The Religion of the New Testament


    The common notion of Unitarianism is that it is a system of doctrine centering about belief in one God in one person (as contrasted with the Trinitarian belief in one God in three persons), and the closely related belief in the true humanity of Jesus (as contrasted with the Trinitarian belief in his deity, or supreme divinity). Unitarians who best understand their movement, however, attach much less importance to-day to these or any other particular doctrines than to certain fundamental principles of religion, centering around freedom and reason. In fact, as a matter of history, although it was the Unitarian doctrines that were first developed, and although these have been made especially prominent through controversy, and have been the occasion of long continued persecution, yet almost from the first Unitarians laid strong emphasis upon the importance of religious freedom, and asserted the rights of reason in religion; and the further the movement has proceeded, the more the emphasis has been shifted from its doctrines to its underlying principles. While we shall need, therefore, throughout the whole of our study, to keep in view the doctrines associated with this movement, we should remember that this is in its most important aspect a progressive movement toward a fuller use of reason, and a more perfect enjoyment of liberty in religion.

    The history of modern Unitarianism begins, as we have said, early in the period of the Protestant Reformation. That is to say, we can not trace any continuous development of Unitarian thought back of that time. Yet it has often been maintained that Unitarianism is simply a return from corrupted doctrines of orthodox Christianity to the pure religion of the New Testament. We shall so frequently see this claim asserted in the course of our history that we must at the outset inquire how far it is justified. Since Unitarianism from the sixteenth century on has also been largely characterized by its protests against the doctrines known as orthodox, we must also get our start toward an understanding of the movement by trying to discover what those doctrines were which the fathers of our faith felt obliged, even at the risk of their lives, to disbelieve and oppose, and how and why they came to grow up out of the simple religion of Jesus and his first disciples. Understanding these things, we shall be able at the same time to judge them more fairly. For it is possible to trace every stage of the process by which, in the course of five or six centuries or less, the simple religion of the parables and the sermon on the mount was gradually transformed into the elaborate doctrines of the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds. This we shall now proceed briefly to do.

    To learn, then, what Jesus and his earliest disciples taught, we have to turn to the first three Gospels. These were written probably between 70 and about 100 A.D., hence from one to two generations after the death of Jesus. They therefore date from a time when the primitive belief had already begun to undergo change, and when that long process had commenced which we are about to trace, and which ended in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Yet these Gospels also show many traces of the earlier and simpler belief, as it existed in the very time of Jesus; and it is these traces that we shall first notice,

    To begin with, there is in these three Gospels not the remotest suggestion of the doctrine of the Trinity.1 Such a doctrine would have seemed to Jesus or any other Jew of his age as little short of blasphemy; for during long centuries of their national humiliation no other conviction had been so deeply burned into the consciousness of the Jewish people as their belief in the absolute and unqualified oneness of God. In fact, down to this very day, nothing else has proved such an impassable barrier to the reception of Christianity by the Jews, as has the doctrine of the Trinity, which has seemed to them to undermine the very cornerstone of their religions.2  In these Gospels we find Jesus simply regarded as the Messiah — a man, sent of God for a high purpose, endowed with superior powers, yet dependent upon God, acknowledging himself not so good as God, and limited in knowledge, authority, and power.3  This primitive belief long survived among a little sect of Jewish Christians known as Ebionites.  They early became separated from the rest of the Christian Church and lived an isolated life east of the Jordan, and as late as the fifth century they retained their original belief in the unity of God, and in the pure humanity and the natural birth of Jesus.

    When we turn to the writings of Paul, a short generation after Jesus, we find this simple, natural view of Jesus already becoming transformed. In the epistles bearing Paul’s name (some of them doubtless written after his time, though more or less resembling his thought), and written from 53 to 64 A.D. or later, the figure of Jesus, receding into the distance of the past as Paul and his fellow-Christians reverently contemplate it, has grown less distinct, but at the same time grander. He is still sometimes referred to as a man, but more often as Lord; he is spoken of as sent from heaven, where he existed with God before the creation of the world; God is said to have created the world through his agency; he is regarded as in a sense divine, though still as subordinate to God.4

    In the fourth Gospel, ascribed to the apostle John, but now believed to have been written by a later Christian, perhaps about 125 A.D., we find a yet more exalted view of Jesus. He is here identified with the Word, or Logos; and since this term plays so large a part in the following development of belief about Jesus, we must pause here to explain it. The conception is supposed to have grown up somewhat as follows: philosophers in the first century were accustomed to think of God as being, in his perfect wisdom and holiness, so far superior to this imperfect and sinful world that he could not be supposed himself to have had anything directly to do with the creation or with men. But Philo, a Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, discovered in the Old Testament certain passages seeming to refer to a sort of personified Wisdom, or Word, or Logos, through which as an intermediate being God had created the world and communicated with man.5  This Logos thus seemed to him to bridge the great gulf otherwise existing between God and his world. At the same time there was also in the Greek philosophy of the period a belief that a divine Logos, or Reason,6 was manifested in the universe as a kind of world soul. These two views, then, the one Jewish and the other Greek, became more or less blended in Jewish and Greek thought from the end of the first century, and this Logos idea became widely accepted by both Jews and Greeks as one of the staple elements in their religious teaching, because it solved for them what they felt to be a critical religious problem-how sinful man might come into harmony with the perfect God.

    Now the great purpose of the author of the fourth Gospel was to recommend the Christian religion to those who held this Logos view, by showing them that the Logos was none other than Jesus himself, the founder of that religion, who had been with God in the beginning, had been his agent in the creation of the world, and had at length taken the form of a human being, thus becoming one through whom the holy God and sinful men might be brought together. The Logos doctrine in this Gospel was the highest point reached in the development of the New Testament teaching about Jesus; but although it sometimes almost seems to make Jesus one with God, in other passages it makes it clear nevertheless that he was less than God, and derived his being, and all his power and authority, from him.7  It was directly from this Logos doctrine, however, that the development followed which in the fourth century ended in the fully developed doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. That further progress of Christian thought we are now ready to follow.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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