Tuesday, October 27, 2020

John Biddle and the Right to Be 'Wrong'

In 1647 (not 1644, as indicated by A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Volume One), a man named John Biddle published a tract entitled "XII arguments drawn out of the Scripture." He was a young schoolmaster and was expected to teach religion from the Catechism of the Church of England. He studied the Bible for himself in preparation, and came to widely differing conclusions from those of the established church. Thus began his rocky life as an advocate of unitarianism.

The first argument in his tract contains some logic that I find difficult to follow, but it starts like this:

HE that is distinguished from God is not God; The holy Spirit is distinguished from God: Ergo. The Major is evident: for if he should be both God, and distinguished from God, he would be distinguished from himself; which implieth a contradiction. The Minor is confirmed by the whole current of Scripture, which calleth him the Spirit of God, and saith that he is sent by God, and searcheth the depths of God, &c. (McKanan, 2017)

Biddle spent three years under house arrest for this publication, while people including Archbishop Ussher (who gave us 4004 BCE as the year of creation) attempted to talk him out of his beliefs. He spent the rest of his life in and out of jail, and enjoyed a brief respite when the Act of Oblivion was passed, releasing all but a few who were accused of crimes. Publication of his Twofold Catechism got him back in hot water again, which not only was anti-trinitarian, but also took a very literalistic approach to scripture. For example, he cited scripture to support the idea that heaven is truly above us (evidently to him the sky and heaven were the same thing), and he also indicated that God has some form of body.

Q. Is God in the Scripture said to have any likeness, image similitude, person and shape?

A. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.-- So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him. Gen. 1 . 16,27.

In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him. Gen. 5 . 1.

Whoso sheddeth mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man Gen. 9 . 6.

My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in al my house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, & not in dark speeches and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold. Num.12.7,8.

Therewith bless we God, even the Father: and therewith curse we men which are made after the similitude of God. Jam.3 . 9.

Will ye speak wickedly for God, and talk deceitfully for him? Will ye accept his person. Job.13.7,8.

The Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. Joh. 5.37. (Biddle, 2001)

Although he quoted verses from the Bible in the answer, Biddle conveniently leaves out passages that indicate God's spiritual nature, and those that indicate God cannot or must not be seen by mortals. He also shows an ignorance of the languages behind the English translation, as when he takes Job 13:8 literally rather than as a figure of speech used to translate from Hebrew. Between the complex rationalization used in his first tract, and his misapplication and misinterpretation of Bible passages in his catechism, he doesn't seem like a particularly skilled theologian to me.

Although I haven't found any connection between the thought of John Biddle and that of Joseph Smith, Jr, the founder of the Mormon tradition, both conceived of God in physical terms. In Smith's case it was taken a step further to advance the idea that God 'has a body of flesh and bones,' something that Biddle evidently never went so far as to affirm.

The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as a man's; the Son also; but the Holy Spirit has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.Doctrine and Covenants 130:22

On other points found in Biddle's catechism there is some room for confusion. One of these is how he approaches baptism. It's unclear to me whether he was merely going along with the view common among the theological heirs of Zwingli that water baptism is a mere symbol, or if he was instead indicating that spirit baptism completely superseded and rendered unnecessary water baptism.

Q. What is the judgement of John the Baptist, of Christ Jesus, and of the Apostle Peter touching the doctrine of Baptisms? How speak they?

A. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier then I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the holy Ghost, and with fire. Mat.3.11 .

Wait for the promise of the Father, which ye have heard of me. For John verily baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the holy Ghost, not many days hence. Acts 1.4,5.

As I began to speak, the holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the holy Ghost. Acts 11.15,16.

Q. Forasmuch as so great stress is put by some upon water-baptism, what baptism is it, (even in the judgement of the Apostle Peter,) whereby we are saved: the said baptism of water, whereby the filth of the body is washed off: or the baptism of the heart, whereby it is cleansed from an evil conscience?

A. The like figure whereunto, even baptism doth also now save us; not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God. 1 Pet.3.21.  (Biddle, 2001)

In our times it is common for Baptists and other evangelicals to speak of water baptism as 'an outward sign of an inward grace,' or as a declaration of faith made before the community of believers. I personally find both problematic from the perspective of the canonical New Testament and what's known historically about the early 'orthodox' church.

If indeed Biddle was speaking in favor of spirit baptism completely replacing water baptism, that would be a form of ultrasupersessionism. In supersessionism the Jewish roots of Christianity are severed, and in ultrasupersessionism those plus the practices of the earliest Christian church are also set aside. In either case, downplaying water baptism, which in the first decades of the church was always by immersion (the opinions of pedobaptists notwithstanding) is to also distance the Christian faith from the ancient Jewish practice of the Mikveh bath.

According to the classical regulations, a mikveh must contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized man (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 4b). The rabbis calculated the necessary volume of water as being 40 seah (most contemporary authorities believe this is about 150 gallons). The rabbis also specified that a mikveh must be connected to a natural spring, or to a well of naturally occurring water — like rainwater. (Lockshin)

To my mind, a consistent theology based off of the canonical New Testament would view spirit and water as two sides of the same baptism. Protestants, however, have a tendency to avoid that conclusion because it seems to be the same as that of the Roman Catholic Church, placing regeneration and inclusion in the church at baptism rather than in a moment of faith.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6 NRSV)

Since I quoted that passage, we might as well note the distinction drawn between 'Spirit,' 'Lord,' and 'God and Father' that it also made. If Mormons or Biddlers were looking for something to support either tritheism or unitarianism, Ephesians would be a good place to start. 

As I indicated at the outset, John Biddle's life was not an easy one. After spending some time in exile, he returned to England only to be jailed again for his religious beliefs. That would turn out to be his last imprisonment, as within 5 weeks he caught a fever. Two days after being released, he died. 

His little group of followers, without a leader and in constant danger of arrest, did not long survive him. Nevertheless, for his persistence, influence, and his courageous and open exposition of beliefs, John Biddle has long been known as 'the father of English Unitarians,' even though others might properly share the title. (Howe, 1997)

John Biddle is just one of many Christian religious thinkers of history that are new to me, despite my previous study of church history. That comes as no surprise, because after all, history is written by the victors. I don't have to go far in the study of Unitarian and Universalist history to find some person, event, or perspective that gets neglected outside of mainstream Christianity. Unitarian Universalist can identify with a long line of dissenters, outsiders, and miscellaneous heretics who demanded the right to be 'wrong' in the eyes of the world. That spirit is something I think to be especially worth embracing,


Biddle, J. (2001). John Biddle's Twofold Scripture Catechism (1654). Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://web.archive.org/web/20091029092137/http://home.pacific.net.au/~amaxwell/biddle/00index.htm

Howe, C. A. (1997). For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Lockshin, S. (n.d.). What Is A Mikveh? Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-mikveh/

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.