Unitarians: Those who insist God’s not three.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 May
UNITARIAN ju.nə'tɛr.i.ən noun. A person or doctrine which emphasizes God’s oneness, and rejects the doctrine of the trinity.
2. [capitalized] A member of a church or group which asserts this belief.
3. adjective. Having to do with this belief, or with unitarians.
[Unitarianism ju.nə'tɛr.i.ən.ɪz.əm noun.]

Christians correctly understand God’s a trinity. One God; three people (or “persons,” as theologians prefer, but it’s bad English) who are the one God. Well, most of us do; there are holdouts who insist he’s not. They tend to fall into one of two camps:

  • MODALISTS. Those who say the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God… but really all three of them are just one person. Not three people. Just one person in different modes.
  • UNITARIANS. Those who say the Father is God—and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not.

People are more familiar with unitarians—mostly because there are entire unitarian denominations, like the Unitarian Universalists, the Unitarian Christian Church, and Unity Church. (The United States has even had four Unitarian presidents.) But that’s also because unitarianism is very obviously non-trinitarian, and very obviously denies Jesus is God. Whereas modalists will never say Jesus isn’t God. For that matter you’d likely never even know they were modalist… until you start asking ’em about trinity and they reply, “Well I really don’t like to use the word trinity to describe God…” then go on to explain why they say he’s not.

The main difference, y’notice, is modalists believe Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Unitarians do not. Well, generally unitarians do not; some of ’em are kinda pantheist and believe everyone is God. But for the most part, they insist God is One: One person, one being, one heavenly Father (or Mother; some of ’em aren’t particular); our Creator, the Almighty, and infinitely good. And while they consider Jesus to be Lord and Savior and King, they don’t consider him God. Same with the Holy Spirit—although I’ve known a few unitarians who believe the Spirit is God, but like modalists, don’t believe he’s a different person than the Father. To them, “Holy Spirit” is just one of God’s titles, like when certain indigenous Americans refer to God as “the Great Spirit.”

But unitarian doesn’t just describe Christians. Technically it describes everyone who believes in the One God, and doesn’t believe he’s a trinity. Most unchurched pagans figure there’s one God, aren’t so sure about Jesus, and know nothing about the Holy Spirit—and this description would mean they’re unitarian. Every Muslim would be unitarian: They definitely believe in one God, believe Jesus is a prophet but not God, and believe the Holy Spirit is a messenger of God but also not God. Religious Jews are unitarian, Sikhs are unitarian, Baha’is are unitarian.

But if you’re unitarian and call yourself Christian, you’ve chosen to ignore the scriptures which reveal God as a trinity. Which puts you outside historical orthodox Christianity and makes you heretic. And here I gotta remind you heresy does not send you to hell—but it does greatly interfere with getting to know and trust God, so it always needs to be dealt with.

Why unitarianism? ’Cause it’s easier.

As I’ve said in other articles on trinity: The idea of “God is One, yet three” is a paradox. Doesn’t matter if you try to say “God is one of one thing, and three of another,” like some know-it-alls love to tell me: It’s still a contradiction. A mystery. It’s not a simple idea with an easy explanation. You may think of it as simple and easy in your own mind, but you’ve trained your mind to think of it as simple and easy. (Usually by repeatedly telling yourself, “No it’s not hard. Three people, one being. Simple!”) Pagans haven’t done this. To them, trinity is still fully illogical. Try talking to one sometime; you’ll see.

So because trinity is neither simple nor easy to believe in, a not insignificant number of people have chosen to go with unitarian ideas about the trinity. After all, in the scriptures God states over and over and over that he is One. That’s the easiest idea to go with, so that’s what they’re going with. (As they should! He is One.)

So… when we trinitarians state God is three—that he’s One but in three people—unitarians are gonna insist the Almighty can’t be illogical like that. They figure he’s a perfect being. (Well, as we understand “perfect”—and as you can immediately detect, our understanding is now about to get in the way.) If God’s a perfect being, he has to make sense: He has to be reasonable, logical, comprehensible, and not paradoxical. And if we trinitarians are describing him in any way which makes no sense to them, they figure we’re the problem: We got him wrong.

It’s the usual human mistake of figuring we’re the baseline: Our understanding sets the standard of how to describe and define reality. If we understand it, it’s so. If we don’t, it’s not. We’re not gonna practice humility and recognize certain things are beyond us. We’re gonna insist God would never be infinitely beyond anything we could imagine: He’s gotta make sense to our tiny finite minds! Otherwise he’s not real.

Trinity sounds overcomplicated, and oneness does not. Hence they go with oneness. It’s a simple explanation; it’s got tons of bible to back it up; it’s what every other monotheistic religion believes; it’s what the Jews still believe, and Christ Jesus himself is Jewish, right? There, that’s not so hard.

I suspect a lot of the reason God allowed the writers of the New Testament to let slip he’s a trinity, is he really dislikes it when we try to pin him down in ways which make us feel comfortable and clever—as if we have any level of control when it comes to the Almighty. There’s no need to practice humility when you have God all figured out. But he needs us to practice humility. It’s the only way we can learn from him. So by letting us know he’s unfathomable, we learn we’re not to put our trust in our knowledge about God; we’re to put it in God himself—whatever he is. He’s love, so we have every reason to trust him. So what if we don’t understand how he’s One yet three?—he’s love, and that’s way more important.

’Cause it knocks down Jesus a few pegs.

In my experience, the unitarians I’ve met really don’t care for the fact Jesus is God. They’re far more comfortable imagining he’s not.

Oh, they like Jesus; he’s awesome. They think he’s the most gifted moral teacher ever. He’s inspiring. He’s prophetic. He’s wise. He’s very quotable and memeable.

But he’s human. Like us, he walked the earth as a finite, fragile, sweaty, weak sack of meat. This bugs ’em. They don’t like the idea of incarnation: The infinite God becoming that? They don’t wanna be that! They wanna become pure spirit.

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

But since there’s a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth, if you believe he’s God you gotta deal with the ramifications of a God who became human. And what this means about spirit and flesh. And what this also means about death, afterlife, and resurrection. Not to mention the life we now live in.

Much easier to dismiss all those bothersome ideas, and pretend Jesus isn’t really God. Oh, you can throw around the word “divine,” and claim Jesus is the most divine religious instructor… but quickly object you don’t mean that kind of divinity; you’re just paying him a nice compliment, not describing his very nature.

And when people describe Jesus as God the Son, they’ll quickly object: “No, son of God.” Just like we’re daughters and sons of God; no different. Not divine. Not just as much God as our Father.

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 we 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.

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; the Holy Spirit would be yet another subject god, like Heimdall. The subject gods would be mighty in their 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 exactly what unitarians do. (That, and certain trinitarians like Wayne Grudem who claim the trinity’s a hierarchy, with the Father in charge and the Son and Spirit 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 bypas 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 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 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 people, one being. It’s hard to understand, but not hard to accept.

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, and imagine the Son and Spirit as 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 whom you only mean the Father) 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.