Caelius Secundus Curio and Laelius Socinus: Two Heroic 16th Century Resisters of John Calvin

The following appears on page 478 of Will Durant’s wonderful history of the Reformation (which you can find at Amazon here):

Calvin faced on the left a group of radicals recently arrived in Switzerland from Counter Reformation Italy. Caelius Secundus Curio, teaching in Lausanne and Basel, shocked Calvin by announcing that the saved—including many heathen—would far outnumber the damned. Laelius Socinus, son of a leading Italian jurist, settled in Zurich, studied Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew in order to understand the Bible better, learned too much, and lost his faith in the Trinity, predestination, original sin, and the atonement. He expressed his skepticism to Calvin, who answered as well as possible. Socinus agreed to refrain from public utterance of his doubts; but later he spoke out against the execution of Servetus, and was among the few who, in that fevered age, stood up for religious toleration.

Caelius Secundus Curio (1503-1569) and Laelius Socinus (1525-1562): two moderate and educated intellectuals who pushed back against John Calvin’s theocratic authoritarianism in hard times. I want a public monument to them.

Here’s a bit more from an Internet source on Caelius Secundus Curio:

Curio sympathized with Zwingli’s favorable judgment of the noble heathen [Homer, Socrates, Virgil etc.], and thought that they were as acceptable to God as the pious Israelites. Vergerio, formerly a friend of Curio, charged him with the Pelagian heresy and with teaching that men may be saved without the knowledge of Christ, though not without Christ. Curio advanced also the hopeful view that the kingdom of heaven is much larger than the kingdom of Satan, and that the saved will far outnumber the lost.

And from the same source, a bit more on Laelius Socinus as well:

He was constitutionally a sceptic, of the type of Thomas: an honest seeker after truth; too independent to submit blindly to authority, and yet too religious to run into infidelity. His scepticism stumbled first at the Roman Catholic, then at the Protestant orthodoxy, and gradually spread over the doctrines of the resurrection, predestination, original sin, the trinity, the atonement, and the sacraments. . . . He enjoyed the confidence of Bullinger and Melanchthon, who treated him with fatherly kindness, but regarded him better fitted for a secular calling than for the service of the Church. Calvin also was favorably impressed with his talents and personal character, but displeased with his excessive “inquisitiveness.” . . . Calvin . . . warned him against the dangers of his sceptical bent of mind. . . . Various complaints against Socinus reached Bullinger. Calvin requested him to restrain the restless curiosity of the sceptic. . . . Socinus ceased to trouble the Reformers with questions. . . . The last few years of his short life he spent in quiet retirement. His nephew visited him several times, and revered him as a divinely illuminated man to whom he owed his most fruitful ideas.

These two guys are great. And in the long run, their curiosity, open-minded religious expansiveness, and skepticism won, didn’t they? As Martin Luther King said, “The arc is long, but it bends toward justice.” In fighting for human dignity and sanity it might not hurt to think of Caelius Secundus Curio and Laelius Socinus, and draw some perspective and inspiration from them. Their admirable spirits recall for me Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous observations:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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