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Synod on the Freedom of Conscience

Synod on the Freedom of Conscience: A Thorough Examination during the Gathering Held in the Year 1582 in the City of Freetown

D.V. Coornhert
Translated, edited, annotated by Gerrit Voogt
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 242
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  • Book Info
    Synod on the Freedom of Conscience
    Book Description:

    This is the first English translation of a pivotal work in the history of religious tolerance. In Synod on the Freedom of Conscience (1582) the Dutch humanist Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522-1590) provides one of the first book-length pleas for religious freedom published in the West. His central concern in his writings and exchanges with ministers of the Reformed Church was the safeguarding of freedom of conscience, the chief cause, he believed, for which the struggle against Habsburg Spain was being waged. The imaginary Synod, held in "Freetown," gathers together chief Catholic and Protestant leaders and theologians who engage in spirited debates on such matters as religious diversity, the freedom to criticize, the norms used to determine what constitutes heresy, freedom of the press, and the role of the state in the suppression of heresy. Each session concludes with remarks by the irenic Gamaliel (Coornhert's alter ego), who shows that both parties sin equally on the side of intolerance and pleads for the tolerant alternative. In this work Coornhert continues an Erasmian theme which would be picked up again in the following century by the Remonstrants and Hugo Grotius. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0799-3
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 7-22)

    The era of the wars of religion in Europe saw, as a counterpoint to the bloodshed and fanaticism, the formulation of several major pleas for tolerance, starting with Sebastian Castellio’sConcerning Heretics and Whether They Ought to be Persecuted(1554), written in response to the execution of the heterodox Servetus in Geneva at the behest of John Calvin. In France the culmination of the wars of religion that had torn the nation apart for decades coincided with the creation of theColloquium Heptaplomeresby Jean Bodin, a clandestine work that brings together seven imaginary friends of diverse religious plumage for...


      (pp. 25-32)
      D.V. Coornhert
    • FIRST SESSION Whether or Not the True Visible Church of Christ May Err
      (pp. 33-44)

      Participants: Jezonias, Vice-President, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, Gamaliel, Theodore Beza

      Jezonias, the Scales of our Lord. I had hoped, my learned, pious, and honorable gentlemen and brothers, that our president, Master Daniel, would appear in person at this blessed gathering. We all esteem his judgment so highly that each of us would gladly submit his opinions to him alone, since we unanimously consider his judgment to be purely divine rather than human. Therefore we along with all people could wish for nothing better than for his clear and enlightened judgment to guide our voices and sentiments. But it has pleased...

    • SECOND SESSION Proofs based on Antiquity, Customs, and Traditions
      (pp. 45-50)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Melchior Cano, Stanislas Hosius, John Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus, Theodore Beza, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: The Lord be with us all. Esteemed and eminent gentlemen, I am pleased with the increased number of delegates at this gathering. We have deliberated about the question whether God’s true visible church can err. Although I take it that the gentlemen who only joined us this afternoon have already been informed of these deliberations, I will nevertheless see to it that you too receive a copy so you can add your views.

      Moving on, we will discuss the second issue that needs to...

    • THIRD SESSION Rules and Ceremonies not Based on Scripture
      (pp. 51-56)

      Participants: Jezonias, Stanislas Hosius, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Catholic Delegate, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: There is, my pious, honorable, and learned gentlemen, some difference between the Catholics and the Reformed regarding the multitude of rules and ceremonies. Since it is the Reformed who criticize the Catholics on this point, it behooves the Catholics to account for their practice, so they can satisfy the Reformed in this matter, or so the Re-formed, remaining unsatisfied, may speak against it.

      To give an indication of the matter, to get things started I want to present to the Catholic gentlemen some of the issues at stake...

    • FOURTH SESSION The Credibility of the Patristic Writings
      (pp. 57-64)

      Participants: Jezonias, Stanislas Hosius, Reformed Delegate, Johannes Brenz, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Catholic Delegate, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: We see, in daily disputations on all sides, that many problems arise from the citation or rejection | of the writings of the Fathers as proof. To be able to put an end to these problems and to reach a certain source of proofs in matters of faith, we pose for your consideration the question of whether or not the testimony of the Fathers is to be accepted as certain and indubitable.

      Stanislas hosius: I am greatly surprised, gentlemen, that such matters should be...

    • FIFTH SESSION Proofs taken from Councils and Consensus
      (pp. 65-72)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Melchior Cano, Theodore Beza, Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Musculus, Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, Re-formed Delegate, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: We now move, gentlemen and brethren, from the writings of the Fathers to the authority of the councils and the consensus of the Fathers, to examine whether these can err. Following that [we will examine] whether or not their testimony in religious matters should be believed without doubt. You, gentlemen, each have a copy of the list of issues to be discussed here. Therefore, since you knew yesterday that we would take on this issue today, I hope that you have...

    • SIXTH SESSION Proofs Based on Examples from Ecclesiastical Histories
      (pp. 73-80)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: My gentlemen, every day much trouble is taken in denouncing and refuting the testimonies in support of matters of faith that are based on ecclesiastical histories. Some say that one should accept them as credible testimony, and others that this should not be done. This issue is put before you for your consideration in order to remove these troubles and to agree to a common standard. May it please each of you, gentlemen, to give your opinion on this matter.

      Catholic delegate: Around the year 350 emperor Constantius...

    • SEVENTH SESSION Proofs from Pagans
      (pp. 81-86)

      Participants: Jezonias, Ruardus Tapper, Catholic Delegate, Theodore Beza, John Calvin, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Moving now from proof based on ecclesiastical histories to the testimonies of the philosophers, we present you, esteemed theologians, with the question whether in proving divine matters any proof may be based on pagans or on natural philosophy. May it please each of you honorable gentlemen to give your view of the matter.

      Ruardus tapper: No one should doubt such proof, considering that we ourselves have used such proof on the advice of the whole university and the | esteemed department of theology at Louvain. Let me just...

    • EIGHTH SESSION Passing Judgment on Everyone, Yet Not Wanting to Suffer Anyone’s Judgment
      (pp. 87-96)

      Participants: Jezonias, Stanislas Hosius, Melchior Cano, Ruardus Tapper, Reformed Delegate, Henry Bullinger, John Calvin, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: So far, gentlemen, we have occupied ourselves with the kind of testimony that we ought to use in order to judge in matters of religion. Now we proceed to the judgment itself. We will discuss those who want to judge others, yet do not accept that anyone judges them; and also the question of to whom belongs the right to pass judgment on true doctrine as well as on heresy and heretics. But first [we will discuss] the first point, that is: to determine...

    • NINTH SESSION Who is to Judge on Doctrine
      (pp. 97-108)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Representative, Reformed Representative, Johannes Brenz, John Calvin, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Yesterday, my honorable gentlemen, we discussed the judgment that each wants to exercise over the other. As was said, from this we now move to the judgment of doctrine, and we need to consider to whom this judgment shall belong: does it belong only to clergy and teachers and not to laymen, be they magistrate or subject – or to both of these? Please, gentlemen, give your thoughts on this, together with the reasons for them.

      Catholic delegate: What reason could there be for someone belonging to the...


    • TENTH SESSION Whether Judgment of Heresy Belongs to the Civil or the Ecclesiastical Authority
      (pp. 111-124)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Protestant Delegate, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: What you discussed yesterday, honorable gentlemen, is so similar to the following article which, according to the notes from our lord President, must be discussed today, that at first blush many would think that having discussed the one would make the other redundant. But when one pays closer attention it will be clear that, besides many similarities, there is also a significant difference with the previous topics. One will then understand that it is not without reason that my lord the President has made this a separate article....

    • ELEVENTH SESSION Freedom of Conscience in Faith as Well as in its Exercise and Whether Only the Exercise of What the Civil Magistrate Judges to Be the True Religion Shall Be Allowed, and None Else
      (pp. 125-136)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Dutch Delegate, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Yesterday’s topic mostly touched on the ecclesiastical and secular authorities, and so will all the following topics. For complaints were heard that through their wiles the Catholic clergy had brought under their command the civil authorities, such as emperors, kings, and princes. Thus, by subjecting the latter to their will they also lorded it over their subjects, and therefore over the entire vulnerable population, be they high or low. This domination consisted in forbidding the authorities to allow the teaching or practice of any other religion...

    • TWELFTH SESSION Those Who Criticize Doctrine or Disturb the External Peace of the Church, and How They Ought to Be Punished
      (pp. 137-150)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, John Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus, Theodore Beza, Henry Bullinger, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Since sometimes there are doubts about who should be regarded as critics of doctrine or disturbers of the external peace of the church, and how they should be punished, this issue is now put before you, oh honorable, learned and esteemed gentlemen, so you can each express your views on the matter.

      Catholic delegate: Does anyone have any doubts about people of such ilk? Who does not know the nature and acts of Martin Luther and Zwingli and the unruliness of all their followers?...

    • THIRTEENTH SESSION Those Whose Teachings Differ from the Teachings of the Church, and Whether They Ought to be Punished by Death
      (pp. 151-162)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Theodore Beza, Reformed Delegate, John Calvin, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Each of you, gentlemen, knows all too well that, unfortunately, many different opinions are spread among the people. Likewise you all know that each of those opinions has its teachers who promote them in secret, and now also in public. If all or some of you, gentlemen, know how such evil can be successfully eradicated, I would welcome it, for this is what our president has told us to deliberate on: whether the best way to prevent this be that all those who teach differently shall be killed...

    • FOURTEENTH SESSION Whether or not We Should Dispute with Those Who Teach Differently
      (pp. 163-170)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, Theodore Beza, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Nowadays we find many different opinions, and everyone tries to prove with Holy Scripture that their opinions are right. This is especially true for those who have not yet gained power. But those who have attained power, considering their cause to have been sufficiently proven, do not want to risk opening it for debate and subjecting it to someone’s judgment. This is why they say that enough time has been spent on disputations and that more disputations ought not be permitted. The others in turn complain about this, saying that...

    • FIFTEENTH SESSION The Writing, Publishing, Printing, Selling, Having and Reading of Tracts and Books
      (pp. 171-180)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Doctor Placard, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, The Remonstrant of Leiden, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: There is a strong link between the issues we just discussed and the printing, possessing, and reading of books concerning religion. For diverse spirits bring to press not just diverse but also controversial matters. These writings are then praised by some and denounced by others, creating division among the people, aggravating some people and lifting up others. This is, therefore, a weighty matter. This is why I hope it may please the gentlemen gathered here to express their opinion on whether...

    • SIXTEENTH SESSION Condemning Others without Hearing Them
      (pp. 181-190)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Previously the Lutherans, the Reformed, the Moravian Brethren and others complained strongly about the Catholics, because the latter condemned them without granting them a proper hearing where they could legitimately defend themselves. Since the Catholics held the position of both council and council’s judge, the Protestants regarded them as suspect and biased, and none of them therefore dared or wished to appear before them.

      Now, on the other hand, we hear the Roman Catholics and others complain about the Reformed, claiming that the latter have dared condemn them without...

    • SEVENTEENTH SESSION Whether it is in Accord with Scripture that Religious Leaders Seek the Help of the Magistrate for Support of their Doctrine
      (pp. 191-208)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, Gamaliel, Theodore Beza

      Jezonias: Complaints were heard about the fact that the religious leaders appealed to the power of the magistrate in defense of their doctrine, as if | to that end other weapons were needed besides the almighty truth itself. It was said that this practice resulted from the absence or ignorance of the truth.The complainers themselves are also accused by those they complained about and by others that they do the same thing and that this is inappropriate, tending to diminish truth. Our president, Master Daniel put this on the agenda as...

    • EIGHTEENTH SESSION Denouncing Mercifulness, Praising Severity, and Recommending Bloodshed in Matters of Faith
      (pp. 209-218)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Since it is a punishment for the good if we save the wicked, and no one can be found who is more wicked or harmful than the person who corrupts the people and kills them forever in their spirit, which is the noblest human possession, there are those who consider it to be a cruel mercy if we save the heretics, the corrupters and murderers of unwise souls. Therefore, they say, such heretics ought to be punished with the utmost severity, and that doing this shows mercy towards...

    • NINETEENTH SESSION Whether it is Right for Religious Leaders to Tell the Civil Magistrate that They Have a Duty towards God to Kill Some People for Matters of Religion
      (pp. 219-230)

      Participants: Jezonias, Catholic Delegate, Reformed Delegate, Theodore Beza, Gamaliel

      Jezonias: Finally there is considerable disagreement between Catholics and many others, and also among many of the Reformed themselves, about whether the magistrate is obligated by God’s commandment in Holy Scripture to put to death someone who has not sinned against the political laws, only because of matters of faith that that person holds in private or that he teaches to others. I would like to hear each of you, gentlemen, give your view on the matter so that, after having heard and recorded your words, we can conclude and close...

  6. Appendix The Balance
    (pp. 231-232)
  7. Glossary
    (pp. 233-240)