A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations/Unitarians

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UNITARIANS, a comprehensive term, including all who believe the Deity to subsist in one person only. The Socinians have claimed an exclusive right to this title, but unjustly, as Arians, Humanitarians, and all Anti-trinitarians have an equal right to the denomination.— Even some Trinitarians have claimed it: "but," it is evident, "this is to introduce a confusion of terms; since, as has been observed, Unitarian is not opposed to Tritheist or Polytheist: it does not denote a believer in one God only; but a believer in God in one person only, in opposition to the Trinitarians."

The chief article in the religious system of the class of Unitarian Socinians[1] is, that Christ was a mere man. But they consider him as the great instrument in the hands of God of reversing all the effects of the fall; as the object of all the prophecies from Moses to his own time; as the great bond of union to virtuous and good men, who, as Christians, make one body in a peculiar sense; as introduced into the world without a human father;[2] as having communications with God, and speaking and acting from God in such a manner as no other man ever did, and, therefore, having the form of God, and being the Son of God in a manner peculiar to himself; as the means of spreading divine and saving knowledge to all the world of mankind; as, under God, the head of all things to his church; and as the Lord of life, having power and authority from God to raise the dead, and judge the world at the last day. They suppose that the great object of the whole scheme of revelation was to teach men how to live here, so as to be happy hereafter; and that the particular doctrines there taught, as having a connexion with this great object, are those of the unity of God, his universal presence and inspection, his placability to repenting sinners, and the certainty of a life of retribution after death.

This denomination argue thus against the divinity and pro-existence of Christ:—The scriptures contain the clearest and most express declarations that there is but one true God, and forbid the worship of any other. Exod. xx. 8. Deut. vi. 4. Mark xii. 29. 1 Cor. viii. 6. Ephes. iv. 5. In the prophetic accounts which preceded the birth of Christ, he is spoken of as a man highly favoured of God, and gifted with extraordinary powers from him, and nothing more. He was foretold, Gen. xxii. 8. to be of the seed of Abraham. Deut. xviii, A prophet like unto Moses. Psal, cxxvii. 11. Of the family of David, &c. As a man, as a prophet, though of the highest order, the Jews constantly and uniformly looked for their Messiah. Christ never claimed any honour or respect on his own account, but such as belonged only to a prophet, an extraordinary messenger of God. He in the most decisive terms declares the Lord God to be one God, and the sole object of worship. He always prayed to him as God and Father. He always spoke of himself as receiving his doctrine and power from him, and again and again disclaimed having any power of his own. John v. 19, 21, 30, &c. xiv. 10. He directed men to worship the Father, without the least intimation that himself or any other person whomsoever was the object of worship. Luke xi. 1, 2, Matt. iv. 10. John xvi. 23.

Christ cannot be that God to whom prayer is to be offered, because he is the high priest of that God, to make intercession for us. Heb. vii. 25. The apostles speak the same language, representing the Father as the only true God, and Christ ,as a man, the servant of God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him all the power of which he is possessed, as a reward for his obedience. Acts ii. 22, 33. The apostle directed men to pray to God the Father only. Phil. iv. 20. Rom. xvi. 27, &c.

This denomination maintain that repentance and a good life are of themselves sufficient to recommend us to the divine favour; and that nothing is necessary to make us in all situations the objects of his favour, but such moral conduct as he has made us capable of; that Christ did nothing by his death, or in any other way, to render God merciful to sinners; but that God is, of his own accord, disposed to forgive men their sins, without any other condition than the sinner's repentance. Isaiah Iv. 7. Ezek. xviii. 27. Above all, the beautiful and affecting parable of the prodigal son, (Luke xv.) is thought most decisive, that repentance is all our heavenly Father requires, to restore us to his favour.

The Unitarians of all ages have adopted the sentiments of Pelagius, with respect to human nature.[3]

The name of Unitarians is also claimed by all those christians who believe there is but one God, and that this one God is the Father only, and not a trinity, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They may or may not believe in Christ's pre-existence. The term is thus defined by the celebrated Dr. Price, and applied by him to what he calls a middle scheme between Athanasianism mid Socinianism. His plan, and a few of the arguments he brings to support it, may therefore be inserted under this appellation.—It teaches, that Christ descended to this earth from a state of pre-existent dignity; that he was in the beginning with God, and that by him God made the world; and that by a humiliation of himself, which has no parallel, and by which he has exhibited an example of benevolence that passes knowledge, he took on him flesh and blood, and passed through human life, enduring all its sorrows, in order to bless and save a sinful race. By delivering himself up to death, he acquired the power of delivering us from death. By offering himself a sacrifice on the cross, he vindicated the honour of those laws which sinners had broken, and rendered the exercise of favour to them consistent with the holiness and wisdom of God's government; and by his resurrection from the dead, he proved the efficacy and acceptableness of his sacrifice. Christ not only declared, but obtained the availableness of repentance to pardon; and became by his interposition, not only the conveyer, but the author and means of our future immortality.[4] This was a service so great, that no meaner agent could be equal to it and in consequence of it offers of full favour are made to all. No human being will be excluded from salvation, except through his own fault; and every truly virtuous man from the beginning to the end of time, let his country or religion be what it will, is made sure of being raised from death, and of being made happy forever. In all this the Supreme Deity is to be considered as the first cause; and Christ as his gift to fallen man, and as acting under that eternal and self-existent Being, compared with whom no other being is either great or good; and of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things.

Our learned author argues in this manner to prove the pre-existence of Christ. The history of our Saviour, as given in the new testament, and the events of his life and ministry, answer best to the opinion of the superiority of his nature. Of this kind are his introduction into the world by a miraculous conception ; the annunciations from heaven at his baptism and transfiguration, proclaiming him the Son of God, and ordering all to hear him; his giving himself out as come from God to shed his blood for the remission of sins; his perfect innocence, and sinless example; the wisdom by which he spoke as never man spoke; his knowledge of the hearts of men; his intimation that he was greater than Abraham, Moses, David, or even angels; those miraculous powers by which, with a command over nature like that which first produced it, he ordered tempests to cease, and gave eyes to the blind, limbs to the maimed, reason to the frantic, health to the sick, and life to the dead; his surrender of himself to the enemies who took away his life, after demonstrating that it was his own consent, which gave them power over him; the signs which accompanied his sufferings and death; his resurrection from the dead, and triumphant ascension into heaven.

There are in the new testament express and direct declarations of the pre-existent dignity of Christ. John i. 1, compared with the 14th verse: John iii. 13; vi. 62; viii. 58; John xvii. 5. 2 Cor. viii. 9. Phil. ii. 5, and following verses. There remain to he quoted the texts which mention the creation of the world by Jesus Christ. In Heb. i. 2, we read that God hath in these last days spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds. John i. 3—10. Col. i. 16.

The doctrine of God's forming the world by the agency of the Messiah gives a credibility to the doctrine of his interposition to save it, and his future agency in renewing it; because it leads us to conceive of him as standing in a particular relation to it, and having an interest in it.

The doctrine of Christ's simple humanity, when viewed in connexion with the scripture account of his exaltation, implies an inconsistency and improbability, which falls little short of an impossibility. The scriptures tell us that Christ, after his resurrection, became Lord of the dead and living; that he had all power given him in heaven and earth; that angels were made subject to him; that he is hereafter to raise the dead and judge the world, and finish the scheme of the divine moral government with respect to the earth, by conferring eternal happiness on all the virtuous, and punishing the wicked with everlasting destruction. Can it be believed that a mere man could be advanced at once so high as to be above angels, and to be qualified to rule and judge the world ? Do not all things rise gradually, one acquisition laying the foundation for another, and perhaps for higher acquisitions? The power, in particular, which the scriptures teach us Christ possesses, of raising to life all who have died, and all who will die, is equivalent to the power of creating a world. How inconsistent is it to allow that he is to restore and renew this world, and yet to deny he might have been God's agent in originally forming it!

This plan coincides with the foregoing Unitarian system, in rejecting the trinity of the Godhead; the real divinity of Christ; his being a proper object of prayer; the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity; and such a total corruption of our nature by original sin, as deprives us of free-will, and subjects us, before we have committed actual sin, to the displeasure of God and future punishment; and also in rejecting absolute predestination, particular redemption, invincible grace, and justification by faith alone. It differs from the foregoing in two respects:—- (1.) In asserting Christ to have been more than any human being.——(2) In asserting that he took upon him human nature for a higher purpose than merely revealing to mankind the will of God, and instructing them in their duty, and in the doctrines of religion.[5]

The celebrated Dr. Priestley calls those Philosophical Unitarians, who, in the early ages of christianity, explained the doctrines concerning Christ according to the principles of the philosophy in those times. As the sun was supposed to emit rays and draw them into himself again, so the divine Being, of whom they imagined the sun to be an image, was supposed to emit a kind of efflux, or divine ray, to which they sometimes gave the name of logos, which might be attached to any particular substance or person, and then be drawn into the divine Being again. They supposed that the union between this divine logos and the man Christ Jesus was only temporary: for they held that this divine efflux, which, like a beam of light from the sun, wnt out of God, and was attached to the person of Christ, to enable him to work miracles while he was on earth, was drawn into God again when he ascended into heaven, and had no more occasion to exert a miraculous power. Some of them might go so far as to say, that since this ray was properly divine, and the divinity of the Father, Christ, who had this divine ray within him, might be called God, but not as a distinct person from the Father. They are moreover, charged with saying, that the Father, being in Christ, suffered and died in him also; and from this they got the name of Patripassians, which denomination had been also applied to the Sabellians, Monarchians, and others; which see.[6]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Mr. Yates observes, that, "When our opponents call themselves Trinitarians, they do not mean to intimate, that they believe in three Gods; nor when we call ourselves Unitarians do we intend that term to signify that we believe in one God only. The former term was first in use, having been adopted by the Trinitarians themselves to express their belief, that there is a trinity of Persons in the Godhead. The latter was invented as a correlative appellation to designate those who believe, that there is in the Godhead a unity of persons, that is, only one person. See Yates' Sequel, p. 15.
  2. Dr. Priestley, Evanson, Belsham, and others give up the miraculous conception, and with it the introductory chapters of Matthew and Luke, See Humanitarians.
  3. Priestley's Eccles. Hist. vol. i. p. 143. History of Early Opinions, vol. i. p. 10—51 vol. iii p. 7—27. vol. iv. p 67. Corruptions of Christianity, vol. i. p 135. Disquisitions vol. i. p. 376. Institutes, vol. ii. p 281. Appeal, 19—47 Theological Repository, vol iv. p. 20—436. Lindsey's View of the Unitarian Doctrine, &c. p. 355. Vindiciae Priestleianae, p. 223—227. Apology, p. 186. Answer to Robinson's Plea.
  4. This author considers the destruction of being as the main circumstance in the punishment of the wicked.
  5. Price's Sermons, p. 153-192. Price's Dissertations, p. 134.
  6. Priestley's History of Early Opinions, vol. iii. p. 376. vol. iv. p. 279. Priestley's Eccles. Hist. vol. i. p. 296, 297.