[This article was written in the early 1950s. Read the article within that context. See also the article on Doctrine of God]
Antitrinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism, the Polish or Minor Church, in America, Unitarianism—all these names indicate by and large the same attitude, the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity and doubt or denial of the deity of Christ. It is theological or doctrinal rationalism, readily compatible however with an otherwise ethically strict way of life and serious religious concerns. Since the New Testament writers themselves, not yet using the term "Trinity," frequently use a language which can be construed as not clearly distinguishing between the Persons of the Godhead (MQR XII, 1938, 215), a rationalistically-minded student of the Scriptures might be induced to this kind of theological thinking. Like all reform-minded Christians of the 16th century, Anabaptists and Mennonites were also exposed to this temptation, primarily because of their inherent radicalism and their lay Christianity; but both groups consciously resisted this way, partly, at least, due to their basic anti-intellectual (or anti-theological) frame of mind. Antitrinitarians were (and still are) intellectually ambitious, they like to speculate, i.e., to rely on their own reason, while Anabaptists prefer a simplicity of mind, pressing for genuine discipleship without too much theological reflection which can so easily spoil the readiness to act. R. H. Bainton (Journal of Religion, 1941, 124 ff.) calls Antitrinitarianism "Left-Wing theology" which once cut across nearly all groups of the left-wing Reformation, and was even shared in the beginning by Luther and Calvin. Quiet, evangelical Anabaptism of the 16th century had very few brethren who forsook their first loyalties in favor of this type of "liberal" theology. Actually only two cases of such a defection are known: Ludwig Haetzer in the South who, however, had never been an Anabaptist in the stricter sense of the term (d. 1528), and Adam Pastor in the North who for just this attitude was excommunicated by Dirk Philips in 1547-1558, most likely with the tacit consent of Menno Simons (John Horsch, Menno Simons, 198). All other names of so-called Anabaptists, listed by Dunin-Borkowsky as "Unitarians before Faustus Socinus," prove faulty: either they were not Anabaptists or they were not Antitrinitarians. The case of Hans Denck has not been fully cleared, although there may be some ground for the charge and some modern Unitarian writers have claimed him as a forerunner of this movement (see F. L. Weis, The Life, Teachings and Worlds of Johannes Denck, n.p., 1925, and also his Life and Teachings of Ludwig Hetzer, n.p., 1930). As to the contention that Pilgram Marpeck leaned toward this theology, J. C. Wenger proved conclusively the exact opposite (MQR XII, 1938, 215 ff.). The fact, however, should readily be admitted that in their numerous doctrinal writings the Brethren touched the doctrine of the Trinity but slightly. They did so not because of doubt and rationalistic theology but because of their practical approach even to theological questions. But if we look at the records of their religious disputations or of the martyr trials, we immediately discover that the Brethren, when asked, openly and unconditionally professed their belief in the Holy Trinity. Among the hundreds of Dutch Anabaptist and Mennonite martyrs, only Herman van Vlekwijk, executed at Bruges in 1569, was an Antitrinitarian.
The later Doopsgezinden of the Netherlands because of their broad-mindedness and rationalistic leanings were perhaps more exposed to such a deviation than the rural brethren in South Germany and Switzerland. And yet, Socinianism met at first no response whatsoever to its work among the Dutch Mennonites. In 1598, the Socinian (Polish) minister Ch. Ostorrodt visited Hans de Ries, the outstanding leader of the Waterlanders, but without the slightest result. Kühler (Geschiedenis II, 52) explains this fact by the undeniable spiritualistic tendencies in Ries' Christianity which ran strictly counter to Socinian ideas. "Moreover, the ideal of a Christian discipleship was bound to wither away in the cool and sober atmosphere of Socinian teachings." It was almost a life-and-death question for the Doopsgezinden, though not always recognized as such.
It cannot be denied that during the second half of the 17th century the picture changed quite markedly in Holland. Poland, no longer tolerant, outlawed Socinianism and its members had to flee to many lands. A great number of them found a safe refuge and a hearty welcome in the enlightened Netherlands. In the meantime also the Doopsgezinden had softened down their principles, thus making possible a friendly encounter with the group from Poland. After all, in their practical behavior they had quite a bit in common. It was on the neutral ground of the Rijnsburg Collegiants that Mennonites and Socinians first met and became better acquainted with each other. According to E. M. Wilbur (A History of Unitarianism, 567) the Collegiants had functioned as the agency through which Socinianism could "permeate" the Mennonite body by the end of the 17th century, at least to a certain extent. Wilbur also claims (585) that the affinity of the Socinians in the Netherlands was, on the intellectual and social side, primarily with the Remonstrants, but on the practical side definitely with the Mennonites. When in 1787 the Collegiants dissolved, most of their adherents joined the Mennonite Church. However, the main body of Dutch Mennonitism rejected Socinianism. (For a fuller treatment of the Socinian relations of the Dutch Mennonites see Socinianism.)
In the 19th century through the entry of German Rationalism and higher criticism into the Dutch theological schools where Mennonite pastors got their training, as well as in Dutch theology in general, the intellectual leadership of the Dutch Mennonites gradually abandoned almost completely the Trinitarian position for the Unitarian. With very few exceptions for more than two generations the Dutch Mennonite preachers were solidly Unitarian, holding indeed to extreme modernist positions. The middle of the 20th century found them, however, in a marked swing back to the Trinitarian evangelical theology, particularly under the influence of Barth and Brunner. To some extent the theologically trained pastors of the northwest German churches at Emden, Krefeld, and connected groups followed identical trends with the Dutch churches with whom they were closely associated. However, nowhere else in Europe or America did Antitrinitarianism ever find lodgment or open expression.
The Minor Church in Poland sought also to come into contact with the Hutterite communities in Moravia; such attempts were made in 1568-1570, 1590, and 1608-1609 (MQR XXII, 1948, 155-159). The Poles admired the organization of the Bruderhofs (households or communes) while the Hutterites on their part had but little appreciation for their learned visitors, and remained aloof. Two epistles by Peter Walpot to the Polish Brethren (1571) are most revealing regarding the differences between the primitive Christian discipleship and unconditional obedience of the Hutterites on the one side, and the theoretical speculation and argumentation of the Poles on the other side (Chronik, ed. Zieglschmid, 440-58). Walpot likes to quote 2 Corinthians 10:5 in defense of his position. Nevertheless, the repeated visits and the ensuing correspondence clearly indicate a continued interest on the part of the Poles in this model experiment of Christian community living. It is well to remember that the Poles, too, stressed strictness in life and nonresistance. But that did not impress the Hutterites who (according to Comenius) called these Unitarians "heathen" with whom they did not wish to have any dealings.
The above-mentioned Unitarian minister Ostorrodt tried also to make contact with the Swiss Brethren in Strasbourg, to which group he directed a long epistle or tract, 16 pages in print (Wotschke in ARG, XII, 1915, 137ff.) It is a highly interesting plea for his doctrinal position while at the sam» time fully acknowledging all the other religious and moral teachings of the Gospels. The Brethren then convened at a conference in Strasbourg in 1592, deciding upon the right answer. In a letter to the church in Poland they unequivocally rejected Ostorrodt's arguments. "Believing is not a decision of human reason but the acceptance of that which to reason is incomprehensible" (MQR V, 1931, 26, n. 136). That is Anabaptism's answer to the lure of Antitrinitarianism. It seems that Ostorrodt had his long epistle later printed, because we know that as late as 1654 Andreas Ehrenpreis, the outstanding Hutterite Vorsteher in Slovakia, rejected Ostorrodt's theses once again in a booklet extant only in several Hutterite mss. He seems to have been prompted to this rejoinder by a strange man, Dr. Daniel Zwicker, a Unitarian from Danzig, who for a short time had joined the Hutterite brotherhood. It remained an unsuccessful episode in every regard. No bridge could span the deep gap which separated Anabaptism from Antitrinitarianism.
Bainton, Roland H. Journal of Religion (1941): 124 ff.
Dunin-Borkowski, S. "Quellenstudien zur Vorgeschichte der Unitarier des 16. Jahrhundert." Stella Matutina (Feldkirch, 1931).
Friedmann, Robert. "The Encounter of Anabaptists and Mennonites with Anti-Trinitarianism." Mennonite Quarterly Review 22 (1948): 139 ff.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 76.
Horsch, John. Menno Simons, his life, labors, and teachings. Scottdale, PA: The Author, 1916: 198.
Kühler, Wilhelmus Johannes. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink, 1932.
Kühler, Wilhelmus Johannes. Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden in Nederland II. 1600-1735 Eerste Helft. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon n.v., 1940.
Kühler, Wilhelmus Johannes. Het Socinianisme in Nederland. Leiden: Sijthoff, 1912. Reprinted Leeuwarden: De Tille, 1980.
Slee, J. C. van. De geschiedenis van het Socinianisme in de Nederlanden. Haarlem: De Erven F. Bohn, 1914.
Weis, Frederick Lewis. The life, teachings and works of Johannes Denck, 1495-1527. Strasbourg: s.n., 1924.
Weis, Frederick Lewis. The life and teachings of Ludwig Hetzer, a leader and martyr of the Anabaptists, 1500-1529. Dorchester, Mass., Underhill Press, 1930.
Wenger, John C. "The theology of Pilgram Marpeck." Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (1938): 215 ff.
Wilbur, Earl M. A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946.
Wotschke, Theodor. Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1915): 137 ff.
Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder: Ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Ithaca: Cayuga Press, 1943: 440-458.
Cite This Article
Friedmann, Robert. "Antitrinitarianism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 21 Aug 2019. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Antitrinitarianism&oldid=162885.
Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Antitrinitarianism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 August 2019, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Antitrinitarianism&oldid=162885.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 131-133. All rights reserved.
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