Catholics and Heretics

Some Aspects of Religious Debates in the Old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Piotr Wilczek

In the 1560s, the whole Christian community in Poland was challenged by the crisis in the Polish Calvinist church after the death in 1560 of Jan Laski, a figure significant both for the Polish and English Reformations. Deprived of the powerful and dedicated leadership of Laski, the Polish Reformed Church soon produced an offshoot, the so-called Minor Church where dissident ministers practiced their antitrinitarian and Anabaptist beliefs. John Calvin himself became very concerned about the situation, as evidenced by his letters to the leaders of the Polish Reformed Church. Supported by the Italian Protestants such as Giorgio Biandrata and later, from the 1570s, by Fausto Sozzini, a group of Polish Reformed pastors formed the most radical and theologically sophisticated heresy of the Reformation period.

Fausto Sozzini (Latin name: Faustus Socinus) was an Italian theologian who, together with other foreign radical theologians, especially those of German extraction, found refuge in tolerant Poland. He was partly responsible for the theological premises of the movement which for that reason is sometimes called Socinianism. This name is misleading and in some way anachronistic, because Socinus entered an already well established Minor Church, one that had been in existence for over ten years, and because there were many other important theologians in this church including Johann Crell, Andrzej Wiszowaty and Johann Ludwig Wolzogen. The dissidents called themselves the Polish Brethren or simply Christians; their enemies called them Arians because of an alleged connections with the ancient heresy of Arianism which rejected the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The antitrinitarianism of the Polish Brethren was similar to the views of Miguel Servet burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva. A rejection of infant baptism and of service in the army (especially in the early and most radical period) was reminiscent of the most extreme examples of European Anabaptism. The repudiation of the divinity of Jesus Christ (according to the Brethren, Jesus was a human being made divine by God after death in recognition of his merits) and of a co-equal divinity of Christ and the Father caused some people to assume that they were not Christians. Socinus and his followers also denied a number of other Catholic and/or Protestant beliefs, such as the original sin, predestination, vicarious atonement and justification by faith.

This radical and exclusively Scriptural theology was based on a rationalistic interpretation of Scripture and it rejected many fundamental principles of the traditional Christian theology including the statements of the first Councils. It presented a serious challenge not only for the Roman Catholics but also for Calvinists and Lutherans. The debate between the Socinians and their adversaries was conducted by theologians and preachers skilled at the level of theoretical and scholarly theology, and also at the level of popular polemic and preaching. The debate in Poland acquired a unique character and vigor by comparison to the religious polemics in other European countries at the time. When I studied the primary and secondary sources dealing with the European polemics of the period of the Reformation and Counter- Reformation, I realized that at that time and also earlier, there were no pamphleteering activities in Europe which can be compared to the exchange of opinions that took place in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the 1560s and the 1660s. It was only there that an adversary appeared who demanded a discussion of various fundamental theological questions, and it was only there that such a discussion was possible to sustain over a long period of time without resorting to violence. Apparently the social, political and religious situation in Poland was exceptionally favorable for such activities. They constituted a real challenge for the Catholic theologians who were involved in a dialogue which often became public and which was held in the vernacular.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a kingdom with one sovereign, parliament and army. It comprised the larger parts of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine. It thus was the largest country in Europe at that time, excluding Muscovy. The Commonwealth was a multinational and multicultural country comprising less than 40 percent of Roman Catholics, the remainder being divided between the Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Lutheran, Calvinist and even Muslim minorities. The state policy of religious peace did not allow one to take a heretic to court or expel him from the country. In such a situation, there was an urgent demand for a serious exchange of opinions between the radical Socinians on the one hand and Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists on the other.

Thus contrary to an erroneous view often encountered in popular writings on the Reformation, it was not always the Roman Catholics who opposed the Calvinists and the Lutherans, or vice versa. There appeared during the Reformation other groups which were more radical than the 'mainline' Protestants, and in such a situation, Lutherans and Calvinists were closer to the Catholics than to those radical reformers. Socinianism, or Polish Arianism, was one such group.

There were no religious pamphleteering activities in Europe which can be compared to the exchange of opinions that took place in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1560-1660.
At that time, Poland and Transylvania were the only countries in Europe where Catholics had public theological discussions with representatives of this most radical Reformation movement. We have convincing evidence of how strange the whole situation appeared to foreign visitors who were unused to these manifestations of religious liberty. Damiano a Fonseca, a Spanish Dominican conducting a visitation of the convents of his order in Poland, recollected that in 1617 during a reception at the court of Prince Jerzy Czartoryski, he was forced to undertake a public debate with a Socinian nobleman about the divinity of Jesus Christ. He reportedly was successful and received an ovation from the tipsy guests. Fonseca noted how puzzled he was 'to find Catholic, Orthodox and Arian [Socinian] nobles there in the greatest harmony!'

It happened quite often that public debates with the Socinians - more official than the one just mentioned and held mostly in Catholic churches - were later summarized by the disputants or their followers. Such accounts of public debates comprise a special section of polemical literature of that time. A collection of such pamphlets was published in 1592. Two public disputes held in January and May between a Jesuit and a Socinian, both about the divine preexistence of Jesus Christ, were later chronicled by writers from the opposition groups. We have also official protocols of these debates. In fact, the most significant polemics were held between the Jesuits and the Socinians. At that time, the Jesuits were the most efficient Catholic order so far as organization, learning and debates were concerned. Examples of Jesuit skill include the teachings about religious controversies in the Collegium Romanum and the works of Roberto Bellarmino. The most interesting Polish polemics took place between 1580 - 1625: polemics about the output of Jakub Wujek (his translations of Bellarmino and of the Bible), tracts by Marcin Smiglecki, Marcin Laszcz's polemics with non-Catholics (mainly Socinians), and a series of polemics with the Socinians by the famous Jesuit orator, Piotr Skarga. The most significant pamphlets were produced by four distinguished Polish Jesuits, three of whom were associated with the city of Kraków.

I would like to discuss in some detail two very different examples of polemical anti-Socinian pamphlets written by two Jesuits, Marcin Laszcz (Martinus Lascius) and Piotr Skarga. Laszcz was born in 1551 and he entered the Jesuit Order in 1571. He studied philosophy at the University of Vilnius (then Wilno) in 1571-74, then he himself taught grammar and rhetoric at that university. He was also a preacher, a schoolmaster and an administrator in many Jesuit centers. He died in Cracow in 1615. Laszcz published about 15 pamphlets in Polish and some theatrical plays in Latin; the plays were staged in Jesuit colleges. A modern Jesuit historian once wrote that Marcin Laszcz 'oversimplified the Counter-Reformation polemic, stimulated intolerance and used demagogy in religious disputes.' This view, that he was an enfant terrible of Polish Catholic polemical writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has gained some currency, but it is unjustified, in my opinion. Laszcz's rhetoric may appear unacceptable to the modern ear, but his learning was genuine and profound.

In early seventeenth century, Poland and Transylvania were the only countries in Europe where Catholics had public theological discussions with representatives of the most radical Reformation movement of Socinianism....The Jesuit theologian Piotr Skarga (described by his twentieth-century adversaries as an intolerant religious fanatic) argued that such debates were necessary because of a large number of heretics.
The work most often quoted in support of such negative opinions is Prescription for a Plaster of Czechowic, or the Anabaptist Minister published under a pen name Szczesny Zebrowski. The Prescription originated in a discussion about the first modern Catholic translation of the Bible into Polish. The translation was done by a Jesuit named Jakub Wujek. Wujek openly acknowledged the achievements of the most recent Polish translations, including the controversial Socinian translations by Szymon Budny and Marcin Czechowic. He made use of these translations in his own work while openly criticizing errors and misinterpretations of his doctrinal opponents. We know that from notes placed in the margins and after each chapter, in sections called Teachings and warnings.

In reply to Laszcz's criticism, Marcin Czechowic published his Plaster for a publication of the New Testament by Father Jakub Wujek. He started from a polemic with Wujek about specific translation problems from the point of view of biblical scholarship, then made a detailed, critical analysis of the Jesuit's translation and then debated Wujek's Teachings and warnings. He accused Wujek of stealing words, phrases and even longer passages from his translation without crediting the source. Prescription for a Plaster of Czechowic by Laszcz is a reply to this work of Czechowic. Laszcz wrote his work 'on behalf' of Wujek who for unknown reasons preferred not to respond.

In his pamphlet, Laszcz deals with the problems raised by Czechowic, but in his generalizations and opinions he goes far beyond a mere response. Such chapters as Reasons for Anabaptist deceptions, Anabaptist jokes about the Pope, On Anabaptist immersion, abound in insulting and abusive language. In the writings of his adversaries, this pamphlet eventually became the leading example of a Catholic polemic full of hatred and derision. We should remember, however, that in this period all authors made use of the early Christian genre called the invective which was a treatise elaborating a certain theme and filled with insults against persons who propagated different religious opinions. As a genre, the invective went out of use, but as a method of dealing with an adversary, it has been thriving to this day in various contexts. It should also be kept in mind that pamphlets written 'in a spirit of genuine humility and love' by Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists or Socinians expressed brotherly love not in a way that we consider appropriate in our own time. A twentieth-century approach to the style of Reformation polemics risks taking them out of the context and customs within which they functioned. They should be kept in the context of the works by François Rabelais, the brothers Bruegel, or Hieronymus Bosch, rather than compared to the polemical style appropriate for the post-Enlightenment world. When a polemicist describes a Socinian doctrine as 'an old and rotting cabbage' and the Socinians themselves as 'Arian bats and owls' or 'a stench of infernal perfumes,' such statements (by H. Powodowski and M. Laszcz) should not cause righteous indignation but rather provoke reflection on the imagination of those writers and expectations of their readers.

Unlike many other polemicists, Laszcz tries to be persuasive by conjuring up certain images which enable a reader to visualize the monstrosity of the heresy. In order to persuade more effectively, he combines an appeal to the visual and olfactory stimuli. An invective thus becomes self-dependent and it becomes an image. We should remember that our polemicist often and willingly took part in missionary visits to small towns and villages. During such missions, Jesuit preachers instructed peasants in basic truths of faith and in Christian duties. It is probable that such a 'physiological' and down-to-earth imagination was to some extent a result of Laszcz's experiences as a village preacher.

What images did he present to a devout reader? First of all, the portraits of his adversary, Marcin Czechowic. He is called a 'stinking and rotten corpse' who 'rotted and became stinking in this Anabaptist stench' so much that 'his mouth and hair exudes stinking sins and odors.' According to Laszcz, Czechovic and other Socinians like to smell 'human odors and squalors' and to 'chew' other people's sins. Czechowic is also presented as a 'stinking beggar' with 'a mouldy beard,' 'a stinking corpse' and 'a rotten brain' who washed his 'mug' with 'dung in latrines' that are full of other people's sins.

Contrary to a view often encountered in popular writings on the Reformation, it was not always the Roman Catholics who opposed the Calvinists and the Lutherans, and vice versa. In some cases, the radical reformers were poles apart from both Roman Catholicism and from original Lutheranism and Calvinism.
Another frequently encountered image is a Socinian as a 'non-whitened Negro.' A Negro here is a combination of man and devil, while 'non-whitened' refers to ineffectiveness of Socinian baptism which involved a complete submersion in water. 'You will try to whiten a non-whitened Negro in vain,' writes the polemicist and then adds: 'I do not want to whiten you, infernal Negro.' There is also a shocking picture of a Socinian baptism presented as an immersion of swine in a puddle by swineherds and compared to the biblical picture of swine 'immersed in the sea by the devils (a reference to Mat. 8, 30-32).'

The polemicist presents to the reader visions of evil behavior and debauchery of the Moravian Anabaptists, 'among whom omnia sunt communia [everything is communal] and wives are shared' and 'children do not recognize parents and parents do not recognize children' because 'they are mixed together as if they were cattle.' This second 'vision' meant to appeal to the reader's imagination refers to an event that allegedly happened in Germany. There the Anabaptists were supposed to gather on a mountain just before the planned departure from the earth to heaven. While waiting for the event to happen, 'they were beguiled by the devil and shamelessly copulated with each other.' The most bizarre image, however, is that of 'Czechowic's wife with four heads.a monstrosity more monstrous than the sea monsters.' Czechowic claimed that the Church is a body of Christ and has only one head (Jesus Christ), while the other heads (such as the Pope) are not necessary because 'one body with two heads, inconsistent with each other like water and fire, cannot survive.' In his reply to this argument, Marcin Laszcz creates an image of a wife with four heads to demonstrate that Czechovic confused apples and oranges as it were in his inability to understand that the earthly head of the Church (the Pope) belongs to a different semantic order than its heavenly 'head' (Jesus Christ). Laszcz tries to prove that Czechowic's wife 'has at least four heads: the first is you, the second is her head, the third is Jesus Christ and the fourth is God the Father.' Then Laszcz further indulges his imagination: 'And, what's worse, when you die before she does, she'll have new lovers and will marry a second and third husband and then she will be the most indecent monster, a chimera with a dozen heads: really an unusual wife. But you are at least equally monstrous: you have one head but several lecherous bodies: first of all, your lustful corpse, your first, second or even third wife, as they say, so there is one head but four bodies and you are a monstrosity more monstrous than other lustful monsters.' This presumably shows that Czechowic's argument about several heads of the Church missed the point.

Thus the polemic is not dispassionate but uses fantastic images supposed to rouse in the reader a feeling of aversion to the Socinian theologian and also to other Socinians, to their beliefs and family life. The methods of persuasion that are particularly noteworthy in this text include a concentration on the functions of the human body, its smells and physical needs, as well as references to rural life. Thus we have swines in a puddle (not in a biblical sea!), dung and latrines, stinking beggars with mouldy beards and heads, and folksy images of hell. Such methods and images were supposed to demonstrate the evil of the adversary and prove that he is beneath contempt. In this respect, Laszcz's work is quite extraordinary. Such an accumulation of invectives and physical images meant to rouse a feeling of aversion was unusual even in the Polish Jesuit polemic of the period. Other polemicists used gentler language and more intellectual means of persuasion.

Historian Slawomir Radon wrote that the sixteenth-century theologians-polemicists were endowed with an 'imagination steered towards the polemic.' Indeed, the creation of images which have no equivalent in the real experience of a writer was an important part of a Renaissance or Baroque polemic. While in these pamphlets, the abstract language of theology and philosophy was dominant and the linguistic analysis of Bible passages was more important than imaginative and artistic writing, the polemicists also followed Quintilianus who encouraged an orator to use experiences called visions 'whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be before our very eyes.... From such impressions arises... actuality' which makes the orator seem to 'exhibit the actual event.'

Among other Jesuit polemicists, Piotr Skarga (1536-1612) is the most prominent. He received his education in Kraków and joined the Jesuit order in 1569, when he already was a priest and a famous preacher. He was the first rector of the Jesuit University in Wilno (today Vilnius in Lithuania). As an officially appointed preacher at the court of King Sigismund Vasa in the years 1588-1612, he became one of the king's most influential advisors. His consistently anti-Protestant attitude was a direct cause of a gentry uprising against the monarch in 1606. The political pamphlets of that time argued that Skarga was a fanatic enemy of religious and political freedom. Skarga was an author of several pamphlets against the so-called Warsaw Confederacy of 1573, a law which guaranteed religious freedom to all denominations including the Socinians. In works such as On the Unity of the Church of God under One Pastor, he strongly supported the union between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. His most famous collection of sermons was titled Sermons to the Diet; there he presented a prophetic vision of the Polish kingdom exposed to danger because of religious anarchy and an excessively liberal political democracy.

Hieronim Moskorzowski (c. 1560 - 1625), born to a Protestant gentry family, studied in Leipzig and Wittenberg. In 1590, he translated into Polish the most famous anti-Jesuit pamphlet, Equitis Poloni in Jesuitas actio prima (as mentioned before, the Polish religious polemics were sometimes conducted in Latin). In the 1590s, he became a member of the Socinian church and one of the most devoted collaborators of Faustus Socinus himself. He was one of the authors of the famous Racovian Catechism ( 1605) which was translated into Latin in 1609, and he wrote a Latin Dedication "To the Most Serene and Powerful Prince and Lord, LORD JAMES, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, etc., etc., My most merciful Lord," in which he tried to convince the English king that the Catechism contained 'divine truth itself as contained in Scripture.' The king was not at all convinced by 'his most devoted Jerome Moskorzowski of Moskorzów,' and there is some evidence that he was in fact offended. The Catechism was publicly burned in London in 1614 by order of Parliament. At that time, the English Crown supported mainline Protestantims rather than the more radical groups. Moskorzowski started his activity as a polemical writer in 1607, when he published the first of his pamphlets against Skarga. He also wrote Latin pamphlets against another Jesuit, Marcin Âmiglecki, and he took part in public disputes with the Carmelites and with the Calvinists. He organized theological debates in Raków after the death of Faustus Socinus in 1604, and he was a mediator in many conflicts within the Socinian community.

In the years 1604-1610, several polemical pamphlets written by these two authors were published successively, and they present an interesting series of controversies. The sequence was as follows:

1604: Piotr Skarga, The Reproach of the Arians and a Summons of Them to Expiation and to the Christian Faith (the second edition of this treatise was published in 1608 and is available in the British Library)

1607: Hieronim Moskorzowski, The Removal of the Reproach, Which Piotr Skarga, the Jesuit, Endeavoured to Bring Unfairly upon the Church of the Lord Jesus the Nazarene

1608: Piotr Skarga, The Second Reproach of the Arians against Mr. Jarosz Moskorzowski from Moskorzów (also available in the British Library).

1610: Hieronim Moskorzowski, The Removal of the Second Reproach Which Piotr Skarga, the Jesuit, Endeavoured to Bring Unfairly upon the Church of the Lord Jesus the Nazarene

The first text in the series, The Reproach of the Arians by Piotr Skarga, deals with the fundamental point of the polemic between the two authors: the problem of authority. For the first time in these Catholic-Protestant polemics, an allegory of a tribunal was used. We can recognize two of its functions: first, from the very beginning this allegory puts the opponent in the position of the accused; second, the Jesuit polemicist shows the contrast between the multitude of what he considers to be objective authorities, and a small group of Socinians who interpret the sacred texts subjectively and arbitrarily, thereby producing a new theological system disconnected from old authority. Skarga says: 'In the name of the Lord I would like to reproach you by the seven Tribunals to which I will bring you to make you see how they condemn the Arian teaching which denies the divinity of Christ, renounces together with Turks and Jews the faith in the Holy Trinity and introduces many gods like the pagans did.' The members of the tribunals which so condemn the Socinians are: 1. Jesus Christ himself 2. the apostles and disciples of Christ 3. the bishops from all over the world when they gather together for Church councils 4. the doctors of the Church 5. the holy martyrs; 6. the miracles produced by God 'to expose Arian faults' 7. the spiritual and imperial laws and 'histories and teachings of all knowledge.'

In their polemics with the Protestants, the Roman Catholics introduced the notion of statute (the Bible) and the notion of judge (the Church). They argued that a statute cannot interpret itself; it needs a judge to interpret it.
The first polemic in the series already mentions problems impossible to negotiate; these problems reappear in the entire series of the polemics. The problem of authority (called here a tribunal) is foremost among them. Is Scripture alone a sufficient authority (described here as 'statute'), or do we need an explanation of Scripture made by a man (described here as 'judge') who is entitled (has authority) to produce such an explanation?

The problem of the authority of Scripture which emerged in this dispute has been of crucial importance for all Christian denominations since the Protestant Reformation. The exegetical optimism of the first reformers was expressed by Heinrich Bullinger who said: 'Because it is the Word of God, the holy biblical scripture has adequate standing and credibility in itself and of itself.' Martin Luther held similar views; during the famous Leipzig disputation in 1519, his opponent Johann Eck was forced to argue against him that 'Scripture is not authentic without the authority of the Church.' Only the later generations of reformers realized that the problem is much more complex. One hundred years after Luther's first public appearance as a reformer of the Church, only Socinians accepted the biblical optimism of the early Reformation. Other Protestant denominations introduced restrictions on how Scripture should be interpreted.

The next issue of this polemic also has to do with the authority of Scripture and the origin of this authority: who gives human beings an ability to understand the Holy Writ? The Socinians claimed that Christ himself gives it and therefore mediation of either the Church or the Pope is not necessary. In such a way Scripture becomes - to use the terminology employed by the polemicists - both a statute and a judge. On the other hand, Catholics claimed that Scripture is only a 'statute' and that there are a number of judges, primarily St. Peter and his successors, i.e. representatives of the hierarchic Church. Skarga said: 'In the Church Scripture alone is not a tribunal just as statute alone is not a judge.'

The dispute about ways of understanding the authority of Scripture has to do with the fundamental ideological difference between the two camps: the radical interpretation of the sola Scriptura principle was set against the Roman Catholic rule as explained by the Decretum de canonicis Scripturis issued by the Council of Trent which gave a warning that 'nobody who bends the Bible to his opinions is permitted to explain the Scripture [because he would argue] against its real meaning which was and is explained by the Holy Mother Church. The Church alone has the right to judge the true meaning and interpretation of the Holy Scripture.'

The allegory of a tribunal is an axis around which the polemical statements of Skarga in The Second Reproach are arranged. The central chapter of Skarga's pamphlet is titled "The silent Holy Scripture cannot be the tribunal and the main capital of God's truth by itself without human interpretation." Skarga argues against the subjective exegetical optimism of his opponent, while Moskorzowski in his Removal of the Second Reproach tries to refute Skarga's arguments. Let us take a look at the main points of this discussion.

The Protestants argued that 'the right reason' is enough to interpret the Bible, that anyone can do so, and should.
The Jesuit's argument begins with the material substance of which the copies of the Bible are produced: 'Scripture is made of paper and printing ink; everybody can erase, falsify and burn it and above all can misunderstand it using his own reason.' The Socinian writer replies that it is impossible to 'erase, falsify and burn' all copies of the Bible.

The next argument deals with the obscurity of many passages of the Bible: 'The Holy Scripture is obscure and profound and difficult to understand, so I do not know how everybody is able to judge about something that cannot be understood by everybody.' He admits, however, that 'Certainly, there are other things in it that are easy and useful for morals and other needs.' Moskorzowski replies: 'You can judge a simple man according to what he understands, and a wise man according to what he understands, and thus you can pass judgment on everything in its proper sphere.'

In order to prove that the Socinians are usurpers and have no right to explain the Holy Writ, Skarga uses a rhetorical figure called congeries containing a series of amplified rhetorical questions. He says the following: 'Who opened the minds of the Arians? .Who gave them the Holy Ghost? Who entrusted them with the keys to mysteries of the Kingdom of God?.Let them tell this.' He goes on to say that 'Because of the weakness of the human mindGod gave us medicine - translators and explainers in order to make us not fond of ourselves and suspicious about our own understanding, and to make us remember about what Our Lord said: If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?' Moskorzowski observes only that 'The Bible does not showthat God gave us explainers of Scripture because of the weakness of human understanding, but it shows only that our understanding is dull in earthly things and much more in heavenly things.'

In this part of the discussion, one can see a fundamental difference in attitudes towards human understanding and human reason. According to the approach accepted by all Socinians, a 'healthy human reason' is the only judge in religious matters. Scripture is a norm ('statute'), and every human being, 'thanks to the blessing of healthy [right] reason, can understand Scripture and make statements about it even before he is enlightened by the Holy Spirit.' (quoted from the Latin treatise Brevis disquisitio... by a seventeenth- century Socinian writer, Joachim Stegmann). The Jesuit writer discredits the role of reason calling it 'a little reason.' Thus a fundamentally different understanding of the limits of human reason makes any agreement or even common ground impossible to achieve.

A few years before the discussion between Skarga and Moskorzowski took place, the Socinian scholars in the Raków Theological School concluded that 'God appointed nobody on earth to an office of a judge commissioned to give decisions dealing with religious controversies.' Consequently, the reason of each individual is the only judge in these matters.

Skarga devoted so much attention to the problem of the judge for obvious reasons. These reasons, again, have to do with authority. Skarga argues that 'if Scripture was a judge in religious matters, all heretics would soon settle an agreement.' He thinks that external authority is essential for the process of interpretation of the Bible, so he presents another important argument: 'A statute is not a judge and a judge is not a statute but he should only pass judgments according to statutes and the law.' Further on, he remarks that Scripture is silent, so one should go to the tribunal for an interpretation. Counter-arguments of the Socinian polemicist are based on his reliance on reason: 'Statute will judge a clever man at his home. And everybody recognizes that a statute is a judge. So if a statute can judge him at home, God's law included in the Scripture can do it as well and even much better.'

The Jesuit polemicist draws a comparison between a thief and a heretic. 'When a thief robs me, I will escort him to a court; when a heretic wants to let me down, leads me to hell and robs me of my truth - am I not allowed to go to a judge with him? I take him to the Holy Scripture but the Scripture is silent and he explains it how he wishes. I must go to the tribunal which is not silent but speaks; I must go to the genuine truth which will instruct and warn me.'

This argument is based on several assumptions: As a Roman Catholic, Skarga knows the only real truth ('he robs me of my truth'), while his opponent does not know it, and thus he is a thief that leads the Catholic astray. The Socinian writer replies that theft and heresy are two different things: 'Highly simile dissimile. There are two very different things: theft committed by a thief and the problem of somebody whom Father Skarga called a heretic. Theft is an obvious evil; attempts to understand the Bible, on the other hand, far from being evil, are in fact good, virtuous, and recommended by the Lord himself in Scripture.'

This particular comparison of Skarga's (one between a thief and a heretic) is very strong. In many countries at that time, such a metaphor would have meant tortures and stakes. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, even in the worst periods of intolerance, there were no tortures and stakes for the heretics.

Skarga's opinions are further expressed in passages such as this one: 'If the state is Christian. [it should] aid its citizens or subjects in achieving eternal salvation by supporting and causing them to embrace the true and saving religion.Toleration is at best a provisional necessity because of the large number of heretics.'

The Socinian disputant tries to impair the juridical kind of arguments used by his antagonist. He claims that Scripture is a very specific norm, and not a legal one; it cannot be compared to earthly statutes and its interpretation cannot follow the ways appropriate for the earthly judges: 'For universal earthly peace an earthly judge is needed, but for the peace of conscience we do not need such a judge. Faith comes from listening to the Word of God and not from constraint or the judge's decree.'

The whole matter was fated to be irresolvable from its very beginning because each of the disputants held assumptions he could not renounce. The Jesuit disputant assumed that the Socinian heresy was an objective evil, a painful blow to the unity of the Church and consequently, unity of the state. The Socinian held fast to his belief in the power of reason to interpret Scripture.

The biblical and theological disputes had political consequences. Heresy had been legal in Poland since the Warsaw Confederacy of 1573 which allowed all denominations to exist peacefully in the Kingdom. In 1578, this law was entered in the book of Polish statutes and laws. This was strongly detested by the Jesuits. In his sermons Skarga warned: 'The disunity will bring unto you slavery that will bury your liberties and turn them into mockery.You will become like an abandoned widow, you who govern other peoples; and you will become for your enemies an object of ridicule and derision.'

For the Socinian, however, the freedom to interpret the Bible and other theological freedoms were the key values. Human reason (called 'a little reason' by the Jesuit polemicist) was claimed to be paramount to these studies. For Skarga, the Scripture was a statute and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy were judges who interpreted this statute and passed judgments in agreement with it. According to the Socinian, Scripture was a norm which passed judgments of its own, if a person read it with faith and used his/her own right reason. The authority of the Church was thus pitted against the authority of a single human being, and pressure used by the Church was juxtaposed with the assumed free will of an individual.

However, the mainline Protestants soon curbed their optimism as to the possibility of leaving the Bible entirely open to individual interpretations. They noted that if such freedom is allowed, the foundations and beliefs of Christianity, such as the Trinity, are in danger of being denied.
Thus it would be an oversimplification to say that the dispute between Skarga and Moskorzowski was a dispute between representatives of the Counter-Reformation and the Reformation. At that time, the denominations which belonged to the so-called 'magisterial Reformation,' i.e. the Calvinists and the Lutherans, were far away from the original 'exegetical optimism' represented by the Socinian and the Anabaptist 'radicals.' As Norman Sykes observed in the Cambridge History of the Bible, 'sola scriptura was... the harbinger not of peace but of a sword; and a sword of such a sharpness as to pierce... the joints and marrow of Protestantism. Welcomed at first as a...defense against... Rome... and Trent... it was now suffering assault from the rear at the hands of Socinus and his followers. Socinian views... offered an obvious and tempting target for Roman Catholic polemic against Protestantism in general. It became evident that "The Bible only" was an insecure basis even for so fundamental tenet of orthodoxy as the doctrine of the Trinity.'

The Institutes of Christian Religion by Calvin, Luther's catechisms and other such works had tried to shape, control and direct Bible studies towards the needs of the established churches. The freedom of Bible studies among Protestants was restricted also in Poland by systems of rules such as the Consensus Sendomiriensis, announced as early as in 1570, which - as B. J. Kidd stated in his classical anthology of Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation - 'effected a union between Lutherans, Calvinists and Bohemian Brethren against the anti-Trinitarians in Poland and so marked out the traditional limits of the later evangelical or protestant orthodoxy.'

It was characteristic of the Socinians that - although they had their own catechisms and rules of faith established by successive synods - their freedom of theological research was immense, with virtually no limits and restrictions, as witnessed by the famous theological seminars in Raków which were presided over by Socinus himself. Theological differences between Socinianism on the one hand and other denominations on the other were enormous and the gap was impossible to fill. A dispute with a Socinian was a great challenge for a Roman Catholic theologian because from the very beginning it was certain to end in conflict. It also presented a challenge for the 'mainline' Protestant denominations such as the Lutherans and the Calvinists of that time.

The problem with the Socinians, or the Polish Brethren, was not just the interpretation of the Bible, but the fact that they refused to obey the laws of the country while at the same time availing themselves of the protection which being citizens of that country entailed.
What is the significance of these polemics for us today, when nearly four hundred years have elapsed since they took place? First, we have to observe that the diverse methods of the polemics - some of them aggressive and personal and others, intellectual and theological - can be found in the works of writers from both sides. Second, they clarify for us some misunderstandings about Polish social history. Some historians have claimed that the sixteenth-century tolerant Poland was damaged by illiberal, dogmatic Counter-Reformation preachers who led Polish society into the intolerant and bigoted seventeenth century. As we can see from the above, the situation was much more complicated. With great enthusiasm, the Socinians introduced new religious concepts which were completely unacceptable to the majority of society and were perceived to be dangerous both to Catholics and Protestants, and to the state. Furthermore, the Socinians (otherwise called the Polish Brethren) who belonged to the gentry wanted to use the privileges of their social class without fulfilling their civic duties such as military service. Until the mid-seventeenth century, their leaders scorned the legal order of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth because according to their theology, all laws: theological, political, and social, could be interpreted ad hoc by whoever cared to interpret them. Such a situation was unacceptable within the parameters of a human community. The idea that the Socinians excelled in tolerance while the Polish state eventually became intolerant of them is one of the greatest misunderstandings of European history. It is true that they allowed free theological discussion, but they excluded from their church anybody who did not agree with the theological ideas for which the majority of the congregation voted. But the main point of contention was that they refused to obey the laws of the country while at the same time claiming the protection and privileges which accrued to them as members of a particular class in a particular country. In other words, they wanted to eat their pie and to preserve it at the same time.

In sixteenth-century Poland, there existed a tolerant environment for discussion but neither side was willing to abandon its principles. Therefore these polemics can be viewed as a confrontation between two groups of well educated intellectuals and theologians who were seriously involved in the search for religious identity but could not find any common ground. One may call all of them religious fanatics. I think, however, that although we should praise the old Polish Republic for what we now call 'toleration' (in its present meaning, this notion was unknown to sixteenth-century disputants), concepts such as 'toleration' or 'fanaticism' are really projections of our present ideas onto centuries past. They should be used with caution both by cultural historians and by individuals who would like to think seriously about history and contemporary events.

The article is a result of my research conducted at the University of Silesia in Poland (1995-1996), at the Warburg Institute, University of London (Great Britain) in 1996 and 1998 and at Rice University, Houston, Texas in 1998. It was presented at the meeting of the Central Europe Study Group, Rice University on September 18, 1998. Some ideas were discussed previously at seminars at the University of Silesia and the Warburg Institute. I would like to express my deep gratitude to Professor Jan Malicki of the University of Silesia, Professor Stanislaw Obirek SJ of the Jesuit College in Kraków and the College of the Holy Cross in Boston, Dr Jacqueline Glomski and Professor Nicholas Mann of the Warburg Institute and Professor Ewa M. Thompson of Rice University for their help and encouragement.

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