Unitarianism as a theology is the belief in the single personality of God, in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity (three persons in one God). Unitarianism as a movement is based on this belief, and, according to its proponents, is the original God-concept of Christianity.
The unitarians believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. Adhering to strict monotheism, they maintain that Jesus was a great man and a prophet of God, perhaps even a supernatural being, but not God himself. They believe Jesus did not claim to be God, nor did his teachings hint at the existence of a triune God. These unitarians believe in the moral authority, but not necessarily the divinity, of Jesus. Their theology is thus distinguishable from the theology of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal and other Christian denominations which hold the Trinity doctrine as a core belief.
The term "Unitarian" (with an upper case "U") usually refers to the liberal branch of this theology, but the term "unitarian" (lower case "u") is sometimes used descriptively to refer to anyone adhering to the teaching of the single personhood of God.
Conservative (Biblical or Evangelical) unitarians strictly adhere to the principle of sola scriptura and their belief that the Bible is both inspired and inerrant and uphold "fundamentals" of belief. They generally hold similar beliefs to most other evangelical Christians, apart from their rejection of the Trinity doctrine. This version of unitarianism is more commonly called Nontrinitarianism, rather than Unitarianism. There are some nontrinitarians who, while holding God to be a single person, perceive Jesus to be God himself, and therefore they do not fall into the "unitarian" category at all, which rejects the idea of Jesus as God. Instead see: Sabellianism, Oneness theology, Oneness Pentecostalism, Monarchianism, Binitarianism, The New Church.
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With regard to Unitarianism proper (the liberal variety), there are common traits to be found, apart from the rejection of the Trinity doctrine. Although there is no specific authority on these convictions, the following represent the most generally accepted:
Unitarians sum up their faith as "the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus." Historically, they have encouraged unorthodox views of God, Jesus, the world and purpose of life as revealed through reason, scholarship, science, philosophy, scripture and other prophets and religions. They believe that reason and belief are complementary and that religion and science can co-exist and guide them in their understanding of nature and God. They also do not enforce belief in creeds or dogmatic formulas. Although there is flexibility in the nuances of belief or basic truths for the individual Unitarian Christian, general principles of faith have been recognized as a way to bind the group in some commonality. Adherents generally accept religious pluralism and find value in all teachings, but remain committed to their core belief in Christ's teachings. Liberal Unitarians value a secular society in which government stays out of religious affairs. Most contemporary Unitarian Christians believe that one's personal moral convictions guide one's political activities, and that a secular society is the most viable, just, and fair society.
Unitarian Christians generally do not believe that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin, or that he performed miracles to the extent reported in the Gospels. In theological Unitarianism, the most weight regarding the accounts of Jesus, his character, and his life is found in the four canonical Gospels (Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John). Other sources of information about Jesus, including newly discovered Gospels that were not included in the original canon of the Bible (e.g. Nag Hammadi Library), are also generally accepted.
Unitarian Christians reject the doctrine of some Christian denominations that God chooses to redeem or save only those certain individuals that accept the creeds of, or affiliate with, a specific Church or religion, from a common ruin or corruption of the mass of humanity. They believe that righteous acts are necessary for redemption, not faith alone.
Unitarians are not to be confused with coherents of the United Church of Christ, the Unity Church, the Universal Life Church, the Unification Church, the United Church of Canada, or the Uniting Church in Australia. In the United States, "Unitarian" is sometimes used as a shortened way of referring to present-day believers in Unitarian Universalism. However, not all members of the Unitarian Universalist Association are actually theological Unitarians.
The term "Unitarian" has been applied both to those who belong to a Unitarian church and to those who hold a Unitarian theological belief. A century ago, this would not have made much of a difference, but today it is a distinction that needs to be made. Here, Unitarianism as a theology is referred to as simply Unitarianism, while those who belong to a Unitarian Church (and most specificially, a church that is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association) are referred to as Unitarian Universalists.
Unitarian theology is distinguishable from the belief system of modern Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships in multiple countries. This is because over time, some Unitarians and many Unitarian Universalists have moved away from the traditional Christian roots of Unitarianism. For example, in the 1890s the American Unitarian Association began to allow non-Christian and non-theistic churches and individuals to join their fellowship.
As a result, people who held no Unitarian belief began to be called "Unitarians," simply because they were members of churches that were a part of the American Unitarian Association. Soon, the non-theistic members outnumbered the theological Unitarians. A similar, though proportionally much smaller, phenomenon has taken place in the Unitarian churches in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries, which remain more theistically based.
Unitarianism can very loosely be grouped into two categories. Both teach that God is one being and one "person"—the one Jesus called "Our Father", and that Jesus is the (or a) Son of God, but generally not God himself. However, they differ in their details.
The Son of God is a pre-existent being, the Logos who dwelt with God in the beginning and then was born as the man Jesus. However, he is not eternal, and therefore had a beginning of existence. This theology is commonly called Arianism, but there are many varieties of this form of Unitarianism, ranging from the belief that the Son, before he came to earth, was a holy spirit of the same nature as God to the belief that he was an angel or other lesser spirit creature of a wholly different nature from God, and Arius' views represent only one variation of this theology. Whatever the case, in this belief system, Jesus is below to God, but above humans (and has always been so). This concept is sometimes referred to as "elevated subordinationism." Since the 19th century, several Evangelical or Revivalist movements adopted an elevated subordinationist belief (best described as Nontrinitarianism, rather than Unitarianism).
This theology ranges from the belief that Jesus was only a great man filled with the Holy Spirit (sometimes called Psilanthropism or, more commonly, Socinianism) to the belief that he is the embodiment of God's impersonal Logos. In modern day, we see the psilanthropist view manifested in Rationalist Unitarianism, which emerged from the German Rationalism and the liberal theology of the 19th century. Its proponents took a highly scientific and humanistic approach to religion, rejecting most of the miraculous events in the Bible (including the virgin birth.) They embraced evolutionary concepts, asserted the "inherent goodness of man", and abandoned the doctrine of biblical infallibility. Rationalist Unitarianism is distinguished from Deism—with which it nevertheless shares many features—by its belief in a personal deity who directly acts on creation, while Deists see God as holding aloof from creation.
Unitarianism, both as a theology and as a denominational family of churches, was first defined and developed within the Protestant Reformation, although theological ancestors may be found as far back as the early days of Christianity.
In recent years there has been a relatively small, though significant, growth in groups with a specifically Unitarian Christian outlook and ethos. Two examples of this trend are the Congregazione Italiana Cristiana Unitariana (Italy) and Bét Dávid Unitarian Association (Norway). There are also reports of succesful development of Unitarian Christian groups in African countries such as Burundi. A number of these groups are joining the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, either as Emerging Groups or as Associates, as they gain a solid organizational structure.
The adoption of Unitarian belief almost always leads to severance of identification with "Christianity" as it is formulated in the creeds of the Nicene and pre-Chalcedonian churches (Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestants). Unitarianism is not included in the fellowship of these traditions. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant creeds of various varieties insist on trinitarian belief as an essential of Christianity and basic to a group's continuity of identity with the historical Christian faith.
However, occasionally, particularly in Protestant history, traditionally trinitarian groups grow friendly to, or incorporate, unitarianism. Friendliness toward unitarianism has sometimes been considered synonymous with anti-Catholicism. In some cases nontrinitarian or unitarian belief has been adopted by some, and tolerated in Christian churches as a "non-essential". This was the case in the English Presbyterian Church, and in the Congregational Church in New England in the late 18th century. The Restoration Movement also attempted to forge a compatible relationship between Trinitarians and Unitarians, as did the Seventh Day Baptists and various Adventists. The Seventh Day Baptists held Unitarian Doctrines in their International Conference but became Trinitarians in the US. The Adventists were Unitarians on a worldwide basis until the death of Uriah Smith in 1931. From that date they were overtaken slowly by Trinitarians. They formally became Trinitarians as late as 1978. The Unitarian tendency in these last-mentioned groups came from their original theology and a complete rejection of the Catholic explanation and acceptance of Trinitarianism and the Trinitarian Christian tradition of interpretation.
In some cases, this openness to unitarianism within traditionally trinitarian churches has been inspired by a very broad motive. Modern liberal Protestant denominations are often accused by trinitarians within their ranks, and critics outside, of being indifferent to the doctrine, and therefore self-isolated from their respective trinitarian histories and heritage. In some cases, it is held that these trinitarian denominations are no longer Christian, because of their toleration of unitarian belief among their teachers, and in their seminaries.
At a local level, many Unitarian Christian groups—and individual Unitarian Christians—have links with tolerant congregations affiliated with the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Unity Church. Indeed, some argue that they feel more at home within these denominations than Unitarian-Universalism. A small fraction of Unitarian Christians also have links with Progressive Christianity.
Despite the close friendship and shared heritage that exists between adherents to Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Christianity, there is an element within Unitarian Universalism that opposes specifically Unitarian Christian groups, believing them to be exclusive and intolerant of non-Christian belief. Likewise, some Unitarian Christians also believe that Unitarian Universalists are intolerant of Christian belief and tend to marginalize Christians.
The American Unitarian Conference is open to non-Christian Unitarians—being particularly popular with non-Christian theists and deists. In addition, the Bét Dávid Unitarian Association (Norway) has created positive and mutual friendships with Jewish groups.
An important point to note is the shared belief that exists between Unitarian Christians and their Muslim, Jewish and Sikh counterparts, who all adhere to strict monotheism. This common ground may form the basis of future friendship.