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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Problem. One of the most important aspects of
the history of heresy before the middle of the sixteenth
century was the notion that heresy was disruptive of
the structures of society and hence destructive of soci-
ety, the corpus christianum, itself. Thus the heretic was
an offender against the State as well. Both Roman
Catholics and Protestants adhered to this view. It was
the basis of the attack by a combined Catholic and
Lutheran army against Münster in 1534-35. The “New
Jerusalem” which had been set up in that city by
religious dissidents was regarded as sufficiently threat-
ening to surrounding society that confessional differ-
ences could be overlooked in suppressing it. And this
theory was the buttress of Theodore Beza's defense of
the burning of Michael Servetus in Geneva in 1553:
to allow men with views like Servetus' to go un-
hindered was not only offensive to God but disinte-
grative of the social order. The concern thus was not
exclusively for dogma. Assumed social ramifications
were almost always associated with the repression of
heretical dissent.

However, the significance of this idea began to
dwindle when the Huguenots in France managed to
introduce the principle of religious pluralism in the
midst of political monism and obtained the Edict of
Nantes in 1598. For almost a century thereafter a
religious and political stalemate between Calvinists and
Catholics was recognized, and the liberty of conscience
and territorial coexistence implicit in the Edict did not
destroy the French kingdom.

The churches' responses to heresy in the Renaissance
and Reformation were in the form of punishment and
repression. The theory underlying their attitude stems
ultimately from Saint Augustine who held that force
short of death may be used in love to recall men from
error. Its more proximate source in this period, how-


ever, was in Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologica
II-II, q. 11, §§3-4). Thomas held that the Church's
action against the heretic actually shows great mercy.
As advocated in Titus 3:10, she does not immediately
condemn the erring one, but first admonishes him
twice. The aim is to retrieve the lost soul to the fold
through penance. Forgiveness is the goal, not punish-
ment. If the heretic remains obdurate, however, or if
he relapses into his error after penance and rehabil-
itation, he must be punished. It is right, Thomas sug-
gests, for such persons to suffer, for the contagion of
their views jeopardizes the welfare of all. The goal then
becomes the salvation of the community. Thomas con-
strued heresy as the worst possible offense, and if the
counterfeiter of coin is executed, how much more
should the heretic, the counterfeiter of divine truth be
put to death. Since God is regarded as the supreme
sovereign, a feudalization of the idea has taken place:
the severity of the crime is determined by the status
of him against whom it is perpetrated. John 15:6, which
states that a withered branch is to be burned, though
not used by Thomas, seems to be the scriptural basis
for the Church's position.

The Inquisition and the Index librorum prohibitorum
were primary weapons of Roman Catholicism for
dealing with heresy in the late Middle Ages. The for-
mer was systematized by Gregory IX and the Synod
of Toulouse in 1229. Its legal and coercive powers were
independent of local ecclesiastical and political con-
trols, and it was much feared. The Index of prohibited
books comes to the fore especially with the Council
of Trent, 1545-63.

The operative legal principle in the churches' op-
pression of heresy was borrowed from criminal law.
There, in the words of Andreas of Isernia (d. 1316),
“the offense is in the will, and unless it be voluntary,
it is not a crime.” In the hands of the churchmen, this
was construed to fit all heretics by definition. Theodore
Beza, successor of Calvin in Geneva, assumed hypoc-
risy in all his opponents and regarded any activity
against the Church as based on dolus (“deceit”). Every
heretic “wills to ignore the truth.” Beza's Protestant
position was not unique, and it can be viewed as simply
the logical extension of the position of Thomas (ibid.,
I-II, q. 76, §§2-3), who, by distinguishing between
nescience (absence of knowledge) and ignorance
(privation of knowledge), was able to deny the validity
of a plea for clemency on the basis of ignorance. Not
to know what one ought to know involves the sin of
omission. Moreover, provisions of the Roman law,
formulated in the Code of Justinian, which called for
the death penalty for those who repeat baptism or deny
the Trinity were revived.

There was no great formal difference between the
confessions on this point when seen in toto. Luther in
1521 declared that heresy should be subject to no
physical penalty, but ten years later he assented to the
death penalty for blasphemy, which consisted in a
public proclamation of heresy, and for sedition, when
heresy subverted the State. Calvin openly regarded
heresy itself as punishable by death, not that error as
such was being punished, but offense against God, the
Church, and society. Zwingli, although he could find
room for certain pagans in paradise, approved Zurich's
edict of 1526 which prescribed death by drowning for
Anabaptists. Roman Catholicism had long since come
to terms with the need to execute the heretic.

The State responded to dissent by treating heresy
as a civil as well as a religious offense, for both Church
and State were seeking the same supernatural end. The
ends of salvation and the realization of God's kingdom
were regarded to be supernatural ends. The Church
was instrumental in securing this judgment. The
Church, forbidden herself to shed blood, invoked the
arm of the State to inflict the penalty. Recalcitrance
by a civil ruler was countered with threats to relieve
the ruler's subjects of their oath of allegiance, to ex-
communicate the ruler or impose the interdict upon
him, or to cause the forfeiture of his lands and goods.
Perhaps the most powerful statement on this matter
is the bull of Innocent IV, ad extirpanda, in 1252,
which caps the decision of the Fourth Lateran Council
(1215) to excommunicate any ruler who did not imple-
ment the will of the Church.

The interpretation of heresy as a civil offense
punishable by death had been given legal basis by
Emperor Frederick II (Constitutions of Melfi, 1231),
and Innocent IV, in his bull, Cum adversus haereticam
of 1245, sanctioned the Emperor's view
with papal approval. Charles V developed an imperial
heresy law for the Holy Roman Empire in 1523 which
remained valid for more than a century. The absolute
need for political and religious unity in the interest
of the whole community is clearly presupposed. The
magistrate thus serves the whole community in elimi-
nating heretics. The right to determine the doctrinal
boundaries of orthodox faith therefore became exceed-
ingly important. Catholics and Protestants were alike
in agreeing that right belief is necessary for salvation.
Renaissance thinkers, however, saw an ever increasing
disagreement on what constituted “right” belief.

There was opposition both within and without the
churches to their treatment of heresy, and the Renais-
sance produced literature advocating the toleration of
dissent. The literary debate came largely at the hands
of the humanists. Some of these men were no longer
content to seek solutions to religious and ethical ques-
tions within the elaborate dogmatic and legal structures


of the Scholastic Roman church. Inner conviction came
to the fore. Theology should be simplified and virtually
reduced to ethics, and only the very minimum of
dogma essential to salvation ought to be required of
any man. These men were anti-traditional, anti-
Scholastic, and, in some senses, anti-theological in in-
clination. In consequence, they were incensed at the
viciousness with which the churches persecuted the

In their writings of opposition, various humanists
differed from each other with respect to approaches
and goals. The burning of Servetus at Geneva on Octo-
ber 27, 1553, evoked numerous protests. Sebastian
Castellio wrote a strong complaint in his De haereticis
(1554). His argument was for religious toleration and
liberty of thought. He was quite prepared to see the
Church's truth relativized. Minus Celsus wrote a simi-
lar treatise some years later, In haereticis coercendis
... (1577). Celsus was not sympathetic with Castellio's
relativizing Christian truth and argued simply that the
death penalty for heresy ought to be abolished. If the
magistrate wishes to imitate Christ, he must show
mercy, not the iron fist. Religion is spiritual, and the
miles christianus is restricted to spiritual weapons. “We
have as little right to burn 'Arians' (anti-Trinitarians)
and Anabaptists,” he wrote, “as the Pope has to punish
us with death” (ibid., II 85; cited Fimpel, p. 55). His
argument is not for freedom for heretical activity, but
only against the death penalty. Erasmus of Rotterdam,
on the other hand, equivocated. He was a theological
reductionist with an aversion to dogma. Faith is inward
and simple and should consist in assent to minimal
propositions. Correct belief about complex theological
questions is unessential to salvation, and as little defini-
tion should be made as possible. In any case sincere
faith cannot be induced by coercion. An utterly con-
tumacious heretic may, however, be punished, not so
much because of his error as of his attitude.

Some humanists responded to church persecution by
emigrating to safer territory. The Italian humanists
often fled to Geneva, Basel, and Poland. The Protes-
tants fled England under Catholic Queen Mary as the
so-called “Marian Exiles” and went to Germany (espe-
cially Frankfurt) and Switzerland. Anabaptists also
participated in this reaction, and many fled to Eastern
Europe and, eventually, to America.