Socinianism, a development of the Arian heresy, has for its leading feature the denial of our Lord's divine nature, with the belief that he was a typical and unique man, displaying in so unprecedented a manner those higher characteristics of human nature which make it a shadow of the divine nature that he was called the Son of God. SEE SOCINUS.
I. System of Theology. — Socinianism represents Jesus as having been born of the Virgin Mary by a supernatural interposition of the Holy Ghost, in consequence of which he was a man free from original sin and its evil inclinations, but only a man. He was outwardly anointed prophet, priest, and king at his baptism by a material descent of a divine force and efficacy upon him in the form of a dove; but his full commission was given to him during some one or more interviews which he had with God when rapt up into heaven; probably during the forty days in the wilderness. He was (shutting out any idea of deity) the anointed Son of God, and was established in the fulness of his dominion by God, who raised him (not by any cooperation of his own) from the dead, and delegated to him a supreme authority over men and angels. But in all this he is only a created being, and worship rendered to him should only be given to him as the representative of God, not as his own right. The Socinian system discards altogether the idea of union between divine and human nature, alleging that the two are so infinitely removed from each other that union between them is an impossibility. Its later development does not recognize Christ as, in any sense, an object of worship, denies the supernatural origin which was attributed to him by the earlier form of the heresy, and looks upon him only as a very exalted saint and moral teacher.
Socinianism, however, is not merely a system of negations, but includes positive propositions. It not only denies the doctrine of the Trinity, but positively asserts that the Godhead is one in person as well as in essence. It not only denies the proper divinity of Jesus Christ, but positively asserts that he was a mere man — that is, a man, and nothing else or more than a man. It not only denies the vicarious atonement of Christ, but it asserts that men, by their own repentance and good works, procure the forgiveness of their sins and the enjoyment of God's favor; and thus, while denying that, in any proper sense, Christ is their Savior, it teaches that men save themselves — that is, in so far as they need salvation. It denies that the Spirit is a person who possesses the divine nature, and teaches that the Holy Ghost in Scripture describes or expresses merely a quality or attribute of God.
In its theology Socinianism represents God as a being whose moral character is composed exclusively of goodness and mercy, desiring merely the happiness of his creatures; thus virtually excluding from his character that immaculate holiness which leads him to hate sin, and that inflexible justice which constrains him to inflict upon the impenitent the punishment they deserve. It also denies that God foresees the actions of his creatures, or knows anything about them until they come to pass; except in some special cases in which he has foreordained the event, and foresees it because he foreordained it. That they may not seem to derogate from God's omniscience, they admit that God knows all things that are knowable; but they contend that contingent events are unknowable, even by an infinite being.
In its anthropology Socinianism denies, in substance, the fall of man, and all original depravity, and asserts that men are now, as to all moral qualities, tendencies, and capacities, in the same condition as when the race was created. Having no original righteousness, Adam, when he sinned, did not lose any quality of that sort. He simply incurred the divine displeasure, but retained the same moral nature with which he was created. Created naturally mortal, he would have died whether he had sinned or not. Men are now, in their moral nature and tendencies, just as pure and holy as Adam when created; without, however, any positive tendency towards God or towards sin. Men are now under more unfavorable circumstances than Adam was, because of the many examples of sin, which increase the probabilities of actually falling into sin.. Some avoid sin altogether, and obtain eternal blessedness as a reward; others sin, but there is no difficulty in obtaining forgiveness from God, and thus escaping the consequences of transgression.
In its Christology this system naturally denies the necessity of an atonement, and. declares that Christ had nothing to do in the world for the fulfilment of his mission but to communicate fuller and more certain information about the divine, character and government, the path or duty and future blessedness, and to set before men an example of obedience to God's law and will. The old Socinians rejected, therefore, the priestly office of Christ altogether, or conjoined and confounded it with the kingly one; while the modern Socinians abolish the kingly office and resolve all into, the prophetical. His suffering of death, of course, did not belong to the execution of the priestly, but of the prophetical office; in other words, its sole object and design were confined within the general range of serving to declare and confirm to men the will of God. Thus was revealed an immortality beyond death, of which no certainty had been given to men before Christ's death.
With respect to eschatology, Socinianism denies the resurrection of the body as a thing absurd and impossible. It holds to what is called a resurrection, which is not a resurrection of the same body, but the formation and the union to the soul of a different body. It repudiates the doctrine of eternal punishment; but Socinians are divided between the two theories of the annihilation of the wicked (held by older Socinians) and the final restoration of all men (adopted by modern Socinians).
As regards the Church and its sacraments, Socinianism teaches that the Church is not, in any proper sense, a divine institution, but is a mere voluntary association of men, drawn together by similarity of views and a desire to promote one another's welfare. The object of the sacraments is to teach men, and to impress divine truth upon their minds; and they are in no way whatever connected with any act on God's part in the communication of spiritual blessings.
II. The Sect. — Laelius Socinus (q.v.) is usually regarded as the true founder of the Socinian system, though his nephew, Faustus, was its chief defender and promulgator. The origin of the sect is usually traced by their own writers to the year 1546, when colleges or conferences of about forty individuals were in the habit of meeting, chiefly at Vicenza, in the Venetian territory, with a view of introducing a purer faith by discarding a number of opinions held by Protestants as well as Papists — although this account is discredited by Mosheim and others. The first catechism and confession of the Socinians was printed at Cracow, Poland, in 1574, at which time the sect received the name of Anabaptists. SEE CATECHISM, 2, 8. George Schomann is believed to have been the author of this early Socinian creed. This catechism was, however, supplanted in the 17th century by the Racovian Catechism, composed by Schmalz, a learned German Socinian, who had settled in Poland. From Poland, Socinian doctrines were carried, in 1563, into Transylvania, chiefly through the influence and exertions of George Blandrata, a Polish physician. For upwards of a hundred years Poland was the stronghold of this sect; but in 1658, by a decree of the diet of Warsaw, they were expelled from the kingdom; and this severe edict being repeated in 1661, they were completely rooted out from the country. The father of Socinianism in England was John Biddle, who, towards the middle of the 17th century, was the first who openly taught principles subversive of the received doctrine of the Trinity. The publication of Biddle's Twofold Catechism caused great excitement both in England and on the Continent. Various answers to this Socinian pamphlet appeared; but the most able was that of the celebrated Dr. John Owen, in his Vindicioe Evangelicoe. The Biddelians were never numerous, and speedily disappeared. The modern Socinians, who took the name of Unitarians (q.v.), were not a conspicuous party in England till the close of the 18th century, when Priestley and others publicly avowed and propagated antitrinitarian sentiments. A considerable difference, however, exists between the opinions of the ancient and those of the modern Socinians. Both the Socini, uncle and nephew, as well as their immediate followers, admitted the miraculous conception of Christ by the Virgin Mary, and that he ought to be worshipped, as having been advanced by God to the government of the whole created universe doctrines usually rejected by the modern Socinians. These latter are now, at least in the United States, quite generally substituting, for Socinianism proper, the pantheistic infidelity of Germany, though under a sort of profession of Christianity.
See Cunningham, Historical Theology, 2; Gardner, Faiths of the World, s.v.; Cottle, Essays on Socinianism; Best, Letters on Socinianism; Fuller, Socinian and Calvinistic Systems (8vo); Groves, Lines to a Socinian Friend; Socinianism, Rise, Growth, and Danger of, in the Christian Disciple, 3, 429; also the list in Malcom, Theological Index, s.v.