The Authority of Great Names

This is not a promotion or an endorsement of Samuel Miller (1769-1850) as a true Christian. These comments by him serve as vivid reminders of how “distinguished men” ALSO serve the tolerant Calvinists as a prop with which to hold up their anti-christian citadel.

“The fifth and last prejudice on this subject to which I wish to call your attention is that which arises from the authority of great names. Unitarians are more apt (if I do not mistake) than any other sect who assume the Christian name, to boast of the patronage of distinguished men. This is possibly owing in part at least, to that lurking consciousness that their cause stands in need of such a prop, which more frequently perhaps than is imagined, attends the advocates of error. And hence there is scarcely any method of defending their anti-christian citadel of which they appear more fond than to array a list of eminent men to whom they lay claim, as the open or the secret friends of Unitarianism. That cause, they tell us, cannot be bad which some of the greatest and best men that ever lived, have espoused.

The weakness of this plea is so obvious that a formal refutation of it will not be thought necessary by any impartial reader. The same plea might be urged with quite as much force in support of Transubstantiation, the worship of Images and Relicks, and many other of the most palpable and irrational errors that ever disgraced the Christian Church. They have all had able and eminent advocates whose opinions have been confidently quoted in their favour, and whose authority would be decisive if talents, learning and virtue, could be admitted as substitutes for scriptural warrant.

Yet if any one were to argue that because John Duns Scotus and Aquinas, and Bellarmine and Fenelon and Pascal, and a host of other eminent men, were all Catholicks, and devoted their great powers and erudition to the support of many of the superstitions of the Papacy, that therefore these superstitions must be founded in Scripture; every impartial man would perceive such a conclusion to be at once illegitimate in reasoning, and false in fact. Not a whit better is the argument drawn by Unitarians, in favour of their cause, from the authority of great names.

As long as they themselves are compelled to acknowledge that the grossest absurdities, and the most wretched superstitions have been countenanced by many men equally distinguished, they will hardly venture to lay much stress on an argument so capable of being turned against them.

The truth is, if all the world were against the Bible it would be of no weight in the Christian’s estimate…The question which we are called upon to solve is not whether this great man believed in accordance with us; or whether that great man believed differently; but the question is, what saith the Scriptures? If they [Scriptures] be in our favour, we can well afford to have thousands of great names in the ranks of our opponents” (Samuel Miller (1769-1850), Letters on Unitarianism; underlining mine).