Susquehanna University Press



Excerpts from Pierre Bayle's Reformation
Author: Barbara Sher Tinsley

1. Bayle’s personal solution to the basic theological dilemma over sin and evil was not…to point a finger at any one particular Christian group’s explanation of the matter, but to insist…that the ultimate truths of Christianity are mysteries incapable of human comprehension.

2. What he despised was theologians’ zeal and arrogance, what Melanchthon called "rabies theologorum," that discouraged men from further investigating theological problems…Bayle , one infers, would have preferred a situation where the absolute minimum of theological discussion was combined with the absolute maximum of civil toleration for dissidents. Unfortunately, history had not turned out that way.

3. Atrocities committed in the name of religious reform were the subject matter of a number of Dictionary articles. Reformation excesses were all too similar to pre-Reformation violence, verbal abuse, fraud, intimidation, and social suffering. Bayle wanted to remind princes, prelates, and theologians that however much toleration might appear to them to be the "most monstrous of all dogmas" and an infringement on the rights of magistrates to persecute and punish, in fact toleration was the only way to protect all people from the reprisals of the disaffected, whether domestic or foreign. The Reformation era was, for Bayle, the most "abominable" of all centuries, worse than the age of iron.

4. Bayle had carefully laid out the grounds for extending religious toleration to all sects, including Jews, atheists, Muslims, Anabaptists, and Socinians, because to do less was not only presumptuous—man could not fully know God’s truth, but also because to set limits to conscience was unconscionable.

5. In the process of writing about so many spiritual struggles, so much theological soul-searching, persecution , and intolerance, Bayle exposed the perils and pitfalls of what had come to fruition during his own lifetime, and of what we now call a multicultural or pluralist society. The Reformation had created the impetus for such a society, and it had grown apace, faster than any of the Reformers had anticipated and more deeply rooted than most could have imagined. Only a few unique individuals, among whom were Sebastian Franck, Sebastian Castellio, and Faustus Socinus, would have been at all comfortable with the notion of a radically new, pluralist social organization based on principles of charity, humility, and reverence for the sanctity of the individual’s right to a private conscience.

6. For Bayle, the key to worldly wisdom was being able to distinguish fact from fiction, which is why he set out to correct Moreri’s grand Dictionary. Bayle suffered from something like Tourette’s syndrome where history was concerned. His passion for correcting it was a mission, but also a nervous, repetitive action. He had to do it.

7. Bayle’s anticipation of what we have come to regard as the modern world, where churches and states are separated and separation guaranteed by constitutions, not magistrates, was understandably great. He did not live to see these things come to pass, but he did propose in his Dictionary and other writings that they would have to in order to preserve the best and most sacred principles of European civilization. Today we are still engaged in the preservation of Bayle’s vision.