Unitarians: Those who insist God’s not three.

And how they try to get out of obeying the persons of the trinity.

Unitarian /ju.nə'tɛr.i.ən/ n. One who emphasizes God’s oneness, and rejects the orthodox view of God as a trinity.
2. [capitalized] A member of a church or group which asserts this belief.
3. adj. Having to do with this belief.
[Unitarianism /ju.nə'tɛr.i.ən.ɪz.əm/ n.]

The belief God’s a trinity is the hardest concept in Christianity, and a really difficult idea for a lot of people. Not just non-Christians: Plenty of Christians struggle with it too.

A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to invent clever explanations for how trinity works. More of us figure it’s a paradox; it’s beyond our finite human capabilities; let’s leave it at that. But a number of us figure it’s ridiculous: God spent the entire Old Testament trying to get it through the Hebrews’ thick skulls that he’s one. That’s the description he prefers; that’s the one they’re going with; forget about this “God is three” business.

They’d be unitarians. Sometimes they use that title, but often they don’t, ’cause they don’t wanna be confused with the theologically libertarian Unitarian Universalists. A number of ’em prefer to call themselves “Oneness” Christians—again, to emphasize God’s oneness.

I find it’s easiest to bunch unitarians into these categories:

  • Non-Christian monotheists. These’d be Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs—folks who believe in one God, and never did believe in trinitarianism. Hence they don’t bother to use the “unitarian” label for themselves; of course they’re unitarianism. For them, “Father” and “Holy Spirit” are just other names for the One God, and Jesus isn’t divine.
  • Arians are named for Áreios of Alexandria (256–336) who believed only the Father is God, and Jesus is a lesser god whom the Father created. “Holy Spirit” is God’s power, not a separate person. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a type of Arian.
  • Modalists believe the One God appears to be three persons, but isn’t really. Sometimes he’s in Father mode, where he acts cosmic and otherworldly; sometimes Jesus mode, where he’s human; sometimes Holy Spirit mode, where he’s helpful and intimate. But it’s really one divine guy in three guises.
  • Pantheists believe God isn’t a being; he’s the sum total of everything in the universe. So Jesus actually is God… but then again so are you, me, and everything else, collectively. (You’ll find many of the uppercase-U Unitarians totally buy this. The idea comes from the Hindus.)

As for pagans, you’ll find they either hold Judeo-Muslim beliefs about God, or Arian beliefs. When they become Christian, they often carry their heretic views into Christianity with them. And if no Christian ever bothers to sit ’em down and try to explain trinity (as best we can, anyway), they’ll hold onto ’em for quite a long time.

Or they’ll dabble in tritheism, the belief God is actually a committee of three gods (i.e. what the Latter-Day Saints believe), then reject it before it goes too far and wander back into Arianism, then reject that before it goes too far and ping-pong between one and the other. Or get sidetracked by modalism. Really, when Christians never bother to sort out our beliefs, we tend to just stay confused and heretic. Humans are lazy like that.

Why unitarianism? ’Cause it’s easier.

I said all this in my trinity article: The trinity forces us to believe in a contradiction. A paradox. A mystery. It’s neither simple nor easy, and since humans prefer simple and easy, a number of Christians have decided to go with unitarian explanations. God described himself as one, so they’re going with it.

So when we trinitarians state God is one being in three persons, unitarians insist the Almighty can’t be illogical like that. They figure if he’s perfect, he’s gotta make sense. If we trinitarians are describing him in a way that makes no sense to them, we must be the problem: We’re overcomplicating things. Or reading the bible wrong.

In my experience, a lot of the problem is that a lot of unitarians bluntly don’t care for the idea that Jesus is God. Some of it is how God becoming human—the infinite God packing himself into a finite, fragile, sweaty, weak sack of meat—bugs ’em.

The ancient Greeks—namely Plato of Athens—used to teach the idea of escaping these aging physical bodies and becoming pure spirit. It’s an idea which still appeals to a lot of people. The idea God would take the reverse direction, and go from being pure spirit to being a spirit/flesh hybrid like us… well, it creeps ’em out. Ask any unitarian, and most of ’em will admit they’re looking forward to being pure spirit after they die. Incarnation? Resurrection? Reincarnation? Ugh; they don’t want that. They can’t imagine God would either.

But since there’s a man named Jesus of Nazareth who appears to be God, they gotta deal with the ramifications of a God who chose to become human. What that now means about spirit and flesh. What that means about what’ll happen after they die. What that means about the life we now live in.

Of course, you can dismiss all those bothersome ideas and just pretend Jesus isn’t really God. Like the Arians, just claim he’s divine, but not that God. Whenever one of us Christians point out Jesus is God, they’re quick to object, “Son of God.” They don’t come out and bluntly say he’s not God… just emphasize how he’s not that God. Or how the bible calls him “son of God,” and they’re just deferring to the bible’s language. But really it’s all about how Jesus isn’t God, or isn’t as much God, as the Father is.

Same with the Holy Spirit: To them he’s God, but more a force than a person. He’s an “it.”

Thus they reduce Jesus and the Spirit to a size they can handle, and emphasize how they’re the true monotheists, whereas us trinitarians are a little screwy. They follow one God. And Jesus is God’s word; the Spirit is God’s scepter; they’re servants. Subservient. Subordinate. Beings you don’t pray to; you only pray to the Father, not his prophets and hand-tools.

Problematic? You betcha.

Yeah, it’s heresy.

See, if Jesus is a subordinate being or person—if he’s not God in the very same way the Father is, and neither is the Holy Spirit—it makes him another god. A second or third god. It means we Christians are polytheists, religious people with multiple gods. Our Father would be the king-god, like Odin. Jesus would be one of the king’s subjects, like Thor; another god, mighty in his own right. But if you really wanna get stuff done, you don’t bother with subordinates. You go straight to the top. You can bypass the under-gods.

In practice, that’s what unitarians do. (That, and certain trinitarians like Wayne Grudem who wanna claim the trinity is a hierarchy, with the Father in charge and the other persons his underlings.) They don’t deal with Jesus; they deal with the Father. They don’t pray to the Holy Spirit; it would never occur to them to do such a thing; they would even think it wrong to do such a thing. They only pray to the Father.

If the only way to the Father is through Jesus, Jn 14.6 but your belief system encourages you to dismiss Jesus, stands to reason it’s a dangerously wrong belief.

The trinity is an orthodox belief: It was sorted out by the earliest Christians, affirming what the scriptures teach about who God is, and rejecting what the Arians and modalists claimed as dangerously wrong. Not just we-can-agree-to-disagree wrong; dangerously wrong. Might-futz-with-your-salvation wrong.

Of course when Christians don’t know our history, we’ll slide into those heresies all over again. As many heretic churches have.

We trinitarians don’t consider Jesus and the Spirit divine for pragmatic reasons. We believe in trinity because that’s how the scriptures describe God: Jesus is God, Jn 1.18 Jesus’s Father is God, Jn 8.54 and the Holy Spirit is God. Ac 5.3-4 Three distinct individuals, Jn 3.16, 15.26 yet one God. Dt 6.4 The simplest explanation we can come up with, which affirms and doesn’t contradict the scriptures: Three persons, one being. It’s hard to understand, but not impossibly hard.

But ultimately, unitarians aren’t so much about the hard-to-understand idea, as the hard-to-follow Christ and Spirit. It’s not really an intellectual thing; it’s an obedience thing. If you’re a unitarian, take the Son and Spirit, reduce ’em to God’s chief of staff and vice-president, it means they’ve got power, but they’re not really the boss of you; the Father is. You don’t have to adhere to Jesus’s teachings and the Spirit’s promptings. Only “God” (by which you mean the Father, except you don’t figure there’s any difference anymore) makes your rules. The Son and Spirit are on your level; they’re not in charge. Leaving you free to do whatever you figure the Father tells you… without Jesus’s example or the Spirit’s fruit to correct you. At best they’re optional.

Yeah, it’s gonna be a mess. As history repeatedly demonstrates.

It’s why orthodox Christians affirm Jesus is God; the Holy Spirit is God; they’re coequal to the Father; they’re just as worthy of worship and obedience. Dismiss the Spirit and we’ve dismissed the Father who sent him. Dismiss Jesus; same deal. That’s one of the ways in which God is one, y’see.