“Socinianism,” an evangelical rationalist movement, was one of the forerunners of modern Unitarianism. Three phases can be distinguished:
- the thought of Laelius Socinus (1525–1562) and his nephew Faustus Socinus (1539–1604);
- the thought and institutions of the Minor (Reformed) Church of Poland, especially as embodied in the Racovian Catechism (1605), which represented a fusion of Faustus’s theology with that of the local anti-Trinitarian and partly Anabaptist Minor Church; and
- the rationalist theology of the Socinianized Minor Church.
Socinian evangelical rationalism originated from an amalgam of the rationalist humanism of Juan de Valdés, Florentine Platonism, and Paduan Aristotelianism; in Poland it was augmented by certain Calvinist and Anabaptist ingredients.
In all three phases Socinianism was characterized by
- a rationalist interpretation of Scripture (which was nevertheless accepted as true and authoritative), with a predilection for the pre-Mosaic and the New Covenantal parts of the Bible;
- an acceptance of Jesus as the definitive word or revelation of God but nevertheless solely a man, not divine but chosen by God to rule as king, priest, and prophet over the world and the church;
- belief in the principle of pacific separation of church and state;
- acceptance of the doctrine of the death of the soul with the body with, however, selective resurrection and immortality for all those who persevered “through the power of the Spirit” in observing all of Jesus’ earthly commandments.
Laelius and Faustus Socinus
|Laelius and Faustus Socinus|
Laelius Socinus, born in Siena, was a well-to-do student with a wide and critical interest in theology. He established contact and became friendly with several reformers, notably Philipp Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Johann Bullinger, and also with the Rhaetian heretic Camillo Renato.
Himself suspected of heresy, Laelius was obliged to prepare a Confession of Faith (in which, however, he reserved the right to further inquiry), one of the few extant documents from his hand. At his death he left his library, and perhaps some unpublished papers, to his nephew.
|Confession of Faith|
Faustus Socinus, born in Siena, was a student of logic and law, a member of the local academy, and an indifferent poet. He first clearly manifested his rejection of traditional Christian doctrines in a letter of 1563, in which he argued against the postulate of natural immortality.
In 1570 he wrote his first major work, De Auctoritate Sacrae Scripturae, and in 1578 he issued his basic treatise on Christology and soteriology, De Jesu Christu Servatore. Because of the latter work he was invited to Transylvania to defend the legitimacy of prayer addressed to the ascended Christ against the faction in the Unitarian Reformed Church led by Francis Dávid.
On the journey he was persuaded to make Poland his permanent home. There he became a major defender of the Minor Church, although he declined on principle to become a communicant member of it, refusing to submit to believers’ baptism by immersion.
Socinus was cocommissioned with local pastors to revise the Latin Catechesis (1574) of Racov, the communitarian settlement and spiritual center of the Minor Church, northeast of Kraków. The radical revision was published in Polish in 1605, a year after Socinus’s death, as the Racovian Catechism, the first Latin edition of which (1609) was dedicated to James I of England.
The Socinianized Minor Church
|The Socinianized Minor Church|
The Socinianized Minor Church, centered in Racov, had an academy that at one time attracted a thousand students and a publishing house that turned out tracts and books in a score of languages; it became in fact more a school than a church.
Among the faculty of the academy and the pastorate of the synod, which met annually in Racov, the most prominent were Socinus’s own grandson, Andreas Wiszowaty, who wrote Religio Rationalis; Stanislas Lubieniecki, who wrote Historia Reformationis Polonicae; Samuel Przypkowski, who wrote Vita Fausti Socini; and quite a few converts from German Protestantism who resettled in Poland and were rebaptized: Christoph Ostorodt; Johann Völkel, who wrote De Vera Religione (1630); Johann Crell, who wrote De Uno Deo Patre and a defense of Socinus against Hugo Grotius, De Satisfactione; and Christoph Sand, who compiled the Bibliotheca Antitrinitariorum.
Spread of Socinianism
Well before the crushing of the Minor Church in 1658, Socinians were established in the Netherlands. At Amsterdam the basic works of the movement, the eightvolume Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, edited by Wiszowaty, were printed in 1688.
In England, Socinian rationality, latitudinarianism, Unitarianism, and mortalism (psychopannychism) variously appealed to Arminian prelates, Oxford rationalists (such as William Chillingworth), Cambridge Platonists (such as Benjamin Whichcote), philosophers and scientists (such as Isaac Newton and John Locke), and to the first avowed native Socinians, Paul Best, John Biddle (“the father of English Unitarianism”), and Stephen Nye, whose History of Unitarianism commonly called Socinianism set off the Trinitarian controversy in the Established church in 1687.
|Spread of Socinianism|