Today, biblical Unitarianism (or "Biblical Unitarianism" or "biblical unitarianism") identifies the Christian belief that the Bible teaches The Lord is a singular person—the Father—and that Yeshua (real name of Jesus) is a distinct being, his son. A few denominations use this term to describe themselves, clarifying the distinction between them and those churches which, from the late 19th century, evolved into modern British Unitarianism and, primarily in the United States, Unitarian Universalism.
The history of Unitarianism was as a "scripturally oriented movement" which denied the Trinity and held various understandings of Yeshua. Over time, however—specifically, in the mid-19th century—Unitarianism moved away from a belief in the necessity of the Bible as the source of religious truth. The nomenclature "biblical" in "biblical Unitarianism" is to identify the groups which did not make such a move.
The term "biblical Unitarianism" is connected first with Robert Spears and Samuel Sharpe of the Christian Life magazine in the 1880s. It is a neologism (or retronym) that gained increasing currency in non-Trinitarian literature during the 20th century as the mainstream Unitarian churches moved away from belief in the Bible and, in the United States, towards merger with Universalism. It has been used since the late 19th century by conservative Christian Unitarians, and sometimes by historians, to refer to Scripture-fundamentalist Unitarians of the 16th–18th centuries. Its use is problematic in that Unitarians from the 17th century until the 20th century all had attachment to the Bible, but in differing ways.
Early Unitarians and the Bible.
Historians such as George Huntston Williams (1914–2000) rarely employ the term "Biblical Unitarian", as it would be anachronistic. Those individuals and congregations that we may now think of as Unitarians went through a range of beliefs about Yeshua: that he was either the pre-existent but created Son of God Arianism, not God the Son (Binitarianism); or that he originated at the virgin birth (Socinianism); or that he was simply a godly man (Adoptionism or Psilanthropism).
For early unitarians such as Henry Hedworth, who introduced the term "Unitarian" from Holland into England in 1673, the idea that Unitarianism was "Biblical" was axiomatic, since the whole thrust of the 16th and 17th century Unitarian and Arian movements was based on sola scriptura argumentation from Scripture, as in the case of the Christological writings of Isaac Newton.
The Unitarian Churches (1774 onwards).
Theophilus Lindsey established the first avowedly Unitarian church in England in 1774 at Essex Street Chapel. Nontrinitarianism was against the law until the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813, but legal difficulties with the authorities were overcome with the help of barrister John Lee, who later became Attorney General. Unitarians of this time continued to consider their teachings as "Biblical", though increasingly questioning the inspiration of the Bible and the accounts of the miraculous. (See Rational Dissenters for more.) Divergence in the Unitarian Church was increasingly evident after 1800 with the majority following the rationalist views of writers such as Thomas Belsham and Richard Wright, who wrote against the miraculous conception, while a minority held to the views of traditionalists.
The Unitarian Church of Transylvania remained a conservative "Biblical" Unitarian movement largely isolated from developments in the West until the 1830s. The Summa Universae Theologiae Christianae secundum Unitarios (1787) represents a conservative position which held into the late 19th Century.
The New Encyclopædia Britannica notes that the Transcendentalist movement of Ralph Waldo Emerson "shattered rationalist, biblical Unitarianism — now grown conservative — and replaced it with intuitional religion and social idealism. When Unitarianism spread to the newly opened Middle West, its religious fundamentals changed to human aspiration and scientific truth, rather than Christianity and the Bible."
First uses of the term.
An early example of the term "Biblical Unitarianism" occurs in the British & Foreign Evangelical Review (1882) in an article on the "Waning of Biblical Unitarianism". In the following year, Peter William Clayden's biography of Samuel Sharpe (1883) describes him as a "Biblical Unitarian", adding, "His intensely practical mind, and his business training, joined with his great though rational reverence for the Bible, made him long for definite views expressed in scripture language."
The context of the term in the above examples relates to the tension from the 1830s onward between more traditional and relatively scripture-fundamentalist Unitarians and those advocating a freer approach such as transcendentalists Theodore Parker and James Martineau. This conflict came to a head in 1876 when Robert Spears resigned from the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and, with the support of Sharpe, a former president of the Association, began to publish a rival magazine. In this context, Sharpe is referred to again by John M. Robertson (1929) as a "Biblical Unitarian," and adds that Sharpes' magazine, The Christian Life, was largely aimed at combatting growing agnosticism in Unitarian pulpits. However, though Sharpe may have used the term, and later been called, "Biblical Unitarian", he did not set up any lobby group of that name within Unitarianism.
The label of "Biblical Unitarianism" is also attributed to earlier generations than Sharpe by Henry Gow (1928), who even compares this with "Channing Unitarianism", a reference to the still relatively scripture-fundamentalist views of William Ellery Channing: "... and for a time, Unitarianism became the faith of many, if not most, of the leading citizens and thinkers of New England. As in England, it was a definitely Biblical Unitarianism."
Alexander Elliott Peaston (1940) pinpoints 1862 as the year of change from "Biblical Unitarianism" to newer models in England, where formerly belief in miracles and the resurrection were dominant. The entry of higher criticism into Unitarianism via Alexander Geddes and others dealt a "blow at the biblical Unitarianism of Joseph Priestley". Walter H. Burgess (1943) adopts the same terminology — "Biblical Unitarianism" vs. "the newer Unitarianism" — to describe the tension in Wales in the 1870s between the deists David and Charles Lloyd vs. Gwilym Marles. A similar example occurs in quotation marks from historian Stange (1984).
Earl Morse Wilbur, in his monumental A History of Unitarianism (1945), does not describe any group by the terminology "Biblical Unitarian", though the tension between the fundamentalist origins of Unitarianism and post-Christian direction of late 19th century Unitarianism does begin to appear in the later volumes.
Modern use of the term.
Although Spears and Sharpe made appeal to the term "Biblical Unitarianism" in The Christian life (e.g. Volume 5, 1880), an appeal to the concept of "Biblical Unitarianism" by individuals and churches is rare until after Unitarian Universalism was formed from the merger in 1961 of two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. In some cases in the 1870s where the name "Unitarian" was still considered too associated with "the narrowly Biblical type of liberal theologian", other names, such as "Christian Free Church", were employed. Larsen (2011) applies Spears' "biblical Unitarian" to him in regard to his 1876 resignation.
Identification of the conservative biblical-literalist strain of Unitarianism is found also in consideration of conservative Scottish Unitarians such as George Harris, described as a supporter of "old biblical Unitarianism." (Stange, 1984).
The term "biblical Unitarian" only begins to reappear frequently in the 1990s in the writings of those associated with a revival of interest in early Unitarian figures such as Fausto Sozzini and John Biddle ("the Father of English Unitarianism", as well as Arians like William Whiston. An example is the journal A Journal from the Radical Reformation, A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism (1993–present).
Alongside this historical interest in the Radical Reformation, during the 1990s the term "biblical unitarian" also begins to appear in Anti-Trinitarian publications without either 'b' or 'u' capitalized.
There may be small continuing groups of Christian Unitarians descended from the Unitarian churches who look to the works of Spears, Sharpe and earlier. However, in terms of denominations today which could be identified as "biblical unitarian", the two most visible names are the Church of God General Conference (CoGGC), with 5,000 members in the USA, and Christadelphians, with 60,000 members worldwide. Both of these groups share Non-Trinitarian, specifically Socinian, Christology and both have historians — Anthony Buzzard among CoGGC, the geographer Alan Eyre among Christadelphians — who have acknowledged works such as the Racovian Catechism and Biddle's Twofold Catechism as prefiguring and compatible with their beliefs.
Christadelphians are more reserved than CoGGC in association with the name "Unitarian", given that the Unitarian Church still exists in Britain and many of its independent congregations are post-Christian. Although the Christadelphians' early growth in Scotland in the 1850s was partly a result of intake of Scottish non-conformists and Free Church members including conservative Unitarians, members also came from the disaffected nontrinitarian wing of the RestorationMovement. Dr. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, was equally unsympathetic to Trinitarians and Unitarians, saying that an exposition of scripture clears away a lot of 'rubbish' from discussion on the Godhead and delivers a 'quietus' to Trinitarianism and Unitarianism.
In his overview of 'Biblical monotheism today', along with Christadelphians and the CoGGC Professor Rob J. Hyndman lists the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (aka Church of the Blessed Hope), The Way International, Spirit and Truth Fellowship International, Living Hope International Ministries, and Christian Disciples Church as current "Biblical monotheistic groups". He also recognizes "scattered congregations meeting independently who are unaffiliated with any denomination or para-church organization", but who might interact via networks like the Worldwide Scattered Brethren Network and the Association for Christian Development.
Another small group is the Chiesa Cristiana in Italia, a breakaway from the Assemblies of God.
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