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7 - “And if God was one of us”: Paul Best, John Biddle, and anti-Trinitarian heresy in seventeenth-century England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 February 2010

Nigel Smith
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Princeton University
David Loewenstein
Affiliation:
University of Wisconsin, Madison
John Marshall
Affiliation:
The Johns Hopkins University
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Summary

Pull one keystone from the edifice of Christianity and the rest will follow, all the way to the dissipation of the church into so many “sects of one.” This was the now famous fear of Bishop Fisher in the sixteenth century. Any part of Christianity that was not apparently justifiable from scripture was vulnerable. In this respect, there are several early modern views that are logical consequences of Protestant biblicism, but which were nonetheless unacceptable to Protestant state churches, and many or most Protestants who had put themselves outside of a national church. One of these was mortalism, the belief that the soul remained with the body after death and waited for the general resurrection. “Soul” (psyche), it was argued, was a Greek concept and had no basis in the Old Testament, which really described monist man: a single substance into which life was breathed by God. However shaky English mortalist argument was between 1550 and 1650, it became a powerful intellectual position in the following century, in particular attracting many philosophers of the new science.

Perhaps even more important in this respect than mortalism was anti-Trinitarianism. Like mortalism, it represented the revival of an ancient idea that had been demonized as heresy in the early church, a demonization reaffirmed by the Reformation churches. One way or another, it affirmed that the idea of the Holy Trinity – wherein the Godhead was made up of three parts, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – was false.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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