Peter Gonesius and the Polemics over the Holy Trinity

Peter Gonesius (Giezek, Goniędz, Gonesius, Gomesius, Gonedzius, Gonetius, Conyza, Koniński, Lithuanus) was a proponent of Reformation in GDL, a pioneer of Trinitarian polemics and radical Reformation movement in Lithuania. He had the nickname of Peter the Arian (Piotr aryjan). Arius (about 256–336), a theologian of early Christianity, denied the dogma of divine essence claiming that God the Father and the Son existed together eternally, and was therefore condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as heretic. It has to be noted that Peter Gonesius never considered himself a follower of Arian.

The path to Protestantism led through universities

Peter Gonesius was born about 1530 in the village of Goniądz, in the province of Podlaskie, the lands of the Radziwiłł. He was an alumnus of the University of Krakow. A record entered in Krakow university in 1546 attests to his simple background: “Petrus Nicolai Lithuanus dioc. Vilnensi came from the Vilnius diocese and had paid one silver coin (grosz) in tax for tuition.” Early historiography of Protestantism (A. Węgierski, Wengerscius) testifies that Peter Gonesius became a protestant in 1550, under the influence of ideas spread by the Spanish physician Michael Servetus (the first adherent of anti-trinitarianism burnt alive in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1553).  However, no testimony is found if Peter Gonesius knew Servetus at that time or had read his treatises. In 1551, Peter Gonesius left for Italy to pursue studies at the university of Padua (most likely, having secured the liberal patronage of Paweł Holszański, Bishop of Vilnius). There is mention of his studies in Germany and Switzerland in historiography, but insufficient testimony surviving to prove it. Peter Gonesius must have acquired a doctoral degree in Padova; later he taught sophistry there in 1554. He must have been exposed to the influence of the teaching by the lawyer Matteo Gribaldi Moffa, leader of anti-trinitarianism, who taught at the University of Padova in those days. In 1555, upon his return to Lithuania. Peter Gonesius visited Moravia, where he met the anabaptists (the Christian community criticizing Infant Baptism as meaningless and claiming that the Sacrament of Baptism should be received by a mature and conscious adult).

Peter Gonesius was fluent in Latin and Greek languages. He also had a basic knowledge of Hebrew.

Upon his return to Lithuania, Gonesius joined the activities of Lithuanian Evangelical Church, originally initiated by Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black 1553.

A failed attempt to “bring to the right path”

In January of 1556, as an envoy of GDL Evangelists, on the recommendation of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, Peter Gonesius attended the Synod of the Reformed clergy, held at Secemin, where he publicly asserted his religious views on Trinity for the first time. He asserted the supremacy of the Father and contended that the Apostles’ Creed ought to be received as the only Rule of Faith among Christians. He also maintained that the doctrines taught were at variance with those taught in the Scriptures. According to the Synod protocol, which describes Peter Gonesius as the new “Arian and Servetian,” he presented the confession, which challenged the validity of the concept of Trinity and claimed that Christ was inferior to the Father. The Synod condemned Peter Gonesius and put him under an obligation to go to Germany to see the Reformation theologian Philipp Melanchthon. The meeting with Philipp Melanchthon happened in Wittenberg that same year. Peter Gonesius was described by the German theologian as an eloquent and intelligent Lithuanian but overwhelmed with the ideas spread by Michael Servetus from Italy. Notwithstanding the opposition of Protestants professing the Trinity (Lutherans and Reformers), Peter Gonesius never abandoned the views and allegiances of his young days.

A dangerous heretic

Peter Gonesius wrote the first books challenging the concept of the Trinity in the Lithuanian-Polish region and those were eagerly destroyed.

One of his first treatises published in Krakow in 1556, must have been De filio Dei homine (On the Son of God, a Human Jesus Christ). However, the treatise did not survive to our times. In December of 1556, in Działdowo, Peter Gonesius met with Pier Paolo Vergerio, a Protestant of Italian origin and a close friend of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black In his letter dated 2 January, 1557, to Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, Pier Paolo Vergerio described Peter Gonesius as a dangerous heretic and advised the Duke to put a ban on his activities.

Radziwiłł disregarded the warning. His ambition was to maintain a polemic non dogmatic spirit in the Church owned by him and therefore saw no need of suppressing debates on religious matters in Synods.

In 1557, Peter Gonesius visited Ełk, where together with Jan Malecki planned to publish a book on the divinity of Christ. However, the printing process was banned by the Duke Albert of Prussia, an ardent Lutheran who must have been informed by Pier Paolo Vergerio. In December of 1558, Gonesius again stood forward at the Synod of Brest, and openly professed his views. On the same occasion, he produced a paper, which he had drawn up against baptism of infants (it has not survived). At the Synod of Pińczów held in May of 1560, Peter Gonesius received condemnation once again.

Controversy over the Trinity that split the Church

Peter Gonesius kept preaching during Evangelical Synods the belief about the absence of the word Trinity (lat. Trinitas) in the Holy Scriptures and therefore claiming the exigency by the Christians to closely reflect and elaborate the very concept of God the Father and his son Jesus Christ  as well as their relationship. Not surprisingly, the number of both his adversaries and adherents kept increasing. Eventually, this controversy caused the schism of the Lithuanian Evangelical Church. As a result, an anti-trinitarian religious community was established, which later received the name of Unitarianism.  This community held its Synods (ecclesiastical meetings). On 25-30, 1565, Peter Gonesius attended an anti-trinitarian Synod in Węngrów, the activities of which were to be continued in July in Brest. During these Synods, Infant Baptism was debated. Peter Gonesius also attended the Synods held 1568–1569. He died in September of 1573 in Węngrów from the epidemic. The following four printed treatises by Peter Gonesius, published in 1570 in Węngrów , in the printing-house run by Jan Kiszka, a nobleman of GDL and an adherent of anti-Trinitarianism: O ponurzaniu chrystiańskim (On Immersion of Christians), O Synu Bożym (On the Son of God), O Trzech (On the Three, that is, God, his Son, and the Holy Spirit, against the Trinity of the Sabellians), Doctrina pura et clara (A Pure and Clear Doctrine), are regarded as particularly rare specimens.

Respect to the word of the Scriptures

Peter Gonesius was a devout, emotional and passionate polemicist. Throughout his lifetime, he upheld almost the same religious views, initially influenced by Michael Servetus and Matteo Gribaldi Moffa. From the start of his religious activities, Peter Gonesius’ theoretical basis for his preaching was the statement that novitas verborum (new words, not testified in the language of the Bible) should be regarded as the cause of all heresies, therefore the absence of the concept of Trinity in the Bible forces us to rethink the relationship between the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. He also advocated an agnostic belief, regarding the Scriptures as the only standard of truth. He believed that in the Scriptures, God revealed all the truth needed for the faith, and all attempts to fathom out the unrevealed secrets was merely speculation. Advocating anabaptist views, he opposed the Polish anabaptist term of ‘neophytes’(nowochrzczency) and proposed the term ‘immersion’ (ponurzanie) for the Baptism of adults. Even though historically regarded as the father of anti-Trinitarianism in GDL, Peter Gonesius never contested the divinity of the Christ and upheld the concept of eternal Christ. This notwithstanding, he advocated the supremacy of the Father, as the creator of the Son. Peter Gonesius played a significant historical role, challenging the concept of the Trinity, and initiated a studious perusal of the biblical text in Lithuania. That being said, Peter Gonesius remained more faithful to the tradition regarding the understanding of both the Son and the Holy Spirit than the Unitarians, who endorsed the deity of one God and radically broke away from this tradition.

Literature: Peter Gonesius, ‘On the Three, that is, God, his Son, and the Holy Spirit, against the Trinity of the Sabellians’, (Apie tris, tai yra apie Dievą, jo Sūnų ir apie Šventąją Dvasią; prieš Sabelijaus Trejybę), kn: Lietuvos ateizmo istorijos chrestomatija, Vilnius: Mintis, 1988, p. 67–69.

Dainora Pociūtė