2007-04-25

Restoring or Distorting Christianity?

[The following is a letter written to some hokey heretics who run a website called http://restoringchristianity.com. Their ideas stem from a familiar hyper-protestant assumption that they are "restoring" the "true Church" after it has been corrupted for 19 centuries. This, of course, assumes that God allowed His Church to be lost for nearly 2000 years without doing anything until he raised up this new group to restore everything! Anyway, the three keys to the website are:

1. They claim there is no Trinity, Jesus is not God, and the only God is the Father. But, if you wonder why Trinitarianism makes sense (and they don't!), and why Jesus is God, read CS Lewis "Mere Christianity", Peter Kreeft's "Handbook of Christian Apologetics", Thomas Oden's "Systematic Theology", Athanasius' "On the Incarnation", and Augustine's "De Trinitatae".


2. They claim that salvation is conditional, and we must be baptized into Christ to be saved. But, of course, one may ask: How would baptism save us if Christ is not divine, since we are being included in Him? It would seem that only God could save us and bring us to God, and if Christ is not God, he is a created being like us who needs to be saved just as we do.
3. They claim that their anti-Trinitarianism is a new idea, and unknown for most of Church History. This is utterly bogus too. Read on to find out more!

So, I wrote this letter to mock their assumptions, in a tone which makes it sound like I approve of them. Everything here is tongue-in-cheek. But note, I never actually use words of approval. I wonder if they will catch on…]


Welcome to the club!

It looks like you have found what I like to call the "open secret": The belief that Jesus is not a god, much less "the God". So many have often wondered why simple-minded Christians (and many with much more intellectual firepower) would want to affirm such a complex and paradoxical doctrine.

As you have so shrewdly noted, we must allow our pure reason and logic to govern our interpretation of the Scriptures, and allow no conceptions of God which are not fully comprehendible within the bounds of individual, personal reason at all. We are individuals made in God's image- the image of a solitary, single individual Mind- and therefore we cannot allow any so-called community, tradition, or other human invention to impede our rational progress. It is obvious to all enlightened people that this is the only way.

Thus, we were quite obviously made to stand alone as solitary individuals before God, with our chief test in life to comprehend and assent to Truth as God has propositionally revealed His Truth in Scripture. There is no higher purpose for humankind than the rational apprehension of, and application of, propositional Truth! We shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set us free!

So, I am quite excited you have unshackled yourself from the chains of all tradition, community, and the so-called historical development of Christian doctrine. In fact, this leads to my critique of your website:

You claim that what you present is the "minority" position in Christian history. You also demonstrate a somewhat limited knowledge of the facts of history. Why sell yourself short? Why sell human intellect and intuition short?

If you will, let me instruct you on some historical facts about the belief in one unitary God, as opposed to a Trinity, and why this may be the majority view of God, not a minority.

First of all, it is clear that the Jews believed in a single, simple Divine Unity. Whether through human reason alone, or through borrowing from the Jews, the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Artistotle believed in Divine Unity too. In fact, Islam can be seen as a misguided attempt to restore Divine Unity from the paradoxical concept of the Trinity.

Secondly, I would argue that Divine Unity has either been a strong minority, or actual majority, belief within Christianity for it's entire History, especially within its self-proclaimed Intellectually Enlightened followers.

During the first few centuries, belief in Divine Unity was expressed among a number of movements that later were deemed "heretical". Gnostics, Dynamic Monarchians, Adoptionists, Ebionites, Manichees, and a host of other Christian groups that were eventually declared outside of "the Church" held views similar to, or identical to, Divine Unity. For a biased but useful sketch of such movements, check out Irenaeus' five books of "Against Heresies" (Adversus Haereses),

The Biblical scholar and theologian Arius let the cat out of the bag and openly declared Divine Unity in the 300's. Contrary to your [mis]reading of history, Arius almost took the day and defeated the arch-Trinitarian bishop Athanasius. Most of the Roman Emperors of the fourth century were smart enough to realize the practical wisdom of Divine Unity, and tried to suppress the Trinity doctrine any way they could, and get rid of the Nicene Creed. Even the great Empweror Constantine and his friend bishop Eusebius held views similar to Divine Unity.

Throughout the middle ages, many thinkers and groups held views of Divine Unity. These people were ruthlessly dealt with by capital punishment and even by open warfare (in some Crusades and the Inquistion). Groups that held views like Divine Unity include the Albigenses, Cathari, and Bogomiles. Unitarianism grew nonetheless in certain areas, notably Spain, until the condemnation of Felix of Urgel by the Frankish Church in A.D. 799. Since these groups and thinkers were so ruthlessly dealt with, we do not have any idea what their extent was. However, we do know there were enough of them to demand a seven year crusade to stamp out the Albigenses.

As an organized movement Unitarianism, first in Poland and Hungary, dates from the Anabaptists of the Reformation, but not until recently have there been Unitarian denominations. It was revived in the Reformation period and was most obvious among Socinians. It spread particularly in Poland and Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and later in England and America.

Prominent anti-Trinitarian proponents were Girgio Blandrata, Francis David, Michael Servetus, Fausto Sozzini, and John Biddle. Servetus died at the stake for his views, but others fared better. In Poland the physician Blandrata dominated the early phases of the movement until 1563. In 1565, Polish Unitarians were excluded from the Reformed Church, but created their own “Minor Church” and issued the Unitarian Racovian Catechism in 1605. After the death of Sozzini (1604) they lost influence. In 1638 Jesuits took over their college, and in 1658 Unitarians were expelled from Poland.

Meanwhile Blandrata had gone to Hungary and won his monarch John Sigismund to anti-Trinitarianism. David was made Unitarian bishop in 1568, but had troubles after the king’s death, and died in the dungeon. Although harassed by the government, Unitarians created a common confession in 1638, and later were recognized.

English Unitarianism is traced to John Biddle, although no separate congregation existed until Theophilus Lindsey formed Essex Chapel, London. Joseph Priestley ministered to Unitarian congregations in Leeds and later Birmingham before a mob destroyed his chapel and his belongings. In 1794 he went to the United States and formed a church at Northumberland, Pennsylvania. English Unitarians were recognized by law in 1813; the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed in 1825; and in 1881 the national conference was created.

Alongside of this is he development of English Deism, which holds a doctrine of Divine Unity and actually boasted having many (if not most) of the English clergy and university professors during the 17th-19th centuries, although most could not be "open" about their Deistic views because English Law demanded adherence to Trinitarianism if they were to hold clerical positions or professorships.

Isaac Newton, who had Deistic leanings, had begun to unlock the secrets of the universe, while John Locke peered into the human mind. Locke’s "Reasonableness of Christianity" (1695) was a spur to the rationalization of the Christian faith, and it is implicitly anti-Trinitarian, although though he disavowed claims of Deists to be following his lead.

As early as 1624 Lord Herbert of Cherbury had taught that all religions had five basic ideas in common and denied the need for revelation. In 1696 John Toland published "Christianity not Mysterious", and Matthew Tindal produced the most competent exposition of this natural religion in "Christianity as old as the Creation" (1730). Both of these books highlight the idea that Divine Unity is the most rationalistic form of religious belief, and the type of religious belief most universally known to enlightened people.

And, back on the continent in Germany and France, the ideals of Divine Unity took over early, and all but wiped out Trinitarian belief by the mid-1800's. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and theologians like Fredereich Schleirmacher, were very successful in pointing out how irrational belief in the Trinity was, and how it needed to be re-interpreted at worst, abandoned at best. In fact, the State Church of the Nazis taught a form of Divine Unity developed from German rationalism.

But the most successful Unitarian church body has been in the USA. Prominent Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin held anti-Trinitarian ideas. The first Unitarian congregation—King’s Chapel, Boston—was formed out of the oldest Episcopal parish in America when the rector, James Freeman, ignored references in the Book of Common Prayer to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. American Unitarianism developed in the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. More recently, Jehovah's Witnesses have developed and thrived from an essentially Unitarian theology.

So, far from being a hidden idea, or a minority opinion, I would argue that what you espouse on your website is at least one form of regular, garden variety Religion (if not THE form).

So congratulations on going where the natural human mind takes you: To a non-divine, non-mysterious, non-problematic Jesus Christ. You are now just like everyone else who denies that Jesus is YHWH (i.e. Lord). Perhaps your streamlined, rationalized faith will lead you to greater self-esteem, more self-reliance, and liberation from the bondage of classical Christianity. And may providence direct you as you seek to "restore Christianity", and may God reward you according to what your doctrine deserves.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.