1. What is Unitarianism?
Something else undermined the doctrinal stability of the Church of England still more, namely, Unitarianism, the belief that God is not one in three Persons, with the consequence that Jesus of Nazareth is not the Son of God. This doctrine is not much different from the Arianism of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.[i] It is in fact a reduction of orthodox trinitarian doctrine; it is simpler to believe in a unitarian God than in a trinitarian one, and this makes it attractive. Hardly anything was heard of Arianism after 900, but it might be expected to raise its head again in a time of theological turmoil, that is, during the Reformation, when suddenly other options than that of Roman Catholic orthodoxy became possible. As Earl Morse Wilbur expresses it, "the whole field of doctrine was bound to lie open for review."[ii]
Wilbur mentions that Erasmus had doubts about the scriptural basis of trinitarian doctrine,[iii] and that early reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Farel, Zwingly, shared these doubts. They were all promptly accused of Arianism.[iv] In the end, however, all the confessions of the mainline Protestant Churches turned out as orthodox as possible. As related in an earlier chapter of this work,[v] Michael Servet (Servetus) experienced this to his cost. He expressed grave doubts about the trinitarian doctrine and paid for this with his life: he was executed in Calvin's Geneva on October 27, 1553.
3. Anabaptist opposition
The Anabaptists expressed their anti-trinitarian views more freely. The first to do so was Martinus Cellarius (1499-1565). He fell out with Luther, became an Anabaptist, and published a little book in 1527, in which he denied that Jesus fully shared in the deity. He added that he shared to some extent, but that this applied to all people.[vi]
Later Anabaptists were still more outspoken on this subject, for instance, Balthasar Hubmaier, the prophet of the Anabaptist community of Nikolsburg in Moravia. Some Anabaptists went to extremes. In 1530 a certain Conradin Bassen was executed in Basle for contending that Christ was not the God-man, not our Saviour, and not born from a virgin.[vii] Anti-trinitarian Anabaptism spread rapidly wide and far, northward to Germany and the Netherlands, southward to Switzerland and Italy; it even won adherents in Poland.
4. Laelius Socinus and the Trinity
Italy brought forth the man who was to give his name to anti-trinitarianism: Lelio Sozzini, or in the latinized form Laelius Socinus (1525-1562), born in Siena on March 25, 1525, to a wealthy and infuential family. He spent his early years in Padua and studied law at this city's university. Assiduously studying the Bible, he arrived at the conclusion that much of what it taught was contrary to reason, and that, with regard to the scriptural foundation of its dogmas, the Church had no leg to stand on. He gave up the study of law and began to lead a peripatetic life that brought him to Venice, to Graubunden in Switzerland, to Geneva where he had an encounter with Calvin, to Basle, to Navarra, to England (Oxford and London), and then, via Switzerland, to Geneva again and thence to Zürich, where he spoke with Zwingli, and to Basle. Once again he was in Geneva where he had a second encounter with Calvin, and in Zürich to meet Zwingli's successor Bullinger.
Wilbur describes him as a man who "inevitably won friends by his courtly manners, his breadth and depth of culture, his frank and attractive character, crowned by irreproachable morals and a deep and sincere piety."[viii] Yet, he bombarded Calvin with practical and theological questions, so that the Reformer soon became bored of him. In 1550 he travelled to Wittenberg, where he became intimate with Melanchthon.
There were many Polish students in Wittenberg; from them Socinus heard of the progress the Reformation was making in their fatherland. He took up his travelling bag and went to Krakow to see for himself; from there he went to Moravia, where he found Italian Anabaptists. At the end of 1550 he arrived in Zürich. Being not the man to sit quietly behind the geraniums, he travelled to Bologna in order to visit his father and thence to his birthplace Siena and his alma mater, the University of Padua. Back in Zürich, he fell into a great turmoil, caused by the Servet affair.[ix] He said that he did not share this man's opinions, but strongly disapproved of his execution. This made his relation with Calvin strained.
When Socinus himself was, like Servet, accused of being not safe on the subject of the Trinity, Bullinger asked him to compose a confession of faith, in which he would defend his orthodoxy. Socinus complied with this request, and Bullinger proved himself entirely satisfied with the result. "But", writes Wilbur, "one reading it with close attention to what it says, and also to what it avoids saying, discovers that, while making generous use of orthodox phraseology, it is one of the most remarkable documents on record for the skill with which, while giving the casual reader the impression of it being free of all heresy, it leaves the door wide open for a wide range of heretical views."[x] Fact is that he with no word stated that he believed in the dogma of the Trinity, only that he "honours it as far as he ought" and also that it has a history of many centuries.
In 1556 Socinus travelled to Bologna at the news that his father had died, only to discover that his father had disinherited him and also that the Inquisition had confiscated his part of the inheritance. Armed with letters of recommendation from Melanchthon and Calvin, he went to Poland for the second time; in this country an anti-trinitarian movement was growing; he was everywhere well received. He returned via Vienna, where he had a conversation with (the then still) King Maximilian II, and thence to Italy to see whether Duke Cosimo of Florence could do something for him in the affair of his patrimony, but the Duke was powerless against the Inquisition. He spent his last years in Zürich, mainly keeping himself to himself. He died on May 14, 1562, only thirty-seven years old.
5. Fausto Sozzini, Laelius' heir
Laelius Sozinus never published anything, but during the last years of his life he committed the result of his studies and inquiries to paper. What he had written came into the hands of his nephew Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604).[xi] Magda Martini presents him to us as "a Reformator who was not only misjudged but also calumniated as an apostle of non-violence and universal love."[xii] He was born in Siena on December 2, 1539. His mother, Agnes Petrucci was a member of Piccolomini family who had given two Popes to the Church, Pius II (1458-1464) and Pius III (1503). Although Fausto was also destined for the study of law, this discipline did not interest him in the least; he never completed any study and received no academic degree. At the same time he was not a fervent Catholic; not only his uncle Laelius, but also some other members of the family had their problems with the Inquisition.
Hardly had he come of age but he eclipsed to Lyons, from where he entertained a correspondence with uncle Lelio. Fausto stated that he had "a religious sense different from that which the Roman Church teaches."[xiii] In Lyons he wrote and published his first book, an exposition of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in which he argued that it did not contain the doctrine of the Trinity.[xiv] At the news of his uncle's decease he hurried to Zürich, where he found Lelio's papers, among which `Theses on the Trinity'. He returned to Lyons via Calvinistic Geneva, where he did not feel at home.
Back in Lyons, he perused the Theses. Lelio stated that the New Testament said nothing about the Trinity. "Three `God': the supreme Father, the eternal Creator, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three spirits or spiritual substances, but not qualities which cannot be considered as being numerically One".[xv] The immediate consequence is that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God. Lelio recognized that Jesus was a `divinity', but not a `deity', an inspired prophet, but only man.[xvi]
Fausto was immediately convinced. "Having arrived at the age when reason can exercize itself in matters of religion, I was introduced and educated outside the precepts of that Roman Church ... In all theological science - however modest it may be with me - I never had any master except my uncle Lelio, or rather of some of his writings and his numerous notes."[xvii]
In 1563 he received and accepted an invitation by Francesco (I) de Medici to become the secretary of his sister Isabella, who was unhappily married to Prince Paolo Orsini. This function had its advantages: it protected him against the Inquisition and left him sufficient time to study. The result was a small treatise, published anonymously and entitled De Sacrae Scripturae auctoritate; in it he argued that the Bible was an entirely reliable work and that Christianity had solid historical foundations. It went through edition after edition, was translated into four languages, and was still available about 1720.[xviii]
Outwardly Fausto was the accomplished courtier, but in his foro interno he felt not at ease in the frivolous and corrupt court of Florence. The twelve years (1563-1574) he spent there he considered as `wasted'. When Duke Cosimo died and was succeeded by Fausto's patron, now Duke Francesco I, he felt free to go, much against the Duke's wishes. He made his abode in Basle, a reformed city, where he lived for somewhat more than three years (1573-1578).
In this Swiss city he became the centre of a group of Italian refugees, with whom he discussed important theological questions, such as expiation, redemption and salvation. This last point was a very vexed question, for if Jesus Christ was not the Son of God, how can he be the Saviour then? Fausto found the orthodox doctrine on this point, both Catholic and Protestant, dangerously wrong. The result of these discussions was a second treatise, entitled De Jesu Christo servatore, Jesus the servant, not the Saviour (1578). This also anonymous treatise circulated in manuscript far and wide, until it was printed under Fausto's name in Poland in 1594.[xix]
Fausto's argument was that Jesus Christ had not come to expiate by his death Adam's guilt, which had become the guilt of all mankind. Why, he asked, must a sin be expiated that we did not commit? He obviously believed that the story of the Fall was a Hebrew legend. Where in the Gospels did Jesus speak of original sin? Our eternal salvation consists in this that we imitate Christ's exemplary life. Wilbur concludes: "It created a profound impression; for it was at once seen that it rendered several other orthodox doctrines superfluous, and was calculated to focus the Christian's effort not an act of faith but on the conduct of life."[xx]
6. Fausto Sozzini in Poland
In the autumn of 1578 Fausto left Basle, spent some months in Koloszovár in Hungary, and then moved to Cracow in Poland, where he was welcomed by a colony of Italian refugees; they were reformed, but not a few of them had liberal sympathies. Fausto would live in Poland for twenty-five years; this country then had the reputation of being the most tolerant in Europe. He felt attracted to the so-called Minor Church, a small group of Anabaptists, destitute and despised people, but in his view this Church came nearest to the biblical ideal. The stumbling block for his admission became adult baptism. Not that he advocated child baptism; no, according to him the New Testament did not prescribe baptism at all.
Thus he did not become a member of this Church, not a full member, that is, but an associate member. He steadfastly refused to be rebaptized, but participated in their liturgy (but not in the celebration of the Lord's Supper) and was present at their synods. The curious thing is that he, although not a member, was nevertheless accepted as their leader and kept this position until his death in 1604.
In his personal life he had no luck. Probably in the summer of 1586 he married a young Polish woman, Elizabeth Morszyn; a year later he had a daughter. Alas, Elizabeth died not long afterwards. He had considerable problems with his health, and he became as poor as his fellow Anabaptists. Until then he had lived comfortably from the proceeds of his heritage, his grandfather's estate, but in 1587 Duke Francesco I died and the Inquisition used the opportunity to confiscate his possessions.[xxi]
When his book De Jesu Christo servatore appeared in print in 1594, Fausto immediately became the target of attacks from the Catholic side. A young Carpathian nobleman, Kaspar Wiernek, going about with some cavalry men, spied Fausto in the street and attacked him. They put mud from the street into his mouth and dirtied his face with it, after having forced him down on his knees. On Ascension Day 1598 he was molested by a mob, led by university students. They broke into his house, where he was lying ill in bed, dragged him to the market place, his naked body only covered with a cloak, and threw all his books and papers in the mud.
They threatened to do violence to him, if he did not recant. But this courageous man retorted: "I do not recant, but what I have been I am and will be, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, as long as I live, and you may do whatever God permits you to do", and although threatened with a sword, he did not give in. Then they began to drag him to the Vistula, obviously with the intention to throw him into it. However, when they passed the university building, a professor rushed out and rescued him. With the help of some others, he was brought to a hiding place, but because he was not safe also there, he was transferred to the mansion of an Italian at Igolomia, east of Cracow.
Even there he did not feel really safe; as soon as his health was sufficiently restored, he moved to the village of Luclawice (now Luskawice), about seventy-five kilometers south-east of Cracow. Here he continued his studies as well as he could, hampered not only by the loss of his precious library, but also by his steadily diminishing eyesight. In 1600 he published his last work.[xxii] In it he criticized the Reformed Church for not having wholly purged itself of Catholic elements and retaining doctrines which were not those of Christ; he must have meant the tenet that Christ was the God-man. The discipline of this Church was slack. The only genuinely Christian, biblical Church was the Minor Church, pure in doctrine, strict on morals.[xxiii]
Fausto Sozino died on March 3, 1614, on Luclawice. He was buried on the local `Arian' cemetery, where a monument adorns his grave since 1933. His complete works were published in Amsterdam only in 1668.[xxiv]
MARTINI, Magda, Fausto Socini. Un Maître de la pensée religieuse (1539-1604). Paris (1967).
WILBUR, Earl Morse, A History of Unitarianism. Socinianism and its antecedents. Harvard University Press, I 111946. II 1952.
[i]. See for Arianism Vol.XIII, Ch.VI.
[ii].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 14.
[iii]. Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 14. Vulgata 1Jo.5:7 reads: "There are three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Son and the Ghost." This is the so-called comma Joanneum'. Erasmus said this was an intrapolation, for wich reason he omitted this text from his 1516 edition of the New Testament. Today every exegete agrees with him, but then many saw it as an attack on trinitarian doctrine.
[iv].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 15/16.
[v].Vol.XXIII, Ch.V, Part I, §36.
[vi].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 24.
[vii].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 39.
[viii].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 241.
[ix].See for this Vol.XXIV,Ch.IV,PartI,§37.
[x].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 244/245.
[xi].The reader will find a short but useful biography of him in Martini, Fausto Socino 9-65.
[xii].Martini, Fausto Socini 7.
[xiii].Martini, Fausto Socino 16.
[xiv].Explicatio primae partis primi capitis Evangelistae Johannis; Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 389.
[xv].Quoted by Martini, Fausto Socino 17.
[xvi].Martini. Fausto Socini 18.
[xvii].Martini, Fausto Socini 17.
[xviii].Fausto's authorship was established in 1639 by Hugo Grotius in his De Veritate Religionis Christianae, and by bishop Huet in his Demonstratio evangelica, Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 391.
[xix].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 391/392.
[xx].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 392.
[xxi].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 406/407.
[xxii].It was republished in 1610 in Franeker (NL), with a much shorter title, De officio hominis christiani, Dutch translation 1630, Het ampt van een Christen mensch.
[xxiii].Wilbur, History of Unitarianism 404/405.
[xxiv].The reader will find a great number of authentic texts in Martini, Fausto Sozino 67-90.