UU Minute #106

Theodore Parker, part 3

Theodore Parker, at age 27, was called to serve the Unitarian congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts – the congregation that today is named for him. A year later Parker was in the chapel at Harvard’s Divinity Hall listening enthusiastically to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address. Emerson’s eloquent attack on miracles confirmed Parker’s own doubts about whether Jesus had actually performed miracles.

Parker’s emerging theology saw spiritual principles as analogous to laws of matter. As Newton discovered laws of motion, and as Euclid discovered the axioms of geometry, so Jesus discovered and articulated spiritual principles. In all three cases, a certain genius was required – but not a miraculous authoritative revelation. If Newton, Euclid, and Jesus had not discovered what they did, someone else sufficiently clever, diligent, and insightful could have worked out the same truths. The proper approach to Newton and Euclid is not to worship them personally, but to understand the truth of what they said. The same went for Jesus.

The more closely one lived by the principles that Jesus taught, the more one became divinely inspired, took on the qualities of God, and became True, Moral, Loving, and Faithful. For Parker the arc of history was one in which humanity was becoming ever more divinely inspired. Yet those key principles to live by would be the same whether Jesus had discovered them or someone else had. The authority of Jesus' revelation, therefore, was only the authority of truth.

Parker laid this out in an 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” There was an uproar. Most Unitarians of the time – ministers and layfolk alike -- concluded that Parker's theology was not Christian.

NEXT: The Transient and Permanent in Christianity

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