The Heresy of Faustus Socinus
Delivered at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church
February 19, 1996
Rev. Craig C. Roshaven
Copyright 1997. All Rights Reserved.
This morning I want to tell you a story. A story of a man who,
perhaps more than any other single person, is responsible for our
faith, the religion we call Unitarian Universalism. A man who
planted many of the seeds that would ultimately flower into what we
now call the Enlightenment, the age of reason. A devout and
pietistic man who believed in the religion of Jesus rather than the
religion about Jesus. His story is not only of great intellectual and
moral courage, but one of great faith and faithfulness.
The Renaissance is the term we use to refer to the rich period of
development that led Europe from the Middle ages to modern times.
Emerging first in Italy, encouraged by the ruling families and even
some of the popes, it was marked by an interest in human potential
and expression. It led to the flowering of the arts and sciences. In
Florence, a major city in Northern Italy, it particularly flowered
under the patronage of the Medici family who sponsored the
Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci. Da Vinci, by the way, because of
the universal nature of his genius, came to be called a Renaissance
man. In what we call the Middle Ages, the period from the end of the
Western Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance, it was
generally forbidden to explore works of art, literature, and
philosophy from the classic period of Greece. The rediscovery of the
ancient Hellenic sensibility with its emphasis on human capacity,
expression, and freedom provided the spark that began the
But all times of great cultural change have their perils. As one set
of sensibilities is replaced by another, as the old order loses its
appeal and is replaced by a new order, great changes occur. We know
how hard it is for any generation to understand the next. Imagine
how wide the generational gap must have been as the Renaissance with
its emphasis on human capacity, dignity, and individual expression
came to replace the Middle Ages with its emphasis on obedience and
The Church, for there was only one church in Europe at the time,
suffered. The rising secular tide confused and demoralized the
bishops, priests, and monks and corruption and worldliness became
widespread. Sins were forgiven--for a price. Vows of celibacy and
poverty were openly broken. Everyone knew the church needed to be
reformed. Martin Luther, a German priest, began by dramatically
nailing his proposals for reform to the door of the church in
Wittenburg. His protest eventually resulted in the loss of almost
all of Northern Europe to the Roman church. Later, the Society of
Jesus, the Jesuits, were formed to set new standards for the
priesthood and root out corruption within the church of Rome that
remained, but, they were too little, too late.
Martin Luther's revolt, which resulted in Lutheranism and eventually
all the other Protestant, i.e. protesting churches, there are today,
was a revolt against corruption. However, it was not a revolt
against theology. Indeed, one of the early reformers said, "We have
no difference with Rome on a single point of dogma." Even today, the
Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics are very close in theology.
But in Italy, where the renaissance began, the reformers sought to
change not the governance of the church but the theology of the
church. Initially, before Luther's protest and the subsequent loss
of Northern Europe, some questioning was tolerated by the church
leadership. But, after the reformation, the authorities in Rome
reacted severely by brutally silencing any questioning of church
authority or theology. The inquisition began during this time.
Heresy was a crime punishable by death. This is where our story
begins. Faustus Socinus was born in Siena, a University town near
Florence, in 1539. The Inquisition began in 1542, when he was three
Faustus was born into a distinguished family of politicians, lawyers,
and professors of law. His uncle, Laelius, a renowned writer and
theologian, was friends with all the prominent Protestant reformers
of his time. Laelius had traveled widely through Europe, and,
despite his theological innovations, was even approved of by John
Calvin in Geneva, the same John Calvin who would just a year or two
later, in 1553, burn Michael Servetus at the stake for the heresy of
disputing the trinity.
Faustus worshipped his uncle and sought to follow in his footsteps,
even though it was becoming much, much more dangerous to question
existing dogmas. Accordingly, Faustus wrote most of his books
anonymously, in order to avoid persecution. But that was scant
protection, for it was hard to conceal authorship in so small a world
of scholars. From the beginning, Faustus began to think and write
dangerous heresies. His first book, which he wrote when he was but
23, boldly declared that Jesus was divine, but was not God.
After that first book, he settled into what must have been a very
comfortable life indeed. He became the secretary of Isabella, the
sister of the Duke of Florence. Remember this is the Florence of
Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. He comfortably spent the next
twelve years in that remarkable court. But then, he did something
remarkable. He left. He left of his own accord. There was no ill
will between Socinus and his patron, the Duke. Indeed, the Duke
arranged to forward the revenues from Faustus's estate to him so long
as Faustus would continue to write anonymously. Even the great Duke
of Florence couldn't afford to be associated, even distantly, with a
Almost all of Europe during this time was a dangerous place for those
who questioned religious dogmas. Heretics were being tortured and
killed not only in Italy, but in Spain, France, England, Holland,
Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. But there was one place that was
safe. Poland and its neighbor, Transylvania. In 1568, Francis
David, the Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania, had convinced the Prince
Sigismund, the ruler of Transylvania, to allow religious freedom.
"Faith is a gift and cannot be forced." was the essence of David's
reasoning. But, tragically just three years later in 1571, the
Prince died. Steven Bathori of Hungary became the ruler of
Transylania and of Poland and though he didn't persecute anti-
Trinitarian heretics, he did encourage the Jesuits, who did their
best to stamp out these and other heretics. Even with the presence
of the Jesuits though, Poland and Transylvania were the safest
places in Europe for those who would question existing dogmas. It
was there that the reformation that Martin Luther started, was able
to continue. Faustus Socinus was the pre-eminent leader of this, the
reform not just of the governance of the church, but of the theology.
Socinus arrived in Poland when he was 40 and remained there until his
death in his 60's. While he was there, the anti-Trinitarians of
Poland became unified under his intellectual leadership and would
eventually became known as Socinians. During this time he would
marry and have a child, but, tragically, his wife soon died.
Socinus was also often persecuted by those who were enraged by his
writings. Indeed, once when he was ill, a group of students broke
into his home, burned all his manuscripts and threatened to burn him
as well unless he recanted his heretical belief that Jesus was not
God. He refused and was rescued, almost accidentally, by a
What kind of man was he? He was first and foremost a scholar.
Although he was not formally educated, he was fluent in Greek,
Hebrew, Latin, French, German, and Polish. One of his early works on
the Bible was so well written that it became a standard text used
widely for 200 years. He was a gentleman. His morals were above
reproach and he distinguished himself by his unfailing courtesy.
Unfailing courtesy was remarkable in an age when even the great
Protestant leaders, Luther and Calvin would use vile street language
when arguing with their opponents.
Finally, what were his beliefs? First, he and the other Socinians
believed in religious tolerance. They also believed that all
religious authority depended on applying reason to historical
evidence, the evidence in this case being the scripture. It was
because they saw no evidence in the scripture for the doctrine of the
trinity they denied it. They also emphasized the words of Jesus as
opposed to the words of Paul. The sermon on the mount was their
primary guide. They believed that Jesus was not God, but was
especially endowed with divine attributes of wisdom and virtue.
Salvation is to be found by keeping the will of God as declared by
Jesus: Love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, care for the poor,
the sick, and the imprisoned. In other words, follow Jesus.
They emphasized not the death of Jesus, but the life of Jesus and the
resurrection. They believed that Jesus through the resurrection
brought life and immortality to light. They rejected the notion of
substitutionary atonement. That is to say, they rejected the
notion that Christ died for our sins and thus satisfied God's need
for justice, for the need for someone to suffer for our sins. They
celebrated communion, but didn't believe that we were actually
changed by taking the bread and wine. Instead they saw communion as
a simple memorial whose purpose was to commemorate Christ and to give
thanks for his life. They also believed that God was a loving God
and that a loving God would not infinitely punish sins.
The most striking part of their belief, though, was their belief that
Jesus was not God, but human. An exceptional man to be sure, but
just a man. That is what we heard John Donne rail about earlier.
They emphasized the voluntary obedience of Jesus to God. They were
humanists in that they believed that all humans, not just Jesus, that
all humans could choose to obey God's wishes as revealed by Jesus.
In other words, you didn't have to be God to be good. They rejected
original sin; they rejected Calvin's notion of predestination, the
elect, and eternal damnation; they rejected the notion that to be
human is to be depraved. Their faith was not just in God. Their
faith was also in our human capacity for reason and goodness.
Although there were only 300 Socinian churches in 17th century Poland
at the height of the movement, their influence would be felt
throughout Europe. Socinus's books were widely distributed and read.
The Racovian Catechism, a compilation of Socinian beliefs, was even
more widely published and read. Indeed, the English translation was
dedicated to King James of England, who promptly ordered it burned.
But despite all the official efforts to stamp it out, the thought of
Faustus Socinus spread throughout Europe, and wherever it was
tolerated it gave birth to new churches. First in England and later
in this country.
The thought of Faustus Socinus was heretical then and is heretical
yet today. Jesus is not God, Jesus was a man. Salvation comes not
from our believing that Christ's substitution for us on the cross
atoned for our sins, but from following the will of God as revealed
by Jesus in his sayings and sermons. And like Jesus, we, too, can
choose to obey God's will and be compassionate as God is
So don't make the mistake of believing that there is just one way to
be Christian. Most of Christianity, though wide differences certainly
exist in terms of structure and governance, is alike in its theology.
Socinus and his spiritual heirs, Unitarian Universalists, have a
different way, the way not of Christ as interpreted by Paul, but the
way of Jesus. The religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus.
May we, like Socinus turn from the belief in Paul's Christ and turn
toward the God that Jesus witnessed to with his life and words. May
we too, seek to be followers of Jesus, doing what Jesus urged us to
do: to be compassionate, to be inclusive, to love God and neighbor
with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength.
The Heresy of Faustus Socinus
Delivered at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church
February 19, 1996
Rev. Craig C. Roshaven Copyright 1997. All Rights Reserved.