Reason, Truth, and the Persecution of Heretics in Sixteenth-Century Switzerland

Woodcut device of Pietro Perna, ca. 1560

by Odile Panetta

The debate over the legitimacy of coercing heretics which flared up in Switzerland from the 1550s provided the context for new reflections on the limits of human knowledge and on the means of attaining certain truth in matters of religion. Scholarship on this debate has largely focussed on the thought of the opponent of persecution Sebastian Castellio, responsible for formulating a rationalist critique of the interpretation of the relationship between faith, understanding, and certitude as posited by defenders of coercion in the Reformed camp. In this paper, I reassess the nature of the challenge to Reformed epistemology which emerged from the Swiss heresy debate, by exploring both the original articulation of the problem of uncertainty and the reception of these early ideas. I conclude that the true import of Castellio’s contribution lay not so much in his rationalism, as in the unsettling consequences of his framing of the problem of knowledge and the multiple possibilities it opened.

Author’s bio:
Odile Panetta completed a BA in History at University College London in 2017, and an intercollegiate MA in History of Political Thought and Intellectual History at UCL and Queen Mary, University of London, before moving to Cambridge for her PhD in 2018. Odile is broadly interested in the philosophical, political and religious thought of sixteenth-century humanists. Her current research project is centered around the debate over the legitimacy of the coercion of heretics in mid-sixteenth-century Switzerland, with a particular focus on arguments against religious coercion, and on the relationship between religion and politics, as developed and disseminated, in the context of this debate, by a number of heterodox Italian Protestant exiles.

Registered attendees received access to the video presentation and shared questions and comments below.

5 replies on “Reason, Truth, and the Persecution of Heretics in Sixteenth-Century Switzerland”

Hi Odile, thank you for your exciting paper and presentation! I had a great time reading it.

You clearly showed that Castellio posed critical questions about the limits of human understanding in religious matters, but I did not fully understand how systematic, methodologically speaking, were his proposals. I’m thinking in The Art of Doubting but also in earlier writings. Did he ever propose some kind of guide for the study of and writing about the scriptures?

In the same line, did any of Castellio’s readers or successors propose a methodology (e.g., philological) for a more tolerant -not necessarily rationalist- study of the scriptures? In other words, did any of his successors try to propose some kind of methodology rooted in sceptic, mistic, or relativist epistemic assumptions regarding religious matters?

Finally, I was wondering if you know to what extent Castellio’s writings could have influenced 18th c. theorists of hermeneutics? Like Johann Martin Chladenius or Justus Möser?

Hi Odile, thank you for the wonderful presentation! I found your research very engaging despite the fact that I knew very little about this field. Your presentation is also nicely structured with streamlined arguments that I found supported and persuasive.

You briefly mentioned that the Reformers saw heresy as a political issue and that current scholarship has mostly failed to examine their political arguments, leading to a biased reading of the Reformed camp. I am intrigued by the existence of this research blind spot and how/why it came to be.

Another point that attracted my attention was the shift you spoke of in the understanding of faith that transitioned from supra-rational to anti-rational among the immediate contemporaries of Castellio. Do you have a hypothesis for the reason behind this shift?

All in all, it was a pleasure watching your video and learning about this fascinating subject.

Hi Odile! I appreciated learning about this topic through your paper and presentation. I was most intrigued by the triangulation you pick out of “faith, understanding, and certitude” (which I believe you sometimes rephrase as “faith, knowledge, and certitude” and “faith, understanding, and certainty” – not sure if these variations are significant.) One could think of drawing some sort of diagram of the ways in which ‘faith’ intersects (or doesn’t) with ‘understanding’ and ‘certainty’, and these latter two with each other, particularly since you give the specific example throughout your paper/presentation of those whose faith supersedes ‘understanding.’ (In other words, those for whom achieving understanding is a secondary or tertiary concern compared with holding onto faith, or asserting a kind of certitude of faith.) I am reminded of something I heard (the source of which I can’t recall now!) that perhaps the most pious person is one who lays claim to very little ‘understanding’ but a large deal of ‘certainty.’ You seem to echo a similar notion when you allude to one specific standpoint that “[The] fundamentals of christianity were to be accepted without understanding [of them].” I wonder if just on a general philosophical level, you had any more thoughts that could shed light on the triangulation (faith, understanding, and certainty) and particularly how you yourself interpret the difference between ‘certainty’ and ‘understanding’ obtains?

Perhaps as an additional question – as I watch more of our fellow panelists’ presentations in the Symposium, I am seeing that a common theme many of us explore is the important distinction between what one calls irrational versus (what you yourself term) super-rational. For instance, alongside your presentation, I think here of Aleksandra’s, where she remarks about theosophical adherents’ own perception of their mode of inquiry as not irrational or non-rational, but rather standing somehow above the rational, potentially engendering it. How might one approach the seemingly very subtle distinction between what goes beyond rationality and what undermines or negates rationality? Thank you again for presenting this work!

Hi Odile! Thank you so much for presenting your research: I was very enthusiastic about the possibility to learn more about the topic, and the debates you discuss in your paper are fascinating! I very much look forward to our discussion and, as you mentioned too, see a lot of similar issues we both address in our projects. Here are some of the questions that arose while I was reading your paper:

1) At some point you overview arguments employed by the Reformers in the debates on religious coercion, and you state: “Claims that Old Testament precepts on the punishment of religious offences were no longer valid after the coming of Christ were rejected through compelling arguments about the universal validity of Old Testament law in light of its conformity with natural law.” At the same time, for Beza, “faith derives not from natural knowledge, but from the hearing of the word [of God] through the Holy Spirit.” Is there any implicit contradiction here, and could you elaborate a little more on the connection of the Reformers’ arguments with natural law? (This is not to suggest that you need to do that in the paper, of course; it is just something I immediately was curious about.)

2) Perhaps related to the first question: what was the relation of these debates that you discuss to the contemporary legislation on heresy? And what would be the larger European context, that is, did similar discussions occur elsewhere?

Overall, I think your paper is very convincing in critiquing teleological interpretations of the gradual rationalization in theological questions, and, again, look forward to our discussion tomorrow!

Hi Odile! Thank you for letting us read your wonderful paper! I enjoyed very much following your presentation on video as well, as you spoke with a clear structure and nicely highlighted arguments based on your research.

Like did Qingyang, I also paid attention to the political viewpoint to the question of faith, knowledge, and certainty. So how is it that this viewpoint has been neglected before in research? Is it due to the theoretical approach, use of sources (as you mentioned, you have used Castellio’s texts that have been left aside before if I understood correctly), or the historical context (the heresy debate) that Castellio has not been placed before?

I was also interested in the idea of truth and faith and their connection to the history of science or the history of knowledge. How would you position yourself as a researcher with this topic?

Great to meet you soon!

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