Faustus Socinus (Fausto Sozzini) came from a family which was known for its independent religious thought. His uncle, Laelius, left Italy because of persecution, met and corresponded with Calvin, and travelled to Holland, England, Austria and Poland, and was known as an inquirer and sceptic although not as an antitrinitarian. Three other uncles had been suspected of or charged with heresy.
A story exists that after Laelius's death (aged only 37) in 1562, Faustus went to Zurich to collect his papers and was so impressed with the religious opinions expressed that he decided to promote these views. But uncle and nephew rarely met and there were few such papers.
Faustus Socinus was in the service of Duke Cosmo Medici, or Cosmo the Great, as a diplomat for 11 years, which was important because it meant that he did not have the usual scholastic training which affected the formation of religious opinion. After 1574, when his employer died, he left Italy for good, and Faustus knew what he believed in a clear manner. In Basle he wrote On the Saving Work of Christ, a radical book of the times.
He stayed briefly in Transylvania but settled in Rakow. There he discovered a small Antitrinitarian Church part of a group of synods slowly developing into an Ecclesia Minor but with many internal schism. Although he attempted to join the church in 1580 he did not because it demanded rebaptism, but this did not stop him working with its synods, in effect becoming a leader, and attempting to smooth over many of its internal schisms.
Socinus believed in revelation in Scripture rather than natural religion. Furthermore, there was no difference between Law and Gospel but rather Christianity was a better Law to which eternal life was a reward. He believed that the books of the New Testament were written by the stated authors who of course knew the events they recorded, and there was no reason to suppose their corruption. Rather, they were honest, and the Scriptures were written under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Where there were discrepancies between the Gospels these were of a minor and non-essential nature: of all the essentials the Gospels were in agreement.
The important point to Socinus was that all this was obvious to ordinary comprehension. There was no need for Rome to make the Church the interpreter of the Gospels or for Calvin's claim of the supremity of scripture in the situation of assenting belief. But the position of ordinary comprehension had some important effects. The first was that there was no need to go back to before the Nicene Creed to gain authority for interpretation; rather the Scriptures could be read and understood that day. Another effect was that, unlike with justification by faith, Socinus's position was never spiritual. It was intellectual and without charismatic passion. God did not mould souls in his image but rather declared his will and had a reward of eternity for obedience.
Because God had made himself known through humans, there was the right to discriminate. Thus there were some original conclusions to what the Bible actually was and said. In the first place the Old Testament was subordinate to the New Testament. Secondly the Trinity was abandoned in favour of the Unity of God and the humanity of Christ, although he encouraged the worshipping of Christ as divine. As stated in his book, De Jesu Christo Servatore, Christ's bloody death on the cross did not atone for our sins. He claimed that the resurrection showed the true nature of life and immortality. In matters essential, as written in De Sacrð Scriptrð Auctoritate, the Bible was consistent, and had the greatest authority of any book of doctrine.
The result of all this was to see that ecclesiastical Christianity became a corruption of the primitive truth and that the view expressed by Socinus was in the real apostolic tradition.
He helped mould the Church into positive and particpatory community thinking rather than any part believing in an impending millenium and acting like separated isolated sect. But he defended the pacifism of the movement and its detestation of capital punishment.
Socinus himself was something of an Antitrinitarian church worker in Poland, but he did travel to Transylvania at the time of the controversy and trial of Francis David.
In 1605, a year after Socinus's death, the Rakowian Catechism was published denying the Trinity and other doctrines like original sin and justification by faith alone. But already repression was gathering.
The Jesuit reaction to Protestants which intensified in the seventeenth century involved Socinus being smeared with filth, his books and papers burned and his life threatened. The Church itself ran into increasing peril as the Catholic Polish Kings grew stronger, and infighting between Protestant groups did not help. After Socinus's time Jesuits and other Catholics gained the upper hand and Christian dissent was crushed (although Jews and Muslims were tolerated) so that by 10th July 1660 Unitarians had either to become Roman Catholics or leave Poland. One group went to Transylvania and existed separately from the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. They simply wanted to be known as Christian, a title which orthodox Christians there denied them. Other groups went to Prussia, and Holland where they faded inside the Remonstrant movement, and altogether the Antitrinitarians (they did not call themselves Socinians) lost ecclesiastical cohesion. But because Socinianism became a term of abuse and of conviction, ideas similar to those that Socinus had proclaimed filtered into different churches aiding the creation of a liberal church culture in the Netherlands and radical ideas within the Church of England and later the ejected English Presbyterians.
The biblical views which Socinus stated would be seen today, even by 'orthodox' biblical scholars, as over optimistic in terms of the claimed consistency of the Bible and naive in terms of its content. Like others of his day he simply did not have the critical tools available in order to analyse and understand the Bible. But he was one of those in the Reformation who established the basis for biblical criticism rather than submission to higher authority, whether that of Rome or Geneva.
He established the principle of common sense and ordinary comprehension. Perhaps today there is a parallel in that Unitarianism uses simple language to express its liberal convictions whereas mainstream biblical theologians employ almost a private language of their own, inaccessible to ordinary believers in the pews who become unnecessarily mystified by liberal views.
But, like the early non-subscribing Presbyterians in England, Socinus did not see the conflict between human reason and revelation, and would not have anticipated any de-coupling of the religion of reason and the relgion of the Bible. The Bible being based on the language of a past culture came in for severe treatment by the Bultmann and other schools (and todays ecological and feminist religious movements narrows the place of the Bible further). In that sense Socinus was still part of a culture that believed in revelation rather than one which replaced the supernatural with the scientifically secular and rational, and later the subjective and holistic.
Yet it is he who took the threat of the Reformation to the supernatural religious culture further than any other person: whereas Calvin challenged Roman Church authority with the certainty of biblical authority within his kind of church structure, Socinus was an influence that moved religion towards the individualism which came to govern the basic assumptions of the new religious culture of the Western world. Conscience, reason and tolerance are all products of the ordinary comprehension which Socinus promoted.
Beard, C., Intro: Barker, E. (1883, revised 1927), The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century and its Relation to Modern Thought and Knowledge, Hibbert Lecture, London: Constable.
Chadwick, O. (1972), The Reformation, London: Penguin Books.