A REVIEW OF AN INTRODUCTION TO THE UNITARIAN AND UNIVERSALIST TRADITIONS BY ANDREA GREENWOOD AND MARK W. HARRIS
When I was studying at Union Theological Seminary, the standard textbook for church history in two of the three required courses was Williston Walker’s A History of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition. Professor David Lotz, who taught medieval and reformation church history, used to list our reading assignments in his syllabus as “WNLH” with the page numbers. He, along with Richard Norris (who taught early church history at Union then) and Robert Handy (not long retired from teaching modern church history), were the editors who had prepared the fourth edition. I remember him explaining this abbreviation at the beginning of the year, saying that it was meant to give due credit to the editors – since the revisions had been considerable – and that it stood for (he now affected mock chagrin) “Walker.”
Walker’s original work, first published in 1918, came to be considered a classic work of church history, a narrative of admirable clarity, unity and balance. WNLH updated it with new scholarship and what the dust jacket described as “fresh interpretations.” Having listened to the lectures of Professors Norris and Lotz for a semester each, I recognize the cadences of their voices when I return to read it. It is clear that, while Walker’s outline remains, most of his original prose was substantially rewritten if not replaced. A high standard of clarity, unity and balance was nevertheless maintained.
At long last, Unitarian Universalism may have its Walker. An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions pulls together often separately told histories, not only of Unitarianism and Universalism, but also of Unitarian communities in different national and cultural settings. Andrea Greenwood and Mark W. Harris have valuably assembled, distilled and incorporated much recent scholarship into a concise (under 250 pages) and accessible narrative. The selected bibliography is extensive. While Universalism has a marginal presence in these pages, it does have a presence, and its interaction with Unitarianism in American and other contexts is explored. The direct connections from the first antitrinitarian writings by Michael Servetus to antitrinitarian communities in Italy, Poland and Transylvania are made clear. Continental connections of British Unitarians are noted, and the multiple sources of American Unitarianism are described. The book offers a helpful and blunt analysis of how racism shaped our movement in the 20th century, and places its international activities in proper historical context, asking more probing and honest questions about them.
With all these strengths, this could easily become the sole required text for training elders and professional religious leaders in Unitarian Universalist history and heritage. Were that to come about, however, the editors of the second edition would have their work cut out for them. The first and crucial editorial task would be to improve the interpretive framework. Greenwood and Harris offer revisionism in the best tradition, the kind that gets at truth. Inevitably their work is limited in the ways all revisionism is, here (and here again) reinforcing an old prejudice by arguing with it, there (and there, and again there) being caught up in the fads, worries and perspectives of the present day. These imbalances would need correction.
A more compelling and coherent theological perspective would also need to be supplied. The pungent gumbo of freedom, democracy, humanism, literacy, reason, individualism, conscience, principles, and activism found throughout this book flavors its historical chapters (five of the thirteen), but overwhelms its thematic chapters (which address topics such as congregational polity, worship, ecology, art, education, social justice, and technology). Perhaps the ninth chapter, titled “Sources of Faith,” was meant as a roux to give it substance, but it is off-the-shelf: borrowed thought from Paul Rasor (freedom, social justice and interdependence as the three core values of Unitarian Universalism) that attempted to revise Earl Morse Wilber’s classic distillation of the Unitarian tradition as a commitment to freedom, reason and tolerance in religion. It is a processed, not organic, ingredient.
Happily, Greenwood and Harris arrive in their very last sentence at a good starting point for theological interpretation: “Loving, not believing, is a property of divine nature … Therefore, one always comes to the conclusion that love is sublime and excellent, and that love is more like God.” Though the footnotes do not make it clear, it appears that this quotation comes from a work of Michael Servetus. If that is the case, this starting point also could promote unity of narrative in a second edition.
A second crucial editorial task would be to decide the audience for the book. The title suggests it might be offered as a resource for new members wanting a deeper understanding of the faith tradition to which they are committing themselves. The content suggests that the authors have had many audiences in mind at once – also a typical pitfall of revisionism. Different sections of the book – sometimes within a single chapter – seem to address all manner of leaders and thinkers in all areas of the life of our movement, sometimes telling them things they probably have already heard from a church consultant or denominational staff, other times taking a side in denominational politics, and still other times attempting to educate away prejudices that have become conventional thought or attitudes among us. If it really is meant for new members, the second edition will need to be written to their concerns.
Third, there is still more scholarship to incorporate into this beautifully concise and accessible narrative. One example: Greenwood and Harris recount that Dr. Giorgio Biandrata had a copy of Michael Servetus’s book, Christianismi Restitutio, which he lent to Ferenc David. “David read the book, talked with the doctor, [converted the king], and both Unitarianism and freedom of conscience were born.” Setting aside the question of whether there had been freedom of conscience before that time, it is not accurate to suggest that Servetus’s writings were Biandrata’s and David’s textbook. Instead, the two made a particular use of Christianismi Restitutio which was political in nature.
After the Edict of Torda in 1568, David and Biandrata went into high gear developing and defining their antitrinitarian reform. They published a collection of David’s sermons, the first Unitarian hymnal, and another book called De falsa et vera unius Dei – “Of the false and true One God” – which consisted entirely of the millenarian passages of Michael Servetus’s Christianismi Restitutio, reorganized into a more concise and forceful argument. This has been recounted by Howard Hotson in his essay, “Arianism and Millenarianism: The Link Between Two Heresies from Servetus to Socinus,” published in John Christian Laursen and Richard H. Popkin, eds., Continental Millenarians: Protestants, Catholics, Heretics, Vol IV of Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001). Their use of Servetus’s writing can be seen as a response to Catholic reform taking shape at the Council of Trent.
Why borrow Servetus’s millennial passages? Luther and Calvin both suggested that the book of Revelation should have been left out of the Bible, but most Reformers who took it seriously took the millennium to be a literal thousand years, starting either from the crucifixion or from Constantine’s reign, the end of the Great Persecution: either from about the year 33 until 1033, or from about 300 until about 1300. Either way, it was long past. Servetus read this material differently. Certain passages in the book of Revelation led to another way to measure the period of the millennium, so that its length is not 1000 but 1260 years. Depending on whether one starts with the beginning of Constantine’s reign or the end (or some event during, like the Council of Nicaea), the end of the millennium must be somewhere between 1562 and 1597. By these calculations, the end of the millennium was imminent – a good motivator in the religious politics of the time.
And what had Servetus said in his millennial passages? He argued that, in the beginning, God created the perfect world, Eden, but Adam messed up and was cast out; likewise, in the beginning of the Church, Christ created the perfect spiritual community, but the apostles messed up and the result was the Church. Jesus had the divine mission to redeem the world, and did it, but it failed, just like the creation did. This world is not God’s perfect world, and this Church is not Christ’s perfect Church. Antichrist has reigned almost all his 1260-year term, and God’s about to send Jesus down for another go. Human beings have got to get it right this time. Like Luther, Servetus appealed to the political leaders of the world to choose God’s side and participate in the restoration of Christianity.
The Council of Trent was the context for David’s whole career. It met in its first sessions about a year before David left to begin his studies in Frankfurt. During his years at Frankfurt and Wittenberg, between 1546 and 1551, the religious reform to which Trent reacted was gaining momentum everywhere. Another series of Council sessions began as David returned to Transylvania in 1551. Two years later, the Reformed community in Geneva burned Michael Servetus at the stake. Two years after that, the Protestant princes and the Emperor signed the Peace of Augsburg, agreeing that in each state within the Empire, the religion of the prince would be the religion of his realm. These religions would be defined, and further innovations disallowed. That year David was elected chief minister in Kolozsvar. In another two years, David found himself as leader and bishop of Transylvania’s Hungarian-speaking Lutherans. At this time the ideas of Zwingli and Calvin became known in Transylvania, and David found himself persuaded by Zwingli’s idea of communion as a memorial meal rather than as a mystical event (or sacrament). Over the next five years, debate on this issue escalated until finally in 1564 the Calvinists split from the Lutheran church, with David as their bishop. King John Sigismund then named him his court preacher. In doing so, he was taking a stand in support of reform beyond the Emperor’s Augsburg settlement, which recognized only the Catholic and Lutheran churches. No doubt Turkish “protection” allowed him this latitude.
Meanwhile, back in Trent, the final sessions of the Council were held, reaffirming the old doctrines but taking on board reforms relating to clergy conduct and institutional abuses. The Jesuits, now established a little over 20 years, would take on the mission of teaching and spreading the reformed Catholic doctrine, with the support of the Inquisition. Transylvania’s reforms were gathering steam just as the tide of the Reformation was turning.
During the communion debates, Biandrata arrived in Transylvania from Poland. He and David became friends and discovered that their thought about religious reform ran along similar lines. Within two years, in January of 1566, David preached his first unitarian sermon. The context for Biandrata showing David his copy of Christianismi Restitutio is that the pressure was on for Protestants to define their reformed religions in the hope that they would then not be ruled out as innovations. The final edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in 1559; the Lutheran Formula of Concord came in 1577.
In March of 1566, the Transylvanian Reformed Synod declared that the Apostles’ Creed was the only basis of Christian faith. This was significant for two reasons. First, it was a rejection of the Athanasian Creed favored by the Catholic Church. The Apostles’ Creed says “I believe in God the Father … I believe in Jesus Christ … [and] I believe in the Holy Spirit,” but it doesn’t say Jesus is God or the Holy Spirit is God, and can be read in a variety of ways, including Unitarian ways. Second, this was the synod that the court preacher belonged to, and the King let it stand. With David preaching a unitarian interpretation, the King encouraged further debate within the synod to reach a consensus. But the Lutherans and Calvinists formed a united front against the denial of the Trinity, and as a result the “Davidists,” as they were first called, split from the Calvinists to form their own church, with David as their bishop.
David was persuaded of the urgent need for continuing reform, and Servetus’s work could help him instill that urgency. David’s own millennial view was that reform had stalled in 1530 when the Lutherans published their Augsburg Confession, and reform had been wandering in the Calvinist wilderness ever since. But the wandering would only be for 40 years: 1570 was the year to stop wandering and define the faith. And that was just two years off when the Edict of Torda was proclaimed. That’s why Biandrata and David then produced so many writings so quickly. Other reformers were doing likewise. We might hope that in a second edition of An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions, this context would be supplied.
As this example suggests, a second edition that captured the Unitarian and Universalist traditions in an accurate and balanced way, included the latest scholarship, addressed the concerns of new church members or those seeking a deeper understanding of our faith, provided a compelling and coherent theological framework, and still took less than 250 pages, would need to be the work of at least three highly trained and experienced collaborators. It has taken two to pull together the fragmented material about our heritage into a single concise and accessible narrative, and for all the foregoing criticisms, that is no small achievement. We all have cause to be deeply grateful for this volume and the contributions it may make toward helping all our lay and professional leaders to have and convey a better understanding of our heritage.