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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 158. A Plea for Religious Liberty. Castellio and Beza.


Cf. § 126, p. 627, and especially Ferd. Buisson, Sébastien Castellion. Paris (Hachette et Cie), 1892. 2 vols. 8vo (I. 358–413; II. 1–28).


A month after Calvin’s defence of the death penalty of heretics, there appeared at Basel a pseudonymous book in defence of religious liberty, dedicated to Duke Christopher of Würtemberg.12131213    De haereticis, an sint persequendi, et omnino quomodo sit cum eis agendum multorum tum veterum tum recentiorum sententiae. Liber hoc tam turbulento tempore pernecessarius. Magdeburgi [false name for Basel] per Georgium Rausch, anno Domini 1554, mense Martio (173 pp., 8vo). The name of the editor who wrote the dedicatory preface is given as Martinus Bellius (in French, Martin Bellie), which was explained by the contemporaries as "Guerre àla guerre, guerre àceux qui usent du glaive." Buisson, I. 358. A copy which belonged to Boniface Amerbach, is in the University Library of Basel (II 15). It was edited and prefaced professedly by Martinus Bellius, whose real name has never been discovered with certainty. Perhaps it was Martin Borrhaus of Stuttgart (1499–1564), professor of Hebrew learning in the University of Basel, and known under the name of "Cellarius," in honor of his first protector, Simon Cellarius (not to be confounded with Michael Cellarius of Augsburg). He studied at Heidelberg and Wittenberg, appeared first among the Zwickau Prophets, and then in connection with Carlstadt (who ended his days likewise as a professor at Basel).12141214    See Riggenbach in Herzog,2 III. 166, and Buisson, II. 10 sq.  The book was misdated from Magdeburg, the stronghold of the orthodox Lutherans, in opposition to the tyranny of the Imperial Interim. A French edition appeared, nominally at Rouen, but was probably printed at Lyons, where Castellio had a brother in the printing business.12151215    Traictédes hérétiques, àsavoir si on les doit persécuter, et comme on se doit conduire avec eux, selon l’advis, opinion, et sentence de pleusieurs auteurs tant anciens que modernes: grandement nécessaire en ce temps plein de troubles, et tris utile àtous, et principalement aux Princes et Magistrats, pour cognoistre quel est leur office en une chose tant difficile et périlleuse. Rouen, Pierre Freneau, 1554 (139 pp., 8vo). I copy the title from Buisson, I. 358. He gives a full analysis and extracts (pp. 360 sqq.). The book is exceedingly rare.

Calvin at once suspected the true authors, and wrote to Bullinger, March 28, 1554: "A book has just been clandestinely printed at Basel under false names, in which Castellio and Curio pretend to prove that heretics should not be repressed by the sword. Would that the pastors of that church at length, though late, aroused themselves to prevent the evil from spreading wider."12161216    Opera, XV. 96. A few days afterwards Beza wrote to Bullinger about the same book, and gave it as his opinion that the feigned Magdeburg was a city on the Rhine [Basel], and that Castellio was the real author, who treated the most important articles of faith as useless or indifferent, and put the Bible on a par with the Ethics of Aristotle.12171217    Opera, XV. 97.

Castellio wrote, however, only a part of the book. He adopted the pseudonym of Basilius (i.e. Sebastian) Montfortius (i.e. Castellio).12181218    As Schweizer has shown, see above, p. 627. Buisson ignores Schweizer, but comes to the same conclusion (I. 404): "Basile est un équivalent trés plausible de Sébastien, et Montfortéveille une idée toute voisine de celle de Castellumou de Chatillon."

The body of this work consists of a collection of testimonies in favor of religious toleration, extracted from the writings of Luther (his book, Von weltlicher Obrigkeit, 1523), Brenz (who maintain that heresy as long as it keeps in the intellectual sphere should be punished only by the Word of God), Erasmus, Sebastian Frank, several Church Fathers (Lactantius, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustin, in his antiManichaean writings), Otto Brunsfeld (d. at Bern, 1534), Urbanus Rhegius (Lutheran theologian, d. 1541), Conrad Pellican (Hebrew professor at Zürich, d. 1556), Caspar Hedio, Christoph Hoffmann, Georg Kleinberg (a pseudonym) and even Calvin (in the first edition of his Institutes). This collection was probably made by Curio.

The epilogue is written by Castellio, and is the most important part of the book. He examines the different biblical and patristic passages quoted for and against intolerance. He argues against his opponents from the multiplicity of sects which disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, and concludes that, on their principles, they should all be exterminated except one. He justly charges St. Augustin with inconsistency in his treatment of the Donatists, for which, he says, he was punished by the invasion of the Arian Vandals. The lions turned against those who had unchained them. Persecution breeds Christian hypocrites in place of open heretics. It provokes counter-persecution, as was just then seen in England after the accession of Queen Mary, which caused the flight of English Protestants to Switzerland. In conclusion he gives an allegorical picture of a journey through the centuries showing the results of the two conflicting principles of force and liberty, of intolerance and charity, and leaves the reader to decide which of the two armies is the army of Jesus Christ.

Castellio anticipated Bayle and Voltaire, or rather the Baptists and Quakers. He was the champion of religious liberty in the sixteenth century. He claimed it in the name of the gospel and the Reformation. It was appropriate that this testimony should come from the Swiss city of Basel, the home of Erasmus.12191219    Michelet (Renaissance) says: "Un pauvre prote d’imprimerie, Sébastien Chateillon, posa pour tout l’avenir la grande loi de la tolérance." Buisson has chosen this sentence as the motto of his work. He calls Castellio (II. 268) "dans le protestantisme français, le premier des modernes."

But the leaders of the Swiss Reformation in Geneva and Zürich could see in this advocacy of religious freedom only a most dangerous heresy, which would open the door to all kinds of errors and throw the Church of Christ into inextricable confusion.

Theodore Beza, the faithful aid of Calvin, took up his pen against the anonymous sceptics of Basel, and defended the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy. His work appeared in September, 1554; that is, five months after the book of Martinus Bellius. It was Beza’s first published theological treatise (he was then thirty-five years of age).12201220    It was entitled: De haereticis a civili magistratu puniendis libellus, adversus Martini Bellii farraginem et novorum Academicorum sectam, TheodoroBezaVezelioauctore. Oliva Roberti Stephani, MDLIIII (271 pp., 8vo). Reprinted in his Tractationes Theologicae, 2d ed., 1582, pp. 85-169. Nicolas Colladon published a French translation: Traittéde l’authoritédu magistrat en la punition des hérétiques, etc., 1560. Buisson, II. 19.

The book has a polemic and an apologetic part. In the former, Beza tries to refute the principle of toleration; in the latter, to defend the conduct of Geneva. He contends that the toleration of error is indifference to truth, and that it destroys all order and discipline in the Church. Even the enforced unity of the papacy is much better than anarchy. Heresy is much worse than murder, because it destroys the soul. The spiritual power has nothing to do with temporal punishments; but it is the right and duty of the civil government, which is God’s servant, to see to it that he receives his full honor in the community. Beza appeals to the laws of Moses and the acts of kings Asa and Josiah against blasphemers and false prophets. All Christian rulers have punished obstinate heretics. The oecumenical synods (from 325 to 787) were called and confirmed by emperors who punished the offenders. Whoever denies to the civil authority the right to restrain and punish pernicious errors against public worship undermines the authority of the Bible. He cites in confirmation passages from Luther, Melanchthon, Urbanus Rhegius, Brenz, Bucer, Capito, Bullinger, Musculus, and the Church of Geneva. He closes the argument as follows: "The duty of the civil authority in this matter is hedged about by these three regulations: (1) It must strictly confine itself to its own sphere, and not presume to define heresy; that belongs to the Church alone. (2) It must not pass judgment with regard to persons, advantages, and circumstances, but with pure regard to the honor of God. (3) It must proceed after quiet, regular examination of the heresy and mature consideration of all the circumstances, and inflict such punishment as will best secure the honor due to the divine Majesty and the peace and unity of the Church."

This theory, which differs little from the papal theory of intolerance, except in regard to the definition of heresy and the mode and degree of punishment, was accepted for a long time in the Reformed Churches with few dissenting voices; but, fortunately, there was no occasion for another capital punishment of heresy in the Church of Geneva after the burning of Servetus.


The evil which Calvin and Beza did was buried with their bones; the greater good which they did will live on forever. Dr. Willis, though a decided apologist of Servetus, makes the admission: "Calvin must nevertheless be thought of as the real herald of modern freedom. Holding ignorance to be incompatible with the existence of a people at once religious and free, Calvin had the schoolhouse built beside the Church, and brought education within the reach of all. Nor did he overlook the higher culture."12211221    Servetus and Calvin, p. 614. See below, § 161.




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