Glenn Joseph Lea
Learn about people in history that have had significant influence on the course of events in Europe and Canada such as Michael Servetus, William Tyndale and John Ware. More topics will be added over time.


Michael Servetus and the Socinians
William Tyndale
John Ware
Faustus Socinus and Socinianism

"He was not insensibly warped by traditional methods of thought, but approached the Bible text with an unbiased mind."" - Wilbur


Laelius Socinus and Faustus Socinus

The uncle of Faustus Socinus Laelius Socinus1 (Lelio Sozzini) had, like Gribaldi, had caused problems for Calvin with antitrinitarianism. Laelius Socinus was from Sienna in Italy, born of well-known parentage and trained to be a lawyer. For uncertain reasons he left Italy and settled in Zurich in 1547, several years before Servetus’ death. When Servetus was burned at the stake, Laelius Socinus was disturbed by the Spaniard’s death and in collaboration with the French theologian Sebastian Castellio wrote a work against the execution2 - De haereticis, an sint persequendi or in English Should Heretics be Persecuted?

Lelio Sozzini

Laelius Socinus (Lelio Sozzini). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1549 Socinus corresponded with Calvin on doctrinal matters3 and from then on Calvin regarded Socinus with some suspicion. With the death of Servetus, Laelius Socinus became much more of an antitrinitarian, although guardedly so. He composed a confession of faith in July 15554 which although not clearly antitrinitarian was not Trinitarian. Under pressure, Laelius Socinus was forced to refrain from expressing his views and in fact never did thereafter. He went back to Italy to his family estate to obtain some of his assets. He returned to the Swiss cantons and kept a low profile until his death in Zurich. When Laelius died, his young nephew Faustus Socinius gained possession of his books and manuscripts and his connections in Poland.

The Italians and the Polish Minor Church

Wilbur traced this complex history of the development of the antitrinitarians amongst the Polish Minor Church in Poland and it is beyond the scope of this paper to address it in all its details. A Reformed Church patterned after Calvin’s church in Geneva had developed in Poland and according to Wilbur was reforming further than Calvin wanted it to go.5 However, the immediate issue which caused the schism was not exactly antitrinitarianism but concerned invoking the Holy Spirit in prayers or in hymns. Statorius, a French Protestant, raised the issue of the legitimacy of prayers to the Holy Spirit6 and at a Church synod was challenged and successfully silenced. However, the event had raised doubts in some of the other attendants at the synod.

Sometime after this Giorgio Biandrata arrived in Poland who attempted a reconciliation between the parties.7 A synod was again called, this time in December 1561 at Krakow to discuss the problems in the Reformed Church, and in particular the nature of the Godhead. The upshot of this synod was that ministers were told to refrain from using philosophical terms about the Trinity and that they should use the Apostles Creed as a confession.8 This was seen as a victory for the antitrinitarians and especially for Biandrata who had pushed for that position. But this decision proved the undoing of the Reformed Church in Poland. Efforts were underway to undermine the support of Biandrata’s position. To make matters worse, Alciati arrived and as he was a friend of Biandrata and a known heretic, his association with Biandrata provided fuel to the fire of divisiveness of the Calvinist Reformers.

The division between the two wings of the Reformed Church was all but certain when two rival synods had been established, one lead by Sarnicki, the reformed leader, and another lead by Paulus, the antitrinitarian leader. The breach was final when during a later conference in 1565 at Piotrkow9 the Calvinist Reformed wing broke off debate with the “Arian” Reformed wing, as the Major Church called them. It began bad and ended worse. A Calvinist wanted to invoke the Trinity in the opening prayer and that set the tone for the rest of the day. The debate on the Trinity ended inconclusively. The Calvinist labelled the antitrinitarians “Arians” although they were not Arian, the Calvinist walked out, and the resultant breach between these two wings of the Reformed Church never healed.

By 1565, thirteen years after Servetus’ death, the “Arians”, now called the Polish Minor Church10, had settled the issue of the Trinity for themselves, at least in general terms, and the Church now turned to other issues such as Baptism.11

Emergence of Socinianism

Sometime after 1565 Faustus Socinus arrived in Poland and gave the Minor Church its final distinctive understanding of the Godhead.12 He was instrumental in fully developing the Polish Brethren into what would become Socinianism. Although the Polish Minor Church has been called Socinian, it was only because the final form of its theology reflected the thinking of Faustus Socinius. Furthermore, if the Socinians can in any way be called Servetian, they were only through the influence of the Spaniard’s earlier immature work De Trinittis Erroribus, Libri septem.

Antitrinitarianism was not the only issue which the Polish Brethren discussed, debated and adopted. Anabaptism, the general term given by Protestants for the practice of adult baptism as opposed to infant baptism, had been an issue amongst the Polish Brethren for some time. By the time of Socinius, the Polish Brethren became overwhelmingly Anabaptist.13 Another issue debated amongst them was the adoration of Christ. If Christ was a man should he be worshipped? Should he be prayed to? The Church settled it in the affirmative after Faustus Socinus had entered the scene.

They also developed innovative social issues. How should a Christian live? Should they share Community of Goods like other Anabaptists14 in Southern Germany and Switzerland? What should be their role be in society? Should they participate in war? All these issues were debated in conferences and in synods. The one voice that was most persuasive on all these issues was Faustus Socinus, who though a non-theologian was nevertheless a well-versed Biblicist.

Note: Socinianism was the name given to the antitrinitarians of Poland, but it should be understood that this was not what they called themselves, which was The Polish Brethren. George Hunston Williams used the term Socinianism in the studies of the movement15 but it was not generally applied to them until the seventeenth century.16 The term Socinian derives from Faustus Socinius who, though never a member, helped initiate the movement and define its doctrine. Another designation was Unitarian referring to their position as the Father being the only God. Arianism17 has been wrongfully applied to the Brethren as they were not in any way Arian. In short, Socinianism and The Polish Brethren are practically interchangeable.

Faustus Socinus

Unlike Servetus, Faustus Socinus did not have a background in the Classics nor was he well-versed in Church writings. He lived in Kraków, Poland (not to be confused with Raków) and became a strong advocate for the beliefs of the Polish Brethren, engaging in various disputes and usually prevailing. Due to the loss of his inheritance, Socinius had to publish using his real name. This led to him being expelled from Kraków but he managed to secure a home for himself with friends elsewhere in Poland. By 1604 he had died, leaving a legacy which lives on in the modern name for the Polish Brethren, the Socinians. Wilbur writes of Socinus,

He apologetically says of himself that he never studied philosophy nor applied himself to scholastic theology, and never dabbled even in Logic beyond the rudiments, and that very late in life. It was, however, this very deficiency in the conventional education of the time that contributed to his distinction as an original theologian, since when he came to work out a reformed system of doctrine he was not insensibly warped by traditional methods of thought, but approached the Bible text with an unbiased mind”.18

This appeal to reason becomes increasingly important as a defining feature of the Socinians but is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss it in detail. His writings lack the philosophical speculation that characterized the later works of Servetus, such as The Restitution. Faustus’ argumentation closely resembles the simplicity of the Erroribus although the arguments are different and formulations of the Godhead are different. The best summary of his thought can be found in one of the most famous documents to emerge from the age of the Reformation - The Racovian Catechism.

The Racovian Catechism

The Racovian Catechism19 is a document of more than 400 pages written in Latin by the Polish Brethren in Raków in southern Poland. Raków was a village which was founded by the Polish Brethren. This document, which amounts to a confession of faith, was not Servetian. The formulation of the Godhead for the Polish Brethren went through various interpretations before Socinus settled the matter in this document.

In the Catechism, Socinian teachings on the nature of the Godhead is, in contrast to Servetus, clearly and unambiguously monotheistic. God has existed from eternity20 and has expressed himself to humanity through his Holy Spirit, which in Socinian thought is God’s power.21 The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is a man, through and through22, without any celestial flesh and without a divine nature.23 He did not pre-exist in any form except in God’s foreknowledge.24 He is a child of Mary begotten by a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.25 At some point in his career he was taken up into heaven to be informed of his mission, and to be sent back to perform his appointed work.26 He died, rose from the dead and was taken up into heaven as a mediator between God and humanity.27 This, in brief, was Faustus’ formulation of the Godhead. It is clearly Unitarian and equally not Servetian.

Socinian and Servetian Antitrinitarianism

Both the Socinians and Servetus were antitrinitarian in the sense that they both rejected the Athanasian formulation of the Trinity as set out in the Nicaean Creed. But Servetian antitrinitarianism was not the same as Socinian antitrinitarianism. The fundamental difference was that Servetus’ Jesus was a mode of God, whereas Faustus Socinus’ Jesus was a miraculously created man who by God’s power and strength remained sinless. Michael Servetus was, nevertheless, a founder of the antitrinitarian movement in the 16th Century, but not the founder. Likewise Faustus Socinus was not the founder of the Polish antitrinitarians but he remains the single biggest influence on the growth and development and, therefore, of Socinianism worldwide.

Dispersion of the Socinians

The Polish Brethren as a distinct church lasted in Poland until July 20, 1658 when they were forced into exile because they would not join in agreement with other Protestant churches. They fled to areas such as the Ducal of Prussia (East Prussia), the Netherlands and to the Principality of Transylvania. The symbolic end to the Polish Brethren as part of Polish society came when Raków, the epicenter of Polish Brethren, lost its main Church to the wrecking hammer of the workmen of Bishop Zadzil. In its place rose a Catholic Church signifying rather concretely that Socinianism Protestantism was not to be tolerated in Catholic Poland. That church still stands today.

For a brief one hundred years the Polish Brethren flourished in Poland but eventually, like Servetus, proved too radical for either the Catholics or the Protestants. And like Servetus, the Polish Brethren suffered at the hands of both. In their homeland they were known as the Polish Brethren or by their enemies the Arians. In England and elsewhere they became known as the Socinians and their doctrines Socinianism.

The branch of Dutch Socinians found a ready ear in seventeenth century England convincing even the great mathematician Sir Isaac Newton.28 Today Socinianism lives on in various modes worldwide under the general name of Unitarianism. A list of dedicated or nominal adherents range from the poet E.E. Cummings, Charles Dickens, John Quincy Adams, Tim Berners-Lee and many more.

For an event occurring in 16th century Geneva, the effect of the execution of Michael Servetus at the hands of both Catholics (in effigy) and Protestants in reality can be felt to this day. Western legal codes enshrine the freedom of religion and thought and the execution of anyone for their beliefs is considered barbaric. Religious tolerance in 16th century Poland led to Servetian and later Socinian thought taking route and establishing a form of Christianity that is an integral part of the fabric of Western society. Little did Servetus and Socinus know how they were shaping the future in ways they could never have imagined. The fact that I can freely write about them today is one small part of their legacy.

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Footnotes

  1. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 225. 

  2. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 244-5. 

  3. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 241. 

  4. See note Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 244. 

  5. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 283. 

  6. His view was that “the Holy Spirit is not a third person in the Deity, nor God, but a power and gift of God which he awakens in the hearts of the faithful, dividing to each one severally even as he will.” Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 296. 

  7. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 302. 

  8. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 310. 

  9. There is a political side to this history. The King of Poland wanted unity amongst his subjects because he was preparing for war against Russia and other enemies. He hoped the conference would settle the issues. It was important for him because many noblemen and leaders of the country were entangled in the debate. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 322. 

  10. The majority joined the larger Church, although the intellectual leadership went mostly to the Minor Church. 

  11. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 328. 

  12. Antitrinitarianism in some form was circulating in the Polish Reformed Church before Servetian antitrinitarianism arrived. Wilbur makes the case for this and his arguments were mentioned earlier in this essay. 

  13. In the sense of baptism by immersion by consenting adults. 

  14. The Anabaptists were condemned by both Protestants and Catholics. Servetus has never been labelled an Anabaptist although he was condemned for his pedobaptism as well as his antitrinitarianism. 

  15. Williams, G.H. The Polish Brethren: Documentation of the History and Thought of Unitarianism. (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1980). See also his Radical Reformation. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1962). 

  16. Kot, S. Socinianism in Poland: The Social and Political Ideas of the Polish Antitrinitarianism in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Trans. by Wilbur. (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957) Pg. xix. 

  17. The opponents of the Brethren used the term Arian to make them appear more heretical. See Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 321, and Kot, Socinianism, Pg. xix. Polish Communists have used this term to refer to the Brethren; this is interesting considering Communist Historians were not concerned with the Socinian doctrine as much as their radical social and economic life. 

  18. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 389. 

  19. Crellius, John, and others, Catechism of the Churches of Poland, which confess according to the Scriptures, one God, the Father, his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. First published 1609 in Rakow, Poland. Translated by Thomas Rees F.S.A. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster Row, 1818. Reprint: (Lexington, Kentucky: American Theological Library Association, 1962) 

  20. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 26. 

  21. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 39. 

  22. Crellius, Catechism, Pp. 51-3. 

  23. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 134. 

  24. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 149. 

  25. Crellius, Catechism, Pp. 52-3. 

  26. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 149. 

  27. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 349-50. 

  28. Snobelen, S. Isaac Newton, Socinianism and “the One Supreme God”