What does it mean to be Unitarian? Why were we once called Unitarians? And why are we no longer called Unitarians anymore?
These are the questions I would like to explore today as we continue to explore our history as Dromore / Banbridge Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
As a preface to this sermon, even though many other Christians would look down on Unitarians and sometimes even question if they should be called Christians, it should be noted that there is a long list of famous Unitarians who have made an enormous contribution to the world. They would include: Florence Nightingale, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Tim-Berners-Lee creator of the internet, Neville Chamberlain, George Washington, Samuel Morse – Co-inventor of morse code.
Before we can answer the first question, why were we once called Unitarians? We need to define what the word Unitarian means? To do that we also need to define what the word Trinitarian means. And to do that it might be helpful to explore the story of Christianity going right back to the beginning of the Church.
After Jesus, lived and died, and was resurrected (however one might define the term resurrection), the community of Jesus followers were in effect left contemplating the question: “Who on earth was that? Who on earth was this Jesus that we encountered?
Different opinions floated around and were expressed: Some believed that Jesus was a prophet not unlike Elijah and Moses, but perhaps greater than both. Others believed that Jesus was a great Rabbi or spiritual teacher approved by God. Some referred to Jesus as the Servant of God making reference to passages in Isaiah which speak of the Servant of God. Other’s spoke of Jesus as the Son of Man referring to passages from Daniel where we encounter a great spiritual being who was one who looked like a son of man. Other’s spoke of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah, which simply means anointed one, which sometimes in the Old Testament could refer to both kings ad priests who were anointed. Others used the term Son of God which in the Old Testament is often a term used to refer to God’s chosen king. So David was called the Son of God. But the term also suggested that the one called Son of God must have resembled God in some way. Other’s used the term Great High Priest, and others spoke of Jesus as the Logos or the Wisdom of God made flesh. In and through all of these titles and descriptions lay a belief that in a profound way, in and through the human person of Jesus, people had come into contact with God. Somehow, through Jesus, God had drawn near to them.
As the Church grew and spread, different communities would have had their own favourite way of speaking of Jesus and so amongst the followers of Jesus and amongst those who called themselves Christians, there was quite a wide variety of belief and practice. Some were more Jewish in their faith expression, others were not.
And so there was a great variety within the early Church. The was no single consensus on exactly who or what Jesus was. In fact there wasn’t even a consensus on what the New Testament Scriptures were. Different lists of writings began to appear from around 140 AD, but the first full list of New Testament 27 books can only be found in 367 AD, roughly 330 years after Jesus. Before that they were mostly just letters that were circulating, and stories that had been compiled into the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Some Church communities had access to some of these writings and others had access to others, along with a lot of other writings that were never included in the final list of New testaments letters and books.
In this context, the question of who and what Jesus was remained a source of constant debate and controversy.
In the midst of all this, in the late 200’s and early 300’s, a Christian leader, called Arius created an enormous stir in the Christian world that pretty much split Christianity in two camps. He taught that Jesus or the Christ was God’s first and greatest creation, through whom and with whom, God then created the rest of creation. He therefore taught that Christ was subordinate to God the Father and that although Christ shared many of God’s Divine qualities, he was Divine in a kind of secondary sense to God. Arius therefore argued for the supremacy of God as the Father and Source of all, and that the Son was not eternal as God was eternal, but rather had a beginning as the true First-born of God. He quoted the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians who writes of Jesus as being the first-born over all creation.
It would seem that at least half of Christians agreed with Arius and so he was by no means the only Christian who held such a view. In fact it was quite a widespread view. Arius had just spoken out loud what at least half of Christians believed.
But many other Christians disagreed with Arius saying that Christ was eternal and fully Divine just as the Father was Divine.
By this time, Christianity had been made the official religion of the Roman Empire and so the Emperor was rather disturbed at all the conflict and division he was seeing in the Church. He wanted to unify the Church in order to unify the Empire. And so he called a Church council to resolve the dispute. In fact it ended up that there were more than one Council convened to iron out these matters.
The long and the short of it was that at the council of Nicea in 325 AD they took a position opposite to Arius and it was declared that Christ was fully divine and not less Divine than the Father and was therefore in his divinity was co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father. And so Christ’s Divine nature was not made or created, that stated that he had always existed from all eternity as God of one substance or being with God. At the same time, it was taught that Jesus was also 100% human in his time on earth. According to Nicea therefore, Jesus was 100% Divine and 100% human, fully Divine and Fully Human.
About 50 years later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Church came to a similar conclusion that the Holy Spirit was likewise Fully Divine and therefore also Co-eternal and Co-equal with God the Father and God the Son.
And so was born the fully fledged Doctrine of the Trinity. The word Trinity had been used before this by some Christian teachers, but it had never been used in quite in this way. This now became the official orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity, about 350 years after Jesus had lived, died and been resurrected.
Not everyone was convinced. Many Christians still followed Arius, who taught that Jesus was created as God’s first and greatest creation and therefore was not fully Divine as God was Divine. The journey to this point was a messy one, which had sometimes included intimidation, banishment and even murder. And so the process leading up to the orthodox teaching of the Trinity was not always an edifying or a holy one.
For the next 1150 years or so, this doctrine of the Trinity was pretty much the official teaching of what became known as the Catholic, or Universal Church. In fact anyone who didn’t agree with this teaching were not considered truly Christian or part of the Universal Church, otherwise known as the Catholic Church.
Then comes the Reformation. When the Reformation started, most of the main Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli simply accepted the Doctrine of the Trinity as is. Their attention was elsewhere. They were more concerned about questions of how we are saved which is where all the abuse in the Roman Catholic Church had risen from.
But there were other reformers who did begin to question the Doctrine of the Trinity. When they read the Bible, they discovered that the word Trinity didn’t appear there. Trinitarian Theologians would speak of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But the phrases God the Son and God the Holy Spirit didn’t appear in the Bible. Yes, Jesus was called the Son of God, but it is clear that being called the Son of God did not mean that Jesus was God, after all, even King David had been called the son of God, and after all, Jesus in the beatitudes Jesus says, blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.
The more some of these radical reformers read their Bibles, the more it seemed that the Doctrine of the Trinity did not appear in the Bible. In fact they believed that they could find a lot of verses that questioned and undermined the Doctrine of the Trinity. They read in the Bible that Jesus never referred to himself as God and always spoke of God as though God were separate or other than himself. In John’s Gospel after the Resurrection, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “I am returning to my father and your father, to my God and your God”. How could Jesus return to God if he was already God? In 1 Timothy 2:5 they read that “...there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” In this passage and in others they saw that Jesus was referred to as different from God. Like Arius, they also read in Colossians that Jesus is the first born of creation, suggesting that there was a time when Jesus was not.
And so all over Europe, various Reformation Christians began to question the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Doctrine that said God was Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
Rather they said that God is only One, not Three-in-One, and that only the Father is truly God. This is where the word Unitarian comes from. Unos meaning One as opposed to Trinity which speaks of Three. Different groups came to different conclusions about Jesus. Some like Arius said that Jesus was Divine, but in a lesser or secondary sense to the Father. Other’s began to speak of Jesus as a human who was Divinely inspired, and in whom God’s spirit lived in a special way. Because of this, they became known as Arians and some became known as Unitarians, and often the words were used interchangeably.
And that brings us to Ulster in the 1700’s and 1800’s. During the 1700’s as I said, in Belfast there existed a Presbyterian ministers club called the Belfast Society who met to study the Bible together and present theological papers to one another for discussion. Many of these felt that in their reading of the Bible, they could no longer subscribe to the teaching of the Trinity. Rev. Colville in Dromore was part of this group as well as Rev. Archibald McClaine in Banbridge at around the same time. 100 years later quite a number of ordinary Presbyterians again held some of these views most notably the Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery from Dunmurry who held views very close to Arius and therefore called himself an Arian.
The fact that both Banbridge and Dromore have large portraits of Rev. Dr. Montgomery suggests that the majority of ministers and congregation members in Banbridge and Dromore supported his views not just against subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but quite probably also his Unitarian or Arian views as well. And so while the official names of our Churches were First Presbyterian Church (Non-Subscribing), unofficially our Churches became known as the Unitarian Churches of Dromore and Banbridge, and in fact in Dromore in the mid to late 1800’s there were two Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches in Banbridge that went by the name Unitarian, and this was because the majority of their members and ministers did not subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Why are we no longer called Unitarian Churches? Probably for a few factors. Firstly I understand that a very wealthy member of our denomination left a very large bequest that was to be put into a fund for Churches in the denomination, but with the following proviso, no Church that went by the name Unitarian would be eligible to receive money from this fund. And so, almost all of the NSPCI churches in Ulster dropped the term Unitarian and went back to the more official name of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian.
Secondly, for a long time, many of our ministers were trained in the Unitarian college in England. This was true of most of our minsters at one time, even up to quite recently. Rev. Peaston and Rev. McCormick were trained in the Unitarian College as was Rev. Mac along with others who currently minister in the NSPCI.
More recently, many of our ministers have been trained at other theological institutions which has meant that there has been a swing back to a more mainstream form of Christianity towards what some would call a gentle Trinitarian theology as opposed to a Unitarian Theology.
Lastly, as the NSPCI has become a member of the Irish Council of Churches it has also probably led some within the denomination to de-emphasise some of the Unitarian elements in the denomination because one of the criteria for belonging to the Irish Council Churches is that the denomination should be Trinitarian.
The truth is that our denomination, according to our constitution is neither officially Trinitarian or Unitarian. According to our constitution we are Non-Subscribing. Everyone has the right to come to their own conclusions. In the NSPCI there have always been Trinitarians alongside Unitarians. Some congregations have been more Trinitarian and others have been more Unitarian. The problem is that if you say that a congregation is Unitarian, then you are no longer properly non-subscribing any-more, because you create the impression that you have to hold Unitarian views to be part of that congregation. And that is why, even though there is room within our denomination to be either a Trinitarian or a Unitarian, we are not called Unitarians any-more, we are quite rightly called Non-Subscribing and it is up to each persons own conscience to decide whether they are Unitarian, or Arian, or Trinitarian. And it is also perfectly fine not to call oneself any of these. Some might say “none of the above” and might prefer to be simply called a follower of Jesus or simply a Christian.
Sermons and Blog
On this page you will find our online services, sermons and news.