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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
THE, or as they called themselves, Spiritualists, were a Pantheistic and Antinomian sect of the Reformation days. They appeared first in the Netherlands as an ultra division of the "Brethren of the Free Spirit." They spread into France, and, by the interest they manifested in political affairs, gained considerable influence also in Switzerland, especially in Geneva. The impulse given to thought by the Reformation gave rise also to many errors, which flourished by the side of evangelical truth. "Lofty as our ideas of the Reformation should be, we must not be blind to the fact that.... Protestantism [referring especially to the Continent] bears sad evidence of early mismanagement" (Hurst, Hist. of Rationalism, page 37). Foremost among the heretics of this period were the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who, although hotly persecuted, had never been entirely exterminated, and who were yet numerous in Germany and the Netherlands. They now suddenly emerged from the secrecy in which they had lately hidden themselves, as soon as the power of the Church began to wane. Luther clearly saw, however, that not to Romanism, but to Protestantism as well, the influence of the Libertines must be baneful, and he took an early opportunity to warn the Christians of those countries against them (Gieseler, Kirchenlesch. 3 , 557). Calvin also had to contend against the influence of these Rationalists, and, in speaking of them, mentions a certain Coppin, of Lille, as the first who attempted to introduce, as early as 1529, the doctrines of the Free Spirit in his native city.
This Coppin was soon eclipsed by his disciple Quintin, of Hennegaui, who, with his companions Bertrand, became the leader of the sect in France in 1534, and with whom a priest called Plocquet (Pocques) connected himself. These two, for Bertrand soon died, are represented as uneducated but shrewd men, who made religion a means of securing earthly goods, and who were very successful in the attempt. They openly professed to have found the principle of "moral falsehood" (or mental reservation) inculcated in the Scriptures, and, in consequence, thought it but right to profess Roman Catholicism when among Roman Catholics, and Protestantism when with Protestants. They are said to have made 4000 proselytes in France alole. They did not, moreover, confine their attempts at deceit to the lower classes, but, on the contrary, endeavored to gain proselytes among the learned and in the higher walks of society; they succeeded even in gaining the ear of the queen Margaret of Navarre, sister of Francis I, who received them, as also a certain Lefevre d'Etaples and others, at her court, and daily consulted with them. They made great use of allegory, figures of speech, etc., taking their authority from the precept, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."
We have said above that the system of the Libertines was pantheistic; it was, in fact, pure pantheism. They held that there is one universal spirit, which is foundi in every creature, and is the Spirit of God. This one spirit and God is distinguished from itself according as it is considered in heaven or on earth. "Deum a se ipso diversum esse, quod alius omnino in hoc mundo sit quam in coelo" (Calvin, Instr . adv. Libert. 100:11). All creatures, angels, etc., are nothing in themselves, and have no real existence aside from God. Man is preserved only by the Spirit of God, which is in him, and exists only luntil that spirit again departs from him; instead of a soul, it is God himself who dwells in man, and all his actions, all that takes place in the world, is direct from him, is the immediate work of God ("Quiduid in mundo lit, opus ipsius [Dei] directo censendum esse," c. 13). Everything else, the world. the flesh, the devil, souls, etc., are by this system considered as illusions, mere suppositions (opinatio). Even sin is not a mere negation of right, but, since God is the active agent of all actions, it can be but an illusion also, and will disappear as soon as this principle is recognized ("Peccatum — non solum aiunt boni privationem esse, sed est illis opinatio, quae evanescit et aboletur, cum nulla habetur ejus ratio," c. 12. Pocquet says, in regard to that, "Et quia omnia quae fiunt extra Deum, nihil sunt quam vanitas," c. 23).
There is, therefore, but one evil, and that evil is this very illusion, this imagination of evil, of a distinction between it and the right. Thus the original fall or sin was nothing else than a separation of man from God, or rather the result of man's desire to be something by himself, separating himself from sunion and identity with God. Thus unintentionally man subjected himself to the world and to Satan, and became himself an illusion, a smoke which passes away and leaves nothing behind. So Pocquet says. "Ideo scriptuim est (?), 'Qui videt peccatum, peccatum ei manet et veritas in ipso non est'" (in Calvin, c. 23). From the Libertine point of view the nature of Christ did not materially differ from ours; he consisted, like other human beings, in divine spirit, such as dwells in us all, and in the sacrifice only the illusionary, or worldly part, was lost. However considered the whole history of Christ, and especially his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, had for them but a symbolical significance; his passion, etc., was, according to Calvin's strong expression, only "une farce on moralite jouee pour nous figurer le mystere de notre salut" — only a type of the idea that sin was effaced and atoned for, while in reality, and in God's view, it was of no account in itself ("Chr. solum velut typus fuit, in quo contemplamur ea, quae ad salutem nostram requirit scriptura; e.g. cum aiunt, Christum abolevisse peccatum, sensus eorum est, Christum abolitioneem illam in persona sua representasse," c. 17).
But in so far as we are one in spirit with Christ, all that he underwent is as if we had undergone it; his exclamation, "It is finished," is true as well for us as for himself; sin has lost all significance so far as we are concerned, and the fight against sin, repentance, mortification of the flesh, etc., are no longer necessary. Neither can nor should the spirituialist be any longer subject to suffering, since Christ has suffered all. Here the idea and the reality, however, are in conflict ("Nam scriptum est: Factus sum totus homo. Cum factus sit totus homo [tout homme, in a twofold sense], accipiens naturam humanam, ac mortuus sit, potestne adhuc in his inferioribus locis mori? Magni esset erroris hoc credere," etc., ibidem, c. 23). Of course man should be born anew, but this new birth is secured when he regains the state of innocence of Adam before the fall; when in absolute filial unity with God, he neither sees nor knows sin, or, in other words, when he is no longer able to distinguish it from righteousness (modo ne amplius opinemur), and when able to follow the dictates of God's Spirit by virtue of natural impulse ("Sed si adhuc committamus delictum et ingrediamur hortum voluptatis, qui adhuc nobis prohibitus est, ne quid velimus facere, sed sinamus nos duci a vohulttate Dei. Alioqui non essemus exuti veteri serpente, qui est primus parens noster Adam, et videremus peccatum, sicut ipse et uxor ejus, etc. Nunc vivificati sumus cum sectundo Adamo; qui est Christus, non cernendo amplius peccatum, quia est mortuum," etc. ibidem; compare c. 18). Such a twice-born one is Christ, is God himself, to whom the Libertine returns after death, to be absorbed in him ("Hoc enim imaginantur, animam hominis, quae est Deus, ad seipsam redire, cum ad mortem ventum est, non ut tanquam anima humana, sed tanquam Deus ipse vivat, sicuti ab initio," c. 3 and 22).
The consequences of such principles are obviolus: they lead naturally to sensuality, to the emacipation of to flesh and the laying aside of all restrictions; make men look upon propriety or ownership as a wrong, as opposed to the principles of love, and, in fact, a theft, though this principle was not carried into practice. Calvin called its principal advocates "doctores passivae caritatis." Ordilnary or legal marriage comes to be looked upon as a mere carnal bond, and therefore dissoluble; true marriage, such as satisfies both body and mind, being a union of each to each; communion of saints extended not merely to the worldly possessions, but also to the very bodies of the saints. In short, spiritualism soon degenerated into open and avowed sensualism and materialism. But this is the very feature which gave it its influence with some classes in Geneva. The example of their bishops and of the cathedral canons had excited their imagination by inclining them to self-indulgence and licentiousness, and political circumstances operated in favor of the same result. Soon, however, the real principles of the Libertines appeared in their full light, and created a reaction, some women having gone so far as to quote Scripture to authorize their excesses, insisting especially on the fact of God's first command to our first parents having been "to increase and multiply" ("Crescite et multiplicamini super terram. En prima lex, quam ordinavit Deus, qua vocabatur lex nature," c. 23). (See COMMUNISM); "Free Love" in the article MARRIAGE (See MARRIAGE).
As Calvin had favored political libertinism, those who considered themselves aggrieved by the practice of the spiritualists turned also against him, and this politico- religious reaction went as far as irreligion and atheism, as in the case of Jacob Gruet, whose ultraradical principles in politics and rationalism in religion led to his trial before the courts of Geneva July 27, 1547. Yet no one really did more to counteract the principles of the Libertines than did Calvin himself. First, in 1544, he brought all their secret principles to light in one of his works (see Instit. 3:3, § 14). Afterwards, in 1547, he warned the faithful of Rhouen against an ex-Franciscan monk who was inculcating libertine doctrines, and who met with some success, especially among women of the higher classes. Under Calvin's influence Farel also took up the pen against the Libertines (Le glaive de la parole veritable, tire contre le bouclier de defense, duquel un cordelier s'est voulu servir pour approuver ses fausses et damnables opinions [Geneva, 1550; see Kirchhofer, Theol. Studien und Krit. 1831]). The queen of Navarre was highly offended at Calvin for denouncing the leaders of the Libertines who were then at her court; he therefore wrote to her a letter which is a remarkable specimen of respectful remonstrance (August 28, 1545; in French, see J. Bonnet, Lettres de J. Calvin, 1:111 sq.; Latin, Epist. et Resp. ed. Amst. page 33). It is, in fact, due to his efforts that this sect, this baneful curse, left France to take refuge in its native country, Belgium, and that it finally disappeared altogether. Against the Libertines of Geneva the attacks were for a long time unavailing; they cannot be considered to have been successfully ended until after the insurrection of May 15, 1555, when the principal leaders were either exiled or imprisoned. See Calvin, Aux ministres de l'eglise de Neufchatel contre la secte fanatique et furieuse des Libertins qui se nomment Spirituels (Genesis 1544, 8vo; 1545, and other editions); Contre un Franciscain, sectateur des erreurs des Libertins, adresse a l'eglise de Rouen (20 Aout, 1547 [both these have been published together in 1547, in the Opluscules, page 817 sq., and by P. Jacob, page 293 sq.; Lat. by Des Gallars, in Opusc. onmn. Genesis 1552; Opp. ed. Amst. 8:374 sq.]); Picot, Hist. de Geneve; Gieseler, Kirchengesch. 3:1, page 385; Hundeshagen, in the Theol. Stude. ud Krit. (1845); Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 8:374-380. (J.H.W.)
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Libertines'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/l/libertines.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.