Ancient Heresies in the Sixteenth Century II: The Antitrinitarians

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

Discussions of the Reformation often turn on names: Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, inter alios. Since historical studies follow the vagaries of confessional views, Reformation histories frequently track the confessional influences of these men. The same obtains with Catholic Reformation history: cardinals Contarini, Pole, Charles of Guise, and Bellarmine; Johann Eck, Thomas Stapleton, Ignatius of Loyola, and of course various popes, e.g., Paul III and Paul IV.

The dominating emphasis on these has obscured another aspect of the Reformation, namely the history of the Radicals, among whom are the Anabaptists and the Antitrinitarians. By numbers this could hardly be avoided: the followers of Calvin, Luther, and Cranmer number today in the hundreds of millions (the total of all confessional Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans worldwide number about 200 million), while the Catholics are over a billion. But the heirs of the Anabaptists (the rebaptizers) are largely confined to marginal or marginalized communities within Canada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and upstate New York in the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Brethren (modern day Baptists, such as the Southern Baptist convention, don’t have their roots in these groups but came out of movements in 17th– and 18th-century England).

Such groups historically were known for their opposition to any forms of coercive government, participation in state functions, and involvement with the military, though ironically one of the most spectacular events of the Reformation was the Anabaptist kingdom of Muenster, which included the forced collectivization of the city’s property and wives. It ended in fire and sword with an ecumenically-minded army of Lutherans and Catholics storming the city.

Closely associated with these groups were those termed by the late George Huntston Williams in his massive 1500 page The Radical Reformation as the “evangelical rationalists,” or more aptly, the Antitrinitarians. Catholic polemicists liked to lay the theological enormities of these men at the feet of the Reformation, though in fact they sprang from the same sources as the Reformers, it would seem. At most they could be cited for taking what the Reformers sought, a faith that was rooted in the Apostles and the Apostolic witness, but to conclusions that men such as Calvin and Luther would never embrace.

Thus was born the term radicals for seeking to base themselves purely from the doctrines found at the roots (Latin radix) of Christianity. Also, most of the prominent members of this loose republic did not come from Protestant countries, but from Catholic Spain (for the most notable of them in Michael Servetus), or Italy for Matteo Gribaldi, Valentino Gentili, Giorgio Biandrata, and Laelio Sozzini and his nephew Fausto.

These men differed greatly in their backgrounds and training (Gribaldi was a lawyer, as was Laelio Sozzini, Servetus a humanist and physician, and Biandrata a physician and in particular a gynecologist), and differed also in their approaches to theology (but more on that anon). One thing that cannot be said about them, and here the term “evangelical rationalist” may lead one’s thoughts astray, is that they were Unitarians in any modern sense of the word. Certainly they were incipiently so, but modern unitarians are simply hold-over Deists, who believe, like Voltaire, that god is some impersonal force that moved the universe into existence with its laws, and who made no mistakes in our creation. Thus, since there are no mistakes, there is no need to intervene through miracles, and certainly no need to send “his son” to make expiation.

Why? Because we are so far removed from god that this being could not care less about our foibles, for this impersonal god is not a moral being. The only sin or crime is that which is against “reason,” for by reason (of some sort) god ordered the world. This is the origin of Thomas Jefferson’s phrase (which I have actually seen Presbyterians quote) “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Since god made humans free, tyranny is a crime against this order. By contrast, the Antitrinitarians believed strongly in miracles, and that Jesus was more than a mere human moralizer, but that sent from God, his death actually had cosmic significance.

The chief of the Antitrinitarians was Michael Servetus, who for a while was in the retinue of the chaplain of the emperor Charles V, but abandoned his benefactor and took up with Protestantism in 1529. In 1531 at the age of 21 he published his first book, On the Errors of the Trinity. In it he fixed upon a statement of Tertullian by which Christ was merely the manifestation of the Word of God, God’s mere reason, which ceased its existence upon the Incarnation (this last part is Servetus’s own thought, departing from Tertullian).

Servetus certainly found comfort in other church fathers who spoke of the monarchy of the Father, but his theology largely emerged from Tertullian. So much so, that Oecolampadius, the reformer from Basle where Servetus published his book and at whose house he lived, complained that he gave more weight to Tertullian than to all the other fathers combined. Seeing his welcome ended in Basle Servetus went first to Strasbourg, but then to Lyons in southeast France. On his way to Lyons he abandoned his name and became Michael de Villeneuve.

He took up a correspondence with Calvin sometime in early 1536, and even sought to meet Calvin in Paris where Servetus had gone to study medicine. According to Calvin, at peril he risked a meeting with Servetus, who failed to show. Servetus, as Villeneuve, was eventually chased from Paris for his arrogance and his defense of astrology. Back in Lyons he worked for a printer, and from there took up the correspondence with Calvin. Despite the use of pseudonyms (on the part of both) Calvin certainly knew who his interlocutor was. Eventually Servetus printed his magnum opus, the Restitutio Christiani, in which he reproduced some of his correspondence with Calvin (and how Calvin knew who authored the book). From Servetus’s foolish inclusion of the letters came his downfall, though not necessarily at the hands of Calvin.

One of Calvin’s friends in Geneva was writing a Catholic cousin in Lyons whom he hoped to convert, and made the comment that Protestants did not harbor known heretics to be the physicians to their clergy (Severtus was then the personal doctor of the archbishop of Vienne). The cousin demanded proof, and Calvin’s friend had to beg and cajole Calvin for the letters from Servetus as evidence.

Calvin protested that he did not wish to do the Inquisition’s work for it, but at last relented. Servetus had to lie about the letters, but was imprisoned only to make his escape by jumping off the outhouse roof over the walls of the bishop’s palace. For some reason he decided to go to Italy, but via Geneva (there are all sorts of speculations why). People from Lyons who knew him reported him, and he was arrested, tried (with Calvin as the chief theological persecutor), and condemned to the stake. Before this, letters were sent out to all the other Reformed cities (Basle, Bern, Zurich, and even to Wittenberg) and all came back with the same verdict: he should be executed. Thus, Calvin was not alone in his sentiments, though he certainly was keen on the punishment, actually writing the ministers in these towns urging them to be decisive in their decisions against Servetus.

Few condemned Geneva and Calvin for what happened, chief among them Sebastian Castellio, who noted that to burn a man was not to combat an idea, but only to burn a man; and Castellio’s colleague in Basle, David Juris, who wrote Calvin telling him Servetus should only have been banished. The others who defended Servetus did so because they sympathized with his theology, including a number who were part of Geneva’s Italian church, chiefly Valentine Gentili and especially Matteo Gribaldi.

Gribaldi did not quite understand Servetus’s thought, and through him and his interactions with Gentili, was birthed the strange episode in Reformation history known for its Tritheism. This episode also lays at the feet of both Calvin and another Reformer, Francesco Stancaro, who claimed that Christ was only mediator in his human nature, for to be mediator was to be less than the one mediated to (namely, God the Father).

Calvin’s responses to Stancaro in aid of the troubled Polish church (then bedeviled by the gifted Stancaro) left much to be desired, for Calvin wanted to say that Christ was mediator in both natures (and not just in the Person of the Son) but then came out admitting that somehow as pertains to office, the Son was less than the Father (O! shades of the Nestorianism of the previous article!).

Into this mix came Biandrata and Gentili (who had to flee Geneva after a public humiliation). Biandrata, who like almost everyone else, was no match in debate for Stancaro (the Polish reformer and nobleman Jan Laski became so frustrated with Stancaro in a debate he hurled the Epistle book at him), proposed that none of the Creeds but the Apostle’s Creed be used, and such a proscription would relieve the church of the terminology Stancaro was using to voice his opinions (it should be noted that it took years for Calvin to use the term consubstantial, and only when he was forced to do so by circumstances).

Gentili came preaching his tritheism on the back of Biandrata’s slighting of Nicaea. Gentili’s theology he had gotten from Gribaldi: the triad of persons were self-subsisting natures or existences, with the Son and Spirit not divine in the way the Father was. Though having a dignity and power inferior to that of the Father, they all the same deserved, as per the Biblical witness, worship and honor. Biandrata agreed with this assessment. Many of the Reformed, smarting under Stancaro’s barbs (he accused them of Arianism for making Christ’s divine person in his mediatorship less than the Father), and now finding themselves with Calvin advocating a subordination of Person through office (whatever that means), threw their lot in with Biandrata.

The Antitrinitarians had their greatest successes first in Poland and then Transylvania, including the founding of a printing press and the establishing of churches under the aegis of royally imposed freedom of worship (much to the dismay of Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed). They certainly had their problems, including members of their synods who reverted to near Judaism, and it was this that brought the great split in the movement, and their descent into a more broadly rationalistic movement.

Biandrata had taken up the cause against a Transylvanian preacher named David, who proved too much for the physician to handle intellectually. Consequently, Biandrata pleaded for Fausto Sozzini (Socinus) to come rectify the situation. Fausto had followed his uncle Laelio north of the Alps. Laelio, though certainly radical, kept his views to himself, and died in Zürich, and Fausto came and collected his uncle’s papers, which included some radical stuff. Fausto by the late 1560s was making a name for himself among the Antitrinitarians, and he was a gifted thinker. Descending on Transylvania, he managed to incite, by his presence, the followers of David against him, Biandrata, and their theology, and thus the origins of modern Unitarianism can be marked from this split.

While we cannot lay the sins and myriad heresies of the Antitrinitarians at the feet of the Reformers, it is fairly inconceivable (I think I’m using that word correctly) to imagine a world that would have allowed them to thrive had it not been for the Reformation and its shattering of Catholic Europe. Certainly Catholic Europe was not in good shape at the beginning of the sixteenth century, which itself in many ways allowed the Reformation to thrive (a concatenation of events to be sure). Had the Pope’s house been in order, many things certainly would have been different.

But while it is dangerous to do history in the subjunctive, nonetheless, at many turns the Antitrinitarians certainly found themselves aided unawares by individuals such as Calvin in his poorly parsed explanations to the Poles as regards answering Stancaro’s thought. Years after Calvin’s death, Fausto Sozzini assailed Calvin’s explanations of the relationship of the merit of Christ’s life to the atonement (Calvin said there was no necessary relation between Christ’s merit and the justice of God) to show that there was thus no need for Christ to have been divine, since mediation was linked only to his office and not his person. The fodder for Fausto’s efforts was Calvin’s reproduction in his Institutes of letters he had written to Fausto’s uncle Laelio on the question of merit in Christ (if Christ merited us salvation, Laelio asked, how could we say it was of grace?). Perhaps Fausto was thinking of Servetus and how his letters in the Resititutio led him to the stake at Geneva, but that’s history in the subjunctive.

One comment:

  1. Thank you for this enlightening post. I knew some of this but this post has fleshed out what I know about the Reformation.

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