About Heretics: Should they be Persecuted? (16th-century guest blog post)

Supplice_des_AmauriciensToday’s “guest post” is by Sebastian Castellio, a 16th-century reformer, pastor, and theologian from France. He was good friends with John Calvin for quite some time, but if there is one big, black, dark stain on the reputation of Calvin, it is his overseeing the burning of the heretic Michael Servetus. The Reformation years were a time of great strife within Christianity and much blood was shed simply because people held different doctrinal convictions. One of the first widely respected people to vehemently fight against this was Castellio. Today, especially in light of last week’s post on denominations, I want to reproduce a small portion of a pamphlet he wrote right after hearing about Servetus’ execution. This event tore apart his and Calvin’s friendship.

Most of the Christian Church doesn’t burn or kill those other Christians with wom we disagree. But still, our modern forms of “persecution” and labeling as “heretic” remains. Blog posts, message boards, tweets, Facebook comments, and passive-aggressive interviews fill the Christian blogosphere. And yet, in a post-Christian America, I find this to be increasingly unnecessary, silly, and shameful. My favorite Castellio quote is this:

To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.

I think the same can be said about dumb comments, blog posts, and tweets that aim to take down others that are just as sincerely trying to follow God as we are. As you read this, imagine today’s forms of attack in place of the overtly violent ones mentioned by Castellio, and I think you’ll agree this is a important a read today as ever. (This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. If you’d like to read the unedited excerpt, you can find it in this preview of Hans Hillerbrand’s The Protestant Reformation.)


The better a man knows the truth, the less is he inclined to condemn others, as appears in the case of Christ and the apostles. But he who “lightly” condemns others still shows thereby that he knows nothing fully, because he cannot bear the difference of others. Because to “know” something is to know how to put it into practice. He who does not know how to act mercifully and kindly does not “know” the nature of mercy and kindness, just as he who cannot blush does not know the nature of shame.

If we were to conduct ourselves in this fashion we should be able to dwell together in concord. Even though in some matters we disagreed, yet should we consent together and forbear one another in love, which is the bond of peace, until we arrive at the unity of the faith.

But now, when we strive with hate and persecutions we go from bad to worse. Nor are we mindful of our roles as preachers of the gospel, since we are wholly taken up with condemnation and the gospel because of us is made a reproach to unbelievers. For when they see us attacking one another with the fury of beasts, and the weak oppressed by the strong, these unbelievers feel horror and detestation for the gospel, as if it made us act this way, and we abominate even Christ Himself, as if He commanded us to do such things. We rather degenerate into an unbeliever than convert them into Christians.

Who would wish to be a Christian, when they saw that those who confessed the name of Christ were destroyed by Christians themselves with fire, water, and the sword [and the blog post] without mercy and more cruelly treated than thieves and murderers? Who would not think Christ an evil mythological god, if he wished that people should be immolated to him and burned alive?

Who would wish to serve Christ on condition that a difference of opinion on a controversial point wold end in the fiery torture, even though from the midst of the flames he should still call with a loud voice upon Christ, and should cry out that he believed in Him? Imagine Christ, the judge of all, present. Imagine Him pronouncing the sentence and applying the torch. Who would not hold Christ for a Satan? What more could Satan do than burn those who call upon the name of Christ?

O Creator and King of the world, do You see these things? Have You become so changed, so cruel, so contrary to Yourself? When You were on earth none was more mild, more merciful, more patient of injustice. As a sheep before the Shearer You were silent. When scourged, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, and crucified shamefully among thieves, You prayed for them who did this wrong. Are You now so changed? I beg You in the name of Your Father, do You now command that those who do not understand Your precepts as the mighty demand, be drowned in water, cut with lashes to the entrails, sprinkled with salt, dismembered by the sword, burned at a slow fire, [mocked and shamed in social media] and otherwise tortured in every manner and as long as possible?

Do You O Christ, command and approve of these things? Are they Your pastors who make these sacrifices? Are You present when they summon You and do You eat human flesh? If You, Christ, do these things or if You command that they be done, what have You left for the devil? Do You do the very same things as Satan? O blasphemies and shameful audacity of humams, who dare to attribute to Christ that which they do by His command, using instruments like the Phalaris of classical antiquity–the bronze bull in which a man could be burned, and the cries of the victim would seem to issue from the nostrils of the bull….

Would that today there were not such violence. I see some who impose opinions, often false, like oracles upon their disciples. New articles of faith are forged and thrown like a snare about the Conscience of future generations of Christians, sowing thereby the seeds of persecution. Thessecond future disciples without doubt if they become powerful will think that heretics are to be persecuted and will persecute those whom they hold as heretics, that is, those who reject their interpretations.

O God, the Father of light, avert this sequel. Be appeased by the punishments visited upon our fathers and ourselves and enlighten future believers.

And you, Christians yet to be, beware of this outcome. Be warned by our example and do not so adhere to the interpretations of men as not to put them to the test of reason, sense, and Scripture. And you, scholars, avoid this course. Do not be so arrogant that you bring the souls and bodies of many into peril by your authority.

[image credit: Wikimedia Commons]


2 thoughts on “About Heretics: Should they be Persecuted? (16th-century guest blog post)

  1. Is there a way to challenge the views of those that are potentially dangerous to “the flock” as it were? Is it sometimes loving to people (including the person with whom you disagree) to call heresy what it is? (not talking about having a different perspective on the origins of the world or baptism or something like that, but actually challenging the foundations of Christian faith)


  2. Pingback: Some Hopefully Not-Crazy Musings on Calvinism & Predestination | Prodigal Paul | the long way home

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