What’s Old is New Again: The Return of “Biblical Unitarianism”

Athanasius of Alexandria

The Black Dwarf, Athanasius of Alexandria.

Every pastor and every theologian that has both a pulse and even a modicum of concern for the church usually has his own opinions about what “the next big thing” to trouble the church is going to be.

If you asked ten pastors, you would likely get twelve different answers. Some see a rising and subtle assault on the doctrine of Scripture. Others see a dangerous reformulation of the doctrine of justification.

Speaking only for myself, what I’m seeing is far more deadly: a sudden (at least to me) desire to reboot the Trinitarian controversies from the earliest history of Christianity.

Frankly, there’s a small part of me that’s stunned that this is even up for debate. While I’m used to defending the deity of Christ against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or fending off Mormon misunderstandings of the doctrine of the Trinity, I never thought I would see professing “conservative evangelicals” who were willing to jettison the central dogma that makes Christianity…Christianity.

But it’s happening.

I can name at least three churches in my immediate area (i.e., within 25 miles of my home) who have either had to turn away prospective new members because they wouldn’t affirm the Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, or who have only found out that a new member denied the Trinity after the individual had already been received as a member (in this case, it was kept hidden from the elders).

What’s more, I know of at least two seminary students (at Presbyterian and Reformed seminaries, no less!) who have informed their professors that they don’t out and out deny the Nicene Creed, but they’re not sure they can affirm it, either.

The question is how has this happened?

Perhaps we could answer the question of “how” by realizing that the works of Anthony Buzzard have become suddenly popular.

Even more popular than the Buzzard’s book, however, is Divine Truth or Human Tradition?: A Reconsideration of the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, by Patrick Navas.

But perhaps the root that has brought forth this poisonous fruit is the general lack of any historical understanding of the early church by the vast majority of so-called “evangelicals.” After all, all that Ecumenical Council stuff is some sort of Papist heresy. Or Greek heresy. Or something.

So all of the aforementioned goals that I had for this year…they just got tossed directly out the window and are now bleeding to death in the median of I-95. I’ve got a new project, and I’d like to invite you all to join me.

Starting in the middle of next week, I’m going to be reading through On the Incarnation by the great Athanasius of Alexandria. The edition I’ve linked to will be the basis of my reading, and the posts which will follow on this blog.

Once we’re done with On the Incarnation, I’ll be moving on to De Trinitate by Aurelius Augustine.

I’d be thrilled if you would read along with me, and then join the discussion here at Southern Reformation; I’m sure that Joseph Richardson, the “catholic boy” Richard, and Fr. James Guirguis would be interesting conversation partners, as would the Rev. Benjamin Glaser.

Soli Deo Gloria, my friends.

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9 thoughts on “What’s Old is New Again: The Return of “Biblical Unitarianism”

  1. I’ve been seeing it, too, in subtle ways usually, but clearly it’s there. Evangelicals — and being the suspicious Catholic that I am, I suspect this innate suspicion belongs to all Protestants as the legacy of the Reformation — seem suspicious of anything historic or traditional, intent to question what’s been established precisely because question and protest is what Protestants do. Which is fine and good, really; though I think Protestantism made some faulty assumptions to begin with, the motive of questioning what might be questionable about the faith and holding the Church accountable for her teachings and practices is necessary and admirable. But it’s now like the robot that was built for a specific purpose, and even after that purpose is fulfilled, only knows to keep doing what it was programmed to do, even to the point of self-destruction. I know classical Reformed people argue that sola scriptura doesn’t mean “solo” scriptura, that it’s supposed to leave a place for church authority and a foundation from which to distinguish between “good tradition” and “bad tradition” and stop the protesting — but, as I’ve often argued, sola scriptura ultimately reduces to holding church doctrine to one’s individual interpretation of Scripture. Church authority is no authority at all when one can reject the church and walk away if one disagrees with what it teaches.

    In the Catholic Church, the Trinitarian controversies ended because the Church pronounced the Truth and the matter was settled. When one rejects the very idea of a universal authority that can declare what is true and what is false, that can bring a definitive resolution to doctrinal questions, what results is endless questioning, infinite individual interpretations, and the disintegration of all orthodoxy — which is what we have seen in the Protestant tradition, now to the tune of over 40,000 distinct sects (not even including “nondenominations”), and the questioning of even the most basic Christian dogma. There is no such thing as “orthodoxy” where there are only individuals. It has taken 500 years to come to full fruition, but we are reaping what the Reformers sowed.

    This isn’t the comment I sat down to write. *sheepish* My rhetoric got the better of me. What I sat down to share was an anecdote. My oldest and best Baptist friend told me years ago that he didn’t believe Catholics were Christians, and so I was a little worried about telling him about my conversion. He is a true Christian brother and has been supportive, but we generally don’t talk about doctrine. The only time we did, to my claim that “all Christians can affirm the Nicene Creed,” he was hot on the trigger to reject it, simply, I suspect, because it was “Catholic” and automatically contrary. (Specifically, he rejected “born of the Father before all ages”/τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων — the eternal Sonship of Christ — which, to be fair, is kind of tricky to explain, and after I did, he agreed.)

    And, of course, in my home neck of the woods, we’ve been dealing with “Oneness Pentecostals” for years. It’s been slow to spread but it’s nothing new.

    • Some of what you’ve described above is why I support the distinction that church historians have begun to make between the magisterial Reformation and the radical Reformation. I suppose some of the “bad programming” in the robot can likely be traced to that distinction. What I’ve often found amazing (and wonderful) is the way that both Luther and Calvin constantly appeal to the Church Fathers in even their most polemical writing; I think one of the implications of their method is that it makes clear that while one may arrive at a wholly different interpretation of Scripture, we don’t disagree with the Fathers without a very, very strong reason to do so.

      As to your anecdote about the eternal Sonship of Christ, speaking only for myself, I somehow doubt that it was rejected as a simply because it was Catholic (all though I’m sure that played a part), but was rejected more so because we Protestants have produced several generations of ministers now who appear to be wholly ignorant of church history. I think that the reason may be twofold: first, because we’re living in a deeply anti-historical age, and second, because the world of gifted Protestant scholars in the field of Patristics is nearly nonexistent. There was a time when that wasn’t the case (I’m thinking here of even the recent past when J.N.D. Kelly and Justo Gonzalez were still publishing regularly in the field), but these days…we’re in bad shape.

      • That’s interesting. From where I’m standing, I can’t think of a single position on which Calvin agreed with the Church Fathers in any substantive way. He affirmed the Trinity; he held some form of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, if only a spiritual presence. But he held radically different and novel understandings of justification, authority, ecclesiology, baptism, the atonement… I know Calvin appealed to Augustine, and he did at least appropriate Augustine’s doctrine of grace in some measure — but not of justification or the role of faith and works or anything else.

        I know I need to read more of the Reformers and really bone up on my Reformation history and theology in general. I have a hard time understanding what any of them were thinking, especially with regard to the problem of authority. Certainly there were divisions among the Reformers to begin with, and these only compounded even in their own time! In disputing doctrinal issues, did they have any notion of what was going to happen when successive generations continued to dispute issues?

        My friend, God love him, has in the past expressed agreement with the “Baptist successionism” view of church history — that there have always been Baptists, identified with various heretical sects (often whomever was opposing the Catholic Church at that time, regardless of how diabolical or un-Baptistlike), who were only free to come out from underground after the Reformation. I haven’t heard him say anything like that in years — I hope he’s been disabused of that notion — but you’re right that most Protestants these days have no knowledge of history. I tend to agree with Cardinal Newman, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” — certainly that sums up my conversion more than anything else.

        As I’ve said before, Protestantism seems to me to exist only as a rejection of Catholicism — a justification at every step and turn of why Protestants reject this and don’t agree with that, with little positive ground anywhere to appeal to; certainly no real historic basis. It seems to me that reading church history and the Church Fathers as a Protestant involves accepting one of two equally troubling propositions: either the Church fell away from the true teaching of the Apostles and of Scripture almost immediately, within the first generation or two, since even the earliest extrascriptural writings of the Church imply a rejection of Protestant principles — in which case Jesus was wrong when he declared that the gates of hades would never prevail against the Church and that the Holy Spirit would guide her into all truth; or, on the other hand, the Church *didn’t* immediately fall away from the teachings of the Apostles and of Scripture, and only fell into error and corruption with the abuses of the Middle Ages, etc. — which spares one the tragedy of having to renounce all the great Church Fathers as heretics, but ultimately forces one to acknowledge that the principles of the Reformation and Protestant readings of Scripture were never apostolic to begin with, and that the Church of the Church Fathers was Catholic and looks a great deal like the Catholic Church today.

        • When I took my class on Ancient/Early Church History, at the end of the course I had to produce a 30ish page paper that interacted with a specific work from an Early Church Father; I chose Against Heresies by Irenaeus. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience. When it comes to the earliest periods of church history, I’m loathe to use terms like “Catholic/catholic” since there’s a certain anachronistic understanding of history going on, but at the same time, there were some statements from Irenaeus on the authority of Scripture (I want to say somewhere around I.8 and II.28-30, if my memory serves me) that could have come right from the mouths of the Reformers.

          Again, at least to the best of my knowledge, it seemed that the primary point of dispute between Irenaeus and his Gnostic antagonists was that Irenaeus believed that true apostolic tradition couldn’t be purely oral in nature—it had to be verified from the writings of the Apostles. A significant contention, since the Gnostics were claiming to possess an oral tradition from the Apostles which was supplemental to Scripture and immune to the Scriptural tests demanded by Irenaeus. The Bishop of Lyon’s position appeared to me to be that in order for tradition to be authenticated as truly apostolic that tradition had to be documented from Scripture.

          I point this out only to point out that, at least for this Protestant, there is a more than sufficient historical basis for Protestants to appeal to.

          I’d love to have you read through On the Incarnation with me; it would be a whole lot of fun!

          • Sweet! I just ordered the Athanasius, and would love to read it with you. It should be here in a couple of days.

            Regarding Irenaeus: he’s one of my favorites, too, the first to really articulate ideas about authority and tradition. Yes, certainly, “Catholic” as we use it today is anachronistic, but the Church Fathers did all understand their Church to be “universal,” and themselves to be in full communion with all other orthodox Christians. Liberal scholars argue that there was no such thing as “orthodoxy”; that what we call “orthodox” today is only retrospective, an after-the-fact labeling of the victors of doctrinal controversies; but it’s very clear that the early Christians did see their faith as “universal,” as demonstrated by the fact that the Bishop of Antioch (Ignatius) could write letters to churches all along his way to Rome with the understanding that they were brothers of the same faith as he, and that the Bishop of Smyrna (Polycarp) can and did journey to Rome to break bread with the bishop there (according to Eusebius), and the very fact that a disciple of Ephesus (Irenaeus himself) could end up a bishop in Gaul, with the approval, support, and agreement of the Church in Rome. Irenaeus certainly knew heterodoxy when he saw it — deviance from the Christian faith received from the Apostles — and he wrote with the understanding that his readers could see it, too.

            Certainly the Church Fathers held a very high view of Scripture — as the Church always has. It is absolutely authoritative and incontrovertible. But Irenaeus never meant it to be strictly exclusive of all else save its own literal word. The “things unwritten” from which the Gnostics drew their doctrines were sources entirely foreign to Scripture and to Christianity, as Irenaeus outlines in the rest of his work. The charge of “transferring passages, dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another” (I.8.1) could just as well be made by Catholics against Protestants.

            Irenaeus encountered with his heretics the same problem we encounter today, radically divergent interpretations of Scripture between himself and them. The solution to that problem for him was holding Scripture and Tradition together — which the heretics could not do, since their doctrines contradicted both (III.2). Tradition for him was not “things unwritten” from which to draw views in contradiction to Scripture, but the guarantor of the faith having been received, and the key to understanding Scripture. It did not (and does not) contradict Scripture. It is not “purely oral,” but verifies and is verified by Scripture. The Gnostics argued “oral tradition” for their doctrines, too, and not only could they not support them with Scripture, but they had no verifiable lineage of apostolic succession by which to prove it. “For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves” (III.3.1). The only authority by which the orthodox Church could reject those claims, and their claims to alone have the correct interpretation of Scripture contrary to the catholic one, was “by indicating that tradition received from the Apostles,” “the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the succession of bishops,” held by “the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere” (III.3.2).

            So no, Protestant apologists can pick out passages in the Church Fathers that seem to support various views, but reading the full context of the statements usually indicates otherwise. Sola scriptura, as construed to reject any doctrine not stated flatly in Scripture, is not something any of the Church Fathers would have understood. As James White pointed out in the book I read recently—accidentally shooting his whole argument in the foot—the fact that from the beginning of the second century, as indicated by St. Ignatius, the Church held bishop and presbyter to be two separate offices, contrary to the clear word of Scripture (cf. Titus 1:5,7), demonstrates that the early Church never held a Protestant understanding of Scripture.

            So, I look forward to reading Athanasius. I’m not very well versed in the Eastern Fathers. It should be fun. 🙂

      • If more people would take notice of church history they would know that the trinitarian idea has nothing to do with Jesus his teachings, where he preached, believed and prayed only to One Eternal God, Jehovah his Father, who he knew is much greater than he (Jesus).

        • Such a statement flies in the face of Christ’s clear statements that both He and His Father were one, and that He (Christ) was in fact the Bridegroom of Israel, a title reserved for Jehovah alone (cf. Mark 2:19 and Hosea 2:19).

          By way of follow up, allow me to point out to you your need to repent and believe on the Christ revealed in Scripture—the Christ who is in fact of one essence with the Father, and not the Christ of your own devising.

          B.M. Palmer.

  2. Pingback: Christianity without the Trinity | Stepping Toes

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