Unitarianism and the Doctrine of the Trinity

Guest Writer V7 N3 2019

Several years ago, I was contacted by a man who felt called to the priesthood. In the initial conversation I had with him I tried to understand how much Christian theology he knew and comprehended. I asked him to describe the doctrine of the Trinity and his response was, “I don’t believe in the Trinity, I’m more Unitarian in my approach to God.” I chose not to ordain this man and advised him that he would be better suited finding another bishop willing to ordain him. The conversation with this man did give me an opportunity to perform theological reflection of my own. In seminary, I had the opportunity of serving, as consulting minister, a Unitarian Universalist congregation located near the seminary. It wasn’t a theological problem for me because most of the congregation were secular humanists, atheists, or a few steps removed from agnostics. It was a good experience in developing my ministerial skills. I graduated from seminary in 2012 and as I reflect on that time in my life, I find myself thinking of that request for ordination and my serving at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. In reflecting on that time in my life I want to reflect further on the statement, “I’m more Unitarian in my approach to God.” In my role as consulting minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation I never had to reflect on what I believed about God. I knew how to navigate through the diverse theological values of the congregation without interjecting much of my own theological understanding; however, while simultaneously functioning as an Independent Sacramental Bishop1This was before my incardination into The Young Rite. I did have to wrestle with what I believed. On the one hand, I served a congregation of humanists, on the other, I decided to refuse ordination to someone who held to a Unitarian view of God.

The focus of this essay is the result of my need to work through what exactly is a Unitarian understanding of God juxtaposed against my own understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, this essay focuses on the Unitarian side of Unitarian Universalism in general and that side’s theology of God as initially developed by William Ellery Channing. I chose to use Channing as the basis of my discussion of the Unitarian position because he was an early proponent of the Unitarian approach to an understanding of God. With the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism in 1961 the Unitarian Universalist Association emerged onto the American religious landscape. With roots in congregational Puritanism Unitarianism moved away from its Calvinist roots by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, moving into loose theism, to embracing humanist philosophy, and finally evolving into a sort of cafeteria of theological relativism. What remains the main theological current within Unitarian Universalism today is a sort of “subtle confusion” over the disconnect between the disingenuous naming of the tradition2I am reluctant to use the term denomination since Unitarian Universalism identifies as a “post-Christian” religious tradition and as a non-Christian tradition the term denomination seems non-applicable. by using a theological naming scheme. Most Unitarian Universalists no longer believe in God let alone the unity of God (oneness) and no longer consider salvation relevant, making the idea of universal salvation irrelevant to their identity. The modern reality of Unitarian Universalism non-withstanding this paper will address the roots of Unitarianism’s anti-Trinitarian theology primarily through William Ellery Channing’s sermon Unitarian Christianity delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks in 18193Channing 71., and provide a Trinitarian response. Channing seems to be the initial spokesperson for the clearly defined Unitarian position that promoted the severing of ties between Unitarian Congregationalists and their orthodox or Calvinist neighbors. In addition to Channing I will also be using sources of Unitarian thought that built upon Channing’s initial efforts.

In section II of Channing’s sermon he formulates his central theology by opening up with, “In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only.”4Ibid 78. Channing makes five arguments in his sermon formulating his theology on God, the person and work of Jesus, and on holiness. Three of his arguments are relevant in showing his view on the Trinity. An important note about William Ellery Channing within modern Unitarian Universalist usage is that he, like such authors as Michael Servetus, tends to be re-created to suit the theological climate. Unitarian Universalists humanists claim him, Unitarian Universalist Christians claim him, and every sub-sect within the tradition attempt to co-op Channing as Robert Patterson points out with, “Unitarians have always been prone to conceive of Channing after their own image.”5Patterson 63.

In his first argument Channing summarizes his view of Trinitarian doctrine with,

According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his own appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other.6Channing 78.

Channing then proceeds to argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is “irrational and unscriptural”7Ibid 79. and he makes the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is problematic because it dilutes worship of God by spreading that worship out amongst three beings. In referencing God the Son he states, “Men want an object of worship like themselves, and the great secret of idolatry lies in this propensity.”8Ibid 81.

His second argument specifically centers around his views on Jesus Christ. In this section of his sermon Channing states, “We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character.”9Ibid 82. Channing is responding to the idea of hypostatic union by insisting that Jesus Christ was of one mind and tries to show that this is the case through his interpretation of sacred scripture. Channing makes the point that if Jesus was God then Jesus or at least the Biblical writers would have been specific in making this claim. Channing argues that this is not the case and that scripture confirms his belief that Jesus was always subordinate to God and therefore could not be God. Channing does acknowledge that there are “two or three texts, in which Christ is called God,”10Ibid 84. but he dismisses these passages as rhetorical use of language. Additionally, William Hutchison points out that Channing taught in 1815, a few years before his famous sermon, that Jesus was more than human but not God and that his position after the sermon was that Jesus was divine but not deity.11Hutchison 13. Channing’s Christology is echoed some years later by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker when he preached the sermon, A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, and said, “But if, as some early Christians began to do, you take a heathen view, and make him a God, the Son of God in a peculiar and exclusive sense – much of the significance of his character is gone.”12Parker 193. Parker is expanding upon what Channing taught about Jesus and suffering when he stated,

According to their doctrine, Christ was comparatively no sufferer at all. It is true, his human mind suffered; but this, they tell us, was an infinitely small part of Jesus, bearing no more proportion to his whole nature, than a single hair of our heads to the whole body, or than a drop to the ocean.13Channing 86.

This is important to Channing’s argument against the divinity/deity of Jesus Christ because he is essentially saying that because of the teaching that God is immutable, or unchanging, then Jesus Christ did not truly suffer because God could not endure suffering.

The final point that Channing makes in his sermon seems to touch on the role of the Holy Spirit and the relationship between God and humanity. In this point Channing seems to be either negating the idea of original sin or diminishing its affect on humanity. To Channing virtue seems to originate within humanity when he states, “We believe that all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature of man, that is, in conscience, or his sense of duty, and in the power of forming his temper and life according to conscience.”14Ibid 94. This is important in my analysis of his theology of God because later he alludes to the Holy Spirit by referring to Spirit as God’s aid with, “…by his Spirit, we mean a moral, illuminating, and persuasive influence, not physical, not compulsory, not involving a necessity of virtue.”15Ibid 94. Channing places the responsibility of virtue with the individual and it is the individual who must cultivate their own innate virtue, and while he does not disregard the idea of grace it is clear that his philosophy is starting from a position that claims humanity is more the architect of their own goodness than any work of God and grace within their lives. The importance of innate human virtue seems linked to the Unitarian critique of the divinity of Jesus Christ as Prescott Browning Wintersteen writes, quoting Unitarian clergyman Frederic Henry Hedge,

The fault of the Trinitarian doctrine, so far as this point is concerned, is not what it teaches, but what it omits to teach. It is not the assertion of divinity in Christ, but the limitation of divine humanity to him, the implied exclusion of the rest of mankind from any part or lot in this matter.16Wintersteen 71.

While Universalism makes the claim that salvation is universal because God is all loving, it appears that Unitarianism was evolving into a manner that would negate the need for universal salvation because humanity was per se all good and therefore already saved.

A good synopsis of Channing’s theology of God is summarized by Patterson with,

When Channing talks of the unity and simplicity of God, he is thinking of that integration of manifoldness in oneness which we call personality. Channing’s God is a Person. He is one as a person is one, and consequently he can be manifold as a person is manifold. But he cannot be many persons, any more than a man can be so. A plurality of persons would be a plurality of gods.17Patterson 71.

The development of Unitarian theology of God was a process of divorcing from the Calvinist idea of God as sovereign while at the same time elevating the position of humanity on a more level playing field with God. Certainly, Channing did not teach that humanity was divine but he did erase the culpability of humanity that rested in such Christian teachings as original sin and total depravity. Likewise, Channing, and other Unitarian clergymen, dismantled traditional Christian theology of God in such a way as to place an emphasis on human reason and upon humanity. This was the necessary foundation for the subsequent humanist “take over” of Unitarianism (and later Universalism and the combined venture of Unitarian Universalism), because the elevated status of humanity within Unitarian theology had made God irrelevant and unnecessary. God simply got in the way. The optional status of God is succinctly stated by Unitarian minister Jack Mendelsohn with, “It may be that I love my Unitarian affiliation best of all because every Unitarian congregation harbors a mixture of Theists and Humanists.”18Mendelsohn 113. By the time Mendelsohn write these words in 1960 God had been relegated within the Unitarian tradition to optional status. The free thinking liberalism that Channing advocated eventually evolved, through the aid and design of subsequent Unitarian clergy, into relativism. Take what you want and discard the rest. In the 21st century there is no longer a unified doctrine of God within Unitarianism because God is an option and most Unitarian Universalists seem to lean towards taking the option that God is unnecessary or that God does not exist.

Looking at Unitarianism as a theological issue you could compare it to other “unitarian” theological positions such as Islam and Judaism; however, there is a radical difference between the strict unity principles within both Islam and Judaism and classical Unitarianism. What seems lacking within Unitarianism is not a propensity towards orthopraxy, since Islam and Judaism have often been described as orthopraxic traditions, but any sense of orthodoxy. The liberal imperative that undergirds Unitarianism both in Channing’s time and within Unitarian Universalism today is the almost deification of choice. The “ultimate concern” of Unitarian Universalism is not God but rather the ability to choose God or Not-God. This is the stark difference between American Unitarianism and the Islamic and Judaic traditions.

I now turn my attention to providing a Trinitarian response to the anti-Trinitarian arguments listed above. Channing and other Unitarian writers after him do have a valid point that their manner of looking at God is simpler than the doctrine of the Trinity; likewise, their treatment of Jesus Christ also seems easier to comprehend. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not without its complexities and the two natures of Jesus Christ require some explanation to fully understand. However, the Triune understanding of God is the essential distinguishing characteristic of Christianity and discarding it means losing what it means to be a Christian. In the beginning of American Unitarianism they proudly proclaimed the classification as “Liberal Christianity,” but when the idea of being liberal trumped the idea of being Christian then the sojourn into a “post-Christian” identity became the reality. It seems to follow that such doctrines as the Trinity and the incarnation help to preserve the “Christian-ness” of Christianity and offer a safe guard into evolving into theological relativism. If you judge Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism against the test of “by their fruits you will know them” we clearly have a non-Christian religious tradition that values choice and being a good person but not much else. What is often seen within the confines of a Unitarian Universalist congregation are people who are “religious but not spiritual.”

Before I respond directly to Channing and the classical Unitarian critique of Trinitarianism it is important to illustrate a basic synopsis of Trinitarian theology of God. Simply described, the Trinity is one God with one nature in three Persons. The nature of God for all three Persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are identical and nature and divine essence are synonyms for God’s unity. Leonardo Boff describes divine essence as, “…that which constitutes the triune God in itself, the divinity; being, love goodness, truth, and reciprocal communion in the form of the absolute and infinite.”19Boff 118 – 119. Likewise, Boff defines Person, as it pertains to understanding the Trinity, with, “…in Trinitarian language, that which is distinct in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the individuality of each Person who simultaneously exists in itself and in eternal communion with the other two.”20Ibid 123.

The main point of Channing’s theology of God’s unity seems to rest on his idea of person as it pertains to God and also the idea that it seems Channing would say that all conceptions of a Triune God are either overt or covert Tritheism. Gerald O’Collins defines person with the following,

Persons are conscious (or minded), free, and relational (or persons-in-community). The last characteristic has its special importance in curbing any desire to picture persons as autonomous, self-sufficient centers of consciousness and free activity, or even as self-absorbed individuals.21O’Collins 177.

This last statement by O’Collins indicates a flaw in Channing’s understanding of person. Channing does state in his understanding of person within Trinitarian thought is social by stating they love each other, converse, and delight in one another’s company but he seems to fall short by placing the relational status of the Trinity as purely an optional endeavor. Channing makes a compelling argument because he has reduced the Triune God to Tritheism and any self-respecting monotheist would enthusiastically say, “I don’t believe in three gods!” Channing makes no reference to perichoresis.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna defines perichoresis as, “…being-in-one-another, permeation without confusion. No person exists by him/herself or is referred to him/herself; this would produce number and therefore division in God.”22LaCugna 271. LaCugna also states that perichoresis is a defense against tritheism and Arian subordinationism because, “…perichoresis expressed the idea that the three divine persons mutually adhere in one another, draw life from one another, “are” what they are by relation to one another.”23Ibid 270. Furthermore, Boff expresses a similar sentiment regarding perichoresis with,

So there are three gods, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? There would be, if one were alongside, and unrelated to, the others; there would be, except for the relating and inclusion of the three divine Persons. The Three do not first exist and then relate. Without beginning, they live together eternally and are interconnected. That is why they are one God, God-Trinity.24Boff 15.

The Triune God that Channing describes is a God in three persons that is “alongside, and unrelated to, the others.” Channing makes the claim, as stated above, about the Trinity that, “They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his own appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other.” This statement of Channing is negated with an understanding of perichoresis. The image that Channing seems to have of the Triune God is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are like strangers to one another doing the best they can to love one another but still holding onto rugged individualism and self-expression. This is not the orthodox position on the Trinity as both Boff and LaCugna point out. The connectedness of the persons of the Triune God is so pronounced that when one of the persons acts the others are there sharing in the action. Willis specifically mentions this in his analysis of perichoresis when he writes, “The entire Trinity in all three modes of being is involved in any external act of God. It is, after all, these three modes of being in their relationship to one another that are God.”25Willis 45

In Channing’s second argument he challenges the divinity of Jesus Christ and therefore the two natures, fully human and fully divine. Tyron Inbody presents the orthodox position of Jesus Christ with,

…truly God and truly human, perfect in his divinity and in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and with us. There are two natures, human and divine, which coexist in one person, and the oneness of the person makes it appropriate to apply the predicates of either nature to the other.26Inbody 210.

What Channing has a problem with is the idea of Jesus Christ having two natures. Channing makes the error by assuming that two natures are the same as two persons, and, as stated above, that, “…it makes Jesus Christ two beings.” Channing wants Jesus Christ to be more than just a man, but does not want to accept the incarnation and the divinity (i.e., deity) of Jesus Christ. The two natures and one person of Jesus Christ is the working through those Biblical texts that refer to him as God and the Christological controversies of the early church. Since Jesus Christ was one person it does not seem the case that he would have two minds/consciousness but simply two natures in one person. Regarding the suffering of Jesus and the problem of immutability of God Channing missed a valuable opportunity. Instead of disagreeing with the teaching of immutability, as process theologians regularly do, he took the theological easy way out and decided to un-deify Jesus Christ. He could have stated emphatically that God does suffer and that God did suffer on the cross.

The third argument of Channing that I am addressing, which is the fifth argument in his sermon, seems focused on his theological departure and need to admonish Calvinist tendencies prominent in New England during his time. I wonder if Channing, and other early American Unitarians, were more interested in dismantling Calvinism in particular rather than Christianity in general. His third argument seems to make the work of grace and the Holy Spirit mostly irrelevant and unnecessary since it seems that virtue comes from within an individual rather than as grace from God. Rather than accept Arminianism in preference to predestination and Calvinist ideas of total depravity Channing and other Unitarians seem to have eliminated original sin and made choice their ultimate concern.

In conclusion, the Unitarian Universalist tradition that exists today is not the same as it was in the time of William Ellery Channing. Two doctrines that are essential to Christian identity were the two doctrines that Channing sought to eliminate; the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. These two teachings, above all others, reinforce what it means to be a Christian. Channing seemed to miss the meaning of communion and relationship that is the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. His strict emphasis on a Unitarian theological position did not withstand the test of time since it has been less than two hundred years since his famous sermon and I know of no strict “Unitarian Christian” within Unitarian Universalism. I have met a dozen or so closet Trinitarian Christians who identify as Unitarian Universalists, but the general climate within the movement has moved so far beyond Christianity that atheism and humanism are the dominant expressions of “faith.” I’m not sure this is what Channing envisioned; however, while Unitarian Universalists may not identify collectively as Christian, I know of at least one would-be-priest who identified as a unitarian Christian. I wonder if he ever found a bishop to ordain him?


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Toom, Tarmo. Classical Trinitarian Theology. New York: T & T Clark, 2007.

Willis, W. Waite, and Jr. Theism, Atheism, and the Doctrine of the Trinity: the Trinitarian Theologies of Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann in Response to Protest Atheism. (Decatur, GA.: Scholars Pr, 1987.

Wintersteen, Prescott B. Christology in American Unitarianism. Boston: The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1977.

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