CHAPTER XXIX

THE MINOR CHURCH REACHES MATURITY.  FAUSTUS SOCINUS UP TO HIS ARRIVAL IN POLAND

OUR HISTORY has now arrived at a point where the Minor Church may be said to have fairly found itself, not only in its essential inner character but also with relation to its general environment. We have seen it, under the broadly accepted principles of freedom, reason and tolerance, develop a body of doctrine on a purely scriptural basis which, while it negatively rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and of the eternal divinity of Christ, yet positively gave Jesus a very high rank as one whose human nature approximated the divine, and whose teachings Christians are bound to accept literally and to follow strictly. Its main emphasis, however, was not upon theological doctrines but upon the conduct of a life in which Christian teachings are put into actual practice in the private character and the social relations of individuals, and in one’s public relations to the institutions and activities of the State. While no agreement in detail as to minor doctrines was reached or even thought necessary, the more important points had been comfortably agreed upon, and the rest were left to the issue of free discussion.

The membership of the church embraced all classes, and the spirit in its principal congregations was democratic, recognizing no class distinctions among members, since they were regarded as being all brethren in one Christian family. They were however firmly excluded from Christian fellowship with the other reformed confessions no less than with the Catholic Church. While they were at heart intensely loyal to their country and its government, their convictions as to rendering military service and holding public office laid them open to charges of disloyalty. Yet there was in all this no trace of a spirit of sedition or revolt, but simply the renouncement of public life.1 Thus more or less isolated from the religious and political life of their time, they went their way alone with the deeper devotion to their cause. In the present chapter we shall see their divergent elements and conflicting views gradually and peaceably consolidated, and the Minor Church become an effective religious force under the persuasive leadership of Faustus Socinus.

The political background of the history of the Minor Church during this period was on the whole not oppressive. Henry of Valois had ruled only a few months in Poland when his brother, King Charles IX. of France, suddenly died, and Henry hastily and secretly left Kráków to claim the vacant throne in Paris. An interregnum of a year and a half followed, ending with the election of Stephen Batory (Báthory), Prince of Transylvania, as King of Poland (1576—’86). In his candidacy for the throne Stephen was very ably represented by his court physician, Dr. Giorgio Biandrata, whose acquaintance we have already made, and who had wide relations with the higher nobility and court circles in Poland. The orthodox Dissidents opposed him at first out of fear that he was an Antitrinitarian, though they afterwards accepted him in the belief that he favored the reformed cause. The Catholics on the other hand, including nearly all the Bishops, opposed his candidacy, thinking him of doubtful loyalty to the Church, and only one of the ten envoys sent to offer him the crown was a Catholic. All proved to be mistaken. Bishop Karnkowski before proposing Batory to the Catholics had informed himself exactly about Batory’s religion. He had never ceased to be a practicing Catholic, and his family was one of the few in Transylvania that had remained consistently so.2 In Poland he soon showed himself zealous for the Church, though no fanatic. He vigorously opposed the riots against Protestants which had of late been frequent and violent in the large towns, though he excepted Antitrinitarians from his protection in this respect. 3 But though he restored to the Catholics many of the churches that Protestants had taken from them, and much favored the Jesuits, he signed the pacta conventa guaranteeing protection to the Protestants, and scrupulously kept his promise when strongly urged to violate it, declaring that he was king of the people, not of their consciences. 4 For a time indeed there seemed great danger that the Racovians might suffer for their opposition to serving in war, and to holding public office; but nothing serious happened, and as time went on their views attracted less and less attention.

But while the King himself showed tolerance, hostility now began to manifest itself from another quarter, that of the Catholic clergy. The controversy of Czechowicz with Canon Powodowski was briefly mentioned above.5 Powodowski, being present at Lublin as a clerical member of the royal Tribunal or Supreme Court of the kingdom, which Stephen had recently established there, was stirred up by the boldness of Czechowicz’s attacks upon the Roman Church and its doctrines, and challenged him to a debate. This was held in the Canon’s house, and lasted eight hours, but it left each of the same opinion still. The matter was then continued in print. 6 This was practically the beginning of a long succession of public debates between the members of the Minor Church and the Catholics7 (controversy with the Calvinists had by now largely ceased), who had hitherto been content to let the Dissidents waste their strength in controversy with one another, but henceforth accepted or seized every opportunity for debate, becoming ever more aggressive. Each side would make its points and claim the victory, and afterwards would usually print its own account. But though partisans were doubtless confirmed in the views they al ready held, few converts were made; appeals to popular feeling proved more effective than those to calm reason, and the main result was to widen the breach and deepen the enmity between the parties. In these controversies it was Czechowicz that was the able champion and the acknowledged authority of the Minor Church until he was superseded by Socinus.

It was at just this period, when the first leaders of the Minor Church were passing from the scene, leaving none to fill their places, and when for want of competent leadership the whole loosely organized movement was in grave danger of falling to pieces, that Faustus Socinus appeared on the scene, and through his ability, scholarship and persuasive speech won the confidence of the membership, and by his wise and tactful methods gave the church unity of spirit and aim, and fixed it in the characteristics that caused it eventually to be identified with his name as Socinianism, and launched it upon a new period in its history. It will therefore be convenient at this point to review the course of his life in preparation for his activity in Poland.

Faustus Socinus8 (Fausto Sozzini) came of an ancestry long distinguished in Siena, where his family had lived since the middle of the fourteenth century, had been admitted to noble rank, and had held the highest offices. 9 His great-great-grandfather, Mariano Sozzini the elder (1397—1467), was Professor of Canon Law at Padua and Siena, a man of wide culture, and the most famous jurist of his time. If one may trust the almost incredibly flattering description of him written to a correspondent by Aeneas Sylvius (later Pope Pius II.) in 1444, he possessed in the superlative degree nearly every imaginable talent, skill, grace and accomplishment, physical, mental, moral and social. 10

His grandson, Mariano the younger (1482—1556), was Faustus’s grandfather, and was even more celebrated, being Professor of Law successively in the four universities of Siena, Pisa, Padua and Bologna, and was complimented with the title of Princeps Jurisconsultorum.11 Of his eleven sons, the sixth was that Laelius whose career we have already followed; 12 while the eldest was Alessandro (1509—1541), father of Faustus. He bid fair to add further lustre to the family name, being appointed Professor of Civil Law at Padua at once after receiving his degree, and later at the new university at Macerata, where he died untimely at the early age of thirty-two. Of the three little children whom he left, Fausto, the second, was born December 5, I539, 13 and was thus but two years old at his father’s death. On his mother’s side Fausto’s ancestry was even more notable than on his father’s. His mother was Agnese Petrucci, whose mother in turn was of the celebrated Piccolomini family, a grandniece of Pope Pius II., and an own cousin of Pope Pius III. Early bereft of his father, he spent his childhood and youth at the country place that his grandfather had lately bought, the villa of Scopeto, six miles east of Siena, 14 where he received careful training from his mother and grandmother. The young man’s tastes ran rather to letters than to the law cultivated by his ancestors, which in fact he held in very low esteem, 15 and although he may have studied the rudiments of the subject, he seems to have made no serious attempt to master it. Thus, though he was considered a youth of high promise, he had an irregular and desultory education, and won no university degree. In a letter written but a few weeks before his death, he apologetically says of himself that he never studied philosophy nor applied himself to scholastic theology, and never dabbled even in Logic beyond the rudiments, and that very late in life. 16 It was however, this very deficiency in the conventional education of the time that contributed to his distinction as an original theologian, since when he came to work out a reformed system of doctrine he was not insensibly warped by traditional methods of thought, but approached the Bible text with an unbiased mind.

Though born the child of Catholic parents, Faustus in heart never gave allegiance to the Catholic Church.17 The Protestant heresy was rife in the Sozzini family during his boyhood. Of his uncles, besides Lelio already mentioned, Camillo had to flee from the Inquisition, and was excommunicated; Cornelio was charged with heresy and for a time under arrest in Rome; and Celso was under suspicion. They evidently imbued him with their religious views, and when Lelio, whom he learned greatly to admire and revere, revisited Siena in I552—’53, 18 he will have exerted a powerful influence on his young nephew. 19 His grandfather died in 1556, leaving Faustus a fourth of his estate; and whether for reasons of prudence or otherwise, as soon as he was of age, early in 1561, Faustus left Italy and took up residence at Lyon, perhaps for quiet study in a place where he need not be too much compromised by associations. Within a bare year, however, he received word from Zurich that his revered uncle had died, and he hastened thither to take possession of the books and papers that Lelio had left behind him. After a brief residence at Geneva, where he was enrolled as a member of the Italian church 20 but probably did not find himself spiritually at home, he returned to Lyon, where he composed his first work. 21 In this he proposed an interpretation of the prologue of the Fourth Gospel which did not take it as implying the doctrine of the Trinity.

By 1563 the persecution against members of his family having seemingly abated, he returned to Italy, and accepted a post as secretary to Duke Paolo Giordano Orsini, husband of Isabella de’ Medici and son- in-law of Cosimo I. In the brilliant but corrupt entourage of this Medicean court Faustus spent what he later regarded as twelve wasted years 22 ( outwardly living the frivolous life of a courtier, dabbling in studies of the law and in efforts at poetry, living in outward conformity to the Church, yet in his serious moments evidently pondering the religious questions that his uncle’s papers had stirred up in his mind. One result of these years at the Florentine court was his first important work, and the one that enjoyed the widest and longest popularity, his De Sacrae Scripturac Auctoritate, written in Italian about 1570 ‘at the request of a certain great man’. 23 This work, translated into four languages, published in half a score of editions, and in print for more than a century and a half, is a closely reasoned argument, addressed to any that question the authority of Scripture, and hence the truth of the Christian religion founded upon it. 24 Its design is to confirm the believer, reassure the doubter, and confute the unbeliever by showing that the authors of the Scriptures are worthy of credence, and that the Christian religion is not the outgrowth of superstition but has sound historical foundations. The question had hitherto not been searchingly investigated; but Socinus canvassed it on rational and historical grounds so convincingly that he laid foundations of Apologetics that were to stand until the rise of modern biblical criticism rendered them obsolete. His little treatise was much esteemed by both Catholics and Protestants until its true authorship was discovered; and its argument was adopted in 1639 by Grotius in his famous work, De Veritate Religionis Christianae, and by the Catholic Bishop Huet in his Demonstratio evangelica.

After the death of his powerful patron, the Grand-Duke Cosimo I., in 1574, the last bond that held Socinus in Florence was broken. In proportion as his interest in religious questions had deepened, his distaste for court life had also grown. Though there was no prospect that he would be dismissed from the court of Francesco, the new Duke, he voluntarily resigned from it, and left Italy never to return. 25 The Duke repeatedly urged him both by letter and through an important personal messenger to return to his position, which promised him enviable worldly advantages, but he modestly though firmly held to his purpose. Yet friendly personal relations continued, and as long as the Duke lived he forwarded to Socinus the revenues from the properties he had inherited at Siena, stipulating only that Socinus should not publish over his own name any work that might compromise his reputation. This condition Socinus faithfully observed during the twelve or thirteen years until the Duke’s death in 1587. Leaving Florence, Socinus proceeded to Basel as a place where he might more conveniently and safely apply himself to the study of the Scriptures. 26 He remained at Basel for more than three years, and soon found himself the centre of a group of Italians of inquiring mind, who had known Laelius and been influenced by him, and who were especially interested in the question of salvation through Christ, which was often discussed among them. He held, as he had first learned from his uncle, that the common doctrine on tins subject was a dangerous error. This was reported to a traveling French Protestant minister, Jacques Couet (Covetus), who was passing through Basel, and who challenged Socinus’s view. The oral discussion that ensued was continued in writing for more than two years before Socmus was able to finish his contribution to it. 27 Even then it was not printed, though widely circulated in manuscript copies in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, until it fell into the hands of a Polish nobleman who insisted that it be published, undertook the matter himself, and gave it to the world in Poland in 1594, sixteen years after it was first written at Basel. Even then it was the first work published under his own name.

The work was entitled De Jesu Chiristo Servatore,28 and it is the author’s most original and most important contribution to systematic theology. The thesis of the work was, in brief, this: that Christ is called our Savior not because he suffered the penalty that was justly due to us, thus appeasing the wrath of an offended God; but because he made known to us the way of eternal salvation, which we may attain by imitating him. Such a view was not altogether new. It had long before been adumbrated by Abélard, 29 and Socinus himself owned that Ochino in his Dialogues pointed in the same direction. 30 But he now stated his view so boldly and clearly that it created a profound impression; for it was at once seen that it rendered several other orthodox doctrines superfluous, and was calculated to focus the Christian’s effort not on an act of faith but on the conduct of life.31 It was soon replied to by a Polish theologian, and (though Socinus was not aware of this) by Couet himself; and for a generation it was the object of attack by orthodox theologians; and when republished in Holland a generation later it stirred up the famous satisfaction controversy which lasted until the end of the century.

For Socinus himself the controversy soon brought consequences that he could not have foreseen, which determined the course of his whole future life. For echoes of it spread to Transylvania and reached the ears of Biandrata, who was now actively engaged in promoting a re formation in religion there as he had previously done in Poland. The movement had got out of hand, for its Bishop, Francis David, had gone so far in doctrine as to oppose the worship of Christ as unscriptural, and would not heed the warnings of Biandrata, who recognized in this a critical danger to his whole cause.32 He discerned in Socinus a competent theologian who might be able to bring David back to a more conservative view, and he sent him an urgent call for assistance. Thus in the autumn of 1578 Socinus came to Kolozsvár to spend several months in what proved a futile attempt to convert David to his point of view. The full account of this episode properly falls in the next division of this history.

In his journey from Basel to Kolozsvár, Socinus had come by way of Kráków, taking occasion en route to seek out some of the friends that Laelius had made there twenty years before, 33 and to make ac quaintance of the little congregation of the Minor Church of which Georg Schomann was then pastor. His mission in Transylvania ended, he therefore returned to Kráków in the spring of 1580, to spend in Poland the remaining twenty-five years of his life. It was natural that he should be attracted to this country. Switzerland was hardly a safe place for one whose mind was so rapidly moving from the old standards, while Poland was just then enjoying a brief fame as the most tolerant country in Europe. At Kráków itself he could enjoy many advantages in the intellectual and cultural capital of the country. Though as yet he knew no Polish, he could feel at home among his own countrymen, for there was a considerable company of cultivated and prosperous Italians settled there, of whom several sympathized with the liberal wing of the Reformed religion. His religious associations he sought with the poverty-stricken little group of Anabaptists. 34 They were an obscure and despised company in a Catholic capital, were not permitted to hold public worship, were divided in controversy over minor details, and their cause seemed to be declining; but they were earnest and united in their effort to maintain a doctrine purified of old errors and based solely on Scripture, and to lead lives in strictest accord with the teaching of Jesus. He did not indeed approve all their views, but of the several varieties of Protestants in Poland, these seemed to him to be the most nearly right. 35

Instead, however, of welcoming so distinguished an adherent with open arms, the little congregation received him with a caution bordering on suspicion. The brethren at Kráków had already, when he was on his way to Transylvania, asked him to give them his views on what they deemed the cardinal subject of baptism; and they were so much interested that when he returned they and the brethren at Lublin entreated him to put the matter in writing for them to read. He did so,36 and from that time on expressed his opinion in public in various places as well as through letters, for he ardently desired that, if possible, they might all be of the same opinion with him. 37 But they could not be brought to see eye to eye with him. For in the reorganization of the little church effected by Ronemberg, baptism had been made one of its two corner-stones, and an essential condition of membership; while Socinus was convinced that baptism as then insisted on (i.e. the adult baptism of those already baptized in infancy) was proving a stumbling block to large numbers that would otherwise be glad to join the Minor Church.38 Moreover, he was firmly persuaded that neither Christ nor his Apostles had ever prescribed baptism as a lasting practice in the Church. It might be well enough to retain it for those that were coming to Christianity from another religion; but for those that had been born and brought up in the Christian Church it was not essential, but an indifferent matter, to insist on which as vital almost smacked of superstition. 39

When, therefore, in 1580 at a synod at Ráków Socinus publicly sought admission to membership in the church, making no secret of his dissent as to several minor doctrines as he deemed them, including baptism, and it was insisted that he must first receive adult baptism, he felt that as he had often expressed his views on this subject both in print and in speech he could not now stultify himself by submitting to the rite, unless he might first publicly protest that he did so not because he regarded it as in any way necessary or as a command of Christ, but only for the sake of having closer fellowship with the brethren; and to this the brethren would by no means agree. His application was therefore rejected, and he was not admitted to their observance of the Lord’s Supper.40 Socinus felt his rejection keenly, 41 but however much he might regret being denied closer association with the brethren, he showed no resentment at the rebuff; nor did they on their part give him the cold shoulder. Ronemberg, Elder of the Kráków congregation and its most influential member, and the noble lady Siemichowska were still after three years beseeching him in the most urgent entreaties, in the name of God and Christ, for the sake of their poor and weak little church, to be baptized with the brethren; but he could not be moved, and he enumerated the many reasons that held him back. 42 However he might differ from them as to minor details, he was in sympathy with their general doctrinal position, and yet more with their earnest efforts to lead consistent Christian lives; so that he continued as long as he lived to worship with them and to share in the discussions at their synods and guide them by his counsels. Yet though he soon became their accepted leader, and their champion against opponents whether Calvinist or Catholic, and eventually set his stamp upon their theology, it is not of clear record that he was ever allowed membership in their church, or admitted to its sacrament. Was ever another such case in all Christian history? 43

Click here to open the frame set built to read this document. 

This page was last modified Sunday 12 November 2006.
Website ©1998–2006 Rev. Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey. Text ©1998–2004 t
he heirs of Earl Morse Wilbur.  All rights reserved.
For comments or requests write to { webweaver at pacificuu dot org }.