When we think of the big names associated with the Sixteenth century reformation, Sebastian Castellio is not among then. Luther, Calvin and Erasmus are some of the few big names that we think of. Unlike these big reformers, who are remembered for the development of different theological theories, Castellio arguably promoted a more important idea; the idea of tolerance.
So, who was Sebastian Castellio? He was born in 1515 at Saint-Martin-du-Frêne in the village of Bresse of Dauphine in Savoy. Castellio was a highly educated man, having studied at the University of Lyons and being fluent in a variety of languages including Italian, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. During his own lifetime, he was recognised by his fellow humanists and theologians as being a leading figure in his fields. Originally a strong Roman Catholic, he was drawn into reform after witnessing the burning of ‘heretics’ at Lyons and went to Strassburg in 1540 where he adopted the reformed religion and met John Calvin, who he would go on to have a defining relationship with. Castellio followed Calvin to Geneva in 1542, where he was given teaching position at the Geneva Academy, where he was to further make his mark as a scholar. Both of his translations of the Bible; the one into Latin in 1551 and the one into his own vernacular French in 1555 call for toleration. The Latin version was dedicated to Edward VI of England and is considered to be one of the first works which calls for toleration and understanding.
Amid the religious conflict and persecution which was taking place in the Sixteenth century, Castellio’s ideas stand out, and because of this he could arguably be deemed a man who was ahead of his own time. Instead of persecution, he recommended toleration and more gentle persuasion in order to spread the message of the Gospel, as well as being merciful to people who were not Christians as they were people who had not yet come to know the ‘truth’. The idea of dealing with different theological differences with love instead of with hate in order to in turn show the love of Christ is an idea which is apparent in modern religious thinking today. As Castellio himself puts it ‘Who would wish to serve Christ on condition that a difference of opinion on a controversial point with those in authority be punished by burning alive at the command of Christ himself?’.
Castellio was to come into conflict with Calvin, a man who had previously inspired and assisted him, over the issue of heretics. One of the best examples of this is in regards to the case of Michael Servetus, a theologian who was killed in Geneva for ‘heresy’. Castellio saw this as a murder of Servetus by Calvin, who he thought should have rebuked Servetus’s work with words and reason rather than by violent means. He saw it not as a defence of a doctrine, which was the reasoning behind the execution since aspects of Servetus’s work had involved an unorthodox look at the trinity, but an unjust killing. Castellio also believed that with guidance of the Holy Spirit, God’s word would be revealed and would help to clear up uncertainties in the Bible – the different sects of Christianity having partly been formed by disagreement about certain aspects of the Bible. However, like Calvin, Castellio has no love for people who were irreligious and who blatantly insulted the essential tenants of Christianity. Arguably, this tolerance came from the fact that Castellio believed that in order to be a Christian, you had to believe in God and Jesus Christ in his role as the Saviour, rather than the theological constructs which was a part of both Catholicism and Protestantism.
So why should Castellio be classed as one of our unknown heroes? He was one of the first figures to call for tolerance; a call which stretched from the Catholic Church to Calvin himself. This idea was revolutionary for a time in which there was so much religious conflict and extreme ways to do with the so-called ‘heretics’ of the time. The movement of liberal Christianity and tolerance grew out of Castellio’s movement and his mode of thought, which was passed down through his associates and followers in Basel. This idea of religious freedom and tolerance would eventually be adopted by the majority of Christian churches and eventually by the Catholic Church, whose actions against heretics in Geneva originally prompted him to join the reformed religion, as part of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-5.