1 What does it mean to be Unitarian?
In general, Unitarianism is the understanding that the universe has a single (unitary) Source — called “God” by many religions — that is the fundamental cause of all things and therefore not subject to causation or the limitations of time and space. Specifically, “Unitarianism” was coined to describe the Christian belief in a single God in the historical context of other Christian churches who believe in the 4th Century doctrine of the Trinity.
(See Q/A 3 and 3.1 below for comment on the Unitarian Universalist Association.)
1.1 If Unitarians believe in one God, what about the Son of God?
In the Christian idiom, this means worshipping The One God through the only-begotten Son of God — a divine entity also called the Word/Logos of God, the Name of God, and (in the Letter to the Colossians 1:15) “the Image of the invisible God, firstborn of creatures.” Christian Unitarians worship God through the Word because it is the Word through whom God created all things.
Whereas “Father” is how Christians often refer to The Divinity, the Word of God can be described as the Father’s agency, or “divinity” meaning the expression or character of The Divinity. In fact, the Word is specifically identified and distinguished from God this way in the original Greek of the Gospel of John 1:1.
1.2 What is the significance of Jesus Christ to (Reform) Unitarians?
For Reform Unitarians, the Logos was manifest in Jesus of Nazareth as the person “anointed” of God through the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew “Messiah” and Greek “Christ” are both words that translate into English simply as “Anointed,” referring to a ceremonial granting of divine agency using oil, which was common in the ancient Mediterranean.
The failure to understand this fact of translation causes much confusion among misinformed Christians, even leading to absurd redundancies like the phrase “Anointed Christ” or the assertion that “Christ was the Messiah.”
Kings, priests, prophets, utensils, and even the Persian Emperor Cyrus are named “Anointed” in scripture. In every case, the Anointed is so identified in order to express God’s will and character, so that God may create through him, her, or it.
The First Letter to the Corinthians (8:6) makes clear: “For us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we are for Him; and one Lord, the Anointed Jesus, through whom are all things, and we are through him.”
This vertical, subordinate Father-Son relationship between God and His Messiah is a cornerstone of true Christianity: as we read in the Second Letter of John, to deny the Father and Son is anti-Christ.
2 Trinitarians accuse Unitarians of rejecting the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Is this true?
No, Unitarian Christians do not reject the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But Unitarian Christians do not believe that these three are equal partners in a “triune” God simply because they are listed together in scripture. We believe that God is the “Father,” that His Word/Logos is the “Son of God” as the unified agency of God in Creation, and the Holy Spirit is God’s action in Creation as symbolized in diverse ways.
Rather than a “trinity” of coequal persons, Reform Unitarianism sees the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as a three-part sequence or “triplicity” — like an outflowing of divinity: from the hidden aquifer of God the Father, through the single wellspring of the Son and the many streams of the Holy Spirit.
2.1 Why is this view more correct than the Trinitarian view?
If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were truly equal persons in God as Trinitarian theology claims, why are they always listed in the same order? Why are they not truly interchangeable in order?
We never hear “the Holy Spirit, the Son, and the Father” or “the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit,” because the underlying theology — understood by the writers of scripture and earliest Christians, but lost on later Trinitarians — was a theology of divine power flowing from God the Father through the subordinate Son and Spirit, not a polytheistic god of three equal persons.
2.2 How did the early Church view the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
The earliest mention of the word “trinity” in Christianity was in the 2nd Century by Theophilus of Antioch, who spoke not of a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit persons in God, but of “the Trinity of God, his Word, and his Wisdom,” with Wisdom being a reference to the Holy Spirit. The Word and Wisdom are clearly not equal persons alongside God the Father. They are subordinate divine agents of God Most High.
Around this same time, Clement of Alexandria described God as uncreated, while the Son and Spirit were “first-born powers and first-created,” echoing Colossians 1:15 which describes the Son as “firstborn of creatures.” Son and Spirit are again clearly not equal ‘persons’ alongside the God the Father.
Also during this early period, Irenaeus described Son and Spirit as the “hands of God.” All of these earliest Christian ways of describing the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit are consistent with Reform Unitarianism, but utterly contradict Trinitarian theology.
2.3 Why do so many modern Christians believe that Trinitarianism is central to Christianity?
Later in the history of the church, the word “trinity” was misconstrued by church leaders, who first conflated the Son with the Father, and later added the Holy Spirit to this error. This change in doctrine was accomplished through a sordid series of political maneuvers, and by means of slandering and violently persecuting (even murdering) those holding the original Christian view.
The gradual corruption of this theological mistake is well-documented in the records of church councils, but conveniently ignored and glossed over by modern church leaders who are emotionally and institutionally invested in erroneous Trinitarian theology.
3 I have heard that Unitarians do not really have any specific beliefs any more. Is this true?
The name “Unitarian” has been retained by liberal religious groups descended from traditional Unitarians, but who are no longer faithful to the beliefs of those Christians who purposefully chose that name to distinguish themselves from Trinitarians. These groups have good intentions, but have retained the label “Unitarian” irresponsibly.
For example, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was taken over in the late 1800s by a theologically non-Unitarian splinter group known as Free Religionism; the victorious Free Religionists retained the “Unitarian” name even after purging Unitarian theology from all official statements of principles. The Unitarian Universalist Assocation, which formed when AUA merged with the Universalist Church of America in 1961, continues this practice.
Nevertheless, the proper and honest theological meaning of the term “Unitarian” remains the same.
Unitarianism is not about membership in a particular group or organization, and there are many Christian churches with Unitarian beliefs who do not use the term “Unitarian” to describe themselves.
3.1 What does it matter if the name is used for groups that no longer believe in Unitarianism?
Just as it is a fallacy to consider any government with “democratic” in its official name a democracy — or to consider all self-styled “republics” as genuine republics — it promotes confusion, error, and irrational circular reasoning to define Unitarianism as the philosophy of an organization with the word “Unitarian” in its name.
Names should be selected responsibly, with the purpose of clarifying meaning; meaning should not be blurred by clinging to labels that are no longer accurately descriptive. The best way to promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” is to make sure the meanings of words are not unnecessarily confused, and to name organizations based on the principles they actually promote.
4 What does it mean to be a Reform Unitarian?
To reform can mean to restore something that is lost or corrupted. It can also mean to improve something by amendment or development. Reform Unitarianism embraces both of these meanings.
In many ways, modern Unitarianism is an extension of the Protestant Reformation, and is therefore a reform movement by its very nature. In fact, outside of the context of reforming long-standing Trinitarian error, the name “Unitarian” makes little sense. The original Christians, although Unitarian in theology, would have had no reason to use this term until conflationists clumped Father, Son, and Holy Ghost into an unscriptural “triune God” through a series of Imperial councils, resulting in full-blown Trinitarianism during the 4th Century.
4.1 What is Reform Unitarianism restoring and improving?
Reform Unitarianism attempts to restore the religion of Jesus Christ before the errors of the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Specifically, Reform Unitarianism wants to restore to Christianity the original values exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth:
- ecumenism, and respect for good and truth in other traditions
- open-mindedness, the virtue of Hope
- reason, the virtue of Faith or “fidelity”
- respect for argumentation and explanation over blind dogma
- focus on the deep nature of reality rather than superficial sectarian politics
- allegorical, anti-literalist approach to ministry
4.2 Is Reform Unitarianism only concerned with restoring and improving Christianity?
More broadly, Reform Unitarianism is an attempt to restore reasoned discourse on religion based on a common definition of “God” (capitalized) as the single, uncreated Source for all created things. These created things necessarily include divine creatures (imaginary or not) which are unfortunately referenced, in various languages, using the same word as that used for the uncreated Source, “god” in English.
The confusion that results from this failure to apply the language of religion in a rational way is the cause of an inexcusable amount of error, deception, and inter-religious conflict.
So, Reform Unitarianism is a reformation not only of our concept of Christianity, but of our concept of religion in general. Too often, ecumenical efforts and public discourse on religion — or even against religion — fall prey to confused and vague language.
5 What is American about American Unitarian Reform?
The United States of America is unique in the history of Unitarian Christianity in that its founding was influenced by many thinkers whose views on religion were distinctly Unitarian.
American Unitarian Reform takes on two tasks. Firstly, it seeks to restore and improve the Unitarianism of America’s founding and early years. Secondly, it seeks to imbue the society of the United States with the Unitarian virtues that informed its foundation: rational and disciplined open-mindedness.
5.1 Doesn’t this violate the “Separation of Church and State”?
When AUR celebrates the confluence of Unitarian Christianity and American civic life, this is not to insist that the US government take religion seriously (since this would be a violation of both Unitarian and American principles) but that we as believers should live by this pious and rational principle: any religion which seeks to guide its members to moral action should describe the Creation adequately to identify the Divine will in history and political life.
For example, when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” he was making a theological point that did not deny the harsh facts of reality. In fact, Dr. King was paraphrasing Unitarian pastor Theodore Parker. When AUR speaks of imbuing society with rational religious virtues, it is in this spirit.
6 What is the Reformed Unitarian attitude toward scripture?
The prophet Jeremiah (Book of Jeremiah 8:8) condemns scripturalist sanctimony: “How can you say, ‘We are wise because we have the law of Yahweh,’ when actually the lying pens of scribes have handled it falsely.” Clearly, even scripture itself asserts the fact that it can be corrupted by its handlers, a phenomenon that has been well established by both archeaology and textual analysis.
Those who attempt (ironically) to debunk Jeremiah 8:8 put forth other verses that flatter scripture, but there is no explanation of the verse itself except as a clear recognition that written revelation falls prey to the faults and sins of its keepers.
For example, in the Second Letter to Timothy (3:16-17) the author asserts that “all scripture is God-inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Many have mistaken this to mean that the scripture as we know it — as canonized long after both Timothy and his correspondent were dead — is perfect and without error.
However, being “useful” is not the same as being “perfect.” For those who believe in the One God, only God is perfect. In fact, Jesus himself taught that “God alone is good.” Moreover, for those who believe in the One God, all things in Creation are from God (see Corinthians 8:6), so identifying something as “God-inspired” does not imply perfection. Worshiping created things as perfect is idolatry, and scripture is a created thing.