Lee Gatiss, “Socinianism and John Owen,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 20:4 (2016), pp. 43-62.

Lee Gatiss completed his Cambridge PhD on Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, and this recent publication delves into its representation of the controversy between orthodox Catholics and protestants and the new religious movement led by Faustus Socinus. Socinian arguments reached beyond debates about Christology and the Godhead, and so the responses to their claims, from a wide variety of confessional, geographical, and linguistic contexts, were reflected “in almost every locus of the systems of high orthodoxy,” Willem van Asselt observes (quoted on p. 44). And yet, Gatiss observes, the new religious movement was tiny, never more than one thousand families. Its principal academy in Raków was destroyed in 1638, and its members were expelled from Poland some twenty years later, to be persecuted almost wherever they sought refuge. Yet the claims of this politically insignificant group became one of Owen’s chief preoccupations. Gatiss speculates that Owen’s response to the Socinian challenge began in his first manuscript, which focused on Christ’s priesthood, but which was never published. The first Socinian book published in England was – notably, perhaps – a commentary on Hebrews (p. 47). Owen picked up on its arguments in his own, massive, commentary on that epistle (1668-1684).

Gatiss’ argument nuances the arguments of Sarah Mortimer, whose Reason and religion in the English revolution: The challenge of Socinianism (2010) reads Owen’s engagement with anti-Trinitarianism in light of the politics of the 1650s. However, as Gatiss demonstrates, Owen’s refutation of anti-Trinitarianism extended beyond the collapse of the republic, and, in the later period at least, seems to have reflect an unmitigated concern for doctrinal purity.

Gatiss shows that the Socinian challenge distinguished Owen from Baxter, who promoted a doctrinal consensus within which Socinians could be accommodated. In fact, Gatiss demonstrates, Baxter’s famous appeal to “mere Christianity” had been anticipated by John Biddle, whose Twofold catechism (1654) was published for the sake of “meer Christians, and not of this or that sect.” Owen scorned these claims in Vindiciae Evangelicae, alleging that Biddle’s doctrine was closer to Islam than any form of Christianity (p. 50). Gatiss further traces Owen’s interactions with Hugo Grotius: while Owen recognised that Grotius “did not directly deny the doctrine of the Trinity,” he was concerned that Grotius had “adopted Socinian methods of interpretation and anti-Trinitarian readings of various key texts” in key publications that offered significant materiel for anti-Trinitarian polemic (p. 54).

Gatiss’s article is a wide-ranging account of Owen’s long-standing concern about theological novelty, and its endurance even when the tables are turned, when Owen was in the minority, and when Socinian ideas had penetrated into the heart of the establishment.

 

 

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