Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Unitarian Reformers

UNITARIANISM HAS A POWERFUL SIMPLICITY. God is God and man is to obey him. We have argued that the original religion of man was the worship of one Creator-God who was approached on the basis of animal sacrifice. For the purpose of this chapter we will define Unitarianism as a stress on God as Creator and Lord without the sacrificial element of biblical Theism. This means that man stands directly before God in his own righteousness. Since Unitarianism requires no animal sacrifice, or priests, or saviour, it has great theological simplicity. It is usually strongly ethical with a few simple rules of conduct, and there is often, but not necessarily, a last judgment based on man's obedience. Unitarianism always stresses the brotherhood of men before God against all caste and priestly differences. In chapter 10 we shall examine the philosophical implications of the Trinity and the oneness of God. Here our task is only to look at the history of unitarian religious movements.

The first great Unitarian known to us is Zoroaster (c. sixth century BC, but dates uncertain). Some of his followers contrasted the opposition between God and the devil to such an extent that Western scholars often assumed that Zoroastrianism was dualistic, with God and the devil as two eternal principles. It now seems more probable that Zoroaster had the same view of God and the world as the book of Genesis, with the devil as a created being in rebellion against God. What makes Zoroaster a Unitarian is the fact that he opposed the ancient Persian priesthood and the sacrificial worship which they conducted, and he had no place for animal sacrifice in his theology. He did retain the sacrificial fire, which he used as a centre of worship, but it would be incorrect to call Zoroaster himself a fire-worshipper. As we shall find with all unitarian religion, priests were no longer required, and early Zoroastrianism was a laymen's movement similar in character to Islam and later Judaism.

We need not discuss the sources of Zoroaster's Monotheism. We have only the barest outline of his life, and the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta,[1] were collected at least 700 years after the death of the founder. It is certainly significant that Zoroaster was a Mede, and he must therefore have known the Israelites from the northern kingdom who were settled 'in the cities of the Medes' (2 Kings 17:6). He lived more than a century after Isaiah. Ezekiel preached to the nearby exiles during his childhood, and he was a contemporary of Daniel. It is certainly hard to believe that Israel's Monotheism had no influence on him. Like Muhammad twelve centuries later, he took the simple ethical Monotheism which he could understand, and forged it into an instrument to purify the decadent religion of his people. Like the Arabs of Muhammad, the Medes and Persians were electrified into nationhood and world conquest. In 539 BC, within fifteen years of Zoroaster's death, Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian Empire, and the Persian Empire flourished for 200 years.

As in India, there was a long-drawn-out struggle between the reforming, casteless, lay, Zoroastrian movement and the old, priestly religion of the Magi. It is interesting that about 485 BC, half-way between the battles of Marathon (490 BC) and Salamis (480 BC) against Greece, there was a rebellion of the followers of the older religion against Zoroastrianism. By 404 BC, Zoroastrianism had lost its power and the Magi priestcraft and Polytheism were re-established by Artaxerxes II. The Persian Empire then continued to decline until it was toppled by the easy advance of Alexander from Macedon to the plains of India. The rise and fall of the Persian Empire seems as closely connected to its unitarian faith as the Arab Empire was the result of the early simplicity of Islam.

It is not often realized by Christians in the West that during the first 300 years after Christ the Christian church expanded very rapidly across Persia[2] to India and even into China. One reason was that since Rome was persecuting the Christians the Persians felt the Christians must be their allies. As Christian churches multiplied, a second Persian Empire arose under the Sassanian dynasty. Obviously in reaction to Christian teaching, Zoroastrianism was resurrected and made into a state religion. The old Magi priesthood incorporated Zoroaster's teaching into their system, and they gathered Persian traditions, hymns, and Zoroastrian Unitarianism into the Avesta. This religious mixture must have been as confusing to the Persian Christians as Neo-Platonism was to the third-century Roman Christians. When Constantine turned Christian, the Persians naturally decided that it was now time to persecute the religion adopted by the Roman emperor. As a result, when the persecution of Christians in the West ceased, the Persian Christians then faced two centuries of equally brutal oppression. We know that 400 Of these persecuted Persian Christians came to seek religious freedom among the Christians of South India in the fifth century. Three centuries later it was the turn of Zoroastrian refugees from Islam to seek asylum in India, and they continue to this day as the Parsis, a small but prosperous remnant of the faith of Zoroaster in a world which has forgotten him.

This brings us to Islam, the greatest and most influential of all unitarian movements. Muhammad (AD 570-632) seems to have been a genuine seeker after God who hated the corrupt superstitions and idolatries which weakened his people. He heard about the one Creator-God from Jewish and Christian traders, but as he was illiterate and the Christians ignorant, his understanding of the Bible was limited. He did have, however, a thorough grasp of the basic propositions of unitarian teaching. There is one God, he made man, and man is responsible to serve him; there will be a day of reckoning with rewards and punishments according to man's deserts. Muhammad established a most impressive casteless lay brotherhood, which has continued for 1,500 years. This simple, clear-cut ethical Monotheism gave a courageous vitality to his people, and the Arab armies advanced relentlessly. Jerusalem fell in AD 638, the monks and ignorant priests of North African Christianity offered no opposition, Spain fell by 715, and only a more vigorous European Christianity was able to stop the advance at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Meanwhile, to the East, the Muslim advance overthrew the second Persian Empire by about AD 700. To the sorely pressed Persian Christians, Islam seemed the answer to their prayers. The vicious Magi priests were massacred, and the new rulers believed in the same Creator-God, accepted Jesus Christ as a great prophet, and even said he was born of a virgin and destined to return and judge the world. How many Western Christians would be able to differentiate Islam's unitarian theology from their own faith? The tragedy was that Henry Martyn's Persian New Testament came 1,800 years too late to give these churches the spiritual food they required to stand against Islam.

Similarly, the Christians in India had to use Syriac Scriptures, as no translation of the Bible into any Indian vernacular was made until Lutheran missionaries arrived in the eighteenth century. Muslim forces began invading North India in the tenth century, and by 1206 a Muslim emperor was established in Delhi. Previous to that time, travellers to India reported Christian churches and even minor Christian Rajas (kings), but we can understand how easily the Bible-less Indian Christians conformed to the invading religion which seemed so close to their own.

Our next unitarian movement appears in India, partly as a result of the Muslim advance and the resultant confusion of religions in the country. Nanak (1469-1539) was the founder of the Sikhs, who are a small but aggressive group of people noticeable in business all over the world with their turbans and neatly set beards. He learned to look for unity in religions from the songs of a Muslim weaver named Kabir (1440-1518). Whereas Kabir had stressed the devotion to God of the Bhakti school,[3] Nanak was much more strongly ethical. Though Sikhism retained a view of God which is partly monistic, and also the Hindu view of reincarnation, its whole ethos is definitely unitarian. There is the same stress on a casteless, lay religion without any element of world and life negation. Though God is more intimately related to his creation than in Judaism and Islam, he is considered as the Creator who is to be obeyed. The few simple ethical rules of Sikhism are similar to Islam, though they have traditionally been bitter enemies. Within 200 years, Sikhism under the tenth Guru (teacher), Govind Rai (1675-1708), had become a powerful military order which used the sword to defend and spread the faith.

Before turning to Unitarianism in Christianity and Judaism, we must briefly notice some other movements which have the same basic characteristics. In India, Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) had been influenced by the Serampore missionaries, Carey, Marshman and Ward. He loved Christian ethics but could not accept a full trinitarian doctrine, so he naturally gravitated to a unitarian position. Since his time there has been a growing number of educated Hindus who believe in a Creator-God, deny the need for a saviour or a sacrifice, and stress a system of ethics and the brotherhood of man in the unitarian tradition. In South India there is a strong Dravidian religious movement, known by the initials DMK, which opposes the Brahmin priests, and holds a basically unitarian view of God combined with a political and social emphasis. As we shall see in the next chapter, Japanese Shinto has absorbed sects of every theological position. The earliest which might be called unitarian is the Konko Kyo, established by Kawate Bunjiro (18l4-83). He was certainly unitarian in his view of God, though his emphasis was more on health for the body and mind through filial trust in a Father God. As a result of missionary preaching, visits to the West, and much reading of German theology, there is a considerable number of educated Japanese who are unitarian in their view of God and ethical emphasis. I would like to include the powerful new political movement called Soka Gakkai as unitarian. Many of its characteristics are similar, and quite unlike Buddhism which is what it claims to be. An opinion as to its doctrine of God will, however, have to wait till the theology of the sect has had time to mature.

So far we have dealt with Unitarianism outside the Christian church. Obviously we can expect Christians also to be tempted along lines which seem so simple compared with the difficult doctrines of the Trinity and the Atonement. As we shall see in chapter 10, the biblical view of the death of Christ as the fulfilment of the Old Testament sacrifices requires the full Deity of Jesus Christ to give it meaning. The Christian Unitarian inevitably makes Christ into an exceptional man somewhat less than fully God. The cross becomes an impressive example rather than a propitiatory sacrifice connected with man's sin. He stresses the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of men, and the need for obeying some ethical principles.

Our earliest example in the church is Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, in the middle of the third century. He initiated two centuries of bitter controversy concerning the Person of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. These discussions eventually died out with the universal acceptance of the Nicene Creed, which none dared openly question for over 1,000 years. In the fifth century, Pelagius, who came from Britain but taught in Rome, seems to have been a Unitarian at heart. He did not attack the doctrine of the Trinity or the Deity of Christ directly, but he denied the need for the crucifixion as a sacrifice for sin, since man could be sinless before God in his own right. Since man could by his own efforts be like Christ, Christ was inevitably no more than the best of men. True Unitarianism reappears with the Socinians at the time of the Reformation, and it has never lacked vocal representatives to this day. In the eighteenth century there were the English Deists, in the nineteenth century the American Unitarians took the lead, followed by the German theologians, and now our twentieth-century Modernists.

We must conclude our survey with the greatest enigma of all, the Unitarianism Of modern Judaism. As Jesus Christ was preached in the synagogues of the Jewish Dispersion, every synagogue, and every individual Jew, had to make a momentous decision. Since Abraham, their religion had been monotheistic, but it had also been centred on the animal sacrifices which the patriarchs practised and Moses codified. Now it was suggested that all these sacrifices were fulfilled in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth when the Roman soldiers crucified him. He was apparently one of the divine Persons who said 'Let us make man in our own image', the Yahveh of the Old Testament, the expected Messiah, and also the suffering Lamb of God spoken of by Isaiah. Worst of all, he was the one who was now engaged in bringing the despised Gentiles to the light of Israel. A large number of Jews became the first leaders of the Christian church, which continued as the new Israel. The remainder separated themselves from Christ's Messianic mission to the Gentiles, and they became Unitarians.

As they had rejected their destiny and rejected their Messiah, God did not permit them to continue their sacrificial system. After forty years of grace in which to choose, Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 and. several attempts to restore sacrificial worship failed as if by the hand of God. The non-Christian Jews were then tossed around the nations of the world for 1,900 years in the strangest event of religious history. They continued as a race, though after the time of Christ they lost the genealogies which were the only proof of their ancestry. They continued to pay lip-service to the law of Moses, though none of them was able to perform the sacrifices which were an essential part of it. They looked for a Messiah, though Jesus Christ was doing among the Gentiles exactly what the prophets had prophesied the Messiah would do. They believed in God, though his wrath was persistently cruel and every short period of prosperity was followed by brutal expropriation, The climax of these woes is only too horribly recent, as six million of eighteen million Jews were exterminated in a massacre unparalleled in the history of the world. Nor can history give any other example of a people maintaining their identity for 1,900 years though divided among dozens of different nations and languages.

In 1948 a small proportion of the world's remaining Jews became a recognized nation by receiving part of the land promised to Abraham nearly 4,000 years before. What can we expect as the future of this unusual people? Obviously their history is even less likely to end than in the past. They are strangely opposed by the Arabs who are closest to them in race, and astonishingly close in their unitarian religion. Both Orthodox Jews and Arabs believe in the same God of Abraham, and they agree concerning the major prophets, the future judgment, and a large number of laws and practices. Among their intellectuals a big proportion doubt the applicability of their Scriptures to the modern world, and many even dispense with any practical faith in God.

One of the most significant changes among the Jews is the ever-increasing respect they now give to the Person of Jesus Christ. Half a century ago many Jews would have hated the very mention of his name. Now he is recognized as one of the greatest of Jews. Whereas large numbers of Christians are well into Unitarianism as we have defined it, a Jewish writer like Sholem Asch can write about Paul, and Jesus, and Mary, in a way rarely equalled by Christians. The organization and practice, and now even the preaching, of many synagogues and churches is becoming surprisingly similar. The Old Testament is still the fountainhead of Jewish literature, but Jews now often read Bibles printed with Old and New Testaments, and many find their unity fascinating. Thinking Jews who know their Scriptures find it hard to explain what the expected Messiah could do which Jesus has not already done. If this movement continues one might expect a growing proportion of Jews who accept a Christian view of the Messiah, but this might not require a separation from their synagogue and culture. Already in Israel and in other countries there are Jews who are unitarian in their view of God, others are atheistic, humanistic, or monistic, or more traditionally ritualistic, according to the religious options in chapter 3. We have to admit that a similar spectrum of religious views and life-styles is found in Christendom, and one suspects that it is developing rapidly among the Russian intellectuals. It is meaningless to speak of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Communism as homogeneous systems of thought for vast numbers of people. It is more realistic to think of a free choosing of religious 'ways' right across the boundaries of the old national religions.

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1. D. F. A. Bode and P. Nanavutty (translators), Songs of Zarathustra (Allen and Unwin, 1952).

2. Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Pelican, 1964), pp. 94-96.

3. See p. 44.

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