In 1959 the Unitarian Universalist Church was founded by the amalgamation of Unitarians and Universalists. This church is largely found in the United States, has a membership of less than 250,000 but has a worldwide influence. Its teaching has been described as ‘the doctrine of reason’ (Berry) because the emphasis is not upon God’s revelation of truth, but upon man’s ability to formulate truth. Unitarianism teaches that there is one solitary entity known as God, Who has revealed Himself through various men and numerous religious writings. None of these is infallible and all contribute to the religious growth and development of man-kind. Thus they view God as a ‘Uni-personality’ and deny the doctrine of the trinity, namely ‘one God, eternally existent in three Persons’.
Unitarianism is really the modern manifestation of an ancient heresy known as Arianism. This doctrine denied the full deity of Christ and was condemned by the early church fathers and rejected by the early church creeds. It was really given little credence and had few followers until the sixteenth century when it raised its head in various parts of Europe. The main articulator of this view was an Italian named Fausto Sozini who is better known in history as Socinus (1539 – 1604). He built upon the work of his uncle Lelio and others to develop anti-trinitarian doctrines. Thus he denied the trinity and especially the deity of Christ, and this is the Unitarian position to this day.
His views became deeply rooted in Poland, Hungary and Transylvania, eventually spreading to Holland, Britain and the United States. The modern movement truly flourished in America and was partly a reaction to the rigid Calvinism of Puritanism in New England. William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842) has been dubbed the ‘Apostle of Unitarianism’.
The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, while in 1865 the National Unitarian Conference was organized. Through this period a theology was being developed and various ideas were being formulated. This all culminated in the International Congress of Unitarianism held in 1900. Here, Unitarian views and doctrines were confirmed, and these have hardly been revised since. This teaching also accepts evolution, empirical methods of religion, higher criticism and ethical attempts to try and realize the higher affirmations of Christianity.
The growth of Unitarianism resulted in a major cleavage in the Congregational Church of America, and led to Harvard College being lost to the evangelical cause. The emphasis of Unitarianism upon education and practical philanthropy was much more acceptable to cultural and influential people, than an evangelical emphasis upon home and foreign mission work to win the lost for Christ.
i. The Bible. Unitarians do not accept that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God. Though historical Christianity has always believed that the Old and New Testaments are fully inspired by God and are therefore without error, Unitarians claim that Protestants in the seventeenth century manufactured the doctrine of an infallible Bible to combat the teaching of Roman Catholicism. They view the Bible as a creation of man and believe that it is replete with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and errors. They deny its divine authority and believe that human reason is the highest authority. They will quote from the Bible whenever they think it supports their ideas, but often quote out of context. Also, they are reluctant to reject the Bible totally as it does enable them to appear as orthodox Christian believers, which may give them acceptance in certain circles.
ii. Jesus Christ. Unitarianism demotes Jesus from deity, namely His position as the Son of God, to the level of simply a good man. ‘Unitarians repudiate the doctrine and dogma of the virgin birth … Unitarians do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, either of Jewish hope or of Christian fantasy. They do not believe He is ‘God Incarnate’, as the second Person of the trinity, as the Final Arbitrator at the end of time, Who shall come to judge the quick and the dead,’ (Rev. Carl M. Chorowsky, Unitarian minister). Thus, they believe that orthodox Christianity has forsaken the true human Jesus, and has distorted His memory by shrouding it with claims of deity, and His claims as Saviour of the world. They believe Jesus to have been an exceptional man who, as a teacher, made a contribution to the religious advancement of the human race.
iii. Salvation. Unitarians deny that salvation is through Christ alone and instead speak warmly of salvation … in terms of character. ‘We prefer to think of it as an achievement dependent on deeds rather than creeds’, (Jack Mendesohn, Unitarian writer). Thus, they believe in ‘self salvation’, but it is not a salvation from the judgement and torment of hell, because they refuse to accept the reality of hell. They do not believe that a loving God would ever send anyone to such a place and, as ‘Universalists’, they teach that everyone will one day be in a right relationship with God. They actually feel repelled at the very notion of the total depravity of man and certainly of the idea that a loving God would sacrifice His Son on the cross for the sins of the world. Thus, they reject God’s way of salvation and prefer to formulate their own.
So, Unitarians do not believe in the work of mission and do not send out any missionaries. ‘By deliberate choice we send no missionaries over the face of the earth to convert others to our way of believing … We generally feel that people of other religions have as much to teach us as we have to teach them’ (Mendelsohn).
iv. Theology. Unitarianism is an extremely liberal theology, otherwise known as ‘modernism’ or ‘theology of the school of higher criticism’. This denies the verbal inspiration of Scripture and requires its adherents to make allowance for the imperfections and errors found in the Bible. Therefore, the only authoritative statements are those made by ‘wise’ scholars of modernism. Human reason is exalted and biblical authority denied. It is said of Dr. Mayhew, ‘He unhesitatingly applied the rational method to all theological problems, and to him reason was the final court of appeal for everything connected with religion’ (Berry).
Not all Unitarians are found in Unitarian churches. It would seem that many are found in churches where Trinitarian truth is taught. ‘It appears to be a matter of policy for a fifth-column of ministers with Unitarian leanings, to infiltrate the churches, with a view to future conquest’ (Saunders). One former Unitarian minister has written, ‘although the Unitarians as a denomination are very weak, the spirit of Unitarianism is very prevalent. There are thousands of churches that would resent being classed in such company, but in reality they belong nowhere else. Their evangelism is nothing more than an appeal to the will and their gospel is a setting forth of the manhood of Christ. If it were not for the left-over fire of a former generation they would be as fruitless as the Unitarian denomination itself’.
It is impossible to give this religion the title of ‘Christian’ because it denies all the essential elements of historic Christianity. Indeed, some of their own leaders are reluctant to take the title ‘Christian’, and have publicly announced that they are not altogether sure whether they can classify themselves as Christians. ‘I am willing to call myself a Christian only if in the next breath I am permitted to say that in varying degrees I am also a Jew, a Hindu, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Stoic, and an admirer of Akhenaten, Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao-tse and Socrates’ (Jack Mendelsohn in Why I am a Unitarian).
‘Unitarianism is characterized not so much by its beliefs as its unbeliefs’, (Saunders). It denies the Bible as the word of God, the deity of Christ, the trinity, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ and His second coming. It denies the realities of hell and the judgement of God. It denies the sinfulness of man, viewing people as basically good and steadily improving as a race. It is a mishmash of human ideas and its theology can change at the dictates of human reason, so-called new evidence and the latest ideas from science, philosophy and creative thinking.
The essential need for Unitarians is to realize that the Bible is God’s word and can be implicitly trusted. The Bible clearly teaches the deity of Christ, and that salvation is only by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus, Who died for our sins on the cross. Salvation means eternal life and the joyful anticipation of heaven, while rejection of Christ leads to eternal condemnation and removal from the presence of God.