The Strange Familiarity Of Socinianism

FaustusSocinusEach fall I lead a course in which we read some great texts of Reformed orthodoxy and scholasticism. This week we turned our attention to John Owen’s response to Socinianism. We’re focusing our attention on chapter 7 of his response to the catechisms of John Biddle (1615–62). Socinianism refers to a movement named after Fausto Sozzini (Latin: Faustus Socinus; 1539–1604) who, while professing to follow “just the Bible” (Biblicism—for more see this volume) over against the historic Christian understanding and confession of Scripture. Thus, while professing to follow Scripture, Socinus and his followers rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the atonement among other doctrines. Biddle was the leading English representative of this movement that found purchase in Italy, Poland, and elsewhere. Versions of anti-Trinitarianism had sprung up in the 1530s, prompting the confessional Protestants to become more robust in their understanding and articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. For more on the sixteenth-century context see this volume. By the early 17th century it had developed into a coherent movement vigorously offering an alternative to orthodox Christianity.

I was struck by two things today: 1) the similarity between Biddle’s theological method with that of too many evangelicals; 2) the way Owen responded. In the preface to his 1654 Twofold Catechism, Biddle argued,

I have here (according to the understanding I have gotten by continual meditation on the word of God) compiled a Scripture-Catechism wherein I bring the Reader to a sure and certain knowledg [sic] the chiefest things pertaining both to belief and practice, whilst I myself assert nothing (as others have done before me) but onely [sic] introduce the Scripture faithfully uttering its own assertions, which all Christians confess to be of undoubted truth.

According to Biddle, to disagree with his catechism is to disagree with Scripture itself.

Isn’t that interesting and telling? Biddle says that through his study of the Bible, apart from the creeds and the wisdom of the church, he has read the Bible in isolation and concluded that it teaches, e.g., that Jesus was adopted by the Father—as if no one had ever before taught adoptionism (a heresy going back perhaps as far as Cerinthus c. 100 AD and certainly to the 3rd century which taught that God recognized certainly qualities in Jesus and adopted him as his son thereby denying the consubstantiality with the Father, the true divinity of Christ and the Trinity).

Biddle also conflates his own views with Scripture. This is one of the great ironies of biblicism. They profess adherence only to Scripture but almost inevitably come to confuse their minds with God’s. This is why confessional Reformed folk ought to beware of biblicism and even any method that even something close to biblicism, because its proponents tend to think they know what God knows, they way he knows it.

Protestant Confessionalism is a more honest position. We begin with God’s Word as the sole, unique authority for faith and life (sola Scriptura) but we don’t pretend to read it as if we are the first or the only ones ever to have read the Bible. We understand that the same sufficiently clear Bible also teaches a doctrine of the visible church and that institution has been reading God’s Word for 2,000 years. Orthodox Christians have been confessing a shared understanding of God’s Word based on solid, careful study and interpretation of Scripture. In this respect, Owen’s exasperation with Biddle is patent and sometimes amusing. He mocked Biddle in his own little catechetical summary of Biddle’s views and, at one point, asks whether Biddle has ever read John 1:1–3.

The hermeneutic (way of interpreting texts) that Biddle used, isolating the text of Scripture from the historic church, isolating texts from each other, that Biddle used led him to deny basic Christian doctrines. His explanation of the various passages is fairly tortured at times because he knows a priori how things have to come out. As I say, while he professes the superiority of Scripture, he is actually assuming the superiority of his intellect. He knows what reasonable people can be expected to believe and the mystery of the incarnation of God the Son and the Trinity are not among them.

Owen’s response is interesting on a number of levels. He did not accept Biddle’s protests merely to have read Scripture impartially. Owen wrote:

I insist somewhat the more on these things, that men may judge the better whether in all probability Mr B., in his “impartial search into the Scripture,” did not use the help of some of them that went before him in the discovery of the same things which he boasts himself to have found out.

What Owen understood and what some evangelicals and perhaps even some Reformed folk should understand is that the Biddles and Biblicists of this world aren’t impartial. They have an agenda but they don’t admit it. Christians have an agenda and they admit it: to read God’s Word with the church that Jesus established. This agenda is not always been easy but our Lord did not promise that it would be.

Further, Owen’s analysis of Biddle’s agenda is instructive as is his remedy:

For the removal of all this from prejudicing the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ there is an abundant sufficiency, arising from the consideration of this one argument: If Jesus Christ be called the “Son of God” antecedently to his incarnation, mission, resurrection, and exaltation, then there is a reason and cause of that appellation before and above all these considerations, and it cannot be on any of these accounts that he is called the “Son of God;” but that he is so called antecedently to all these, I shall afterward abundantly manifest. Yet a little farther process in this business, as to the particulars intimated, may not be unseasonable.

Jesus is God the Son before his incarnation, his mission (being sent to the world) etc then the adoptionist case is moot. Jesus doesn’t become the Son. He is the Son become flesh. The crux of his case against Biddle lies in a doctrine that some evangelicals and apparently some Reformed folk seem to regard as disposable: the eternal generation (and here) of the Son.

And this is the first reason which our catechist hath taken from his masters to communicate to his scholars why Jesus Christ is called the “Son of God.” This he and they insist on exclusively to his eternal sonship, or being the Son of God in respect of his eternal generation of the substance of his Father.

In other words, according to Owen, the choice is between adoption and eternal generation. If that’s true, then the move by some to dispense with eternal generation isn’t without risk.

I offer this as an encouragement and caution to pay attention not only to what evangelical and Reformed conclude but how they got to their conclusions. When you see an ostensibly Reformed writer rejecting eternal generation for the same reasons that Biddle and the Socinians (not a folk-punk band) did you might want to take that conclusion with a grain of salt. Think about it. You’re going to use some aid to interpreting Scripture if your choice is between the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and the flavor of the month, choose wisely.

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One comment

  1. My own take on eternal generation (with respect to the shades of Buswell and Reymond) is that I wouldn’t want to say I know Greek better than the three Cappadocians and Athanasius. I take it as the Son’s eternal distinction from the Father while sharing His nature (open to correction).

    As for the familiarity of Socinianism, could it be because our public education system was founded by a bunch of 19th century Unitarians? They were originally Anglophone Socinians.

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