Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

09/15/2009 (1:26 pm)

TFJR: Sebastian Castellio and the Origin of Liberty of Conscience

tfjr-final-21In this installation in the series exploring the theological foundations of a just rebellion, I depart for a moment from considering political sermons of the American revolutionary period to highlight the originator of the notion of Liberty of Conscience among European Protestants. The originator was a little-known writer named Sebastian Castellio, a student of John Calvin who later became one of his adversaries.

John Calvin, one of the most influential forces in the Protestant Reformation (his Institutes of the Christian Religion remains to this day a mainstay of Reformed theology,) established a unique Theocratic government in the city of Geneva in 1541, using his theology to guide the city’s political leaders until his death in 1564. Calvin considered it a Christian’s duty to conform to civil government regardless of how oppressive; he also considered all possible governmental forms (which, to him, included monarchy, autocracy, and democracy) to be consistent with scripture, which he considered the final rule of all questions.(1) Within his city, citizens were required to attend weekly sermons; dancing, lewd songs, theater, and inordinate displays of wealth were forbidden; and adultery, blasphemy, and heresy were punishable by death.

It was the execution of a famous heretic named Michael Servetus in 1553 that first prompted Castellio to oppose Calvin. Servetus, a forerunner of Unitarianism, apparently felt that the doctrine of the trinity, in particular, prevented Jews and Muslims from accepting Christianity, and since it was both incomprehensible logically and not particularly well-supported by scripture, ought to be abandoned. For this and other innovations, he was accused of heresy by Catholics and Protestants alike. Fleeing from a trial in France where he stood accused by Catholic leaders, he stopped in Geneva and was recognized while attending a sermon by Calvin; he was detained there and tried on a bill of particulars listing 40 separate charges by the city of Geneva. Though he was not a citizen of Geneva and thus technically not under their laws, the government, in consultation with governments of surrounding districts, found him guilty of heresy and burned him at the stake. Calvin himself plead that Servetus be beheaded rather than burned for mercy’s sake, but was rebuffed by the Geneva Council.

Calvin explained the then-common sentiment that heretics should be killed in these terms:

Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.

He published a defense of his burning of Servetus in February of 1554. A few weeks later, a well-known publisher in Basel, Switzerland released a pamphlet entitled De haereticis, an sint persequendi (“Whether heretics should be persecuted,”) 180px-sebastiancastelliocontaining excerpts from 25 Christian writers both ancient and contemporary — including Calvin himself — defending the notion that differences of theological opinion should be tolerated. It was published under the pseudonym Martinus Bellius, but it was soon determined that the collector and author was Sebastian Castellio.

Castellio had already introduced the notions that filled De Haereticis in the dedication of his Latin translation of the Bible to Edward VI, the young, Protestant king of England. In it, Castellio had argued that religions make slow progress, and that in the pursuit of change, Christians accuse each other of outlandish heresies mostly for the sake of gaining ground — while at the same time, they accept Turks and Jews, who disagree with the faith in far greater severity than any heretic. This mild ironic criticism is now considered the very first manifesto to religious toleration.

Castellio’s pamphlet De Haeriticis begins with a benediction addressed to Duke Christoph of Württemberg, in which he argues forcefully that the energy of Christian disputation constitutes disobedience to Christ and is spent on unimportant things:

If thou, illustrious Prince, had informed thy subjects that thou wert coming to visit them at an unnamed time and had requested them to be prepared in white garments to meet thee on thy coming; what wouldst thou do, if, on arrival, thou shouldst find that instead of robing themselves in white they had occupied themselves in violent debate about thy person – some insisting that thou wert in France, others that thou were in Spain; some declaring that thou would come on horseback, others that thou would come by chariot; some holding that thou would come with great pomp, others that thou would come without train or following? And what especially wouldst thou say if they debated not only with words but with blows of fist and strokes of sword, and if some succeeded in killing and destroying others who differed from them? ‘He will come on horseback.’ ‘No, he won’t; he will come by chariot.’ ‘You lie.’ ‘No, I do not; you are the liar.’ ‘take that’ – a blow with the fist. ‘You take that’- a sword-thrust through the body. O Prince, what would you think of such citizens? Christ asked us to put on the white robes of a pure and holy life, but what occupies our thought? We dispute not only of the way to Christ, but of His revelation to God the Father, of the Trinity, of predestination, of free will, of the nature of God, of angels, of the condition of the soul after death, of a multitude of matters that are not essential for salvation, and matters, in fact, which never can be known until our hearts are pure, for they are things which must be spiritually perceived. (2)

Castellio described a general evil in the Church wherein Christians engage in all manner of personal sin, but dispute with each other over matters of theology: questions of baptism, or free will, or the nature of God. He argued instead for Christians to look to their own character, and amend their moral conduct, and to stop shedding the blood of those who disagree — most notably, of heretics. He spends a great deal of time discussing what a heretic is, exactly, noting that in many cases a heretic is merely one who disagrees. However, he concludes that heretics do exist, and he calls them “obstinate ones,” men who cannot be persuaded of the truth. He cites the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30, in which the master advises his servants not to attempt to separate the wheat from the tares (weeds that look like wheat in their earlier stages of growth) lest they root up good wheat along with the weeds, and says that the angels will come at the end and separate them. He cites St. Augustine, who concluded on the basis of that passage that “…the office of collecting the tares to be burned belongs to another, and no son of the Church should think it his business.” And he quotes Calvin from the 1536 edition of his Institutes, advising that excommunicated Christians should be persuaded with “…exhortation and teaching, clemency and mildness, [and] prayers to God” rather than with violence, even as non-Christians should be persuaded:

Far be it that we should approve of the means which many have employed hitherto to force them to our faith by denying them fire and the common elements and all the offices of humanity, and [by] persecuting them with the sword and arms. (3)

Castellio concludes that it is better for Christians to reach each other by means of persuasion and love, to downplay their differences, and to set aside squabbling over non-essentials.

Let us who are Christians not condemn one another, but, if we are wiser than they are, let us also be better and more merciful.

These ideas all seem obvious to the modern mind, but they were striking and astonishing notions at the time, and a number of clerics reacted to his ideas harshly, including Calvin. So Castellio published another book anonymously, entitled “Contra libellum Calvini in quo ostendere conatur haereticos jure gladii coercendos esse” (“Against the book of Calvin which calls for coercion of heretics by the sword.”) In this, Castellio presents what may be the first argument for separating the power of civil enforcement from the offices of the Church.

Castellio wrote:

To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine, they killed a man. To protect a doctrine is not the magistrate’s affair (what has the sword to do with doctrine?) but the teacher’s. But it is the magistrate’s affair to protect the teacher, as it is to protect the farmer and the smith, and the physician and others against injury. Thus if Servetus had wished to kill Calvin, the magistrate would properly have defended Calvin. But when Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.

Castellio’s argument seems to me to introduce three separate claims that are noteworthy:

  1. That Christians ought to meet differences of opinion regarding religious matters with reason, kindness, and mercy, and persuade rather than coerce;
  2. That matters of personal vice, like covetousness, greed, slander, hypocrisy, lying, foolishness, or unchastity, are at least as damaging to one’s Christian practice as are errors in doctrine concerning baptism, justification, faith, and so forth;
  3. That the state should not carry the sword to carry out the opinions of religious leaders.

The second of these is still a matter of dispute when one encounters modern disciples of Calvin. The first and the third, however, are the earliest precursors I have seen in the Western world to the modern notions that men should be free to speak their mind without fear of retribution by the government, and that government should not carry out the express opinion of the Church. We owe to Castellio a debt of gratitude for articulating, even pseudonymously, Christian notions essential to human liberty.


(1) Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume 8, chapter 13, http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/8_ch13.htm, 1910 edition reproduced and edited by the Electronic Bible Society, Dallas, Tx, 1998. See http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/About.htm for a complete table of contents.
(2) Excerpted from “Spiritual Reformers of the 16th & 17th Centuries,” by Rufus Jones, published in 1914. Found at http://www.christasus.com/History/SebastianCastellio.htm.
(3) Quoted by Curley, Edward, “Sebastian Castellio’s Erasmian Liberalism,” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, at http://www.sitemaker.umich.edu/emcurley/files/castellioerasmianliberalism.doc.

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