Unitarians

Background

Unitarians can trace their roots back to the 16th Century. The belief spread from Poland, to what was then Transylvania (Romania), through England and on to America where it especially thrived in New England.

Michael Servetus seems to be considered the founder of the movement. Servetus, a Roman Catholic Spanish physician, escaped from the inquisition in France and went to Geneva. Here in 1553 he was burned alive after a three-month trial into his anti-Trinitarian beliefs.

Servetus discovered that in the uncorrupted Greek New Testament there was no text to justify the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He published two books arguing that Christians should bring their views of God and Jesus into conformity with Jewish and Muslim monotheism. Hence the word “Unitarian” — God as unity, or one” – Canadian Unitarian Council Website

These beliefs sometimes known as Sabellianism were to become known as Socianism after Italian born Faustus Socinus. He developed anti-Trinitarian belief into a more organised teaching. At this time he was living in Poland and his followers were sometimes called the Minor Reformed Church. Forced out of Poland again by persecution many merged with the Unitarians in Transylvania and from there the belief spread to England.

Unitarianism flourished in Britain thanks to a man by the name of John Biddle and in 1925 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed. Whatever had gone on before, there is no question that it experienced rapid growth at the end of the 18th century in America. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, leaders of the American Revolution, were all Unitarians. Boston, Massachusetts became the centre of activity with the teachings of such men as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing.

As far as more recent American history is concerned, Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form, in 1959, a single movement called the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Universalists are marked out by their belief that God will save every human being and that there is no such thing as eternal punishment. John Murray founded the first Universalist church in America in 1779 under the name of the Independent Christian Church.

Historians of the Unitarian movement tell us that there were three distinct phases of development:

  • From 1800-1835 when their leaders still accepted supernatural elements of Christianity and strongly defended Christian biblical beliefs against its critics.
  • 1835-1885 which saw an end to this agreement and doctrines of the freedom of the human soul and the centrality of reason were predominant.
  • 1885 to today which saw the full secularisation of belief, that enabled the Unitarians and the Universalists to combine.

Beliefs

As could be expected with such a developing church, their beliefs have changed over the years. However, what is recorded here is what the official Unitarian Church believes today. The following definitions are taken direct from Cliff Reed’s book, “Unitarian, What’s That?” 1999, (available on the Web and in many Unitarian Churches.) Thus, we are quoting what the Unitarians say, and not what we say about them. We will in some cases make comment.

God

“‘God’ is a very subjective word. Unitarians recognise this and do not presume to define God for others. We believe that everyone should be free to encounter the Great Mystery for themselves without mediator or veil. However, most Unitarians would use the word “God” to signify that which they believe to be of supreme worth.”

Therefore to a Unitarian God is simply whatever man makes Him and not what He has revealed Himself to be.

Jesus

“Unitarians believe that Jesus was a man, unequivocally human. It has long been our view that to talk of him as God is unfaithful to his own understanding of himself. The New Testament accounts describe a Jewish man, chosen, raised up, adopted and anointed by God. They claim that the divine purpose was that Jesus should reconcile first the Jews and then all humanity to each other and to God. This would prepare the way for the Messianic age of peace…Whatever Jesus’ own perception, his followers — like him, all faithful Jews — believed him to be the Messiah, “the anointed one”; in Greek, “the Christ”. Today’s Unitarians are not first-century Jews. We cannot share their perspective. However, Jesus’ teachings and what we know of his life lead Unitarians to regard him as a major (some would say the major) figure in humanity’s spiritual journey. While honouring him we do not worship him, something we believe he would not have wanted.”

This is amazing, eyewitnesses of Jesus saw who He was but the Unitarians do not want to believe that. They also are ready to ignore His own words when He clearly claimed to be God (See John 20:28 for an example.)

Holy Spirit

“Unitarians do not see any differentiation between the Holy Spirit and God, and use the words more or less interchangeably. We conceive of the Spirit as the active divine presence in individuals and communities, as the divine breath that gives us life, as that ineffable factor that binds us together. The Spirit, for many Unitarians, is the divine mystery moving among us and within us as we work and worship. Indeed, for many, God as loving, creative Spirit is the primary concept of the divine.”

This again is not the Biblical revelation, as evangelical Christians read it, nor how Jesus spoke of the Spirit.

Salvation

“It must be said that many Unitarians are wary of the word “salvation”. We find some of its associations in mainstream Christianity unhelpful. However, whether we use the word or not, Unitarians tend to see salvation in this-worldly rather than other-worldly terms… love becomes manifest only in human beings and their relationships. So all those people who bring mercy and reconciliation, liberty and justice into the world are the embodiments of salvation. They are the “saviours” within humanity.”

Unitarians only have hope in this life, and are lost as far as eternity is concerned.

Afterlife

“Unitarians hold a wide variety of beliefs on this subject. Some have a very firm belief in personal survival beyond death, and cite evidence to support it. Others — probably most — are less categorical, perhaps believing that in some way all that constitutes a human being continues to exist after death. However, they would not wish to be specific about how, where or in what form. They might talk in terms of the soul or spirit returning to God. They might say that the essence of a person is rewoven into the spiritual life of the universe, just as the body’s constituents are reworked into the universe’s physical dimension… Unitarians take the view that, in any case, the focus of our attention should be this world. Our concern is better directed to considering how we should live our lives in the here and now. A life well-lived is the best preparation for death, whatever may lie beyond it.”

Again, we see the tragedy of the Unitarians position of no eternal hope. They simply live for this life and are willing to take their chances in the next.

Bible

“Unitarians see the Bible as the record of a people’s long struggle to understand themselves, their world and their God. In it the writers describe and interpret the spiritual dimension of their existence and their history. In the insights, stories and experiences that the Bible’s human authors record, we can learn much in our own quest for faith and meaning. Where we find in scripture a source of sustaining and abiding truth, it can be said to be a source of divine wisdom. But Unitarians do not approach the Bible uncritically or without discrimination. Nor do we regard it as an inerrant and unquestionable authority. What it says must be viewed in the light of reason and conscience. Due regard must be given to the continuing discoveries of biblical criticism, serious scholarship and archaeology. Anything in the Bible that Unitarians accept as true is accepted because it rings true in our own humble reflection upon it. We do not accept it just because it is in the Bible.”

This attitude towards the Bible explains where most of their teaching comes from.

Man

“Unitarians take a scientific and evolutionary view of human origins. We regard the biblical creation stories as myths. As myths, though, they still have value. In them are expressed deep and perceptive insights into human nature and our place in world. However, a hard and fast view of human nature is precluded by the incompleteness of our knowledge. We have a long way to go in our exploration of human origins, biology, sociology and psychology. Generally speaking, though, Unitarians share a positive view of human nature and human potential… We have little time for the doctrines of “original sin” and inherited guilt. Rather we see human beings as having inherent and equal worth. This is regardless of all such differences as race, gender, class, creed, or sexual orientation. Unitarians affirm that all human beings originate in the Divine Unity, all have something of God in them, all are alive with the same divine breath.”

The Canadian Unitarian Council describes the lifestyle on their website as

“A religious community where the binding covenant includes support for the individual in his or her own search for meaning and truth… a gathering point for those who reject creeds and dogmas in favour of an open and unfettered exploration of religious traditions… a life-affirming religion with values validated in this life, not in some place of future reward or punishment.”

They go on to say that the people joining them must amongst other things be those who:

“Are eager to consider religious questions with people who are not always sure they have the answers… are eager to consider religious questions with people who are not always sure they have the answers.”

Many would act in the same outward way as a Christian by ‘going’ to their meeting on a Sunday and listening to a ‘sermon’.

The Aberdeen Unitarian Church website informs us that

“Worship is normally conducted by our Minister and will usually consist of music, hymn-singing led by the choir, readings from inspirational works of world literature, prayers, children’s story and an address. There is however no fixed order of service and the pattern may change from time to time. Tea/coffee and biscuits are served after the service. The mood is generally relaxed and informal.”

We also read on another Unitarian website

“As an open religious fellowship, Unitarians are united by simple services of worship, shared commitments to action, and social events. The key concept in our worship is the original meaning of the word; that is celebrating the most important values and events of significance in our lives. Congregational worship which usually takes place on a Sunday in a church or similar building need not necessarily follow the traditional patterns. Thus worship may include hymns, prayers/meditations, readings and periods of silence, but can also include less conventional elements such as modern music, dance or poetry as well as elements drawn from other religious traditions. The shape of worship is determined as much by the views and needs of the congregation as by the experience and talents of their minister or other person leading the service. Many of the places used for worship are several hundred years old and some of them are listed buildings, but some of the smaller congregations meet in rented rooms or each others homes. Socialising after the service also plays an important part in a Unitarian’s week.

Special services may mark dates in the Judaeo-Christian calendar, important festivals of other faiths, or events of general significance to humankind (such as United Nations Day or Gandhi’s birthday). >

Unitarians also have special services to celebrate important points in the cycle of life – birth, naming, marriage or commitment to a relationship, death, or thanksgiving for a life of significance. As we are not bound to particular forms of service, we are able to make these special services personal to the needs and values of the people involved. The nearest minister or qualified lay-person is usually willing to provide these services to non-Unitarians.”

The life of a Unitarian is lived by good ideals and sayings rather than a practical ‘born-again’ knowledge of Jesus Christ in their lives. Reason would always be central to their lives and not faith. Their ‘code of conduct’ would be drawn from the best of all world religions, including humanism. Indeed the humanistic idea of reason is supreme and would be always heeded instead of the ‘idolatries of the mind and spirit’ as one statement of faith put it.

Whereas one would not doubt that many Unitarians seek to live a life of help and comfort to their fellow men, there is no true acceptance of the Living God that told us to love the Lord our God before He said to love our neighbour.

Conclusion

As can be seen from above there is a vast difference between the gospel of Unitarianism and the Gospel of evangelical Christianity. This Gospel would show that anyone relying on the above system for salvation will find that they have no hope of eternal life with the God they say they believe in.

The clear difference between evangelical Christians and Unitarians is summed up by Cliff Reed in his book, “Unitarian, What’s That?”

“As to whether any Unitarian, or anyone else, is a Christian is really for that person to decide. From the earliest days of the Church there have been many different ideas about what being a Christian means. Much suffering has been caused by the resultant disputes, persecutions and wars. This sad record has led some Unitarians to regard the term “Christian” with disfavour. For them it is too hung about with unacceptable baggage to be worth retaining. There are also those who simply do not base their belief system on the Christian tradition. Some of these define their position as religious humanist. Others favour a broader theism, an earth-centred spirituality or a faith that draws principally on religions other than Christianity. However, Unitarians generally hold Jesus in high regard. We favour a simple and inclusive definition of the word Christian. Thus a Christian is any person who seeks to live in accord with the life and teachings of Jesus, who identifies with what is best in the Christian tradition, and who, perhaps, sees in Jesus a revelation of the God who is immanent in all people. This is the wellspring of love that permeated his nature and his ministry. In this sense, many Unitarians are Christians. And we also recognise as such all who share the same spirit, whatever their position on the Christian theological spectrum.”

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