THE RACOVIAN CATECHISM - ORIGIN AND SUMMARY
by Allon Maxwell
WHAT IS THE RACOVIAN CATECHISM?
The Racovian Catechism is the Confession of Faith of the Anabaptist Polish Brethren of the 16th and 17th centuries.
It takes its name from Racow in Poland, where the Polish Brethren established a university. Racow became a renowned centre of learning, attracting scholars from all over Europe. By this means their radical anti-trinitarian teaching was spread far and wide.
Its theology may best be described as Biblical Unitarian, (as opposed to the Rationalist Unitarianism of the 1990s, which no longer deserves recognition as a true Biblical faith).
The beliefs expressed are often called "Socinianism", after Faustus Socinus, who became one of the early leaders amongst the Polish Brethren. Socinus was a native Italian who found refuge in Poland, after being forced to flee from Italy on account of threatened persecution for his anti-trinitarian beliefs.
I discovered its existence a couple of years ago, whilst researching some of the history of early belief in the Father of Jesus as the One who alone is truly True God.
At that time English versions had long been out of print. However the 1818 translation from the Latin, by Thomas Rees was reprinted earlier this year (1994) by:-
There can be little doubt that the Racovian Catechism has been, perhaps directly, but at least indirectly, a major influence in the spiritual development of some of the 19th century anti-trinitarians, to whom I am indebted for much of my own spiritual heritage.
Although they certainly would not agree with all of it, in many areas their writings contain a similarity of language and content that is quite remarkable.
It is here briefly reviewed for the benefit of others who share my interest in tracing our Biblical Unitarian "spiritual roots".
A BRIEF HISTORY
The first recognised version of the Racovian Catechism was published about 1574.
At the instigation of the Polish churches, a revision was begun by Faustus Socinus and Peter Statorius Junior, in the first years of the 17th century, but death prevented them from completing their labours. The work was completed by others and published in Polish, in 1605.
A German version by Smalcius appeared in 1608.
A corrupted Dutch version by Kroll, was rejected by the Polish Churches who published their own approved Dutch translation in 1666.
A Latin translation was published at Racow in 1609, under the lengthy title, " The Catechism of the Churches, which in the Kingdom of Poland and in the great Dukedom of Lithuania, and in other Provinces belonging to that Kingdom, affirm that no other Being besides the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the one God of Israel; and acknowledge and confess that the Man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was born of a Virgin, and no other besides or before Him, is the only-begotten Son of God ".
This latter edition was prefaced by a dedication addressed to James the First of England, who took such offence at it that he promptly ordered all copies to be collected and burnt!
The same Latin version was reprinted in London, in 1651. It attracted the unfavorable attention of the English Parliament and in 1652, a resolution was passed which again ordered it to be collected and burnt. The attempt to suppress it in England was unsuccessful, and merely sparked new endeavours to make it available.
In the same year an English translation was published in Amsterdam.
This 1652 English translation, is marred by the introduction of several clauses which substitute the private opinion of the translator, for that of the original authors . (1)
This translation has been attributed to John Biddle, an English Unitarian pioneer, who was sorely persecuted by the established Church. (However in the Historical Introduction to the 1818 translation, it is stated that this is only conjecture .)
The 1818 English translation by Thomas Rees, is the version which is summarised here.
It was translated from the Latin version of 1680, which claims to be, the " Catechism of the Churches of Poland, which confess, according to the Holy Scriptures, one God the Father, his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. First published in the year 1609, and since, by order of the same Churches, corrected and enlarged by more than half, and revised and improved by men eminent in those congregations, - illustrated with their notes ."
SUMMARY OF THE CATECHISM
The 1818 translation of the Racovian Catechism occupies nearly 400 pages, with a further 100 pages of historical introduction.
It reflects the ponderous theological style and pompous language, of both the Latin and English of its time. It has what we call today, a very high "fog index". It is not always easy to read.
In presenting this very condensed summary I have tried to use simpler language to suit the less pretentious tastes of 20th century readers, whilst remaining faithful, so far as I am able, to the intent of the authors.
However, in this brief summary it will not be possible to list all of the matters discussed by the Catechism.
Nor will it be possible in the space available, to argue the merits, either in favour or against any particular point.
We will list what seem to be the main issues, including those which separated Unitarian believers from their Trinitarian contemporaries.
Anyone desiring a full appreciation of the document will need to undertake the monumental task of reading it all!
SECTION 1 - THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
The Bible is the authentic Word of God, given to mankind to reveal the will of God.
The history, teaching, and miracles of the Bible are all true.
The Bible correctly understood, is sufficient to reveal all that God requires of mankind.
Many of the man made traditions which are added to the Bible, especially by the Roman Church, are destructive of true Christian faith.
The things essential to salvation are so plainly stated in the Bible, that all may understand them, especially those who prayerfully seek the truth.
In this section the Devil is mentioned in passing, as a personal being.(2)
SECTION 2 - THE WAY OF SALVATION
God alone has immortality.
Man has no inherent immortality, but was originally created mortal.
Left to himself, without God, he must perish eternally.
Man was created with the intention that he should ultimately become immortal
This potential immortality is intended to be a conditional gift, reserved only for those with an effective faith in God and Christ, which leads to acceptable holiness of character and conduct.
SECTION 3 - THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
God is one self existent eternal personal being, perfectly just wise and powerful.
This one God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus is not this only God, but the human Son of God.
Jesus is called God only in a secondary use of the word, having been granted superior authority to act for God, in Heaven and on earth.
The Holy spirit is not a person, but the power of God. (See also Section 5)
SECTION 4 - THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHRIST
Jesus was truly a real mortal man while he lived on earth.
Subsequent to His resurrection from the dead, Jesus is now an immortal man.
Although truly human, and descended in the line of Abraham and David, he is no mere man.
He is also the only begotten Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin, without a human father.
Jesus did not exist before His birth, except as a plan in the mind of God, which was prophesied in detail, in the spoken and written Word of God.
This plan (word) was fulfilled (made flesh) when Jesus was born, miraculously begotten by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus has no divine nature or substance, but rather, is real man with real human nature and substance.
The divinity of Jesus is an acquired divinity, in a secondary sense only, through his being possessed of divine attributes of character, and through having been granted divine power and authority to act on God's behalf.
Since His resurrection, Jesus has been granted the name above all other names, that all should bow before Him to the glory of the God who is the Father of Jesus.
The doctrine of the Trinity is held to be a modern form of the spirit of Antichrist.(3)
SECTION 5 - THE PROPHETIC OFFICE OF
In His prophetic office, Jesus has revealed the will of God to mankind, both by word and by example.
This will is outlined in plain words in the Bible, both in the "Moral Law" of Moses, and in precepts added to the law by Jesus.
THE MORAL PRECEPTS
In general, strict adherence to the Ten Commandments and Sermon on the Mount is enjoined.
There are however, some elements of the Sermon on the Mount which are not taken literally, or regarded as absolute. For instance, the taking of oaths is permitted for some purposes. Limited permission is given for retaliation against injury, through the courts, (as long as it is "without revenge"!)
It is permissible for a Christian to engage in the magistracy, provided that in discharging his duties, he does not offend against the law of Christ.(4)
THE WORSHIP OF CHRIST
The worship of Christ and prayers directly to Him, are encouraged. Any who oppose such prayer or worship are not truly Christians. (5)
The keeping of the Seventh Day Sabbath is rejected as a ritual which has been abolished. For Christians there is no distinction of days. Although there is no ritual law imposed on Christians, there are however elements of the Sabbath law, which Christians would be wise to notice. It is fitting to consecrate a seventh part of one's life to divine worship. It is proper not to burden man or beast with work, one day in seven.
Sunday observance is not a ritual replacing the Seventh Day Sabbath, but is a liberty of which Christians may freely avail themselves.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
Marriage with unbelievers is forbidden. So also is divorce and remarriage, except for adultery.
Baptism, by immersion, is the external rite by which believers are initiated into Christ and added to the church.
Intelligent faith must precede baptism.
In Baptism, believers renounce the world; profess Christ as their sole master; ritually die to sin and rise to new life; bind themselves to live a holy life; and receive the remission of their sins.
Baptism of infants is rejected.
THE LORD'S SUPPER
The taking of the Lord's supper is enjoined as a commandment to be obeyed. It is a memorial, which celebrates the love of Christ.
The Roman teaching that the Lord's Supper is a means of grace, or a sacrifice for the dead, is rejected.
The doctrine of transubstantiation is also rejected.
Foot washing is to be practised at the Lord's supper. It is obligatory as a sign of humility.
The eternal life promised by Jesus to the resurrected saints will be immortality, and “ an existence the most replete with joy and pleasure wholly divine, passed in heaven with God and Christ, and the holy angels ”. (6)
THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Holy Spirit is not a personal being, but the power of God; a virtue or energy, flowing from God, by which He performs His works and consecrates believers to His service. (1)
The Holy Spirit is promised to all believers, in all ages.
However a distinction is drawn between the "invisible permanent gift", and the "visible temporary gift".
The permanent gift of the Holy Spirit is not necessary to enable belief in the Gospel, but is afterwards given to believers to confirm them in the promises of God; enlarge them in the understanding of divine things; give them a foretaste of future happiness; and consecrate them to the service of God.
The miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, given for the confirmation of the Gospel, were only temporary, and are no longer given.
THE DEATH OF CHRIST
The doctrine of a substitutionary sacrifice is rejected. Christ is said to have died on account of sinners, but NOT in their stead.
Words such ransom, redemption, expiation and propitiation, are to be divorced from any concept which indicates payment of a penalty in the sinners place, or the payment of a debt.
Saving faith in God and Christ is not simply a mere assent of the mind to a form of words which define the doctrine of Christ.
It is much, much more a deep trust in God and the teaching of Jesus, which leads to holiness of character, and whole hearted voluntary obedience to all His will.
ABOUT FREE WILL AND PREDESTINATION
The doctrines of original sin, depraved human nature, and unconditional predestination, are rejected.
All men have within themselves a free will which confers the capacity to choose between right and wrong, and may therefore be held accountable for their sins.
All believers who are indwelt by the Spirit of God, are taught and empowered to obey the will of God.
Justification comes only through faith in Christ.
We are justified when God forgives our sins and then so deals with us as though those sins had never been committed.
SECTION 6 - THE PRIESTLY OFFICE OF
In His priestly office, Christ has sacrificed Himself by shedding His blood for our sins.
Now raised to life again, he appears in the presence of God to intercede for us.
In this intercessory role he delivers us from the guilt and penalty of our sins; works to deliver us from continuing servitude to sin; and exercises authority over the Church in its labours to propagate religion.
SECTION 7 - THE KINGLY OFFICE OF CHRIST
In His Kingly office Jesus reigns from Heaven, having been given all power in Heaven and Earth, to govern, protect and eternally save those who believe in Him.
Christ did not raise Himself from the dead. He was truly dead and therefore completely unable to do any such thing for himself.
He was raised by God.
He was raised in the same body which was crucified.
This body was changed by God. Jesus has now been made incorruptible, glorious, powerful and spiritual.
At the resurrection, the bodies of believers will also be changed to be like that which Jesus now has.
Jesus has gone into Heaven as a forerunner of believers, who will follow Him there, (after the resurrection). (6)
From heaven Jesus rules not only over men, but also over good and bad angels.
Sinners will be raised, judged, and consigned to everlasting punishment. (eternal torment).(7)
SECTION 8 - THE CHURCH OF CHRIST
THE VISIBLE CHURCH
The visible Church of Christ comprises only those societies who hold true Christian doctrine.
The church is governed by apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors (bishops), elders and deacons.
Apostles, prophets, and evangelists are no longer found in the Church. Their role was only temporary and has now ceased to be necessary.
The other offices continue.
It is the duty of all other members of the church to obey those who govern, in all things commanded by the word of God.
The first measure of the discipline of the Church is private correction. If this fails, then the church must resort to public reproof.
The last resort is to be shunning, at least in the fellowship of the Lord's table. In more serious cases the offender is to be shunned completely, to the point of not associating or eating with him.
Offenders are not to be regarded as enemies, but as brothers.
The goal of such corrective measures is that the transgressor may be brought back to the right way; that the rest of the church may be stricken with fear; that scandal and disorder may be removed from the Church; that the word of the Lord be not be evil spoken of; and that the name of Jesus may not be profaned.
The power of binding and loosing vested in the Church by Jesus, is the authority to declare who is worthy or unworthy to be a member of the Church.
THE INVISIBLE CHURCH
The invisible Church comprises all those with true faith in Christ, who in consequence, obey him from the heart in a life of true piety.
There are a number of churches today which owe their "spiritual heritage" to those earlier Polish Unitarians.
For the purpose of classification, they can be divided into the RATIONALIST UNITARIANS and the BIBLICAL UNITARIANS.
THE RATIONALIST UNITARIANS
The Rationalist Unitarian churches usually go by the name "Unitarian".
By and large, these churches are no longer recognisable as true "spiritual descendants" of the Polish Brethren. Their "faith" is no longer either Biblical or Racovian.
For many, individual human "reason" and "logic" now prevails above the Bible.
Many of them are universalists or humanists. Many are agnostic. Most reject the virgin birth of Jesus, and other miracles.
For many the definition of personal morality is left to the individual conscience. There are no longer any clear moral absolutes.
THE BIBLICAL UNITARIANS
A number of "Biblical Unitarian" Churches exist.
Although their theology that the Father alone is truly God, is clearly Unitarian, most are careful about using that word at all, lest they be confused with the Rationalists.
They are universally viewed with disfavour by the mainstream churches, who regard them as heretics, and usually attempt to label them as cults. They are often the targets of abuse, rejection, and even subtle persecution.
Nevertheless many of them are distinctly Christian in their adherence to Jesus as their Lord and their Saviour; the Virgin born Son of God; and the promised Messiah, who is to rule over the coming Kingdom of God on Earth.
of them are much more faithful to their obedience to the Lordship of
especially in relation to the Sermon on the Mount, than many of their
(1) The English version of 1652, assigns separate personality to the Holy Spirit. It appears that the translator believed that the Holy Spirit is a created being , “first in rank and dignity in the angelic heirarchy”.
(2) In a translator's footnote to p7, it is said that the Polish Unitarians held the devil to be "originally of angelic rank, but now degenerated; of inveterate malice, and unrelenting cruelty; who delights to injure mankind; and whose power of injuring them extends to their minds and bodies, to this material world and to the future state".
Demons (p321) and bad angels (p368) are also mentioned in passing, as personal beings.
Many later Unitarians abandoned belief in the personality of the devil, demons and bad angels.
(3) They would not go so far, however, as to say that anyone who leads a holy life, but believes the doctrine of the Trinity, is lost on that count alone. Nevertheless their salvation is in great danger if they obstinately resist opportunity to seek the truth of the unity of God, or condemn and persecute those who accept it. (p46)
(4) There was actually significant disagreement amongst the Polish Brethren about this point. Many of their prominent leaders taught the opposite opinion, maintaining that it was not permissible for Christians to bear the office of magistrate, exercise authority over others, or shed blood. (pp177-180)
This argument however, seems to have been rather academic. Socinus was amongst those who held it lawful for Christians to be magistrates. However he also declared that it was forbidden for a Christian Magistrate to put the guilty to death, maim them, or enlist the assistance of others to do these things. Nor could a private Christian obey any order from a magistrate to shed blood.
In practice therefore, it could be expected that the civil authorities would regard these constraints as a barrier disqualifying Christians from appointment as magistrates, or to other duties associated with law enforcement.
(5) This question was hotly contested amongst the Polish Brethren. Many held the opposite opinion, that prayer and worship should never be offered to Jesus.
It became a source of division amongst them. On at least one occasion, personal animosity and bigotry led to fierce persecution of a hated opponent.
(6) I have not found any mention in the Catechism of the Future Kingdom of God on earth, or of the Abrahamic Faith that the meek shall inherit the earth.
(7) Some Unitarian believers held that the wicked are to be raised, judged, and then annihilated.
Others adopted the doctrine of universal restoration, teaching that all men, however depraved in this life, will (after the resurrection) ultimately be disciplined and brought to goodness and happiness.