Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation

By Raitt, Jill | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation


Raitt, Jill, The Catholic Historical Review


Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation. Edited by Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996. Pp. x, 294.)

Accepted theories about the growth of tolerance through the Renaissance and Reformation are corrected in this collection of essays by noted Reformation scholars. From Britain through Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to Italy and Spain, these scholars examine the attitudes of Protestant churches toward other forms of Protestantism and, in several instances, toward Catholicism. The overall impression is not surprising to anyone familiar with the disputes that turned Europe into a bloody battlefield during the late sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century. Ole Peter Grell (p. 5) illustrates the sort of change that occurred in Luther himself: early on, Luther argued that religion was a matter of conscience and individual responsibility; the use of force was unjust. But almost immediately he called in secular powers to deal with blasphemy and sedition and so began the persecution of the Anabaptists that continued relentlessly through the century. It soon became manifest that churches backed by political power became intolerant and did not hesitate to engage secular power to punish offenders against true religion; minority churches, on the other hand, argued for tolerance.

But before one can discuss tolerance, one must know what the word meant in the sixteenth century. It meant "bearing with" someone or something that one finds unpleasant, as in "I found the food barely tolerable, but I shall tolerate it if I must. "Today's notion of tolerance as acknowledging the right of all to religious liberty was far from the minds of sixteenth-century churchfolk. Bob Scribner argues effectively that both early Lutheran and Erasmian notions of tolerance "were all overridden in the course of the early Reformation" (p. 34). Scribner then outlines nine different types of tolerance in the sixteenth century, while Diarmaid MacCulloch's discussion is based on four attitudes of a dominant church toward minority groups: "concord by coercion, concord by discussion, tolerance and religious freedom" (p. 200). "Religious freedom" seems to have been found nowhere, at least in the sense that we understand it today. The essays in this volume lead one to conclude that the first and third possibilities occurred most frequently with an edge given to "concord by coercion.

The leading chapter, by Heiko Oberman, probes "the profile of pre-Lockean rationality in sixteenth-century Europe" by examining three test cases: of a woman accused of being a witch, of Jews and Marranos, and of religious dissent. From these cases, Oberman concludes that before the Reformation, at the beginning of the century essential legal institutions and ideological convictions were already in place" so that during the sixteenth century "old resources were mobilized and new solutions advanced, which mark the turn to that rationality which John Locke would proclaim as the foundation of a 'modern' tolerant society" (p. 31).

Philip Benedict's essay provides a fine sense of how France came to terms with two faiths through practical necessity and political expediency. …

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