When the Scottish reformer John Knox, John Calvin’s disciple, wrote in 1560 in favour of the death penalty for heretics, he was attacking Sebastian Castellio in particular. John Knox did not know then that he was attacking the father of the idea of religious freedom in Christianity.
To Knox, Castellio was the “champion” of the English separatists who did not believe in the predestination described by John Calvin, but in free will. Knox made the association probably because the contemporary separatists claimed that to take the life of someone of another faith is a sin. Their revolutionary idea was born out of the essence of religious freedom, which John Wycliffe and John Tyndale had already preached in England and for which the Czech Jan Hus had been burned at the stake—namely, that everyone is free to read Scripture for themselves and to live in accordance with it.
Knox’s text only shows that there were several poles in sixteenth-century Europe that incriminated civil punishments against those who held other religious beliefs. Sebastian Castellio was the most significant of these poles.
The scholar who matched Calvin
Castellio’s personality is impressive. Probably not even the criticism of the heretic Miguel Servet haunted John Calvin as much as that of Sebastian Castellio in the last 20 years of Calvin’s life—especially since the two men had originally been friends. Castellio had lived in Calvin’s house in Strasbourg when Calvin had been forced to leave Geneva, and after Castellio had fled the persecution in Lyon.
In 1541, Castellio, who had recently moved to Geneva, supported Calvin’s return to the Swiss city, and Calvin offered Castellio an important teaching position. However, their relationship gradually deteriorated. Some consider that there was simply no room in Geneva for two such great minds, assessing that Sebastian Castellio was as talented as Calvin as a linguist and researcher, if not more talented.
His book Dialogi Sacri was one of the most popular textbooks of the century. Perhaps this is the reason why Calvin didn’t support Castellio in his endeavour to become a pastor, so Castellio decided to leave Geneva.
A pioneer’s burden
From Basel, Castellio began to attack Calvin’s non-belief in the individual’s freedom to believe differently. In retrospect, the debate between the two is one of the most significant of the Reformation period.
The book De Haereticis (Concerning Heretics), published in 1554 and attributed by historians to Castellio, is an anthology in which Castellio pursues the positions of several prominent theologians on the subject of religious freedom, emphasising that only those in favour thereof are faithful to the spirit of Christ. De Haereticis is considered the most important European work on religious freedom in the 16th century.
In 1545, Castellio finished two translations of the Bible, in Latin and in French. The Latin translation shows his erudition, and the French one shows his intention—similar to that of the great reformers—of placing the Bible in the hands of the people. As an avid reader of the Bible, Castellio believed that not all theological divergences are essential for salvation.
However, Castellio was not on the path to celebrating theological diversity. He expressed his disapproval of heretics, although he remained steadfast in his belief that the only weapon against them was the Word, which should be used to persuade the lost. Force was never an option. Through careful exegesis of the passages used by those who defended the persecution and death penalty of heretics, Castellio laid a solid biblical basis for religious freedom.
In a later work, Contra Libellum Calvini (Against Calvin’s Book), Castellio creates a dialogue between himself and Calvin using the words of the latter from the book Defensio orthodoxae fidei de sacra Trinitate (Defense of the Orthodox Faith concerning the Holy Trinity).
Going into great detail, Castellio argues in favour of religious freedom. No religious leader before him had such an understanding of the matter. The traditional conception was so strong that, even two centuries later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an illustrious representative of the Enlightenment, expressed it in his famous Social Contract (1762): in the future ideal state, those who do not believe in religious truth must be exiled or even killed.
The verdict of history
Castellio was the first Protestant and implicitly Christian voice to expose in a complex way the need for religious freedom, based on biblical arguments. His place in history has thus been secured. An exchange of remarks from Contra Libellum Calvini summarises excellently the whole debate of the time and also shows how much Christianity owes Castellio:
Calvin: “We now see that the ministers of the Gospel ought to be prepared to bear the cross, to face the hatred and scandal of the world, just as the Lord has instructed them, without any other arms than patience. And yet kings are commanded to defend the doctrine of piety by their patronage.”
Castellio, under the pseudonym Vaticanus: “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but is to kill a man. When they put Servetus to death in Geneva, they did not defend a doctrine, but killed a man. The protection of doctrine is not incumbent upon magistrates (what has the sword to do with doctrine?) but doctors of the Church.”
Norel Iacob is the editor-in-chief of The Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.