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In 1654 the commands of the Council of State were laid upon Owen to undertake the refutation of Socinianism, which about that time was introduced into England, and in the following year the “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ” appeared; — a work of unequal merit, and in many parts obsolete under the new light shed on the subject by more recent discussions, but in the main so solid as never to have been answered; containing much that modern polemics have by no means superseded; full of information as to the early history of Socinianism, nowhere else to be gleaned in the theological literature of Britain; and altogether of such substantial excellence as to render its author’s name worthy of its place as historically the first among that splendid catena of divines, — Bull, Waterland, Horsley, Magee, Fuller, Pye Smith, and Wardlaw, — by whom the cardinal doctrines of Christ’s person, Godhead, and work, have been placed on a basis of unshaken demonstration from the Word of God.
In the execution of his task, our author resolved to meet three parties whose writings tended to unsettle the general belief of the Church of Christ respecting these doctrines; — Biddle, whose publications, devoted to the propagation of Unitarian sentiments, had drawn the attention and excited the fears of the Council; the Polish Socinians, as represented by the Racovian Catechism; and Hugo Grotius, whose Socinianizing comments on Scripture have left his orthodoxy on the vital truths of our Lord’s divinity and satisfaction under a cloud of suspicion.
John Biddle, the father of English Socinianism, was born in 1616, at Wotton-under-Edge. Having made considerable proficiency at the grammar school of his native town, he received from Lord Berkeley an exhibition of £10, was admitted a student of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and took his degree of A.M. in 1641. While occupied afterwards as a teacher in the city of Gloucester, he began to divulge his errors by the private circulation of a small tract, under the title, “Twelve Arguments drawn out of the Scriptures, wherein the commonly received opinion touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit is fully Refuted.” He was summoned from the county jail, to which the magistrates had committed him, to answer for his errors before Parliament; and, on the report of a committee respecting his case, he was left under the custody of an officer of the House for five years. During this period he published successively his “Twelve Arguments,” “A Confession of Faith concerning the Holy Trinity,” and “The Testimonies of Irenæus, etc., concerning one God and the Persons of the Holy Trinity.” By an atrocious act passed in 1648, in which it was made a capital offence to publish against the being and perfections of God, the deity of the Son and of the Spirit, and similar doctrines, Biddle had well-nigh fallen a martyr to his opinions. The act, however, never came into operation. He was even in more serious peril after the Long Parliament was dissolved and its opponents were in power; for he actually stood a trial for his life in 1655. Cromwell dexterously overruled these proceedings by the summary banishment of Biddle to Star Castle, in one of the Scilly Islands. He recovered his freedom only to be cast into prison anew on the Restoration; and having caught some distemper common in the jails of that time, he died a prisoner in 1662. He was a man of considerable attainments as a scholar. “Except his opinions,” says Anthony Wood, “there was little or nothing blameworthy in him;” and his admirer, Toulmin, pronounces him “a pious, holy, and humble man.” His piety must have been of a singular type, if we consider his views of the divine nature, — views replete with the most profane and revolting materialism, at that time without a parallel in our literature, and calculated to shock the best feelings and holiest convictions of his countrymen, while the knowledge of them inspired continental divines with alarm, as if England were fast lapsing into the most impious heresies. It can only be from a desire that their cause may have the honour of having stood, in one instance at least, the test of civil penalties under British 4rule, that Socinians, who pride themselves on their views of the spirituality of God, claim affinity with poor Biddle.
Nicolas Estwick replied to him, in an “Examination of his Confession of Faith;” Poole, in his “Plea for the Godhead of the Holy Ghost;” and Francis Cheynel, in his “Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Biddle held to his errors, and produced in 1654 his “Twofold Catechism,” etc.; which the following work of Owen is designed to review and confute.
The Racovian Catechism derives its name from the Polish city of Rakau, the chief seat of the Polish Unitarians. According to Sandius (Bib. Antitrin. p. 44), the first Catechism of this name was the work of Gregory Paul; and when Faustus Socinus and Peter Statorius, junior, were prevented by death from completing their revision of it, according to an appointment laid upon them by their brethren of the same creed, the task was devolved on Valentine Smalcius, Jerome Moscorovius, and John Volkelius. The first part of this statement seems to want authentication, and the original of the Catechism has been traced to a confession of faith prepared by George Schomann. Remodelled by the committee mentioned above, it appeared in 1605, and was the first edition of the Racovian Catechism. It was translated into German in 1608. A reprint of the original work in London attracted the notice of Parliament, and on the 2d of April 1652, the Sheriffs of London and of Middlesex were ordered to seize and burn all the copies of it at the London Exchange and at Palace Yard, Westminster. An English translation of it, prepared most probably by Biddle, issued from the Amsterdam press in 1652. The most correct and valuable edition of the Catechism, supplying the latest views of the old Socinian theology in Poland, is the quarto edition of 1680, printed at Amsterdam by Christopher Pezold. Modern Socinianism has added nothing to the plausibility with which the system is invested in this Catechism; and the refutation of its insidious principles by Owen was a service to the cause of scriptural truth, from which Christianity is yet reaping, and for generations will continue to reap, the highest benefit.
Hugo Grotius is a name which reminds us of a sadly chequered history, diversified gifts of the highest order, and a strangely piebald and ambiguous creed. We need not allude to the well-known incidents of his eventful career, — the high offices he held in his native country, his connection with the disputes between the Gomarists and the Remonstrants, the retribution under which he became the victim of that appeal to arms and force which his own party beyond all question had begun, his escape from prison through the ingenious device of his wife, his residence at Paris, and death at Rostock in 1645. He had published a work, “De Satisfactione Christi,” designed to refute the errors of Socinianism, but towards the close of his life he prepared a series of annotations on Scripture, respecting which it was the charge of Owen that “he left but one place giving testimony clearly to the deity of Christ.” Dr Hammond took him to task for misrepresenting the Dutch statesman. Owen, both in the “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ” and in his “Review of the Annotations,” advances overwhelming evidence in support of his assertion. Whether we are to account it morbid candour or indifference to the great truths of the gospel, Grotius assuredly emitted a most uncertain sound respecting them. He is claimed alike by Socinians, Arminians, and Papists. The learned Jesuit Petavius said prayers for the repose of his soul; and Bossuet considered him so near the truth that “it was wonderful he did not take the last step,” — that is, connect himself with the Church of Rome, — while he affirms, at the same time, that “he stole from the Church her most powerful proofs of the divinity of Christ.” Menâge wrote a witty epigram, to the effect that as many sects claimed the religion of Grotius as towns contended for the honour of being the birth-place of Homer. Who would not wish to rank among the abettors of his own tenets a statesman of such vast attainments and versatile ability? It is enough, however, to make us sympathize with Owen, who only followed the example of all the Protestant divines of Charenton, in repudiating fellowship with Grotius, when we peruse the epistles of the latter to the Socinian Crellius. See page 638. Is the difference between those who hold and those who deny the Godhead of Christ to be made matter of contemptuous aposiopesis, and to be spoken of as “quantilla causa?” — Ed.
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