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What is Socinianism?

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This is the first of what I hope will be a series of short posts about questions that arise from teaching myself about the history, theology and polity of Unitarian Universalism.

I’ve run into the word “Socinian” a few times lately.  The first time was in a list of questions the Ministerial Fellowship Committee might ask, so that upped my adrenaline a bit.  The word rang a very distant bell–I could see the word in my mind’s eye on a chart I studied in seminary, could hear the word said by a Church History professor.  Seemed to me that in the context of my previous training, Socinianism was a heresy, but I couldn’t pull up anything more specific than that.

Since I’m not trying to become an expert on the subject, but rather just to get a ballpark idea of what we’re talking about, the following is based on the Wikipedia entry for Socinianism.

Turns out I was right.  Socinianism is a heresy, which makes it right at home among the UUs.  (Yes, I’m being flip.)

Socinianism takes its name from Lelio Sozzini and his nephew, Fausto Sozzini, who lived basically during the time period of the Protestant Reformation.  While reformers such as Luther and Calvin changed a great deal about the Christian faith (they would have said that they returned it to its origins), their “crimes” against the church did not strike the core principles of the Christian faith as deeply as those of “heretics” such as the Sozzinis.

I remember trying to wrap my mind around three, yet one, one, yet three while I was in seminary.  We had to memorize long, highly technical Greek words, differentiated from each other by a single vowel.  There were flighty metaphors about the persons of the Trinity dancing with each other.  It was a lot of work, all in the service of defending formulas articulated long ago at Nicaea and Chalcedon.

It seems to me that Lelio and Fausto, let the range of their minds take them beyond the bounds of orthodoxy, unlike their friend Calvin and the other Reformers.  Like their spiritual ancestor, Arius, they realized that everything was much simpler if Jesus were not divine.

If I were to remember one piece of this for talking with the MFC, it would be the distinctive Christology of Socinianism.  In its view, Christ did not exist prior to his birth.  He is not co-eternal with the Father, and not divine, but an object of reverence nonetheless.


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