The Centre for the History of European Discourses was incorporated in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities in August 2015.

The information in this website is therefore out of date but retained for archival and staff purposes.


 What is Impartiality? Gottfried Arnold on Spinoza (1699)and Johann Lorenz Mosheim on Servetus (1748)
In some ways, Michael Servetus (d.1553) and Benedict de Spinoza (d.1677) were the most serious challenges for Protestant historiography of heresy in the eighteenth century. Servetus was the only man burned as a heretic by Calvin's order in Reformed Geneva. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community in liberal Amsterdam and then condemned by almost everyone else as an atheist. Yet Servetus's ideas lived on in the Socinians and other anti-Trinitarians and Spinoza's ideas lived on in underground currents from deism to materialism, pantheism, and atheism. The challenge for historians was to fit them into a picture that would both defend some core of Protestant orthodoxy against Catholic charges of heresy on the one side and perceived threats to Christianity as a whole on the other.

Two of the most influential historians of heresy in the German-speaking world were Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714) and Johann Lorenz Mosheim (1694-1755). Each claimed impartiality in the title of his work. But what did they mean? The first positioned himself above it all, judging all accused heretics as innocent and all accusers as heretics. Spinoza could be excused for his heretical ideas on the ground that the self-described orthodox could drive anyone into heresy. The second positioned himself in the middle, mediating between extremes. Servetus could be wrong, but not as wrong as his accusers said. Only the author, in the middle, is right. Impartiality of either sort is a rhetorical pose of proven polemical value in the study of heresy.

Biographical Sketch

John Christian Laursen is a professor of Political Science at the University of California at Riverside . He is the author of The Politics of Skepticism in the Ancients, Montaigne, Hume, and Kant and editor or co-editor of several volumes on toleration and heresy, as well as translations of eighteenth-century German texts.

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