From the beginning of mankind, true religion was monotheistic and unitarian. When Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped God Most High, they worshipped Him as the one and only God, and as only one person -that is, as one rational individual being. Such can be seen from the religion of the Jews throughout the Old Testament, the central and God-given creed of Judaism being the ‘shema’:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is one LORD!Deuteronomy 6:4
Throughout Israel’s history, the Hebrew people learned to worship the LORD their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as one person. They spoke to Him, and of Him, using singular pronouns and grammar; they worshipped God as their Father.
For You are our Father, though Abraham does not know us And Israel does not recognize us. You, O Lord, are our Father, Our Redeemer from of old is Your name.Isaiah 63:16 NASB
The Jewish people looked forward to the day when God would send them the promised Messiah, or anointed one (in Greek, ‘Christ’), to establish God’s kingdom on earth and bring in the age to come. They awaited a man from among their own brethren to be raised up by God to be a prophet like Moses, and a descendant of David to reign as king forever on the throne of Israel.
I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.Deuteronomy 18:18 KJV
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.Isaiah 9:7 KJV
The First Century
In the first century, the great hope of Abraham, Moses, David, and all Israel was fulfilled, when a virgin miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to a male child, a descendant of David. This child, the Son of God, was the promised Messiah. Born under the law, this man learned to worship the God of his fathers according to the inspired writings of the prophets.
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.The angel Gabriel, Luke 1:32-33 NASB
This child was Jesus the Nazarene. He did great signs and wonders by the Holy Spirit, and taught men the way of truth and righteousness. His disciple and apostle Peter summed up well, when he spoke to Israel, saying:
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. 14 But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. 16 And on the basis of faith in His name, it is the name of Jesus which has strengthened this man whom you see and know; and the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all.Acts 3:13-26 NASB
17 “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also. 18 But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. 19 Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; 20 and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, 21 whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed to everything He says to you. 23 And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’ 24 And likewise, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days. 25 It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ 26 For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”
This Jesus Christ did not teach anything contrary to the unitarian monotheism of the prophets who came before him. Rather, he always affirmed that His Father, the God of Israel, is the only true God.
One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; 33 and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.Mark 12:28-34 NASB
Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’John 8:54 NASB
Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, 2 even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. 3 This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.John 17:1-3 NASB
The teaching of Christ was not that he was God come in the flesh, but that he is the Christ of God, the Son of God; and so he taught that men should believe in him, not as God, but in addition to the God they already worshipped:
Believe in God, believe also in me.John 14:1
Jesus Christ, then, did not, in establishing the Christian religion, break at all with the monotheism of traditional Judaism, but rather affirmed it. The point of contention between the leaders of Israel and Christ and his apostles was not whether God is one person or three persons, but whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David.
After Jesus ascended to the right hand of his Father, God Almighty, his apostles, sent forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, continued to teach men to believe in and worship the same one God, the Father of Jesus Christ:
Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.Paul, 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 NKJV
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.Jude 1:24-25 NASB
Just as Jesus and his apostles continued to worship the same one God of the Old Testament scriptures, so they taught that Jesus, God’s promised Messiah, is a man, just as the Old Testament prophets had foretold:
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— this man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power… Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”Peter, Acts 2:22-24, 36 NASB
But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.Jesus, John 8:40 NASB
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ JesusPaul, 1 Timothy 2:5 NASB
As God worked through the apostles to spread the good news of the kingdom and of Christ through out the world, churches were planted all over the world, as groups of Christians gathered together to worship the only true God, through the man Jesus Christ His Son. Peter wrote to those scattered believers, that
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.1 Peter 1:17-21 NASB
The church under the apostles was composed of men and women from many tribes, tongues, and nations who now through Jesus Christ were believers in the one God. As the apostles fell asleep one by one, they forewarned (as Christ had during his ministry) that false teachers would arise from within the church and from among the disciples of the apostles, and lead many astray:
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.Paul, Acts 20:29-31 NASB
Second Through Third Century
The second and third centuries saw the churches continue in the apostolic unitarian faith in which they were founded- but not without some challenges and innovations. The innovations which threatened the simple faith of the New Testament were three-fold: the Logos theorists, the Gnostics, and the Sabellians.
The Christians of the second century initially moved forward on the foundation laid by the apostles; the prominent men at the outset of the second century were often those who had learned from the apostles themselves, such as Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna. These earliest writers maintained the same unitarian monotheism that the apostles had taught; Clement of Rome, for example, continued to speak of “God” and “Father” as two titles for one and the same individual:
For concerning faith and repentance and genuine love and temperance1 Clement 62
and sobriety and patience we have handled every argument, putting you
in remembrance, that ye ought to please Almighty God in righteousness
and truth and long suffering with holiness, laying aside malice and
pursuing concord in love and peace, being instant in gentleness; even
as our fathers, of whom we spake before, pleased Him, being lowly
minded toward their Father and God and Creator and towards all men.
During the course of these two centuries, however, there began an ever-growing group of elite intellectuals among certain Christian circles, who read the Old Testament scriptures through a platonic lens, and thus began an ever-increasing amount of speculation on the matter of pre-existence. These highly intellectual believers, most of whom were accustomed to and acquainted with Greek philosophy, began to see in the Old Testament an affirmation of certain platonic principles, including the platonic notion that the one God created the universe through a divine mediator, the Logos, created before all else, through whom He was able to interact with mankind. Major figures among these ‘logos-theorists’ include Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and Novatian of Rome.
It was not long at all before these well-intended believers had begun to heavily mix platonic logos speculation with Christianity. The impersonal ‘word of the LORD’ of scripture became Plato’s “second God”, begotten by the Most High God prior to all else, through whom all things were made- and it was this divine Logos which was then identified with the man Jesus the Nazarene. Unitarianism- the belief that the one God of the Bible is only one person, the Father of Christ, was vigorously maintained by these logos-theorizing writers, but belief in the true humanity of Christ was quickly beginning to erode among these intellectual elites. Novatian of Rome, for example, in the third century, wrote:
When, therefore, Christ is understood to be mingled and associated as well of that which God is, as of that which man is — for the Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us— who cannot easily apprehend of himself, without any teacher and interpreter, that it was not that in Christ that died which is God, but that in Him died which is man? For what if the divinity in Christ does not die, but the substance of the flesh only is destroyed, when in other men also, who are not flesh only, but flesh and soul, the flesh indeed alone suffers the inroads of wasting and death, while the soul is seen to be uncorrupted, and beyond the laws of destruction and death?Treatise on the Trinity, 25
Note carefully, Novatian speaks of a Christ which, unlike “other men”, does not have a human soul, but rather, is simply a divine being, the Word, joined with human flesh. We see these fathers wrestling with question like, ‘Did Jesus have a human soul?’, and trying to figure out in what sense, or in what portion, did Jesus Christ actually die on the cross, as these writers struggled to articulate how a single person could be immortal as the Logos, yet mortal as a man.
In the third century, Origen became one of the most influential Christian theologians and apologists. A Subordinationist Unitarian like Justin and others before him, Origen saw the Logos, the pre-existent person of Christ, as another distinct being and person- in his terminology, another “hypostasis”- besides the one God, the Father; who was both created by God, and under God’s authority. Origen, however, built upon previous logos-speculation by introducing the doctrine of ‘eternal generation’. This doctrine teaches that the Logos or Son was not begotten or created by God at a certain point, but rather is perpetually and eternally emanated out from God; always and eternally being begotten. With the introduction of this theory, Origen introduced the concept of a co-eternal Son – a doctrine which would become an issue of great importance and debate in the fourth century.
Although the logos-theorists/Unitarian Subordinationists of the second and third century became increasingly influential leading up to the fourth century, the majority of Christians during this time were Biblical Unitarians, meaning, they believed, like the Christians of the first century, in a uni-personal God, the Father, and in Jesus His human Messiah and Son. Some of the most prominent and influential Logos-theorists of the second and third century openly testified to this:
For there are some, my friends,” I said, “of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have[now] the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho
A second class are those who know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, considering that the Word made flesh is the whole Word, and knowing only Christ after the flesh. Such is the great multitude of those who are counted believers.Origen, Commentary on John 2.3
The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned,) who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own οἰκονομία . The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity; whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually supported by it. They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God;Tertullian, Against Praxeas
The fact that these teachers who believed that Jesus literally pre-existed his human existence admit that “the great multitude” and “majority” of early Christians in the second and third centuries did not agree with them, but were instead Biblical Unitarians who believed in a simply human Jesus is noteworthy, especially in light of the fact that next to nothing of what these Biblical Unitarians wrote has been preserved. We know the names of only a few teachers who held these views, such as Artemon and Theodotus – the latter of whom contended that the church of Rome had maintained the same views as himself up until the end of the second century. While the philosophically learned elite of the church, including many bishops, were slowly won over to logos-speculation, the majority of common Christians continued to hold fast to faith in “one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ”.
Among the Jewish believers in Jesus the logos-speculation that came to define the official theology of many Gentile churches seems never to have taken root. The Jewish churches of Judea and Syria, whose membership went by the older name for Christians, “Nazarenes”, along with their legalistic cousins the Ebionites (who were often lumped together by less-than-careful Gentile Christian authors) appear to have denied any literal pre-existence:
The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance to the Christ of God, yet found them susceptible in a different direction, and so brought them over to his own purposes. The ancients quite properly called these men Ebionites, because they held poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.
For they considered him a plain and common man, who was justified only because of his superior virtue, and who was the fruit of the intercourse of a man with Mary. In their opinion the observance of the ceremonial law was altogether necessary, on the ground that they could not be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a corresponding life.
There were others, however, besides them [the Nazarenes], that were of the same name, but avoided the strange and absurd beliefs of the former, and did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, inasmuch as they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed, being God, Logos, and Wisdom, they turned aside into the impiety of the former, especially when they, like them, endeavored to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.Eusebius, Church History, 3.27
These Nazarenes were said by the church fathers to be the descendants of the original Judean disciples of the apostles and of the original Jerusalem church:
They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well as the Jews do. For unlike the previous sectarians, they do not repudiate the legislation, the prophets, and the books Jews call ”Writings.” They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion – except for their belief in Christ, if you please! (3) For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things , and declare that God is one, and that His Son is Jesus Christ.
Today this sect of the Nazoraeans is found in Beroea near Coelesyria, in the Decapolis near Pella, and in Bashanitis at the place called Cocabe-Khokhabe in Hebrew. (8) For that was its place of origin, since all the disciples had settled in Pella after they left Jerusalem – Christ told them to abandon Jerusalem and withdraw from it because of its coming siege. And they settled in Peraea for this reason and, as I said, spent their lives there. That was where the Nazoraean sect began.Epiphanius, Panarion, 7.2,7.7
Despite the extensive speculation of the Logos-christologists then, we see that Biblical Unitarianism continued to thrive among the majority of Christians generally, and seems to have remained especially strongly defended against any encroachment among the Jewish-Christians, the Nazarenes.
We have finally to address briefly the challenge these believers faced from Gnosticism and from Sabellianism.
‘Gnosticism’ encompasses a very wide range of views, which purported to have secret knowledge -“gnosis”- which would save those who knew it. Gnosticism was marked by rampant speculation, poor exegesis, and a denial of even the most basic elements of the gospel and the Christian faith. Many gnostics, for instance, argued that the Creator of all things was not the Father of Jesus, but a lesser evil being, and taught that Jesus was an emanation from the supreme God. Christians reacted strongly against these exceedingly blasphemous views, especially by strongly emphasizing the unitarian theology they had received from the apostles.
Contrary to those who said otherwise, the churches clearly and repeatedly asserted not a tri-personal God (which more resembles the gnostic systems), but that the one God of the Old Testament and the New, the Maker of all things, the Almighty, is all one person, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Irenaeus of Lyons, for instance, wrote:
The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God;Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter X. 1.
Irenaeus, like the other Unitarian Subordinationists of his time, repeatedly and explicitly equated the one God with the one Jesus Christ calls “Father” throughout his several books against Gnosticism.
We must also note that around the end of the second century a new heresy arose, Sabellianism (also known as Modalism), and was quickly condemned. Modalism seems to have spread quickly via a few different teachers, including Sabellius, Praxeas, Noetus, and a couple bishops of Rome, and was strongly rejected by most Christians. Modalism is the belief that the one God is one person who exists or manifests himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This was condemned by the early church as a denial of the Christian faith, because by making the Son out to be the same person, or rational individual being, as the Father, Modalism denies the real existence of God’s only-begotten Son altogether, making the Son the Father and the Father the Son.
Finally, it is worth briefly noting that during this era the term ‘homoousias’, which would become such a point of contention in the fourth century, was already being used in discussion of theology, but was mainly the property of Gnostics and Sabellians. This was so much the case that it was condemned as heretical to call the Son ‘homoousias with the Father’ in the third-century council that condemned the modalist Paul of Samosata. By the end of the third century, most Christian bishops within the bounds of the Roman empire were Unitarian Subordinationists, heavily influenced by Origen and by the logos speculation of the philosophers.
Fourth Through Seventh Century
The fourth century saw enormous controversy and change within Christian communities, as Christianity went from being persecuted by the Roman Empire, to at first, under Constantine, being tolerated and shown favor; then, by the end of the fourth century, being made the state’s established religion, within which the new ‘orthodoxy’ was to be upheld by the sword.
With Constantine’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity and its legalization with the Edict of Milan in 313, the churches began to come under the supervision and control of the Roman government. The first great interference of Roman authority in ecclesiastical affairs was the Council of Nicea in 325. This council addressed a variety of doctrinal and practical matters, as Constantine, who oversaw the council, sought to bring about uniformity of the Christian religion throughout his empire. Out of thousands of bishops, only a little more than 300 attended this council; but small attendance did not minimize the long-term impact this council has had.
Firstly, we may note that with the council of Nicea began a long-lasting tradition of appealing to the state authorities to arbitrate and settle ecclesiastical disputes. Whereas the apostles had forbidden Christians to sue one another in a secular court at all, now the leadership of the most prominent Christian churches began to bring suite against one another before Roman emperors.
One particularly important doctrinal controversy began a few years before the council of Nicea, when the aged deacon Arius got into a heated dispute with his bishop, Alexander, over the nature of Christ’s relationship to his Father. Both Arius and Alexander were Unitarian Subordinationists; both saw the one God as being only one person, the Father, and saw Jesus Christ as a divine and pre-existent being caused by the Father before the ages, through Whom God made all things.
Arius, however, like so many second century logos-theorists, did not believe that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, but rather that the Father preceded the Son, and thus, there was once when the Son did not exist. Additionally, Arius insisted that the Logos must have been created by God ‘ex nihilo’, that is, from nothing, since nothing but God existed when the Son was begotten, and God, as an immutable, simple, and spiritual being, could not be the material cause of another being. That is, Arius utterly rejected the notion that any portion of God’s own being was the material out of which the Son was formed; it was crucial for Arius that, against the claims of Modalism, it be maintained that the Son is a wholly distinct being from his Father.
Alexander and his young pupil Athanasius disagreed sharply with Arius, and following Origen, taught that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, being begotten eternally by Him, but not created as Arius maintained. Rather than viewing the Son as an entirely distinct being besides the Father, Athanasius insisted that the Logos was the internal attribute of God’s reason, and so, was inseparable from God. Alexander fiercely opposed Arius and those who sided with him, while Arius, meanwhile, with the help of other influential bishops throughout the empire including Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicodemia, gained support for his ideas.
At Nicea, this controversy was addressed, resulting in the condemnation and exile of Arius and those who sided with him, and the Nicene Creed, which added to the generally accepted ‘rule of faith’ that the Son was begotten “from the essence of the Father” and was “homoousias with the Father”, that is, of the same essence as the Father.
This term, ‘homo-ousias’, had for a long time been the property of Sabellians and Gnostics; but the council was desperate to find a way to exclude Arius and his followers from being able to accept their creed. Finding that Arius and those with him could agree with everything stated in the scriptures, the bishops turned to the extra-biblical language of ‘essence’, at the suggestion of Emperor Constantine, to help them exclude the Arians, who would not accept the language. Arius insisted that ‘homo-ousias’ could only carry Gnostic and Sabellian meanings; but the majority of the council disagreed, instead finding the term vague enough to accompany a wide variety of different theologies. Modalists like Marcellus of Ancyra, Unitarian Subordinationists like Eusebius of Caesarea, and those who stood somewhere between the two, like Athanasius, were all able to accept the wording of the creed, and read it in conjunction with their own views. Thus the Arians were excluded and condemned.
In the decades following the council of Nicea, however, debate over the relationship of the Son to the Father continued. As time went on, it became apparent to the conservative majority of eastern bishops that the Nicene Creed had opened the door for Modalism in an official creed of the church, as Marcellus to Ancyra and other modalists turned to the creed to support their own views. In reaction to this, an alternative formula was suggested – that the Son should be confessed to be of ‘like essence’ (homoi-ousias) to the Father, rather than to be of the ‘same essence’ as the Father. This would better preserve that there was a real distinction between the Father and Son, as between one being and another, while also asserting that the Logos was absolutely like and identical to the Father in his nature.
The result of this suggestion was still more debate; by the 350s, the majority of bishops had entirely abandoned the Nicene ‘homo-ousias’ in favor of either the confession of the Son being of ‘like essence’, or in favor of a new suggestion, that the Son should simply be said to be “like” (homoi) the Father, without any mention of the philosophically difficult and confusing “essence” language that defined both the Nicene and Homoi-ousian positions. This view continued to gain support, especially by appealing to the highly speculative and extra-biblical nature of the competing positions. In 359 the Roman Emperor called a second ecumenical council in attempt to settle the heated dispute. Instead of having only one meeting, this council was split up into two locations, one in the West at Ariminum, and one on the East at Seleucia; eventually both councils agreed together in favor of the conservative ‘Homoian’ position, which confessed the Son to be like the Father, and banned speculation on ‘essence’.
The Homoiousians and Homoians, who were by far the majority of bishops within the Empire, were Subordinationist Unitarians; all their creeds began, like Nicea’s, with the confession that the one God is one person, the Father Almighty. These bishops believed strongly in a literal pre-existence of the Son, but always saw him as subordinated to the Father as both his cause and his head. But while unitarian theology was safely preserved by the majority of bishops, the truth of Jesus Christ’s real humanity was continuing to be undermined; the Homoians seem generally to have regarded Jesus Christ to have been the pre-existent Logos in a human body, denying that there existed a human soul within Jesus. This view also had its adherents among the pro-nicenes for a time, with teachers such as Apollinaris of Laodicea teaching that the divine Logos took the place of a human soul in Jesus as well. Thus while the truth of God’s unity was being preserved by most bishops, the important truth of Christ’s humanity was not.
Even while the Homoian christology became the official state-sponsored ecumenical dogma of the catholic church, small but radical minority of bishops continued to insist on the Nicene Creed’s ‘homo-ousian’ christology, led in the west by the fiery Hilary of Poitiers, and in the East by the controversial Athanasius. For Athanasius, everyone who did not agree with Nicea was an Arian, although the Homoi-ousian and Homoian camps rejected Arianism in just as strong of terms as Nicea did.
During the course of the next twenty some years leading up to the reign of Theodosius I, Athanasius and the Nicene minority began to develop their doctrine along more and more modalistic lines, in reaction to Arianism and the other prominent views. Where the church’s confession had always been unitarian up until this point, in the latter half of the fourth century we can begin to see the doctrine of a ‘triune God’ emerging within the radical Nicene camp; a sharp contrast to the unitarian monotheism of the non-nicene bishops. Among the first to develop and popularize the idea that the one God is not one person, the Father, but a trinity of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were Marius Victorinus in the West and Gregory Nazianzen in the East.
For example, Marius Victorinus authored a hymn which ran:
O Blessed Trinity. This is our God; This is one God; This is the one and only God; O Blessed Trinity. To him we all pray, The one whom we implore, The one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, O Blessed Trinity.Marius Victorinus, Third Hymn
Over these few decades leading up to the council of Constantinople in 381, the theology of the Nicene party changed from a fundamentally unitarian view (as can be seen in the Nicene Creed itself) to this more modalistic view, in which the one God was effectively a tri-personal person.
Throughout this same era, the Biblical Unitarianism of the first century church lived on among the Jewish-Christians, the Nazarenes, as it had in the two centuries prior, and also among the followers of the popular bishop Photinus of Sirmium. While it can be difficult to reconstruct the details of Photinus’s theology, since none of his many writings survive, it seems that Photinus believed that Jesus Christ is simply a man, and denied literal pre-existence. For this he was strongly opposed by the other bishops, and was deposed multiple times. However, despite the fierce opposition, Photinus’s doctrine seems to have had adherents throughout the world, as his ‘heresy’ was proscribed in the Eastern and Western portions of the Roman Empire, and by the Gothic nations to the northwest.
These Barbarian nations of Europe were evangelized during this time by Ulfilas, a man who had, after living among the Goths for some time, come as part of a diplomatic party to Constantinople, the Roman Empire’s new capital, and there been taken as a student of Eusebius of Nicodemia. Ulfilas was ordained and began a successful mission to the Goths, which led to the conversion of not only their nation, but also seems to have led to the conversion of many other related Barbarian nations, including the Vandals and Gepids. Ulfilas had been present in Constantinople in 360 when the Homoian theology of the councils of Ariminum & Seleucia had been ratified, and it was this understanding of christology which he helped impart to the Barbarian nations. This meant that for a time, Homoian Unitarian Subordinationism was the official doctrine of the churches not only within the Roman Empire, but even well beyond its borders among the Barbarians, uniting them in one unitarian faith.
This changed dramatically when Theodosius I became emperor in 379, and began working to drastically alter the theology of the catholic church once more. Theodosius favored the quasi-modalistic trinitarianism of the Nicene minority, and with a sudden turn-about of imperial policy, thrust the leaders of this radial minority into the heights of ecclesiastical power. Theodosius acted unilaterally to make the church’s official dogma a modified form of the Nicene Creed; in the 381, perhaps more for appearances than anything else, Theodosius called a small local council of around 150 bishops to ratify his decisions. Many non-nicene bishops came to this assembly, but were turned away, their opinions of no interest to the Emperor’s purposes of establishing his own minority opinion as the official dogma of the churches. This council was later deemed to be the ‘second ecumenical council’, the original bearers of that title, the councils of Ariminum & Seleucia, being cast by the wayside as “Arian” councils.
Under Theodosius, religious freedom suffered greatly, and Biblical Unitarianism was proscribed throughout the empire as the ‘Photinian heresy’. The Homoians who had previously held imperial favor were now denounced as “Arians”, and relations between the Roman and Barbarian churches, which remained staunchly Homoian, suffered as a result.
For the first time in history, and thanks mainly to the interference of the Roman Empire, catholic Christianity was no longer Unitarian. With the power of the sword, Nicene ‘orthodoxy’ was enforced upon the churches and upon the masses. Unlike Nicea, however, the new ‘Nicene’ theology was not Unitarian, but semi-modalistic. Where Nicea had confessed faith in “one God, the Father Almighty” as the first article of the Christian faith, a council held in Rome in 382 declared:
“If any one shall think aright about the Father and the Son but does not hold aright about the Holy Ghost, anathema, because he is a heretic, for all the heretics who do not think aright about God the Son and about the Holy Ghost are convicted of being involved in the unbelief of the Jews and the heathen; and if any one shall divide Godhead, saying that the Father is God apart and the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, and should persist that they are called Gods and not God, on account of the one Godhead and sovereignty which we believe and know there to be of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost—one God in three essences,—or withdrawing the Son and the Holy Ghost so as to suggest that the Father alone is called God and believed in as one God, let him be anathema.
For the name of gods has been bestowed by God upon angels and all saints, but of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost on account of their one and equal Godhead, not the names of “gods” but the name of “our God” is predicated and proclaimed, that we may believe that we are baptized in Father and Son and Holy Ghost and not in the names of archangels or angels, like the heretics or the Jews or foolish heathen.
This is the salvation of the Christians, that believing in the Trinity, that is in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and being baptized into the same one Godhead and power and divinity and substance, in Him we may trust.Council of Rome, Recorded in Theodoret 5.11
We may note the sharp contrast between Nicea and this council; it was now proscribed to say that the one God is the Father alone, and the Trinity in which the church believed was no longer merely a triad of three divine beings, the latter two subordinated to the first, as in Unitarian Subordinationism of the past centuries, but now the Trinity was a single individual being, a single “Him”, as in the theology of Marius Victorinus. Throughout the next half century, this new view was further popularized, especially in the West, by Augustine of Hippo, Victorinus’s student. Augustine led the catholic church in worshipping God not as Father, but as Trinity:
O Lord our God, we believe in You, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless You were a Trinity. Nor would you, O Lord God, bid us to be baptized in the name of Him who is not the Lord God. Nor would the divine voice have said, Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God, unless You were so a Trinity as to be one Lord God… O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.Augustine, On the Trinity, 15.28
The belief in “God the Trinity” who is a composite of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in some way or another (for the details of this continued to be debated) became the defining theology of the Roman churches. No longer was Jesus Christ another being besides the one God, but was himself the one God, as in the Modalistic scheme of the second and third centuries.
Throughout the fifth through eighth centuries, Unitarian Christianity remained a persecuted minority within the Roman Empire. The Empire, however, was shrinking; the Goths and Vandals, both Homoian Unitarians, invaded and toppled the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The Gothic Unitarians showed a much greater degree of tolerance for the Trinitarians in the lands they conquered, than the Trinitarians had shown to the Unitarians in their lands, with one notable exception, that for a short time the Vandal kingdom in North Africa imitated the Roman practice of persecuting heretics; in this case, it was the Nicenes who got a taste of their own medicine, which they sorely despised.
The Gothic and Vandal kingdoms in North Africa and Italy, however, did not last long, and were defeated by Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Gradually, the rulers of the remaining Homoian nations of Europe were all either converted to catholicism or defeated militarily, leaving their lands under the rule of catholics. Thus, by the end of the seventh century, Unitarian Christianity was proscribed as an illegal heresy throughout all the Christian nations of Europe and the East.
Eighth Through Fifteenth Century
Throughout the next several centuries, the state of Unitarian Christians is largely unknown, for fierce persecution forced underground those who continued to maintain a simple belief in the one God of Israel and His human Messiah. Heresy laws in the Byzantine Empire and throughout Roman Catholic nations in Europe were severe; for even possessing a copy of Arius’s writings, a person could be put to death. The papal inquisition, which was active throughout Europe but especially intense in Spain, worked hard to hunt down and destroy those who would not accept a triune God in place of the God of the Bible.
In such a time of darkness, Unitarians had to meet in secret, and there is therefore next to no record of either Unitarian churches or writings composed during this era. Its cannot be doubted that Unitarianism continued to exist, for as long as men have access to the gospel, there have always been those who believed its pure and simple message; a teaching that is so straightforward in the scriptures is nearly impossible to suppress.
Not only can it reasonably be conjectured that Biblical Unitarianism continued to exist in secret, but we must also note that Unitarian Subordinationism which affirmed a literal pre-existence of Christ continued to exist was well. We have recorded that there was in the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, a sect which seems to have come from the East, called the Pasagini. These Unitarians believed that Christ was not the one God, but God’s first creature. Like other heretical groups in this era, they were likely suppressed by violence.
Some scholars have speculated that the Pasagini may be distant ancestors of the Nazarenes in Judea and Syria; certainly, the possibility exists. Like the Nazarenes, the Pasagini were recorded to have strictly observed the Mosaic law, to the capacity they could without a temple, and some contemporary authors identified the Pasagini as Nazarenes, likely on the basis of these similarities. However, we must note that the Unitarianism of the Pasagini, as described by medieval writers, was closer to that of the Arian variety than to that of the Nazarenes, who appear to have rejected belief in a literal pre-existence of Christ altogether.
Of the Nazarenes in this era, only a possible connection to the Pasagini exists; it is possible that the Pasagini represent a continuation of the Nazarenes themselves, or that they were a distinct group somehow derived from them. When, why, or how the Nazarene Jewish Christians disappeared is unknown, but this somewhat tenuous connection with the Pasagini seems to be the last record of them in history.
The Sixteenth through Seventeenth Century
In the sixteenth century began a new dawn of religious freedom with the Protestant Reformation, as throughout Europe men sought to cast away the corruptions of the Roman church and return to to the faith of the Bible. The magisterial reform movements founded by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, however, were shockingly inconsistent in their attempt to reform Roman Catholic practice and dogma, discarding many long-held traditions and doctrines of Roman Catholicism on the basis of ‘sola scriptura’, yet maintaining other traditional dogmas like a belief in a triune God. There does not seem to have been any consistent paradigm employed to determine what was to be rejected and what was to be retained; one cannot look to the seven Byzantine councils as a basis for what was to be retained, for the seventh of these, 2nd Nicea, was sharply rejected by Zwingli and Calvin, and to a lesser degree by Luther, while earlier councils which professed the same authority, such as 1 Constantinople of 381 and its triune God, were maintained by these reformers. Certainly the papacy and medieval councils cannot be looked to as serving as a paradigm for Protestants either, who rejected the supposed infallible authority of both, yet puzzlingly seem to have accepted much of Roman Catholic dogma on theology proper and the Trinity without question. The churches founded by these magisterial reformers were, like Roman Catholicism, violently trinitarian.
The Lutheran and Reformed branches of the reformation, however, did not constitute nearly all of Protestantism. Unitarian beliefs, including both Arian, Logos-theorist, and purely human christologies like that of modern Biblical Unitarianism resurfaced quickly, often united together against the threat of both Protestant and Roman Catholic trinitarianism. Unitarianism was especially popular among the anabaptists, who rejected the practice of infant baptism.
Unitarian churches were established and flourished for a time on both Poland and Transylvania. The latter continued with success for a long time; modern Transylvania, a region of Romania, is still home to many Unitarians. The Polish ‘Ecclesia Minor’ faced greater difficulty; originally beginning as an offshoot of Polish Calvinism, the ‘Polish Brethren’ were active in publishing Unitarian beliefs abroad throughout Europe.
Poland was one of the few nations which allowed at least a certain extent of religious freedom, and Unitarianism was allowed to establish itself throughout the nation for a time, competing with both Reformed and Catholic churches. The city of Racow became a hub of Unitarianism, and was home to both a seminary and printing press used in an effort to help spread the cause of Unitarianism. Faustus Socinus, an Italian Unitarian forced out of Italy, did much to convert the Arian Unitarians in the Polish Ecclesia Minor to a purely human christology like that of modern day Biblical Unitarianism, leading to Unitarianism to generally become united in this as a common christology, although exceptions persisted.
The Polish Unitarians at Racow authored and printed a significant amount of literature; among the most important works in representing the Unitarian position abroad was the Racovian Catechism, a work summing up Biblical Unitarian views and interacting some with common trinitarian objections to Unitarianism.
Sadly, at the instigation of Roman Catholics the Polish Brethren faced expulsion from Poland in 1658. The Ecclesia Minor was dissolved, and many Unitarians fled to Transylvania. Others found refuge in the Netherlands and Prussia.
During these centuries, several Unitarians suffered martyrdom at the hands of both Catholics and other Protestants. In 1553 in Geneva, Michael Servetus was put to death by city authorities at the behest of John Calvin. In Protestant Bern, Valentine Gentile, whose views seem to have been approximately the same as those of ante-nicene logos-theorist Justin Martyr, was put to death in 1566 by Protestant authorities, after challenging Theodore Beza and Hindrich Bullinger to a debate on the Trinity. In Protestant England, John Biddle died imprisoned for his Biblical Unitarian beliefs, after publishing works explaining and defending his views.
These centuries proved to be difficult times for Unitarians, as with newfound freedom of expression and attempts to win over Catholics other Protestants to their views, came intense and violent persecution from both.
Eighteenth Century to Present Day
Due to the intense persecution of Unitarians, many were secretly Unitarian during this era, including such notable figures as John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and John Milton. In 1712 Anglican chaplain Samuel Clarke published his famous work ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’, which sparked enormous controversy over the Trinity. Clarke, giving a careful survey of both the Bible and the writings of the early church fathers on the Trinity, powerfully demonstrated the scriptural validity of Unitarian theology. Clarke’s theology was similar to that of the ancient Homoians, a Subordinationist Unitarianism in which the Son and Holy Spirit existed together with the Father from before the foundation of the world, and yet were derived from Him and subordinated to Him as the one and only God.
Clarke’s book, and his responses to opponents throughout the following debate, proved very influential, and encouraged a number of other Unitarians to come out from secrecy. Although the official doctrine of the Church of England was never officially changed, Clarke’s views encouraged others to take a stand for Unitarianism; and while Clarke himself was able to remain within the Church of England, others like his associate William Whiston, who took a less diplomatic and more openly Arian approach to the Trinity did leave. Many Unitarian Subordinationists found a home among the Independent Baptists and English Presbyterians; but within a couple of generations, most English Unitarians were, unlike Clarke and Whiston, “Socianian” in their christology; meaning they rejected literal pre-existence of Christ in favor of a human christology, while accepting the virgin birth.
Biblical Unitarian view likewise gained popularity in New England, among the descendants of the Puritans. For a time, unitarian views flourished in both England and the United States -in the U.S., several presidents and founding fathers were unitarians. However, as was the case for nearly every other Protestant denomination in this era, in the late 1700s and continuing into the 1900s, a wave of theological liberalism swept through Unitarian churches. Throughout this period, many Unitarian churches adopted universalism, and in over-reaction to the endless creeds and formulas of their historic trinitarian persecutors, many found themselves totally creedless, giving opportunity for theological liberalism (which is really just unbelief of the Bible) to find a home within mainstream unitarian churches. While a remnant of unitarians continued to distinguish themselves from these liberal unbelievers as being Bible-believing unitarians under the names “Biblical Unitarian” and “Christian Unitarian” (to distinguish from the liberal non-Christian ‘Unitarian Universalists’), most unitarian groups went the way of other protestant denominations and descended into the abyss of liberalism.
In recent decades, something of a revival of Biblical Unitarianism seems to be occurring. There exist several small Bible-believing denominations with roots going back to the time when mainstream protestantism was liberalizing, including the Christadelphians and Church of God, General Conference.