A Sermon delivered by the Rev. Ernest Penn in 1958 at Park Street Unitarian Church, Hull

Fatherhood of God and Divine Sonship

Instead of believing that God spoke only to a few men in the past, Unitarians hold that he speaks to all his children.

Instead of asserting that only a few will be saved, they teach that no one will finally be lost to God.

Instead of perceiving God incarnated in one man only, they reverence the divinity in all.

Instead of looking to Jesus as the only Saviour of the world, they regard him and all good men as saviours.

Instead of accepting a few miracles as recorded in the Bible, they reverence the real miracle of creation in all life.

Instead of finding God's presence implausibly [?] introduced into a Sacrament, they find him revealed as a real presence throughout the Universe of life.

Instead of saying that the Bible alone contains the word of God, they hold that every true and uplifiting word is divinely inspired, believing that "the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word."

The Religion of the Larger Affirmation

And yet Unitarianism has its roots in the mainstream of Christianity. It is Christian in the sense that it counts Jesus Christ as its great inspiration, and as the great Teacher; and in the sense that its insights emerge from the example and teaching of Jesus. But at the same time it does not deny the revelation and inspiration of other great religious teachers and spiritual geniuses throughout the ages.
Above all it must be understood that Unitarianism is not a system of creeds and beliefs. It is an attitude of mind, an approach, a way of life. It is an effort to follow truth, as God gives us to see truth, wherever it may lead. Its purpose is to preserve all that is good in and to discover the spiritual meaning of human experience and thought.
Dictionary definitions of Unitarianism are misleading and inaccurate.

One who affirms the unipersonality of the Godhead, as opposed to an orthodox trinitarian.
The trinitarian issue is incidental [and] the movement does not stand or fall on that.
It is an approach. Its designation 'Unitarian' is an historical accident; the chief bond of the Churches of the General Assembly is not doctrinal but a devotional [as in the] object:

To promote pure religion and the worship of God in spirit and in truth.
The Unitarian movement has been characterised by a steadfast and increasing devotion to three leading principles:

First, complete mental freedom in religion, rather than bondage to creeds and confessions.

Second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion rather than pure reliance on external authority or past tradition.

Third, a generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or policy.

Freedom, reason, tolerance: with these three leading principles the demand has been far more concerned with the underlying spirit of Christianity in its applications to the situations of practical life than with intellectual formulations of Christian thought.
Why? [Because] the invention of printing made the Bible more accessible, and those who were dissatisfied with the Church went to the Bible to find out what Christianity had been in the early days. Since they could not find the trinitarian scheme in the Bible, they rejected the Doctrine of the Trinity as unscriptural. Authority in reality was no longer the Church but the Book. But in setting the conscience free from the Church, Protestantism turned religion back on its sources in the soul - it had asserted the right of personal judgment and in many hearts and minds there was another Reformation which displaced even the Bible as the absolute and final authority in religious matters.
For if the seat of authority is not in an infallible Church or in an infallible book, what remains? Only this, as James Martineau contended: the seat of authority in religion is in the conscience, soul and mind of Man in communion with God.
The final religious reactions against traditional ecclesiastical dogma took shape among men and women who insisted on reading the Bible in the light of reason and conscience alone. Independent study of the Bible had been the source of many 'heresies' which threatened to destroy the ecclesiastical order of the national Church - hence the Act of Uniformity in 1662 to silence these conflicts. This Act ejected from their livings in the Church of England over 2500 clergymen. The overwhelming majority of the oldest Churches now Unitarian came into existence as a result of this Great Ejection in 1662.
A certain amount of antitrinitarian opinion continued in the Church of England amongst men who hoped they might be able to reform the Church from within, but were disappointed. Theophilus Lindsey for conscience sake resigned his position as Vicar of Catterick and in 1774 opened a room in Essex Street London as a Unitarian chapel. The movement progressed in the following years in the British Isles - Priestley 1733-1804) and James Martineau (1805-1900) - and one fact stands out clearly, that the Unitarian faith had its origins within the Christian Church. But it has enlarged its borders and extended its basis so that no narrow line of descent can be claimed for it. It has endeavoured to receive a severe [?] truth from whatever source it might come. It has been enriched by advances in science, philosophy and modern thought, and by fresh knowledge which has been shed by a succession of scholars in the religions of the East. Its general purpose has been to be receptive of the great inspirers of the past and present and to strengthen belief in the divine possibilities of mankind (an optimistic view of man).
What is disctinctive of Unitarianism as a system and method of belief? And what follows from this?

Distinctive factors may be:

  • Something held by Unitarians and denied by Christians at large or

  • Some general belief or principle of religious faith which is at least professed by Christians at large and also held by Unitarians, but given a different place or emphasis by Unitarians.

The latter is, I think, the case: Unitarians take the time honoured distinction between the essential and the non-essential and apply it to the problems of faith so as to create a distinctive outlook on religion. It does not say that the non-essential is false: the non-essential is not despised or repealed, but it is to be undestood, valued and used for whatever it is worth.
How does this work out in Unitarianism?

The very essence of the Unitarian gospel, the foundation on which the whole structure is built, is the Fatherhood of God. This conception is, of course, held by the rest of Christendom at large. What is distinctive of Unitarians is that they give it the central position in their faith. At the centre of orthodox Christian belief (which is the generality of Christendom) is the Godhead of Jesus Christ: "Jesus Christ as God and Saviour".
It is this definition that has led Unitarians out of the World Council of Churches; it is what flows from their central emphasis on the Fatherhood of God that has given them a leading place in the International Association of Religious Freedom and a place in the worldwide fellowship of the World Congress of Faiths.
The Fatherhood of God is held by Unitarians not as an object of lip service, not as a comfortable generalisation, or a vague theme of unlikely emotional assent, but as a great Ideal, whose meaning demands realisation alike in personal, social, national and international life: carrying with it (and this is the important theory) the Divine Sonship and Brotherhood of Man, and this, once more, not merely as a Truth to be assented to but as an Ideal to be realised, a task to be achieved in all our relations with God always.
The great thing useful for our deliverance is that our Divine Sonship shall be to us not only a Truth to be acknowledged but a reality to be enjoyed. This is the heart of vital religion, and it must be continuous, pervasive and purposive. Not many were moments of ecstasy, no place where God left and its purpose: the moral laws formation of the universe are by means of the laws foundation of individuals. [Note: copied as closely as possible for meaning]
The Gospel of the Fatherhood of God is, to Unitarians, essential Christianity. This is the affirmation from which they stand, and in this rests [?] their distinctive witness to Christianity and world religion. This we believe is the essence of Galilean Gospel of Jesus. Thus, so far as our knowledge goes, Christ [?] made of the Fatherhood of God not merely an idea but a force in life. it is the influence of his personality and teaching that makes the New Testament such a rich mine of moral inspiration and insight. In confessing the ideals which are central in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, we acknowledge his leadership.

What think ye of Christ? Some say he is God. Yet there is no record of him ever making such a claim for himself, and a typical answer is in Parker's hymn H. O. W. 188 [Hymns of Worship]
This is a confession of the religious value of Jesus, an acknowledgement of his leadership. But a Christology of the nature of Jesus's personality is a conception of another kind. It raises questions of history, psychology and philosophy. It shares the imperfection of all human definitions, and cannot belong to the things which for religion are essential.
Furthermore, the Unitarian acknowledgement of the leadership (moral and spiritual) of Jesus is not an exclusive dogma which, by its nature, would deny leadership in any other great religious teacher or founder. So we have a Universalist slant or emphasis.
This brings us to the doctrine of the Incarnation: the doctrine which lies at the heart of orthodox Christianity, the idea that Jesus is God and that God was in Jesus reconciling the world unto himself. From the Unitarian primary emphasis on the Fatherhood of God follows the Brotherhood of Man, all made in the image of God, in the divine image and divine potentialities. The Unitarian takes that idea of God in Christ reconciling the world to itself as follows:

The Incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.
It is an optimistic view of human nature. God is in man reconciling the world unto himself. This affirmation finds its saviour in the Christian scriptures, and is in harmony with teachings of other scriptures.
Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu, said:

Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.

Buddhists are optimistic about human nature, as man can attain to Buddhahood by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

In Confucianism the Tao takes a lofty view of human nature. They say that men are born good, or at least born in such a way that they are capable of achieving goodness.

The Hebrew psalmists too, as in Psalm 8, where it asks:

What is man? A little lower than an angel.

This view finds overwhelming support in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus never despaired of anyone. The prodigal in the far off country is a sinner; when he comes to himself (realises his true nature) and begins to understand anew what it means to be the son of his father, he comes home to his father. The suggestion of the parable is that sin is unnatural, and when man is true to himself he finds himself in harmony with God.
This is the idea of Universal Incarnation, and if we really believed it we would not despair of the future of the world. Unworthy fears, greedy longings, bestial desires and devilish lusts have made it a battlefield. But Man rising to the heights of his Manhood, manifesting the divinity that is in him, can make it a brotherhood.

Ernest Penn 1958

11 pages of handwritten notes and much is crossed out. It has to be said that in my time of listening to him (1985 to 1989, and 1994 until around 2002) he would not have given a sermon with a "foundation" of the Fatherhood of God and certainly not the concept of the leadership of Jesus. He did change his views over time.

Note that the usual estimate of the Great Ejection for August 24 1662 is between 1700 and 2000 Calvinist Puritans. Lindsey's chapel was called Unitarian but its liturgy was Arian.


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