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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 127. Calvinism and Unitarianism. The Italian Refugees.


Comp. §§ 38–40 (pp. 144–163).

I. Calvin: Ad questiones Georgii Blandatrae responsum (1558); Responsum ad Fratres Polonos quomodo mediator sit Christus ad refutandum Stancari errorem (1560); Impietas Valentini Gentilis detecta et palam traducta qui Christum non sine sacrilega blasphemia Deum essentiatum esse fingit (1561); Brevis admonitio ad Fratres Polonos ne triplicem in Deo essentiam pro tribus personis imaginando tres sibi Deos fabricent (1563); Epistola Jo. Calv. quo fidem Admonitionis ab eo nuper editae apud Polonos confirmat (1563). All in Opera, Tom. IX. 321 sqq. The correspondence of Calvin with Lelio Sozini and other Italians, see below. On the controversy with Servetus, see next chapter.


The Socinian writings are collected in the Bibliotheca fratrum Polonorum quos Unitarios vocant, Irenopoli (Amsterdam), 1656 sqq., 8 vols in 11 tomes fol. It contains the writings of the younger Socinus and his successors (Schlichting, Crell, etc.).


II. Trechsel: Die Protestantischen Antitrinitarier, Heidelberg, 1839 and 1844, 2 vols. The first volume treats chiefly of Servetus; the second, of the Italian Antitrinitarians.—Otto Fock: Der Socinianismus, Kiel, 1847. (The first part contains the history, the second and more valuable part the system, of Socinianism.)—Schweizer: Die Protest. Centraldogmen (Zürich, 1854), vol. I. 293 sqq.—Henry, III. 276 sqq.—Dyer, 446 sqq.—Stähelin, II. 319 sqq.—L. Coligny: L’Antitrinitarianism à Genève au temps de Calvin. Genève, 1873.—Harnack: Dogmengeschichte, III. (1890) 653–691. Comp. Sand: Bibliotheca Antitrinitariorum, 1684.


The Italian Protestants who were compelled to flee from the Inquisition, sought refuge in Switzerland, and organized congregations under native pastors in the Grisons, in Zürich, and Geneva. A few of them gathered also in Basel, and associated there with Castellio and the admirers of Erasmus.915915    Henry, II. 422; Schweizer, I. 293. An Italian Church was organized at Geneva in 1542, and reorganized in 1551, under Galeazzo Caraccioli, Marquis of Vico. Its chief pastors were Ragnione, Count Martinengo (who died 1557), and Balbani.

Among the 279 fugitives who received the rights of citizenship in that city on one day of the year 1558, there were 200 Frenchmen, 50 Englishmen, 25 Italians, and 4 Spaniards.

The descendants of the refugees gradually merged into the native population. Some of the best families in Geneva, Zürich, and Basel still bear the names and cherish the memories of their foreign ancestors. In the valleys of Poschiavo and Bregaglia of the Grisons, several Protestant Italian congregations survive to this day.916916    On the Italian refugees in the Grisons, and in Zürich, see above, §§ 38, 39, and 40; and Trechsel, l.c., II. 64 sqq.

The Italian Protestants were mostly educated men, who had passed through the door of the Renaissance to the Reformation, or who had received the first impulse from the writings of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. We must distinguish among them two classes, as they were chiefly influenced either by religious or intellectual motives. Those who had experienced a severe moral struggle for peace of conscience, became strict Calvinists; those who were moved by a desire for freedom of thought from the bondage of an exclusive creed, sympathized more with Erasmus than with Luther and Calvin, and had a tendency to Unitarianism and Pelagianism. Zanchi warned Bullinger against recommending Italians for sound doctrine until he had ascertained their views on God and on original sin. The same national characteristics continue to this day among the Romanic races. If Italians, Frenchmen, or Spaniards cease to be Romanists, they are apt to become sceptics and agnostics. They rarely stop midway.

The ablest, most learned, and most worthy representatives of orthodox Calvinism among the converted Italians were Peter Martyr Vermigli of Florence (1500–1562), who became, successively, professor at Strassburg (1543), at Oxford (1547), and last at Zürich (1555), and his younger friend, Jerome Zanchi (1516–1590), who labored first in the Grisons, and then as professor at Strassburg (1553) and at Heidelberg (1568). Calvin made several ineffectual attempts to secure both for the Italian congregation in Geneva.917917    See above, pp. 156 and 162, and C. Schmidt, Peter MartyrVermigli. Leben und ausgewählte Schriften, Elberfeld, 1858 (p. 296). Vergerio, the former bishop of Capo d’Istria and papal nuncio, is also numbered among the orthodox Italians, but he had no settled opinions, and was no theologian in the proper sense. See above, § 38, pp. 144 sqq. E. Tremellio, a converted Jew of Ferrara (1510-1580), one of the most learned Orientalists, was a Calvinist.

The sceptical and antitrinitarian Italians were more numerous among the scholars. Calvin aptly called them "sceptical Academicians." They assembled chiefly at Basel, where they breathed the atmosphere of Erasmian humanism. They gave the Swiss Churches a great deal of trouble. They took offence at the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, which they misconstrued into tritheism, or Sabellianism, at the orthodox Christology of two natures in one person, and at the Calvinistic doctrines of total depravity and divine predestination, which they charged with tending to immorality. They doubted the right of infant baptism, and denied the real presence in the Eucharist. They hated ecclesiastical disciplina. They admired Servetus, and disapproved of his burning. They advocated religious toleration, which threatened to throw everything into confusion.

To this class belong the two Sozini,—uncle and nephew, Curio, Ochino (in his latter years), Renato, Gribaldo, Biandrata, Alciati, and Gentile. Castellio is also counted with these Italian sceptics. He thoroughly sided with their anti-Calvinism, and translated from the Italian manuscripts into Latin the last books of Ochino.

Thus the seeds for a new and heretical type of Protestantism were abundantly sown by these Italian refugees in the soil of the Swiss Churches, which had received them with open-hearted hospitality.

Fausto Sozini (1539–1604) formulated the loose heterodox opinions of this school of sceptics into a theological system, and organized an ecclesiastical society in Poland, where they enjoyed toleration till the Jesuitical reaction drove them away. Poland was the Northern home of the Italian Renaissance. Italian architects built the great churches and palaces in Cracow, Warsaw, and other cities, and gave them an Italian aspect. Fausto Sozini spent some time in Lyons, Zürich (where he collected the papers of his uncle), and Basel, but labored chiefly in Poland, and acquired great influence with the upper classes by his polished manners, amiability, and marriage with the daughter of a nobleman. Yet he was once mobbed by fanatical students and priests it Cracow, who dragged him through the streets and destroyed his library. He bore the persecution like a philosopher. His writings were published by his nephew, Wiszowaty, in the first two volumes of the Bibliotheca fratrum Polonorum, 1656.

This is not the place for a full history of Socinianism. We have only to do with its initiatory movements in Switzerland, and its connection with Calvin. But a few general remarks will facilitate an understanding.

Socinianism, as a system of theology, has largely affected the theology of orthodox Protestantism on the Continent during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was succeeded by modern Unitarianism, which has exerted considerable influence on the thought and literature of England and America in the nineteenth century. It forms the extreme left wing of Protestantism, and the antipode to Calvinism. The Socinians admitted that Calvinism is the only logical system on the basis of universal depravity and absolute foreknowledge and foreordination; but they denied these premises, and taught moral ability, free-will, and, strange to say, a limitation of divine foreknowledge. God foreknows and foreordains only the necessary future, but not the contingent future, which depends on the free-will of man. The two systems are therefore directly opposed in their theology and anthropology.

And yet there is a certain intellectual and moral affinity between them; as there is between Lutheranism and Rationalism. It is a remarkable fact that modern Unitarianism has grown up in the Calvinistic (Presbyterian and Independent) Churches of Geneva, France, Holland, England, and New England, while Rationalism has been chiefly developed in Lutheran Germany. But the reaction is also found in those countries.

The Italian and Polish Socinians took substantially the same ground as the English and American Unitarians. They were opposed alike to Romanism and Calvinism; they claimed intellectual freedom of dissent and investigation as a right; they elevated the ethical spirit of Christianity above the dogmas, and they had much zeal for higher liberal education. But they differ on an important point. The Socinians had a theological system, and a catechism; the modern Unitarians refuse to be bound by a fixed creed, and are independent in church polity. They allow more liberty for new departures, either in the direction of rationalism and humanitarianism, or in the opposite direction of supernaturalism and trinitarianism.

Calvin was in his early ministry charged with Arianism by a theological quack (Caroli), because he objected to the damnatory clauses of the pseudo-Athanasian creed, and expressed once an unfavorable opinion on the Nicene Creed.918918    As a "carmen cantillando magis aptum, quam confessionis formula." In his tract De vera Ecclesiae reformatione. Comp. § 82, pp. 351 sq. But his difficulty was only with the scholastic or metaphysical terminology,919919    οὐσία, ὑπόστασις, πρόσωπον, essentia, substantia, persona, etc., and other terms of the Nicene age. not with the doctrine itself; and as to the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, he was most emphatic.

It is chiefly due to Calvin’s and Bullinger’s influence that Unitarianism, which began to undermine orthodoxy, and to unsettle the Churches, was banished from Switzerland. It received its death-blow in the execution of Servetus, who was a Spaniard, but the ablest and most dangerous antitrinitarian. His case will be discussed in a special chapter.



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