Do you not know that the kingdom of the heavens and Earth belongs to God, and that, besides God, you have no protector and no helper? (Surat al-Baqara: 107)
Christians Opposed to the Trinity from Nicaea to the Present Day
Throughout Christian history, many Christian sects have rejected belief in the trinity, either in whole or in part. And, because of this, they have historically encountered severe repression in the form of exile, excommunication, burning at the stake, and torture unto death. However, such oppression has not succeeded in erasing them from the pages of history. Most of them remained loyal to their beliefs and never denied the fact that there is only One God. The Arians, which we looked at in some detail earlier, were the fore-runners of the numerous anti-trinitarian Christians. Many more groups then emerged in their wake.
One anti-trinitarian movement that appeared in the wake of Arius was the Celtic Church of Ireland. Although totally isolated from continental Europe, this Church was built and developed along Arian lines. Until 664, when the Catholic Church finally secured official dominion over the Celtic Church, belief in the trinity was foreign to Ireland.
One very important feature of the Irish Church ran parallel to Nazarean teachings: loyalty to Jewish sources. The Celtic Church believed that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) adhered scrupulously to Judaic rules, and thus attached great importance to the Old Testament.78So powerful was this tendency that it continued even after its church came under Roman dominion. In 754, several Catholic priests complained that Irish priests attached no importance to the Church's holy scriptures and rejected the writings and ignored the Council's decisions.79However, this resistance was soon broken. Over the course of a long campaign that began in the fourth century, the Catholic Church finally eliminated all of those had turned onto a false path. Yet these movements just described rejected the superstitious teachings that deified Prophet Jesus (pbuh) and instead, preached faith in God as the One and Only. As a result, the Catholic Church became western world's greatest religious authority.
Orthodox and Protestant Churches
The Catholic Church's control of the Christian world was rocked by an internal division in the ninth century. For a long time, the Eastern Churches, affiliated to the patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, had disagreed with the Catholic Church. Finally, they broke away from Rome. This conflict, which was actually political in origin, had emerged following the division of the Roman Empire into eastern (Greek) and western (Latin) sections. The various disagreements between the two sides became a permanent schism when the Roman Church consecrated the Holy Roman Empire. The most distinguishing of the many differences between the two sides is that the Roman Church used Latin as its liturgical language, while the Eastern Churches used Greek.
After breaking with Rome, the Eastern churches, also known as the Orthodox churches, could not establish any internal hierarchy. The Patriarch of Constantinople was always regarded as senior, but the others were independent entities. Furthermore, new divisions gradually emerged and national Churches were formed, such as the Armenian, Greek, Bulgar, Serb, and Russian national churches.
The Catholic Church maintained its hegemony in Europe until the sixteenth century, when the German priest Martin Luther (d. 1546) shattered that hegemony by launching the Protestant movement. Developed first under the leadership of Luther and then of such priests as John Calvin (d. 1564) and Huldreich Zwingli (d. 1531), it sparked off a huge rebellion against the Church of Rome and papal authority. For over a century, Europe was the scene of endless bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants. Behind these wars, which were superficially religious, lay political calculations and conflicts of interest between European monarchs who wanted to be free of the papacy and its related taxes and those who sought to maintain the status quo. The bloodiest squaring of accounts between the two sides, the Thirty Years War (1618-48), caused the deaths of more than a third of the European population. The end result was a permanent mutual understanding that the new order, established under the Treaty of Westphalia and signed at the end of the Thirty Years War, was now the norm. And so it has remained, largely unchanged, ever since.
After rejecting papal authority, however, the Protestants were unable to replace it with another authority. Thus, Protestantism developed as a dispersed and liberal religion without a central hierarchical structure. Just about every country established its own national church, and many sects and movements emerged over time. As a result, today there are hundreds of forms of Protestantism and churches. Most of these are active in northern Europe and the United States.
The emergence of Protestantism was also important as regards anti-trinitarian movements. After their overthrow of papal authority, Christians were now able to read and interpret the Good Book for themselves. The Catholic Church had never allowed this freedom to its members. As a result of this, some Protestants came to realize that there was no New Testament foundation for the trinity, which constituted the basis of Catholic belief. Indeed, it was evident that some passages rejected that belief. God is described as the One and Only in these passages, and belief in the Three in One had no place in the fundamental logic of the New Testament.
A very few Protestants therefore rejected the trinity. This gave rise to the Unitarian Church.
Christians Who Support Monotheism
Following the Protestant Reformation, Christians began reading the New Testament independently of Catholic beliefs. The first modern anti-trinitarian Christian movement developed in Italy. Founded by Lelio Socinus (d. 1562) and his nephew Faustus Socinus (d. 1604), the movement took the name Socinianism, from the surnames of its two founders, and spread by means of secret meetings. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes their beliefs as follows:
[According to the Socinians] that there was no Trinity; that Christ was not consubstantial with the Father and holy spirit; that His Death and Passion were not undergone to bring about our redemption.80
The Socinians were oppressed, and Rome lost no time in excommunicating the two founders. Fausto Socianus said: "The holiness of Prophet Jesus' life, the revelation of God, will naturally be different to that of other people. He possessed divine vision and divine inspiration, but certainly was not a creator. He was equipped with a matchless authority and sent to humanity with a duty to discharge."81Socianus maintained that God had only one essence and that it was irrational to speak in terms of a trinity. Socinian teachings spread as far as England, a development that caused Rome great unease, an unease expressed by the Union of Norwegian Bishops:
Socinianism, turned from the true path by anti-Trinitarians and neo-Arianists who, it is feared, will destroy Christianity, is corrupting the thoughts of Christians."82
At the same time, Michael Servetus (d. 1553), a Spanish theologian and physician, who propagated similar ideas, was burned at the stake by Calvin because of his rejection of the trinity. As he was burned, his anti-trinity book was hung round his neck. Servetus maintained that Christianity has been corrupted at the Council of Nicaea, and wrote that it was necessary to return to pre-Council of Nicaea sources. Attacks aimed at the Socinians began in 1638. Their college in Rakow was closed, and many adherents were burned alive.
The Unitarian movement, which assumed the mantle of the Socinians, was born in Transylvania towards the end of the sixteenth century, later spread all over Europe and particularly in Poland. Its emergence is described in the following terms on a Unitarian church website:
Early Christians held a variety of beliefs about Jesus, including the belief that he was not divine but Wayshower. However the doctrine of the Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost – was enforced all those who believed differently were denounced as heretics. Sixteenth century, Christian humanists studied the Bible closely and could not find the Trinity in the scriptures. They affirmed – as did Jesus, according to the Gospels – the unity, or oneness, of God. Hence they acquired the name Unitarian. Unitarians preached and organized churches according to their own rational convictions in the face of overwhelming orthodox opposition and persecution. They reacted by advocating religious freedom for all. Since "faith is the gift of God," people should not be forced to adhere to a faith they did not choose.83
A document known as the Racovian Catechism, which was published by Polish Unitarian priests and laid special emphasis on the idea of the One God, became one of the movement's most important texts. Belief in the atonement of sins was rejected in the catechism, which also said:
The opinion of those who attribute divinity to Jesus Christ is not only repugnant to right reason but likewise to the Holy Scriptures, and they are in gross error who believe that not only Father but also the Son and the Holy Ghost are three persons in one deity… God is… absolutely One, and therefore it is a downright contradiction for one to generate another if they are three independent persons... Always till the times of the Nicene Council and some time later as appears by the writings of those who lived then, the Father... alone was acknowledged for the true God, and those who were of the contrary mind… were accounted heretics…84
The Unitarians were particularly influential in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. Unitarian churches were first established in England and then in the United States. These people, who believed that not only Christians but all people can achieve salvation if they believe in God, described themselves as Universalists. The Unitarian and Universalist churches, which developed separately, merged in 1961. The New Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the common beliefs of the Unitarian Churches thus:
Jewish religious teacher, prophet, regarded by the Unitarians as an example to follow, a master of religious and ethical life in teaching and acting... The Bible is a collection of man-created writings, including teachings of Jewish and Christian teachers, historical accounting and literature. These works were inspired by God but we are not to forget that this inspiration was grasped by those who lived long-long time ago in a certain historical time and place. This is why each writing has the marks of a cultural trend from ancient times, with that characteristic world-view, containing precious intuitive insight but mistakes too. This is why the Unitarian theology follows and accepts the results of the scientific criticism of the Bible in adopting its ethics in life and philosophy.85
In short, Unitarians take Prophet Jesus (pbuh) for what he actually was: a Jewish prophet who as God's son only in a figurative sense. The bases of Unitarian belief are described in the following terms on one website:
The basic tenets of Unitarian belief consist of the oneness of God, love of God and human beings, and eternal life … They respect the memory of Prophet Jesus, but deny his divinity and do not regard him as infallible. They regard the Christian scriptures as a document of human experience, but maintain that since the authors were human they were capable of error … They agree that God has sent prophets at all times in order to show people the true path. They regard the Messiah Jesus as the greatest of these …86
Unitarians express their ideas about Prophet Jesus (pbuh) on their own sites as follows:
He was, and still is for many UU's, an exemplar... Among us, Jesus' very human life and teaching have been understood as a product of, and in line with, the great Jewish tradition of prophets and teachers. He neither broke with that tradition nor superceded it.87
Unitarians reject one part of traditional Christianity and base their own beliefs on proper moral values, reason, common sense, and the oneness of God. They describe their beliefs thus on their websites:
In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God's UNITY, or that there is One God, and One only. To this truth we give infinite importance, and we feel ourselves bound to take heed, lest any man spoil us of it by vain philosophy. The proposition, that there is one God, seems to us exceedingly plain. We understand by it, that there is one being, one mind, one person, one intelligent agent, and one only, to whom underived and infinite perfection and dominion belong… We do… protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity...88
However, some of the views now propounded under the name of Unitarianism contain elements that are incompatible with God and His revelation. Some Unitarians possess a humanist conception of religion, in which religious rules and worship are eliminated. Some do not believe in miracles, such as the virgin birth, or that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) actually performed miracles. This is another deviation away from Divine truth. Unitarians are not presented in this book as a community that represents true Christianity as it was at the time of Prophet Jesus (pbuh); the author merely cites their beliefs concerning the trinity and the atonement of sins. Other of their beliefs, however, conflict with what the Qur'an teaches.
Servetus: A Monotheistic Christian
Another theologian who met with great opposition was Michael Servetus (d. 1553), who stated many things taught by the Church for hundreds of years could not be found in the New Testament at all. While still in his 20s, he published two books, De Trinitatis erroribus libri vii (The Errors of the Trinity) and Dialogorum de Trinitate libri ii (Two Dialogues on the Trinity), both of which elicited a powerful reaction in Europe. Until then, nobody had written such a courageous book. Servetus, who said that he was following the footsteps of the first disciples linked to the Antioch school, was subsequently hounded by Rome from country to country for many years. He changed his name, but never his ideas. For that reason, he was burned at the stake at Genoa on 26 January 1553.
Servetus had an affection for and interest in Islam. In his works, he devoted a great deal of space to the words of the Prophet Muhammed (may God bless him and grant him peace) and Islam's powerful monotheistic belief. In De Trinitatis erroribus libri vii, he emphasized that belief in the trinity was incompatible with reason:
How much this tradition of the Trinity has alas, alas! been the laughing stock of Muhammedans only God knows. The Jews also shrink from giving adherence to this fancy of ours, and laugh at our foolishness about the Trinity… And not only the Muhammedans and the Hebrews but the very beasts of the field, would make fun of us, did they grasp our fantastic notion, for all the workers of the Lord bless the One God..91
His writings and teachings led to his inhuman murder. However, today he is still regarded as the founder of modern monotheism by many Christians.
The Jehovah's Witnesses
The Jehovah's Witnesses also reject belief in the trinity. Although they agree with traditional Christianity in many areas, their rejection of the trinity has caused many Christians to view them as non-Christians, despite their obvious Judeo-Christian basis.
According to the Jehovah's Witnesses, belief in the trinity is a non-Biblical belief. They say that if people read the Bible without any preconceived notions, they will never encounter any such idea, for this idea was added long after Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) had been raised to God's presence. Although this sect resembles Judaism in terms of its conception of God, their beliefs concerning Prophet Jesus (pbuh) distinguish them from it. The Jehovah's Witnesses stress that they are the real Christians and that all others are all in error:
The teachings of the Bible about God and his purposes are clear, easy to understand, and reasonable. But the teachings of Christendom's churches are not. Worse, they contradict the Bible... Also, Christendom's Trinity doctrine portrays God as some mysterious three-in-one God. But that teaching is not found in the Bible either.90
According to Jehovah's Witness statistics for 2001, this sect has approximately 6 million members.
Islam strengthened the Unitarian Church
When we look at how the Unitarian Church gained strength, we encounter a most interesting connection: the influence of the Ottoman Empire. In Transylvania, which was part of the Ottoman territories in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, monotheistic beliefs grew very powerful. In a sermon entitled "Islam, the US, and Yeats' Dilemma," Jack Donovan, a priest in the Florida Unitarian Church, emphasizes this development:
In Poland, Hungary, and Transylvania, some Reform Protestant Christians began asserting as a matter of faith, "God is one. There is no god but God." Dangerous heresy in Christendom in those days. Where did dead-defying statement come from?... In 1520s and '30s, when Protestantism was still very new and trinitarian, the Islamic Ottoman Empire conquered Croatia, Hungary, and Transylvania.91
As expressed by many historians and Unitarian clergy, the reason why this monotheistic sect located in Ottoman territories gained in strength was because Islam brought a climate of tolerance. Susan Ritchie of the North Unitarian Universalist Church emphasizes this fact in a sermon entitled The Promise of Postmodernism for Unitarian Universalist Theology:
Most moderate international historians accept not only that the political protection of the Ottomans allowed for the development of progressive Protestantisms, but also that the infamous permissiveness of Ottoman administrative practice regarding local customs and religions must have had some influence with regards to the issue of toleration.92
Islam's powerful monotheism was an enormous guarantee for anti-trinitarian Christians, for within the Ottoman Empire they could express their opinions freely, enjoy official tolerance, establish their own churches, and reinforce the Christian monotheistic tradition.
The links between Islam and the Unitarian Church have attracted the interest of researchers for hundreds of years. For example, in his The Hungarian Protestant Reformation in the Sixteenth Century under the Ottoman Impact, Alexander Sándor Unghváry concentrates on the importance attached to Islam by Servetus, an earlier proponent of monotheism.93In his work, based on the relationship between Socianism and Islam, Mathurin Veyssiére de la Croze claims that the Unitarians of Transylvania accepted the similarity between the oneness of God as taught by Unitarianism and that taught in the Qur'an.94
Unitarian clergyman Jack Donovan also draws attention to these matters in a sermon:
Two Islamic teachings would have become common knowledge and would have been much noted. One, the words of the daily call to prayer sung from the minarets to the general public: "God is One. There is no god but God. There is no god but God." And two, the explicit requirement of the Quran, emphasized by Muhammad, that respect and tolerance be given to all religions because each is a response to God. When those teachings are applied to the gospel of Jesus, you get 16th century Unitarianism. It is my hypothesis that our tradition has a 450 year old debt to Islam for a center we share in common.95
Mark D. Morrison-Reed of the Toronto Unitarian Church also describes Islam in a sermon entitled The Islamic Connection:
Houston Smith writes that Islam's "innovation was to remove idols from the religious scene and focus the divine on a single invisible God for everyone."[p. 236- Houston Smith, The World's Religions] Unlike Christianity Islam is unmistakably monotheistic, and unlike Judaism was not confined to one people. We might begin any effort to connect with Islam with this: acknowledge that we share common historical ground in this intuition about and understand of God's singularity. In the Middle Ages it was Islam tolerance that allowed a cultural bridge between Christianity and Islam to develop. This Spanish Renaissance influenced a person we claim as our intellectual forebear, Michael Servetus. Servetus was born in 1511 in northern Spain and while we know some of the details and influence upon his life, we don't know exactly how his ideas developed or what precipitated the publishing in 1531 of his book On the Errors of the Trinity… While Islam had created the political and intellectual conditions that contributed to the emerging of Servetus' ideas in the West, it was also responsible for the political conditions that allowed Unitarianism to germinate, blossom and spread in eastern Europe… In a sense we are indebted to Islam. For me that suggest that we need to stop viewing Islam as something foreign and incomprehensible. Instead, it is time to recognize that not only are we historically connected but that we share some common values, as well.96
These statements of different Uniterian clergymen reveal the climate of tolerance in Ottoman territories and the common values shared by these two revealed religions.
78. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln, The Messianic Legacy, s. 157