This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Racovian Straw Man?

via Andover-Harvard Theological Library

The Minor Reformed Church in Poland deserves far more attention, in my opinion, than I've generally seen it given in church history. To me it's an early indication of what can happen when religious freedom and tolerance is law, a foreshadowing of the developments in 19th century North America. Part of their legacy is found in the Racovian Catechism, a document that Faustus Socinus played no small part in pulling together.

This Socinus wasted no time in retrieving the papers and books of his uncle, Laelius Socinus, after the latter's death. These provided fuel for Faustus' theological studies, and although he did not hold to quite the 'literalism' of his uncle, there is a continuity to be found in their theologies. Faustus would go on to become a leading theologian of the Minor Reformed Church in Poland, helping to shape and articulate that church's beliefs. Strangely, he was never officially accepted as a communicant member of the church he promoted and defended because he rejected the necessity of adult baptism by immersion. This means that although he engaged in debates and published materials in support of the church, he never participated in the Lord's supper with them.

Prior to Unitarian Universalism I was associated with the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ for nearly two decades. This group is part of a larger 'Restoration Movement' that began in the United States in the 1800s, and like all back-to-the-Bible movements they believed that all 'human traditions' should be stripped away and replaced with the 'pure word of God.' This meant dropping all creeds and received beliefs in favor of a fresh reading of the Bible, and in particular of the New Testament, with a view towards putting it into practice and thus achieving the 'restoration' of Christianity. This was by no means an original idea, with many coming before and after them with their own rereadings of the Bible. While the conclusions of the Minor Reformed Church would be anathema to contemporary independent Christian Churches, the spirit is much the same. 

When I was in my 20s I had a subscription to the newsletter of a very conservative minister of this denomination. One of his favorite things was to write out straw man arguments between himself and people who taught 'false doctrine.' Always the Calvinist or whoever in the question/answer piece would come out stymied and looking like an idiot. Always when I read it I was annoyed that the opposing side was so poorly represented, often showing that the writer didn't really understand their perspective, or was intentionally misrepresenting it. It's occured to me in recent days that as bad as those straw man articles were, catechisms are fundamentally worse. 

At least with a straw man dialogue the reader has the opportunity to notice weaknesses in the favored position, or gaps in how the opposed beliefs are defended. By contrast, with a catechism you're getting really only one side of the story. There's a question, and then there's an answer. The answer is the only acceptable one, as is the question. Everything is defined and there's nothing else covered that's worth talking about. I don't like it.

The Racovian Catechism wasn't really used to indoctrinate young people in the faith, as would usually be the case with a catechism. Instead, it was meant to function as more of an apologetic for the Christian faith as understood by the Polish Brethren (as they sometimes preferred to be known). Maybe this helps redeem it a bit in my eyes. Also, the style has more of straw man than catechism about it as well, with the inquirer expressing acceptance and understanding along the way. 

Two items that I think are worth mentioning from the Racovian Catechism are its affirmation of a restorationist approach to reformation, and its low Christology.

Q. That the sacred Scriptures are firm and certain, you have sufficiently proved, I would therefore further learn, whether they be so sufficient as that in things necessary to eternal life we ought to rest in them only?

A. They are altogether sufficient for that, inasmuch as Faithon the Lord Jesus Christ, and obedience to these Commandments (which twain are the requisites of eternal life) are sufficiently delivered and explained in the Scripture of the very New Covenant.

Q. If it be so, then what need is there of Traditions, which the Church of Rome holdeth to be necessary until eternal life, calling them the unwritten Scripture?

A. You rightly gather that they are unnecessary to eternal life. (McKanan, 2017)

This part fits well generally with the Protestant Reformation, in that it expresses rejection of the traditions of 'the Church of Rome.' However, it should be noted that this approach, like that of Calvinism, is at variance with Lutheranism. In historic Lutheranism the internal theology was reworked considerably, but the outward forms were maintained by and large. Changes came to the Mass, but it continued to be celebrated in a revised form. There continued to be bishops (although in North America many branches of Lutheranism would abandon episcopal polity) and all the signs and vestiges of Catholicism, minus the adoration of saints or veneration of relics. Calvinism, Anabaptism, and the Minor Reformed Church all advocated for a more complete return to the New Testament that involved a radical simplification of liturgy and other practices.  

As for the low Christology, it's interesting that this part of the Racovian Catechism demonstrates the appreciation that Faustus Socinus had for reason. When the question of the two natures of Jesus as God and human comes up, the first justification for Jesus having only human nature comes from reason. Speaking through the catechism, Socinus argues that mortality and immortality cannot be compounded because they are completely different. After making this argument, holy writ is brought in with numerous verses cited for reference. Rather than going the strictly biblical route of his uncle Laelius, Faustus leaned on reason as well. 

The Minor Reformed Church died out through wars, persecution, and oppression. They were the first to really clarify and define the position we recognize today as unitarianism, and would have have found much in common, I believe, with the Unitarian Christianity spoken of by Rev. William Ellery Channing. Also, since four congregations were established in Cluj centuries ago, where they were given a warm welcome by the Transylvanian Unitarians.

Another substantial group made its way to join fellow-Unitarians in Transylvania, where one of the four Polish congregations they established lasted for more than a century before becoming fully assimilated into the Hungarian culture. Several descendants from these families made outstanding contributions to Transylvanian Unitarianism. (Hewett, 2004)

The last church distinctively of this communion closed by 1803, and yet their example, influence, and spirit continue on.


Hewett, P. (2004). Racovia: An Early Liberal Religious Community. Providence, RI: Blackstone Editions.

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