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Christian History Home > The Past in the Present > History Matters > The Golden Rule of Toleration

The Golden Rule of Toleration
300 years ago, Pierre Bayle offered a Protestant defense of religious pluralism.
Joseph Loconte | posted 5/07/2009 10:24AM

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The Golden Rule of Toleration

Recent months have brought fearsome reminders of the destructive force of corrupted religion. In the Swat region of Pakistan, a 17-year-old woman was publicly flogged, apparently for leaving her home without a male escort. A video of the beating, which shows the teenager writhing in pain and pleading for relief, has set off a national debate about the influence of radical Islam in the country. In Afghanistan, a group of 300 women defied an angry mob as they marched in the nation's capital to protest a law allowing marital rape. "Death to the enemies of Islam!" chanted their opponents. "We want Islamic law!" In Sudan, the Islamist government expelled humanitarian relief organizations after an international tribunal accused its leader of war crimes and issued a warrant for his arrest. "Here in Sudan, we are a liberation movement against this new colonization," proclaimed Omar al-Bashir, "and we are ready for any battle." The ejection of relief agencies has put the lives of at least a million internal refugees at risk.

Perhaps not since Europe's wars of religion has the public face of piety been so disfigured. These and similar stories feed the liberal view of faith as pathology. We are told that religious beliefs, if allowed to intrude into politics, become the mortal enemy of freedom. This slick narrative suffers, in fact, from its detachment from European history: It was the Christian culture of Europe, during a season of spiritual fervor, which produced an intellectual alliance of religion and human rights. What emerged, and ultimately prevailed, was an unashamedly biblical defense of freedom of thought that shook the political and clerical establishments of its day.

The Supreme Court of Reason

Three hundred years ago, in 1708, the first English translation of Pierre Bayle's A Philosophical Commentary appeared in London. This theological manifesto offered an erudite vindication of reason in the cause of religious toleration. Bayle was a French philosopher adored by later Enlightenment figures, yet he argued as a Protestant thinker whose high view of the Bible would send contemporary liberals into apoplexy. His work enlisted "natural reason" to defend the integrity of Scripture against Christian clergy whom he accused of abusing the Bible to justify persecution. "Whatever Doctrine is not vouch'd, as I may say, confirm'd and register'd in the supreme Court of Reason and natural Light," he declared, "stands on a very tottering and crazy Foundation."

The doctrine that Bayle set his sights on had been used to construct a theology of coercion for centuries. It was based on Jesus' parable of a banquet in Luke 14:23: "Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled." Citing the authority of Augustine, the Catholic Church endorsed a literal interpretation of the parable to authorize the use of lethal force against heretics. Many Protestants had done likewise, yet complained bitterly when Catholic France, under Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and launched a campaign of brutal persecution against its Protestant population. Thousands were imprisoned or sent to convents. Children were taken from their parents, baptized, and shipped off for adoption. At least 200,000 Protestants fled the country and became exiles throughout Europe.

This latest outburst of violence caused Bayle, himself a religious refugee in Holland, to defend toleration on explicitly Christian grounds. His lengthy work is a careful refutation of the church's rationale for coercion—using relentless logic to awaken conscience, interpret Scripture, and uphold the example of Jesus. The threat of force, Bayle argued, could never inspire genuine faith; instead, it corrupted the conscience and produced "acts of Hypocrisy and High Treason against the Divine Majesty." The use of Scripture to authorize violence was repugnant not only to reason, but also to the plain dictates of revelation. "One must transcribe almost the whole New Testament," he wrote, "to collect all the Proofs it affords us of that Gentleness and Long-suffering, which constitute the distinguishing and essential Character of the Gospel."

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