Were the early Christians unitarians?

I’ve actually been enjoying a series of blog articles by Dale Tuggy at trinities. Tuggy’s argument is that the Ante-Nicene Fathers were unitarians, not trinitarian. He offers this definition of an Abrahamic unitarian: “someone who believes that the one God just is (i.e. is numerically identical to) a certain self, namely YHWH, and not to any other self.” A Christian unitarian is thus someone “who accepts [that] this one true God’s Messiah is the man Jesus.”

Tuggy believes that with the rise of trinitarian faith in the fourth century, as articulated by Athanasius and the Cappadocians, and the suppression of the older subordinationism a virtually new religion was created. Needless to say, Orthodox and Catholic Christians will find this proposal implausible. We believe that the Christian faith as lived in the Church has always been trinitarian, despite the failure of theologians in the second and third centuries to express this faith clearly, accurately, fully. It was not an easy thing for the Church to Christianize Hellenism, or to put it somewhat differently, it was not an easy thing for Hellenists to learn how to be, think, and pray Christian.

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15 Responses to Were the early Christians unitarians?

  1. Philip says:

    He apparently doesn’t realize that the monarchy of the Father is the foundation of, rather than an obstalce to, classical orthodox trinitarianism, as expressed at Nicaea.

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  2. Jonathan Prejean says:

    I find it hard to understand the difficulty in distinguishing “unitarian” and “subordinationist.” To say that they are the same is to say that there is no difference between the highest created thing and a kind of “lesser divinity.” The latter is a theological error, to be sure, but the former is an absolute denial of what must be affirmed.

    That’s not to suggest that Arians were not following on Origenist subordinationism; many were. But to say there isn’t a difference in kind between the two or that Origen himself was neutral between them just seems wrong.

    I’ve read Maurice Wiles’s Archetypal Heresy, which makes a very similar argument, and it seems to be just flat wrong for the same reasons. I understand the need to be charitable, but one also can’t be charitable to the point of ignoring what the authors themselves actually meant. On that standard, I think the Arians were, in fact, Arian,,and their references to “lesser divinity” were simply efforts to fit themselves into a prior subordinationist tradition that fundamentally contradicted them.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I do not understand how one can be a unitarian and yet believe in “lesser” divinities, as Irenaeus and Origen allegedly did. Sounds like polytheism to me, don’t you think? But I don’t for a moment believe that Irenaeus or Origen were polytheists. It seems far more plausible to me that they were trinitarians who were struggling, and somewhat failing, to find the appropriate conceptuality in which to express their trinitarianism.

      For the life of me, I do not understand why anyone would want to be a unitarian, according to Tuggy’s definition. Atheism seems far more attractive. If Jesus is not one substance with the Father, why bother?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I might also add: there is a very serious hermeneutical problem here. Evidently, folks over at *trinities* believe that the “plain” witness of the New Testament should be treated as authoritative, yet it is the very same Church that confessed the New Testament as canonical that also confessed God as Holy Trinity. If one does not want to interpret the Bible through the trinitarian hermeneutic of Nicaea, why bother with it at all? After all, neither the Old nor New Testaments fell from the sky. I find it odd that evangelicals would want to argue for a Christian unitarianism on the basis of the New Testament.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tuggy, like many others, interpret St Irenaeus as a unitarian subordinationist. But see this recent doctoral dissertation: The Trinitarian Theology of Irenaeus of Lyons.

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  4. Jeremy says:

    As part of my journey into the Orthodox faith, I got the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection of writings and have been reading through them the best I can. I’ve read most of the first volume, which was the most important to me since it is the earliest writings. My thought was: if the Orthodox claim to be the ancient church, then I’m going to find out for myself what the ancient church looks like. I’ve now started the catechumen process, which tells you where I’ve landed with that.

    I’m not sure how you can read the writings of guys like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, or Irenaeus and not see Trinitarian beliefs. The development was a bit primitive in those doctrines, but they are definitely visible. If anyone disagrees, they can read Dialogue with Trypho. Justin brilliantly uses Old Testament scripture to prove the divinity of Christ. I was quite impressed.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jeremy, I guess Tuggy & Co. would tell us that we are reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers through the trinitarian grammar that the Church adopted after the first two ecumenical councils; and I suppose they would be right. I do think it is desirable for all of us to read the Fathers within their historical location and to attempt to understand them on their own terms, rather than projecting into them the theology of the later Church. I have not read the 2nd century Apologists since seminary, so I do not have an opinion about their theology. Consider, for example, this passage from J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines:

      “There are two points in the Apologists’ teaching which, because of their far-reaching importance, must be heavily underlined, via. (a) that for all of them the description ‘God the Father’ connoted, not the first Person of the Holy Trinity, but the one Godhead considered as author of whatever exists; and (b) that they all, Athenagoras included, dated the generation of the Logos, and so His eligibility for the title ‘Son,’ not from His origination within the being of the Godhead, but from His emission or putting forth for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption.” (p. 109)

      If Kelly is accurately describing, say, St Justin, then we are dealing with a construal of the Trinity with which I am totally unfamiliar.

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      • Jeremy says:

        Fr Aidan, I am not nearly as well read as you and before coming to this blog I had never even heard the terms “subordinationist” or “unitarian” (except in the case of the Unitarian Universalist church). I can understand the need to read the fathers in their historical context, but even that, as far as I know, is impossible to do without some kind of bias. I don’t know exactly what kind of conversations were happening among the people in those times; I don’t know exactly how these guys thought about many things; and many writings from that time are lost and no longer available (especially things like the lost books of Papias of Hierapolis which were five very extensive writings on the oral traditions passed down by the apostles). So, I guess we can be careful to try not to force our ideas into their writings, and to be aware that we bring our own thoughts into these readings, but even with all of the scholarly research in the world, we still only get a fragment of what ancient, primitive Christian thought was like.

        My belief in the Trinity was greatly challenged a couple of years ago when I did a “Bible study” with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It lasted about a year and we spent over a month discussing/arguing about the Trinity.

        I eventually just came to the point where I realized Christianity is a completely worthless religion without it. Otherwise, we have to believe that this wrathful God sent down his favorite angel to be crucified for us. With that mindset, we have to accept that God always keeps his distance from us and doesn’t like to dirty his own hands. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” and if you reject the doctrine of the Trinity, then it seems that Jesus loves us more than the one who sent Him.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I’m with you on this, Jeremy. I do not for a moment apologize for reading the Church Fathers, whether Ante-Nicene or Post-Nicene, through the trinitarian grammar of the Church. Without the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, I do not know how we can speak of God as eternal and infinite love. Maybe unitarians have a way to do this, but I’m happy to confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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  5. PJ says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    Don’t you think the fact that the west has largely forgotten the monarchy of the Father may be contributing to the growth of unitarianism? Social trinitarianism doesn’t square with Scripture as does monarchical Trinitarianism.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, PJ. I do not know if unitarianism is growing. I am, in fact, surprised that there is such a thing as “Christian unitarianism,” which I guess just shows how much out of the loop I am. But I am skeptical that forgetfulness of the Monarchy of the Father has anything to do with it. The unitarians over at the blog trinities are as critical of the trinitarianism of the Cappadocians as they are of any other expression of trinitarianism.

      But perhaps you’d like to elaborate further on your understanding of the divine monarchy.

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  6. Jonathan Prejean says:

    @Fr. Kimel:
    I agree completely. If you really believe in “lesser divinity,” then it would have to be some sort of polytheism, i.e., a real distinction in kinds of godhood. Whether that is Arian or pagan, it is impossible. The Ante-Nicene Fathers are just trying to put words around the equality of essence in the Trinitarian order, and while they may speak in comparative terms, I see nothing to suggest an Arian formulation.

    @PJ:
    The West neither denies nor minimizes the monarchy of the Father. Entire books have been written rebutting this now-discredited thesis; I would suggest Matthew Levering and Lewis Ayres. They are entirely pro-Nicene in understanding the eternal begetting of the Son as an essential part of Trinitarian unity.

    John Calvin, on the other hand, was critical of the eternal begetting as being subordinationist, preferring his “autotheos” concept. It is surely no coincidence that Unitarianism sprang from Calvinism originally and that the pattern continues to repeat itself.

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    • Jonathan,
      you say that “Unitarianism sprang from Calvinism originally”. Bearing in mind John Calvin’s staunch tinitarianism, this is a rather disconcerting statement.
      Can you provide the evidence that you have in mind, with references and quotes?
      Thanks.

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  7. Jaco van Zyl says:

    Fr. Aiden Kimel, you’re merely denying the claims by Tuggy (and many others, btw), which by itself is nothing but denial. Tuggy’s arguments are coherent and compelling and SHOULD stir any thinking Christian to reconsider their heritage. A solid Scripture-founded faith excludes the later evolved doctrine of the trinity and denying it, doesn’t change it…

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jaco, you are correct that I have not sought to engage Tuggy directly. I really feel no need to. The Orthodox Church is dogmatically committed to the doctrine of the Trinity. If someone attempts to use Scripture to argue against the trinitarian dogma, all I can do is to point out that he is reading the Scripture outside the Nicene faith of the Church and thus not reading it rightly. I don’t like to use that argument often, as it simply closes discussion; but that is the fact of it. If someone is not convinced of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, all I can really do is to invite that person to come pray with us.

      Tuggy presupposes an understanding of how to interpret Scripture divorced from Holy Tradition, but it is the very same Church that acknowledged the biblical writings as Scripture that also teaches us how to properly read them as Scripture. Or to put it somewhat differently, you can’t have the Bible of the Fathers without also incorporating the hermeneutics of the Fathers.

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