Sebastian Castellio is one of the great forgotten men of the Reformation. A brilliant scholar and thinker considered by many the greatest mind in Geneva, yet he was the only minister in Geneva during Calvin’s day to risk his life to assist the sick during the Black Plague. A devoted family man, he worked any job possible to support his family even though he was mocked and slandered for the work he took to provide for them because it was considered too subservient. When not working to provide for his family, he spent much of his life passionately translating the Bible into French so those from his native land could learn the truth of Scripture.
However, his greatest contributions were likely his doctrines on freedom of religious thought without persecution. He was one of the first thinkers to relate Christ’s teachings on the Sermon on the Mount as a call to freedom of religion, and that Christians should not kill heretics. At the time, almost everyone thought it was fine to kill someone who had a different perspective on theology. Even the great scholar, John Calvin (who made many fine contributions to Christian thought) did not see anything wrong with killing heretics. Into this world, Castellio boldly proclaimed that killing heretics and squelching freedom of thought was not the way Christ spread His kingdom. He (rightly) called into question Geneva’s killing of Michael Servetus for heretical views (which Castellio did not deny were heretical, but believed the punishment unjust). For his bold stand, he was called a “beast” by Calvin and was stripped of the opportunity to hold a position as a top scholar in the future in Geneva or surrounding cities (which he almost certainly would have been able to do had he kept his mouth shut and violated his conscience). He died in poverty, having done all he could to provide for his family. Not content with his death, his enemies dug up his body and burned it in retaliation for his stances against abuse of power. However, his voice was not silenced in the end…
Years later when the Arminians were being slaughtered for disagreeing with the doctrines of Calvinism (Calvinism did much good during the Reformation by standing boldly for truth, but now the pendulum of their zeal had swung too far with many Calvinists physically punishing or killing anyone they deemed heretical), Castellio’s works sprung to life again. His writings were published frequently in nations like Holland in a plea to not kill those with differing views than those held by the Synod of Dort. Though persecution continued for a time, eventually Castellio’s doctrine based on Christ’s teaching to love your enemy as yourself won out, and differing theological views were allowed without capital punishment.
Today, Castellio’s doctrines that he saw in the life of Christ are widespread, and have had a profound impact on freedom of religion across many nations, including the United States. His doctrine of separation between church and state was a particularly beneficial concept we now consider foundational to the Constitution of the United States. He may not be a very famous figure in history, but he was certainly an important one.
The next time you feel your life hasn’t amounted to much, consider Sebastian Castellio. A man who was so hated by his enemies in Geneva, his body was dug up and burned, and he was forced to live a life of poverty working hard jobs in order to provide for his family. Yet out of it all, he now has had a profound impact on modern society due to his faithfulness to his God and conscience.
In the words of Castellio, “The friend of Truth obeys not the multitude, but the Truth.” Amen.
This post was written by Rev Jonathan D McClure.
Rev McClure consulted these sources:
“Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century” by J. W. Allen