Mere Christianity: The Prequel

In the classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, the most important writer of the 20th century, explores the common ground upon which all of those of Christian faith stand together.

Lewis sums up this common ground:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.

The “somehow” part often causes great difficulty.  Lewis continues:

There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names – Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper.

Each one of which has proven, throughout history, to be a minefield.

As is well-known, such controversies have plagued Christians from the beginning.  The Apostles Peter and Paul had a falling out, and it doesn’t get much earlier than that.  The earliest official Church split came after Chalcedon, on a point so nuanced, I suspect few adherents of one side or the other could articulate it using words available to human beings.

This all was supercharged in the Reformation.

Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing.

We move forward to John Calvin and the case of Michael Servetus.  By this point, Calvin had already approved or consented to the beheading of Jacques Gruet – for having put a placard on Calvin’s pulpit, calling him a “puffed-up hypocrite,” for mocking the authority of Scripture, and for appealing to France to intervene in Geneva.  After being tortured twice daily for thirty days, bringing on his confession, Gruet was beheaded.

More damaging to Calvin’s reputation at the time was the case of Servetus.  Referred to as “an eclectic theologian from Spain” by Massing, he held what are described as maverick and even unbalanced positions.  He would write against Calvin’s views in the Institutes, for example, rejecting predestination and original sin, and that infant baptism was diabolical.  He further deprecated the Trinity.

An exchange of letters between Calvin and Servetus ensued. With Servetus finally announcing that the Archangel Michael was preparing himself for Armageddon, and that he, Servetus, would be his armor-bearer.  Calvin sent these letters to the Catholic inquisitors in Lyon, and Servetus was arrested – but escaped a few days later.

Servetus would wander for three months in France.  Inexplicably, he decided to turn up in Geneva, and even more confounding, he would attend Calvin’s lectures the day after his arrival to the city.  Although disguised, he was recognized and Calvin had one of his disciples file capital charges against him.  He was then tried and sentenced to death.  His request to be beheaded rather than burned was denied; he took a half-hour in the flames to die.

Calvin approved.  “God makes clear that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy… We are to crush beneath our heel all affections of nature when his honor is involved.  The father should not spare the child, nor the brother his brother, nor the husband his own wife or the friend who is dearer to him than life.”

Among humanists, this execution caused a storm.  And this is where the author to the prequel of Mere Christianity comes in.  Sebastian Castellio was a professor of Greek at the University of Basel, and he felt compelled to speak out.  Concerning Heretics, Whether They Should Be Persecuted is assumed written by him, and is considered the first modern defense of religious tolerance.

From an essay regarding Castellio’s book, by Marian Hillar:

The book contained extracts promoting toleration taken from the writings of some twenty-five Christian writers, ancient and modern, including Luther and Calvin himself.

It seems toleration and pecking order are inversely related; as it was for the Church, so it now was in the Reformers.  In fact, Castellio was first attracted to Calvin’s Reformed tradition, seeing in it a way out of the intolerance of the Church.  Calvin had previously even offered Castellio the position of teacher and rector at the newly organized academy of Geneva.

They would slowly have a falling out, as Calvin sensed too much of an independent spirit in this underling – differing views on the sacredness of the Song of Solomon and on Christ’s descent into hell.  He would be hounded by Calvin the rest of his life.  This affected his health, and he would die at the age of forty-eight.

From Hillar, paraphrasing Castellio:

Who would wish to be a Christian, when he sees that those who confessed the name of Christ were destroyed by Christians themselves with fire, water and the sword without mercy and were more cruelly treated than brigands and murderers?  Who would not think Christ a Moloch, or some such god, if he wished that men should be immolated to him and burned alive?

Returning to Massing, Castellio would write that among Christians…

…contention had become so fierce that scarcely anyone could “endure another who differs at all from him.”

The Trinity, free will, and a host of other “irresolvable” issues (Massing’s terminology) that were not critical to salvation – all were subject of fights unto the death.  Castellio was careful not to defend any such doctrines; his argument was merely that of toleration on such matters.

Satan himself “could not devise anything more repugnant to the nature and will of Christ!”  Given the many faults all men have, the best course for each would be to look within and correct his own life rather than to condemn that of others.

Castellio would chastise Calvin in a subsequent work, Against Calvin’s Book:

“If Servetus had attacked you by arms, you had rightly been defended by the magistrate; but since he opposed you in writings, why did you oppose them with iron and flame?”

Followed by, perhaps, his most famous pronouncement:

“To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.  When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine; they killed a man. “


So much for Luther’s idea of Sola Scriptura; interpretation was taking on a role as important, if not more important, than it had in the Catholic Church.  Calvin would establish the Genevan Consistory:

It was in effect a new priesthood, taking the place of the Catholic clergy and in some ways exceeding it in power and authority.

This was compounded by the desire for integration of church and king into monopoly states.  The wars of the next 100 years would be devastating and would come to an end only with the Peace of Westphalia, birthing the modern nation-state and cementing the prince’s monopoly rule.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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