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Thursday, November 5, 2009

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.

- November 22nd, 1988 Awake, WTB&TS

Michael Servetus—A Solitary Quest for the Truth


On October 27, 1553, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland. Guillaume Farel—the executioner and vicar of John Calvin—warned the onlookers: “[Servetus] is a wise man who doubtless thought he was teaching the truth, but he fell into the hands of the Devil. . . . Be careful the same thing does not happen to you!” What had this unfortunate victim done to deserve such a tragic fate?

MICHAEL SERVETUS was born in 1511 in the village of Villanueva de Sijena, Spain. From an early age, he excelled as a student. According to one biographer, “by the time he was 14 years of age, he had learned Greek,
Latin, and Hebrew, and he had an ample knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, and theology.”

When Servetus was still a teenager, Juan de Quintana, the personal confessor of Spanish Emperor Charles V, employed him as a page. In his official journeys, Servetus could observe the underlying religious divisions in Spain, where Jews and Muslims had been exiled or forcibly converted to Catholicism.

At the age of 16, Servetus went to study law at the University of Toulouse, in France. There he saw a complete Bible for the first time. Although reading the Bible was strictly forbidden, Servetus did so in secret. After completing his first reading, he vowed to read it “a thousand times more.” Probably, the Bible that Servetus studied in Toulouse was the Complutensian Polyglot, a version that enabled him to read the Scriptures in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), along with the Latin translation. His study of the Bible, together with the moral degeneracy of the clergy that he had seen in Spain, shook his faith in the Catholic religion.

Servetus’ doubts were reinforced when he attended the coronation of Charles V. The Spanish king was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Clement VII. The pope, seated on his portable throne, received the king, who kissed his feet. Servetus later wrote: “I have seen with my own eyes how the pope was carried on the shoulders of the princes, with all the pomp, being adored in the streets by the surrounding people.” Servetus found himself unable to reconcile that pomp and extravagance with the simplicity of the Gospel.

His Quest for Religious Truth

Servetus discreetly left his employment with Quintana and began his solitary search for the truth. He believed that Christ’s message was not directed to theologians or philosophers but to common people who would grasp it and put it into practice. Thus, he resolved to consult the Bible text in the original languages and to reject any teaching at odds with the Scriptures. Interestingly, the word “truth” and its derivatives appear more often than any other word in his writings.

Servetus’ historical and Biblical studies led him to the conclusion that Christianity had become corrupted during the first three centuries of our Common Era. He learned that Constantine and his successors had promoted false teachings that eventually led to the adoption of the Trinity as an official doctrine. At the age of 20, Servetus published his book On the Errors of the Trinity, a work that made him a principal target of the Inquisition.

Servetus saw things clearly. “In the Bible,” he wrote, “there is no mention of the Trinity. . . . We get to know God, not through our proud philosophical concepts, but through Christ.” He also came to the conclusion that the holy spirit is not a person but, rather, God’s force in action.

Servetus did provoke some favorable response. Protestant Reformer Sebastian Franck wrote: “The Spaniard, Servetus, contends in his tract that there is but one person in God. The Roman church holds that there are three persons in one essence. I agree rather with the Spaniard.” Nevertheless, neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Protestant churches ever forgave Servetus for challenging their central doctrine.

The study of the Bible also led Servetus to reject other church doctrines, and he considered the use of images to be unscriptural. Thus, a year and a half after publishing On the Errors of the Trinity, Servetus said with respect to both Catholics and Protestants: “I do not agree or disagree in everything with either one party or the other. Because all seem to me to have some truth and some error, but everyone recognizes the other’s error and nobody discerns his own.” His was a solitary quest for the truth.

His sincerity, however, did not prevent Servetus from reaching some mistaken conclusions. For example, he calculated that Armageddon and the Millennial Reign of Christ would come during his own lifetime.

Searching for Scientific Truth

Forced to flee from his persecutors, Servetus changed his name to Villanovanus and settled in Paris, where he obtained degrees in art and medicine. His scientific curiosity led him to practice dissection in order to understand the workings of the human body. As a result, Servetus became perhaps the first European to describe the pulmonary circulation of blood. His findings were included in his work The Restitution of Christianity. Servetus’ comments were made 75 years before the complete circulatory system was described by William Harvey.

Servetus also prepared a new edition of Ptolemy’s Geography. It proved so successful that some have called him the father of comparative geography and ethnography. Later, at his trial in Geneva, Servetus was denounced for his description of Palestine as a sparsely cultivated, sterile land. Servetus defended himself by arguing that his description applied to the present time rather than to the age of Moses, when it doubtless flowed with milk and honey.

Servetus also wrote the Universal Treatise on Syrups, which provided a new, balanced approach to a type of medicine. The wealth of medical knowledge found in that book made him a pioneer in the field of pharmacology and the use of vitamins. In view of Servetus’ expertise in so many fields, a historian described him as “one of the greatest minds in human history, one who contributed to universal culture.”

A Formidable Opponent

Seekers of the truth have always had many opponents. (Luke 21:15) Among Servetus’ many adversaries was John Calvin, who had established an authoritarian Protestant state in Geneva. According to historian Will Durant, Calvin’s “dictatorship was one not of law or force but of will and character,” and Calvin “was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief.”

Servetus and Calvin probably met in Paris when they were both young men. From the outset their personalities clashed, and Calvin became Servetus’ most implacable enemy. Although Calvin was a leader of the Reformation, he finally denounced Servetus to the Catholic Inquisition. Servetus barely succeeded in escaping from France, where he was burned in effigy. However, he was recognized and imprisoned in the frontier city of Geneva, where Calvin’s word was law.

Calvin meted out cruel treatment to Servetus in prison. Nevertheless, in his debate with Calvin during the trial, Servetus offered to modify his views, provided his opponent gave Scriptural arguments to convince him. Calvin proved unable to do so. After the trial, Servetus was condemned to be burned at the stake. Some historians claim that Servetus was the only religious dissenter who was both burned in effigy by the Catholics and burned alive by the Protestants.

A Herald of Religious Freedom

Although Calvin eliminated his personal rival, he lost his own moral authority. The unjustified execution of Servetus outraged thinking people throughout Europe, and it provided a powerful argument for civil libertarians who insisted that no man should be killed for his religious beliefs. They became more determined than ever to press on in the fight for religious freedom.

Italian poet Camillo Renato protested: “Neither God nor his spirit have counselled such an action. Christ did not treat those who negated him that way.” And French humanist Sébastien Chateillon wrote: “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.” Servetus himself had said: “I consider it a serious matter to kill men because they are in error on some question of scriptural interpretation, when we know that even the elect ones may be led astray into error.”

Regarding the lasting impact of Servetus’ execution, the book Michael Servetus—Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr says: “Servetus’s death was the turning point in the ideology and mentality dominating since the fourth century.” It adds: “From a historical perspective, Servetus died in order that freedom of conscience could become a civil right of the individual in modern society.”
In 1908 a monument to Servetus was erected in the French city of Annemasse, some three miles [5 km] from the spot where he died. An inscription reads: “Michel Servet[us], . . . geographer, physician, physiologist, contributed to the welfare of humanity by his scientific discoveries, his devotion to the sick and the poor, and the indomitable independence of his intelligence and his conscience. . . . His convictions were invincible. He made a sacrifice of his life for the cause of the truth.”

Spanish authorities banished 120,000 Jews who refused to accept Catholicism, and several thousand Moors were burned at the stake.

See the article “The Complutensian Polyglot—A Historic Translation Tool,” in the April 15, 2004, issue of The Watchtower.

In his work A Statement Regarding Jesus Christ, Servetus described the doctrine of the Trinity as perplexing and confusing and noted that the Scriptures contained “not even one syllable” in its support.

While in prison, Servetus signed his last letter with these words: “Michael Servetus, alone, but trusting in Christ’s most sure protection.”

Servetus and the Name Jehovah

Servetus’ quest for the truth also led him to use the name Jehovah. Some months after William Tyndale employed this name in his translation of the Pentateuch, Servetus published On the Errors of the Trinity—in which he used the name Jehovah throughout. He explained in this work: “The other name, the most holy of all, יהוה, . . . can be interpreted as follows, . . . ‘He causes to be,’ ‘he who brings into being,’ ‘the cause of existence.’” He noted: “The name of Jehovah can properly apply only to the Father.”

In 1542, Servetus also edited the renowned Latin translation of the Bible by Santes Pagninus (shown below). In his extensive marginal notes, Servetus highlighted the divine name again. He included the name Jehovah in the marginal references to key texts such as Psalm 83:18, where the word for “Lord” appeared in the main text.

In his final work, The Restitution of Christianity, Servetus stated regarding the divine name, Jehovah: “[It] is clear . . . that there were many who pronounced this name in ancient times.”

- May 2006 Awake, WTB&TS