The Trinity

First Parish of Sudbury
Rev. Katie Lee Crane, preaching

Unitarians Reject the Doctrine of the Trinity: Why?

Show me your proofs…. Work some miracle. Utter some prophecy. Show me something divine in you which other[s]do not possess.

      • – William Ellery Channing

OPENING WORDS                                

We are said to exalt reason above revelation…. Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this: that the Bible is a book written for men (sic), in the language of men (sic), and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books….

We reason about the Bible precisely as civilians do about the constitution.

      • – William Ellery Channing


We light this chalice to affirm:

  • that new light is ever waiting to break through to enlighten our ways

  • that new truth is ever waiting to break through to illumine our minds

  • that new love is ever waiting to break through to warm our hearts.

      • – Wayne Arnason


It Just Doesn’t Make Sense a story about William Ellery Channing

Our children are learning about Unitarian Universalism in their classes this fall. So, this morning, all of us are learning about some of the same things: our UU history and theology. If you have children in our religious education classes, ask them to tell you what they’re learning.

I want to tell you the story of a little boy from Rhode Island named William. He was born right in the middle of the Revolutionary War. They say he was smaller than other boys, and a little frail, but he could do all the things that they did and he was very good in school. He had brown curly hair and was well-liked by his friends and neighbors.

One day, William’s father took him to hear a preacher who was very popular at the time. Lots and lots of people came from near and far to hear what this man had to say.  He didn’t shout or anything, but he talked a long, long time. He said that God was angry at the world and that all people were sinners, except for a very few that God had picked to be saved.

In fact, that’s what William and his brothers and sisters heard often when they went to church: the world is bad, the people in it are bad, and the worst is yet to come!

On this particular day, though, William began to question these things. After all, when the preacher was finished, the congregation stood and sung praises to God. William wondered: "Why would people praise a God who told them they were sinners and insisted they would go to hell?" On the way home he thought about it some more. As he and his father drove along the seashore on that sunny afternoon and he wondered: "How could this beautiful sea be bad? How could my father be a sinner? Or my mother? Or grandmother? Oh, he knew some people did bad things like swear, or keep slaves or drink too much. But he wasn’t sure that was bad enough for the awful and unending punishment the preacher had described.

"It just doesn’t make sense!" he kept thinking. "It just doesn’t make sense!"

William didn’t have any answers, but he had lots of questions. He kept asking questions and thinking about things as he grew up. He asked questions in school. Sometimes he questioned what he read in books. And, even after he grew up and became a famous preacher himself, he asked questions. He was always trying to make sense out of things.

There is a lot more to William’s story  and I hope to tell more of it another day  but I what I want you to remember today is that William asked questions and sought answers that made sense to him. He looked in books and asked teachers and tried to figure things out for himself. He thought there was always more to learn and that, even kids like himself, might discover something brand new and important. William grew up to be one of the most famous preachers in Boston and a great leader who some call the "Father of Unitarianism."

Remember his name: it was William Ellery Channing.

READING from Unitarian Christianity by William Ellery Channing

When Channing gave the ordination sermon for the Rev. Jared Sparks in Baltimore in May of 1819, he set out to make a statement for the liberal point of view in a growing argument between liberal and conservative Christian believers. Liberals rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and the innate depravity of human beings, both of which were defining tenets of the orthodox Calvinist tradition. Channing’s sermon became the rallying cry of the liberals, gave their movement its name  Unitarian — and eventually led to the split of the two factions and the organization of the American Unitarian Association.

…[W]e believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only. … 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 conceive, that these words could have conveyed no other meaning to the simple and uncultivated people who were set apart to be the depositaries of this great truth, and who were utterly incapable of understanding those hair-breadth distinctions between being and person, which the sagacity of later ages has discovered. We find no intimation that this language was to be taken in an unusual sense, or that God’s unity was quite a different thing from the oneness of other intelligent beings.

We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his (sic) own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed. …we have no proof, that all the agents and persons in the universe are not one and the same mind. When we attempt to conceive of three Gods, we can do nothing more than represent to ourselves three agents, distinguished from each other by similar marks and peculiarities to those which separate the persons of the Trinity; and when common Christians hear these persons spoken of as conversing with each other, loving each other, and performing different acts, how can they help regarding them as different beings, different minds?

We do, then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, [italics mine] protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. …We challenge our opponen
ts to adduce one passage in the New Testament, where the word of God means three persons, where it is not limited to o
ne person, and where, unless turned from its usual sense by the connextion (sic), it does not mean the Father. Can stronger proof be given, that the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead is not a fundamental doctrine of Christianity?

…We believe, then, that Christ is one mind, one being, and I add, a being distinct from the one God. That Christ is not the one God, not the same being with the Father….

RESPONSIVE READING The Free Mind by William Ellery Channing

I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognizes its own reality and greatness:

  • Which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.

I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith:

  • Which opens itself to the light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heave.

I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse:

  • Which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.

I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpation of society, and which does not cower to human opinion:

  • Which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.

I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its old virtues:

  • But which listens for new and higher monitions of conscience and rejoices to pour itself forth in fresh and higher exertions.

I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering:

  • Which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself up a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.

I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall:

  • Which is clam in the midst of tumults and possesses itself, though all else be lost.

SERMON Unitarians Reject the Doctrine of the Trinity: Why?

The idea for today’s sermon came to me on a Tuesday, late last July. You know how it is: I was the "carpool Mom" that day. I had to buy a few groceries. I was moving my study from downstairs to upstairs. The garden was all weeds. Guests were coming…. You know, the usual.

And there it was, a query via e-mail: "Why did Unitarians reject the doctrine of the Trinity?" Now, the answer to that question could easily fill a dissertation and certainly take a five-week class in Unitarian history and theology. So, I waited until I had more time. And when "more time" didn’t come right away, I waited some more.

Well, one thing led to another, and, finally, I am responding (though I still wish I had more time). I must thank my e-mail correspondents for their patience. I hope the information I can provide is as interesting to them and to you as it is to me.

The doctrine of the Trinity, as we learned in this morning’s reading, is the belief of three persons in one God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; it holds that Jesus is not only human (God’s Son) but also divine (God, himself). For most Christians, both eastern and western, this is a central and important doctrine of their faith. The doctrine of the Trinity was formally defined and adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.

This council, the first ecumenical council ever to be held, was a gathering of church fathers (probably numbering between 220 and 300), summoned together by the Emperor, Constantine, to deal with the so-called "Arian controversy." At the heart of the controversy was a theological question about the divinity of Jesus. Arius, a Libyan born priest who served one of the principal churches at Alexandria, was the chief proponent of the idea that Jesus was human, not divine  not God in nature. This concept had a large and powerful following. Athanasius, who later became Bishop of Alexandria, was one of the most vocal champions for a different point of view: that Jesus was both human and divine.

At its heart, this was a theological deliberation among the greatest theologians of the day. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the council "appears to have begun with informal discussion between the Arians and the orthodox, followed by a solemn opening by Constantine himself." At the council, the Arians presented a creed for consideration. But Athanasius led the opposition to adopt another creed, what we now call the Nicene Creed, which contains four anti-Arian statements. [There is a copy of the Nicene Creed in your order of service, today.]

Scholars do not know whether the assembled Fathers meant for this to be the last word on the subject  some suggest that it was their intent that the discussion continue. Certainly, the controversy continued. At successive councils through the decade of 350 C.E. the two sides won and lost ground respectively. By 359 Jerome wrote: "The whole world groans to find itself Arian." Eventually, though, the orthodox views prevailed. The creedal statement written at the first Council of Nicea became widely accepted in both east and west, thanks in large part to the theological expositions of three Cappadocians: Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Even after it was eradicated from the empire, however, Arianism retained a foothold among a few Teutonic tribes.

I give you all this background for several reasons. First, because many Unitarians trace a piece of their lineage back to the Arian perspective. But, more than that, I mention it because, in my opinion, the central issue is not just about the divinity of Jesus or the definition of God, it’s about how people make sense out of things; about how people come to understand what they believe.

Looking at it purely from our present-day Unitarian Universalist perspective, it’s about our fourth principal: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

For a moment, though, let me continue with some history. Remember the Arian foothold in the Teutonic tribes? I strongly suspect that’s how the same issues surfaced among the people in Zurich in 1525 when the radical wing of the Swiss reformation decided to establish a pure Church, reformed from the ground up, based on strict adherence in every particular to the teachings of Scripture, which they accepted literally and tried to follow faithfully. It is almost certainly the origins of the anti-trinitarian sentiments in Italy and Geneva, and probably also in Poland, perhaps Holland, and certainly Transylvania in the 16th century. In fact, the first official use of the word unitarian occurred a century later, in 1638, in Transylvania, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which became a part of Romania after World War I. This, of course, is why there is still such an active Unitarian presence in Romania, today.

I’ve just covered about four of the five weeks of that hypothetical course on this topic and I haven’t even gotten to the threads of unitarianism (or anti-trinitarianism) in England and, then, the United States.

Not every Christian dissenter objected to the doctrine of the
Trinity on the same grounds. For some, it was an issue over the divinity of Jesus. For others, it was about the authorita
tive source. The Bible, specifically the New Testament or Christian Bible, was thought to be the proof text for theological issues; opponents argued that they could find no definitive evidence in the Bible for the Trinity. Others argued that the Bible is a human document, written and interpreted by fallible human beings, hence we cannot draw from it categorical conclusions about something so important as God.

William Ellery Channing, whom I will return to in a moment, said: "Christianity becoming identified, by means of creeds, with so many dark doctrines, is looked on by many as a subject for theologians to quarrel about, but too thorny or perplexed for common minds…."

I think he’s right. The debate was mostly among the educated elite, the philosophers and theologians, the great minds whose passion and, often, profession was to interpret and articulate the tenets of the faith. In every age, there rose up voices and visionaries who attempted to explain and teach what they understood to be the truth.

In short, it is a classic example of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Except for one thing. The Christian Church, particularly the Roman church and the Eastern Orthodox Christians, have, on occasion, articulated a set of truths that they sincerely believe to be unchanging.

By contrast, there have always been voices who argue that revelation is continuous, never fixed.

That leads to my final history lesson of today: the role of liberal New England Christians in defining a unitarian point of view.  

In New England, Calvinism was the dominant Christian theology. By the end of the 1700s  around the time that our meetinghouse was completed  Calvinism had moved to the beliefs you see on the other side of today’s insert. New England Calvinist doctrine of the late 18th century stressed that: human beings are totally depraved as a result of original sin; God decides who is predestined for heaven or hell (good works mean nothing); Jesus died only to save those few elected by God; and, once saved, always saved (bad deeds mean nothing).  They say that Israel Loring, the first minister to serve in what was then the western precinct of Sudbury, was rooted strongly in this Calvinist tradition.

Liberal Christians, began to reject the increasingly strict and severe tenets of Calvinism. Culturally, people were becoming more secular and more literary. Influenced by the rational, Enlightenment Movement in Europe, they began linking intellectual and artistic pursuits with religious and moral ones. Instead of talk of depravity, the liberals began to emphasize human moral capacity. They honestly began to believe that human beings were capable of good moral choices.

The young minister of the Brattle Street Church, Joseph Stevens Buckminister, used a new form of biblical criticism to take on the orthodox point of view. (Research such as that of the Jesus Seminar does the same thing today.) Buckminister questioned the authenticity of some interpretations of the Bible, concluding that only a very few of the various books contain substantiated evidence that affect the doctrines of Christianity. He noted one verse in particular, I John 5:7 as a "notorious" example of "willful interprolation." That verse, in the King James Version of the Bible, reads:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

Do you see what is happening here?  Do you notice the parallels to Arius and Athanasius? The details of the arguments differ, but the big picture is the same. Orthodox thinkers hold fast to one doctrine. Liberal thinkers dispute that doctrine and offer a different interpretation. The controversy heats up to a boil. In short, the great thinkers of the day wrestle with theological issues.

Enter William Ellery Channing.  We have been listening to his words all morning. He is thought by many to be the Father of North American Unitarianism. Certainly it was his ordination sermon in Baltimore that gave the movement its name. To the orthodox Christians of his day, rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity was the most heinous of crimes because it implied a rejection of the divinity of Jesus. Unitarians! That’s what they called the liberal dissenters. Unitarians, a nasty, hateful epithet.

It was Channing who accepted and defended the label, Unitarianism, and who, more than anyone else, gave us a definition for it. With one sermon, Unitarian Christianity, he became the chief spokesperson for the liberal point of view. It was  immediately  one of the most controversial sermons ever written, and, we now know, one of the most enduring.

What we must remember today, in what many call the post-Christian era of Unitarian Universalism, is that Channing and the other liberals were solidly Christian. Unlike the 20th century Humanists who professed no belief in God, the early Unitarians believed in God. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the one chosen by God to bring good news. They believed in the authority of scriptures, especially the New Testament.

To Channing, who considered himself a liberal Christian, it was a matter of interpretation. To Buckminister, it was a matter of applying reason. "It [is] our bounden duty" he said, "to exercise our reason upon [the Bible] perpetually." Neither felt the Bible was the word of God; instead, they felt it was the work of humans inspired by God.

Fixed doctrines, then, and creeds, to Channing, were an insult to human reason. He believed revelation is continuous. He could not  and would not  attach his beliefs to things until he could make sense of them.

In other sermons, Channing referred to the "divinity in us," and our human likeness to God. For him, the real controversy was not so much a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity (that is, a rejection of Jesus as God); it was much more about the affirmation human nature (that is, that there is a bit of God in all of us).

For Channing, the issue wasn’t so much whether you did or did not believe in the Trinity, but whether you were free to make meanings for yourself.

The history lesson could go on and on. The theological nuances could be much more finely articulated. It would take months to research and report on all the ways Christians, both eastern and western, have interpreted the doctrine of the Trinity and, months more, to do justice to those who opposed the dominant  and eventually, doctrinal  statements about it. (In just fifteen minutes, Jonas gave me a foot-high stack of references that represent a few of the Christian perspectives on the Trinity. My own stack of Unitarian resources is equally high.)

But my point is this: In every age there will be those who enjoy the intellectual challenge and the spiritual rigor of theological interpretations. It is what we all do: make meanings for ourselves from what we know. I cannot say definitively that Arius was right and Athanasius was wrong. Or that anyone elsemyself included  has THE ANSWER. I can only say that all of us are struggling in our own ways to make meanings and that, as a Unitarian Universalist, I am committed to affirming everyone’s right to a responsible search for truth and meaning.

I conclude with Channing’s statement read earlier this morning:

We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity.

Only this time, I ask you not to reflect on his statement about the Trinity, but on his very important qualification: [We reject this,] without reproaching our brethren. This, it seems to me, is as great a legacy from Channing as his theological position. He believed strongly in his position. He doubted the position of his opponents, but he never, never doubte
d their right to have that position.

For me, that is the great legacy of the early
Unitarian history and theology and the foundation on which our fourth principal solidly rests.


We opened with a traditional Christian expression of the Trinity. Listen, now as we close with two contemporary interpretations of the Trinity.


The discussion is not over. I close with the words of Karl Rahner, a 20th century Jesuit theologian who wrestles with ways to bring complex doctrine, such as the Trinity, to ordinary Christians. His perspective refutes everything I have just said. I do not ask you to accept it, necessarily, but I do ask that you listen, and hear it, and accept the reality that it contains his "truth," and may, just possibly help  you or someone you love make meanings for yourselves.

…the doctrine of the Trinity is not a subtle theological and speculative game, but rather is an assertion which cannot be avoided.

[adapted] We must accept the simple statement that is, at once, so incomprehensible and so self evident: God is the holy and abiding mystery, the God of infinite distance and absolute closeness, present in the spiritual depths of our existence and in the concreteness of our corporeal history.

Several texts referenced in this service


This is a statement of faith used only in the Western Church (no Eastern Orthodox Churches make the same statement of faith). Though its affirmations can be supported by New Testament evidence, the creed itself is not of Apostolic origins. It is first noted around 390 C.E. and was popular during the reign of Charlemagne. It was frequently used in the Middle Ages (7th and 9th centuries), and is still popular today.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.



This profession of faith was issued at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. to defend against the Arian belief that Jesus was not truly divine. [Arians believed that Jesus was created by the Father and that therefore he was not God by nature, but a changeable creature, his divinity having been bestowed upon him by the Father.] It is used by Christians in both Eastern and Western traditions.

We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfilment of the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the ressurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.


  • Statement by North American Calvinists — "T.U.L.I.P."*

Calvinism began in the Netherlands in 1618 as one of the reform traditions that took exception to the prevailing teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. When Calvinism spread to North America, it became exaggerated and extreme, resulting in the following beliefs:

T = total depravity; powerless over sin
U= unconditional election; predestined by God for heaven or hell
L = limited atonement; Christ died only for the elect
I = irresistible grace; we cannot say "no" to God’s grace
P= perseverance of the saints; once saved, always saved