Socinianism And John Owen -- By: Lee Gatiss

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 20:4 (Winter 2016)
Article: Socinianism And John Owen
Author: Lee Gatiss

Socinianism And John Owen

Lee Gatiss

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society, an Anglican Evangelical ministry based in the United Kingdom, and Lecturer in Church History at Union School of Theology. He has studied history and theology at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and trained for ministry at Oak Hill Theological College in London. Having served churches in Oxford, Kettering, and London, he is also the author of many books and articles on theology, biblical interpretation, and church history, and he earned a PhD from Cambridge University on the Hebrews commentary of John Owen. He is the Editor of the NIV Proclamation Bible (Zondervan, 2015) and the recent two-volume edition of The Sermons of George Whitefield (Crossway, 2012), as well as author of John Owen: The Genius of English Puritanism (Lost Coin, 2016).

One of the surprising features for modern readers of the works of John Owen (1616-1683), especially his commentary on Hebrews, is his constant and detailed interaction with a group known as the Socinians. In his context, however, it is neither unusual nor eccentric, and it makes good sense in the light of Owen’s previous career and contemporary agenda. In this article, we will put his conversation with the Socinians into historical perspective, and particularly assess the way he links the Socinians with others, especially Richard Baxter and Hugo Grotius, and the often political motives behind this.

The Great Heresy Of Socinianism

For seventeenth-century theologians, the anti-Trinitarian theology known as Socinianism was, as Willem van Asselt put it, “the very nadir of heresy.”1 Many British and Continental divines wrote in great and earnest detail against the insidious errors of the so-called Polish Brethren and other Socinians. Their roots went back into the previous century to those considered heretics by the magisterial Reformers, such as Michael Servetus (1511-1553), but

they eventually became associated with the unorthodox Italian émigré to Poland, Faustus Socinus (1539-1604).

Gerard Reedy helpfully outlines two related ways in which the term Socinianism was used. First, theologically, it described those who followed Socinus’ teaching in various ways, e.g., “rationalistic scriptural interpretation; the accordance to Jesus of a high place in the divine order but not of divinity; the limiting of Jesus’ role in the drama of human redemption principally to one of moral exemplarity; the advocacy of a wide tolerance for believers of all creeds.” Second, methodologically, “Socinian” often meant placing a greate...

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