Who was Socinus and What did He Believe?
In a previous article we looked at the heretical theology of the British monk, Pelagius. Here we turn to examine yet another heretic, Faustus Socinus (or, Sozzini; 1539-1604).
Socinus is generally regarded as the founder of the movement that bears his name (Socinianism). The best sources for understanding the Socinian system of thought are Faustus Socinus’s De Jesu Christo Servatore (1594), his commentary on the prologue to John’s gospel, and the Racovian Catechism, a manifesto of the Polish Unitarians first published in 1605 (in Polish; in 1609 in Latin), one year after Socinus’s death (the name is taken from the city of Racow or Racovia, headquarters of the movement). Faustus Socinus was raised a Catholic but travelled to Basel in 1574, at which time he professed to be a Calvinist. He later moved to Poland where he lived for 25 years until his death in 1604.
There are two basic principles of Socinian theology: (1) a strict unitarianism which denied the deity of Christ (see below), and (2) a rationalistic approach to Scripture according to which religious doctrines, if they are to be believed, must first be amenable to reason; faith is defined in purely intellectual terms
The Anselmic satisfaction theory of the atonement, as well as the penal substitutionary theory of both Luther and Calvin, were grounded in the belief that justice is an immutable and necessary attribute of God’s character. Socinus correctly perceived that to overthrow this foundational principle would undermine the concept of penal substitution. He states,
“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).
W. G. T. Shedd comments on Socinus’s concept of divine justice:
“It is plain that Socinus conceived of the attributes of justice and mercy as less central than will. By a volition, God may punish sin, or he may let it go unpunished. He has as much right to do the latter as the former. There is no intrinsic right or wrong in either case that necessitates his action. Justice like mercy is the product of his optional will. It is easy to see that by this definition of justice Socinus takes away the foundation of the doctrine of atonement; and that if it be a correct definition, the Socinian theory of forgiveness upon repentance is true. If sin is punishable only because God so determines; and if he decides not to punish it, then it is no longer punishable, -- if punitive justice is the product of mere will, and may be made and unmade by a volition, then it is absurd to say that without the shedding of blood, or the satisfaction of law, there is no remission of sin” (Dogmatic Theology, II, 378-79).
The Socinian concept of divine justice is directly related to their emphasis on the utterly free and arbitrary divine will. According to Socinus, we can never say that God must act in a particular way. We cannot even say that he must act in accord with moral principle. The Racovian Catechism put it this way:
“It belongs to the nature of God that He has the right and supreme power to decree whatsoever He wills concerning all things and concerning us, even in those matters with which no other power has to do; for example, He can give laws, and appoint rewards and penalties according to His own judgment, to our thoughts, hidden as these may be in the innermost recesses of our hearts.”
Thus God could have conceivably freed mankind from the guilt of their sin without the work of Christ, indeed, apart from the work of any sort of mediation or sacrifice or anything other than the arbitrary decree of His own will.
One section of the Racovian Catechism bore the heading, “Refutation of the Vulgar Doctrine about the Satisfaction of Christ for Our Sins.” How, then, does Jesus Christ accomplish our salvation? Socinus answers:
“The common and, as you would say, orthodox view is, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, because He made full satisfaction for our sins to the divine justice through which we sinners deserved to be condemned, and this satisfaction is through faith imputed by the gift of God to us who believe. But I hold, and think it to be the orthodox view, that Jesus Christ is our Savior because he announced to us the way of eternal salvation, confirmed, and in his own person, both by the example of his life and by rising from the dead, clearly showed it [i.e., eternal life], and will give that eternal life to us who have faith in him. And I affirm that he did not make satisfaction for our sins to the divine justice, . . . nor was there any need that he should make satisfaction” (De Servatore, chp. 1).
“Christ takes away sins because by heavenly and most ample promises He attracts and is strong to move all men to penitence, whereby sins are destroyed. . . . He takes away sins because by the example of His most innocent life, He very readily draws all, who have not lost hope, to leave their sins and zealously to embrace righteousness and holiness” (Prael. Theol., 591).
Thus, Christ bore our sins in the sense “that he took them away from us by inciting us to abandon them” (G. B. Stevens, The Christian Doctrine of Salvation, 159). In all that he did, Christ inspires us to repent and forsake our sin in order that we might walk in obedience; and it is by this repentance and obedience that God receives us into his favor. The Racovian Catechism states:
“But what reason was there that Christ should suffer the same afflictions, and the same kind of death, as those to which believers are exposed? There are two reasons for this, as there are two methods whereby Christ saves us: for, first, he inspires us with a certain hope of salvation, and also incites us both to enter upon the way of salvation and to persevere in it. In the next place, he is with us in every struggle of temptation, suffering, or danger, affords us assistance, and at length delivers us from eternal death. It was exceedingly conducive to both these methods of saving us, that Christ our captain should not enter upon his eternal life and glory, otherwise than through sufferings, and through a death of this kind” (ch. 8).
Whereas Socinus, at least in principle, affirmed Sola Scriptura, he utterly rejected the Athanasian/Nicene concept of homoousios (that Christ the Son possesses the same divine nature as the Father) as “a mere human fabrication, which is in no way conformable to Holy Writ” (the Socinians were known to refer to Athanasius as “the Antichrist”!). The Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds were deemed “monstrous figments about our God and about his Christ” (Prol. Ev. Joh., BFP 1.84). Socinus referred to “that monstrosity of three realities,” that “imaginary Trinity, three beings in one nature,” which was in fact not trinitarianism but tritheism. One God and three persons, was, unavoidably, a “contradiction,” which “perhaps even the angels” would have difficulty comprehending” (cited in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 4:326).
The bottom line for Socinianism is that trinitarianism is “repugnant to Scripture” and “an invention of Satan” (Catechism, 4.1).
What did Socinus do with the many texts which speak of the pre-existence of the Word? This:
“Christ, after he was born as man but before he began to undertake the task imposed on him by God his Father, was in heaven, through the plan and action of God, and remained there for some time in order to hear from God himself” precisely what he was supposed to reveal to his disciples (Catechism, 1.675).
Jesus was by nature a mere man. The references in Scripture to Jesus as Son of God and Lord are mere “appellations” or indications of how Jesus “functioned” but not indications of his essential nature. As for Philippians 2:5-11, Paul had in view a “power” conferred on Christ, not a status possessed by “nature”. In his commentary on the Johannine prologue, Socinus insisted that the “Word” “did not refer to his ontological nature but to his office as the one who ‘expounded the evangelical word of his Father’” (Pelikan, 4:327). He was divine only in the sense that the spirit or (impersonal) power of God was united “by an indissoluble bond to his human nature and displayed in him the wonderful effects of its extraordinary presence.” Jesus was taken up into heaven that he might see God and receive instruction from Him. Upon his resurrection and ascension, all power in heaven and earth has been committed to him. Because of the latter Christ is to be worshipped and adored and prayers offered to him. Still, Socinus warned of the danger of idolatry in giving Christ more worship than is due and of asking him for things that only the Father can bestow.
The Socinian heresy, sadly, is still with us, especially as it finds expression in most Unitarian-Universalist churches.