An Introduction to Dissident Heroes
by Anthony Buzzard
Friday, May l7th, 1527. Rottenburg, Germany.
The judges returned with a verdict of guilty and a sentence of horrifying and unmitigated savagery. “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner, who shall convey him to the square and first cut out his tongue. Then he shall forge him fast to a wagon and thereon with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more in the same manner, and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.”
There was a moment of emotion. The prisoner’s wife turned to her husband and, drawing him to her, embraced him in the sight of the entire crowd. It moved at least one member of the audience.
Sattler was remanded in custody for a further three days. Said a friend in a letter: “What fear, what conflict and struggle flesh and spirit must have undergone cannot be imagined.”
There is a spot on the Tübingen road, about a mile out of Rottenburg, where men, following such dim light as they had, in the name of perverted justice, removed from their midst one more worthy than themselves. The cutting out of the tongue was bungled, allowing Michael to pray for his persecutors. As he was lashed to the ladder he spoke with concern to Halbmayer, urging him to have no part in the deed lest he also be condemned. The mayor answered defiantly that Sattler should concern himself only with God.
His last public words, uttered with difficulty, were a prayer for God’s help to testify to the truth. The ladder was thrown on to the fire. As the fire burned through the ropes that bound his hands, he raised two fingers of his hand in a victory sign, a pre-arranged signal to his friends that he had been steadfast. He was thirty-seven…Eight days later [his wife] was thrown into the Neckar river and drowned.
John Biddle (1615-1662) was a distinguished British academic, graduate of Oxford, and at the age of 26 elected headmaster of Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester, England. Since he was asked to teach Scripture, he began a painstaking examination of the Bible. He was supposed to teach his students according to the catechism of the Church of England but soon found this impossible. His relentless search for truth in Scripture produced in him an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible. He knew the whole of the New Testament by heart in English and in Greek. He admitted that he had some difficulty in remembering the Greek text after Revelation 4!
He spoke against the spurious Trinitarian verse in 1 John 5:7 and explained the oneness of Jesus and the Father as “an union in consent and agreement…but never an union in essence.” He later debated with Bishop Ussher (of “Ussher’s chronology” fame) and outwitted him, asserting that the Father is the only true God! He produced a pamphlet entitled “Twelve Arguments against the Deity of the Holy Spirit.” Someone gave a copy to the magistrates and he was committed to jail.
In 1646 Biddle was summoned to London and confined in the Gatehouse at Westminster while his trial dragged on. He remained in prison for five years, mostly for his questioning of the Trinity. He spoke of the church fathers as those who “did in outward profession so put on Christ, as that in heart they did not put off Plato.” He alluded to Matthew 19:4where he maintained that Jesus, in referring to “Him that made them in the beginning,” attributed the creation to a Being other than himself. Deserted by his friends, he spent most of the rest of his life in prison.
The British Houses of Parliament passed the following law:
Any who shall by preaching, printing or writing controvert the deity of the Son or the equality of Christ with the Father, shall suffer the pains of death, as in the case of felony, without benefit of clergy. Any who shall maintain that man hath by nature free will to turn to God; that the soul dieth after the body is dead;…that baptizing of infants is void and that such persons ought to be baptized again; that the use of arms is unlawful; that the churches of England are no more churches nor their ministers and ordinances true ministers and ordinances (shall be imprisoned).
Biddle had single-handedly recovered central truths of the Bible. He claimed that he had read none of the (unitarian) Polish Brethren’s literature (see below) before coming to his own conclusions.
On February 10, 1652 Biddle was released. He remained in London addressing small groups on Sundays, but he was never officially ordained. He produced a large number of tracts on different biblical topics, but principally his A Twofold Catechism, consisting almost entirely of Scripture verses. In his preface he speaks of “all Catechisms generally being so stuffed with the supposals and traditions of men, that the least part of them is derived from the Word of God…not one quotation amongst many being a whit to the purpose” (i.e. having any point at all).
From his catechism he banned all phrases like “eternal generation of the Son,” “God dying,” “God made man,” “mother of God.” The catechism was ordered to be burnt, and he was again imprisoned along with his publisher, Richard Moore. Two days later some brethren from Poland arrived in London with tracts translated into English by Biddle and printed by Moore!
Biddle was charged with blasphemy and heresy. He escaped a capital sentence but remained in confinement. Some influential persons were bold enough to ask parliament:
whether Biddle does not, in fact, profess faith in God by Jesus Christ. Is he not like Apollos, mighty in the Scriptures? Is his crime that he believes the Scriptures according to their most obvious nearest signification, and not according to the remote and mystical interpretations?
A typical argument of Biddle’s is this: “He that saith Christ died, saith that Christ was not God, for God could not die. But every Christian saith that Christ died, therefore every Christian saith that Christ was not God.” His last days were spent writing on the personal reign of Jesus Christ on the earth.
In 1658 he was released once more. He maintained a steady contact with the Polish brethren. An observer remarked that “there is little or nothing blameworthy in him, except his opinions.” Government agents pursued Biddle frequently but many were forced to admire his “strict, exemplary life, full of modesty, sobriety and forebearance, no ways contentious, altogether taken up with the great things of God revealed in the Scriptures.”
On June 1, 1662, he was holding a Bible study in his own home. An armed party entered the room and carried him off and imprisoned him before a Judge Brown. Five weeks later, sick with jail fever, he died, confident of his hope in the resurrection at the Second Coming. He had been unable to pay the £100 demanded as a fine. He is the father of British unitarianism.
I began with these brief sketches from the lives (and deaths) of two of the most interesting examples of dissidents to show the extraordinary antagonism which awaits any who question orthodoxy’s view of the Godhead or, in the case of Sattler, other traditional doctrines. Sattler was a staunch advocate of Christians not being involved in war, a point of view recently espoused by a leading evangelical scholar in the United States.
To count God as one rather than three-in-one is a risky business. The denial of popular Trinitarian notions, though less dangerous in our day, is an invitation to be labeled “cult,” and to be included in the late Walter Martin’s documentation of the ever-growing Kingdom of the Cults. It is essential for a believer in the Shema of Israel and in Jesus’ affirmation of that creed to be well-informed about the doctrine of the one God. He must be expert in that teaching if he is ever to convince anyone of its truth, especially those who have been fully exposed to “orthodox” views of God.
The Mennonites have been quick to see that converts should be given a detailed course of instruction in the history of their movement. This sense of heritage builds confidence and stability. There is a highly significant, vociferous, if often tragic heritage in the field of belief in one God, the Father, which ought to make us deeply grateful for those who lived in times of much less religious freedom. We should be conscious of their tremendous devotion to truth, often to the point of martyrdom.
For this reason The Radical Reformation by George Huntston Williams should be central in the libraries of those espousing a “biblical unitarian” point of view. This book inspires confidence and humility, as it recalls a galaxy of dedicated Christians — those who struggled against terrible odds to preach a doctrine of God which has a firm basis in Scripture, but which is regarded as heresy by some of the mainstream.
Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian represents a Socinian view of the Son of God (after Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604). A brief survey of unitarian history reveals the following as leaders in the movement which understands the Son of God as not literally preexistent, but “ideally” or “notionally” preexistent in the counsels of God. The other principal form of non-Trinitarianism is represented by the Arian position (after Bishop Arius, 250-336), which sees Jesus as preexistent but created (“There was a time when the Son was not” —Arius).
Michael Servetus (1511-1553) is perhaps the most celebrated anti-Trinitarian. A native of Spain, anabaptist (“rebaptizer”), and “soul-sleeper,” his doctrines were a constant red flag to the bull, in this case Calvin, who energetically tried to silence millenarians, soul-sleepers and anti-Trinitarians. (A little-known fact is that Luther preached a sermon in 1524 upholding the sleep of the dead.) Servetus believed that the Son of God was the biological product of God and Mary. There was no literally preexisting Son. Jesus’ divinity consisted in the nature he received from God at conception. Forgotten truth was rediscovered in the Reformation period, by stages. First Servetus, later the Polish and Italian brethren led by Faustus Socinus, who arrived at a purely unitarian view (not, of course, Unitarian — capital “U” — in the contemporary sense of that word). However, the Spaniard Servetus’ deviation from orthodoxy on the Godhead was enough to cause his martyrdom at the hands of Calvin. His effigy was burned before he succumbed to the same fate in 1553. The theology which resulted in death for Servetus is summarized by Earl Morse Wilbur:
What was the teaching of [Servetus’] books, that they should have so shocked the reformers?...Taking the teaching of the Bible as absolute and final authority, Servetus held that the nature of God cannot be divided, as by a doctrine of one being in three persons, inasmuch as no such doctrine is taught in the Bible, to which indeed the very terms Trinity, essence, substance, and the like as used in the Creeds are foreign, being mere inventions of men. The earlier fathers of the Church also knew nothing of them, and they were simply foisted upon the Church by the Greeks, who cared more to make men philosophers than to have them be true Christians. Equally unscriptural is the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Servetus pours unmeasured scorn and satire on these doctrines, calling them illogical, unreasonable, contradictory, and imaginary, and he ridicules the received doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of one God in three persons he says cannot be proved, nor even really imagined; and it raises questions which cannot be answered, and leads to countless heresies. Those who believe in it are fools and blind; they become in effect atheists, since they are left with no real God at all; while the doctrine of the Trinity really involves a Quarternity of four divine beings. It is the insuperable obstacle to the conversion of Jews and Mohammedans to Christianity; and such blasphemous teachings ought to be utterly uprooted from men’s minds.
In place of these artificial doctrines of the creeds, Servetus draws from the Bible the following simple doctrines, and quotes many texts to prove them. Firstly, the man Jesus, of whom the gospels tell, is the Christ, anointed of God. Secondly, this man Jesus the Christ is proved by his miraculous powers and by the statements of Scripture to be literally the human Son of God, because he was miraculously begotten by him. Thirdly, this man is also “God,” since he is filled with the divinity which God had granted him. Hence he is divine not by nature, as the creeds teach, but solely by God’s gift. God himself is incomprehensible, and we can know him only through Christ, who is thus all in all to us. The Holy Spirit is a power of God, sent in the form of an angel or spirit to make us holy. And the only kind of Trinity in which we may rightly believe is this: that God reveals himself to man under three different aspects (dispositiones); for the same divinity which is manifested in the Father is also shared with his Son Jesus, and with the Spirit which dwells in us, making our bodies, as St. Paul says, “the temple of God.”
Anti-Trinitarianism found its fullest expression not in Spain but in Polish Socinianism and Hungarian unitarianism. Many of the leaders of these movements were Italians, notably the Sozzini family, Faustus and his uncle Laelius (from whom the label “Socinian” came). Earlier and less-known pioneers who had set the scene for radical questioning of orthodoxy were Lorenzo Valla, an Italian philologist who in the 1400s raised questions about the Trinity; and a priest and Platonist Marsilio Ficino (d. 1499) who suggested that the logos of John 1:1 should be rendered not “word,” but sermo (from which our word “sermon” is derived). He thus began a whole trend of thought which would equate the “word” with the prophetic voice of God in the Old Testament, not with an eternal second Person. He began thus to undermine the whole concept of the logos = preexisting Son as consubstantial with the Father. Where the church fathers had spoken of the “word” as an eternal Son, the anti-Trinitarians of the Radical Reformation following Ficino spoke of Christ as wholly human, as the fullest and final form of the prophetic voices which had preceded him (cf. Heb. 1:1). Erasmus was also part of the anti-Trinitarian camp, and wanted to have the spurious text 1 John 5:7 removed.
In England we can single out (in addition to John Biddle mentioned earlier) a surgeon, Dr. George Van Parris, a Fleming by birth, burned at Smithfield in London on April 25th, 1557 because “he believeth that God the Father is only God, and that Christ is not very God.” The unitarianism produced a spate of “helpful” literature from Calvin including “A Short Instruction for to arme all-good Christian people” (i.e. against the heretics) and from Bullinger “An wholesome Antidotus or Counterpoyson” (1545) and “a most necessary and frutefull dialogue between ye seditious Libertin or rebel anabaptist and the true obedient Christian” (1551). In those days of close religious control, Bishop John Jewel reported on unitarians as follows: “We found, at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth, a large and inauspicious crop of Arians, Anabaptists and other pests, which, I know not how, but as mushrooms spring up in the night.” There followed under Elizabeth I’s reign the burning of two anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists, Henry Terwoort, a 35-year-old goldsmith, and John Pieters, 50, a father of nine children. Such merciful measures as strangling, suffocation or gunpowder around the neck were omitted and the two men died in unrelieved agony amidst the flames.
A notable non-Trinitarian hero was Adam Pastor, one of the clearest exponents of the unitarian view of the Godhead. He is rightly recognized as a father figure of biblical unitarianism in Europe. He had been a Roman Catholic priest before joining the Anabaptists in 1533 in Münster, Germany. Pastor held (against Menno Simons of the Mennonites) that Christ was human only, though the bearer of God’s Word. Adam Pastor and a Frisian elder, Francis de Cuiper, stated at a conference in 1547 that Christ did not exist as the Son of God previous to his coming into the world, and was divine after his birth only in the sense that God dwelt in him. Adam Pastor was excommunicated even by some of his Anabaptist colleagues, but gained a large following calling themselves Adamites.
Pastor wrote tracts on thirteen topics including Incarnation and the Kingdom of God. The section on God is a listing of unitarian texts of the Old and New Testaments with a minimum of comment. Pastor insisted that no text showed that the Son existed before the Incarnation, as a member of a tri-personal Godhead. Adam Pastor was described as earnest and critical, but mild and reverent in his debates. He was to influence the Polish unitarians who later established a significant unitarian academic center, a college at Racow in Poland.
Faustus Socinus was born on December 5, 1539. His father and grandfather had been famous lawyers. His first theological essay was an explanation of the prologue to John’s gospel. He maintained that Jesus was divine by office rather than Deity by nature. He wrote also on the mortality of man. It was his perception of the meaning of the logos which led him to the truth. The word or will of God appeared in the form of flesh — a man. After his death and resurrection, Christ ascended to take his place at the right hand of God, sharing henceforth in God’s power. In that sense only could Jesus be called God, as representing God, but always distinct from the one true God (John 17:3; 5:44). God, said Socinus, assigned to Christ at the ascension an adoptive deity as co-regent in the government of the world. Socinus considered Jesus to be entitled to divine adoration, in opposition to the chief spokesman for unitarianism in Transylvania, Francis David, who did not think Jesus should be worshipped. There was really no need for serious dispute on that issue.
It was this same Faustus Socinus, perhaps the most refined theologian of the Radical Reformation, who moved to Poland and helped to establish a college and printing press at Racow, as well as farms and craft industries. This organization became an institution of international repute. Many of the faculty were scholars of unquestioned learning, some of them having been originally schooled in Hebrew and Greek before becoming Anabaptists. The school drew one thousand students from all over Europe, including three hundred from families of European nobility. A Scot who visited the campus remarked, “For whereas elsewhere all was full of wars and tumult, there all was quiet, men were calm and moderate in behaviour, although they were spirited in debate and expert in language.” The famous Racovian Catechism makes this statement:
Our mediator before the throne of God is a man, who was formerly promised to our fathers by the prophets, and in these latter days was born of the seed of David, and whom God, the Father, has made Lord and Christ…by whom he created the new world…to the end that, after the supreme God, we should believe in him, adore and invoke him, hear his voice, imitate his example, and find in him rest to our souls.
In many countries this confession was banned and its owners punished, often by death. The confession contains the doctrines of adult baptism, sleep of the dead, and the Second Coming. Many passages in John’s gospel are dealt with. Typical is the following:
That a person may have had something, and consequently may have had glory, with the Father before the world was, without its being…concluded that he then actually existed…is evident from 2 Timothy 1:9, where the apostle says of believers, that grace was given to them before the world began. Besides, it is here stated [John 17:5] that Christ prayed for this glory…Christ beseeches God to give him in actual possession, with himself, the glory which he had with him, in his purposes and decrees, before the world was. For it is often said that a person has something with any one, when it is promised, or is destined for him: on this account believers are frequently said by this evangelist to have eternal life. Hence it happens that Christ does not say absolutely that he had had that glory, but that he had had it with the Father; as if he had said that he now prayed to have actually conferred upon him that glory which had been laid up for him with the Father of old, and before the creation of the world.
Having concentrated largely on the Reformation period and the century following (in which we noted John Biddle, the schoolmaster), we should now turn our attention to the earliest period of church history. Holding as a fundamental conviction (with the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jesus did not in any way propose to alter the strictly monotheistic faith of Israel, we are naturally keen to know how the unitarianism of the New Testament could have been disturbed.
Church history shows that the development of the “three in one” notion was a process extending over centuries, culminating in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Councils (325 and 451 AD). It is very far from the truth to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity gained universal acceptance from the beginning of the post-New Testament era. As the Harvard theologian F. Auer says so well:
Fourth-century Trinitarianism did not reflect accurately early Christian teaching regarding the nature of God; it was, on the contrary, a deviation from this teaching…It developed against constant unitarian opposition and was never wholly victorious. The dogma of the Trinity owes its existence to abstract speculation on the part of a small minority of scholars.
The crux of the whole Trinitarian problem lies in the logos doctrine and its development. The “orthodox” position was based upon the understanding of logos as a second divine Person in the eternal Godhead. The point is obscured for contemporary readers of the Bible by the simple fact that the grammatically masculine word logos in Greek is referred to as “he,” “him” (John 1). If however logos were rendered “God’s utterance,” and “it,” a quite different impression would be gained. Thus the impersonal logos of the prologue, i.e. God’s word, wisdom and mind, becomes embodied in Jesus, the man.
“The logos of the prologue became Jesus; Jesus was the logos become flesh, but not the logos as such…Jesus was the logos in person! He was it in the flesh, as [a] mortal human being.” So says, correctly, a helpful German theologian.
In theology’s most gripping detective story, “How the logos became a Person, before it became a person,” we are astonished to find that Justin Martyr, writing in 150 AD, contends against a Jew, Trypho, with whom he held a lengthy debate, that Jesus as Son of God preexisted his birth quite literally and was in fact the angel of Yahweh mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. Trypho the Jew protested against the inherent contradiction involved in saying that Jesus was a man, but not really a man. Thus he says to Justin, “When you say that this Christ existed as God before the ages, then that he submitted to be born and become man, yet that he is not man of man, this appears to me to be not merely paradoxical, but also foolish.”
The astonishing fact is that, had the Jewish argument prevailed against the philosopher Justin Martyr (supposedly representing Christianity), the Trinitarian “problem” might never have arisen. Once the idea is floated that Jesus was “around” before his birth, he must be “found” in the Old Testament. Without a shred of biblical proof, the angel of Yahweh was said to be the preexistent Jesus, and many evangelicals as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses have ever since accepted the theory. It is wise to consult the New Testament on the point. In Acts 7 Stephen summarizes the history of Israel and makes specific mention of an angel of the Lord (Acts 7:30, 38), who represents the Lord God (Exod. 23:20-21). What an opportunity for Stephen to say that the angel was Jesus, preexisting! That equation he does not make; and the writer to the Hebrews took two chapters to explain that Jesus was superior to all angels. He never has been and never will be an angel. Furthermore God did not speak through a Son until New Testament times (Heb. 1:1-2).
With Justin the logos as a second divine Person became entrenched. In the ensuing centuries isolated individuals arose to challenge orthodoxy. Notable are the “dynamic monarchians.” The first of these, Theodotus of Byzantium, was a man of learning. He came to Rome in 190 AD and taught that Jesus was fully a man, born of the virgin, upon whom the Spirit came at his birth. Theodotus held that Jesus became to a greater degree divine at his resurrection. Theodotus was promptly excommunicated by Bishop Victor of Rome. He was followed in his thinking by another Theodotus, and by Asclepiodorus and also by Artemon, but dynamic monarchianism was dying in the West.
In the East Paul of Samosata was the chief exponent of a non-preexistent Jesus. Paul was Bishop of Antioch from c. 260-272. He considered the logos to be an impersonal attribute of the Father, not a preexisting Son. Jesus is a uniquely inspired man. “Paul’s doctrine is akin to the primitive Jewish-Christian idea of the person of Christ.” So say church historians, notably Henry Chadwick in The Early Church. Three councils considered Paul’s view and the third excommunicated him. He kept his place until driven out by the Emperor Aurelian. Of Bishop Arius (father of Arianism, as distinct from Socinianism) much more is known. He contended that Jesus was pre-existent but created (“There was a time when he was not”). This view was thought to be unsatisfactory since it made Jesus neither God nor man. But could not exactly the same be said of the “orthodox” view which has prevailed to this day? A leading contemporary New Testament scholar, John Knox, seems to think so: “We can have the humanity without the pre-existence and we can have the pre-existence without the humanity. There is absolutely no way of having both.”
Before leaving the early period we should mention as representative of a Socinian school of Christology Bishop Photinus (d. 376) whom The Catholic Encyclopedia labels “heretic.” Photinian became a term to describe anyone who held Christ to be a man, who did not exist until his birth at Nazareth. Photinus’ writings are lost, but he is known to us mostly through the twenty-seven anathemas of the council in 351 which condemned him. Much later in the 600s our Christology was perhaps represented by the Paulicians (possibly named after Paul of Samosata) whose leader Constantine was executed for his heretical views of the Trinity.
Of significance for the proponents of unitary monotheism in our time was the publishing in 1977 of The Myth of God Incarnate. Though we would not subscribe to the general theological position of these scholars (i.e. in eschatology, particularly), we must welcome their refreshing analysis of the doctrine of God. They seldom use the terms Trinitarian or non-Trinitarian, but they do question whether Incarnation in the traditional sense can be found in the Bible. That is just the question asked by the pioneers of return to the unitary monotheism of the Shema. It is encouraging to hear scholars say that the Trinitarian dogma “was determined neither by scripture nor by experience but by the Arian controversy on the doctrine of the Trinity.”
It is interesting to find a schoolmate of mine, at one time a well-known television theologian and Cambridge professor, writing, “God’s Son is not a second co-equal person alongside God the Father but simply man ‘filled’ with God, united with God.”
The current debate in theological circles worldwide concerns eschatology and Christology. Our desire is to lead the way back to the true Jesus, and to the Gospel about the Kingdom. John A.T. Robinson, one of Britain’s best-known New Testament scholars, adopted a view of Jesus which reclaims a simple unitarianism. When I told him that I was teaching in a Bible college, his immediate reaction was: “You won’t last more than a few days there; a non-Trinitarian Jesus will be quite unacceptable in an American Bible college.” But his own “heretical” views were orthodox in more circles than he recognized, and even in one American Bible college. We might present the debate about Christology dramatically, as below.
Some “modern” theologians: “How can we present Jesus to the people today? No one will believe in a preexistent being arriving on earth at his birth.”
J.A.T. Robinson: “But wait! Did anyone in the New Testament believe that anyway? No, but the early church fathers influenced by Gnosticism misunderstood the book of John, neglected the evidence of the rest of the New Testament and Old Testament, relied on a handful of difficult Pauline verses and presented a Jesus who was literally preexistent. But this is not the Jesus of the Bible.”
Biblical unitarians: “But didn’t we tell you so! For two thousand years you wouldn’t listen and burned us to death for questioning your official dogma. Nevertheless our task is to present to the world the true Jesus, who was never a second member of an eternal Trinity. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:4, warned that Satan’s most diabolical trick would be to replace the real Jesus with a counterfeit Jesus, and John warned in 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 7 that the confession of a Jesus who is not the fully human historical Messiah signals the spirit of antichrist.”
Orthodoxy (disbelievingly): “No one is going to tell me the Church could have been wrong for nearly two thousand years on a basic doctrine.”
Biblical unitarians (answering the “modern” theologians): “The arrival of Jesus as a divine being on earth will occur at the second coming. Jesus is ‘preexistent’ to that event because he lives after being resurrected!”
Ultimately the confusion of Jesus with the Creator seems to come perilously close to idolatry, and we may well wonder if the Living Bible is not encouraging just that in its extravagantly inaccurate paraphrase of John 1:1-3, 10: “Before anything else existed, there was Christ with God. He has always been alive and is Himself God. He created everything there is — nothing exists that He didn’t make…But although He made the world, the world didn’t recognize Him when He came.”
Meanwhile Walter Martin says:
Many individuals and all cults steadfastly deny the equality of Jesus Christ with God the Father, and hence, the Triune deity. However, the testimony of the Scriptures stands sure, and the above mentioned references [his “proof” texts] alone put to silence forever this blasphemous heresy, which in the power of Satan himself deceives many with its “deceitful handling of the Word of God.”
Another Sketch of Unitarian History
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia’s article on the history of objectors to the Trinity records the cruel treatment they received from the “Christian” lands in which they lived.
When orthodox Trinitarian Christology was strongly enforced, following the church councils and the backing of imperial power under Emperor Theodosius, other views of God and Jesus subsided. A non-Trinitarian view of the Son of God survived amongst a group called the Paulicians in Armenia. Early British Christianity shows some evidence of unorthodox Christology, and it was widespread in Spain and found a leader in Felix of Urge of the Frankish church in 799 AD.
In Europe Poland was the home of non-Trinitarians when theologians arrived there from Italy, notably George Blandrata. After 1575 leadership was in the hands of Faustus Socinus (hence the term Socinianism). A unitarian college was founded at Racow in Poland and this institution produced a confession of faith describing their non-Trinitarian views — the Racovian Confession of 1605. There was actually a unitarian prince: John Sigismund II of Transylvania. The unitarian movement was decisively suppressed by Roman Catholic Jesuits with a decree in 1658 for the expulsion of Socinians from the realm. These believers found their way to Germany, Holland and Transylvania. In Hungary unitarians found a strong leader in Francis David, who became bishop of the unitarian churches. But in 1579 the Roman Catholic viceroy put David under the surveillance of the magistrates. He was then condemned to imprisonment for life as an innovator and blasphemer. David died in a dungeon in 1579 and the event established him as a unitarian martyr.
Though unitarians continued to have legal existence they suffered hardship. Under Austrian rule their publications were forbidden and their churches confiscated. However, a statute of 1791 relieved the pressure on these dissenters.
Unitarians in Britain
Some of the English martyrs of the sixteenth century suffered for Arian views, but the first noteworthy expression of the spirit and method of Unitarianism was The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (London, 1638) by William Chillingworth, and the first conspicuous application of this method with express Unitarian results was made by John Biddle, who under the Commonwealth gathered a society in London and published his views. In 1662 he was imprisoned for the third time, and soon died of prison disease. His writings were collected and published by his disciple Thomas Firmin in 1691 (The Faith of One God). Although Unitarianism was excluded from the operation of the Toleration Act of 1689, while its advocates were threatened by the act of 1698 with loss of civil rights and imprisonment, Socinian and Arian views of the person of Christ found increasing favor in the course of the eighteenth century both in the Church of England and among dissenters. Noted instances of this tendency are Samuel Clarke, Nathanael Lardner, Isaac Watts [the hymn writer], and Philip Doddridge. The first chapel with the Unitarian name was founded in Essex Street, London, in 1778 by Theophilus Lindsey, who on the refusal of parliament (1772) to receive a petition for the relaxation of subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles had resigned his living in Catterick, Yorkshire. In his London Chapel he used Clarke’s revision of the English liturgy. Lindsey was aided by the sympathy of Presbyterians, who had made their chapels built since 1688 free from dogmatic restrictions, and, seeking conformity with the Bible alone, had relinquished Calvinistic views and the doctrine of the Trinity. The decisive influence in this change was exercised by the eminent scientist, publicist and theologian, Joseph Priestley. As an avowed Socinian Priestley ministered to congregations in Leeds (1768-80) and Birmingham (1780-91)…He died [in Pennsylvania] in 1804…The successor of Priestley in Birmingham and of Lindsey in London (1795) was Thomas Belsham, who sought to make “the simple and proper humanity of Christ” the acknowledged Unitarian view. Another notable leader was Lant Carpenter, preacher in Bristol. In 1813 the legal disabilities of Unitarians were removed and in 1825 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed by a union of Presbyterian and Baptist churches to which were later joined small Methodist groups like the “Christian brethren.” By the Dissenters’ Chapels Act of 1844 the possession of ancient endowments and chapels were secured. The national conference, a purely deliberative body, was founded in 1881. In 1911 there were 378 ministers, and 374 churches, of which 295 are in England [as of 1912]. Theological instruction is given in Manchester College, Oxford, and the Home Missionary College at Manchester. The Hibbert Fund, instituted by Robert Hibbert, a Jamaica planter (died 1849), has promoted scholarship and established relations with the theological liberalism of the continent. To this foundation are due the famous Hibbert lectures and the Hibbert Journal (since Oct., 1902). Welsh Unitarianism began with the Arminian revolt from Calvinism of Jenkin Jones in Llwynrhydowen in 1726. His successors adopted Arian views. There are thirty-four churches in South Wales and a college at Carmarthen. Irish Unitarianism began in 1726, when the presbytery of Antrim separated from the general synod in order to establish worship without subscription to creed. In 1830 the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster was formed on similar principles, and in 1835 an Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians united these free churches. There are thirty-eight churches, chiefly in the counties of Antrim and Down. In Scotland there are seven churches, the oldest (Edinburgh) dating from 1776.
Unitarianism in America
The first public confession of unitarianism began in 1785 with James Freeman of King’s Chapel, the oldest Episcopal church in Boston. All reference to the deity of Christ and the Trinity was omitted from the Book of Common Prayer. In the mid-eighteenth century unitarianism flourished in the Congregational churches of eastern Massachusetts. Non-Trinitarian views prevailed at Harvard University with the eloquent preaching of Joseph Buckminster and William Ellery Channing, who produced two journals, the Monthly Anthology (1803) and the Christian Disciple (1813). Channing publicly challenged his opponents in a sermon on “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and his Moral Argument against Calvinism (1820). The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825. The first convention of churches met in New York in 1865. A convention in 1894 declared “These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding, in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man.” This statement would appear inoffensive, but the God in question was not the Trinity but the One God of Jesus’ own creed.
Unitarianism has of course continued since the early twentieth century when the Schaff-Herzog article was penned. In general Unitarians have become less “biblical,” meaning that they lost a grip on central biblical teachings such as the virgin birth, the resurrection and the Second Coming. The loss of these central truths is hardly likely to make unitarianism attractive to evangelicals and the fault lies in this respect with the Unitarianism which has lost its biblical basis, other than its rejection of creeds which superseded the creed of Jesus.
Alan Eyre, The Protesters, The Christadelphian, 1975, 69-70. Sattler was convicted for his views on non-involvement in war.
Biddle’s A Twofold Catechism can be read at http://home.pacific.net.au/~amaxwell/biddle/000start.htm
Alan Eyre, The Protesters, 129.
Ibid., 130, 131.
Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, Zondervan, 2005.
Third edition, Truman State University Press, 2000.
Our Christological view does not, however, include an adherence to a Socinian view of the atonement. Many biblical unitarians now insist with evangelicals on the substitutionary death of Jesus for the sins of the world. Modern Socinians (in Christology) include the Church of God Abrahamic Faith, Christadelphians, and some Church of God Seventh Day members and Advent Christians. Many modern scholars of different nationalities have proposed the views we are espousing without labeling them “Socinian.”
Little advertised by Trinitarians is the fact that Tertullian, supposedly a stalwart supporter of orthodoxy, also stated that there was a time when the Son did not exist (Against Hermogenes, ch. 3). The Trinity was clearly not yet fully developed in its Nicene form.
I.e. the teaching that man is unconscious in death until the resurrection. The view is known as “conditional immortality.”
I.e. Unitarian Universalism.
Our Unitarian Heritage: An Introduction to the History of the Unitarian Movement, Beacon Press, 1943, 61, 62. Servetus’ most important work The Restoration of Christianity is now available in an English translation by Christopher Hoffman and Marian Hillar (Edwin Mellen Press, 2007).
A noted leader was Gregory Paulus.
“Son” and “eternal” are really mutually contradictory terms since one who is begotten, i.e. brought into existence, cannot be eternal.
Williams, The Radical Reformation, 779-780.
John Jewel’s Works (1560), Cambridge, 1850, 4:1240.
I.e. the doctrine that at death man sleeps until the resurrection and that the final punishment of the wicked is annihilation, not everlasting torture.
Eyre, Protesters, 109.
The Racovian Catechism, trans. Thomas Rees, rep. Christian Educational Services, 1994, lxxiv, note.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1956, 27:249.
Eight English translations from the Greek prior to the KJV spoke of the logos as “it,” not “him.”
Leonhard Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1982, 2:297, 299, emphasis added.
Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 48.
Penguin, 1993, 114.
The Humanity and Divinity of Christ, Cambridge University Press, 1967, 106.
Robert Appleton Co., 1911, 12:43.
John Hick, ed., SCM Press, 1977.
J.A.T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, Westminster Press, 1973, 102.
Don Cupitt, The Debate About Christ, 28.
Atlanta Bible College, formerly Oregon Bible College, Illinois, since 1939.
The Kingdom of the Cults, Bethany House, 2003, 107.
“Unitarians,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 12:82.
The term Arian was sometimes used to describe all forms of non-Trinitarian belief, i.e., both the strict Arian view of Arius and the neo-Arians of the fourth century, and the “Socinians” from the sixteenth century (and a few from earlier centuries).
 Ibid., 83-84.
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