Faustus Socinus and the Roots of Modern Christianity

[As I have said in earlier posts, it is not necessary to believe in superstition or medieval concepts in order to be a Christian. Here is the story of one man who, many centuries ago, made remarkable sacrifices to help formulate the Christian faith in such a way that a modern person could adhere to it without betraying reason or knowledge.]

Fausto Sozzini, or in Latin form Faustus Socinus as he is usually known, was born in 1539 to a wealthy Italian family. The Reformation was in full flower as he grew up and the ideas of Luther and others were fermenting all over Europe. Luther himself was interested mainly in establishing the authority of the Bible, as opposed to that of the church hierarchy, and of cleaning up the corruption in the church. Many of his contemporaries went further. Some of them, such as Michael Servetus and Thomas Munzer, preached against the idea of the Trinity and the practice of infant baptism. Socinus’ uncle Laelio Sozzini was involved in this movement, which we call the Radical Reformation, and influenced Faustus immeasurably. Laelio learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the original, and found that much of the church’s doctrine was directly contradictory to Scripture. Laelio had a fascinating life, living in various cities in Italy and Switzerland, and knew many of the Reformation’s outstanding figures.

At the age of 21 Socinus went to Lyon, France, and was probably engaged in a mercantile business. A year later he shows up in Geneva, Switzerland, but there is no evidence that he ever came under the sway of John Calvin. Letters from this time show that he was already formulating a more radical Protestant theology, asserting that Jesus was not essentially divine — in other words, that he was not born both God and Man. He returned to Italy and lived as a member of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo Medici in Florence for many years. During this time he had many literary pursuits — he loved to write poetry — but was not remarkably fertile as a theologian.

When Duke Cosimo died in 1574, Socinus traveled back to Switzerland and never returned to Italy. In the safer theological atmosphere of Basel he once again began to publish theological works. From Basel, Socinus traveled to Transylvania. There were many there who had rejected the idea of the Trinity. The interchange between Socinus and the Transylvanian anti-trinitarians is one of the principal threads in the development of modern-day Unitarianism. Socinus left Transylvania for Poland in May of 1579, where there were many others of like mind. He remained in Poland until his death in 1604. He was a major influence on the development of the Polish Brethren, a dissenting church which forms another thread in the development of a non-supernatural way of participating in the Christian faith.

What were his principal beliefs? I’ve already alluded to his rejection of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are somehow separate yet one and the same. He says that Jesus was not born the Son of God. He suggests that, when the gospel of John says “In the beginning there was the Word,” this means in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning of the Creation. Jesus was the Son of God because he became like God. The Holy Spirit is not a separate being from God, either, but simply the activity of God’s power and presence among us.

Socinus also disagreed with the idea that Jesus died on the cross for the remission of sins. Stephen David Snobelen tells us that “Fausto Socinus rejected the orthodox satisfaction theory of the atonement, a theory that held that God’s wrath was appeased or satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross, a sacrifice that involved a sort of legal transaction in which Christ died as a substitute for humans. Socinus held that the view that held that God was a wrathful deity who demanded the satisfaction of a legal transaction prior to granting atonement for the sin’s of men and women was inconsistent with an understanding of God’s grace. Instead, Socinus argued that God has the right to grant atonement and eternal life freely, without any transaction. Socinus believes it unjust for God to ask men and women to forgive each other freely, if he does not do so himself. There is in Socinus’ model of the atonement a greater stress placed on Christ’s crucifixion as exemplary of an ethic of self-sacrifice to which humans should aspire.”

Socinus did not believe in original sin, thus there was no need for justification. Socinus considered it absurd that some would be saved and others predestined to be damned to hell, as Calvin taught.

Socinus believed that the rewards of the Christian life were not to be won simply in saying that you believe in what Jesus taught, but by doing what Jesus taught. He took the demands of the Sermon on the Mount as binding on all Christians, and was a pacifist.

He denied that God’s omniscience means that God knows everything that is going to happen. Free will prevents this. Since people can make their own choices, no one including God can know everything that will take place. If there is no free will, then God must be the cause of sin. This, Faustus said, was absurd. Therefore there must be free will, and if there is, then foreknowledge cannot be said to exist.

Finally, while Socinus and his followers believed in miracles such as the virgin birth, they also said that religion should not contradict natural reason, or what we would today call scientific understanding. The rise of such beliefs in Europe, of which Socinus was an early pioneer, led to what we call the Enlightenment, or the philosophy of thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. The spirit of the Enlightenment played a large part in the formation of the American experiment in self-government, believing as they did in the rule of reason and law, and the separation of church and state.

After Socinus’ death, the Polish government was taken over for a time by counter-reformers, zealots for Catholicism and the more conservative branches of the Protestant movement. The doctrines of churches such as the Polish Brethren were outlawed, and members had three years to either convert to an accepted church or to leave. Many of the Polish Brethren fled to the Netherlands, where religious toleration was still practiced.

Socinus’ ideas had considerable influence over Isaac Newton. Newton was found to have had many Socinian books in his library upon his death, and they all gave evidence of having been studied. Four of them were written by Socinus himself. By contrast, there were only two books by Martin Luther and one by John Calvin. In addition, Newton had correspondence with several Socinians, and appears to have helped fund the publication of one of their works.

While not a Socinian as such, Newton did not believe in the Trinity. His attitude towards the Atonement was similar to Socinus, in that he did not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sins. Like Socinus, he studied the early history of the Christian church and found that such doctrines as the Trinity and the Atonement were either absent or were only one among many, quite distinct from the position of orthodoxy those precepts later obtained.

In England at one time, the term Socinian was used to denote any of the more radical forms of the Protestant church. My own Society of Friends was often labeled Socinian, although strictly speaking they were not. There are some parallels, such as the pacifism and the use of empirical reasoning in matters of faith.

I had heard of the “Socinian heresy” many times in my own studies. In those brief descriptions I saw something that seemed interesting and which resonates with my own views. Running across his name in a book again quite recently, I thought I would like to find out more who this Socinus guy was. As I learned more about him, I discovered how much his view of religion parallels my own. It’s almost like doing some genealogy and finding an interesting ancestor in your family tree.

Pacifism, the War on Terror, and Politics in the 2012 Elections

[I made a decision at the very beginning that this would not be a political blog.*  I have definite political opinions, but in general I think that politics get more attention than they should. Partisan politics are especially hideous. I’m going to sound off just a bit about politics here, because there are times when it is important. This is one of them.

In a larger sense, this is still not about politics as such. This is about issues which have a political context.

I always welcome comments, but I suspect that this post will invite comments that will have a pointedly political or partisan thrust. Do yourself a favor: post them on your own blog. I won’t approve them for publication here. Don’t be surprised or disappointed if yours never sees the light of day. Forewarned is forearmed.]

Politics should be the handmaiden of our lives, not the mistress. Too many people think of the government as “the decider”, to borrow George Bush’s famous oversimplification. People want government to do things. Every time some problem emerges — from a deadly hurricane to unemployment to the cost of health care — too many people look to government to provide the solution. Governments are notoriously bad at this sort of thing. There is little evidence to the contrary. What drives this, for most people, is that they really want a parent to take care of them.

What governments are good at, and necessary for, comes down to a few things: To secure our borders and protect the country from foreign invasion. To pursue a foreign policy that enables our citizens to travel and do business freely around the world. To coordinate efforts that affect all the states — not to provide or run those efforts, but to coordinate them.** And, most importantly, to secure the civil rights of all citizens. Every one, regardless of race, creed, disability, mental status, gender, sexual preference, you name it.

So when I say politics should be the handmaiden and not the mistress, that is because there are many things that are much more important than politics, such as ethics, and commerce, and relationships between people and groups of peoples. To the extent that government can remove obstacles that make those things difficult, it is good. To the extent that politics is necessary to the conduct of government, it is acceptable. Anything beyond that, quite frankly, is delusional.

That’s pretty abstract. Let me give a more concrete example.

I am a lifelong pacifist. I don’t expect my government to be pacifist. Governments are based on force. Laws carry the threat of arrest and imprisonment, a form of force. Borders are secured by our armed forces. Foreign policy is conducted largely with the knowledge that some things lead to war if not managed better. I don’t expect this to change; I am no utopian. What a pacifist can contribute, is to keep the pressure on to find humane and peaceful ways of conducting foreign policy, border security, or law enforcement. That is no small project.

So when America becomes involved in torture, people of ethics in general and pacifists in particular say STOP! When massacres such as My Lai occur, people of ethics in general and pacifists in particular act to have the people who committed them held accountable. (The people who were most responsible for My Lai were never held accountable. While Lt. Calley should not have gotten off scot-free — we don’t accept “I was just following orders” as an excuse for atrocity — he was wrongfully used as a scapegoat by those who were even more truly responsible, the ones who set the policies and gave the orders which created the atmosphere in which the slaughter occurred.)

And when politicians use those humane impulses to win elections, and then go right on doing the very things they condemned in order to get elected, ethical people in general and pacifists in particular have to stand up to the deception.

I am not going to vote for Mitt Romney. Keep that in mind as you read what follows.

Barack Obama made a lot of political hay, talking about torture, extraordinary renditions, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and other such policies of the Bush administration in his historic rise to the Presidency. What has he done since then?

> Guantanamo Bay is still operating the prison for terrorists. As of September 2012, 166 detainees remain in the facility. [LA Times, 9/23/12]

> The use of drones in targeted killings has increased under President Obama. Administration sources say that this keeps civilian casualties down. Yet reports increasingly describe how whole provinces in Pakistan — nominally our allies — are terrorized by the drones. Many die. More are kept in a state of terror as the drones fly overhead day and night, not knowing where the next explosion will occur.

> Assassination: how is the use of a drone to take out a targeted individual any different from sending in an assassin with a gun or knife? It’s not. Except the “collateral damage” (civilian deaths and casualties) is higher. We have had a longstanding prohibition of the use of assassination by the U.S. Apparently this has been overlooked by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

> Passing death sentences on U.S. citizens without a trial in a court of law: 16 year old native of Colorado:


Google the name and learn more about this incident.

> President Obama followed neither the War Powers Act nor the Constitution in ordering military operations in Libya in 2011. Ralph Nader called him a “war criminal” for doing this. Good old Ralph. At least he is consistent. “If Bush should have been impeached, Obama should be impeached.” Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich said the same thing.

> Warrantless wiretaps: The ACLU has recently released findings that warrantless wiretaps have quadrupled under the Obama administration. http://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security-technology-and-liberty/new-justice-department-documents-show-huge-increase

What I don’t see is the same kind of outcry by the people who so strenuously opposed these things when done by the Bush administration.

People of ethics in general, and pacifists and people on the Left in particular, have to stand up against this deception, whether you like the guy or not.

(*Ha ha ha ha ha — boy did that change — Comment added 4/27/17)

(**Guess I changed my mind about this, too. I’m going to have to write a whole new post on that one.)