The Socinians—Why Did They Reject the Trinity?
“The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” That is how the Athanasian Creed defined the Trinity. The churches of Christendom have taught it for over 16 centuries, until today it is called “the central doctrine of the Christian religion.” But is it really? Through the years a few brave men and women have dared to argue that the Bible teaches otherwise—often at the expense of their lives.
MICHAEL SERVETUS was one of these. He was on the run for his life. At dawn on a spring day in 1553, the respected doctor escaped from prison in his robe and nightcap and fled across the French countryside. His trial by the Catholic authorities in Vienne had taken a bad turn. They knew who he was. Their own great enemy, the Protestant leader of Geneva, John Calvin, had helped to betray Servetus into their hands.
As much as Protestants and Catholics hated one another in these early years of the Reformation, they united in a still greater hatred of this one man. His crime? Heresy. Michael Servetus had written books proving that the churches’ teaching on the Trinity was unscriptural. He said: “The papistical Trinity, infant baptism, and the other sacraments of the Papacy, are the doctrines of demons.”
Where could he go? Servetus may have known that he had a small following in Northern Italy. Ever in hiding, he began to make his way there. As he was passing through Geneva, though, he was spotted in spite of his disguise. Calvin denounced him to the authorities and pushed for his execution. On October 27, 1553, he was burned alive at the stake with one of his books tied to his thigh. He died praying for his enemies and refusing to recant. Some onlookers, impressed, turned against the Trinity!
Laelius Socinus, one of the Italians who had already been influenced by Servetus’ writings, was moved by this brutal execution to examine the Trinity doctrine for himself. He too concluded that it had no basis in the Bible. He shared his convictions with his young nephew Faustus. He even left Faustus all his papers and writings. Greatly moved, Faustus gradually decided to leave behind his comfortable life as a courtier and instead share the truths he had learned from the Bible.
Hounded by the Catholic Inquisition, Socinus traveled northward. In Poland, 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.
What Did They Believe?
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 and rituals from the Catholic Church while leaving its rotten core, its unbiblical teachings, quite intact.
Like the religions around them, they were guilty of many errors. Still, of all the religions of the Reformation, this rivulet of Socinianism adhered to the Bible more than most. Here are some examples. Why not compare them with the cited verses in your Bible?
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 one’s neighbor 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, they 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. (John 17:16; 18:36) Renowned for their high moral standards, they excommunicated, or disfellowshipped, any among them who refused to live by or accept Socinian explanations of God’s Word.—2 John 10; 1 Corinthians 5:11.
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.—Ezekiel 18:4; John 5:28, 29.
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.—Ecclesiastes 9:5; Revelation 20:4.
Why Did They Reject the Trinity?
Like Servetus before them, though, the Socinians were most renowned for rejecting the churches’ teaching on the Trinity. Why did they? 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. What place could such a teaching have in a movement to restore pure Christianity? None.
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 whose Christ was little more than a philosophical abstraction, he wished to get men to put their faith in a living God, in a divine Christ who had been a historical reality, and in a Holy Spirit forever working in the hearts of men.” He believed the three were one only in the sense of John 17:21 and considered holy spirit to be God’s active force, not a person.
Further, the Socinians found the doctrine’s so-called Scriptural supports to be quite weak. The favorite 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, makes sense only when understood as calling Christ “divine,” or “a god,” instead of making him the same as almighty God.
The most devastating blow to the Trinity, though, was that the Bible’s very description of God, Jesus, and holy spirit makes the membership of each of them in any trinity quite impossible. How so? Well, first of all, holy spirit is shown in the Bible to be not a person at all but, rather, God’s active force. (Luke 1:41; Acts 10:38) 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. (John 14:28; Colossians 1:15) Finally, how could Jehovah, so often described as the one God, actually be part of a threefold deity?—Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 44:6.
Thus, on Biblical grounds the Socinians refuted the Trinity. But they also rejected it on the grounds of pure 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 fell into the latter category. As a historian describes Servetus’ feelings on the doctrine: “It confused his head, and failed to warm his heart or inspire his will.”
Nonetheless, the Socinians did fall into 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. (Romans 5:12; 1 Timothy 2:5, 6) There were other errors too. For instance, Socinus taught against the prehuman existence of Christ, another plain Bible teaching.—John 8:58.
A Short and Tragic 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 colony 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. It has been said that the anti-Socinian literature that these works inspired over the next two centuries could fill a library!
Hated as they were by Catholics and Protestants alike, though, 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 reestablishing 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 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.
The Socinian Legacy
Still, Socinian writings continued to exert influence. The Racovian Catechism, founded on Socinus’ writings and published shortly after his death, was translated into English by John Biddle in 1652. Parliament had copies seized and burned and had Biddle thrown into prison. Although released for a time, he was again put in prison and died there.
But arguments against the Trinity would not die so easily in England, where many learned and reasonable men saw their Scriptural truth. Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists in all of history, refuted the Trinity in his writings and is sometimes called a Socinian. Joseph Priestley, famous chemist and the discoverer of oxygen, was also called a Socinian. John Milton, the great poet, renounced the Trinity as well. In fact, the French philosopher Voltaire found it amusing that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, whose writings Voltaire deemed “unreadable,” won over much of Europe, while “the greatest philosophers and the best writers of their time,” such as Newton and other Socinians, had won only a tiny and dwindling flock.
Such men, like Socinus before them, stressed the importance of reason in religion. This is as it should be. The Bible itself urges us to serve God ‘with our power of reason.’ (Romans 12:1) Yet in the Unitarian movement that grew up in England from Socinian roots, human reasoning began to take precedence over the Bible. By the mid-1800’s, Unitarians in England and America “began to abandon scripture as the prime source of religious truth,” according to a history of their movement.
Still, the early Socinians set an example many modern religions could well learn from. For instance, one Presbyterian minister praised their stand on war as compared to the “impotence [of modern churches] in the face of the World War.” He expressed hope that soon all churches of Christendom would take a stand against warfare. But he wrote those words in 1932. World War II broke out just a few years later, with the churches again supporting the bloodshed. Today, war ravages much of the globe. Religion causes more wars than it prevents.
What about your church? Has your church, like so many today, lost its respect for the Bible? Does it teach instead the ideas of men? How does it stand on such doctrinal matters as the immortality of the soul, hellfire, or the Trinity? Have you compared these teachings with what the Bible says? The Socinians did. We urge you to do the same.
[Picture on page 21]
Michael Servetus—his books proved the Trinity doctrine false
By courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine