There exists a subsection in Christian thought known as Unitarianism which conceptualizes God as a single person (as opposed to Trinitarianism which contends God is triune, or three persons). This concept is by no means unique to certain Christian denominations as Muslims, Jews, deists, and other monotheists typically hold to God being a single person. The goal of this article will not be to defend Trinitarianism, but the goal shall be to deconstruct Unitarianism and demonstrate why it fails for Christianity. While the argument could also apply to these other religions which also view God as one person, the main focus will be upon Christians who hold this view since part of the evidence base will be the New Testament. Since there have existed many different versions of Unitarianism (from modalism to Arianism) throughout Church history, my argument here will be relevant to all of these areas of Unitarian thought.
1 John 4:8 submits, “The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” What does it mean to say God is love? From what I can deduce, it means three things:
1) Love is an essential property of God.
First, how would one define love? Certainly our experience can help us discern what is genuine love, but it helps to attach a specific definition. For the purposes of this article, love will be defined as it is understood in the Greek of 1 John 4:8: agapē. This term builds upon a more common and foundational term used for love: philia (akin to friendship where one is fond of another and desires goodness for them). There exist applications of the term “love” which include romantic or sexual attraction (i.e. the Greek term eros), but I find these applications to be too narrow. The term philia is sufficient to establish a baseline understanding of what is love, and agapē builds upon this basic understanding by not only affirming the fondness and desire of goodness for another but also by adding that the affection is universal benevolence which pays little to no regard to whether the affection is reciprocated (and as such is more appropriate since this term is what John uses) (1).
The next question should be what is an essential property? These are properties of an object which exist in the object by virtue of the object being what it is. For example, wetness is an essential property of liquid water. Think of essential properties as adjectives which make up the definition of a thing. It is common to attribute the word “must” to essential properties. Liquid water “must” be wet. A rock “must” be hard. If something failed to possess one of its essential properties, then it would not be what it is. Essential properties are necessary to the object they are attributed to. It is not possible to separate them. If one could separate the two, the thing in question would become something else. To subtract wetness from liquid water is to cause liquid water to no longer be liquid water. Rather, it would become something else like ice or steam.
In the same way, the Bible contends to subtract love from God is to cause God to become something which He is not, which is impossible. Love is as inseparable from Him as wetness is from liquid water or as hardness is from rock. Therefore, according to this verse, love is an essential property of God.
2) Love is not just an essential property of God, but it is ontologically founded in God Himself.
Ontology is simply defined as the study of the being or essence of a thing, so to say love is ontologically founded in God is to say it has its being or essence in Him. God is the fountain out of which love flows, but is this view justified?
It certainly seems that way. Since love is an essential property of God, it must be eternal with Him. As long as (or as timelessly) as God exists, love must exist alongside Him. If at any point God exists but not love then love cannot be an essential property of Him. Further, it is essential to Christian doctrine to hold to what is called God’s divine aseity. This term means that God is the only uncreated thing. He is the only being which has origins in nothing else. This view of God not only excludes the necessity of contingent things like the natural world but also abstract objects like numbers (unless one wished to deposit that abstract objects are somehow founded in God Himself). There exist several verses which attribute to God aseity such as John 1:3, “All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created” (HCSB). If the doctrine of God’s aseity is true, and love exists eternally alongside God, then love emerges uniquely from God as its root is in Him.
Therefore, on the Christian worldview, if one wishes to deposit love as being an essential property of God, it follows it must be ontologically founded in Him as well. With love’s origin being founded in God, He must be the epitome of love itself.
3) Because love is founded in God and is eternal with God, God must be multi-personal.
This point will be the crux of the argument against Christian Unitarianism. If God is essentially loving and love is founded in His being, then God cannot be a single person. Love as we have defined it (remember agapē) cannot reasonably be existent among a single person. Even if you reject the term of love agapē in favor of something more akin to philia, you cannot avoid the fact that love is an experience between multiple persons. How can God be essentially loving if He is eternal and yet only a single person?
Our argument can be demonstrated as follows:
- God is essentially, and therefore eternally, loving.
- Love is only experienced among multiple persons.
- Therefore, God is a multitude of persons.
This is a deductive argument meaning that if the premises (1 & 2) are true, then the conclusion (3) necessarily follows, but are the premises true?
Well, as we have already seen on a Christian worldview God is essentially loving, so love must be eternal with Him. Basic understandings of love always place the experience of love among multiple persons. It cannot be that a single person is eternally loving, and to contend a person can be eternally loving of oneself amounts to an understanding of love as conceit rather than agapē or philia. In other words, if we understand love in terms of a basic and broad understanding which incorporates a feeling of fondness for another and a desire of goodness for them, it is impossible to attribute this understanding of love to oneself without entering the realm of narcissism.
But what about God being eternally loving toward humans who do not yet exist? Could it be that God while in a state of eternality before the universe is created simply loves what He has yet to create? The problem with this objection is that God would only be potentially loving rather than actually loving. God may anticipate loving beings He has yet to create, but He would be loving something which does not exist and such love would amount to no more than Him loving anything else which does not exist.
As William Lane Craig has argued, “My argument is that it’s not enough to think of love as a mere dispositional property, the disposition to love if some other person were to exist. Being loving is not merely the disposition to give oneself away to another if that other existed. Being loving involves actually giving oneself away to another. So this disposition cannot lie merely latent in God and never be actualized” (Love and Justice in the Trinity) (2).
Therefore, it seems the best way to philosophically reconcile this problem while being biblically consistent is to contend God is a plurality of persons. As the Jesus (the Son) says in John 14:10, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works,” and then again in John 15:26, “When the Counselor comes, the One I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father – He will testify about Me” (HCSB). But if God is a plurality of persons, then Christian Unitarianism is simply not true and is, as such, heretical.
But can this argument be extended beyond mere Christian Unitarianism and to any monotheistic worldview which believes in a Unitarian conception of God? Certainly! Such an argument would need to make use of the Ontological Argument (OA) for God’s existence (3).
As the OA submits, if it is possible a Maximally Great Being (MGB) exists, then it follows logically the MGB necessarily exists. In order for a being to be maximally great, it must possess “Greater Making Properties” (like love, knowledge, and power) and not possess “Lesser Making Properties” (like arrogance, ignorance, and weakness). I expound upon this concept and the difference between greater and lesser making properties in my article on the Ontological Argument, but for our purposes here it certainly is reasonable to contend a being which is all-loving is greater than a being which is only quasi-loving or not loving at all. Therefore, if a MGB exists, then it must be all-loving.
If true, this contention is enough to suffice warrant for the truth of premise 1 for our original argument. In this way, one argues for the truth of premise 1 not from Scripture but from rationality (via an a priori argument). Premise 2 of our argument also holds since I did not argue from Scripture for the truth of the premise. Therefore, if premise 1 and 2 are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows: God is a plurality of persons, and Unitarian conceptions of God fail to account for His essentially loving nature.
“But You, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth” (Psalm 86:15).
(1): Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2 rev. ed.) “love,” by Simon Blackburn accessed July 16,2017, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199541430.001.0001/acref-9780199541430-e-1889?rskey=wlROLn&result=1881
(2): Read more here: