I believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Leadership of Jesus.
This was almost a creed with Unitarians until recent years when they abandoned all statements of belief in favor of “absolute freedom of belief.” This descent from Channing’s Arianism to a relegation of God himself to the personal idiosyncrasy of each individual, as is now the case, was quite logical. Commenting on the growth of Unitarian theories among Methodists and Congregationalists in particular, a New England minister once said: “We are now where Channing was. In 50 years we will be where Unitarians are now—in humanism.” It seems to me he was right.
More than 10 years ago, after serving 22 years as a Unitarian minister, I returned to the church of my ordination. On that first Sunday after my restoration to the priesthood, I stood at the altar and recited with the congregation the Nicene Creed. Its articles to which I was bearing witness included this:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ …
God of God, Light of Light, Very God
of Very God, being of One Substance
with the Father.…
There the issue is struck: Jesus as the ideal, good man, the world’s supremely ethical and spiritual leader, yet a product of his time; or God having taken upon himself our flesh so that he might do for us what no mere human leader could do. My experience as a Unitarian clergyman convinced me that there was no halfway house between those two positions.
SHUDDERING CLERGY, APPLAUDING LAITY
At interdenominational meetings, I had heard clergymen pile adjective upon adjective in glorification of Jesus, and yet the speaker was talking about one whose difference from the rest of us was only one of degree, not of kind. Our denomination was largely made up of refugees from what we called, with a shudder, “orthodoxy.” Higher criticism of the Bible, scientism, liberalism in general (and Walter Lippmann’s “acids of modernity”) had rendered their former position odious. When singing the old hymns and administering the ordinances and sacraments, they felt like hypocrites. And they often paid a high price for their “leap over the wall.” As one man told me, “I could have gone right on preaching Unitarianism in my Baptist church before Sunday congregations of a thousand and more. Now that I bear the Unitarian label the same sermons bring in a congregation of barely one hundred.” Unitarianism was a despised word among his former parishioners, whereas the thing itself was unrecognized and therefore accepted.
What might have been my own future had the Unitarians stuck to their Unitarian “theology” I do not know. But as I saw every trace of theology washed away and repudiated within 20 years time, I knew I had to consider theism as a matter of personal choice—not so much lest I deny God, as lest I belittle him—or else look over again the grounds for belief in the theology I had quit. I was not imaging that the demise of Unitarianism was proof of the theology of Chalcedon. If I were ever again to acknowledge Christ as God incarnate and second Person of the Trinity, I must now have evidence to justify it.
REBUILDING A LOST FAITH
Thus I began the slow process of rebuilding a lost faith. At first the New Testament ranked in my eyes like other ancient literature. Why had any of it been written? Who had gathered it together, pronounced its authenticity, and declared it to be inspired by the Holy Ghost? Surely it had not been let down out of heaven on a string. What did the first Christians have for written authority while the New Testament books were in the making? All such questions ran through my mind until one by one the answers came to me. Humanly speaking I saw that the New Testament was the product of the faith “once for all delivered” in oral form by Christ. Paul makes that clear when he says, “I delivered unto you what I myself received.”
This knocked out completely an old Unitarian and liberal Protestant claim that the Church, and particularly Paul, had taught a religion about Jesus rather than the religion of Jesus. All the world knows that the religion of Jesus has been given it by that same Church with her religion about Jesus. If the Church had been worshiping Jesus, she would never have stultified herself by declaring as inspired books that would have turned her worship into sheer idolatry and blasphemy. Christianity then, I saw, had never been Unitarian. And a re-reading of the New Testament, freed from the false suppositions of liberalism, verified it. The Gospels were not biographies in the modern sense—they were propaganda. Their purpose was to bring men to accept Christ so that through him their separation from God since the Fall might be healed. The powers he exercised to forgive sin were divine. The Jews were quick to see the blasphemy involved and to seek his downfall. He might have saved himself before Pilate by denying that he was other than human. These were the things I could see without yet accepting the New Testament as Scripture. St. Anselm’s words struck me as being absolutely true: Aut deus, aut non bonus. If, as the liberals claimed, he was the perfect human being, he had also to be God.
Then I thought of the crucifixion. Why had the Jews been so insistent on doing away with him? I recalled the washed-out teaching of a Congregational minister friend of mine: “Wipe out all the Bible,” he said. “All we need is the Sermon on the Mount and the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians.” I could see that that would never stand up, for it implied that Jesus had been crucified for teaching the Golden Rule. Is it not a Jewish boast that nothing in the Sermon goes beyond the Prophets?
ON TO THE ATONEMENT
From then on the going was easy. It remained for me to find a bishop who would take me in. I could see that it had taken time for the Church to define the full dogma of Chalcedon—that Jesus had two natures, one human and one divine, united in one Person. I could see that no mere leader could bring about the reconciliation of mankind with God. It took me a year after my restoration to accept the full doctrine of the Atonement. That too came as I reflected on the frightful mountain of human sin. As for the inspiration of Scripture, what I took at first on the authority of the Church has more and more become a matter of personal conviction. I have found that which for long I sought, namely, a solid ground between acrid literalism and arid liberalism.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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