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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.


Body of doctrine held by one of the numerous Antitrinitarian sects to which the Reformation gave birth

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Socinianism, the body of doctrine held by one of the numerous Antitrinitarian sects to which the Reformation gave birth. The Socinians derive their name from two natives of Siena, Lelio Sozzini (1525-62) and his nephew Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604). The surname is variously given, but its Latin form, Socinus, is that currently used. It is to Fausto, or Faustus Socinus, that the sect owes its individuality, but it arose before he came into contact with it. In 1546 a secret society held meetings at Vicenza in the Diocese of Venice to discuss, among other points, the doctrine of the Trinity. Among the members of this society were Blandrata, a well-known physician, Alciatus, Gentilis, and Lelio, or Laelius Socinus. The last-named, a priest of Siena, was the intimate friend of Bullinger, Calvin, and Melanchthon. The object of the society was the advocacy not precisely of what were afterwards known as Socinian principles, but of Antitrinitarianism. The Nominalists, represented by Abelard, were the real progenitors of the Antitrinitarians of the Reformation period, but while many of the Nominalists ultimately became Tritheists, the term Antitrinitarian means expressly one who denies the distinction of persons in the Godhead. The Antitrinitarians are thus the later representatives of the Sabellians, Macedonians, and Arians of an earlier period. The secret society which met at Vicenza was broken up, and most of its members fled to Poland. Laelius, indeed, seems to have lived most at Zurich, but he was the mainspring of the society, which continued to hold meetings at Cracow for the discussion of religious questions. He died in 1562 and a stormy period began for the members of the party.

The inevitable effect of the principles of the Reformation was soon felt, and schism made its appearance in the ranks of the Antitrinitarians—for so we must call them all indiscriminately at this time. In 1570 the Socinians separated, and, through the influence of the Antitrinitarian John Sigismund, established themselves at Racow. Meanwhile Faustus Socinus had obtained possession of his uncle’s papers and in 1579 came to Poland. He found the various bodies of the sect divided, and he was at first refused admission because he refused to submit to a second baptism. In 1574 the Socinians had issued a “Catechism of the Unitarians“, in which, while much was said about the nature and perfections of the Godhead, silence was observed regarding those Divine attributes which are mysterious. Christ was the Promised Man; He was the Mediator of Creation, i.e. of Regeneration. It was shortly after the appearance of this catechism that Faustus arrived on the scene and, in spite of initial opposition, he succeeded in attaching all parties to himself and thus securing for them a degree of unity which they had not hitherto enjoyed. Once in possession of power, his action was high-handed. He had been invited to Siebenburg in order to counteract the influence of the Antitrinitarian bishop Francis David (1510-79). David, having refused to accept the peculiarly Socinian tenet that Christ, though not God, is to be adored, was thrown into prison, where he died. Budnaeus, who adhered to David’s views, was degraded and excommunicated in 1584. The old catechism was now suppressed and a new one published under the title of the “Catechism of Racow”. Though drawn up by Socinus, it was not published until 1605, a year after his death; it first appeared in Polish, then in Latin in 1609.

Meanwhile the Socinians had flourished; they had established colleges, they held synods, and they had a printing press whence they issued an immense amount of religious literature in support of their views; this was collected, under the title “Bibliotheca Antitrinitarianorum”, by Sandius. In 1638 the Catholics in Poland insisted on the banishment of the Socinians, who were in consequence dispersed. It is evident from the pages of Bayle that the sect was dreaded in Europe; many of the princes were said to favor it secretly, and it was predicted that Socinianism would overrun Europe. Bayle, however, endeavors to dispel these fears by dwelling upon the vigorous measures taken to prevent its spread in Holland. Thus, in 1639, at the suggestion of the British Ambassador, all the states of Holland were advised of the probable arrival of the Socinians after their expulsion from Poland; while in 1653 very stringent decrees were passed against them. The sect never had a great vogue in England; it was distasteful to Protestants who, less logical, perhaps, but more conservative in their views, were not prepared to go to the lengths of the Continental Reformers. In 1612 we find the names of Leggatt and Wightman mentioned as condemned to death for denying the Divinity of Christ. Under the Commonwealth, John Biddle was prominent as an upholder of Socinian principles; Cromwell banished him to the Scilly Isles, but he returned under a writ of habeas corpus and became minister of an Independent church in London. After the Restoration, however, Biddle was cast again into prison, where he died in 1662. The Unitarians are frequently identified with the Socinians, but there are fundamental differences between their doctrines (for which see next section).

FUNDAMENTAL DOCTRINES.—These may be gathered from the “Catechism of Racow”, mentioned above and from the writings of Socinus himself, which are collected in the “Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum”. The basis was, of course, private judgment; the Socinians rejected authority and insisted on the free use of reason, but they did not reject revelation. Socinus, in his work “De Auctoritate Scripturae Sacrae”, went so far as to reject all purely natural religion. Thus for him the Bible was everything, but it had to be interpreted by the light of reason. Hence he and his followers thrust aside all mysteries; as the Socinian John Crell (d. 1633) says in his “De Deo et ejus Attributis”, “Mysteries are indeed exalted above reason, but they do not overturn it; they by no means extinguish its light, but only perfect it”. This would be quite true for a Catholic, but in the mouth of Socinian it meant that only those mysteries which reason can grasp are to be accepted. Thus both in the Racovian Catechism and in Socinus’s “Institutiones Religionis Christianae”, only the unity, eternity, omnipotence, justice, and wisdom of God are insisted on, since we could be convinced of these; His immensity, infinity, and omnipresence are regarded as beyond human comprehension, and therefore unnecessary for salvation. Original justice meant for Socinus merely that Adam was free from sin as a fact, not that he was endowed with peculiar gifts; hence Socinus denied the doctrine of original sin entirely. Since, too, faith was for him but trust in God, he was obliged to deny the doctrine of justification in the Catholic sense; it was nothing but a judicial act on the part of God. There were only two sacraments, and, as these were held to be mere incentives to faith, they had no intrinsic efficacy. Infant baptism was of course rejected. There was no hell; the wicked were annihilated.

CHRISTOLOGY.—This point was particularly interesting, as on it the whole of Socinianism turns. God, the Socinians maintained, and rightly, is absolutely simple; but distinction of persons is destructive of such simplicity, therefore, they concluded, the doctrine of the Trinity is unsound. Further, there can be no proportion between the finite and the infinite; hence there can be no incarnation of the Deity, since that would demand some such proportion. But if, by impossibility, there were distinction of persons in the Deity, no Divine person could be united to a human person, since there can be no unity between two individualities. These arguments are of course puerile and nothing but ignorance of Catholic teaching can explain the hold which such views obtained in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As against the first argument, see St. Thomas, Summa, I, Q. xii, a. 1, ad 4am; for the solution of the others see Petavius. But the Socinians did not become Arians, as did Campanus and Gentilis. The latter was one of the original society which held its meetings at Vicenza; he was beheaded at Berne in 1566. They did not become Tritheists, as Gentilis himself was supposed by some to be (cf. “A Short History of Valentius Gentilis the Tritheist”, London, 1696). Nor did they become Unitarians, as might have been expected. Socinus had indeed many affinities with Paul of Samosata and Sabellius; with them he regarded the Holy Spirit as merely an operation of God, a power for sanctification. But his teaching concerning the person of Christ differed in some respects from theirs. For Socinus, Christ was the Logos, but he denied His pre-existence; He was the Word of God as being His Interpreter (inter pres divinoe voluntatis). The passages from St. John which present the Word as the medium of creation were explained by Socinus of regeneration only. At the same time Christ was miraculously begotten: He was a perfect man, He was the appointed mediator; but He was not God, only deified man. In this sense He was to be adored; and it is here precisely that we have the dividing line between Socinianism and Unitarianism, for the latter system denied the miraculous birth of Christ and refused Him adoration. It must be confessed that, on their principles, the Unitarians were much more logical.

REDEMPTION AND SACRAMENTS. Socinus’s views regarding the person of Christ necessarily affected his teaching on the office of Christ as Redeemer, and consequently on the efficacy of the sacraments. Being purely man, Christ did not work out our redemption in the sense of satisfying for our sins; and consequently we cannot regard the sacraments as instruments whereby the fruits of that redemption are applied to man. Hence Socinus taught that the Passion of Christ was merely an example to us and a pledge of our forgiveness. All this teaching is syncretized in the Socinian doctrine regarding the Last Supper; it was not even commemorative of Christ’s Passion, it was rather an act of thanksgiving for it.

THE CHURCH AND SOCINIANISM.—Needless to say, the tenets of the Socinians have been repeatedly condemned by the Church. As Antitrinitarianists, they are opposed to the express teaching of the first six councils; their view of the person of Christ is in contradiction to the same councils, especially that of Chalcedon and the famous “Tome” (Ep. xxviii) of St. Leo the Great (cf. Denzinger, no. 143). For its peculiar views regarding the adoration of Christ, cf. can. ix. of the fifth Ecumenical Synod (Dent., 221). It is opposed, too, to the various creeds, more especially to that of St. Athanasius. It has also many affinities with the Adoptionist heresy condemned in the Plenary Council of Frankfort, in 794, and in the second letter of Pope Hadrian I to the bishops of Spain (cf. Denz. 309-314). Its denial of the Atonement is in opposition to the decrees against Gotteschalk promulgated in 849 (cf. Denz. 319), and also to the definition of the Fourth Lateran Council against the Albigensians (Denz. 428; cf. also Conc. Trid., Sess. xxii. cap. i. de Sacrificio Missae, in Denz., 938). The condemned propositions of Abelard (1140) might equally well stand for those of the Socinians (cf. Denz. 368 sqq.). The same must be said of the Waldensian heresy: the Profession of Faith drawn up against them by Innocent III might be taken as a summary of Socinian errors. The formal condemnation of Socinianism appeared first in the Constitution of Paul IV, “Cum quorundam”, 1555 (Denz., 993); this was confirmed in 1603 by Clement VIII, or “Dominici gregis”, but it is to be noted that both of these condemnations appeared before the publication of the “Catechism of Racow” in 1605, hence they do not adequately reflect the formal doctrines of Socinianism. At the same time it is to be remarked, that according to many, this catechism itself does not reflect the doctrines really held by the leaders of the party; it was intended for the laity alone. From the decree it would appear that in 1555 and again in 1603 the Socinians held (a) that there was no Trinity, (b) that Christ was not consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit, (c) that He was not conceived of the Holy Spirit, but begotten by St. Joseph, (d) that His Death and Passion were not undergone to bring about our redemption, (e) that finally the Blessed Virgin was not the Mother of God, neither did she retain her virginity. It would seem from the Catechism that the Socinians of 1605 held that Christ was at least miraculously conceived, though in what sense they held this is not clear.


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