Recently a band of scholars and pastors came together to form what is called “The Unitarian Christian Alliance” (hereafter, UCA). As best as I can tell, the board consists of mostly biblical unitarians, or (though less accurate in some respects) Socinians.
These board members believe that the Father of Jesus Christ is the only truly divine subject that there is, and that Jesus Christ is his solely human Messiah, who died for us and is now exalted to the Father’s right hand.
The UCA hopes to provide a platform for unitarian Christians all over the world to begin to connect, start Bible studies, and perhaps even start churches. In my conversation with unitarian friends, it’s become clear to me just how difficult it is for unitarians to find a place to worship and confess what, to them, is the true faith. Some of them that I know actually hold out in Trinitarian congregations—sometimes making their disagreements clear, sometimes not—because there just aren’t many options out there for unitarian churches.
Before anybody signs up to the UCA “affirmation,” though, I think it’s worth considering who it would let in and out. If you’re a unitarian, you should consider with whom you might begin to start churches.
First let’s see what the board members have to say about what the UCA is supposed to accomplish, and let’s see who can agree to their “affirmation” and sign up.
The Goals, According to the Board
In what follows I will be summarizing and quoting from a podcast which announced the UCA.
In January 2020, the UCA came forward as a year-in-the-making project. It exists to be a “new para-church organization, whose mission is to promote unitarian theology [singular] and to connect like-minded believers across the globe” (Tuggy).
Notice, right off the bat, that Tuggy says that each of the board members hold to unitarian Christian “theologies” (plural; where did the singular go?). We’ll see just how “like-minded,” and just how many unitarian “theologies” (what about that singular above?) there might be below.
The UCA is trying to meet several needs, such as:
- to alleviate the “lack of fellowship opportunity” (Chandler);
- to help unitarians find other unitarians and unitarian churches near them (Finnegan);
- to create a community of unitarians beyond other means like Facebook (Cain);
- to help expose other Christians to unitarian ideas (Chandler);
- to create a “shared sense of identity” (Tuggy).
Tuggy also asks, “Do we really need the ‘u’-word?” It’s clear from what he says just after this that a unitarian is any Christian who doesn’t believe in a tri-personal God. (More on that in a moment.) Unitarians disagree about other stuff (e.g., spiritual gifts, how to understand the book of Revelation, etc.), but at least they’re united on the idea that the tri-personal God doesn’t exist.
Tuggy brings up the topic of why the board didn’t decide to call their non-profit the “Biblical Unitarian Christian Alliance.” Chandler says that, “what we’re looking for is really more of an inclusive and broad coalition of unitarian Christians.” For, as he goes on to say, “when you boil it down, a unitarian theology is any theology in which the one God is the Father alone.” How Chandler thinks this doesn’t allow for certain modalists (like Oneness Pentecostals), which he immediately excludes, is beyond me.
Then Chandler says that all members of the UCA are going to believe (1) “that the one God is the Father” and (2) “that Jesus is a human being who is distinct from, [and who is] subordinate to the one God.” But as he goes on to admit, UCA members may hold to “a variety of opinions” on Jesus’ pre-existence. Tuggy agrees that passages on Christ’s pre-existence, and what to make of the Holy Spirit, are “harder issues.”
What I appreciate as one who came out of a group in which I lived for basically my entire life, is that the UCA wants to give a space for people to figure things out (as Tuggy says).
A final thing worth mentioning here: Tuggy says that the UCA is sort of like being a part of “the pro-life movement,” where all these people agree that human fetuses are being murdered and unite on that basis. Yet clearly, any member of “the pro-life movement” can disagree with other members over all kinds of other issues, even religion. That’s worth pondering; I find the analogy troubling, myself.
With the thoughts from the preceding in mind, let’s take a look at the affirmation, line by line.
Only the Father of Jesus is the one true God.
Put in a way that I think Tuggy would say, this means that God just is (or is “numerically identical to”) the Father. The Father = God.
We can’t even get past the first line without issues, and this is due to Tuggy’s scuffle with Beau Branson over definitions of “unitarian” and “Trinitarian.” Branson has a series of presentations on the “monarchy of the Father.” One way to understand what this phrase means is what Branson calls the “strong monarchy view” (SMV) in a forthcoming paper.
On this view, Branson says, “Strictly speaking, The One God just is the Father.” So here we have the Father = God, and this is (as Branson contends) a Trinitarian view because it can allow for there to be three divine Persons: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
Now, what Tuggy has done in response is to insist that the SMV is actually unitarian. His definition of a “unitarian Christian theology” is one that affirms:
1. There is one God.
2. Who is numerically identical with the one Jesus called “Father.”
3. And is not numerically identical with anyone else.
4. And (1)-(3) are eternally the case.
For the SMV, on Tuggy’s view, each of these receives a check mark, so it’s unitarian. But then we have the odd result that there can be unitarians who affirm that the Son and Spirit are “consubstantial” (homoousios; “of the same substance”) with the Father and are not three gods. On his Trinities Podcast Facebook page, Tuggy recently said that Athanasius was a unitarian.
Now if Tuggy, as the chair of the UCA, wants to allow for Athanasius’ view (e.g., in his Four Discourses Against the Arians) to be unitarian, then it’s clear that anybody who holds to the SMV along those lines can affirm the first line of the UCA affirmation. It seems like, based on his comments above, Chandler would agree.
A friend of mine and I have been somewhat satirical about this on the Trinities Podcast Facebook page. People think we’re joking when we say folks who are clearly Trinitarian can agree to the UCA affirmation, but we aren’t. This is entailed by Tuggy’s view on the SMV.
And they remain clearly Trinitarian even if I’m not prepared to give you the necessary and sufficient conditions for any view to count as Trinitarian—an interesting exercise, but probably an irrelevant one if you just ask biblical unitarians if, for example, Eastern Orthodox Christians are actually unitarians. After all, Fr Thomas Hopko would count as a unitarian, for Tuggy.
Anyway, what this means is that an individual who affirms the SMV, the homoousion, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three gods, can in good conscience start a church and call it “unitarian” without the slightest twinge of self-deception. (Hereafter I’ll call such folks “monarchical Trinitarians,” or MT’s.) Imagine a pastor of a UCA-listed church holding a view like Athanasius’—a man who thought that Arians were irreligious and who called them “Ario-maniacs.”
The unique man Jesus is his Messiah/Christ.
So they’ve already, at face value, let MT’s into the UCA. Does this line of the affirmation push them out?
That’s not clear at all. If “unique man” here is supposed to mean something like “solely human,” then MT’s are out. But if that’s the line they want to take, then it pushes out unitarians who believe in the pre-existence of Christ. But that would be contrary to what we saw the board say in the last section, and it’s also contrary to Tuggy’s claim that literal pre-existence doesn’t entail divinity, since you can still be “unitarian” and affirm it.
So the pre-existence of Christ has to be allowed somehow, in order to keep the UCA from devolving (contrary to their efforts) into something more like the Socianian Christian Alliance. Once this is done, any view that entails that Jesus Christ is “the unique man” who is the Father’s Messiah can affirm this line of the affirmation.
One could be an Arian who thinks Christ retains his quasi-divine nature and yet assumes a human nature. One could also be something like a kenotic Arian who thinks Christ “empties himself” of that quasi-divine nature and becomes solely human. Maybe one could be a sort of Apollinarian Arian as well. Hopefully such Arians will be nicer to their supposed brethren in the UCA than at least one Arian, historically, who thought those who denied Christ’s pre-existence were blasphemers.
For that matter, somebody could be a Nestorian Oneness Pentecostal and fully accept both the first and second lines of the UCA affirmation. But I have a hard time finding the difference between biblical unitarianism and this view.
Or one could be an MT who confesses Chalcedon, apparently. It also seems like, in principle, MT’s who are Nestorian should be allowed in as well.
If I’m wrong about the last line, what is the principled reason the UCA board is going to give that allows Arian-type unitarians, but not MT’s (who we’ve already seen are unitarians, on Tuggy’s view)?
Now for the last three bullet points:
God the Father sent Jesus, gave him his message, empowered him, and endorsed him “with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him.”
Jesus obeyed God, laying down his life so that we can have the hope of resurrection to eternal life.
God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, making Jesus the one Lord under the one God.
I don’t see how anybody I’ve mentioned just above is going to deny any of these points. So they are going to be in full agreement with the long version of the affirmation.
What the Affirmation Doesn’t Say
There are plenty of things the UCA affirmation doesn’t say, which the board thinks is aptly wrapped up in the short version: “The one God is the Father alone, and Jesus is his human Messiah, who is now exalted as Lord and Savior.”
From this shorter statement and the longer one above, here’s what we don’t find the UCA board weighing in on:
- Whether the Bible contains contradictory theological views.
- Whether the Father is directly and currently active in the world.
- Whether Jesus was born of a Virgin.
- Whether Jesus, at any time in his life, actually sinned or could have sinned.
- Whether the Holy Spirit is a created being (an angel? a subordinate divine self?), or maybe God’s activity.
- Whether the canon of Scripture includes the standard, 66 books of Protestantism.
- Whether one actually needs to be a Protestant.
- Whether, literally, any view of soteriology whatsoever you can think of is acceptable.
And on and on we could go. The fact the UCA doesn’t weigh in on these things is actually deliberate too, since it’s not a church. They are just going to leave stuff like this up to everyone else who starts to connect through their platform.
Whose Unitarianism? What Alliance?
As the UCA says, “If you can agree with this statement, you’re one of us.” In this post, we’ve seen who counts as “one of us”:
- Deists, who can deny that God is at all active in the world, and instead is letting his Son run the show.
- Ebionites, who reject the apostle Paul (thereby having a different view of the NT canon) and who, historically, have rejected the Virgin birth. One who still identifies as an Ebionite, to my knowledge, actually wrote the script for the UCA video on Jude.
- Arians and semi-Arians, who believe in the pre-existence of the Son.
- Nestorian Oneness Pentecostals, who would believe that the Father is a distinct subject from the solely human Son with whom he is (incredibly?) united without becoming incarnate. (But as I said, maybe this view just isn’t conceptually different from biblical unitarianism anyway.)
- Monarchical Trinitarians, who, though they think they are Trinitarians, are actually unitarians according to the UCA’s chairman of the board.
This last one, to my mind, is a particularly egregious error. But all in all, the rhetorical flourish at the end of the UCA-sponsored videos to “leave behind the confusion” is simply that: rhetoric. That’s because somebody could actually be a part of the theological camp that the UCA, at face value, is trying to bring Christians out of. They are trying to foment a “21st Century Reformation” that continues where the Reformers didn’t go far enough: leaving behind the “confusion” of the Trinity.
And yet, their affirmation allows what would look to anybody like Trinitarians to sign their affirmation (ie., those who hold to the SMV), among others. When you leave behind the confusion and submit your name to the UCA, though, you’re not leaving confusion behind at all. And my guess is that people will see right through this if groups and congregations begin to form.
Furthermore, there are unitarian directories of churches (i.e., Eastern Orthodox ones) that have existed for a while now, on Tuggy’s understanding of things. So one wonders if the UCA is really meeting a need there at all.
If the attitude is to let in as many “unitarians” as possible and then sort out the trash later (or as Tuggy says, “establish a baseline of fellowship” first), it makes me wonder how unitarians who participate in this won’t just end up with a second wave of Unitarian Universalism or something. If all they care about is banding together disparate “unitarian” Christians who are united on seemingly one thing and one thing only—that the doctrine of the Trinity is false—that’s a pretty shoddy basis upon which to (supposedly) bring about another Reformation.
Even if I were a unitarian, it wouldn’t even cross my mind to participate in what the UCA thinks it’s trying to accomplish. Because, in reality, it seems like what people are being invited to sign up for is the Unitarian Confusion Alliance.
 “In his preaching and exposition he asserted that all heretics were not Christians, but Antichrists; not pious, but impious; not religious, but irreligious; not timid but bold; not in hope but without hope; not worshipers of God, but without God, not teachers, but seducers; not preachers, but liars; be they Manichaeans, Marcinonists, Montanists, Paulinians, Psabbelians, Antropians, Patripassians, Photinans (?) [sic] [Lat. Fotinianos], Novatians, Donatians, Homousians, Homoiousians, or Macedonians. Verily, as an imitator of the apostles and an imitator of the Martyrs, his work repelled the false doctrine of the heretics and edified the people of God, put to flight the hungry wolves and bad dogs and preserved the flock of Christ by His grace as a good shepherd with all prudence and diligence. (Source)