I’m lucky that there’s a library about ten minutes walk from where I live in south west London. It’s not a huge library; I would guess there are about 30-40 books in the Christianity section which is where I was looking when I visited earlier this week.
So I was lucky, then, to find a book that really caught my attention, ‘Reformation: A World in Turmoil’ by Andrew Atherstone. The book is an excellent guide to the Reformation and has already provided me with much food for thought even though I’m currently only about half way through.
One of the things that is standing out for me as I read this book is the diversity of opinions that different Christians held about the key doctrinal issues of the faith. During the Reformation there were many believers who were tortured, burned at the stake, beheaded, drowned, or otherwise executed, for holding opinions that differed from those who were in power in a particular region at a particular time.
I want to quote a short section from page 147 of the book on the subject of heresy and then will make a few comments below. I would love to get your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of this post.
In his treatise, On Heretics, [Sebastian] Castellio argued that Christians spent far too much time arguing about unprofitable doctrines like the Trinity, the work of Christ, predestination, free will, angels, and the immortality of the soul. He maintained that such debates were irrelevant since salvation was achieved not by doctrinal precision but through faith in Christ, as tax-collectors and prostitutes realized in New Testament times. Castellio went further and asserted that it was futile to punish “heresy”, because Christians could not agree among themselves which views were heretical. Surveying the bewildering multitude of Christian opinions in evidence across sixteenth-century Europe, he wrote:
There is hardly one of all the sects, which today are without number, which does not hold the others to be heretics. So that if in one city or region you are esteemed to be a true believer, in the next you will be esteemed a heretic. So that if anyone today wants to live he must have as many faiths and religions as there are cities or sects, just as a man who travels through the lands has to change his money from day to day…
Castellio looked for an emphasis upon Christian morality rather than doctrinal correctness, and maintained: “It would be better to let a hundred, even a thousand heretics live than to put a decent man to death under pretence of heresy.”
In our current age of YouTube videos and the blogosphere there are still debates raging around all the same issues that were being discussed vehemently in Castellio’s day. The plurality of beliefs amongst Christians has not decreased. There are thousands of different denominations in the church today. We may not be burning people at the stake for their beliefs, but we are still arguing about the same doctrinal issues.
I wonder how God views all these different beliefs? Is it really true that just a small number of Christians will be able to “enter through the narrow gate” and be saved? Or is it arrogance to assume that one person’s views about, say, the Trinity, are going to leave them damned to hell while another’s views will carry them to heaven?
If it is true that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, as many Christians believe, does it really follow that there is one correct interpretation of Scripture, or should we be more liberal in allowing for different beliefs and interpretations within the church?
Castellio’s view was that we should put morality first. This suggests to me that he believed we should be more concerned about our conduct as Christians than the minutiae of doctrinal differences. Perhaps a good Christian is able to empathise with the views of others, putting himself in their shoes and understanding that despite being different, their opinion may not be heresy in God’s eyes.