The Socinians in Poland

The Socinians

Faustus Socinus (or Fausto Sozzini), an Italian influenced by Servetus’ writings, was moved by his brutal execution at the hands of Calvin, to examine the Trinity doctrine. He concluded that it had no basis in the Bible. Faustus decided to leave his comfortable life as a courtier and share the truths he had learned from the Bible. (Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism)

Hounded by the Catholic Inquisition, Socinus travelled to Poland, where, by 1574, he found a small group of Anabaptists who called themselves “The brethren.. who have rejected the Trinity.” To Socinus, this religion was clearly the closest to the truth of the Bible. So he settled in Kraków and began to write in defense of their cause.

These Socinians, as they later came to be called, wanted most of all to restore the pure Christianity taught in the Bible. They felt that the Protestant Reformation had merely skimmed off some of the corruption of the Catholic Church while leaving its unbiblical teachings intact.

Socinian Belief

Of all the diverse Reformation beliefs, Socinianism adhered to the Bible more than most. Here are some examples.

Like the Anabaptists, they taught that infant baptism was unscriptural; in the Bible, only adults were baptized. The Socinians also stood firmly for the Scriptural command to ‘love thy neighbour’ and to forsake weapons of war. While Catholics and Protestants were avidly soaking all of Europe in blood, the Socinians refused to go to war on any grounds. Many of them died for this Scriptural stand. Furthermore, most of them would not agree to hold public office, since this might implicate them in the guilt of warfare.

The spirit of nationalism, so rampant in those days, had no hold over them. They felt that true Christians were aliens in any country of this world. Renowned for their high moral standards, they excommunicated any among them who refused to live by or accept Socinian explanations of God’s Word.

The Socinians did not hesitate to use God’s personal name, Jehovah. They especially valued the words of John 17:3, which say that taking in knowledge of him and his Son means everlasting life. They saw everlasting life as the great hope of all true Christians. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul they denied outright. Rather, they taught as the Bible does, that the soul dies, with hope of life based on a future resurrection.

The teaching of hellfire they also threw out as unscriptural. Socinus saw clearly the absurdity of saying that God would torture a person in fire for all eternity to punish him for sins that had taken him a scant 70 or 80 years to commit! Some early Socinian leaders even taught about Christ’s Millennial Reign over the earth.

Like Servetus before them, though, the Socinians were most renowned for rejecting the churches’ teaching on the Trinity. (See Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar ) Why did they reject the doctrine? Their reasoning followed two lines. First and foremost, they saw that it was unscriptural.

To this day scholars readily admit that the Bible contains no reference to any Trinity, that it was the result of ‘creative theology,’ an attempt to fuse fourth-century “Christianity” with Greek philosophy.

The triune God of the Catholic and most Protestant Churches is not the God of the Jews. The Jewish daily Shema, or confession of faith, states: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Neither is this triune deity the God of the nearly 600 million Muslims, whose Koran declares: “He, Allāh, is One.”

It is a historical fact that Christianity had Jewish roots. Jesus Christ himself was a Jew. He fulfilled the Law that God gave to the Jews and was the Messiah whose coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets. His earliest followers were all Jews or circumcised proselytes. And the Trinity has never been taught or believed by the Jews.

Can it be said that Christ and the writers of the New Testament abandoned the monotheistic notion of one God and introduced a mysterious three-in-one Godhead?  No, for by way of confirmation, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976) correctly states: “Neither the word Trinity, nor the explicit doctrine as such, appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deut. 6:4). .The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies.”

What place therefore, could such a teaching have in a movement to restore pure Christianity?

As one historian said of Servetus: “In place of a doctrine whose very terms—Trinity, hypostasis, person, substance, essence—were not taken from the Bible but invented by philosophers, and to whom Christ was little more than a philosophical abstraction, Servetus wished to get men to put their faith in a living God, as well as a divine Christ who had been a historical reality, and in a Holy Spirit forever working in the hearts of men.” He considered the holy spirit to be God’s active force, not a person.

Further, the Socinians found the so-called Scriptural supports of the doctrine to be weak. The favourite scripture of Trinitarians, 1 John 5:7, was already well-known as a corrupted text, a later and uninspired addition to the Bible. The other, John 1:1, only makes sense when understood as calling Christ “divine,”(Moffat) or “a god,”( Diaglott, AAT, NWT) instead of making him the same as Almighty God.

The most devastating blow to the doctrine of the Trinity, though, was that the Bible’s very description of God, Jesus, and the holy spirit makes the membership of each of them in any trinity quite impossible. How so? Well, first of all, the holy spirit is shown to be not a person at all but, rather, God’s active force.  Second, Christ could not be “coequal and coeternal” with the Father, since the Bible describes him as subordinate to his Father and as having been created by Him (Col.1:15). Finally, how could the God of Moses, so often described as the one God, actually be part of a threefold deity?

Thus, on Biblical grounds the Socinians rejected the Trinity. But they also rejected it on the grounds of reason. According to a historian of the Reformation: “Socinus held that . . . although [the Bible] may contain things above reason . . . , it does not contain anything contrary to reason.” The Trinity, with its contradictory notions of one God who is at the same time three persons, clearly falls into the latter category.

Nevertheless, the Socinians did accept some glaring doctrinal errors. Socinus and his followers denied the principle of Christ’s ransom. Yet, the Bible plainly teaches that Christ, by his death, paid the price to redeem mankind from its sinful condition. There were other errors too. For instance, Socinus taught against the pre-human existence of Christ, another plain Bible teaching (John1:2,3).

Socinian History

The Minor Reformed Church (as Socinians were officially called) flourished in Poland for nearly a hundred years. At their peak they numbered up to 300 congregations. They established a community at Raków, northeast of Kraków, set up a printing press, and founded a university that attracted respected teachers and students from far and wide. From their press poured some 500 different pamphlets, books, and tracts in some 20 languages. Missionaries and traveling students secretively spread these all over Europe.

Hated as they were by Catholics and Protestants alike, the Socinians were not to remain at peace for long. Socinus himself was attacked, beaten, mobbed, and nearly drowned for his beliefs. Even before his death in 1604, the Jesuits, bent on re-establishing the Catholic Church’s supremacy in Poland, had slowly begun to insinuate their way into positions of influence with the king.

Persecution of the Socinians began to increase. In 1611 a wealthy Socinian, Iwan Tyszkiewicz,  was stripped of his property and sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to be beheaded, to have a hand and a foot cut off, and then to be burned. Of course, he could live on in peace if he would just change his religion. He wouldn’t budge. He faced his execution unwaveringly in the Warsaw marketplace.

In 1658 the Jesuits at last achieved their goal. At their urging, the king decreed that all members of the Minor Reformed Church must get out of Poland within three years’ time or face execution. Hundreds chose exile. Brutal persecutions flared up. A few tiny congregations of exiles survived for a time in Transylvania, Prussia, and the Netherlands, but these isolated groups gradually disappeared as well.

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