The first distinctively liberal movement in America was the Unitarian movement.1 Aside from any movement, unitarianism was and is to be found in Arianism, Deism, Humanism, Judaism, Modal Monarchianism, Mohammedanism and Socinianism. We might say that today the Christadelphians, Christian Scientists and the Russellites are really unitarian. Still we do not wish to concede the entire right and proper use of the term “unitarian” to those who reject the doctrine of the ontological trinity. For, strictly, this designation is not to be thought of as inherently antithetical to trinitarian. For we who are thoroughly trinitarian do contend as strenuously as any other denomination for the divine unity. However, we generally use the term to indicate deviation from and repudiation of the orthodox doctrine of the trinity. Besides Arius and Socinus, other classical protagonists of this error were Servetus, Calvin’s enemy, and Erasmus, Luther’s opponent. Latest developments have it that the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America voted to merge and form the Unitarian Universalist Association which has about 845 local bodies and 200,000 members.2
It is well that we have so much and for so long opposed Arminianism. It is also well that we see how the connection of this heresy is a direct line to unitarianism. Now Arminianism is a semi-Pelagian defection from historic, orthodox, Calvinistic Christianity which has taken humanism for its gospel and smuggled the same into the church. It is a rationalistic system which does not think analogically, does not think God’s thought after him, but tries to think autonomously. Although it claims to credit the principle of supernatural revelation, it nevertheless proceeds on the basis that human reason is the only sufficient God-given rule for determining what is truth and error. Arminianism is fundamentally liberalism. (In this connection I agree with A. Pringle and A. M. Toplady who said, respectively, “Arminianism is the religion of the fallen nature.” “Arminianism is Atheism.”) In keeping with the pagan principle of “God helps those who help themselves,” it recommends following the dictates of natural, innate and acquired, reason in the interpretation of Scripture, which God will either reward with assistance to discover the truth, or with pardon if the effort fall short of it.
This paved the way for eventual denial of the church’s doctrine of the trinity.
In England, Arminianism began to grow from a nucleus of apostate Presbyterian and Anglican ministers who had secretly departed from the Westminster Confessions and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. In defense of themselves, the Apostles’ Creed was said to be adequate basis for church membership. Today, the Creed is regarded as outmoded as the Stone Age, and although it may be sung as an old battle-song of by-gone conflicts, it may not conscientiously be said, as it is wholly irrelevant to faith for today. In this country, this deviation goes back to the Protestant Episcopal Church in its 1785 revision of the Book of Common Prayer which eliminated the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. It is to be added, however, that by strong objections from the Church of England, the Nicene Creed was reinstated in 1789, but a restoration of the Athanasian Creed was refused.3 (It should be remembered that according to our Belgic Confession, Art. IX, “we do willingly receive the three creeds…the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian…” In an 1860 copy of the Reformed Confessions, Doctrinal Standards and Liturgy, inherited from my maternal great-grandmother, all of these creeds appear in full.) Further Episcopal revision is certain to follow in the direction of a shorter communion service, in the elimination of theological conceptions and eschatological phrases “which few people now accept.”4 There are “archaic expressions once regarded as essential to proper interpretation” now outgrown, which we no longer hold. Bringing liturgical and confessional language up to date is always extremely difficult, so it is said, and, it is further alleged, in the case of the Apostles’ Creed, proves impossible. But the church must reach mature comprehension by compromise with the latest scientific and cultural developments, and by harmonizing itself with the national instinct.
The Church of England has not been able to reach this lowest of common denominators, viz., the having of no other test for doctrine, discipline and worship than a debilitated, emasculated and enervated Creed. For it is an established state church governed by Parliament. Steps are being taken, however, to obtain from the Crown right to make variations in the liturgical forms. This is said to be necessary, since there can be no ecumenical unity unless there be secured first liberty for revision of liturgy and for modernization of the Prayer Book. The aim is for eventual and complete freedom from creedal bondage. Only then, we are informed, can the church expect to present a united Christian front to the people of world. In this way the once true church apostatizes and gradually becomes more and more conformable to the principles of atheism so popular in the modern world. While the canker spreads, we never, or rarely, hear a word said about the doctrine of the trinity, but all the other essential doctrines of the Christian, Protestant faith are undermined, attacked, changed and dropped. If all church liberals were honest enough, they would admit that, from their point of view, to attain ecumenical unity we must become unitarian.
One contributory cause to the influx of this error into American thought was the works of Voltaire. He was a follower of 18th century Deism, and had great influence on the opinions of American college students. He was said to be no atheist, but was horrified at religious (Romish) persecution and religious stupidity. He did not attack belief in God. “If there were no God,” he countered, “it would be necessary to invent one.”5 Deism did just that; it invented a finite god, and regarded the triune God as a figment of “religious stupidity.” Tom Paine, similarly appraised, is defended as no atheist, but merely the inveterate enemy of the God of the libelous Bible. As a result of these anti-Christian influences, human reason assumed sovereignty over divine revelation. Naturally, then, the doctrine of the trinity was tacitly condemned.
Many of the once best churches are confused with vague, misty, anti-doctrinal faith which characterizes its members, as, for example, when a woman in a neighboring Presbyterian church commented publicly that Christian unity does not inhere in creeds, for we must have “No Creed, But Christ.” What ignorance of what it means to be Presbyterian! This cliché is not only very un-Presbyterian, but very un-Christian. For a careful study of Scripture will show that the Westminster Confessions are full of Christ and the teaching of God’s Word. It is faith which binds us to Christ, but it is the creed which marks us as Christians. The Scripture is God’s infallible Word; the confession is man’s saying the same thing with God.
The Unitarian movement is not a Christian movement. It may be an ethical or philosophical society movement. But it is not Christian. It makes this plain when it honestly admits that it does not hold to “the Christianity of the apostolic church nor to any ecclesiastically controlled scheme of salvation, but rather to the teachings concerning human relations in the religion of Jesus.” Jesus himself was merely “a normal man…endowed with powers differing in degree but not in kind from those of other men.”6 Denominational Unitarianism has no creed. It is a free-thinker’s society established for the purpose of developing human character in the name of “love” and “liberality.” Whereas Episcopalians and Anglicans have regarded the modernization of the Apostles’ Creed as, up to now, an impossibility, the Unitarians have accomplished the modification in the blasphemous cynicism of Charles Edward Park, former pastor of the First Church of Boston:
“I believe in (a single, eternal, all-inclusive, all-pervading Life Principle whose source and perfect embodiment is God, who finds varying degrees of embodiment in all forms of life, who is the prototype of every grace, power and nobility found in his creation, and whom I call) God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, (not) his only Son, (for whose son am I? But) our Lord, (because he is more nearly perfect embodiment of the Life principle than any one I know;) who was (neither) conceived by the Holy Ghost, (nor) born of the Virgin Mary, (but was conceived and born exactly as we are all conceived and born; and who) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into (no) Hell, (for, as hell is not a place but a spiritual condition, he never saw the outer doormat of hell). The third day (the eager women found his tomb empty, and jumped to the conclusion that in the night) he arose again from the dead; he ascended into (no) heaven, (for heaven is not a place but a spiritual condition, he never left heaven,) and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty (if it is any comfort to you,). From thence he shall come (if he is not already here) to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost (whom I call Holy Spirit, the spirit which God works;) the holy catholic church (so long as it tries to be holy and catholic;) the communion of (what) saints (there are;) the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body (if body means personality; not if body means this mortal frame, for I am sick to death of my mortal frame, and hope to be rid of it soon;) and the life everlasting (meaning a chance to finish out the interrupted opportunities of this life.) Amen.”7
This makes it plain enough that Unitarianism has no determined, distinguishing doctrines. This mock-theology of Park’s reveals that this movement has no more than a nebulous, tenuous pragmatic philosophy. Truth, or fact, is that which seems to work. It is a fact, and remains so only as it seems to work. That which worked yesterday, but does not work today, ceases to convey truth to us. It fails to remain a fact. But if we were to attempt a compilation of Unitarian tenets, it might look something like this: 1) Christ is not truly a divine person, nor as Socinus taught, a mere man exalted to the throne of the whole created universe; but a paragon of human perfection. 2) Scripture is not a divine revelation, but an exclusively human book. 3) The Sabbath day is to be used in resting from secular business, but is not “set apart from our common lives to religion.” 4) The soul is probably a personality distinction separate from the body. 5) There are no such spirit beings as devil, angels or demons. 6) The Scripture does not teach the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked. 7) Also rejected are: the miraculous conception and virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of the atonement as a satisfaction to divine justice, the doctrine of imputation of Adam’s sin and of Christ’s righteousness. The doctrine of predestination is a product of the age of dragons.
Years ago, modernist false prophets used to call the Reformed and all Bible believers who held the traditional, Scriptural doctrines of the Protestant confessions “uncharitable,” “narrow-minded” and “heresy-hunter.” Although the same sound reverberates from the heads of modernists, liberals, neo-Orthodox and neo-Evangelicals, it is very much out of place and out of date. For it is not and never has been uncharitable to clean and keep clean our own house (and to keep our creeds free of corruption). Nor is it narrow-minded to worship God according to the dictates of our own consciences, or to warn men against the broad way leading to atheism. Long ago men may have been heresy-hunters, but today heresy hunts us, and we are not only uncharitable if we do not oppose it but also too narrow and unworthy to bear the name Christian!
- The Rise and Development of Liberal Theology in America. Winfield Burggraaff. Th.D., Bd. Publ., Ref. Ch. Amer., chap. II
- News and Views, Wheaton, Ill., Vol. 24, No. 12, Nov. 1961, p.1
- The American Prayer Book, Parsons and Jones, Scribners, 1937, p. 113
- Christian Beacon, Vol. 27, No. 35, Oct. 11, 1962, p. 5
- Man’s Story, F. Walter Wallbank, Scott, Foresman & Co., 1956, p. 353
- The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 12, No. 5, Mar. 10, 1943, p. 76
- News and Views, Nov. 1961, p. 3