In regards to John Adams’ view of the deity of Christ, Frazer wrote:
However, like the deists, Adams did not believe in the deity of Jesus … For Adams and the other theistic rationalists, Jesus was an exemplary man who left an example to follow and who deserved to be imitated, but He was not God.
Frazer is partly correct in this statement. Adams was a committed Unitarian who rejected the orthodox concept of the Trinity. In other words, he did not believe that Jesus Christ was the same being as God the Father. However, there are a very wide range of Unitarian views of Christ, and Frazer is mistaken to conclude that Adams believed Jesus to be just an exemplary man.
The idea that Jesus was just a good man sent from God is known in theological circles as Socinianism. It is the most extreme of the Unitarian views of Jesus, and it was the view held by Joseph Priestley of whom Adams wrote:
I shall never be a disciple of Priestley. He is as absurd inconsistent, credulous and incomprehensible as Athanasius.
Frazer probably assumed that Adams was a Socinian because of Frazer’s mistaken belief that Adams viewed Priestley as “the authority in religious matters,” but there is another (and a much more common) form of Unitarianism that Adams may have accepted.
The most prominent form of Unitarianism in 18th and 19th century America was Arianism. This form of Unitarianism follows the teachings of Arius who wrote:
We say and believe and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.
In other words, the Arians believed that Christ was the first being that God the Father created, that He was created as part of the Godhead, and that He with the Father then created everything else. This view of the Deity of Christ was expressed a little more clearly by one of Arius’ disciples, a missionary to the Goths named Ulfilas. Ulfilas wrote:
I believe there is one God the Father, alone unbegotten and invisible, and I believe in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, Creator and Maker of the whole creation, not having any like unto Him – therefore there is one God of all, who is also God of our God.
From Ulfilas’ statement, it is clear that Arians agreed with the concept of the Deity of Christ, but they rejected the idea that Christ was co-eternal with God the Father. To the Arians, the idea that an eternal being could die was preposterous, but they could accept the idea of Christ as God dying for us because they did not view Christ as an eternal being. In their reasoning, Christ could die even though He was part of the Godhead because of the fact that He had a beginning.
All of John Adams’ statements about Christ are consistent with the Arian form of Unitarianism, but he made several statements which are not consistent with Socinianism. For example, Adams made several references to Christ as his Savior which he would never have made as a Socinian. He once wrote to his wife that:
Our Saviour taught the Immorality of Revenge, and the moral Duty of forgiving Injuries, and even the Duty of loving Enemies.
And in his diary, he penned:
By this said our Blessed saviour shall all Men know that ye are my diciples, if ye have Love to one an other; how many inducements does the Christian Religion offer to excite us to universal Benevolence and Good will towards each other, and yet how often do we suffer the vilest of passions to Dominer over us and extinguish from our Bosoms every generous principal.
A Socinian would not have referred to Christ as the Savior, for Socinians viewed Jesus as nothing more than “an exemplary man who left an example to follow.” An Arian on the other hand would not have hesitated at all to speak of Christ as his Savior, for Arians agreed with the orthodox view of Christ’s atonement for sins.
In his lectures, Frazer refers to one of Adams’ statements about the Trinity as “the saddest, most incredible thing I found in thirty years of research.” The statement that Frazer is referring to is found in one of Adams’ letters to Jefferson in which Adams wrote:
Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai and admitted to behold, the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three, one: we might not have had courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it. The thunders and lightenings and earthqu[ak]es and the transcendant splendors and glories, might have overwhelmed us with terror and amazement: but we could not have believed the doctrine. We should be more likely to say in our hearts, whatever we might say with our lips, this is chance. There is no God! No truth. This is all delusion, fiction and a lie: or it is all chance.
According to Frazer, this statement is an admission that:
Adams was so opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity that he said he would not believe it if directly told of it by God Himself ... Adams thought his reason more reliable than direct revelation from God.
But that is not necessarily the case. What Adams actually said was that he would be more likely to deny that he was being spoken to by God than he would be to believe that God was telling him that 2 plus 2 equals 5 and that the number 1 is equal to the number 3. According to Adams the idea that 2 plus 2 equals 4 and the idea that 1 is not equal to 3 are mathematical truths which cannot be disputed or doubted. Just prior to making his statement about Mt. Sinai, Adams said:
We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fullfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. natures God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten Us out of our Witts; might Scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to Say that We believe that 2 and 2 makes 5. But We Should not believe it. We Should know the contrary.
This is a true statement. There are very few people in this world who would believe that 2 plus 2 equals 5 even if a powerful, spiritual being were to shout it to them while claiming to be God with the accompaniment of thunder and lightning. There is a term for people who would accept such a belief, and that is the term “fideist.” A fideist is one who believes that all knowledge is dependent on direct revelation from God, and Frazer may share that belief. The vast majority of humanity, however, (including most Christians) would be more likely to conclude that no being proclaiming that 2 plus 2 equals 5 can possibly be God regardless of how much he may claim to be so with thunder and lightning.
This is all that Adams was saying in his letter to Jefferson. He was not saying that he would still deny the Trinity even if God Himself were to explain it to him. What he was actually claiming was that he would still deny the Trinity even if some being claiming to be God offered him the same explanation of the Trinity as that which was given by its orthodox defenders. To Adams, the explanation given by orthodox Trinitarians was just as absurd as saying that 2 plus 2 equals 5, and he refused to believe such an explanation even if he were to hear it proclaimed from heaven. He would sooner believe that his senses were playing tricks on him than that God would say something false.
Now, many Christians would still conclude that Adams could not have been both a Christian and an Arian, but there is no Scriptural support for this view. Arianism has never been conclusively disproven, and there is no passage of Scripture which declares that Christians must hold to the Athanasian view of the Trinity. Personally, I think that the Athanasian formula is correct, but I recognize that it is just a man-made formula. It is just one of many attempts to explain a very large collection of passages in Scripture which touch on the nature of Christ. I think that Athanasius was correct, but there remains a possibility, however remote, that he may have been wrong. God has not deigned to give us an exact explanation of the natures of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, and until He does, I don’t see that we have any grounds to pronounce anathemas against those who accept a view different from our own.
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)