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A History of Freedom of Thought by J. B. Bury

79 and he established a theocracy at Geneva


The principal cause of the Reformation was the general corruption of the Church and the flagrancy of its oppression. For a long time the Papacy had had no higher aim than to be a secular power exploiting its spiritual authority for the purpose of promoting its worldly interests, by which it was exclusively governed. All the European States based their diplomacy on this assumption. Since the fourteenth century every one acknowledged

[77] the need of reforming the Church, and reform had been promised, but things went from bad to worse, and there was no resource but rebellion. The rebellion led by Luther was the result not of a revolt of reason against dogmas, but of widely spread anti-clerical feeling due to the ecclesiastical methods of extorting money, particularly by the sale of Indulgences, the most glaring abuse of the time. It was his study of the theory of Papal Indulgences that led Luther on to his theological heresies.

It is an elementary error, but one which is still shared by many people who have read history superficially, that the Reformation established religious liberty and the right of private judgment. What it did was to bring about a new set of political and social conditions, under which religious liberty could ultimately be secured, and, by virtue of its inherent inconsistencies, to lead to results at which its leaders would have shuddered. But nothing was further from the minds of the leading Reformers than the toleration of doctrines differing from their own. They replaced one authority by another. They set up the authority of the Bible instead of that of the Church, but it was the Bible according to Luther or the Bible according to Calvin. So far as the spirit of intolerance went, there

[78] was nothing to choose between the new and the old Churches. The religious wars were not for the cause of freedom, but for particular sets of doctrines; and in France, if the Protestants had been victorious, it is certain that they would not have given more liberal terms to the Catholics than the Catholics gave to them.

Luther was quite opposed to liberty of conscience and worship, a doctrine which was inconsistent with Scripture as he read it. He might protest against coercion and condemn the burning of heretics, when he was in fear that he and his party might be victims, but when he was safe and in power, he asserted his real view that it was the duty of the State to impose the true doctrine and exterminate heresy, which was an abomination, that unlimited obedience to their prince in religious as in other matters was the duty of subjects, and that the end of the State was to defend the faith. He held that Anabaptists should be put to the sword. With Protestants and Catholics alike the dogma of exclusive salvation led to the same place.

Calvin's fame for intolerance is blackest. He did not, like Luther, advocate the absolute power of the civil ruler; he stood for the control of the State by the Church--a form of government which is commonly called theocracy;

[79] and he established a theocracy at Geneva. Here liberty was completely crushed; false doctrines were put down by imprisonment, exile, and death. The punishment of Servetus is the most famous exploit of Calvin's warfare against heresy. The Spaniard Servetus, who had written against the dogma of the Trinity, was imprisoned at Lyons (partly through the machinations of Calvin) and having escaped came rashly to Geneva. He was tried for heresy and committed to the flames (1553), though Geneva had no jurisdiction over him. Melanchthon, who formulated the principles of persecution, praised this act as a memorable example to posterity. Posterity however was one day to be ashamed of that example. In 1903 the Calvinists of Geneva felt impelled to erect an expiatory monument, in which Calvin "our great Reformer" is excused as guilty of an error "which was that of his century."


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