UU Minute #25

The Empire Strikes Back

Italy in the middle of the 16th-century: A new hope. Innovative thinking about Christian doctrine was going on in southern Italy and in the Republic of Venice. But then comes the second movie: "The Empire Strikes Back." And the Church of Rome did indeed strike back.

In 1542, the inquisition was deployed in Italy. It found lack of faith disturbing. In southern Italy, the Neo-Platonic Academy of Bernardo Ochino, and other similar groups almost immediately ceased to exist. Among the Italian religious reformers that fled the Italian inquisition, two are of particular note: Giorgio Biandrata and Lelio Sozzini.

Biandrata would go to Poland and, as we have seen, to Transylvania, sowing anti-trinitarianism and support for religious toleration.

The other Italian important to Unitarian history who fled Italy during this period was Lelio Sozzini. Born in 1525 in Siennna, trained as a lawyer, Lelio Sozzini moved to Venice at age 21. His great passion was to relate human law to the law of god. Toward this end he carefully studied scripture, which study produced a growing conviction that the church of Rome had gone over to the dark side – fundamentally conflicting with both scripture and reason. Then: Lelio discovered the writings of Miguel Serveto, whose 1531 book, On the Errors of the Trinity, was not suppressed as successfully as the church wished. It convinced Lelio Sozzini to become a Jedi Padawan – I mean, to abandon the law and give himself entirely to the study of religion.

In 1547, with the Italian Inquisition closing in on rebel bases (antitrinitarian congregations) in Venice, Lelio Sozzini fled to Switzerland, and then to England, where, in 1548, he met Obiwan, I mean, Ochino, who had earlier fled Italy.

When Lelio Sozzini died in 1562 at the age of only 37, he left behind little more than a trunk of books and manuscripts – fatefully inherited by his nephew, Fausto Sozzini.

UU Minute #24

Doctrinal Innovation in Venice

As noted last time, Church Reformation in Italy had a more Renaissance and intellectual flavor than in Luther’s Germany. In Naples, the Neo-Platonic Academy, including Bernardo Ochino, called into question church teachings on:
  • Christ’s vicarious atonement,
  • the virgin birth,
  • the divinity of Jesus,
  • the resurrection, and
  • the trinity.
Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, the Republic of Venice was a sophisticated mercantile center, with commercial ties throughout the known world. The renown of its merchants extended to Shakespeare’s England.

Venice was used to diversity of custom and belief, and its economy was served by a broad tolerance. Moreover, Venetians, like the Germans, had a highly developed resentment of Rome’s interference. Thus, anyone whose religious opinions made them anathema elsewhere in Europe, might find a haven in Venice.

Some sources suggest that when Miguel Serveto was arrested in Geneva, he was on his way not to Naples, as reported in UU Minute number 9, but to Venice – to which Geneva was on the route.

The German Reformation focused on corrupt practices. The Reformation in Southern Italy focused on reform of doctrine. In Venice these two merged into a radical, anti-trinitarian movement. Serveto’s books were being circulated and finding approval among Venetian reformers as early as 1539 – one year before Transylvania’s King John was born.

In 1550, a Council of Venice representing some 60 anti-Trinitarian congregations adopted a 10-point statement of faith declaring:
  1. Christ is human, not God; born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God.
  2. Mary and Joseph had other sons and daughters after Christ.
  3. Where Scripture speaks of angels it means humans appointed by God for a given purpose.
  4. There is no Devil other than human imprudence.
  5. The wicked do not rise at the last day, but only the elect.
  6. There is no hell but the grave.
  7. When the elect die, they sleep until the judgment day, when all shall be raised.
  8. The souls of the wicked perish with the body, as do all other animals.
  9. Human procreation has from God the power of producing flesh and spirit.
  10. The elect are justified by faith alone, not by an atonement from Christ’s death.
(Source: Primarily David Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, pp. 23-27.)

NEXT: The Empire Strikes Back

UU Minute #23

The Reformation in Italy

European Unitarianism emerged from the Protestant Reformation zeitgeist of the 16th century. This took various forms in different regions, and all the forms had influence on the burgeoning Unitarian movement. In Germany, where Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517, there was a pre-existing resistance to Catholic Church power. Medieval Germany – called the Holy Roman Empire, though it wasn’t Holy, wasn’t Roman, and wasn’t an Empire – resented the financial demands from the Roman church, resented foreign influence from the Pope -- and Holy Roman Empire kings had been pushing back for centuries before Martin Luther came along. Luther’s success lay in harnessing this resentment against Papal power and influence into sympathy for his religious vision.

In Italy, on the other hand, the impetus for reformation was different. There, the Renaissance – with its reclamation of classical Greek and Latin learning -- was a bigger factor. When Italian intellectuals who had been reading Plato and Aristotle took up questions of church doctrine, they tended to do so in the academic pattern to which they were accustomed: they gathered in discussion groups.

One such group, calling itself the Neo-Platonic Academy, flourished in Naples for six years between 1535 and 1541. The group included Bernardo Ochino, mentioned earlier because his works helped liberalize Poland’s Queen Bona, mother of Transylvania’s Queen Isabella.

This “NeoPlatonic Academy” called into question church teachings on such subjects as Christ’s vicarious atonement, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the trinity.

Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, centered around Venice, another version of the Reformation emerged.

NEXT: Doctrinal Innovation in Venice