Were there any “biblical unitarians”, or what I call humanitarian unitarians in the early church?
Buckle your seatbelts – this post isn’t a quickie.
First, to review – in this whole debate, Burke has argued that all the NT writers were humanitarians. But if this is so, one would expect there to be a bulk of humanitarian unitarians in the times immediately after the apostles. Here, as we saw last time, Bowman pounces. All the main 2nd century theologians, he urges are confused or near trinitarians. (Last time, I explained that this is a dubious play on the word “trinitarian”. My term for them is non-Arian subordinationists.) There’s not a trace, Bowman urges, of any 1st c. humanitarians – with the exception of some off-base heretical groups, like the Ebionites.
We’re talking about mainly the 100s CE here, going into the first half of the 200s. The general picture, as I see it, is this. Early in the century, we find the “apostolic fathers” basically echoing the Bible, increasingly including the NT (the NT canon was just starting to be settled on during this century). However, some of them seem to accept some kind of pre-existence for Christ (in God’s mind? or as a divine self alongside God?), and they’re often looser, more Hellenized in their use of “god” (so even though as in the NT the Father is the God of the Jews, the creator, Jesus is more frequently than in the NT called “our God” etc.) But clearly – no equally divine triad, no tripersonal God, and in most, no clear assertion of the eternality of the Son. In the second half of the century, starting with Justin Martyr, we find people expounding a kind of subordinationism obviously inspired by Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish Platonic theologian who was a rough contemporary of Jesus. How do we know this? They use his metaphors and adopt some of his interpretations of the OT – and like him, under pressure of Greek philosophy, they were very worried about taking parts of the OT literally, and about sort of shielding God from the corruption of the material world. (This is a big subject – I’ll post on Philo another time. But for the intensely curious, there is a very helpful discussion in Norton.)
Is Bowman right about the total absence of evidence for 2nd c. humanitarians? I don’t think so, though this is a dark subject. We have to remember that much of what he have is works by highly educated guys – Tertullian, Justin, Irenaeus, Origen loom large – who are tireless polemicists for the catholic (aka “proto-Catholic”) movement. It is not clear to what degree the views of a guy like this, at any given time, reflect the views of catholics all together of that time. In this post, some general thoughts, and a few bits of relevant evidence.
First, a Christian like Bowman (and also, like Burke, or like me for that matter) has no good reason to consider proto-Catholics the only real Christians in this era – that is, that group of Christians united behind the bishops, who as the century went on increasingly claimed apostolic authority for themselves collectively. Why? Because we all think that they were off base on many things – notably the authority of bishops, but also things like baptismal regeneration, (later on) infant baptism, the claim that Plato got all his truth from Moses, universalism in the case of Origen, etc. Thus, when surveying the opinions of genuinely saved folk in the first c., it is too quick to dismiss the views of any non-catholic. Thus, it is not clear that the Nazarenes and Ebionites are irrelevant to this dispute. But still, let’s assume they are irrelevant.
In the rest of this post, I’ll cite 3 pieces of evidence that there were humanitarian unitarians in the 1st c. – possibly, a lot of them, within the broad realm of the catholic movement.
And [the Jew] Trypho said, “…Resume the discourse… For some of it appears to me to be paradoxical, and wholly incapable of proof. For when you say that this Christ existed as God before the ages, then that He submitted to be born and become man, yet that He is not man of man, this [assertion] appears to me to be not merely paradoxical, but also foolish.”
And I [Justin] replied to this, “I know that the statement does appear to be paradoxical, especially to those of your race… Now assuredly, Trypho,” I continued,”[the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly [i.e. before his conception] as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father’s will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and [nothing more] is proved [than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends,” I said, “of our race [i.e. Christians], 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.”
And Trypho said, “Those who affirm him to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to me to speak more plausibly than you who hold those opinions which you express. For we all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him. But if this man appear to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man[born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man is not He[the Christ].” (emphases added)
There are a couple of interesting things here. First, Justin concedes that Jesus can be the Messiah without his being divine or pre-existent – those points are independent of each other, and nothing about being Messiah logically implies being divine or pre-existing. So he insists that his arguments that Jesus is the Jewish messiah will work even if he can’t show Jesus to have pre-existed, or to be anything but a “man of men”, i.e. not Virgin-born, but with two human parents. Second, Justin seems willing to concede that people who deny his logos theory may yet be Christians – catholic Christians, we assume. Third, there’s a translation problem in the last sentence of the first paragraph – on some renderings, such as the one cited by Priestley, it sounds like Justin might be grudgingly conceding the popularity of the humanitarian view.
I do not agree with them, nor should be prevailed upon by ever so many who hold that opinion… (Priestley, p. 6.)
And a unitarian translator has,
To whom I do not assent, though the greatest part of them should say that they have been of the same opinion. (Christie, p. 209)
But the latest translation I’ve seen, by a trinitarian, essentially agrees with the first above. Priestley notes that Irenaeus also declines to condemn humanitarians who accept the virgin birth. Priestley observes,
This language has all the appearance of an apology for an opinion contrary to the general and prevailing one… [he] even speaks of the pre-existence of Christ… as a doubtful one, and by no means a necessary article of Christian faith.” (Priestley, pp. 6-7)
By itself, this doesn’t count for much - perhaps Justin is merely over-eager to concede all he can for the sake of argument.
But consider a second piece of evidence, noted by Christie (pp. 211-2) – a passage from Tertullan’s Against Praxeas, ch. 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 [economy] . 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 worshipers of the One God; just as if the Unity itself with irrational deductions did not produce heresy, and the Trinity rationally considered constitute the truth. We, say they, maintain the Monarchy (or, sole government of God). And so, as far as the sound goes, do even Latins (and ignorant ones too) pronounce the word in such a way that you would suppose their understanding of the [Monarchy] was as complete as their pronunciation of the term.
What Justin is noting, is that average pew dwellers were in his day constantly objecting to the logos theology. Why? Presumably because logos theology was (1) new, (2) never before popular (at least outside of elite circles), and (3) because they understood their “rule of faith” to be inconsistent with it – specifically, its monotheism. What is the rule of faith? Probably, something like a primitive, shorter form of what we call the Apostles’ Creed. Countless unitarians have pointed out that the so-called Apostles’ Creed seems unitarian, identifying God with the Father, and may reflect a (mid? early?) 1st c. consensus. Tertullian in his On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 1 says:
The rule of faith… is altogether one, alone immoveable and irreformable; the rule, to wit, of believing in one only God omnipotent, the Creator of the universe, and His Son Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary…
Finally, what to my mind is the most important of the evidence: monarchians. Back in the 18th c., patristic heavyweight Nathaniel Lardner opined that at least some of the so-called “patripassians” were in fact humanitarian unitarians. These Christians – such as Noetus, Praxeas (possibly a pseudonym for Callistus I, bishop of Rome) and later on Sabellius and Paul of Samosata,
…were grouped in Rome, and had a dominant influence over the affairs of the Roman church, as can be seen by the manner in which Pope Callistus regarded the defense of the Monarchian cause as simply the preservation of the integrity of the ancient Roman tradition in the face of new innovations from the Logos theologians (especially Hippolytus). (“Monarchianism” in The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, p. 226, emphases added)
In other words, the Monarchians claimed that their view of Christ was the ancient, majority opinion within catholicism, at least at Rome (and like all catholics, they claimed their tradition to be apostolic, and geographically uniform). What was their view of Christ? As best I can tell – at least for Praxeas and Noetus, that he was a man, the messiah, virgin born but not pre-existent or divine. I’ve scoured Tertullian’s Against Praxeas and Hippolytus’ Against the Heresy of One Noetus, in which they blast their opponents for holding the Father and Son to be one and the same. (I think I know, by the way, how they’d object to Bowman’s christology!) But if you look carefully at the statements and arguments attributed to their targets (Praxeas, Noetus) they sound roughly like the sorts of things a humanitarian unitarian would say! It’s not too hard, in my view, to spot the confusions of their critics.
One is this. The “monarchians” read the “logos” of John 1 as being not an agent alongside the Father at creation, but just God’s wisdom. The logos for them just is (a mode or attribute of) the Father. Now, what is the divine element of in the man who was crucified, which is responsible for his divine actions, such as his miracles, and moreover just is the Son of God? Tertullian thinks: obviously, the logos. But these idiots think the logos is the Father – so they must think that Christ is the Father! They must be “patripassians” (Tertullian invents this taunt) – holding that the Father suffered on the cross. In other words, Tertullian reasons that they’re doomed by this argument:
- l = f
- l = s
- Therefore, f = s.
Tertullian thinks they should deny 1 like him, but what he doesn’t see is that they would deny 2. This was hard for the logos theorists to get their heads around – they were so fixated on the ancient, quasi-divine logos, instrument of the Father’s creation, that the man Jesus (either the complete human nature or the conglomerate of the logos plus a human nature) was of less interest. Indeed, the massively influential logos theologian Irenaeus holds that our salvation was effected by the incarnation of the logos – not so much, it seems, by what Christ did during his earthly ministry!
There’s a lot more that would need to be said to justify my controversial reading of these obscure figures, whose writings are almost totally lost.
But if I’m right that many or most of the so-called “monarchians” were in fact some sort of humanitarian unitarians (which would make them modalists about the Spirit and the logos – but not about the Son of God, whom they took to be a virgin born man – but not “modalists” as theologians usually define it nowadays), and they were correct in asserting themselves to be old and numerous, then Bowman’s assertion that there’s no evidence of (any decent number of) humanitarian unitarians in the 1st century is mistaken. And, Burke has more support for his view – not only subordinationist unitarians, but humanitarian ones, nowadays called “biblical unitarians” were there in the 1st c.
Both sides fought valiantly this round. I thought Bowman landed some punches on the triadic passages. Burke did better on the temptation of Christ issue. Both sides ran into some trouble with the concept of identity. Burke raised a number of issues, whereas Bowman put all his eggs into one (important) basket. Both fought valiantly in the comments, including more issues than I could comment on. I’m calling this one a draw.
Score up through round 5:
Next up: the sixth and final round.