Defining the concept of a Christian unitarian

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Thanks to reader Mike Gant  for his question about my last post.

As of now I think I’ve got a solid definition of the concept unitarian: someone who believes that the one God just is (i.e. is numerically identical to) a certain self and not to any other self.

But I then tried to define the more specific concept of a Christian unitarian: someone who believes that the one God just is (i.e. is numerically identical to) a certain self, namely the Father, and not to any other self.

But this is not a good definition. Mike asked: what about ancient friends of God like Moses and Abraham?

D’oh! The above definition makes them Christian unitarians. Thus, it is too “broad” or “wide.” My intent was to distinguish, say, a native American or Hindu unitarian from a Christian unitarian. The definition I offer above does that, but it doesn’t exclude Jews who either (1) never heard of Christianity or (2) disavow Christianity from being “Christian” unitarians.

To try again then: I think what I offered was a definition of the concept of an Abrahamic unitarian. Again: someone who believes that the one God just is (i.e. is numerically identical to) a certain self, namely the Father, and not to any other self. This formula uses a Jesus-specific term (“the Father”) but I think an equivalent definition could be given using any name or title that refers to the same being that “the Father” does in Jesus’ usage. So an equivalent definition would be: someone who believes that the one God just is (i.e. is numerically identical to) a certain self, namely YHWH, and not to any other self.

Christian unitarians, of course, are also Abrahamic unitarians. And so are Jews – at least, Jews who think God to be a great self, and not a force, an ineffable mystery, or a who-knows-what. The main concepts I’m talking about would be related like this:

So far, so good. What then, must be added to the concept of an Abrahamic unitarian to get the more specific concept of a Christian unitarian?

Here’s a New Testament inspired suggestion: the characteristic or defining thesis of a Christian is believing that Jesus is God’s messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. Thus, a unitarian Christian would be defined as an Abrahamic unitarian who accepts the this one true God’s Messiah is the man Jesus.

One may worry that this is still too wide. Does it count Muslims as “Christian unitarians”? One might think so – they claim that Allah (the God) is none other than the one worshiped by Abraham. And the Qur’an says ten times that Jesus is al-masih, “the messiah.” (See van Gorder’s No God but God, pp. 131-4)

But I think the definition is not too wide, for the reason that all Muslims reject the claim that Jesus is God’s messiah as Christians understand that, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and who even now serves as an intermediary between God and humankind. Also, to accept him as God’s deliverer is to accept his leadership over you, to take Jesus as your Lord, your boss. No Muslim does that; for all the compliments they pay Jesus, they live their lives by the Hadith, the Qur’an, and the traditional interpretations of these.

Does it allow Jehovahs Witnesses? I think so. Mormons? Possibly – not unless they are monotheists; one must be that to be any sort of unitarian.

Any counterexamples to this definition?

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

12 Responses to Defining the concept of a Christian unitarian

  1. Matt says:

    Dale,

    Glad to see the “Christ” put back into “Christian”! I rather thought that was missing but I got beaten to it :-)

    First, you seem to have given two nominally equivalent definitions for “Abrahamic Unitarian” – one where the one God just is the self called “Father” by Jesus; and the other where He just is YHWH.

    I don’t think these are equivalent. They probably are for a Christian Unitarian but they are just one subset of Abrahamic Unitarians according to your definitions / diagrams.

    Firstly, some who we would think are AU’s may reject Jesus and would not therefore define who their God is by what Jesus called him. Others, e.g. Muslims, may be uncomfortable with a definition made this way, but at least accept Jesus as a prophet; OTOH their scripture makes no mention of YHWH.

    As for Abraham himself, whereas I believe he considered God as Father (e.g. through the events of Gen 22) I can’t find anywhere he addresses Him as such. Also Christians and Jews may disagree on the extent to which Abraham foresaw a messiah like Jesus, and the Father/son relationship that would exist between them!

    Sorry, not intending to make trouble, I think this is a useful exercise. I feel reasonably clear on the other defs now, but I’m not even quite sure exactly who we intend to capture as “Abrahamic”, or where those patriarchal Unitarians who predated Abraham would fit (e.g.Noah, Adam).

    Last point – by taxonomising like this, and assuming Abraham falls under “Abrahamic”, are you not teeing up an argument whereby Trinitarianism is to be rejected (or, at least rejected as essential) on the basis Abraham falls under Unitarian taxonomy?

    Not that I would disagree if you did, but I rather suspect a Trinitarian might!

    M

  2. Matt says:

    Sorry, lots of “first” and “firstly” – but I fear reporting is unlikely to clarify! Hopefully makes sense…

  3. Mike Gantt says:

    Dale, you said “Also, to accept him as God’s deliverer is to accept his leadership over you, to take Jesus as your Lord, your boss.”

    Please tell us what you mean by this? How does one accept his leadership, take him as Lord, as boss? How, in practical terms, does one do this?

    The answer, I presume, would be independent of whether one was a unitarian or a trinitarian – and would also, of course, be an even more important issue.

  4. Dale says:

    Hi Matt,

    would not therefore define who their God is by what Jesus called him.

    An AU needn’t accept or like Jesus’ language about God. Rather, they just have to accept that “my Father” and “God”, “Yahweh”, or “Allah” (as the case may be) are co-referential, i.e. pick out the same being (despite any false beliefs the user may have about that being).

    Mind you, I’m not arguing here that “Allah” and “Yahweh” are coreferring names. I’m just trying to define the genus (Abrahamic unitarian) of which Christian unitarian is a species.

    Again, if my def is right, it needn’t be that Abe ever referred to God as “Father” – it’s just that he and Jesus were in fact talking about the same one, in using their respective divine names and titles and descriptions.

    About your last point, whatever nefarious aims I have are irrelevant to whether or not I’ve properly defined the concepts of a trinitarian, unitarian, Abrahamic unitarian, and Christian unitarian. My defs either meet or don’t meet those criteria for a good definition in my 2nd post back.

  5. Dale says:

    Hi Mike,

    It seems to me that one can define a Christian in terms of (1) a person’s group identification, (2) a person’s beliefs, or (3) functionally. I was arguing that given my definitions, no, Muslims won’t count as Christian monotheists (because of their beliefs about Jesus – so this is sticking with a belief definition). And also, they won’t count functionally as Christians either.

    I don’t think this is the place to explicate what it is to follow Jesus.

    But I think you are right – if a person is following Jesus, she may consistently with this have various trinitarian or unitarian beliefs about God. I also agree that this is more important than having correct beliefs. But it doesn’t follow that having true beliefs is not important – in my view it is. The definitions are intended to make possible rational argument about certain theological matters – and the point of such discussions is to get as many true beliefs as possible, while at the same time avoiding false beliefs as much as one can.

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  8. villanovanus says:

    Dale

    … an equivalent definition [of "Abrahamic unitarian"] would be: someone who believes that the one God just is (i.e. is numerically identical to) a certain self, namely YHWH, and not to any other self.

    There is of course a small issue with this definition. While YHWH made Himself known to Abram/Abraham, He explicitly says to Moses “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty [’el-shadday], but by my name ‘the Lord’ [Yahweh] I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)

    … the characteristic or defining thesis of a Christian is believing that Jesus is God’s messiah, the anointed one, the Christ.

    This is a tad reductive isn’t it? How about the mystery and miracle of the Virgin Conception (which, BTW, even Muslims subscribe to)? How about the explicit affirmations throughout the NT that Jesus is the Son of God? How about the affirmation that Jesus is the Incarnation of God’s Eternal Word (Logos, John 1:14), which (outos) is affirmed to be, “in the beginning”, “God” and “with God”, and the agent by which (dia auto) “everything that exists came into existence” (John 1:1-3)?

    … all Muslims reject the claim that Jesus is God’s messiah as Christians understand that, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and who even now serves as an intermediary between God and humankind. (…) No Muslim does that; for all the compliments they pay Jesus, they live their lives by the Hadith, the Qur’an, and the traditional interpretations of these.

    The Quran, though, is much closer than Christians would suspect to the notion of Jesus as “Word of God” (see http://quran.com/3/45 and http://quran.com/4/171)

    Does it [the definition of "Christian Unitarians"] allow Jehovahs Witnesses? I think so.

    Umm …

    • Jehovah’s Witness believe that Jesus Christ is a creature of God, perhaps God’s first and most perfect creature (apparently one and the same as the Archangel Michael), but still a creature, that pre-existed his incarnation. In this their position is virtually identical to that of Arius (ca. 250 – 336 AD) and Arianism.

    • Christians affirms that Jesus Christ is NOT a creature of God, but, literally, His Son, the God-man, the Incarnation of God’s eternal Word/Logos (John 1:1-18) generated by God’s Holy Spirit from the Blessed Virgin Mary in a specific time and place (ca 6 BCE, Bethlehem), who, having been raised from the dead by God, the Father Almighty and “taken up” to heaven to sit at the Fathers right, has received by the Father a status (a “name”) equal to the Father’s (Phil 2:9-11).

    Mormons? Possibly – not unless they are monotheists; one must be that to be any sort of unitarian.

    Well, definitely NOT then: Mormons (apart for from all the other problems …) are manifestly tritheists.

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  12. Olivier De Ridder says:

    Great analysis Dale!

    And yes, JW are definitely Christian Unitarian in your definition set. They believe that the one God is the Hebrew God YAHWEH, and that Jesus is the mediator.

    To narrow it down though, only anointed JW can be considered Christian Unitarian, since Outside of a small selection of JW (part of the 144,000), the rest of the JW don’t believe Jesus is their mediator or savior (at least not by official doctrine, I can’t judge what they do or don’t believe ;) ) and as such fall out of the boat.

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