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In the confusing early history of deism, there are two separate subjects to be considered: the history of the contemporary meanings of the words ‘deistes’ or ‘deisme’ has to be distinguished, for well over a century, from the history of the ideas which directly anticipate deism in the form it acquired during the Enlightenment. The words basically refer, as in modern usage, to those who believe only in God; but this means different things in different contexts. In the theological context of debate concerning the Trinity, it means the neo-Arian or anti-trinitarian belief that God the Father alone possesses perfect divinity; the divinity of Jesus Christ is to some extent denied. This must have been the meaning intended by the unknown person who applied the term ‘déistes’ (or ‘deistae’) to an anti-trinitarian group in Lyon in the 1560s, a group denounced in forceful and misleading terms by the reformer Pierre Viret. But for another unidentified individual, the author of the Anti-bigot in about 1620, ‘le vrai deiste’ means ‘he who believes truly in God’. According to the poem, such a deist does not believe in Hell. In both cases the meanings are justified etymologically, but apparently have no other connection, and from the appearances of the words we should not deduce that, in the 1560s or the 1620s, there were deists holding beliefs essentially the same as those whom we now term deists, the writers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.
KeywordsChristian Belief Natural Religion Biblical Criticism Misleading Term Unidentified Individual
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