John Biddle (1615-1662) is known as the father of English Unitarianism. As a lay preacher, he ran awry of the Anglican Church, being marked as a heretic for his non-trinitarian views. Biddle’s unorthodoxy came to the attention of the government after a treacherous friend gave a copy of his tract Twelve Arguments Drawn out of Scripture, Wherein the Commonly Received Opinion Touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit Is Clearly and Fully Refuted to the civil authorities, circa 1644.
For this tract Biddle was imprisoned multiple times. The tract itself was committed to the flames, as were other works he authored in favor or Biblical Unitarianism. Biddle’s influence was felt strongly enough to get the attention of the famous puritan John Owen, who wrote a book endeavoring to defend the doctrine of the Trinity in response to Biddle.
Three years after Biddle had first been imprisoned, Parliament, under pressure from the Westminster Assembly, made unitarianism a crime punishable by death, but with the help of influential friends, Biddle escaped execution. Throughout the remainder of his life he was, however, imprisoned several more times, and exiled to Scilly. Eventually he was allowed to return, and began preaching in London. There he was again arrested, this time dying in prison.
John Biddle was a Biblical Unitarian, who through his study of the Bible arrived at very similar views to the Socinians of continental Europe. Besides writing works of his own, he translated into English several works by Biblical Unitarians on the continent. He believed that the one God of the Bible is only one person, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Jesus Christ the Son of God is a man, who did not literally pre-exist his miraculous conception in the virgin Mary. Unlike many unitarians on the continent, Biddle firmly believed in and defended the personhood of the Holy Spirit, as being a third distinct person besides the one God and Jesus Christ His Son. He summed up his own views on the trinity (viz, the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in his own confession:
Article I. I believe that there is one Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, and first Cause of all things pertaining to our salvation, and consequently the ultimate object of our faith and worship; and that this God is none but the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the first person of the holy trinity.
Article II. I believe that there is one chief Son of the most High God, or spiritual, heavenly, and perpetual Lord and King, set over the church of God, and second cause of all things pertaining to our salvation, and consequently, the intermediate object of our faith and worship: and this Son of the Most High God is none but Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
Article III. I believe that Jesus Christ, to the intent that he might be our brother, and have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities, and so become the more ready to help us (the consideration whereof is the greatest encouragement to piety that can be imagined), hath no other than a human nature, and therefore in this very nature is not only a person (since none but a human person can be our brother), but also our Lord, yea our God.
Article IV. Whence, though he be our God, by reason of his divine sovereignty over us, and worship due to such sovereignty, yet is he not the Most High God, the same with the Father, but subordinate to Him.
Article V. Again, though he be a God subordinate to the Most High God, as having received his godhood, and whatsoever he hath, from the Father; yet may not anyone thence rightly infer, that by this account there will be another God, or two Gods? For though we may, with allowance of the scripture, say, that there are many Gods, yet neither will the scripture, nor the things itself permit us to say, that there is another God, or two Gods: because when a word in its own nature common to many, hath been appropriated, and ascribed to one by way of excellency, (as that of God hath been to the Father:) albeit this does not hinder us from saying, that there are many of that name; yet it doth from saying, that there is another, or two, since that would be all one as if we should say, that there is another, or two most excellent, (which is absurd:) for when two are segregated in this manner out of many, they claim excellency to themselves alike. Thus though some faithful man be a son of God, subordinate to the chief Son of God Christ Jesus, yet we may not thereupon say, that there is another Son of God, or two Sons of God (since that would be to make another, or two Sons of God by way of excellency, whereas there can be but one such Son) howbeit otherwise the scripture warrants us to say, that there are many Sons of God.
Article VI. I believe that there is one principle minister of God and Christ, peculiarly sent from heaven to sanctify the church, who, by reason of his eminency and intimacy with God, is singled out of the number of the other heavenly ministers of angels, and comprised in the holy trinity, being the third person thereof; and that this minister of God and Christ is the Holy Spirit.
“Joh 17.3. “This is eternal life, that they know thee (Father) the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Observe here in the first place, that our Savior Christ, setting down those persons, in whom eternal life consisteth, makes no mention of the Holy Spirit; whereas, if he were [the one] God, the knowledge of him would be as necessary for the attainment of eternal life as that of the Father. Secondly, he so describeth the Father, as that he makes him the only true God, thereby manifestly excluding any other person whatsoever from being the true God. Thirdly, as for himself, he doth not say that it is eternal life to know him as eternally begotten, and co-essential to the Father, (both which are contradictions in themselves, and un-heard of in the scripture) but only as sent by the Father, and consequently such a one as by his will, and in his name manageth the business of our salvation.”A Confession of Faith Touching the Holy Trinity According to the Scripture
“[The doctrine of the Trinity] hindereth us from praying according to the prescript of the gospel. For how can any man pray to God through his Son Jesus Christ, as the gospel directeth us to do, if God be not the Father only? Did God consist of three persons, would it not, when he invocated God, be all one as if he should say, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, give me what I ask, through thy Son Jesus Christ; and so Christ be the Son not only of the Father, but also of the Holy Spirit, yea of himself?”A Confession of Faith Touching the Holy Trinity According to the Scripture
- A brief history of the Unitarians, called also Socinians in four letters, written to a friend (1687).
- The Faith of one God, who is only the Father; and of one mediator between God and men, who is only the man Christ Jesus; and of one Holy Spirit, the gift (and sent) of God. Asserted and defended in several tracts contained in this volume … (London, 1691). For PDF version, see here.
- In sacra Biblia Graeca ex versione LXX. interpretum scholia : simul et interpretum caeterorum lectiones variantes. (Londini : Excudebat Rogerus Daniel : Prostat autem venale apud Joannem Martin & Jacobum Allestrye …, MDCLIII )
- XII arguments drawn out of the Scripture wherein the commonly-received opinion touching the deity of the Holy Spirit is clearly and fully refuted : to which is prefixed a letter tending to the same purpose, written to a member of the Parliament … / by John Biddle. ([London] printed : [s.n.], 1647)