary Trinitarian scholars do not usually mention in this regard (Isa. 40:3; 54:5; Luke 1:47, 76; 1 Tim. 3:16). Abbott points out that Jesus is also called “Jehovah” (e.g., Isa. 6:3, cf. John 12:41; Isa. 40:3, 10; Jer. 23:6; Zech. 14:5; Rom. 10:13, cf. Joel 2:32; 1 Cor. 2:8) and that he says “I am” in ways that echo the words of Jehovah (John 8:24, 28, 58; 18:5-6; cf. Exod. 3:14).25

A fair-minded and careful reading of Abbott’s reference work, then, demonstrates that it provides no real support for the claims anti-Trinitarians have tried to extract from it.

Abbott’s Later Theology

Ironically, Abbott’s own theology appears to have changed in subsequent years. Over 45 years after he published his dictionary, Abbott published a “spiritual autobiography” entitled What Christianity Means to Me in which he disclosed his own religious and theological views. It is unclear when he came to the views expressed in the later book, but one can see both significant differences between the two books as well as some indications of continuity between them.

In his later book, Abbott says very little about the Trinity and appears to avoid taking a clear position on that subject. At one point he wrote:

Discussions between the Unitarians and the Trinitarians have been largely upon the question what is the metaphysical relation between Jesus Christ and the Father or whom every family in heaven and earth is named. I do not know what that relation is. I do not care to know. It is enough that to me Jesus Christ is the supreme manifestation of the eternal God, not the manifestation of one part of him or of one office which he performs in the world, not more the manifestation of his mercy than of his justice, not more the manifestation of his tenderness than of his authority, but the manifestation of the truth that God is Immanuel—that is, God with us.26

Abbott’s theology in What Christianity Means to Me is difficult to classify because he tries to chart a path that avoids any clear position. Despite claiming not to care to decide between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism, his Christology appears to be a kind of Unitarian view in which Jesus is regarded as a man in whom God uniquely and fully manifested himself. His explanation of the New Testament walks a fine line but in the end falls on the Unitarian side. The following statements from the book illustrate the problem of extracting a coherent position from it27:

He [i.e., Abbott] finds no satisfaction in scholastic definitions of a triune and little known God, in the ecclesiastical characterizations of Jesus as Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten not Made, and the like (10).

I no longer regard Jesus Christ as the Founder of a system; I regard him as the Giver of Life. I still think that the various Christian creeds, rituals and churches are instruments more or less honestly intended to promote in the community the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ. But I do not think that any creed or combination of creeds can adequately define Christian thought… (16).

Apparently the first to believe and to teach what we now call the divinity of Jesus Christ was Paul (113).

The New Testament never affirms that Jesus Christ is God. It never uses such language as that of the Nicene creed…. The language of Thomas in John 20:28, “My Lord and my God,” is the language of emotion, not of theological definition (116 and n. 2).

Incarnation means to me more than that the Spirit of God dwelt unrecognized by the world centuries ago for a few years in Jesus of Nazareth; it also means to me that the same Spirit still dwells in the world, carrying on now with the followers of Jesus the work of serving and saving men which the same Spirit carried on with Jesus then. Incarnation to me is not merely an historical episode; it is an eternal fact. “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any man will hear my voice and open the door I will come unto him and will sup with him and he with me.” This figure interprets to me the spiritual aspirations of mankind. God is love. Where God is, love is. And love is everywhere: a universal presence, a mighty though not resistless power in human life (141-42).

The principal way in which Abbott’s thinking in these statements is consistent with views he expressed in the much earlier dictionary concerns the creeds. In both works, Abbott expresses little patience for theological systems and only nominal respect for creeds.28 Advocates of anti-Trinitarian theological systems should not miss the fact here that Abbott has no use for their systems or creeds, either.

That having been said, there is also a clear difference between the two books, as Abbott in What Christianity Means to Me comes very close to denying that Jesus Christ is God. The difference on this issue between the later book and Abbott’s dictionary, published almost a half-century earlier, is so stark that one should not assume that the later book reflects the thinking of Abbott when he produced the dictionary.29

Where Abbott ended up, in any case, was with a view that treats Jesus essentially as a man in whom God’s character and intentions for humanity are made known. This view is what theologians have called a “functional” Christology in which Jesus is not really God, but is “God for us” or (as Abbott prefers) “God with us,” interpreted to mean that in the man Jesus we see God making himself known in a unique and transformative way. Abbott’s theology became a moralistic doctrine in which Jesus shows human beings how to live. There is no mention anywhere in the book of Jesus’ virgin birth, his sinless life, his ascension, his being enthroned at the right hand of the Father, or of his second coming. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is mentioned a few times in passing but plays no clear role in Abbott’s understanding of what Christianity means to him. The atonement of Christ is no longer the belief that “Christ died for our sins,” as Paul said is fundamental to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3), but for Abbott “means that Christ has by his life and teaching interpreted God to me and by his personal presence inspires in me the will to do my Father’s will and so has reconciled me to God.”30 Drill down beneath the Christian-sounding language of this statement and what Abbott is saying is that Jesus lived as a moral example to be followed. This may be what Christianity meant to Abbott, but it is really not Christianity at all.

NOTES


1. Henry M. Taber, Faith or Fact, preface by Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Peter Eckler, 1897), 37, 89.

2. Ibid., 94; other citations from Abbott appear elsewhere in the book, 91, 174, 269.

3. Charles Taze Russell, Studies in the Scriptures, Series V: The At-one-ment between God and Man (Watchtower, 1910 [1899]), 63, emphasis Russell’s. The work Russell cited was later cited in the Watchtower (July 15, 1957) as Dictionary of Religious Knowledge.

4. “The Scriptures, Reason and the Trinity,” Watchtower, Jan. 1, 1953, 24.

5. “Monotheism or Polytheism: Which Came First?” Awake! April 22, 1961, 15.

6. “Today’s Religions—A Quiz,” Awake! Dec. 22, 1988, 21.

7. Should You Believe in the Trinity? (Watchtower, 1989), 4, 11.

8. “The Church Fathers—Advocates of Bible Truth?” Watchtower, April 15, 2001, 20.

9. Robert B. Vukich, “LDS Beliefs concerning God Are More Biblical than Others,” Answering Anti-Mormons, n.d.

10. Larry L. Yates, The Divided God: Apostolic Theology and the Biblical Challenge to Contemporary Trinitarianism (Lulu, 2012), 158; G. Reckart, “The Trinity Doctrine Is Pagan,” Jesus Messiah Fellowship, n.d. The typographical similarities between the quotes by Yates and Reckart and the fact that they present the same three quotes in the same order (with an identical quote from the New Bible Dictionary before their third quote from Abbott’s dictionary!) proves that one used the other (probably Yates used Reckart). Yates calls his ministry based in Tullahoma, TN, Miracles in Action; he claims to have two doctorates (which are never identified) and to be on the faculty of Cypress Bible Institute, a Oneness correspondence school based in Van, TX. Gary Reckart, the founder of Jesus Messiah Fellowship, calls himself Cohen G. Reckart; he evidently took the name Cohen (which is a Jewish name meaning “priest”) when he adopted some Messianic Jewish elements to his religion.

11. Is the Trinity Biblical?” anonymous webpage, GarnerTedArmstrong.org, n.d. Armstrongism holds to a hybrid anti-Trinitarian theology that is difficult to classify but has affinities with both Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrines.

12. Oscar Lee Dunaway, The Key to Bible Understanding, 2nd ed. (n.p., 1958, reprinted as PDF by Christadelphian Audio), 53, quoting Abbott’s dictionary from Donovan Cox, Who Is the God of the Bible? (privately pub., n.d.). Dunaway was one of the founders in 1923 of the Arkansas Christadelphian Bible School (Martinville, AR), which still operates today. I have not been able to find any information about Mr. Cox.

13. James and Deb Flint, One God or a Trinity? (Hyderabad, India: Printland Publishers, n.d. [1981?]), 11. James Flint as of 2015 was the president of Agape in Action, a Christadelphian charity; he is evidently a descendant of a nineteenth-century Christadelphian hymn writer by the same name.

14. Juan Baxeiras, “Summary,” A Patristic Study of the Kingdom of God and the Development of the Doctrine of the Trinity (BibleCenter.de, 2000).

15. Kent Ross, “The New JBU,” Journal of Biblical Unitarianism 1/1 (Spring 2014): 4. Ross is the editor of this online-only periodical, which succeeds the periodical Radical Reformation. Both periodicals are associated directly with Anthony Buzzard, the leading Biblical Unitarian scholar.

16. “Preface,” in A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, for Popular and Professional Use, edited by Lyman Abbott (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875), iv.

17. “Troas,” in Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Abbott, 944; cf. “Troas,” in A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Bible: Mainly Abridged from Dr. Wm. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Samuel W. Barnum (New York: D. Appleton, 1868), 1137–38. Smith’s Dictionary was first published in three large volumes in 1860 to 1863 and in abridged editions in 1865 and 1866. It was thus enormously popular already when Abbott was working on his dictionary.

18. Trinitarians,” in Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Abbott, 944.

19. Timothy Dwight, “Sermon LXXI: Testimonies to the Doctrine of the Trinity, from the Ancient Christians, Jews, and Heathens,” in Theology; Explained and Defended, in a Series of Sermons (Middleton, CT: Clark & Lyman, 1818), 3:28–32, emphasis added.

20. “Christology,” in Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Abbott, 189.

21. Ibid., 190.

22. Ibid.

23. “Incarnation,” in Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Abbott, 457, 458.

24. Ibid., 458.

25. Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Abbott, 994.

26. Lyman Abbott, What Christianity Means to Me: A Spiritual Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 98.

27. Parenthetical citations in what follows refer to Abbott, What Christianity Means to Me.

28. See also “Creeds,” in Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, edited by Abbott, 233–35.

29. This point is overlooked in an otherwise fairly helpful analysis of the Watchtower’s misuse of Abbott’s dictionary by Steve Rudd, “Abbott, Lyman: Dictionary of Religious Knowledge,” The Interactive Bible, n.d. Rudd gives most of his attention to quotations from Abbott’s later book.

30. Abbott, What Christianity Means to Me, 140–41.