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Unitarianism n : Christian doctrine that stresses individual freedom of belief and rejects the Trinity

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Etymology

Noun

  1. The belief in a single God, not divided into any aspects, particularly when presented as a contrast to Christian trinitarianism.

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Extensive Definition

''This article is about Unitarian theology. For the liberal religious movement with the same name, see Unitarian Universalism for the United States and Canada, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches for the UK, and International Council of Unitarians and Universalists for other parts of the world.''
Unitarianism is the belief in the single personality of God, in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity (three persons in one God). It is the philosophy upon which the modern Unitarian movement was based, and, according to its proponents, is the original form of Christianity. Unitarian Christians believe in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as found in the New Testament and other early Christian writings, and hold him up as an exemplar. Adhering to strict monotheism, they maintain that Jesus was a great man and a prophet of God, perhaps even a supernatural being, but not God himself. Unitarians believe in the moral authority, but not necessarily the divinity, of Jesus. They do not pray to Jesus. Their theology is thus distinguishable from the theology of Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, and other Christian denominations, who hold the Trinity doctrine as a core belief.
Some Evangelicals hold a unitarian theology in that they see God as a single person, and are thus antitrinitarian, but because they perceive Jesus to be God himself do not fall into the general theology discussed here, which sees Jesus as subordinate to God and a finite being. Instead see: Sabellianism, Oneness theology, Oneness Pentecostalism, Monarchianism, Binitarianism.
While there are both religiously liberal and religiously conservative unitarians, the name "Unitarian" is most commonly associated with the liberal branch of this theology.
Conservative (Biblical or Evangelical) unitarians strictly adhere to the principle of sola scriptura and their belief that the Bible is both inspired and inerrant and uphold "fundamentals" of belief. This version of unitarianism is more commonly called Nontrinitarianism, rather than Unitarianism.
Unitarians sum up their faith as "the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus." Historically, they have encouraged non-dogmatic views of God, Jesus, the world and purpose of life as revealed through reason, scholarship, science, philosophy, scripture and other prophets and religions. They believe that reason and belief are complementary and that religion and science can co-exist and guide them in their understanding of nature and God. They also do not enforce belief in creeds or dogmatic formulas. Although there is flexibility in the nuances of belief or basic truths for the individual Unitarian Christian, general principles of faith have been recognized as a way to bind the group in some commonality. Adherents generally accept religious pluralism and find value in all teachings, but remain committed to their core belief in Christ's teachings. Liberal Unitarians value a secular society in which government stays out of religious affairs.
Unitarians are not to be confused with members of the Unity Church or the Uniting Church in Australia.

Distinction between Theological Unitarians and Denominational Unitarians

The term "Unitarian" has been applied both to those who hold a Unitarian theological belief and to those who belong to a Unitarian church. A hundred years ago, this would not have made much of a difference, but today it is a distinction that needs to be made.
Unitarian theology is distinguishable from the belief system of modern Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships in several countries. This is because over time, some Unitarians and many Unitarian Universalists have moved away from the traditional Christian roots of Unitarianism. For example, in the 1890s the American Unitarian Association began to allow non-Christian and non-theistic churches and individuals to be part of their fellowship. As a result, people who held no Unitarian belief began to be called "Unitarians," simply because they were members of churches that belonged to the American Unitarian Association. After several decades, the non-theistic members outnumbered the theological Unitarians. A similar, though proportionally much smaller, phenomenon has taken place in the Unitarian churches in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and other countries, which remain more theologically based.
The remainder of this article includes information about Unitarianism as a theology and about the development of theologically Unitarian churches in several countries around the world. For a more specific discussion of Unitarianism as it evolved into a secular liberal philosophy in the United States and elsewhere in more recent times, see Unitarian Universalism, Canadian Unitarian Council, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

Forms

Unitarianism can very loosely be divided into two categories. Both maintain that God is one being and one "person"—the one Jesus called "Our Father". Jesus is the (or a) Son of God, but generally not God himself. However, they differ as to particulars.

Jesus existed as a person before his human life

The Son of God is a preexistent being, the Logos who dwelt with God in the beginning and then was born as the man Jesus. However, he is not eternal, but had a beginning of existence. This theology is commonly called Arianism, but there are many varieties of this form of Unitarianism, ranging from the belief that the Son, before he came to earth, was a divine spirit of the same nature as God to the belief that he was an angel or other lesser spirit creature of a wholly different nature from God, and Arius' views represent only one variation of this theology.
Whatever the case, in this belief system, Jesus is beneath God, but higher than humans (and has always been so). We might call it "elevated subordinationism." It is associated with early church figures such as Justin Martyr, Lucian of Antioch, Eusebius of Caesarea, Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Asterius the Sophist, Eunomius, and Ulfilas, as well as Felix, Bishop of Urgel and others who believed that Jesus was God in his divine nature but his divinity in his human nature was through adoption. Arian forms of Unitarianism remain among Unitarians in Transylvania, Hungary, France, and several countries in Africa. Famous Arian Unitarians include Isaac Newton, Andrews Norton and Dr. William Ellery Channing.
Since the 19th century, several Evangelical or Revivalist movements adopted an elevated subordinationist theology (best described as Nontrinitarianism, rather than Unitarianism). Important figures include Barton W. Stone and Charles Taze Russell. Theologies among Evangelical Unitarians are sometimes Arian, and sometimes Sabellian (Jesus is God in the flesh, the manifestation of God, who exists as a single person). Other modern non-trinitarian churches, such as the Filipino-based Iglesia ni Cristo, may also be included, although they reject the "unitarian" name to avoid confusion. Jehovah's Witnesses also have a nontrinitarian theology with specific traits.

Jesus did not exist as a person before his human life

This theology ranges from the belief that Jesus was merely a great man filled with the Holy Spirit (sometimes called Psilanthropism or, more commonly, Socinianism) to the belief that he is the incarnation of God's impersonal Logos. It is associated with early church figures like the Ebionites, Theodotus of Byzantium, Artemon, and Paul of Samosata in the early Church, Marcellus of Ancyra and his pupil Photinus in the 4th century AD, and Michael Servetus, Ferenc Dávid and Faustus Socinus in the Protestant Reformation. It is from the latter that we get the word "Socinianism," but the teaching of Socinus is unique in more than just its Christology, and so the name is best not used as merely a Christological term.
In modern times we see the psilanthropist view manifested in Rationalist Unitarianism, which emerged from the German Rationalism and the liberal theology of the 19th century. Its proponents took a highly intellectual and humanistic approach to religion, rejecting most of the miraculous events in the Bible (including the virgin birth.) They embraced evolutionary concepts, asserted the "inherent goodness of man" and abandoned the doctrine of biblical infallibility. Rationalist Unitarianism is distinguished from Deism (with which it nevertheless shares many features) by its belief in a personal deity who directly acts on creation, while Deists see God as holding aloof from creation.
Notable Rationalist Unitarians include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker in theology and ministry, Joseph Priestley and Linus Pauling in science, Susan B. Anthony and Florence Nightingale in humanitarianism and social justice, Charles Dickens in literature, and Frank Lloyd Wright in arts. Many Hungarian Unitarians embrace the principles of Rationalist Unitarianism—the only Unitarian high school in the world, John Sigismund Unitarian Academy in Cluj Napoca (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg), Romania, teaches Rationalist Unitarianism. The psilanthropist concept of the nature of Jesus is similar to the viewpoint held by the Islamic faith, which regards Jesus as a non-divine and human Prophet. Christadelphians and both groups called the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith are Evangelical Unitarians.

History

Common beliefs among theological Unitarians

There is no specific set of beliefs shared by all Unitarians, although some common traits may be found. The most obvious connection among Unitarians is the rejection of the Trinitarian dogma. Apart from that, conservative (Biblical or evangelical) Unitarian Christians generally hold similar beliefs to most other evangelical Christians, apart from their rejection of the Trinity doctrine, whereas liberal Unitarian Christians generally do not believe in the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, or Biblical inerrancy.
Although there is no specific authority on these convictions, the following represent the most generally accepted:
  • the belief in One God and the oneness or unity of God.
  • the life and teachings of Jesus Christ is the exemplar model for living one's own life.
  • that reason, rational thought, science, and philosophy coexist with faith in God.
  • that man has the ability to exercise free will in a responsible, constructive and ethical manner with the assistance of religion.
  • the belief that human nature in its present condition is neither inherently corrupt nor depraved, but capable of both good and evil, as God intended.
  • the conviction that no religion can claim an absolute monopoly on the Holy Spirit or theological truth.
  • the belief that the words of the Bible were inspired by God, but were written and edited by humans and therefore are subject to human error.
  • the rejection of traditional doctrines that they believe malign God's character or veil the true nature and mission of Jesus Christ, such as the doctrine of predestination, eternal damnation, the Trinity, and the vicarious sacrifice or satisfaction theory of the Atonement.
Most Unitarian Christians would say that Jesus of Nazareth and his followers and disciples would today be defined as Unitarian Christians, and that Unitarian Christianity is the form of Christianity most closely following the direct teachings of Jesus. However, Unitarian Christians usually respect the beliefs of others and do not believe that their way is the only way to follow God's will.
Unitarian Christians believe Jesus did not claim to be God nor did his teachings hint at his divinity or the existence of a triune God. They generally do not believe that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin or performed miracles to the extent reported in the Gospels. In theological Unitarianism, the most weight regarding the accounts of Jesus, his character, and his life is given to the four canonical Gospels (Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John). Other sources of information about Jesus including newly discovered Gospels that were not included in the original canon of the Bible (e.g. Nag Hammadi Library) are also generally accepted.
Unitarian Christians reject the doctrine of some Christian denominations that God chooses to redeem or save only those certain individuals that accept the creeds of, or affiliate with a specific Church or religion, from a common ruin or corruption of the mass of humanity. They generally do not believe that God merely demands belief in certain principles of faith and that no good works in life are required to be morally righteous.
Most contemporary Unitarian Christians believe that one's personal moral convictions will guide one's political activities and a secular society is the most viable, just, and fair society.

Unitarian Christian Groups and Publications

Organizations of Unitarian Christians

There are a number of associations, congregations and publications that can be considered as actively involved in the preservation and development of the distinct tradition known as Unitarian Christianity - started by Francis David in 1565.
Many American Unitarian Christians identify primarily with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, a sub-group of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is the result of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, and is located in the United States. In addition many Unitarian Christian groups are affiliated with the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.
Some organizations, such as the American Unitarian Conference, are independent of the UUA and the ICUU. Others, such as Bét Dávid Unitarian Association, have recently become associated with the ICUU. They tend to contain a majority membership who express specifically Unitarian Christian beliefs as opposed to the religious pluralism of the UUA - nevertheless they remain liberal, open-minded and inclusive communities.
The Unitarian Christian Association (UK) and Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (USA) maintain formal links with their national movements but again, have a membership that is majoritarily Christian. This can also be said of numerous local congregations.
A final point to note is the Unitarian Church in Hungary and the Transylvanian Unitarian Church are affiliated with the ICUU and continue with the historical Unitarian Christian tradition established by Francis David. The Unitarian churches in Hungary and Transylvania are structured and organized along a church hierarchy that includes the election by the Synod of a national Bishop who serves as superintendent of the Church.
The majority of Unitarian Christian publications are sponsored by an organization and published specifically for their membership. They generally do not serve as a tool for missionary work or encouraging conversions.

Development in the 21st Century

In recent years there has been a relatively small, yet significant, growth in groups with a specifically Unitarian Christian outlook and ethos. The Congregazione Italiana Cristiana Unitariana (Italy) and Bét Dávid Unitarian Association (Norway) are two examples of this trend. There are also reports of the development of Unitarian Christian groups in African countries such as Burundi. Some of these groups are joining the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, either as Emerging Groups or as Associates, as they gain a solid organizational structure.
There is a noticeable presence of Unitarian Christians on the internet, and online networks have been growing steadily for some time attracting members from across the world. Many Unitarian Christians who join these networks do not have a congregation in their locality and so rely on the internet as the main contact with their fellow believers.

Ecclesiology

When Unitarianism developed in the 1600s during the Protestant era of the evolution of the Christian church, the strongholds in Transylvania, Poland (which practically disappeared after 1640) and eventually Britain and the North Eastern parts of the United States were firmly in the congregational tradition in the English-speaking countries. In the Hungarian-speaking territories it adopted a governance system that combined the Synodal and Episcopal models.
For those churches under the congregational model, each church governed itself independently of a hierarchical authority. These small congregations did belong, however, to more formal associations of churches. The American Unitarian Association, formed in 1825, was one of these. Later, in 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), which is the largest organization of Unitarians in the US. The UUA is no longer an explicitly Christian organization and does not focus exclusively on the core teachings of Jesus Christ or Christianity. Several Unitarian organizations still promote Christianity as their central theme including the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF, an affiliate of the UUA), the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (GAUFCC) of the United Kingdom, and the Unitarian Christian Association (UCA, an affiliate of the GAUFCC).
In the US, the newest organization promoting a return to the theistic roots of Unitarianism is the American Unitarian Conference (AUC), formed in 2000. The AUC's stated goal is to formulate and promote classical Unitarian-based, unifying religious convictions, which balance the needs of members with a practical approach to inclusion and progressive free thought.

Interfaith Dialogue & Relations

The adoption of Unitarian belief almost always entails severance of identification with "Christianity" as it is formulated in the creeds of the Nicene and pre-Chalcedonian churches (Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestants). Unitarianism is outside of the fellowship of these traditions. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant creeds of various stripes insist on trinitarian belief as an essential of Christianity and basic to a group's continuity of identity with the historical Christian faith.
As a tradition founded by dissenters from mainstream Christian churches, and traditionally denounced as heretics, it is difficult to see the emergence of Unitarian groups in areas dominated by existing Christian denominations.
However, occasionally, especially in Protestant history, traditionally trinitarian groups grow friendly to, or incorporate, unitarianism. Friendliness toward unitarianism has sometimes gone hand-in-hand with anti-Catholicism. In some cases non-trinitarian or unitarian belief has been adopted by some, and tolerated in Christian churches as a "non-essential". This was the case in the English Presbyterian Church, and in the Congregational Church in New England late in the 18th century. The Restoration Movement also attempted to forge a compatible relation between trinitarians and unitarians, as did the Seventh Day Baptists and various Adventists. The unitarian tendency in these last-mentioned groups is probably due to the in-built skepticism about Catholic history as a reliable guide to the Christian tradition of interpretation.
In other cases, this openness to unitarianism within traditionally trinitarian churches has been inspired by a very broad ecumenical motive. Modern liberal Protestant denominations are often accused by trinitarians within their ranks, and critics outside, of being indifferent to the doctrine, and therefore self-isolated from their respective trinitarian pasts and heritage. In some cases, it is charged that these trinitarian denominations are no longer Christian, because of their toleration of unitarian belief among their teachers, and in their seminaries.
At a local level, many Unitarian Christian groups - and individual Unitarian Christians - have links with tolerant congregations affiliated with the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Anglican Church and Unity Church. Indeed, some argue they feel more at home within these denominations than Unitarian-Universalism. A small proportion of Unitarian Christians also have links with Progressive Christianity.
Despite the close friendship and shared heritage that exists between adherents to Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Christianity, there is an element within Unitarian Universalism that opposes specifically Unitarian Christian groups, believing them to be exclusive and intolerant of non-Christian thought. Likewise, some Unitarian Christians also believe that Unitarian Universalists are intolerant of Christian thought and tend to marginalize Christians.
The American Unitarian Conference is open to non-Christian Unitarians - being particularly popular with non-Christian theists and deists. In addition, the Bét Dávid Unitarian Association (Norway) has forged positive and mutual friendships with Jewish groups.
An important point to note is the shared belief that exists between Unitarian Christians and their Muslim, Jewish and Sikh counterparts, who all adhere to strict monotheism - this common ground may form the basis of future friendship.
Unitarian Christians do not currently have any formal links with the 'Biblical Unitarian' movements in the United States - the two communities should be regarded as separate and distinct.

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • Joseph Henry Allen, Our Liberal Movement in Theology (Boston, 1882)
  • Joseph Henry Allen, Sequel to our Liberal Movement (Boston, 1897)
  • Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham, Maryland, 1998) ISBN 1-57309-309-2.
  • John White Chadwick, Old and New Unitarian Belief (Boston, 1894).
  • William Ellery Channing (1903).
  • Unitarianism: its Origin and history, a course of Sixteen Lectures (Boston, 1895).
  • George Willis Cooke, Unitarianism in America: a History of its Origin and Development (Boston, 1902).
  • Patrick Navas, Divine Truth or Human Tradition: A Reconsideration of the Roman Catholic-Protestant Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Bloomington, Indiana 2007). ISBN 1-4259-4832-4.
  • Unitarian Year Book (Boston).
  • Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents, Harvard University Press, 1945.

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