Ritual and Toleration in Sixteenth Century Europe

The idea of religious pluralism and civil toleration, and by extension the modern idea of freedom of conscience and expression, were first formulated in sixteenth century Germany and France against a backdrop of the principle "cujus regio, ejus religio", i.e., the principle that the sovereign determined the religious beliefs of his or her subjects. These ideas of toleration and freedom of expression were in part a reaction to the terrible religious persecutions and wars which accompanied the application of that principle. In Renaissance Europe neither the Catholic Church nor the new Protestant churches entertained the idea that some religious confession other than their own could be allowed to exist in civil society. Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists were certain of their monopoly of truth about God, and of the rituals necessary to honour Him. Since this truth concerned the very will of God, they were equally certain that to tolerate any religious opinions, or any rituals, other than their own, would be an unspeakable blasphemy deserving the unforgiving wrath of God. The least that they could do here on earth to protect God's dignity was put to the rebellious blasphemers to death.

Depreciation of ritual in Luther and Calvin
It is true that the Protestant reformers Luther and Calvin had initiated a certain critique and relativisation of ritual -- opposing justification by faith to the objective efficacy of the Catholic sacramental system, and suppressing images in Calvinist worship -- but in both cases they replaced the Roman ritual with their own. In both cases they also replaced Catholic orthodoxy with their own, and tolerated no theological dissent in countries that adopted their reforms.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther
Let us examine more closely those elements of the theology of Luther and Calvin which in the first instance suggested a depreciation of the value of ritual. The centre of Martin Luther's thought, the concept to which all other aspects of his teaching are related, is his doctrine of justification. From the outset of his reforming enterprise Luther insisted that human persons could not render themselves just in the eyes of God through their own good works. Salvation is a free gift offered to each person by God in spite of and not because of her or his actions. This central Lutheran idea was naturally incompatible with the medieval Catholic view that ritual was inherently efficacious, that the ritual acts of the Church bestowed divine grace upon the faithful in the carrying out of the ritual itself, that they functioned, to use the technical Latin term, "ex opere operato". In Catholicism the ritual was a human action that mediated between God and the sinner, and made possible the sinner's reconciliation to God by making present and effective the work of Christ. The mass, for example, was not a mere commemorative symbol of Christ's sacrifice, it was this sacrifice, made real and present to the believer. But for Luther this was impossible: no ritual or any other human action could in itself convey divine grace and reconcile God to the human person. It is the divine promise or word that brings grace, and this promise has no intrinsic need to be linked to an external sign or ritual. In his treatise on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where in 1520 Luther attacked the Catholic sacramental and sacerdotal system, he declared: "a [person] may have and use a word or testament without a sign or sacrament... Thus I am able daily, indeed hourly, to have the mass; for as often as I wish I can set the words of Christ before me."

Calvin, the other great Protestant thinker of the century, held similar views concerning the sacraments as signs of God's promise, and Calvinist worship was de-ritualised, i.e., the role of the physical signs and gestures was reduced, even more than the worship of Lutherans. At Geneva the Lord's Supper was simplified and celebrated only four times a year, and church services were above all verbal: they consisted almost exclusively of talking, for the most part by the preacher. In addition statues and other images were removed from Calvinist churches, and in the civil strife between French Calvinists and Catholics in the last half of the century it was not uncommon for Huguenots to smash the images in Catholic churches.

In the case of Protestantism we observe then a partial de-ritualization, with a shift of emphasis in their ritual gatherings away from the physical and the gestual towards the verbal. However the new word-dominated forms of ritual were quickly institutionalised, while at the same time Protestant theology, although in its origins a doctrine precisely of protest, became a new codified and normative orthodoxy in those European states where it was adopted. Although Luther had stressed the spiritual rather than the ritual and institutional aspects of sacramental theology, he also came to argue that the Church was to be found where one could see the preaching of the word of God, baptism, and the eucharist (Von dem Bapstum zum Rome, 1520). Writing in 1525 Luther's emphasis shifts from his earlier minimisation of the role of ritual and he now affirms that God "deals with us... first outwardly, then inwardly,... in such a way that the external means of grace necessarily precede" (Against the Heavenly Prophets). In practice this meant that the Lutheran Church maintained the essential external apparatus of the Church: creeds, ecclesiastical discipline, professional ministry, buildings for worship, and of course ritual induction into the belief-community and regular gatherings of the faithful for the celebration of the liturgy. The new Protestant institutions, the new orthodoxy and the new ritual were no less uncompromising than the old, and thousands of Anabaptists, Catholics and other dissenters were drowned and burnt for their beliefs in the states where Lutheranism, Calvinism or Anglicanism replaced Roman Catholicism.

Origins of toleration
There were only a few Catholics and Protestants who on an individual basis expressed doubts about the legitimacy and efficacy of religious persecution, and some branches of the Anabaptist movement rejected all forms of violence and persecution. However a coherent theory of civil toleration and freedom of conscience was developed only outside of institutional Christianity. It appeared in the writings of that small group of European thinkers who, synthesising strands of mysticism, humanism and rationalism, moved beyond the project of the Protestant reformers and came to reject ecclesiastical religion altogether. Indeed they completely redefined the meaning of traditional doctrinal language in terms of internalised spiritual experience and externalised ethics. These thinkers have been called Spiritualists in Reformation historiography since the late nineteenth century. The two Spiritualists who contributed most to the question of toleration were the more mystically-inclined German Sebastian Franck, a disillusioned ex-Lutheran pastor, and the more rationally-inclined Frenchman, Sebastian Castellio, a former close collaborator of Calvin and director of the college in Geneva who had also become quickly disillusioned with the course of the Protestant reformation.

It is easy to see how the Spiritualists' ethicisation and spiritualisation of doctrine and their rejection of ecclesiastical institutions are linked to the concepts of toleration and freedom of conscience. If doctrines are no longer statements about metaphysical realities and historical events, if they are no longer objective facts but rather the subjective and symbolic expressions of individual inner spiritual experience and outward moral conduct, there is no reason to compel assent to the verbal formulation of such doctrines by the members of a civil society. In this understanding of religious doctrines and practices, what counts is not the words or gestures, which are only signs, but experience and moral behaviour. Indeed the signs, like those of a language, are ultimately arbitrary and sometimes interchangeable with another set of equally valid signs.

Sebastian Franck
Sebastian Franck
A polemic against ritual was an inherent element of Franck's and Castellio's theorisation of religious toleration. Throughout Sebastian Franck's numerous writings on historical, geographical, philosophical and theological topics there runs a common thread, namely a consistent, philosophical dichotomy between the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the physical, the real and the apparent. Dogma, and thus dogmatism and intolerance, have this in common with ritual: they are outward, superficial, deceptive; neither dogma nor ritual can embody the reality of spiritual experience, which is inward and invisible.

The "inner", the "outer", and toleration in Sebastian Franck
The inner/outer dichotomy in Franck's thought characterises human nature itself. The outer world is the domain of Satan, the symbol of the power of evil, and the outward human person belongs to this outer world. The inner human person, on the other hand, is for Franck, as he or she is for the medieval Rhineland mystics like Tauler and Eckhart, a spark of the divine nature, or, to use another metaphor, the inner word of God. The ritual of the different churches is tied to what Franck habitually calls the "elements" of the outer world, while the reality which the ritual is claimed to embody can be found within the spirit of the inner person. This internalisation of ritual is found at first in Franck's Epistle to Campanus of 1531, where he takes up the idea Luther had suggested eleven years earlier in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church but carries it much further. Luther had suggested that the essence of the sacrament was God's word, not the physical sign; Franck completely separates God's word from the sign and places it deep within the spirit of the human person. The partial de-ritualisation of the Protestants has become a total de-ritualisation in the thought of the Spiritualist.

Two other antitheses important in the work of Franck are that of the Holy Spirit and Satan or Antichrist, and that of New Testament and Old Testament. For Franck, just as the outer human or Adam has fallen, so has the outer or institutional Church. All the outer, visible ceremonies or rituals have been delivered over to the Antichrist. The Holy Spirit -- which is not for Franck a distinct "person" of the Trinity as in traditional theology, but rather God's mode of operating in relation to each human being -- this Holy Spirit now baptises and nourishes the believer with the eucharstic body and blood of Christ, and does so without any external agent or medium.

The antithesis New Testament/Old Testament is also important for our topic. In Franck's system ceremony and ritual are characteristic of the Old Testament, which since Christ has been replaced by the New. The outward constitution of the People of God in the Old Testament was for Franck a temporary concession made by God to the Israelites in anticipation of the coming of Christ. Under the old order the people of Israel had seen the rituals of the pagans, and desired to have their own. God allowed this as a provisional measure, just as parents allow their children to play with toys before they become adults. But with God's revelation in Christ humanity becomes precisely adult, and although in its infancy the Church also had its toys, these are not at all essential to the New Covenant. On the contrary, the New Testament, or the new relationship between God and humanity, is in its essence spiritual. Ancient Israel was constituted as a visible people with its particular rituals; the Church, or the New Israel, is by contrast an invisible spiritual assembly, and the rituals of ancient Israel were mere figures or or signs of the priesthood, prayer, baptism and eucharist that in the New Covenant are real, that is to say entirely inward and spiritual (Paradoxa, 44v-48r). Christians, unlike the Israelites of antiquity, have been freed from the elements of the world, and are the masters rather than the slaves of external things. In this regard Franck refers to Jesus' reply to the woman of Samaria in chapter four of the Gospel of John, where he is quoted as saying: "Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father... True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth... God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (4:21-24).

A ritual-free invisible church
We can see here, with Franck's correlation of the purely spiritual nature of God to a purely spiritual form of worship, that his doctrine of God is also important for his rejection of ritual and for his idea of toleration. Like other Christian mystics, the God of Franck is the God of the via negativa, i.e., an utterly transcendent, unknowable and ineffable mystery about whom, ultimately, nothing can be said concerning what He is. Human language can only express what He is not. Among other things God is not and cannot be confined to space and time; therefore it is, according to Franck, against the very nature of God to be bound in ritual acts to the elements of this world (To Campanus). One of God's negative attributes is his impartiality, in the literal sense: God by his nature cannot be associated with any party, group or nation. Therefore no religion or church can claim that God is theirs, or that God has entrusted to them alone the truth. This aspect of Franck's thought is both individualistic and universalistic, because on the one hand he affirms that every individual human person has been created in the image of God and has the word of God within himself or herself, and on the other hand that God's chosen people is the whole of humanity and not any particular group within it.

The universality of Franck's true, invisible, ritual-free spiritual church is one aspect of the notion of tolerance in his thought. He frequently refers to the spiritual church as the "ecclesia dispersa", the people of God dispersed among the pagans and all the peoples of the world. Whatever formal beliefs people might have, whatever external rituals they might observe, do not constitute true religion; but everywhere in the world, among all nations, God baptises with the spirit everyone who obeys the inner Word, regardless of their outward religion (To Campanus). "There have always been," he writes, "Christians among the pagans... who do not know if there has ever been or if there ever will be a Christ" (Paradoxa, 129r).

Precisely because God does not bind his grace to the external ritual of any church, we are called upon to be impartial as He is, and not to judge any person because of her or his formal religion. Although no institutional church is the real, spiritual church, membership in such a body does not preclude one's being a real Christian. Franck therefore affirms that Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Zwinglians and Muslims are all his brothers, even if he shares the opinions of none of them (Das verbuthschiert...Buch, 427v). God permits false opinions to have free reign, Franck argues, because the truth can be recognised only when it is put to the test in an ongoing struggle with falsehood (Chronica III, 236r)

Castellio: Ritual differences a source of intolerance
Sebastian Franck therefore condemned without reservation the horrible religious persecutions carried out by Catholics and Protestants alike in the name of orthodoxy, and, especially in his historical and geographical writings, he became a prominent if exceptional advocate of religious toleration and freedom of expression in the 1530's. Two decades later the French humanist Sébastien Castellion or Sebastian Castellio translated the chapter of Franck's Chronicle dealing with persecution and intolerance and published it in his famous treatise of 1554, De Haereticis or Concerning Heretics. This book was Castellio's response to Calvin's seizure and execution at the stake in Geneva of a visiting Spanish scientist and philosopher Michael Servetus, who had made himself notorious in theological circles by openly rejecting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. The De Haereticis was an anthology of texts that could be used in defence of the idea of toleration, the most important ones having been written by Castellio himself under pseudonyms.

Sebastian Castellio
Sebastian Castellio
In the De Haereticis Castellio deplores the ritual differences that have become sources of hatred and persecution, but which in themselves are insignificant. He cites, for instance, the person who receives communion in both kinds, or another person who will not baptise his child before the age of adolescence (Dedication, Bainton, p. 124). Castellio emphasizes the contradiction between the persecution of such people of the peaceful nature of Christ himself.

In 1555 Castellio published another, longer and more detailed treatise on toleration entitled De Haereticis non puniendis (On not Punishing Heretics). Here we find a view of ritual that is virtually identical to Sebastian Franck's. Castellio attacks Calvin and his followers for "being impeded by the visible and carnal and arrested by the visible tokens." He explicitly defines baptism by the Spirit and communion with the flesh and blood of Christ as being synonymous with putting off the old person of sin and putting on the new, regenerate person. The true sacraments are thus the fruits of love, which Castellio contrasts with "the exterior sermons and sacraments" of the Calvinists (Engl. tr. in Bainton, Studies, p. 176-7).

In developing his theory of the freedom of conscience Castellio targets the very idea that it is possible to know with certitude what is religious truth and what are the proper ceremonies. Castellio's reasoning on this matter is simple: if religious truth and the meaning of the Bible were clear, there would be no disagreement about them. Since however it is on these questions precisely that there is so much controversy, it is obvious that dogmas and many passages of Scripture are too obscure for their meaning and truth to be established with certainty. There is therefore no factual objectivity in any statement claiming the authority of revelation.

Obscurity of dogma
Castellio writes that religious doctrines "are given obscurely and often in enigmas and inscrutable questions which have been in dispute for more than a thousand years without any agreement ever being reached, or without the possibility that it can be reached even now, unless this were to be through love." "Yet for this reason," he adds, "the earth is filled with innocent blood." (Dédicace de la Bible à Edouard VI, 1551, in Lecler and Valkhoff, p. 105). In his later work De arte dubitandi (On the Art of Doubting), of 1562, the French humanist enunciates this principle: where there is consensus, one may believe, where there is not, one must doubt.

Like Sebastian Franck, Castellio replaces both the external, institutional guarantee of truth and the ritual vehicles of grace by the internal, spiritual working of the divine word within the human person. However Castellio takes an important step in the direction of modern rationalism by identifying this inward word with "reason". "Reason," he writes in the De arte dubitandi, "existed before Scripture and ceremonies... and will exist after Scripture and ceremonies... Reason is a kind of eternal word of God, far older and more certain than Scriptures and ceremonies. For reason is, as it were, an inner speech or word that always speaks the truth." (De arte dubitandi, pp. 65-66). Castellio sees freedom of conscience as a fundamental corollary of the autonomy of human reason. It is through reason itself that the Scriptures must be interpreted, and it is reason that takes the place of the ceremonies and ritual of traditional religion. Sebastian Franck and Sebastian Castellio are among the most important contributors in early modern Europe to the emergent notions of human rights. The origins of the principles of freedom of conscience and toleration are firmly rooted in the problematic caused by the break-up of Christendom the sixteenth century, and these principles were thus in the first instance developed in terms that are different from the terms in which they would be cast today. The language is Christian, and in the case of Sebastian Franck even mystical, but in the nascent rationalism of Sebastian Castellio there are hints of a more modern way of conceptualising them.

French Enlightenment
At the outset the principle of toleration was associated with a polemic against ritual in a way that might seem surprising to us today. This polemic however remained a part of the arguments for tolerance down through the eighteenth century, particularly in the French Enlightenment. Montesquieu, in his pleas for freedom and toleration, impressed the readers of his Persian Letters (46) with the parable of a man who did not know how to please God: some told him he should pray standing, others sitting, still others kneeling. Some wanted him to wash in cold water, others wanted to have part of his skin excised. He was told that eating a rabbit would offend God, because it was an unclean animal, or because it had not been strangled, or because it was not a fish, or because his father's soul might be in the rabbit. The confused man decided that there was only one way to please God: to live as a good citizen in his society, and a good father in his family.

James MacLean,
Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Other essays by James MacLean