Socinus, Laelius (Sozzini, Lelio)

Laelius Socinus, or Lelio Sozzini, (January 29, 1525-May 4, 1562), a peripatetic Italian Bible scholar, was a pioneer theologian of the radical branch of the Reformation. In his few surviving writings he laid the foundation for the unitarian theology that his nephew Faustus Socinus later promulagated in Poland. Laelius is also suspected of assisting Sebastian Castellio and Matteo Gribaldi to compose their critiques of John Calvin for his role in the prosecution and execution of Michael Servetus. A great traveler in his time, Socinus ranged as far west as England and journeyed to Poland in the east.

Laelius Socinus Lelio SozziniSocinus was a friend of fellow Italian exiles Bernardino Ochino, Camillo Renato, Matteo Gribaldi, and Celio Curione. He was befriended and sponsored by reformers Heinrich Bullinger, Pier Paulo Vergerio, Philip Melanchthon, and Peter Martyr Vermigli. He was cautiously tolerated by John Calvin, with whom he debated by correspondence. A man of great personal charm who reserved his most heretical ideas for private communication, he avoided the persecutions and trials suffered by the more overtly outspoken heretics of his time.

Born in Siena, Lelio Francesco Maria Sozzini was the fifth of thirteen children born to Camilla Salvetti (d.1554) and Mariano Sozzini (1482-1556). In 1529 Mariano Sozzini, a distinguished legal scholar at the University of Padua (later at the University of Bologna), against instructions from the government of Venice, offered the opinion that Henry VIII could have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. The elder Sozzini had connections with legal scholars in Basel, including Erasmus’s friend Boniface Amerbach, and with royal clients in Württemberg. He used these connections to help his son Lelio gain entrance into Protestant circles in Switzerland and Germany.

Many members of Mariano Sozzini’s family exhibited his independence of thought. At least four of Lelio’s brothers—Celso, Camillo, Dario, and Cornelio—were pursued or tried by the Inquisition in Italy. Camillo and Dario Sozzini fled Italy and were active antitrinitarians in Switzerland and elsewhere. The celebrated antitrinitarian Faustus Socinus (Fausto Sozzini) was the son of Lelio’s older brother, Alessandro.

Lelio grew up in Siena, Padua, and Bologna, where he and other members of his family were exposed to humanist and evangelical influences. His participation in a Protestant youth group in Siena that became subject to church investigation led his father to send him in 1544 to study law at the University of Padua in the relatively more tolerant Venetian territory. While there Lelio shifted to the study to religion. Accordingly he began to learn the biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew, and even became interested in Arabic. He was briefly in contact with proto-unitarian anabaptists who began to meet in Vincenza in 1546. (Nearly a decade later his name was given to the Venetian inquisition by one of his former radical acquaintances, who claimed that Sozzini had at that time denied the divinity of Christ.) In 1547, while a session of the Council of Trent was meeting in Bologna, Lelio publicly expressed his feeling of disappointment over the progress and direction of Roman Catholic church reform. In order to avoid the inquisition, he pursued the remainder of his education outside Italy. He ended up residing in Switzerland for most of the remainder of his life.

Socinus eventually chose Zurich as his home base, but he traveled often—sometimes for long periods. He sought out the best teachers in Hebraic studies. Among others, he studied with Sebastian Münster in Basel, Konrad Pellikan in Zurich, and Johann Förster in Wittenberg. During 1547-48 he traveled through western Europe, visiting Geneva, France, and England.

It was on this trip, in 1548, that Socinus first met Calvin. In their subsequent correspondence he raised questions about the validity of marriage and baptism outside of the Reformed Church, the necessity of attending mass while in Roman Catholic territories, and the nature of resurrection. On the latter topic he asked Calvin whether the elect would be raised in their old bodies, as some scripture passages seemed to indicate, or in more perfect bodies. “It is difficult,” Socinus wrote, “to persuade oneself that impossible things will happen and to compel the will to aspire to something that the intellect always suggests can never be.” Around this time he developed his own ideas in a short tract, On Resurrection, which remained unpublished until 1654, nearly 100 years after his death.

Socinus spent a year in Wittenburg, 1550-51, staying part of the time with Melanchthon, whom he impressed with his modesty and desire for learning. With the help of a letter of introduction from the eminent Lutheran reformer—“lest anyone in this turbulent time should be suspicious of this wanderer”—he pursued an eastward journey through Germany and Bohemia to Poland, returning to Zurich via Augsburg and Vienna.

During 1552-53 Socinus was back in Italy, spending time with his family in Siena, his father in Bologna, and Gribaldi in Padua. When he was staying with Gribaldi, he heard the news of Servetus’s execution in Geneva. He likely encouraged his host to write A Defence of Michael Servetus, 1554, a work which since has been wrongly credited by some to Socinus. Shortly afterwards, in Basel in early 1554, he consorted with Sebastian Castellio and was overheard making statements that were interpreted as being pro-Servetus. Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin, suspected that Sozzini was a co-author of Castellio’s Concerning Heretics: Whether They Ought to Be Persecuted, 1554. A number of complaints were sent to his pastor, the Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger. Socinus defended himself, saying that, although he had been unhappy with the haste in which Servetus had been dispatched and that it would have been better to fight Servetus’s heresy by convincing him to give up his error rather than by killing him, he did not approve of Servetus’s “perverse doctrine.” Pleased by this response, Bullinger urged him to lay to rest all suspicions by composing a confession of his personal faith, which Socinus dutifully did in 1555.

Socinus, Laelius Sozzini, LelioIn this Confession of Faith, Socinus endorsed various church creeds and explicitly rejected Servetus’s teachings. This satisfied Bullinger. Yet a careful reading of the confession discloses a document that is also a proclamation of freedom of inquiry. “I would in every respect prefer it if the Christian, apostolic, and evangelical faith were still set forth for us today in the actual words of Christ, the apostles, and the evangelists,” Socinus wrote. “I am not seeking a new kind of doctrine, but only desire that those things necessary for eternal salvation . . . be daily set forth with greater truth and that I be more firmly convinced by them. . . . I shall never allow myself to be deprived of that sacred liberty to ask questions of my elders, and modestly and reverently to engage in discussion, that we might enlarge our understanding of divine things.”

Mariano Sozzini died in 1556. This had a great impact upon Socinus’s finances, for his portion of his father’s estate was sequestered by the Inquisition. Socinus spent much of the next three years on a quest to recover his patrimony. With letters from Melanchthon, Calvin, and Bullinger that introduced him to the kings of Poland and Bohemia, and to Protestant leaders Nicholas Radziwill and John Laski, in 1558 Socinus set out once again for Poland. Here he obtained papers from the kings which would protect him as a royal diplomatic representative while he pursued his inheritance in Italy. Although he was thus enabled during the following year to safely visit Italy, he found that several members of his family, because of their religious beliefs, were either in prison or had been forced to flee. Moreover, his royal connections were powerless to extract any of his money from the Inquisition. In 1559 he returned to Zurich empty-handed.

The visit to Poland, which Socinus had undertaken as preparation for his unsuccessful trip to Italy, was not itself without result. Socinus made friends everywhere, as was his custom, and consulted with a number of reformers—including Nicholas Radziwill, Stanislas Lasocki, and Jerome Filipowski—who would later become leaders of the antitrinitarian movement. He repaid Calvin for his support by sending him two letters reporting on the current state of the Reformation in Poland.

Socinus spent the remaining years of his short life, 1559-62, quietly in Zurich. It was during this time that he probably wrote his most substantial, influential, and radical work, A Brief Exposition of the First Chapter of John. When he earlier disclaimed the teaching of Servetus to Bullinger he was not dissembling. A Brief Exposition does not contain Servetan theology, nor even the Arian theology of Servetus’s follower Matteo Gribaldi. Rather it constitutes an entirely separate point of origin for Unitarianism. In this he presents “the beginning,” mentioned by the writer of the Gospel of John, not as “the time before the foundation of the world,” but as “the time in which the Gospel first began to be preached by Christ.” Christ, the Word, did not actually exist from eternity, but came into existence only when the man Jesus was conceived in Mary. According to Socinus, Christ was not God in the way God the Father was God. The title “Son of God” is only a special dignity conferred on him in the same way that he is called Messiah, Saviour, and Lord. He was not the creator of the world, but one who made a “new creation” through his teaching and enlightenment. Although Christ was given extensive powers and was elevated, with his resurrection, to a special status, Socinus contended that he remained entirely a human being.

None of Socinus’s works were published in his lifetime. After his death his nephew Faustus rushed to Zurich to take possession of his uncle’s papers. Faustus read the manuscript of A Brief Exposition and shortly afterwards composed his own more extensive work, An Exposition of the First Part of the First Chapter of John. Laelius’s work was first published in 1568 in the compilation, The False and True Knowledge of God, edited by Giorgio Biandrata and Francis Dávid. In another entry in the same work, the author (possibly Dávid) wrote, “What shall I say about Lelio Sozzini of Siena? He was highly skilled in Hebrew. His pious manuscripts are now in circulation. He was an irreproachable man, one who lived for a long time in Wittenburg, Geneva, and Zurich amid universal admiration.”

All of Laelius Socinus’s works can be found in Antonio Rotondò, ed., Lelio Sozzini: Opere (1986). Rotondò, in his critical notes discusses the genuine items—On the Sacraments, On Resurrection, A Brief Exposition of the First Chapter of John, and 53 letters—as well as a number of other works which are now considered to be spurious. For further discussion of the authorship of the literature critical of Servetus’s execution see the introductions to Roland Bainton, trans., Concerning Heretics (1935) and Peter Hughes and Peter Zerner, trans., Declaratio (2010). A Brief Exposition, in the original Latin, is Book 2, Chapter 11 of Antal Pirnát, ed., De Falsa et vera, unius dei patris, filii et spiritus sancti cognitione (1988). A few letters are translated into English in Ralph Lazzaro, trans., “Four Letters of the Socinus-Calvin Correspondence, ” in John A. Tedeschi, ed., Italian Reformation Studies in Honor of Laelius Socinus (1965). This collection also contains John A. Tedeschi’s “Notes towards a Genealogy of the Sozzini Family.” Among the works containing biographical accounts of Socinus are Frederic Church, The Italian Reformers, 1534-1564 (1932); Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents (1945); and George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (3rd ed., 2000).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted October 5, 2012