Above: Sebastian Castellio
Image in the Public Domain
SEBASTIAN CASTELLIO (1515-DECEMBER 29, 1563)
Prophet of Religious Liberty
To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.
–Sebastian Castellio, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), page 126
Certain officially recognized saints of the Reformation era trouble me. For example, I consult Anglican calendars and read about prominent churchmen who denied the existence of the right to dissent theologically. Some of these churchmen went so far as to order the execution of dissenters or at least to consent to these judicial killings. (It is not technically murder if it is legal.) And that is what I find within my faith tradition, now one so tolerant that some accuse it of having become too liberal. Better too liberal than likely to persecute dissenters, I say! I also ponder the Roman Catholic calendar of saints and find the names of similarly troubling people there. Overall, I have generally negative opinions of Thomas Cranmer, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and the Popes at the time–all of whom cover much theological ground collectively. I have generally low opinions of them because they proceeded from the ubiquitous assumption that
error has no rights,
so they persecuted those who disagreed with them or consented to the persecution of those who held other beliefs. This did not glorify God.
I can, however, respect Sebastian Castellio without any reservations.
Castellio, born at Saint-Martin-du-Frene, France, in 1515, was a scholar and a man ahead of his time. He, educated at the University of Lyons, was a master of six languages: French, Italian, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In January 1540 our saint, then in his mid-twenties, witnesses the execution of three Lutherans as heretics at Lyons. This “act of faith” had such an effect on him that he left France for Switzerland and the Roman Catholic Church for the Reformed Church. In 1542 John Calvin, the theocrat of Geneva, appointed Castellio the Rector of the College of Geneva. The following year, during an outbreak of plague, our saint did what many clergymen refused to do–minister to the sick and the dying. Despite his lived piety, Castellio’s request for ordination met with rejection. Perhaps jealousy among clergymen he had embarrassed by ministering to victims of plague was among the reasons for this result. Officially Castellio was heterodox and too liberal. In layman’s terms, he rejected the doctrine of Double Predestination, which he considered abhorrent. Our saint had to leave Geneva. He moved to Basel, Switzerland. After years of grinding poverty Castellio finally became a professor of Greek in that city, where he spent the rest of his life.
In 1553, at Geneva, John Calvin ordered theologian Michael Servetus, who had denied the Holy Trinity, burned at the stake on the charge of heresy. The reformer and theocrat reasoned that one function of the magistrate was to defend true doctrine and therefore to glorify God. This execution troubled many, including Castellio. He expressed his objections in On Heretics: Whether They Should Be Punished by the Magistrate, which he published under a pseudonym. He argued that to kill a person in the name of God is a blasphemous act. A Christian’s first duty is to love his neighbor as he loves himself, our saint wrote; to execute heretics (alleged or actual) violates this principle. Furthermore, Castellio wrote, the competing sects of Christianity not only disagreed with each other, but each of them operated from the assumption that it was obeying the Word of God. Everyone was a heretic, according to others:
I can discover no more than this, that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree.
–Quoted in Ellsberg, All Saints (1997), page 127
The pseudonym did not hide Castellio’s identity for long. When he died on December 29, 1563, legal proceedings against him were underway. The Religious Wars had begun. Many people would have lived longer had religious toleration been the rule. Furthermore, slaughtering people in the name of Jesus did not glorify God.
In this post I describe Castellio as a “Prophet of Religious Liberty.” In so doing I quote Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints (1997). I understand that there is no such thing as absolute religious liberty, even in a pluralistic society with a (properly) secular state; we all must, for the common good, sacrifice some rights without trampling individual rights either. As long as one does not endanger public health and safety or the most basic civil rights and liberties in the name of religious liberty, I have no objection. Certainly the statement that one should not execute or incarcerate heretics (alleged or actual) should receive widespread support.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 21, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS MIROCLES OF MILAN AND EPIPHANIUS OF PAVIA, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS
THE FEAST OF SAINTS ALBAN ROE AND THOMAS REYNOLDS, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND MARTYRS
THE FEAST OF SAINT GASPAR DEL BUFALO, FOUNDER OF THE MISSIONARIES OF THE PRECIOUS BLOOD
THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN YI YON-ON, ROMAN CATHOLIC CATECHIST AND MARTYR IN KOREA
Almighty God, we praise you for your servant Sebastian Castellio,
through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life.
Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit,
whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 3:11-23
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60