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Thursday, 7 April 2016

Are Christadelphians Unitarian, Socinian, or something else?

Defining the question
Repudiation of Unitarianism and Socinianism by Dr. John Thomas
Subsequent Christadelphian appropriation of the labels 'Unitarian' and 'Socinian'
External descriptions of Christadelphians in relation to Unitarians and Socinians
Conclusions

First, we need to define what is meant by 'Unitarian' (or 'unitarian'). Cross and Livingstone, in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, provide a good working definition: 'A type of Christian thought and religious observance which rejects the doctrines of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ in favour of the unipersonality of God'.1

In terms of the history of Unitarianism, Cross and Livingstone write, 'Though the unipersonality of God was voiced in the early Church in the various forms of Monarchianism, modern Unitarianism dates historically from the Reformation era.'2 Famous early Unitarians (16th century) include Michael Servetus, George Blandrata and Faustus Socinus (from whose name the term 'Socinianism', synonymous with Unitarianism as a theological concept, is taken). These early Unitarians shared with their orthodox contemporaries a belief in the truth and authority of Scripture.  Although Socinianism was stamped out in Poland by the Counter-Reformation, 'in England, a thin lineage of Socinian thought survived to inspire what would become British Unitarianism in the 18th century.'3

During the 19th century, Unitarianism as a movement became increasingly liberal theologically.4 5 Indeed, this shift is visible already in the writings of the prominent Unitarian Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).6 In the 20th century, the Unitarians in America merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist group, which is extremely liberal and bears little ideological resemblance to the 16th century version of Unitarianism.7

However, pockets of more conservative Unitarians have survived, referring to themselves as 'biblical Unitarians' (or 'biblical unitarians') to distinguish themselves from liberal Unitarians. Biblical Unitarianism is not a religious group as such but a theological label. It has been adopted, in particular, by the Atlanta-based Church of God General Conference, which produces a publication entitled Journal from the Radical Reformation: A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism. A website of the 'Christian Churches of God' carefully distinguishes between the terms 'Radical Unitarian' and 'Biblical Unitarian' and lays claim to the latter designation.

When we ask whether Christadelphians are Unitarian, therefore, we are not asking whether Christadelphians belong to the religion known as Unitarianism (or Unitarian Universalism). We are asking whether Christadelphians are theologically Unitarian, that is, sharing the view of God and Christ that was advocated by Servetus, Blandrata and Socinus, and is advocated by self-professed biblical Unitarians today.


If we look to the writings of Dr. Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphian sect, we find that he expressed strong antipathy toward Unitarianism and Socinianism throughout his whole career as a polemicist. We find statements opposing these theological positions in his pre-Christadelphian writings in The Apostolic Advocate (1834) right up to the publication of Phanerosis, his pamphlet on the nature of God published in 1869, two years before his death. Below is a survey of Dr. Thomas' statements on the matter.

The following was written by Dr. Thomas in 1834, over a decade before his final baptism and founding of the sect that was to become the Christadelphians:
I have been informed that the Clergy among you... have resorted to their old weapons of warfare, and instead of fairly meeting the arguments and testimonies we have laid before you, and candidly and openly refuting them - they have, I say, endeavored to rouse your prejudices, and thus to pervert all equity and right judgment. Instead of opposing the Gospel, we proclaimed to you by reason and Scripture, they have misrepresented us and abused your minds by imposing upon you the false accusation - that we deny the Divinity of the Saviour, and have identified ourselves with Unitarians. Friends! This is a gross slander, a downright falsehood... We maintain all that the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Apostles testify concerning Jesus - we speak of him and his Divine Person in the language of Holy Writ - we worship him as God - we adore him as our Prophet, Priest, King, and Judge - and we ascribe all honor, might, majesty and dominion to Him as our exalted Messiah, Prince, Lord and Saviour for evermore. As for the vain babblings of the Clergy - a class of men puffed up with a conceit of their own importance, and fancied infallibility (we speak now of all Clergy from His Holiness the Pope down to an itinerant preacher) - as to their speculations on Arianism, Trinitarianism, and Unitarianism, or any other ism, we have nothing to do with them, except to expose their fallacy and nonsense: - we find no such words in the whole Bible, and therefore we know there are no such ideas there as they represent - for words are signs of ideas, and where the words are not, sure we are, the ideas are wanting likewise. Our rule is to speak of Bible things in Bible words, and to leave all vain, idle, and untaught questions to the Clergy and the Schools... [such dogmas] are an abomination in the eyes of the Exalted Son of God.8
Almost two decades later, having written Elpis Israel and begun the evangelistic endeavours through which his nascent sect coalesced, Dr. Thomas responded thus to a journalist who referred to his magazine, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, as 'a specimen of low scurrilous Socinianism and Universalism': 
The readers of the Herald well know that its pages are never defaced by Socinianism or Universalism, which, like Calvinism and Arminianism, equally as absurd creeds, are removed from my faith as widely as the poles asunder9
According to Christadelphian historian Peter Hemingray, Dr. Thomas' understanding of the nature of Christ and God was not fully developed until a series of articles written in the Herald in 1857-1859.10 In the midst of this material we find the following:
But the New Man of the Spirit is free, looking searchingly into the perfect law of liberty, and having no respect to "the philosophy and empty delusion," and antitheses of gnosis, or "oppositions of science," falsely so called, in which the flesh delights. He troubles not himself about Trinitarianism, or Antitrinitarianism, Unitarianism, Arianism, or Socinianism. He has no more deference for these than for any other of "the works of the Devil," or for the Old Man himself.11
In 1869, Dr. Thomas published Phanerosis, a pamphlet based on his earlier Herald material that definitively expressed his understanding of the nature of God (which I have briefly critiqued elsewhere). In the preface he wrote thus:
The Author is enabled to present the thinking and truth-seeking portion of the public with this exegesis of the "great mystery," revealed through the Son, and preached by the apostles, but afterwards so grossly perverted by the traditions of the Trinitarians, Arians, and Unitarians, through the liberality of one, who having found "the truth as it is in Jesus," has not only laid fast hold of it, but seeks to introduce it to the notice of others.12
Toward the end of the work, having argued for his doctrine of 'God manifestation', Dr. Thomas summarized:
These things having been demonstrated: much rubbish has been cleared away; Trinitarianism and Unitarianism have both received a quietus. There are not three Gods in the Godhead, nor are there but three in manifestation; nevertheless, the Father is God, and Jesus is God; and we may add, so are all the brethren of Jesus gods; and ‘a multitude which no man can number.’ The Godhead is the homogeneous fountain of the Deity; these other gods are the many streams from which this fountain flow. The springhead of Deity is one, not many; the streams as numerous as the orbs of the universe, in which a manifestation of Deity may have hitherto occurred.13
We can summarize Dr. Thomas' ideas in the above quotations with the following observations:

1. Dr. Thomas' antipathy toward Unitarianism and Socinianism appears to have equaled his antipathy toward Trinitarianism and Arianism: all were described using terms like absurd, nonsense, rubbish, abomination, works of the devil, etc.
2. By essentially condemning all major doctrinal positions on the nature of God and Christ known from Church history, Dr. Thomas implicitly declared that his own position was completely new and unprecedented (although, of course, he thought it was the position of the apostles and prophets of old).
3. Dr. Thomas' objections to Unitarianism were both Christological (in that Unitarianism denied the deity of Christ) and theo-logical (in that Unitarianism denied the notion of many gods streaming from a single fountain-head).

Subsequent Christadelphian appropriation of the labels 'Unitarian' and 'Socinian'

Notwithstanding the strenuous opposition to Socinian and Unitarian theologies by the founder of their sect, the majority of Christadelphians would eventually come to adopt these labels for themselves. Documenting exactly how this shift took place is beyond the scope of this article. One possibility that merits further investigation is that Robert Roberts', by deciding not to include any detailed proposition about the Phanerosis doctrine in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, signaled that this doctrine was not core Christadelphian dogma. This paved the way for subsequent generations to tone down what they increasingly recognized to be an idiosyncratic theological position. The God manifestation concept has not been abandoned by Christadelphians but it is certainly less prominent today and expressed in far milder language than Dr. Thomas' talk of a plurality of Gods.

It is reasonably clear that today, Christadelphians widely self-identify as Unitarians, or more specifically as biblical Unitarians. The very first sentence of the Wikipedia page on Christadelphians declares that the group holds 'a view of Biblical Unitarianism.' If this statement were controversial among contemporary Christadelphian web users, presumably it would have been challenged by now. Similarly, the Wikipedia page on Biblical Unitarianism identifies Christadelphians among the two most visible religious denominations that 'could be identified as "biblical unitarian".' Moreover, in his online debate on the Trinity with Rob Bowman, Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke identifies Christadelphians as 'the largest Biblical Unitarian denomination', distinguishing 'Biblical Unitarians' from two other kinds of Unitarians, namely 'Rationalist Unitarians (who do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God) and Universalist Unitarians (who believe that all people will be saved, regardless of what they believe'. A strict dichotomy between 'Unitarian theology' and 'Trinitarianism' is maintained throughout his argument. There is no hint of Dr. Thomas' rubbishing of both Trinitarianism and Unitarianism in favour of a third alternative.

Similarly, contemporary Christadelphians have embraced the Socinians as their theological forebears. This is particularly evident in Alan Eyre's historiographical works The Protesters and Brethren in Christ, which have enjoyed great popularity within the Christadelphian community. (Interestingly, Eyre suggested that while the 'Polish Brethren' had 'Scriptural' and 'reverent' teachings, Christadelphian theology represented a further advance specifically in its doctrine of God manifestation.) Another Christadelphian writer, Ruth McHaffie, has observed in her book Brethren Indeed? how Christadelphians began in the 1970s, mainly as a result of Alan Eyre's work, to trace their history back beyond Dr. John Thomas to the Anabaptists and the Polish Brethren in particular.14

In a recent pamphlet designed to introduce the Christadelphian community to the public, and hosted on one of the main Christadelphian-run websites, Rob Hyndman15 writes:
The beliefs and practices of the Christadelphians can be traced from the New Testament to the earliest Christians of the 1st and 2nd Centuries in documents such as the Epistle of Clement, The Didache and The Apostles’ Creed. With the advent of religious freedom in Europe in the 16th Century Reformation, the same beliefs and practices resurfaced in Bible-minded groups such as the Swiss Anabaptists and Polish Socinians.16
It is safe to say that the consensus of today's Christadelphians, in marked contrast to the founder of their sect, is to identify themselves as Unitarians in the Socinian tradition. One still finds Christadelphians who reject the label 'Unitarian'. However, this is simply because of the associations of the term with a denial of the virgin birth, a doctrine that Christadelphians dogmatically uphold.17 Such writers might embrace the label 'biblical Unitarian' if they were aware of it. There is scant evidence of contemporary Christadelphians who reject the label 'Unitarian' outright for the same reasons as Dr. Thomas, although strong proponents of his radical God-manifestation doctrine do remain.
Note: the previous paragraph has been edited to remove a reference to a blog post arguing that Christadelphians are not Unitarians. The author may have been a Christadelphian at the time of writing, but he has apparently since left the Christadelphians and is regarded as a disgruntled individual.


Given that the founder of Christadelphians regarded Unitarianism and Socinianism as abominable and yet that contemporary Christadelphians have largely embraced these labels and the concepts they name, it will be no surprise to find that non-Christadelphians, when describing the Christadelphian belief system, differ on whether it is Unitarian or Socinian or neither.

Geach regards the Christadelphians as straightforwardly the continuation of Socinianism:
But Socinianism still continues to exist in its traditional English seat; those who followed the old paths formed a new sect, at first nameless, now called Christadelphians.18
Similarly, Bray describes Christadelphians as a form of unitarianism: 
Another form of unitarianism is Christadelphianism, whose beliefs go back to John Thomas (1805-1871). Christadelphians are more orthodox than Unitarian Universalists are, but like them, they also deny the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.19
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes Christadelphians as a religious sect which 'rejects the doctrine of the Trinity in favour of a Unitarian and Adventist theology.' Christian apologetics website tektonics.org flatly asserts that 'Christadelphians are Unitarians.' Biblical scholar James McGrath uses the term 'Unitarian evangelical churches' to describe the source of some non-trinitarian popular literature he cites that includes a Christadelphian book.20

Other writers demur to call Christadelphians Unitarian. Clementson stresses that 'Christadelphians do not describe themselves as unitarian'.21 Edwards states:
Christadelphians are not therefore Trinitarian, neither are they Unitarian, because they hold to the belief that Jesus was and still is literally the Son of God as the scriptures describe.22
These writers are likely contrasting Christadelphian theology with liberal Unitarianism and may be unaware of the term 'biblical Unitarian' or that many Christadelphians today have embraced it. A more nuanced discussion of whether Christadelphians are Unitarian, Socinian, or something else are found in Bryan Wilson's sociological study of Christadelphians. It is worth quoting him at length:
In referring to the Christadelphians some writers have styled the movement's theology as unitarian, but this designation obscures rather than clarifies the Christadelphian position. Certainly Christadelphianism is avowedly anti-trinitarian, and attacks what it calls the triune God of many Christians. Christadelphians believe in one God, the Father... The designation "unitarian" relates most specifically to the opinion held concerning the nature of Jesus Christ, and the thorough unitarian position is to deny the deity, divinity and pre-existence of Christ. This, however, is not the opinion of Christadelphians, who, whilst they assert that Jesus was a man, also stress that he was the Son of God, begotten of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is understood to have had a like nature to that of mortal man, being himself born of woman and thus a sufferer of the consequence of Adam's transgression - death, which, by Adam's sin, comes to all mankind. But Jesus was also Immanuel, God manifest in the flesh... The nature of Jesus has been a matter of profound contention among Christadelphians, giving rise to a variety of schisms, on the part of those who have stressed his humanity or his divinity. The magnitude of these schisms should not be over-stressed, however, and the position of the Central Fellowship is quite clear. Jesus was born of unclean flesh... Yet it is also emphasised that Jesus possessed a knowledge and discernment beyond those of other men, and was gifted with the limitless power of the Holy Spirit in his life. He was not simply a man, for Deity dwelt in him... The distinction of Christadelphian teaching from a unitarian position is apparent, although it shares much common ground with a Socinian or Arian position, yet with some differences. Christadelphians do not deny the divinity of Jesus, indeed they believe it23
Thus, for Wilson, Christadelphians are neither Unitarian nor Socinian because, despite similarities, they believe in the divinity of Jesus (albeit not in the same sense as Trinitarians).

More recently, Ruth Sutcliffe, has written a theological work which offers a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity in dialogue with Christadelphian, Arian and Unitarian positions. Sutcliffe avers that Christadelphians, 'contrary to some erroneous assertions, are most definitely not Unitarians'.24 Her explanation runs thus:
Although Christadelphians deny the trinitarian understanding of the Godhead, they most certainly affirm that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit and that neither Joseph nor any other man was involved in Jesus' conception.25
It appears that Sutcliffe is using the term Unitarian exclusively for liberal Unitarianism which denies the virgin birth, and not inclusive of the designation 'biblical Unitarian'. However, she elsewhere addresses the question 'Are Christadelphians Socinians?' with considerable erudition. While noting that John Thomas 'denied that the group is Socinian',26 she identifies similarities between Socinian and Christadelphian teaching, such as their shared denial of the Trinity and the pre-existence of Christ. However, after further analysis of Christadelphian sources she concludes:
Despite the similarities with Socinianism, ultimately it seems fruitless to label the Christadelphian position on the Godhead with any other historical, divergent teaching. It is much more appropriate to call it what they themselves call it; the doctrine of "God manifestation," and seek to understand what they actually mean by this.27
This functions as a segue into a discussion of the traditional Christadelphian God manifestation doctrine. Hence, Sutcliffe finds that Christadelphians are not (liberal) Unitarians, and are similar to Socinians but still ought to be regarded as distinct due to their unique ideas about God manifestation.


Our findings may be summarized as follows. First, the term 'Unitarian' is multivalent. It can be used of non-Trinitarians of the Radical Reformation (including the Polish Socinians), the later 18th-century English Unitarian movement which gradually became more rationalistic and liberal in the 19th century, and the extremely liberal Unitarian (Universalist) movement of today. It is also, albeit usually with the prefix 'biblical', used by and of conservative Christians today who maintain the unipersonality of God and deny the pre-existence of Christ.

Second, Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated Unitarianism as well as Socinianism, because he regarded both as incompatible with his understanding of the nature of Christ (since he maintained Christ's divinity, albeit in unorthodox form) and of the nature of God (in which Deity consists of many streams supported by a single fountain-head).

Third, Dr. Thomas' antagonism toward Unitarianism and Socinianism has all but vanished in the Christadelphian community of today. What he regarded as abominable nonsense and works of the devil, they claim as their own. The God-manifestation doctrine still seems to be regarded favourably by many, but unlike its progenitor, contemporary proponents of the doctrine seem to regard it as compatible with Unitarianism.

Fourth, some external literature describes Christadelphians as Unitarian, while others emphasizes that Christadelphians are not such. It seems that the divergence in description is partly due to varying scope for the term 'Unitarian' but also partly due to a failure by some scholars to appreciate the subtle but important theological differences between Christadelphians and all other 'Unitarians', past and present. For similar reasons, some external literature identifies Christadelphians as the continuation of Socinianism, while other literature demurs on this identification.

It is therefore impossible to offer a straightforward answer to the titular question. The founder of the Christadelphians was decidedly neither Unitarian in any sense nor Socinian. Christadelphians later gravitated back toward (biblical) Unitarian and Socinian positions, and many today are happy to apply these labels to themselves. However, the enduring influence of Dr. Thomas' God-manifestation doctrine - more pronounced in some Christadelphian circles than others - means that in substance, Christadelphians are still unique in their understanding of the nature of God and of Christ. Ruth Sutcliffe is right that no historical label fully captures the singularity of Christadelphian theology.

Footnotes

  • 1 Cross, Frank Leslie & Livingstone, Elizabeth A. (Eds.). (2005) Unitarianism. In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, pp. 1671-1672. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1671.
  • 2 ibid. Similarly, Ellwood and Alles: 'Modern Unitarianism began with radical Reformation anti-Trinitarian movements in 16th- and 17th-century Poland and Transylvania' (Ellwood, R.S. & Alles, G.D. (Eds.). (2009). Encyclopedia of World Religions. New York: Infobase Publishing, p. 458).
  • 3 Melton, J.G. (2010). Socinianism. In Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices. New York: ABC-CLIO, p. 2656.
  • 4 As the 19th century wore on, 'a new school of Unitarianism developed, which was anti-supernaturalist...which rejected the uniqueness of Christianity' (Kent, J. (1983). Unitarianism. In The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 591).
  • 5 'Before the end of the 19th cent. Unitarianism in America had become a very liberal or rationalistic movement, accepting scientific methods and ideas and recognizing the truth of non-Christian religions' (Cross & Livingstone, op. cit.)
  • 6 'In sum Priestley's theological thoughts centered on the rejection of Protestant orthodoxy's most important theological positions. He denounced the Trinity as untenable and specifically denied any evidence for the Holy Spirit. He detested the concepts of original sin and the atonement as misunderstandings and corruptions of man's relationship to God. He likewise rejected the virgin birth as a contrived theological fallacy. His views on materialism - the corporeal soul and its resurrection at the time of the second coming - were further rejections of Calvinist interpretations of the end times. Biblical inerrancy, a topic which Priestley approached with subtle distinctions, was most often, when employed by the Protestant majority, an error of reasoning or a misapplication of scripture.' (Bowers, J.D. (2010). Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America. Penn State Press, p. 36)
  • 7 'In the 20th and 21st centuries, some Unitarians no longer call themselves Christians or believers in God but proponents of religious humanism.' (Ellwood and Alles, op. cit.)
  • 8 Thomas, John. (1834). The Apostolic Advocate, Vol. 1, p. 47 (emphasis added). Whether Dr. Thomas would still have declared of Jesus, 'We worship him as God' in his later years is doubtful.
  • 9 Thomas, John. (1853). The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, Vol. 3, p. 150.
  • 10 Hemingray, Peter. (2003). John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith. Christadelphian Tidings, p. 267.
  • 11 Thomas, John. (1858). The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, Vol. 8, p. 16. Reproduced verbatim in Thomas, John. (1869). Phanerosis: An Exposition of the Doctrine of The Old and New Testament Concerning The Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature, p. 11.
  • 12 Thomas, Phanerosis, preface, p. vi.
  • 13 op. cit., p. 39.
  • 14 McHaffie, Ruth. Brethren Indeed, p. 14.
  • 15 The writer has since left the Christadelphian community and become an agnostic.
  • 16 Hyndman, Rob. (1999). The Christadelphians (Brothers and Sisters in Christ): Introducing a Bible-Based Community.
  • 17 For example, one B.M. Johns, in a debate on the Trinity by correspondence, clarified that he was unable to defend the 'Unitarian' position because of its view that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Similarly, on the Antipas Christadelphians website, a writer comments on the Websters Dictionary entry on Christadelphians: 'Since they do not understand our concept of the Godhead, they state that we are like Unitarians.' He objects to this characterization on the grounds that Christadelphians affirm that God the Father, not Joseph, was the father of Jesus.
  • 18 Geach, P.T. (1981). The Religion of Thomas Hobbes. Religious Studies, 17(4), 549-558. p. 553. Elsewhere, Geach writes, 'Socinianism lives on under the new label of Christadelphianism' (Geach, Peter. (1991). A Philosophical Autobiography. In Harry A. Lewis (Ed.), Peter Geach: Philosophical Encounters (pp. 1-25). New York: Springer, p. 21).
  • 19 Bray, Gerald. (2012). God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. Wheaton: Crossway Books, p. 449.
  • 20 McGrath, James F. (2009). The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, p. 130.
  • 21 Clementson, Julian. (2003). The Christadelphians and the Doctrine of the Trinity. Evangelical Quarterly, 75(2), 157-176. Here p. 158.
  • 22 Edwards, Linda. (2001). A Brief Guide to Beliefs: Ideas, Theologies, Mysteries, and Movements. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 422. Similarly, Chryssides describes the Christadelphians as 'non-Trinitarian' but also 'non-Unitarian' since they affirm 'Jesus as God's only begotten Son, who atoned for human sin, not merely as a great teacher and example (Chryssides, George D. (2012). Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, p. 82.)
  • 23 Wilson, Bryan R. (1961). Sects and Society: A Sociological Study of the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science, and Christadelphians. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 222-223.
  • 24 Sutcliffe, Ruth. (2016). The Trinity Hurdle: Engaging Christadelphians, Arians, and Unitarians with the Gospel of the Triune God. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp. 144-145.
  • 25 op. cit., p. 31.
  • 26 op. cit., p. 147.
  • 27 op. cit., p. 148.

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