Do Unitarians Understand the Trinity?

In 1819 William Ellery Channing delivered a homily that has since become famously known as the “Baltimore Sermon.” It is described by many as the most important address in the history of Unitarianism. What particularly interests me is Channing’s interpretation of “the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity”:

We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed. It is difference of properties, and acts, and consciousness, which leads us to the belief of different intelligent beings, and, if this mark fails us, our whole knowledge fall; we have no proof, that all the agents and persons in the universe are not one and the same mind. When we attempt to conceive of three Gods, we can do nothing more than represent to ourselves three agents, distinguished from each other by similar marks and peculiarities to those which separate the persons of the Trinity; and when common Christians hear these persons spoken of as conversing with each other, loving each other, and performing different acts, how can they help regarding them as different beings, different minds?

Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy will immediately recognize that this construal of Trinitarian doctrine has little in common with the teaching of the Church Fathers. Orthodox Christians do affirm that each divine “person” equally possesses the supreme divinity, and we do affirm that only the eternal Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ; but beyond that, Channing’s construal represents a kind of anthropomorphic tritheism that has always been rejected by the Church. The Fathers did not understand the divine persons as three independent agents “possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations.” If this were the catholic doctrine, St Athanasius and the Cappadocians would have joined Channing in rejecting it. As St Gregory of Nyssa writes: “For the persons of the Divinity are not separated from one another either by time or place, not by will or by practice, not by activity or by passion, not by anything of this sort, such as is observed with regard to human beings” (Ad Graecos 25).

If we wish to speak of the divine hypostases as three subjects, or in Dale Tuggy’s formulation, three selves—and I still think it appropriate and desirable to do so (how else can we preach the biblical story of the one God who is Love?)—then we must qualify what we mean and do not mean. Consciousness, will, mind, perception—all belong to the one nature that the “persons” share and possess and which each “person” is. “The Greek Fathers,” Met John Zizioulas explains, “insisted that memory, knowledge, will and love are not individuated between the persons of God but common to them all” (Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 69). That which distinguishes the divine hypostases are their originating relations: the Father is unoriginate, the Son is begotten by the Father, the Spirit is spirated by the Father. The persons of the Godhead are not “persons” in the way that individual human beings or even angels are “persons.” We need to stop thinking in such anthropomorphic terms.

The patristic doctrine of the Holy Trinity is grounded in an experience of the infinite God that is both profoundly biblical and profoundly apophatic. It does not seek to philosophically explain the Mystery of the One who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal gifting of the Spirit, but to articulate the grammar of the Mystery so that we might proclaim and live the gospel faithfully. When someone objects to the trinitarian doctrine on the ground that it makes no sense to them, that is precisely the point. If the doctrine made sense, it would not be speaking of the holy and ineffable three-personed Creator narrated in the Scriptures and experienced in the eucharistic liturgy. Karen Kilby elaborates:

We learn to worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit, but we do not have some very sophisticated idea with which to put all this together, with which to envisage or explain or understand that the three are one, with which to put to rest on a conceptual level worries about the coherence of a claim to monotheism. This is why attention to the doctrine of the Trinity should serve to intensify rather than diminish our sense of God’s unknownness: believing in the Trinity, we are not so much in possession of a more fully textured concept of God than a mere Enlightenment deist has, but in fact much less than any deist in possession of any sort of manageable concept of God at all. (“Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?International Journal of Systematic Theology 12 [January 2010]: 76)

Unitarians, of course, will find the authentic doctrine of the Trinity as irrational and unscriptural as the polytheism they mistakenly think the Church teaches; but at least they will be rejecting the reality and not a caricature.

Question: From whom did Channing learn this tritheistic version of the Trinity? Did he learn it at Harvard? Is this what American Protestants in the early part of the 19th century actually believed and taught about God? Or is it based on Channing’s own idiosyncratic reading of Scripture and the theological tradition?

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32 Responses to Do Unitarians Understand the Trinity?

  1. Thanks for good comments and for sharing Karen Kilby’s essay. My Perichoresis and Personhood book (on John of Damascus) should appear (via the Princeton Theological Monographs Series/Pickwick) in a few months. Its second chapter (on the Trinity) makes points that both you and Karen should find congenial. Hope you’ll read it.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Charles, how does St John Damascene address the the unity of the Trinity? How would he respond to modern presentations on the Social Trinity?

      P.S. Do let me know when your book is published? Heck, if the publisher will send me a complementary copy, I’ll even do a blog review. 🙂

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  2. Aidan, he’s a thorough-going Cappadocian: the works of the Trinity are one. No “separate centers of consciousness” a la my esteemed prof, Juergen Moltmann, in his Trinity seminar. At my oral defense, I said (tongue in cheek) that JD was “more a Barthian than a Moltmannian.” Will be happy to send my chapter on “perichoresis and the Trinity” to you if you’ll send me your email address via cctwombly@msn.com.

    Will pass on to W&S the message of your generous offer to blog (not flog, I hope!) my book. Grateful, in advance!

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  3. My [brief] list of famous unitarians:
    1. Isaac Newton–ironically, went to Trinity College at Cambridge University
    2. John Locke
    3. Arius
    4. William Whiston
    5. Thomas Jefferson
    6. Dr. Gregory House’s biological father (unnamed)–sorry, fan of House M.D.
    7. Samuel Clarke
    8. Constantius II

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  4. Charles Lathrop says:

    I’m an Orthodox Trinitarian, and I’m quite sure I will never understand the Trinity.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Perhaps we should start an Apophatic Anonymous (AA) group. 🙂

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      • Like the AA idea! Elsewhere I refer to what I call the “characteristically Greek Christian paradox,” namely that God is unknowable (enter apophasis) and yet can be affirmed as Trinity. Lots can be said about the Trinity (as we see in dozens of books) and yet, at the end of the day, it is a reality given to us as vision, most usually in the context of the worshipping community. I guess herein lies the difference between “understanding” (narrowly understood as cognition) and “beholding.”

        Charles, I have an online “talk” on Rublev’s famous icon in which I try to explore the mystery side a bit. I presented my words to a general audience at my college, so it’s a bit breezy. On reflection, it’s also a bit more “social Trinitarian” than I actually believe, but you may find it helpful. Look for it under the title of “Humility and Desire in a Russian Icon.”

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Charles, do you find it virtually impossible not to employ social trinitarian language on occasion? I know that as a preacher I certainly do. I suspect that Fr Andrew Louth would say that I have drunk too much of the Augustinian Kool-Aid (“Love and the Trinity“). Yet isn’t this the most natural way to unpack the biblical claim that “God is love”?

          Any thoughts?

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  5. Aiden, yes–all but impossible. Much “you and me” language in the Fourth Gospel, especially in chapter 17. Have to remind myself that Jn 1:1 sets the stage for “unity/difference” all the way through the rest of the text; the Logos is both God (unity/identity) and WITH God (difference). Hence, no surprise when we find later that Jesus (the divine Son) is both “one” with the Father and, at the same time, “in” the Father as the Father is “in” him. (Will post my Rublev talk here in hopes that it helps a little bit.)

    https://www.academia.edu/4937455/HUMILITY_AND_DESIRE_FOR_THE_OTHER_IN_A_RUSSIAN_ICON

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  6. newenglandsun, RateMyProfessor needs to be taken cum granum salis! Not complaining, mind you! 🙂

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  7. Newenglandsun’s list of unitarians included Sir Anthony Buzzard, an ardent Socinian living near Atlanta. I carried on a twelve-year email exchange with Anthony which was (for the most part) very cordial but finally left me exasperated. I was more interested in explaining than I was in convincing but came to believe I couldn’t shake his quite erroneous preconceptions of what orthodox Trinitariainsm really was. Some might be interested in reading my Amazon review of his THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY: CHRISTIANITY’S SELF-INFLICTED WOUND. (Anthony is an Oxford grad and claims to be the first cousin of the late Bp John AT Robinson, an NT scholar who wrote HONEST TO GOD in the early sixties. He also was involved in Herbert W Armstrong’s movement and taught at Ambassador College for several years. He left the movement over Armstrong’s immorality but retains many of the group’s [unreconstructed] views. He alleged, in our correspondence, that many evangelical biblical scholars [secretly] held views very close to his and shared with me some correspondence with a few well-known names, mainly British.)

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  8. William B. says:

    Since I have come into serious study of Universalism, I have read probably 1000 pages of Universalist books from the 1800’s (I say it that way because when it comes to books, I am a little ADD). In the course of this, I have started to learn how the Unitarian understanding, if you will, possibly came to be very prevalent.

    One essay by Hosea Ballou in particular struck me as interesting, titled a Short Essay on Univeralism here: http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/ballou.html

    In it, I think he makes the same mistake that you noted about attribution of our modern word persons (which I did read your article of today) to the doctrine of the trinity. What struck me at the time that I read it basically is the idea that “since we are discarding the words in current usage (like Hell) then we can discard the word Trinity.”

    Keep writing!

    William

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  9. William B. says:

    I would be remiss if I also did not say that almost all of the Universalist’s books that I have read have some really excellent thoughts, even if they are Unitarian – not all of them are. One of my favorite books is The Second Death here (this is one of several repringints): http://books.google.com/books?id=QmURAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+second+death+and+the+restitution+of+all+things&hl=en&sa=X&ei=haEfU-_RHKKQyAHvvoG4Dg&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=the%20second%20death%20and%20the%20restitution%20of%20all%20things&f=false
    , written by Andrew Jukes. I do not know if he was a Unitarian or a Trinitarian, but his discussions on the nature of revelation of creation, the scriptures, and Jesus Christ are excellent.

    I like the tenor of your writing in that you try to get to where the misunderstandings or disagreements really are (which are two completely different problems) and explain orthodoxy or the response of orthodoxy in comparison.

    William

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  10. Ben Nasmith says:

    This was a helpful post. Thanks!

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  11. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03xgl3m

    BBC program on Trinity (with Janet Soskice, Martin Palmer, and Graham Ward)

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