Sebastian Castellio

From: "Spiritual Reformers of the 16th & 17th Centuries,"

by Rufus Jones, published in 1914.

This book is a treasure trove of writings from contemporaries of Luther & Calvin & Erasmus who are not in our time main-stream, though many of them caused a stir in their own day. They ran somewhat contrary to what fast became orthodox reformation thought. . . Fred Pruitt

Two years after this appeal to the new Protestantism to make the great venture of spreading its truth by love and persuasion, there came from Geneva the decisive answer in the burning of Servetus, followed by the famous Defense before the world, written mainly by Calvin, of the course that had been taken. One month later, a brief Latin work appeared from the press followed in very short time by a French edition. The body of the work contained impressive passages in favor of toleration from Church Fathers, from Luther, Erasmus, Sebastian Franck, and others, concluding with a passage from “Basil Montfort,” a name which thinly veils Sebastian Castellio himself. The Preface was addressed to the Duke of Wurtemberg, bore the name of “Martinus Bellius,” and was beyond doubt written by Castellio, who inspired and directed the entire work, in which he was assisted by a very small group of refugees in Basle of similar ideas on this subject to his own. This Preface is one of the mother documents on freedom of conscience, from which in time came a large offspring, and it is, furthermore, an interesting interpretation of a type of Christianity then somewhat new in the world. Its simplicity, its human appeal, its restrained emotional power, its prophetic tone, its sincerity and depth of earnestness mark it as a distinct work of genius, almost in the class with Pascal’s Provincial Letters.

“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.”

With a striking boldness, but with beautiful simplicity of spirit, he describes “an honest follower of Christ” – and it is himself whom he is describing – “who believes in God the Father and in His Son Jesus Christ, and who wants to do His will, but cannot see that will just as others about him see it, in matters of intellectual formulation and in matters of external practice.” “I cannot,” he adds, “do violence to my conscience for fear of disobeying Christ. I must be saved or lost by my own personal faith, not by that of another. I ask you, whether Christ, who forgave those who went astray, and commanded His followers to forgive until seventy times seven, Christ who is the final Judge of us all, if He were here, would command a person like that to be killed!

 “O Christ, Creator and King of the world,” he cries out, “dost Thou see and approve these things? Hast Thou become a totally different person from what Thou wert? When Thou wert on earth, nothing could be more gentle and kind, more ready to suffer injuries. Thou wert like a sheep dumb before the shearers. Beaten, spit upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, crucified between thieves, Thou didst pray for those who injured Thee. Hast Thou changed to this? Art Thou now so cruel and contrary to Thyself? Dost Thou command that those who do not understand Thy ordinances and commandments as those over us require, should be drowned, or drawn and quartered, and burned at the stake!”

The Christian would hold this view now. It is a part of the necessary air we breathe. But at this crisis in modern history it was unforgivably new. One man’s soul had the vision, one man’s entire moral fiber throbbed with passion for it, and his rich intellectual nature pleaded for it as the only course of reason: “To burn a man is not to defend a doctrine, it is to burn a man!” But it was a voice crying in a wilderness, and from henceforth Castellio was a marked and dangerous man in the eyes of all who were opposed to “Bellianism” – as the “principal of toleration” was nicknamed in honor of Martinus Bellius  ---- and that included almost all the world. But to the end of his life, and in almost every one of his multitudinous tracts he continued to announce the principle of religious liberty, and to work for a type of Christianity which depended for its conquering power solely on its inherent truth and on its moral dynamic.

Calvin, who recognized the hand of Castellio in this powerful defense of freedom of thought, called his opponent “a monster full of poison and madness,” and proceeded to demolish him in a Reply. In his answer to this Reply, Castellio declares that Calvin’s act in burning Servetus was a bloody act, and that now his book is a direct menace to honest, pious people. “I,” he adds, “who have a horror of blood, propose to examine the book. I do not defend Servetus. I have never read his books. Calvin burned them together with their author. I do not want to burn Calvin or to burn his book. I am only going to answer it.” He notes that Calvin complains of “novelties and innovations,” a strange complaint, he thinks, from a man who “has introduced more innovations in ten years than the entire Church had introduced in six centuries!” All the sects, he reminds the great Reformer, claim to be founded on the Word of God. They all believe that their religion is true. Calvin says that his is the only true one. Each of the others says that his is the only true one. Calvin says that they are wrong. He makes himself (by what right I do not know) the judge and sovereign arbiter. He claims that he has on his side the sure evidence of the Word of God. Then why does he write so many books to prove what is evident? The truth is surely not evident to those who die denying that it is truth! Calvin asks how doctrine is to be guarded if heretics are not to be punished. “Doctrine,” cries Castellio, “Christ’s doctrine means loving one’s enemies, returning good for evil, having a pure heart and a hunger and thirst for righteousness. You may return to Moses if you will, but for us others Christ has come.”

Love, he constantly insists, is the supreme badge of any true Christianity, and the traits of the beatitudes in a person’s life are a surer evidence that he belongs in Christ’s family, than is the fact that he holds current opinions on obscure questions of belief. “Before God,” he writes in his Defensio, a work of the year 1562, to those who wish to hunt him off the face of the earth, “and from the bottom of my heart, I call you to the spirit of love.” “By the bowels of Christ, I ask and implore you to leave me in peace, to stop persecuting me. Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one another?”