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At the beginning of the Seventeenth Century there arose two noteworthy doctrinal systems which ran contrary to what was regarded as orthodox Reformation thought. Though these two doctrinal systems had some fundamental differences, they also had several similarities which suggest that they be considered together. Not only did they develop at approximately the same time, but they also found receptive hearts in the same place - the Netherlands. They were most alike in their opposition to some basic doctrines of Calvinism. Finally, both doctrinal systems denied that Christ's death served as an atonement for men's sins. With so much in common it is not surprising that they influenced one another.
Though Socinianism was characterized by contradiction of some basic doctrines of Calvinism, it is best remembered for its rather unorthodox Christology. The system derives its name from an uncle and nephew, Lelio (1525-1562) and Faustus (1539-1604) Socinus. Although the former led a life of outward conformity to Roman Catholicism, he privately questioned the Trinity and through his writings was supposedly a strong influence upon his nephew. It was through Faustus, then, that this doctrinal system was propagated and popularized. He traveled in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Transylvania before he went to Poland where he lived for the last twenty-five years of his life and exerted most of his influence.
There is much in Socinianism that is agreeable with the Scriptures and, therefore, admirable. Socinians accepted the Scriptures as the source of truth on the basis of the miracles which attested to them. Therefore, the Socinians believed in prayer, renunciation of the world, humility, patient endurance, and human free will. They rejected the false doctrines of original sin and unconditional predestination.
However, Socinians went wildly astray from the Scriptural teaching on the work and nature of Christ. They believed Christ to be only a man (Jn. 1:1), albeit a man who led a life of exemplary obedience. As a reward for His obedience, Christ was granted wisdom, a resurrection, and divinity. Hence, the purpose of Christ's life and death was to set an example for men. Connected with this was the Socinian view of atonement. Socinians regarded forgiveness of sin and satisfaction for sin (as by the death of Christ) as opposite and mutually exclusive conceptions. If God forgives sin, why does satisfaction for sin need to be made? Furthermore, Socinians believed it to be absolute injustice to make the innocent suffer for the guilty, as Christ suffered for sinners (I Pet. 3:18). Hence, Socinians denied the need for Christ's death as an atonement for their sins. Salvation could be obtained merely through a life of obedience.
Obviously, Socinianism is contrary to the teachings of God's word. In the first place, Christ did not receive divinity as a reward for righteousness. He has always been divine (Jn. 1:1). Divinity by its very nature is an eternal quality. It cannot be bestowed. Christ has either always been divine or He is not divine at all. As to Christ's life and death, there is no doubt that by them He set a good example for men, but that was not their primary purpose. Christ died as a propitiation for men's sins (Rom. 3:25; I Jn. 2:2; 4:10). Satisfaction for sin is not contrary to forgiveness of sin. It is through the satisfaction for sin rendered by the death of Christ that forgiveness is made possible. When men sinned by violating God's law, God's just nature demanded satisfaction, and He was willing to accept the sacrifice of His own Son in lieu of men's condemnation.
Yet, this forgiveness through Christ's sacrifice is extended to each individual on the condition of his obedience. Furthermore, it is not necessarily unjust for the innocent to suffer for the guilty. The innocent Christ suffered for guilty men, but He did so voluntarily (Jn. 10:17,18). Also, Christ did not actually suffer the punishment (hell) for men's sins. He suffered the loss of His life, not the loss of His soul.
Arminianism is notable as a reaction to Calvinism. In 1589 a theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), was appointed to defend the proposition that God decreed election and reprobation and then allowed the fall to take place as a means of carrying out His decree. As a result of his studies Arminius came to the conclusion that the doctrine of unconditional predestination was untrue. He and his followers eventually came to reject other cardinal features of Calvinism - limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the impossibility of apostasy. Oddly enough,-however, Arminians retained the Calvinistic idea that men are unable to do anything good of themselves. One of Arminius' followers, Grotius, set forth the idea that Christ's death was a tribute to the sanctity of God's law which had been offended by men. For God to have pardoned without demonstrating His regard for His law would have brought it into contempt. Hence, Grotius taught that Christ's sacrifice was not the payment of a penalty for men's sins but that it upheld the majesty of God's law. Thus, he satisfied the Socinians, but he robbed the gospel of its heart by denying that Christ had died for men.
IV. Exercises(Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) Socinians believed Christ was only a man.
(2) (T or F) Divinity is something that can be bestowed.
(3) (T or F) Christ died merely to set an example for men and to uphold the majesty of God's law.
(4) (T or F) Forgiveness and satisfaction for sin are opposite and mutually exclusive.
(5) Doctrinally, Socinianism and Arminianism were alike in that they rejected much of and Christ's death as for men's sins,
(6) Is it unjust to have the innocent suffer for the guilty (cp. Ezek. 18:20)? If not, how could Christ suffer for sinful men?
(7) If Christ died for all, why are all not saved?
(8) Does the Socinian view of obedience differ from the Biblical view? If so, how?