Wednesday, March 10, 2021

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.


  1. A bit of devastating backstory to Calvin...I had no idea, thank you.

    1. I had heard before that he ran a tough ship in Geneva. I didn't realize how tough.

    2. Here's Kuehnelt-Leddihn had to say about Calvin:

      "Calvin's reforms had a far stricter character than
      Luther's and Geneva under Calvin and later under Besa and Farel actually became the first totalitarian state in Europe. Calvin's Soli Deo Gloria! certainly did not make for any "polycentrism.""

  2. You might enjoy this talk about Peterson:

  3. Thanks, as usual, for an illuminating view on Church history. The value of liberal toleration shines forth: not tolerance as agreement with error (the Progressive sense of the term), but tolerance as respect for the other's point of view. Especially when your reason dictates that you must reject that viewpoint: attack the argument, not the person.

  4. I guess I do not completely agree with Lewis.

    Without proper identification as to who Jesus is and of Jesus' nature, the rest fails.

    Mathews 16
    15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

    It is indeed very difficult to discern the limits of toleration in a free society.

    Father Adam, what you have unleashed that we ratify daily.

    Come soon Lord Jesus.

    1. There are fundamental or core tenets that must be observed, but there is much room for tolerance on the surface. And of course, where Christians disagree on even these fundamental tenets, it is no cause for bloodshed, but charity.

  5. Intolerance and giving all power over to the state was definitely a mistake of the Reformers.

    Still, Protestant Christians of later generations still pushed back against state over reach. Not enough or with clear enough vision, but it still happened.

    Lastly, Peter and Paul disagreed over whether to eat with Gentiles or not. They didn't disagree on any doctrine around salvation or communion. Paul was correct by the way. Peter temporarily was in error. You can read Acts and Galatians to see that Peter believed as Paul and they worked it out.

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

    Still true among many Christians today, but becoming even more true among "woke" believers who are progressing to the point where they cannot tolerate any dissent from what they profess to be true, which is constantly changing. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The only thing which cannot be tolerated is intolerance.

    "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."

    I had never met Castellio until a few moments ago, but I think I like him.

    1. I agree. Castellio seems to have had very libertarian instincts.

  7. "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."

    All because of pride, wrath, greed, and probably a sprinkling of the other deadly sins as well (does any man seek power apart from indulgence in fine women, food, and leisure time?).

    These are the virtues that built the modern nation-state, and yet so many Christians cannot let go of this institution. It is the idol of our age.

    Matthew 4 is one of the most important and interesting chapters in the whole Book. Jesus and Satan face to face. It is perhaps the only time in the Bible the two divine adversaries meet alone in person. And Satan's final failed attempt at ensnaring Jesus is very instructive:

    "[8] Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, [9] And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me. [10] Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve." - Matthew 4

    Every Christian needs to answer in his or her own heart: whom do you serve? Jesus or the State?

    1. ATL, that last question is becoming more clear in my mind. I haven't finished it yet, but I am starting to think that the Beast in Revelation is a representation of States. I mean that the Beast is an amalgamation of all existing States in the world. Some interpret it as Rome or One World Government. Those interpretations are still possible, but I am noticing some details in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13/14 which point me in the direction of States generally being the problem.

      If I am right, my expectation is that over time more or less all governments will become more and more coopted by secularism if that is possible and more hostile to Jesus. Maybe it won't be a linear development. I hope not. But that in the end that will be the world we live in. That would mean further that Christians of all stripes should be involved in opposing State power today of all sorts and building parallel systems which we can rely on when necessary. By parallel systems I mean, currency, banking, food, guns, etc. I see increasingly the convergence of libertarianism and Christianity.

  8. "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket." - Eric Hoffer
    I simply call it institutionalizing - and we as Christians are not exempt.
    On the other hand, the easiest way to discredit God's disciples is to point out their fallen natures - and to an unconverted mind, that is case closed - as if there's another road to Utopia.
    There ain't! But based on what?
    Our conversion begins individually with recognizing our fallen nature and subsequent repentance - but we will sin again and again - Paul covered that pretty well in Romans 7. Without God's Holy Spirit it wouldn't happen.
    Empirical evidence is historically supported - with Western Civilization being a perfect example - warts and all.
    DaBigPicture often tells it better than 'I had this friend.....yattata,etc'.
    Contrary to popular 'educayshon', the actual history of the Middle Ages were a period of righteous rulership of mostly decentralized limited authority of kings and vassals - a covenant relationship based on natural law - I learned that fact here at bio as well as other sources. Seek and ye shall find? Without Christianity it could not have happened!
    Therefore, remove Christianity from the equation and WZ is destroyed automatically. So start in the church itself - convince its adherents to retreat from civil matters and leave that to the humanists - which is EXACTLY what happened. And whom do they worship?
    So where are we now? On the verge of even losing our indoor plumbing!
    Are we so blind we can't even see the overall history of Christendom?
    I keep pointing to the parable of wheat and tares - it is real!
    The rest, if interested, starts at - - but it requires lots of reading, which should be followed by action at your own speed - and plenty of errors and mistakes along the way. That's life in DaFastLane!��