Laelius and faustus socini: founders of socinianism, their lives and theology

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Marian Hillar

Published in the Spring 2002 issue of The Journal from the Radical Reformation. A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism.


Laelius Socinus is considered to be the founder of the Antitrinitarian intellectual movement and Faustus Socinus the main theoretician of the established Unitarian (Socinian) church in Poland. They belong, respectively, to the first and the second generations of Italian reformers.1 Faustus Socinus was among the second generation of Italian religious refugees that, in contrast to the first generation, was represented by individuals isolated from the rest of the Italian emigrants in search of a place to live and to express their religious convictions. They found such a place in Poland and in Transylvania. He was successful in finding a supportive group and gaining recognition. However, he refused to be considered a heresiarch or a leader of the group; rather, he thought of himself as a teacher of a method of inquiry for understanding the Scripture.

Reformation versus Radical Reformation

The Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, had as its scope only a limited purpose, namely, to oppose the power of the pope, both political and regulatory within the church, and to redress the moral corruption of the church. Emendation of the moral standing of the church included abolishing many money-making religious schemes, persecution for free thought in religious matters (heretics), and abolishing many regulatory decrees clearly designed to control society and individuals. Unfortunately, as soon as the reformed churches gained power, the new leaders forgot their original goals, and relishing with gusto the taste of power, embarked on the same path they originally condemned. They quickly abolished free religious thought, introduced their own inquisitorial procedures, and persecuted anyone whom they considered non-compliant with their own dogmas and religious and political designs.

But there was another trend in the Reformation, the so-called Radical Reformation, which was produced by many thoughtful people, though not all of them attained the same level of sophistication and advancement. This movement was represented by two variations: a. The Anabaptist movement with its emphasis on moral conduct and battle with social injustice, and propagation of the return to the original, communal way of life of the Christian church, and b. The Antitrinitarian or Unitarian movement that sprang from the evangelical and rationalistic tendencies and posited for itself as a goal an analysis of the entire Christian doctrine and search for its original meaning in the Scripture.

The term Radical Reformation was introduced by George Huntston Williams2 to describe the movements that went further than the Wittenberg reformers and aimed at the restoration of the primitive apostolic church. The exponents of the radical movement reproached the major reformers for stalling the Reformation and keeping the religious and the worldly reforms separate. They wanted to expand the Reformation theologically and sociologically into the transformation of man and of the world. In the tense eschatological atmosphere their hopes were expressed often in the expectation of the imminent kingdom of God.

These two movements within the Radical Reformation were not clearly separated and they overlapped significantly. They themselves were not uniform but had one most characteristic common trait, i.e., a tendency to separate the church from temporal power. The Anabaptist movement derived not so much from the theological differences with the Wittenberg Reformers as from the disagreement over social policy. Although initially in his writings Luther aimed at the reformation of the secular society and its order, he was faced on the one hand with the profound belief and demands of the Anabaptists which derived directly from the genuine gospel, and on the other with the revolutionary peasants. He found recourse in the Old Testament authority and called on the rulers to implement the power given to them by the divine will. Thomas Münzer (b. ca 1490 in Stolberg-on-the-Harz, d. executed after the Frankenhausen massacre on May 27, 1525) and his followers, together with a variety of groups that developed later, represented the Anabaptist movement emphasizing the application of Christian doctrines to social life. He is described as a "theologian and revolutionary, a single whole."3

The Antitrinitarian movement resulted from a broader theological conflict over the interpretation and meaning of the Scripture. This movement assumed its most advanced form in the Unitarian Church that developed independently in Transylvania and in Poland, variably called Unitarians, Minor Church, Polish Brethren, Arians, and Socinians. The last name derives from the name of Faustus Socinus (Fausto Sozzini), the Italian theologian and scholar who systematized the doctrine of the church of the Polish Brethren. His writings were compiled into a nine-volume edition of the Socinian treatises published in Amsterdam in 1656 as Vols. 1-2 of the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum. Many of his other works were published in Raków or in Kraków.
Pioneers of Antitrinitarianism

Michael Servetus (1511-1553) is considered the most prominent exponent of early Antitrinitarianism. But he also is a central figure in Western history marking a drastic turn and change in mentality away from the imposed totalitarian ecclesiastical rule over all aspects of society.4 He was not, however, the only one and certainly not the only initiator of the Antitrinitarian movement. Four more names are usually quoted in this regard: Martin Cellarius (Borrhaus), Ludwig Haetzer, Hans Denck, and Jacob Kautz.5 Martin Cellarius (Borrhaus, 1499-1564) was originally from Stuttgart. He studied classical languages, Hebrew, Chaldaean and Syriac in Wittenberg where he embraced Lutheranism. During the debate with Anabaptists he changed sides and even later developed Antitrinitarian views. Thus in 1536 he had to flee to Basel where he assumed the name of Borrhaus (which is a Greek translation of his name), became professor of rhetoric and philosophy. He made friends with Laelius Socinus and Michael Servetus.6 Ludwig Haetzer (b. ca 1490) was a former priest in Zürich, who knew the biblical languages and worked together with Denck in Worms on the translation of the Prophets (1527). He, according to Sandius,7 was an Arian and wrote a manuscript against the deity of Christ which fell into the hands of Zwingli and was never published. He was put to death by decapitation by the magistrate of Constance in 1529.

Hans Denck was born ca 1500 in upper Bavaria and attended the University of Ingolstadt from 1517 to 1520 where he learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He reacted positively to the Reformation unleashed by Luther in 1517. In 1522 he arrived in Basel where he was a corrector for a printing press and was linked for some time with Oecolampadius, a distinguished reformer and leader of the clergy there. We find him in 1523 in Nuremberg teaching at St. Sebald's school. Denck slowly developed ideas that were in conflict with the Lutheran camp and after an inquisition presided over by Andreas Osiander he was exiled from the city. His movements after exile from Nuremberg are not clear. He probably was invited to Mülhausen and after the collapse of the rebellion he is found in the canton of Schwyz where he was imprisoned for his negative view of pedobaptism. Next he contacted the Anabaptists in St. Gall, but was expelled from there for his universalism – the teaching that all men would eventually be saved. In 1525 we find him in Augsburg where he met Balthasar Hubmaier and became a practicing Anabaptist. Here he baptized Hans Hut and had a confrontation with the Lutheran ministers. In 1526 he was in Strassburg where, after a debate with Martin Bucer, he was expelled. He traveled then to Worms where he joined Ludwig Haetzer in translating the Old Testament Prophets and where they contacted the radical factions of the city and converted Jacob Kautz to their Anabaptism in 1527. Denck's influence was visible in the "theses" which were publicly defended by Kautz. As usual, suppression followed and Denck moved to Augsburg where he participated in the synod of 1527 animated by the apocalyptic teachings of Hans Hut. Denck now asked Oecolampadius for permission to settle in Basel, but before he could move, he fell victim to the plague. These three radical reformers represented a link between Unitarianism and Anabaptism.

Denck was a pioneer of Unitarianism and a champion of undogmatic, ethical Christianity. His principal work was On the Law of God. The most salient points of his doctrine were that God's law can and should be fulfilled; if Christ could do it so can we; Christ fulfilled the law by leading the way; man can fulfill the law when he has the truth. Denck, however, underemphasized the fall of man and rejected Luther's holistic view of human sinfulness and emphasized the power of man. Man's inner divine connection makes it possible for him to participate in the spiritual realm. The human Jesus is a great teacher and the difference between him and man is in degree. His true followers were expected to practice his teaching. But Christ had taught that God was love and love was the fulfillment of law, thus love of God and one's neighbor were the only proper relationships within the divine economy. In the interpretation of the Scripture, Denck opposed it as an external letter to the internal influence of the Holy Spirit on man. The new life for each man begins independently of the preaching of prophets and apostles. It begins with the direct influence of the Spirit. The Scripture remains only a testimony of the truth, an external work, a historical revelation of little importance. The internal revelation he called "the internal Word." It is a special experience acquired by the special influence of God. "The light which is the invisible Word of God shines into the hearts of all men .... It is in our very hearts not idle, but active to do the will of the Father."8

From such a principle it follows that there is no need for the sacraments, ceremonies, rites, sects, and religious authorities. Every individual was free to seek his own salvation. Moreover, since the accessibility to the "inner Word" is universal and individual, nobody holds a monopoly on truth. The differences arose, according to him, through appeal to isolated parts of the Scripture. It was more Christian to leave others in error than to compel them against their conscience. Thus he became an advocate of tolerance because of concerns for religious truth, moral right and social justice. In this aspect, too, he was a precursor of the Socinians. For him infant baptism was not ordained by Christ but was of human origin. Thus the Christian community had the freedom to reject it or to use it. The Lord's Supper he interpreted as a spiritual union with Christ. As to the swearing of an oath which caused a lot of problems for the Anabaptists, he took the position that the Scripture was neutral on this issue. Denck harshly criticized the hypocritical ecclesiastics who reduced faith to the externals: a belief in systematized deductions about the nature of God and man, and a mechanical observance of inherited superstitious rites.

The Diet of Spire (1529) and the Diet of Augsburg (1530) condemned Anabaptism and its followers prescribing for them the death penalty. Antitrinitarianism was not emphasized in the doctrines of these early Anabaptists – they did not seem to attach much importance to the "superstition of the divinity of Christ."9 Adolph von Harnack, a nineteenth century theologian, evaluated the development of Anabaptism from the critical ideas of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by mixing them with the elements of the Renaissance. This process bridged the Middle Ages with modern theology bypassing the Reformation. "In Anabaptism and Socinianism the Middle Ages and modern times join hands above the Reformation." Both Anabaptism and Antitrinitarianism were expressions of the Radical Reformation. Anabaptism was concerned with radical political reform, and Antitrinitarianism with doctrinal reform.

The Radical Reformation reversed the formal principle of the Reformation, i.e., the authority inspired by the Bible. The radical reformers believed that the legalistic usage of the Bible as practiced by the Catholic and Protestant churches restricted religion to the external authority of the church. The radical reformers substituted in the place of the Bible the spirit, the "internal Word," the religious conscience. They affirmed the direct action of God on man beyond the facts of the Revelation. They also insisted on rejecting the substantive divinity of Christ and returning to moral divinity. To them Christ was a man just as other men, the only difference was one between sinners and a non-sinner.10

Criticism initiated by theologian Michael Servetus of the traditional doctrines, for which he was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition and by Calvin, was taken up by the Italian humanists who, in northern Italy, proceeded independently of Luther, Calvin, and other reformers to think out their own liberal theology.11 During the Reformation in Italy the "religious" and moral corruption among the clergy and high officials of the church reached a peak and some exposed it and fought it. For example, Pierre Bembo (1470-1547), a future cardinal, preached persuasion, not faith, did not believe in the immortality of the soul, and instead of God's grace put forth "the benefit of the immortal Gods;" Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), an Italian humanist, proved the falsity of Constantine's Donation. Erasmus labeled this trend as rising paganism: "Caput erigere conatur paganismus" (Paganism attempts to rise its head).

New ideas were also arriving from abroad, particularly from Germany through evangelists, merchants, and soldiers, especially after the sacking of Rome in 1527. There were obviously attempts to correct the situation, but the pious people who attempted it differed in their methods of approach. Some arrived at justification by faith like Contarini, a future cardinal, who organized in Bologna a center for studies and innovation with professor Giovanni Mollio who taught the doctrine of Paul of Samosata and ended as a martyr. In Milan we find Celio Secondo Curione. In Naples there was Juan Valdés -- a Spaniard (1500-1544) about whom a Catholic wrote: "He himself made more souls perish than thousands of heretical soldiers before him;" and a Protestant, Jules Bonnet described as, "One of those souls of the élite who could not pass on earth without causing an alteration that soon became an apostolate." Valdés was able to gather around himself many prominent people of the epoch who developed unorthodox religious ideas such as the famous noblewomen, Vittoria Colonna and Giulia di Gonzaga, as well as Bernardino Ochino12 and Peter Martyr Vermigli.13

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