Were the Socinians Biblicists?

One the accusations used against biblicists (those who derive Christian doctrine from God’s Word alone) is that they are imitating the Socinians who rejected the deity of Christ while claiming to follow Scripture alone. They argue that because the Socinians were biblicists who did not regard the ecumenical creeds of the early church as authoritative for the church today, modern day biblicism is heading down the same path the Socinians once did. But what is puzzling about this argument is that the Socinians were not biblicists at all, but rationalists who gave lip service to the authority of Scripture while rejecting every doctrine of Scripture which seemed unreasonable to them. While biblicism is a theologically conservative movement, Socinianism is the grandfather of theological liberalism which picks and chooses what it wants to believe. They are at complete opposite ends of the theological spectrum.

True biblicism is the belief that the Bible alone the Word of God written and therefore all human creeds and confessions, regardless of how cherished they are, must be tested by it. Biblicism is simply an attempt to do good theology by testing all things by Scripture (Acts 17:11). While the Socinians rejected what they could not understand, biblicism calls us to accept as true everything revealed to us by God in Scripture, even if we cannot fully understand it. Socinianism makes its own reasoning ability the standard by which every doctrine is to be tested while biblicism makes the Bible alone the standard by which every tradition is to be weighed. One is a system that begins with man while the other begins with God’s Word alone. Socinianism is man-centered while biblicism is God-centered seeking to submit our minds fully to God’s Word. I have written more on the differences between good and bad theology here.

The criterion for distinguishing truth from error in Socinianism is not the Bible, but what they could consider reasonable to believe while claiming to believe in Scripture alone. But there is a world of difference between claiming to believe in Scripture alone versus actually believing in Scripture alone. Not only did the Socinians deny the deity of Christ, they denied his pre-existence as the adoptionists once did. And it’s hard to call someone a biblicist who doesn’t even believe in the pre-existence of Christ and denies that God has exhaustive knowledge of future events. While the Racovian Catechism of Socinianism defends the authenticity, sufficiency, and perspicuity of Scripture, there is nothing in it defending the inerrancy of Scripture. While the first generation of Socinians claimed to believe in the authority of Scripture, the second generation explicitly rejected the inerrancy of Scripture and went so far as to deny the existence of a personal devil. While claiming to be biblicists, the Socinians weren’t biblicist enough.

The biblicism of George Müller looks nothing like the doubtful musing of Faustus Socinus. Was Müller secretly a rationalist in disguise for studying God’s Word alone instead of the writings of fallen man? The Bible is our ultimate authority, not the creeds of the early church which are far from perfect. While the creeds of the early church rightly affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, they also affirm baptismal regeneration, the descent of Christ into hell, the perpetual virginity of Mary, clerical celibacy, praying to Mary and the saints, and the veneration of icons. While we have a high regard for the fathers of the church, we have a higher regard for Scripture.

The reason people argue that biblicism is heading down the same path as Socinianism is because their epistemological starting point for what they want the Bible to teach is being challenged. And it is easier to accuse their opponents of veering down the path toward heresy than actually interacting with their exegesis. It is easier to dismiss a position as unorthodox than studying Scripture alone apart from the tradition of the church to determine whether or not what we believe is actually what the Bible teaches.

If we are going to accept as true the doctrines of our theological tradition based on how long and how many people have believed them, then the Bible had might as well not even exist. If we are just going to use the Bible to find proof texts for what we really want to believe, then we have functionally subordinated the Bible to our tradition. Our tradition then becomes the lens through which the Bible is interpreted rather than interpreting Scripture with Scripture. I am afraid that such an approach to theology is just an excuse to smuggle unbiblical human teachings through the back door that no Christian would ever come to by studying God’s Word alone to discern truth from error.

I’ll let a well-known preacher have the last word:

“Well, then, we go on this principle mark you, that the only appeal is to the Word of God. This is a principle in which every holiest and soundhearted Protestant must agree with us; it is his principle as much as ours, and it is the only principle that will save him from all the errors and superstitions of Romanism. So that, taking the matter into the court of God’s Word only, it signifies very little to us what may have been said by such-and-such a council, or such-and-such a Church, or such-and-such a reverend father: it greatly simplifies the matter when it’s understood that we intend to submit this question to the Word of God, and to the Word of God only. And I say to every Protestant here, that he must accept the principle and act upon it. If he begin to refer to fathers, and churches, and councils, well then let him take care, he may rely upon it that on such a principle he will not be able to stand for one moment. If he thinks with such weapons to vanquish us, let him rest assured that he will very soon be vanquished himself by the same. It may be that the charge from such ordinance shall destroy us, but depend upon it the recoil will destroy the man who has the temerity to fire it. This principle then will be agreed in by every Protestant, excepting those who in these days are beginning to protest Scripture itself, but every sound-hearted, honest-minded Protestant, will go with us in saying that the Word of God is the only tribunal to which we can go” (Sermon No. 381 “Christian Baptism”).


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