Sebastian Châtellion




From RATIONALISM IN EUROPE, 1894 by William Lecky

[ . . ]   When Calvin burnt Servetus . . this, . . was almost unanimously applauded by all sections of Protestants. [ . . ] Only one man of eminence ventured openly to oppose it, and that man, who may be regarded as the first avowed champion of complete religious liberty, was also one of the most eminent of the precursors of rationalism. He wrote under the name of Martin Bellius, but his real name was Châtillon, or, as it was generally latinised, Castellio.[1]

Castellio was a Frenchman, a scholar of remarkable acquirements, and a critic of still more remarkable boldness. He had been at one time a friend of Calvin, and had filled a professorship at Geneva, but the daring spirit which he carried into every sphere soon scandalised the leaders of the Reformation. Having devoted himself early to Biblical criticism, he had translated the Bible into Latin, and in the course of his labours he came to the conclusion that the Song of Solomon was simply a Jewish love song, and that the allegory that was supposed to underlie it was purely imaginary. A still graver offence in the eyes of the Geneva theologians was his emphatic repudiation of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. He assailed it not so much by any train of arguments, or by an appeal to authority, as on the broad grounds of its repugnance to our sense of right, and he developed its moral atrocity in a manner that elicited from Beza a torrent of almost frantic invective. Driven from Geneva, he at last obtained a professorship at Basle, where he denounced the murder of Servetus, and preached for the first time in Christendom the duty of absolute toleration, based upon the rationalistic doctrine of the innocence of error. The object of doctrines, he said, is to make men better, and those which do not contribute to this end are absolutely unimportant. The history of dogmas should be looked upon as a series of developments, contributing to the moral perfection of mankind. First of all, polytheism was supreme. [ . . ] 'To discuss the difference between the Law and the Gospel, gratuitous remission of sins o r imputed righteousness, is as if a man were to discuss whether a prince was to come on horseback, or in a chariot, or dressed in white or in red.' To persecute for such questions is absurd, and not only absurd but atrocious. For if the end of Christianity be the diffusion of a spirit of beneficence, persecution must be its extreme antithesis ; and if persecution be an essential element of a religion, that religion must be a curse to mankind.

Such new and startling sentiments as these, coming from a writer of considerable eminence, attracted much attention, and aroused great indignation. Both Calvin and Beza replied in a strain of the fiercest invective. Calvin especially, from the time when Castellio left Geneva, pursued him with untiring hatred, laboured hard to procure his expulsion from Basle, denounced him in the preface to an edition of the New Testament[2] as 'one who had been chosen by Satan to deceive the thoughtless and indifferent,' and attempted to blast his character by the grossest calumnies. In the friendship of Socinus, Castellio found some compensation for the general hatred of which he was the object, and he appears to have inclined greatly to the doctrines of his friend. Separated alike from the Protestants and the Catholics, his prospects in life were blighted, he sank into a condition of absolute destitution, and is said to have been almost reduced to literal starvation, when death relieved him of his sufferings. A few kindly sentences of Montaigne, who pronounced his closing scene to have been a disgrace to mankind,d have in some degree rescued this first apostle4 of toleration from oblivion.

Some years after the murder of Servetus, Beza, in relating its circumstances, declared that Castellio and Socinus were the only men who had opposed it ; and although this statement is not strictly true,[3] it but very little exaggerates the unanimity that was displayed. When we recollect the great notoriety of this execution, and also its aggravated character, so general an approbation seems to show clearly not only that the spirit of early Protestantism was as undoubtedly intolerant as the spirit of Catholicism, which is an unquestionable fact, but also that it flinched as little from the extreme consequences to which intolerance leads. It seems to show that the comparative mildness of Protestant persecutions results much more from the circumstances under which they took place, than from any sense of the atrocity of burning the heretic.   (etc)


[1]   His name was originally Châtillon or Châtellion, which, after the fashion of the age, he latinised into Castellio ; but at the beginning of his career, some one having called him by mistake Castalio, he was so charmed by the name, which, by reminding him of the Castalian fount, seemed a good augury for his literary career, that he adopted it. See, for a full account of his life, Bayle, art. Castalio, and Henry, Life of Calvin ;, and, for a short notice, Hallam, Hist. of Literature, vol. i. p. 557. Besides the works I have noticed in the text, Castalio translated the dialogues of the famous Socinian Ochino, and an anonymous German work of the mystical school of Tauler, edited the Sibylline verses (his preface is given to the recent edition by Alexander [Paris, 1846]), wrote a defence of his translation of the Bible (which translation seems to have been an indifferent performance), and published some minor essays or dialogues.

[2]   See Bayle and Henry. Castellio, when publishing his edition of the Bible, made the preface the vehicle of a warm appeal for toleration (which is given in Cluten). Calvin, among other things, accused him of stealing wood for his fire—and accusation which was solemnly refuted. Bayle has collected much evidence to show that Castellio was a man of spotless character, singularly loved by those about him, intensely amiable, keenly sensible of the attacks of which he was the object. Castellio has himself made a collection of the epithets Calvin in one short work heaped upon him : 'Vocas me subinde in Gallico libello : blasphemum calumniatorem, malignum, canem latrantem, plenum ignorantiæ et bestialitatis, sacrarum literarum impurum corruptorem, Dei prorsus derisorem, omnis religionis contemptorem, impudentem, impurum canem, impium, obscœnum, torti perversique ingenii, vagum, baltronem, nebulonem vero appellas octies ; et hæ omnia longe copiosius quam a me r ecensentur facis in libello duorum foliorum et quidem perparvorum.'

[3]   It is sufficiently refuted by Beza himself in his answer to Castellio, when he speaks of those who objected to the burning of Servetus (he calls them 'emissaries of Satan') as belonging to a sect. He also specifies two or three writers, of whom the principal seems to have been Clebergius. I have never been able to meet with the work of this author, but Beza represents him as objecting absolutely to all forms of persecution, and basing this objection on the absolute innocence of honest error ; which doctrine again he rested on the impossibility of ascertaining certainly religious truths, as demonstrated by the continuance of controversy. [ . . ] Hallam has also exhumed three or four books or pamphlets that were written at the same time in favour of toleration. Acontius (Acanacio) seems to have been one of the most distinguished of these authors. Hallam says (Hist. of Literature) his book is, 'perhaps, the first wherein the limitation of fundamental articles of Christ ianity to a small number is laid down at considerable length. He instances among doctrines which he does not reckon fundamental, those of the Real Presence and of the Trinity.' Acontius was born at Trent. He adopted sceptical or indifferent opinions, verging on Socinianism ; he took refuge in England, and received a pension from Elizabeth. There is a full notice of him in an anonymous French history of Socinianism of very great research (1723), ascribed to Guichard or to Lamy [ . . ]. The hand of Socinus was suspected in some of these works. That of Bellius was by some ascribed to him. So, too, was a work now attributed to an author named Minos Celso, concerning whom scarcely anything is known, except that, like Socinus, he was born at Sienna.   (See Biog. Univ., arts. Servetus and Celso.)

\ Some notes omitted — (WPT) \

Revised edition.
New York : Appleton 1895,
Vol. II, pp. 52-57.


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