This article is about the idea of toleration and religious toleration before the Reformation and at the time of the Reformation. The author also discusses the idea of religious freedom and toleration today.

Source: Clarion, 2003. 10 pages.

Religious Toleration


“Toleration” is a word that is frequently heard in our postmodern times. This term occurs in many contexts: in the popular media, in contemporary philosophy, and in government statements on those values that define our nation. An appeal is often made to “toleration” as that key mindset that will solve the divisive ills of society resulting from race, sexuality, and religion. Indeed, it is safe to say that “toleration” has not only entered but shaped the contemporary politically-correct language, and as a term is entrenched in the prevailing world view that champions inclusiveness and individual freedom.

The idea of toleration is not an old one, of course. In this series of articles particularly the idea of religious toleration in the time of the Reformation will be examined, with a view to gaining some insight into how we are to approach “toleration” today.

Definition and Aspects🔗

The present-day idea of toleration is different than the older understanding of it. The meaning often implied in toleration today is “the willingness to respect the complete freedom of any conviction and of the attitude to life that originates from it and is connected to it, no matter how deviating this practical attitude to life may be from traditional convictions and moral maxims as they may still be found among the majority of the people.”1 This “twentieth-century” concept of toleration has been expanded from the historically older understanding, where toleration was not an unrestricted respect but “a forbearance in judging the beliefs and behaviour of others, a grudging and temporary acceptance of an unpleasant necessity.”

It may be helpful before we begin the historical survey to note the opposite side of the matter: for what reasons are people religiously intolerant? Forbearance in judging the beliefs of others was/is often limited when dissenting views are seen to be dangerous, subversive, or alien to the dominant religion and culture. Connected to this is the view that two forms of religion cannot exist in the same state without disastrous consequences, and that civil rulers therefore have the right to determine the religion of their subjects.

The Idea of Toleration before the Reformation🔗

There is general agreement among historians that the thorough debate on toleration had its beginning in the period of humanism and the Reformation, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet this matter has long been addressed, which is something that must be considered before we begin our look at the Reformation period.

The young and occasionally oppressed church of the first two centuries AD had little opportunity to ponder the legitimacy of persecuting those who were not members of the church. However, by the third and fourth century, after some times of peace and influence, the church had developed a basic model for persecution and toleration: “To persecute, a man must believe that he is right, that the point in question is important, and that coercion is effective.” The first two points were not in dispute, for the church was sure of her faith, and saw membership as integral to salvation. There was more debate over whether heretics were to be cast out of the church, or unbelievers forced in. The church father Tertullian maintained, “It is not in the nature of religion to coerce religion, which must be adopted freely and not by force.”

More church fathers echoed Tertullian’s sentiment, and viewed the scriptural teaching on toleration as clear. The Old Testament penalties for idolatry, blasphemy, and apostasy were understood to outline the proper approach to heresy. Further, such a New Testament text as Titus 3:10 concerning the rejection of a heretic after two admonitions was considered relevant.

As we will note throughout our survey, there was a blurring of the lines between church and state in the early Christian centuries. With the conversion of Constantine and his favouring of the Christian religion, there was a trend away from the rejection of coercion toward an acceptance of the persecution of heretics for the stability of the state. Constantine’s decree in the Edict of Milan in 313 gave all religions a degree of liberty, granting both to Christians and all men the freedom to follow the religion which they choose. Though the decree did proclaim religious liberty, this was done firstly in the interest of Christianity – Constantine hoped that Christianity would unify the Empire. His later practices went contrary to the Edict of Milan, for he used constraint in the suppression of heretics (e.g., Donatists, Arians), as well as when he persecuted pagans, destroying temples and imposing the death penalty on those who offered sacrifices to pagan gods.

With changes in leadership of the empire, the viewpoint of the church on persecution and toleration was altered. Under Constantine’s sons, there was a renewal of the separation of church and state. Hosius declared that the clergy should not rule on earth, and the emperor should not burn incense. Athanasius agreed, “Truth is not proclaimed by swords and missiles, nor by means of soldiers, but by persuasion and counsel.”

Despite this hesitancy, the fourth century saw an increase in the severity of legislation against heresy, with the first instance of the infliction of the death penalty in 385, against Priscillian and his followers in Spain.

The church fathers Chrysostom and Jerome are figures that stand out for their contrasting views on tolerance. Chrysostom said that capital punishment is not to be afflicted, though the right to assemble may be denied to heretics. In one place he writes, “The wanderer cannot be dragged by force or constrained by fear. Only persuasion can restore him to the truth from which he has fallen away.” Conversely, Jerome did not specify the precise lengths to which the church could go with respect to heretics, but left few doubts: “A spark should be extinguished, fermentation removed, a putrid limb amputated, an infected animal segregated” (referring to the heretic Arius as a spark that was not immediately extinguished, causing the world to catch aflame) and again, “Punishment of murder, sacrilege, and poisoning is not bloodshed, but merely execution of the law.”

Augustine is a divided figure in the matter of religious toleration. Up to 404, he was not willing to appeal to the state for assistance in dealing with various heretical groups, yet his battles with the Donatists helped to break down his reservations, for he regarded the Donatists’ association with the lawless Circumcellions as potentially harmful to the peace. Suppression of these rebellious people was not an immoral constraint of conscience, but a necessary protection of the peace. The central motif in Augustine’s theory of persecution was love: “How can genuine affection suffer a loved one to die a death more tragic and more real than that in the flesh? How can it permit him to commit a crime worse than murder, which destroys only the body, whereas schism and heresy shed spiritual blood?” To justify the persecution of heresy, Augustine turned to the Scriptures, to the Old Testament legal texts on penalties, as well as to the story of Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal – but he also was the first to cite infamously the New Testament text, “Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:21-23).2 Though Augustine did change his views to favour the persecution of heretics as a duty of the Church, he always objected to the death penalty, and imposed limitations on the scope of heresy – some matters were essential to the faith, others immaterial.

The Middle Ages contributed little to the theory of persecution and toleration as stated by Augustine and others. Aquinas added his own view to Augustine’s statement regarding heresy being worse than murder on account of its destroying the soul, and that counterfeiting of divine truth is worse than the forging of money which is punishable by death. Though this period knew of some suppression of ideas (e.g., the ban of Aristotle’s works) and heretics (e.g., the Cathars), there is by no means a consistent picture of a “persecuting society” in the Middle Ages as some have suggested. This is not to say that toleration was accepted as a policy, but rather that religious diversity was not easily “regulated,” and the forums for debate could by no means be closed. Coexistence of different mainstream religions in the medieval period was rare, except perhaps in Spain, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived in harmony.

As we approach the Reformation, we can identify four factors that contributed to the rise of tolerance and its discussion.

  • Firstly, there was the increase of medieval mysticism, which placed a greater value on an individual experience of the divine and absorption into his Being than on doctrine.

  • Secondly, the humanism of the Renaissance and early sixteenth century emphasized the freedom of investigation and inquiry into all and new areas of thought.

  • Thirdly, there was the splintering of Roman Catholicism by sectarianism, which typically placed obedience to God or the Holy Spirit above obedience to the Pope.

  • Finally, the pre-Reformation figures such as John Wyclif and John Huss, with their calls to return to the Scriptures, can also be seen as contributing to the Reformation atmosphere of liberation and freedom of belief.

A Survey of the Reformation🔗

The Reformation was a movement away from the errors and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, and so can be seen as a step on the way to true religious freedom. It might be thought that because they were “themselves dissenters from an established tradition, they (would look) with a little more hesitation upon the suppression of dissent.”3 But though it certainly was a time of regained freedom, the Reformation also witnessed a sudden increase in religious intolerance: Church and State were often closely linked together, so religious dissent was identified with political dissent and was dealt with accordingly.

not be appropriate to lay all the blame for religious intolerance at the feet of the Roman Church. Indeed, the Catholics were constrained to resist the sudden undermining of its authority, and they expressed this defensive position with severity, as John Calvin himself experienced in Paris and France. But Protestants were by no means innocent of the intolerance that arose after the Reformation’s inception; Caspar Olevianus worried about the reputation the Protestants were gaining, for “As soon as the Reformed religion has seized hold of a province, its followers try to oppress and destroy the opposing party.” This statement can characterize the volatile situation in Europe in the first thirty years following the breakthrough of the Reformation, but the furor slowly subsided. Yet neither persecution, because of its political implications, nor tolerance, because of the deeply entrenched religious loyalties, won the day.

Unlike in the Reformation, the medieval period had known mostly “localized” heresies, errors that were limited to certain areas. Despite the suppression of heretics, there was also the attitude that deviants could be given time to confess their error and return to the truth. In the Reformation, however, “the battle lines” were clearly drawn, with little room left for forbearance.

There was a basic difference among those who advocated toleration and those who did not, and this is reflected in their perception of heretics. In the view of many Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, heresy sprang from arrogance and stubbornness; heresy could not be treated by spiritual exhortation, but rather punishment and coercion were required to sway one from error. On the other hand, those who advocated an attitude of tolerance perceived the heretic as an erring person who, if necessary, could be encouraged to change his mind, not by coercion but by appropriate arguments and patient instruction.

The Reformation churches generally looked on the state with its structure of authority as a divine institution. It was often expected that the state support and assist the Reformed religion in any way, including the removal of opposing religious groups. The view was that the government had received authority to maintain the law of God, especially as codified in the Decalogue. The “first table” of the law was understood to mean that the State was required to permit only the right worship of God. The vast majority of theologians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) agreed that doctrinal error should be punished by the civil authorities.

Despite the maintenance of the alliance of the church with the state, the Protestant movement did emphasize one principle that was integral to later views on toleration, and that was its emphasis on liberty of conscience. When Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, he affirmed this key principle in his powerful speech of defence,

I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

His conscience was free, free to be bound by the teaching of Scripture.

The debate on religious toleration had a pronounced impact on political institutions of the time. The traditionally close unity of the Christian church with the state began to splinter especially in the last thirty years of the sixteenth century, as secular magistrates recognized that a situation of religious pluralism was not a real danger to the state, but rather could be profitable. The turmoil of religious conflict and the weakening of the state was seen as something to be avoided not through enforced uniformity but through toleration. Economic considerations played a role too, as it was perceived that some religious minorities made valuable contributions (e.g., the Jews in Venice), and therefore should not be troubled in their religious practice.

Countries adopted different approaches to the diverse religions existing in their territory. Even after the breakup of the idea of the state as a political and religious unity, several European countries (e.g., Spain and the Italian states) remained firmly intolerant and suppressed any hint of religious dissent. Certain political systems afforded the opportunity for a coexistence of different religious groups. The two Swiss Landfrieden treaties of 1529 and 1531 allowed both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants to observe their faith in peace. Other countries followed this model, favouring the principle of confessional equality.

Most countries placed restrictions on heretics or adherents of other religions. A basic restriction was that they could not publicly pronounce their opinions. Permission for private nonconformist worship was sometimes granted, and even the right to conduct public church services in specified places was occasionally won. The highest form of toleration or religious liberty was expressed when the rulers of a country allowed all religious groups within its territory to practise their faith without restriction (e.g., the Warsaw Confederation in Poland, 1573)

An important political step towards toleration is expressed in the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. This agreement was based on an equality of confessions (Roman or Lutheran), and on the important territorialist principle of “whose is the land, his is the religion:” the unified state should be assisted by unified religion. Rulers of the empire’s territories were given freedom of religion, while the common man was not penalized for leaving one territory (and religion) for another. This attempt to gain latitude of confession failed with the Thirty Years’ War, when the laws against heretics were still being enforced. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia restored the Peace of Augsburg to a degree, giving the German princes the choice to enforce or ignore the laws against heretics. The Peace of Westphalia was the first official employment of the word “toleration,” stipulating that Roman Catholics in Protestant lands and Lutherans and the Reformed in Roman Catholic lands should be “tolerated patiently” if they were obedient to the civil authorities and did not cause trouble.

There were also humanist and religious groups in Europe that pleaded for religious toleration from not a political or economic standpoint, but from a particular understanding of the Scriptures. Groups such as the Anabaptists made a sharp distinction between the Old and the New Testaments, asserting that the New Testament alone was authoritative in doctrine and life. They laid great stress on the words and acts of Jesus Christ, often assumed a militant stance towards civil governments, and denied the possibility of a Christian state. Other groups sought to reconcile conflicts by lessening the requirements of faith to those doctrines plainly stated in the Bible; the English latitudinarians advanced the (still well-known) motto, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Regarding the movements for toleration in sixteenth century Reformation Europe, we have to keep in view the terrible violence that did occur (e.g., the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day) and the seventeenth century’s many instances of religious intolerance and persecution: the Protestants in France came under increasing pressure, English dissenters had to leave the Isle, in Poland, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation movement successfully destroyed the religious peace, and the Thirty Years’ War was also defined by confessional disagreement and demands for freedom of worship.

Though it is not a perfect picture of peace and tolerance that emerges from the Reformation era, this period did see important advances for religious toleration. Though humanism stimulated free inquiry and the exchange of ideas, we do well to focus on the return to the Scriptures as vital to the “rediscovery” of both tolerance for others and the insistence on personal freedom – guided by the Scriptures, the Reformation was a liberation from the manmade burdens of the Roman Catholic Church.

Some Reformation Snapshots🔗

In order to illustrate the general statements made above, we will now briefly look at some chief Reformation figures and events that defined the debate on religious toleration.

Desiderius Erasmus🔗

The inquiry-based tendencies of humanism as well as mysticism’s desire for a less intellectual understanding of God converge in Erasmus. In the early decades of the sixteenth century, it was his liberal spirit that dominated in many parts of Europe, and bore great influence on later humanists and theologians. He rejected long discussion and constraint on matters that could not be known with certainty. Mysticism surfaced in Erasmus’ sharp separation of things spiritual and things physical. He felt that the religious controversies of his day (a spiritual matter) simply could not be waged on the physical level as was done, by way of executions or constraint – according to him, this was the chief heresy and blasphemy. To burn a man for his beliefs was completely useless in producing a right religious spirit.

As mentioned, Erasmus was also tolerant with respect to doctrines because of his uncertainty: there were some matters of faith that could not be resolved, and so could not be insisted upon. He stated in connection with his theology of reduction, “The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity and these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible and in many things leave each one free to follow his own judgment.”

Though Erasmus did valuable work on the Greek text of the New Testament, the religious toleration encouraged by him did much to weaken the authoritative character of the Scriptures – he felt that one could not be sure of some teachings of Scripture, and therefore one could not admonish or convince another. This and his “theology of reduction” began to open the door to relativism and false toleration, where what one believes does not matter.

Martin Luther🔗

Like his spiritual “great-grandfather” Augustine, Martin Luther’s view on religious toleration underwent change on account of the conflict of his time. In the opinion of many historians of religious toleration, Luther alone among the Reformers deserves credit for articulating principles of religious liberty. In 1521 he stated, “No man can or ought to be forced to believe, but everyone should be instructed in the gospel and admonished to believe, though he is left free to obey or not.” Luther wrote in On the Bondage of the Will concerning the Roman multiplication of doctrines and rites, “Consciences must not be ensnared by false laws, and thereby tormented for sins where according to God’s will there is no sin. Consciences are bound by God’s law alone.” Luther was also aware of the Roman Catholics’ fear as they regarded the Reformation movement gaining steam, and he was rightly concerned that Roman Catholic princes might begin persecutions. He observed: “Heresy ... is something spiritual. One cannot strike it with iron, nor burn it with fire.” Accordingly, Luther insisted that the ecclesiastical matters not be addressed by the government.

Where Tertullian had quoted Christ’s words, “Compel them to come in,” Luther (as many others did) referred to the parable of the tares, speaking of those dissenting or unbelieving elements within church or society as the tares which cannot be separated from the wheat in this life:

See, then, what mad folk we have so long been, who have wished to force the Turk to the faith with the sword, the heretic with fire, and the Jews with death, to root out the tares with our own power, as if we were the people who could rule over hearts and spirits and make them religious and good, which God’s Word alone must do.

Though Luther first leaned in the direction of tolerance, by 1530 a great change in his viewpoints, occasioned by radicals and revolutionists, had taken place and he was endorsing the death penalty for offences against both the civil and ecclesiastical order. He would not coerce faith, nor would he suppress an incorrect opinion, but blasphemy and rebellion were certainly to be punished. This change in his viewpoint was caused in part by the rise of the heretical and revolutionary Anabaptists. The Peasants’ War of 1525, where social and religious revolution coincided, partly moved Luther to approve of the suppression of such rebellion. Religious radicalism had convinced Luther that only drastic measures, as exercised by the state, could preserve the church.

Luther was moved to defend the right of princes to oppose anything that threatened their authority as given by God. Religious liberty could not mean a license to overturn the established societal order. He wrote to the Duke of Saxony, “It will lie heavy on your conscience if you tolerate the Catholic worship, for no secular prince can permit his subjects to be divided by the preaching of opposite doctrines.” With a concern for not only the public peace but also the church’s well being, Luther insisted that the work of reformation not be undone by various ignorant and radical groups. Though some bemoan Luther’s change towards a greater role for the magistrates in religious suppression, this development in Luther is understandable in light of his time. He considered that such dangerous groups as the Anabaptists ought not to be tolerated for the good of both society and church.

Luther’s legacy – with respect to the entire Reformation, but also with respect to religious toleration – is his insistence on a return to the norms of Scripture as solely binding. The conscience of individual man was free from the Roman Catholic bonds of human rules, freed to submit to God’s Word. With this Scriptural perspective on the goal and qualification of toleration, we make a great advance towards a proper understanding of religious toleration.

John Calvin🔗

It is said that by the time John Calvin entered the Reformation fray, the lines had been so distinctly drawn that there was no chance for him to go through a “more tolerant” period as Luther had. By historians Calvin is typically counted as the most intolerant of the Reformers. With often harsh language, he is relegated to the ranks of megalomaniacs and pessimists: “If Calvin ever wrote anything in favour of religious liberty, it was a typographic error.”4

Calvin’s attitude towards government lies close to the heart of his understanding of religious toleration. The order of society, as upheld by a God-fearing magistrate, was considered a God-given blessing. The magistrates ought to maintain both tables of God’s law; not only should they promote peace, order and justice, but they also should take care that the external aspects of the worship of God be upheld and that the proper doctrine of the church be defended. Church and state had their own domains; they could not be separated but had to work cooperation and mutual support in order to promote the kingdom of Christ on earth.

Calvin desired a city that was ordered by the Scriptures, and so it said that Geneva became une ville église, a city that was a church. In this city the application of his Institutes was worked out, as a demonstration of the ordering benefits of the Scriptures. Especially in the Genevan situation his view of government was coupled with his strong insistence on the church’s role in exercising church disciple, maintaining the holy communion of believers.

The Old Testament theocracy was regarded by Calvin as an important model for his own notion of a Christian State. He thought it was the task of the church authorities, as it was in the Old Testament, to detect, convict and reprimand heretics and stubborn sinners, while the Christian magistrates were to execute Christian censure, even as far as meting out capital punishment: God makes plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy.” Allowing a heretic to spread his errors was similar to allowing a cad to broadcast the plague.

It was the honour of the sovereign God that Calvin sought to defend in his denunciations of heresy. He did not restrict punishment to the political revolutionaries, for God was always concerned with truth, not only when subversive to the social order. “To insult God is worse than to strangle an innocent man or to poison a guest.” Not that God required human vindication, but He was pleased to work through humans who defended his Name.

We cannot be content with the caricature of Calvin as a dour and merciless tyrant. In the same line of Luther, he strove to follow in all things the norms of Scripture. Calvin had an opportunity that Luther did not: pursuing the application of God’s Word on a “large” scale in Geneva, where this desire to follow the Scriptures was evident. The line between church and political bodies was blurred with Calvin, and on this point he can be criticized. While he vigorously defended the “sum of faith,” allowing no deletion from the teachings of Scripture, Calvin’s desire to preserve the truth, even by conflict, did not exclude dealing with ignorance and weakness gently and kindly, and in a spirit of charity.

Michael Servetus🔗

The infamous occasion of the burning of the Spanish physician Michael Servetus at the stake in Geneva in some ways serves as an embodiment of the controversy over toleration that raged in the Reformation period. That the execution took place in the centre of the John Calvin’s Geneva, that his views stood diametrically opposed to the teaching of Scripture, that he was wanted for punishment by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, and that his death clearly fired up the discussion of religious toleration, has resulted in his case becoming something of the cause célèbre for the matter of religious freedom.

Though Servetus was interested in the study of the Bible, and though he was acquainted with several of the Reformers, he held views on the Trinity that were contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. He expressed his theological leanings in a 1531 publication which he distributed widely, to strong opposition. In this book he rejected the “philosophical construct” that was the Trinity. Later he advocated Arian and Anabaptist views.

Servetus was arrested near Lyons, but escaped the Roman Catholic judges of the Inquisition. He made his way to Geneva, though Calvin had forewarned him of the peril he would face in the city. He was discovered, and the magistrates wanted no heretic to undermine the stability of Geneva, so Servetus underwent a trial, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death by fire. Though Calvin asked that a quicker form of execution be used, he maintained that Servetus was deserving of death. Servetus begged for mercy, but would not recant his position. News of the execution of Servetus was roundly approved in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles. It is outside of the bounds of this article to delve more deeply into this often-debated incident of Servetus’ execution, yet it is fitting to briefly note this incident, for it highlights yet again a key element of our study: the intersection of the role of church and the state. Nothing could be permitted to damage the stability of Geneva, especially a heresy as fundamental as that of denying the Trinity.

The lengths to which the persecution of Michael Servetus went, even to the stake in Geneva, has long been a blot upon the name of Calvin. Though the period of the Reformation (on both principal sides) saw many such acts of violence against heretics and others who were outside the majority religion in a given country, especially the case of Servetus has gained for Calvin and Protestants a negative notoriety: “It is the one error of his life which has given occasion to his enemies and the adversaries of the Protestant faith to blaspheme.”5 

Though the killing of a person for his beliefs cannot be condoned, neither can Calvin be simply vilified for this act of religious intolerance. Though they were sometimes in error, we must consider that Calvin and his Genevan compatriots genuinely sought to live in freedom according to the Word of God.

Sebastian Castellio🔗

The humanist Sebastian Castellio made a breach with his friend Calvin over his heretical views of the Scriptures. His major contribution to the toleration debate of the sixteenth century was the book “Whether Heretics are to be Persecuted?” about half a year after the execution of Servetus.

In this work, Castellio not only states his own opinions on the matter, but presents those of several early Christian (e.g., Lactantius, Jerome) and contemporary authors (e.g., Erasmus, the early Luther). In addition to the many citations, Castellio proffered scriptural texts in his aim to restore religious peace by persuasion. In his book he was guided by the chief concern that “human beings should never be killed on account of their religious opinions.” He did allow for state-exacted penalties on those who blasphemed or were extremely heretical, but yet he considered force to be an inappropriate weapon for defending the truth: “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.” Castellio pointed out that for many years, men had debated the teachings of Scripture: predestination, heaven and hell, Christ and the Trinity – no agreement had been reached, and none probably could be, for truth was difficult to find. Castellio wondered whether we really know who the true heretics are, and viewed disputes over “truth” as unnecessary; these disputes do not make men better, for what is needed is a carrying of the spirit and love of Christ into daily lives. He mourned the fact that the reformers who had just freed themselves from the darkness of the Roman Catholic Church and the Inquisition should so readily enter the darkness of intolerance again. Castellio’s book cemented his reputation as a leading figure in the movement for religious toleration.

Castellio’s “question” as to whether heretics were to be persecuted was answered definitively by Theodore Beza. Calvin delegated Beza to reply to it, which he did in September 1554 with “A Little Book on the Duty of Civil Magistrates to Punish Heretics.” Beza claimed that religious toleration was impossible for one who accepted the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. As Castellio had wondered about the certainty of some fundamental doctrines, Beza protested that if we reject the Bible as God’s Word we are left with nothing on which to build the religious faith that is so vital to moral restraint, social order and civilization. Beza proceeded out of a central sixteenth century concept: the civil magistrate was to be concerned with the morals of his people, and so must protect true religion: It is the truest charity to protect a flock of sheep from a marauding wolf, not to leave them defenceless.” According to Beza it could not be denied that heresy’s effect upon the moral life of a community is as harmful as other crimes like murder and theft. To the objection that one cannot compel men to faith, but can only persuade and convince, Beza replied that penalties for heresy are not designed to compel, but to prevent others from being led astray. There were also objections to executing heretics on the grounds that there is then no chance for repentance, but Beza reiterated that the church’s first duty is to the sheep and their wellbeing.

Castellio’s work on religious toleration is often regarded as the central product of the debate on this matter in the Reformation period. Subsequently he was regularly cited with approval by liberals and humanists, or he was cited by Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians with a notation of Beza’s repudiation. Castellio’s defence of religious toleration is at best misguided; he belittled the clarity of the Scriptures, while exalting reason in his arguments. Castellio’s statements that condemn the killing of a person for his beliefs might sound welcome in our ears, but he too advocated a toleration that was not properly based on Scripture. Beza’s reply was also typical of the period, rightly emphasizing the importance of guarding the church against heresy, but wrongly applying punishments that belong to the civil realm.

Revisiting toleration🔗

The contemporary infatuation with toleration has seen the concept transform into a nebulous idea that somehow articulates all that is good and defensible in our society. In particular, the toleration of different religious views in a multicultural society has formed an important part of the contemporary cultural mantra. This religious liberty is an aspect of the principle of liberty of the conscience, and is a liberty entrenched in the modern understanding of human rights; it has been codified in the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right is based on the conception of man as “human being,” but problems arise with it, for what is lacking is an undergirding theory of human nature – many interest groups will have differing understandings of “humanity” and of “conscience,” and of what actually ought to comprise mankind’s individual rights. Where then is our solution to the matter of religious toleration to be found?

We have seen in our historical survey that two extremes often arise: there can be the exalting of man to a position of autonomy, and there can also be the confusion of the spheres of the state and church, when religious belief is coerced or subjected to an authority higher than the Scriptures. Indeed, a Christian or even non-Christian government cannot be negligent in seeking to promote the Christian faith. Belgic Confession article 36 on the civil government is illuminating: “...their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as He requires in his Word.”

Concentrating on our contemporary situation and on how religious toleration is to be properly viewed and practised in a society that constantly claims to endorse this very idea, we must be clear on what religious toleration truly is, according to the spirit of the Scriptures.

It is consistent with Scripture to promote a qualified religious toleration – namely, a religious freedom or liberty. The Scriptures emphasize an individual’s responsibility before God in repentance, faith, and service (e.g., Ezekiel 18). Nowhere do we read of forced conversions – even if such a thing were possible, in light of Christ’s words in John 3:8-9, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Humans must be “free,” free in order to make a personal choice for the gospel.

The separation of church and state must also be considered when looking for a proper understanding of religious toleration. This separation does not mean that the church can have nothing to say to the ruling authorities on matters of governing, but that their respective roles must be understood and respected. We do not live in a theocracy as in the days of Israel; contemporary secular governments bear the sword (Romans 13:1-5), but not in matters that pertain to the church.

All heresy and false religion – and here we affirm our hearty agreement with the reformers   – must be firmly opposed and refuted, but not with violence: neither “compelling to come in,” nor violently expelling from the fold. In this age of the Holy Spirit, we must maintain the spiritual means of persuading through the preaching of the Word and the exercise of church discipline.

Thankfully, Christian churches in many countries have been given freedom of religion. Many Christians today are given the freedom to worship and assemble – but when they exit their church buildings and preach God’s Word to the world in mission or evangelism or as it pertains to social and ethical matters, they are often viewed as intolerant, for Christians speak the Word of God with all of its authority and absoluteness. It seems that anything in society can be tolerated except what is perceived to be Christian “intolerance.”

We must recognize that in some respects “intolerance” cannot be avoided. The Word of God speaks in absolutes, stating sharp contrasts between truth and falsehood: there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), there is only one way of salvation and one Saviour (1 Corinthians 8:5-6), there is one law to follow for all of life (Matthew 22:37-40), there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10), and there is only one of two end results for mankind – salvation and eternal life, or damnation and eternal death (Daniel 12:2).

Christians ought to patiently forbear with other religions (and false churches), but not absolutely, for our forbearance and toleration must have purpose. We are blessed with the only true religion and way of salvation, and we now have time to make this way known – we cannot force people to confess Jesus Christ as Saviour, nor can we revile or physically assault those who reject Him for other beliefs or no religion at all. We tolerate, because at this time God “tolerates,” wanting “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). We tolerate in patience, working to persuade and make known the Gospel, because for the moment God “is patient ... not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We tolerate in order that the Word may be heard and believed by more people, that the full measure of the harvest may be gathered in – only then will the tares be separated from the wheat. And we need not recoil at the contemporary “toleration” mantra, for to a degree it has given the church an increased opportunity to spread the gospel.

At the same time, we must reject all false tolerance. It is a humanist tolerance that rules the day and one that is grounded in man as the measure of all things. Today man thinks he cannot be sure of the truth of the Word of God (or any truth), and that man cannot insist on one way or another to his fellow man. This humanist tolerance “frees” man from all admonitions to return to the truth and from all judgment of his belief and practice.

The Reformation freed the people from the yoke of the Roman Church, and by God’s grace put the Scriptures back in their hands. There was a regaining of freedom with Luther and Calvin and the other reformers, but it was not unlimited – the Scriptures were the basis and norm of that liberty. The paradox of the Reformation is that the church was freed to submit again to the Word of God – true freedom indeed!


  1. ^ Jacob Kamphuis, “Remarks on Church and Tolerance.” In Proceedings of the International Conference of Reformed Churches 1993 (Neerlandia, AB: Inheritance Publications, 1993), pp. 213-214.
  2. ^ Cf. Paul Aasman, “How shall we make them come in?” Clarion 52 (2003), p. 233. 
  3. ^ Owen Chadwick, The Reformation. The Pelican History of the Church 3 (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 398.
  4. ^ Sebastian Castellio (attributed to). Concerning Heretics: Whether they are to be persecuted and how they are to be treated. A collection of the opinions of learned men both ancient and modern. Roland Bainton, tr., ed. (New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1965), p. 74.
  5. ^ Henry Martyn Baird, Theodore Beza: The Counsellor of the French Revolution (New York, NY: Burt Franklin, 1899; 1970 reprint), p. 53

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