“Unitarian Christianity”is regarded as William Ellery Channing’s most famous sermon. In it he divides his thoughts into two main areas. The first is the Unitarian philosophy in regards to the proper way in which to interpret the Bible and the second area addresses some doctrines that can be derived from interpreting the Bible in this manner.
In regards to the first division Channing says that Unitarians “regard the Scriptures as the records of God’s successive revelations to mankind” and in addition places particular importance on the revelation of God’s will through Jesus. Following this same line of reasoning Channing indicates that Unitarians conversely regard scriptures concerning the revelation of God’s will in other dispensations as of lower importance than that of Jesus. He adds that the main purpose of these other dispensations was to prepare the way for a “nobler system” and to “confirm and illustrate” the Christian scriptures found in the New Testament. While Channing still seems to believe that the various books of the Bible are equally inspired by God he appears to assert that all Scripture is not equally applicable to contemporary man.
Channing further qualifies that Bible is “a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.” This implies that whenever an individual interprets the passages of the Bible one should use the same logic and reason as a person would use reading any other book. This idea concerning the logic of the Bible itself should have been quite reasonable to Protestants when one thinks about the supposed logic in the Bible. Why would God be accommodating to mankind by coming to them in the form of a man but then not “conform” to mankind in his message to man?
Channing also seems to echo the protestant idea that scripture interprets scripture. He remarks that the Bible “bears the stamp of the same hand” and that “every proposition is linked with others, and is to be compared with others.” In other words the Unitarian position on this regard is the “nothing [in Scripture] stands alone.” Again, all of these ideas should have been well in line with mainline evangelical protestant beliefs. The area of biblical interpretation that would seem to diverge from these beliefs seems to be in the area of interpreting events in the Bible in which “we receive ideas from other sources.” Many would have probably pushed back on this idea as evidenced when science later began to disagree with the Bible about the creation of man and the universe.
Channing also illustrates in this sermon the idea that the Bible should always be interpreted in its original context. Channing describes the Unitarian observation that in addition to “general truths” the Bible also addresses many issues that were for that specific time and situation. He asserts that the consequences of disregarding this principle is the constant danger of “extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.”
In addition to describing the way in which the Bible should be interpreted, Channing includes in the second part of “Unitarian Christianity” a compilation of doctrines that can be derived from interpreting the Bible in this manner. The first of these is the doctrine which Channing calls the “the doctrine of God’s unity.” This belief would have surly been met with much opposition because it is a direct refutation of the long held doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than God being three persons and yet at the same time being one being, Channing describes God as “one being, one mind, one person, one intelligent agent, and one only to whom underived and infinite perfection and dominion belong.”
Similar to this doctrine is the belief in the unity of Jesus Christ. Traditional ideas concerning the nature of Jesus were that he was completely divine and at the same time completely human. Channing indicates that Christ is “one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God. Traditional forms of Christianity hinge on the idea that Christ is and was God. Many also consider foundational the idea that Jesus was also human and thus susceptible to sin like the rest of humanity. This idea counters these notions by making Christ a completely separate entity from God all together although other passages still corroborate with the idea that his death atoned for the sins of man and that his resurrection was proof of man’s future redemption.
Other points that Channing derives from biblical interpretation is the moral perfection of God and the purpose of Jesus. As already stated, Channing’s belief system allowed that Christ’s death redeemed mankind of its transgressions. Where Channing differs from other Christians is in his idea that Christ’s mediating mission was just one way in which the deliverance of man was accomplished. Channing provides a whole list of ways in which Christ affected his goal, nearly all of which would have drew criticism from other Christian groups.
One final area that Channing addresses is the virtue of mankind. While many Christians believed in the total depravity of mankind, Channing asserts that “all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature of man.”
One can see in Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity” the evolution that is taking place. While many of his ideas are still agreeable to the larger American Christian population, others are becoming more and more distinct. It does seem that this belief system was a precursor to more progressive and increasingly alien doctrines of the Unitarian Church.