CHAPTER XXXI

THE RACOVIAN CATECHISM: THE SOCINIAN DOCTRINAL SYSTEM

THE RACOVIAN CATECHISM1 got this name, by which it has been generally called, from that of the town of Ráków (Lat., Racovia) where it was published, and to which the Socinians2 looked from the beginning of the seventeenth century as practically their capital, where they annually held their general Synods, maintained their principal college, and published their books. As said at the end of the preceding chapter, the new Catechism was apparently the self-appointed work of some of the younger ministers who were disciples of Socinus. Statorius, living at Luclawice near Socinus, was to be the responsible editor, assisted by him as far as his time and strength permitted. It may be presumed that the Christianae Religionis Institutio (Socinus, Opera, i, 651—676), which was unfinished when death stayed his hand, was at least Socinus’s first draft of the proposed work; 3 but if so, the draft was later entirely recast, so that the Catechism when finished, though representing his views, was in arrangement and expression the work of others. Within about three months Socinus died, and Statorius was not long afterwards appointed minister of the congregation at Ráków. Work on the Catechism was thus interrupted for more than a year, and had barely been resumed when Statorius himself died.4

The responsible authors of the Racovian Catechism were therefore Valentinus Smalcius (Schmalz), Hieronymus Moscorovius (Moskorzowski), and Johannes Völkel. Of these three Smalcius was probably the leading spirit. He was a German, born at Gotha in 1572, who had studied at several German universities, and having become intimate with a Socinian student at Strassburg visited Poland, joined the Minor Church, and after serving for five years as rector of a church school at Smigiel, where he had an active correspondence with Socinus, was promoted to be one of the ministers of the important church at Lublin, succeeding Czechowicz. After seven years here he removed in 1605 to Ráków, and there exercised a very active and influential ministry until his death in I622. 5 A disciple of Socinus, he was in his time the leading minister among the Socinian churches, and their ablest and most zealous champion. He composed some fifty works, mostly polemical, and was unwearied in controversy with both Jesuits and Lutherans, in which he was often bitter and sarcastic as well as learned, able and persuasive.

Moscorovius was perhaps more distinguished than any other layman of his time for his noble birth, his large wealth, his wide learning, and his zeal for religion. He married the daughter of the celebrated Dudith, was an intimate friend of Socinus, and was repeatedly chosen a member of the national Diet. He was lavish in his support of church and college at Ráków. With the Jesuits Skarga and Smiglecki he carried on controversies, but on so high a plane of courtesy as to win their praise. 6

Johannes Völkel was another German, coming from Grimma near Leipzig, who after studying at Wittenberg came to Poland and joined the Socinians. He was for a long time amanuensis to Socinus, and thus enjoyed his intimacy and became very familiar with his thought. He was a man of fine scholarship and independent mind. More competent persons for their task could hardly have been chosen to draw up the new Catechism; and for nearly two generations it was accepted by general consent as the standard exposition of the Socinian faith.

The first Polish edition of the Catechism was published at Ráków in and a second in 1605, and a second in 1619.7 From the contents it is evident that in spite of its title and form this is not a catechism in the sense of being a book for the religious instruction of the young, so much as a manual of doctrines in question-and-answer form, intended largely for purposes of propaganda and defence, is purpose is the clearer from the fact that while but two editions were published in their own language for the use of Poles, eight editions or impressions were issued in Latin from 1609 to 1684 for the use of European scholars, besides three in Dutch, and two each in German and English.8 A smaller catechism for the use of the young was also published at Ráków in German by Smalcius in 1605, in Latin by Moskorzowski, and probably one in Polish, both in 1612. 9

Smalcius lost no time in translating the Catechism into German for the enlightenment of those in his fatherland. This was published in x6o8 and again in 1612, 10 in both cases with a preface addressed to the University at Wittenberg, where Smalcius had once been a student, and to which he sent a presentation copy by special messenger. 11 The gift was long ignored through a conspiracy of silence; since it was much feared that it would not be wise to bring these heretical doctrines to public notice through a printed refutation. At length, however, after more than ten years, as the poison was seen to be spreading by means of private and public discussions and writings, and as Smalcius was boasting that no adequate reply had been made, Professor Friedrich Balduin in the name of the theological faculty at Wittenberg came out with a formal refutation, section by section, nearly twice as long as the original. 12 To reach a wider public Balduin followed this refutation of the German Catechism by a Latin refutation of the Latin one, which was not a mere translation of the German work, but added much new matter. 13

The Latin version of the Catechism 14 was made by Moskorzowski. It was done in response to wide requests, and it aimed to be a faithful translation of the Polish original, from which it varied only in such minor omissions, additions or changes as criticism of the original had suggested. 15 The translator ventured to dedicate his work to King James I. of England, as a monarch celebrated or his devotion to the Protestant religion; but his Majesty, having glanced at it a little, was not well impressed, and expressed his detestation of the satanic work and its authors, the very offspring of Satan, whom he would severely punish if they fell into his power. 16 The work was consequently burnt by order of Parliament, April 1614. 17 Thus well launched into public notice both on the Continent and in England, the Racovian Catechism remained for a century and a half a thorn in the side of both Lutheran and Reformed theologians, and a standing object of attack by them in learned works, and by theological students in their dissertations and essays. 18 Though so often and so fully refuted, the questions it aroused kept continually recurring, with the inevitable result that the letter and the spirit of Protestant theology became insensibly yet surely modified, least in Germany, more in Holland, and most in England, as later chap will show. The Catechism remained substantially unchanged in its various reprints for sixty years, until the Socinian exiles, having become subject to influences in Holland, considerably enlarged and modified its contents. The account of that period will be given later on. Meantime it remains to give a concise summary of the Catechism’s characteristic teaching, as related to the prevailing orthodoxy of the seventeenth century. 19

The Racovian Catechism was not built upon the customary lines and under the conventional categories of the existing Protestant confessions. While these, being framed by professional theologians, had hitherto started with a more or less traditional scheme of doctrine, and had then sought support for this from Scripture, Socinus, who had had no formal training in theology, and disowned the authority of the existing creeds, proceeded to form his doctrina1 independently of the past and with a mind accustomed to legal methods of reasoning went to Scripture as to a corpus juris, explored its teachings inductively, and built up his system out of those. Hence its striking differences in both its method and its results from the Augsburg and the Helvetic Confessions. Instead of centering, as Luther’s doctrine did, in faith in Christ, or as Calvin’s did, in the sovereignty of God, the controlling interest in Socinus’s teaching is the attainment of eternal life; and the Catechism sets out by defining the Christian religion as a divinely revealed way of attaining that life. This revelation is declared to have been made in the Scriptures, especially those of the New Testament, and reasons are shown why they may be accepted as a credible and true record. The truth of the Christian religion is established by the fact that its founder was proved, through the miracles that he wrought and his resurrection from the dead, to have been authenticated by God. These Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation, and it is through them that man, who is by his nature mortal, must learn the way to attain immortality.

 The way to salvation is plainly stated in the text (John xvii. 3), ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ It is thus knowledge of God and Christ, and acquaintance with God’s will as revealed by Christ that is the way to the supreme end, and it is therefore of crucial importance that this knowledge be correct, for if it is not correctly and truly held, then one’s eternal salvation is jeopardized. After this introduction the Catechism goes on to elaborate what it regards as the correct views. Thus, knowledge of God comprises knowledge of both his nature and his will. In his nature he is only one not three, and is eternal, and perfectly just, wise and powerful. Of these particulars the most important is that one in person namely the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. After this positive statement the Catechism proceeds to refute the arguments offered in support of the doctrine of the Trinity, and to show that it has no sound foundation in Scripture.

Secondly, Jesus Christ is in his nature a real man, though not an ordinary man; for he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and hence, though he has only a human nature, is God’s Son. Here the Catechism in great detail (about a fifth of the whole book) proceeds to examine and refute the scripture proofs usually brought forward in support of the orthodox doctrine of Christ.

The office of Christ is treated under three aspects: as Prophet as King and as Priest. As Prophet we have Christ exercising the office of a teacher, declaring to men the will of God, which he had learned by ascending into heaven before his ministry (John iii. 13; vi. 38, 62; viii. 28b; cf. Socinus, Opera, i, 675), whence was sent down again to earth, endowed with the Holy Spirit This will of God consists in part of the commands of Moses in the Decalogue, to which Christ makes certain additions. Thus, the first command is that we should give God supreme worship, which consists in reverent adoration felt in the mind and heart and expressed in outward words and acts; and this Christ amplifies by prescribing a form of worship in the Lord’s prayer whose meaning is explained in detail. A further addition is made in the requirement that we should pay divine honor to Christ as one that has divine authority over us, adoring him for his majesty and in all our necessities seeking his powerful aid, as many texts of Scripture illustrate. In doing this we still adore and worship God as the primary author of our salvation, but Christ as the secondary one; and although we may not thus invoke the Virgin or the Saints, yet those that do not invoke Christ nor think him deserving adoration are in fact not Christians at all. The other commands of the Decalogue are then taken up in like manner, with many applications to the situations of personal and social life, and with strong emphasis upon secular and civil relations as subject to the will of God. Thus civil government is not superfluous, and a Christian may hold office under it provided he does not violate the laws and commands of Christ. One must obey lawful magistrates as powers ordained of God. While common swearing is forbidden, civil oaths are permitted in the greatest and most solemn cases. The taking of usury is forbidden, though reasonable interest is not. Christians, however, must not lay up wealth beyond what the needs of life require, but should use any surplus to relieve the poor, especially one’s servants, rather than for luxury or bodily pleasure. Going beyond the commands of Moses, Christ especially calls for self-denial as to the bodily senses, wealth and pride; for bearing with patient and uncomplaining endurance whatever cross may have to be borne for his sake; and for imitating the example of Christ in his trust in God, in love of God and of one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy, as oneself, and in humility and constancy in prayer.

Only one sacrament is recognized, that of the Lord’s Supper, which is an act commemorating the death of Christ: other views of it are vigorously controverted. Baptism is an outward act by which converts to the Christian religion openly acknowledge Christ as their Master; but it is not appropriate to infants, and it has no regenerative value. The Holy Sprit is not a person in the Godhead, but a divine power in the hearts of men.

Christ showed us the way to return to God, and how to be reconciled to him. He was without sin, and lived a life of such holiness that no one has ever approached him in sanctity, and he came next to God himself in holiness. By the incomparable power of work miracles which God would have given to no other, he proved his teachings true. He suffered that he might give us an example how to bear our own sufferings, though not to atone for our sins, for God forgives men freely; and to reconcile us to God. Other views of the atonement are fully refuted from Scripture. Faith is not merely believing that the teaching of Christ is true, but such a belief as leads us to repent of our sins and do the will of God to the utmost. Man’s will is free, and there is no such, thing as original sin. The doctrine of predestination is a great mistake, necessarily corrupting all religion and attributing an unworthy character to God. We are justified before God when he forgives our sins and gives us eternal life; but no one can be justified without faith in Christ; though saving faith is not mere belief, but such a trust as results in obedience.

Christ’s office as King and as Priest receives much briefer treatment. In his Kingly office Christ exercises the supreme power given him after he rose from the dead and was seated at the right hand of God In his natural body he rose from the dead, but his spiritual body is at God’s right hand.  In his Priestly office Christ in heaven makes intercession for us with God through the power that God gave him procures for us release from our sins and the punishment of them, by interceding for us and restraining us from all manner of sin, as well as by his own example.

Finally, the Church is the company, visible or invisible, of those that hold and profess saving doctrine. It is administered by regular officers, and it exercises upon offending members either private or public discipline. The unruly are corrected privately or if need be also publicly, and at the worst they are excluded from the Church.

Such, in briefest summary, are the outstanding lines of the Racovian Catechism in its original form. Every position taken is supported where necessary by ample citations of scripture texts in proof, which are accepted without question as final authority, and are in the main interpreted according to their plain sense as determined on lexical, grammatical and contextual grounds rather than by tradition. Obviously we have not here a manual of religious belief cast in the mold of twentieth century thought, for in various particulars its positions have long since been outgrown. In Scripture as its authority it sees not a collection of writings expressing the varied thought of various minds during centuries of time, but rather a single consistent work in which the word of God is revealed to man. Hence it often makes interpretations that later scholarship has rejected. It accepts the miraculous element in the record without hesitation, and founds doctrine upon it. Its apologetic purpose leads it at various points to leave positive doctrine for a time in order to engage in polemics against Catholic or Protestant teachings. It contains echoes of Schomann’s Catechism of 1574, and especially emphasizes the points on which Socinus had strenuously insisted in the controversies within the Minor Church over the worship of Christ, baptism, relation to the civil power, and the social questions in general. It suffers from certain defects of arrangement, of relative emphasis, and of omission; but despite all its limitations the Racovian Catechism stands as a notable landmark on the way to more scriptural, simple and practical doctrine. For not only the central dogmas of the Trinity and the supreme deity of Christ, but such subordinate doctrines as original sin, total depravity, predestination, vicarious atonement, justification by faith, eternal punishment, and others that had been prominent in Christian teaching, and had long proved stumbling-blocks to many, were either passed by without notice, or were actively opposed as unscriptural, unreasonable or superfluous.

From what has been said above, the doctrinal characteristics of the Racovian Catechism will have been seen. It is noteworthy, however, that in its practical aspects its ultimate stress is laid upon the moral life of the Christian. This life is conceived as obedience to the revealed will of God, which is its immediate aim, as a necessary condition of attaining the supreme end in eternal life.

Various attempts have been made to account for Socinianism as an outgrowth of earlier systems or thinkers, or as dependent upon them; but none of them is convincing.20 There are, indeed, resemblances to the thought of Servetus; but Socinus emphatically denied that he had drawn his views from that source. Of earlier heretics there is closest resemblance to Paul of Samosata and Photinus; but there is not a shred of evidence that he was acquainted with their doctrine unless through the brief references to it in Servetus. Finally, several distinguished scholars (Baur, Ritschl, Harnack) have been led to regard Socinianism as an outgrowth of the Scotism and Nominalism of the mediaeval philosophers. But Socinus testified that he had no acquaintance with philosophy or scholastic theology. 21 It is far more reasonable and simple to account for the characteristic views of the Socinian system as a lay scholar’s plain and straightforward interpretation of the scripture text, merely on the background of Italian Humanism, 22 and unwarped by traditional philosophical or theological presuppositions.

Of course this first essay at giving formal expression to the Socinian doctrine could not be expected to prove adequate indefinitely, although it was a full sixty years before it received any substantial revision. Meanwhile it was admirably supplemented by other writings which gave the Socinian doctrine fuller treatment and better arrangement.

Of these the first was by Christoff Ostorodt, whose treatise on the chief points of the Christian religion 23 was in fact published a year earlier than the Catechism itself. He was son of a Lutheran pastor at Goslar in the Harz, and was educated at Konigsberg. Having become converted to Socinian views, he went to Poland, joined the Minor Church in 1585, learned the Polish language, and after an apprenticeship as teacher became minister of the important church at Smigiel in Great Poland, 24 where he engaged in an important debate with Canon Powodowski of near-by Poznan in 1592. 25 A few years later he went to Holland on a missionary journey which marked the first introduction of Socinianism into that country, of which an account will be given in a later chapter; and in 1605 he became minister at Busków near Danzig, where he died in 1611. He was a man of profound learning, conservative in his doctrinal and social views, and as minister held his people up to an extremely strict standard of Christian character. Deep interest in his fellow-countrymen led him to publish in German the treatise mentioned above. It is a popular presentation of the Socinian teaching, and adheres closely to the writings of Socinus. In order of topics and in substance of teaching it bears noticeable resemblance to the Racovian Catechism, though it is hard to say whether either was influenced by the other; but it goes into fuller detail as to doctrines, and it strongly emphasizes personal and social morals, thus showing influence from the Anabaptists, with whom the author had no little sympathy. The work remained in print for more than two generations, and was long highly esteemed as the best manual of Socinian doctrine. It must have had wide influence in Germany, as the writer desired, for theologians there attacked it repeatedly and savagely. 26

For a decade and more after the publication of the Racovian Catechism, the presses of both Poland and Germany fairly swarmed with attacks upon the Socinian teaching in general or some of its doctrines in detail. The ablest, most active and most effective champion for the defence was Smalcius. Of his half a hundred listed writings most were controversial, against Lutheran or Jesuit attacks. He had a clear and fluent style, and an unusual power of persuasive argument, but his manner of controversy was pugnacious and irritating, and intensified opposition where another might have softened it. Yet his bold and powerful advocacy won many supporters for his cause, and gave them assured confidence in it. His writings give the best representation of Socinianism in its aggressive mood.

The completest and best systematic treatment of Socinianism is the latest, that of Völkel.27 It was largely composed by 1612, and in its first form was submitted to the Synod for approval, and then referred back to the author for revision. The work dragged, however, and was not yet finished when Völkel died in 1618, and it was a dozen years more before it was brought to completion. In fact, the first of its five books was found so inadequate that it was finally discarded, and replaced by one from the pen of Johannes Crellius, to whom the revision of the manuscript had been committed.28 This work was held in the highest esteem by the Socinians as the standard exposition of their theology. Secretly reprinted at Amsterdam it was ordered burned by public authority, but afterwards saw the light at Rotterdam in Dutch translation; and it was judged worthy of being reprinted with an elaborate refutation in three volumes by a distinguished Dutch theologian. 29 The works here mentioned, together with others previously spoken of (Schomann’s Catechism of 1574, Czechowicz’s Rozmowy, the Racovian Catechism, Ostorodt’s Unterrichtung, Smalcius’s controversial works, and Völkel’s De vera religione), furnish the inquirer with materials for an adequate survey of the development of Socinian doctrine from the beginning of the Minor Church to the time when the Socinians were banished from Poland. The considerable modifications that it received in its exile in Holland will be spoken of in a later chapter.

It was nearly two centuries before the Racovian Catechism began to receive due consideration and appreciation of its merits. The Protestant writers who dealt with it during the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth century did so uniformly with a polemical purpose, seeking to discover and confute its errors but largely ignoring its merits. All such treatments were therefore prejudiced and one-sided. Catholic writers, outside of Poland, on the other hand paid little attention to it at all in their published writings, though it is evident from the correspondence of the celebrated Minorite scholar Mann Mersenne with the Socinian scholar Martin Ruar,30 that it was taken seriously in certain Catholic circles. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, several writings appeared that endeavored to do it justice. 31 The fear formerly felt that Socinianism might prove a formidable enemy to Protestant Christianity had largely died away, modern biblical criticism was paying the way for a revised theology, and the Socinian thought and spirit began to be unconsciously absorbed in quarters where it had formerly been only hated and opposed. A yet later survey of the Socinian system of doctrine 32 endorses the judgment that ‘Socinianism is by no means mere Naturalism or Rationalism, but is a religion of revelation; that the two Socini and their disciples were scholars and sincere theologians, true children of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, of real piety and laudable zeal, who wished to make true Christianity pure; that they were passionate believers in free thought, the Bible was their only guide, conscience their only light—true Christians and true Protestants.’

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