Two summers ago I developed a new habit: eating oysters and drinking San Pellegrino sparkling water. Every time I enjoy fresh oysters, it reminds me of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Mon oncle Jules” (1883). Joseph Davranche, the companion of de Maupassant’s narrative, describes how his father learned the delicate manner of eating oysters:
Suddenly he noticed two elegantly dressed ladies to whom two gentlemen were offering oysters. An old, ragged sailor was opening them with his knife and passing them to the gentlemen, who would then offer them to the ladies. They ate them in a dainty manner, holding the shell on a fine handkerchief and advancing their mouths a little in order not to spot their dresses. Then they would drink the liquid with a rapid little motion and throw the shell overboard.
Although I do not eat oysters as elegantly as the ladies described above, this story makes me smile. As oysters remind me of de Maupassant’s story, sparkling water likewise reminds me of an eighteenth-century scientist, political theorist and theologian—Joseph Priestley (1733–1804). It was Priestley who discovered a method for infusing water with carbon dioxide in 1767 and invented carbonated water.
Priestley was a Socinian, or, in his own words, a Unitarian. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Socinianism promoted by Priestley was a major theological threat to the church, and even to the state. Under the influence of Priestley and his Unitarian peers, most English General Baptists left the orthodox faith and turned to Unitarianism by the end of the 1800s.
The heretic Priestley
No one is born to be a heretic. As Alister McGrath helpfully defines, heresy is “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.” The apostle John wrote in his epistle concerning the “many antichrists,” saying, “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). What interests me about Priestley is how he turned from a “strict Calvinist” to an Arian through his theological education—and eventually to a Socinian. It is my wish to use Priestley as a negative example on how to deal the tension between faith and scholarship.
In 1752, Priestley attended the Daventry Academy, where he was tutored under Caleb Ashworth and Samuel Clark. As Ashworth and Clark followed Philip Doddridge’s pedagogical technique, Priestley was taught to read various heterodox texts written by early eighteenth-century theologians such as Nathaniel Lardner and Martin Tomkins. Priestley entered the academy as a Trinitarian Calvinist and completed his studies as an Arian. Furthermore, in his early ministry at Needham Market, Priestley questioned and denied the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement. In 1767, after he was acquainted with Socinian theologians, Priestley became a Socinian.
Interestingly, Priestley later criticized his theological education as “defective in containing no lectures on the Scriptures, or on ecclesiastical history.” It is likely that “the most significant aspect of Priestley’s education was not the content of his instruction but the method.” In other words, if theological education was like a machine, Priestley was taught more about how the machine functions, and less about the product. In reality, despite how much professors require their students to read and write, it would be impossible for their students to read all the literature written on an area of study in twelve to thirteen weeks. In lectures, professors can only teach methodologies, and help their students learn to interpret texts by using certain methodologies.
The problem Priestley faced was not merely caused by the education he received; rather, it began with his presuppositions and attitude. When it came to Scripture, Priestley believed that the two Testaments bore the marks of having been written, not by enthusiasts or impostors, but by “plain sensible men, of genuine piety and integrity.” For Priestley, to proclaim sola Scriptura and state that Scripture is binding would be to embarrass the church. Thus, as Kevin C. de Berg writes, “to maintain…that all Christian practice is based on Scripture and Scripture alone, is to leave one in an awkward situation.” In Priestley’s words, “My studies have been pretty equally divided between that book [the Scripture] and an-other, which, I doubt not, is from the same author, bearing equal marks of wisdom, and having the same great object, the moral instruction of mankind.” So, Scripture had become just a source to prove Priestley’s rational deduction. Indeed, to become “drily academic” and “respectable to the secular disciplines” became the primary goals of many theological scholars at English universities.
How not to be a heretic like Priestley
If we could travel back to the point when Priestley was first exposed to heterodox literature, what counsel could we offer? First, we need to understand our relationship with the Lord. Everyone can study theology, but not everyone will understand or benefit. “Seek not to understand so that you may believe, but believe so that you may understand; for ‘unless you believe, you will not understand.’” This advice from Augustine was based on his interpretation of John 7:14– 18. This is also a presuppositional matter: How can you come to the Scripture expecting to find an answer or an error, and leave with understanding? I must first believe God and his inerrant Word.
Second, we need to be aware of our attitude. Theological education does not guarantee spiritual maturity, nor does a theological degree promise theological omniscience. Humility is to be the character of every Christian (Ephesians 4:1–3). Moreover, Christ himself exemplified humility for his disciples in his incarnation, death and resurrection (Philippians 2:5–11). There is a temptation for theological scholars to come to the Scriptures with an attitude of omniscience. To fight such a temptation requires communion with Christ. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
Third, an intellectual Christian needs to be a purpose-driven scholar. The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Christian scholars need to understand that their studies have a purpose: it is for God’s glory and the benefit of his church. As reading the Scriptures and interpreting them within their context is key, so Christian scholars also have to be in context themselves—the church.
*An earlier version of this article appeared in Barnabas in 2016 and is used here by permission.