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§ 27. Restriction of Religious Freedom, and Beginnings of Persecution of Heretics.


Sam. Eliot: History of Liberty. Boston, 1858, 4 vols. Early Christians, vols. i. and ii. The most important facts are scattered through the sections of the larger church histories on the heresies, the doctrinal controversies, and church discipline.


An inevitable consequence of the union of church and state was restriction of religious freedom in faith and worship, and the civil punishment of departure from the doctrine and discipline of the established church.

The church, dominant and recognized by the state, gained indeed external freedom and authority, but in a measure at the expense of inward liberty and self-control. She came, as we have seen in the previous section, under the patronage and supervision of the head of the Christian state, especially in the Byzantine empire. In the first three centuries, the church, with all her external lowliness and oppression, enjoyed the greater liberty within, in the development of her doctrines and institutions, by reason of her entire separation from the state.

But the freedom of error and division was now still more restricted. In the ante-Nicene age, heresy and schism were as much hated and abhorred indeed, as afterward, yet were met only in a moral way, by word and writing, and were punished with excommunication from the rights of the church. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and even Lactantius were the first advocates of the principle of freedom of conscience, and maintained, against the heathen, that religion was essentially a matter of free will, and could be promoted only by instruction and persuasion not by outward force.242242   Just. Mart. Apol. i. 2, 4, 12; Tertull. Apolog. c. 24, 28; Ad Scapul.c. 2; Lactant. Instit. v. 19, 20; Epit. c. 54. Comp. vol. i. § 51. All they say against the persecution of Christians by the heathen applies in full to the persecution of heretics by the church. After the Nicene age all departures from the reigning state-church faith were not only abhorred and excommunicated as religious errors, but were treated also as crimes against the Christian state, and hence were punished with civil penalties; at first with deposition, banishment, confiscation, and, after Theodosius, even with death.

This persecution of heretics was a natural consequence of the union of religious and civil duties and rights, the confusion of the civil and the ecclesiastical, the judicial and the moral, which came to pass since Constantine. It proceeded from the state and from the emperors, who in this respect showed themselves the successors of the Pontifices Maximi, with their relation to the church reversed. The church, indeed, steadfastly adhered to the principle that, as such, she should employ only spiritual penalties, excommunication in extreme cases; as in fact Christ and the apostles expressly spurned and prohibited all carnal weapons, and would rather suffer and die than use violence. But, involved in the idea of Jewish theocracy and of a state church, she practically confounded in various ways the position of the law and that of the gospel, and in theory approved the application of forcible measures to heretics, and not rarely encouraged and urged the state to it; thus making herself at least indirectly responsible for the persecution. This is especially, true of the Roman church in the times of her greatest power, in the middle age and down to the end of the sixteenth century; and by this course that church has made herself almost more offensive in the eyes of the world and of modern civilization than by her peculiar doctrines and usages. The Protestant reformation dispelled the dream that Christianity was identical with an outward organization, or the papacy, and gave a mighty shock thereby to the principle of ecclesiastical exclusiveness. Yet, properly speaking, it was not till the eighteenth century that a radical revolution of views was accomplished in regard to religious toleration; and the progress of toleration and free worship has gone hand in hand with the gradual loosening of the state-church basis and with the clearer separation of civil and religious rights and of the temporal and spiritual power.

In the, beginning of his reign, Constantine proclaimed full freedom of religion (312), and in the main continued tolerably true to it; at all events he used no violent measures, as his successors did. This toleration, however, was not a matter of fixed principle with him, but merely of temporary policy; a necessary consequence of the incipient separation of the Roman throne from idolatry, and the natural transition from the sole supremacy of the heathen religion to the same supremacy of the Christian. Intolerance directed itself first against heathenism; but as the false religion gradually died out of itself, and at any rate had no moral energy for martyrdom, there resulted no such bloody persecutions of idolatry under the Christian emperors, as there had been of Christianity under their heathen predecessors. Instead of Christianity, the intolerance of the civil power now took up Christian heretics, whom it recognized as such. Constantine even in his day limited the freedom and the privileges which he conferred, to the catholic, that is, the prevailing orthodox hierarchical church, and soon after the Council of Nice, by an edict of the year 326, expressly excluded heretics and schismatics from these privileges.243243   Cod. Theod. xvi. 5, 1: Privilegia, quae contemplatione religionis indulta sunt, catholicae tantum legis observatoribus prodesse opportet. Haereticos autem atque schismaticos non tantum ab his privilegiis alienos esse volumus, sed etiam diversis muneribus constringi et subjici. Accordingly he banished the leaders of Arianism and ordered their writings to be burned, but afterward, wavering in his views of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and persuaded over by some bishops and his sister, he recalled Arius and banished Athanasius. He himself was baptized shortly before his death by an Arian bishop. His son Constantius was a fanatical persecutor both of idolatry and the Nicene orthodoxy, and endeavored with all his might to establish Arianism alone in the empire. Hence the earnest protest of the orthodox bishops, Hosius, Athanasius, and Hilary, against this despotism and in favor of toleration;244244   Comp. § 8, above. which came, however, we have to remember, from parties who were themselves the sufferers under intolerance, and who did not regard the banishment of the Arians as unjust.

Under Julian the Apostate religious liberty was again proclaimed, but only as the beginning of return to the exclusive establishment of heathenism; the counterpart, therefore, of Constantine’s toleration. After his early death Arianism again prevailed, at least in the East, and showed itself more, intolerant and violent than the catholic orthodoxy.

At last Theodosius the Great, the first emperor who was baptized in the Nicene faith, put an end to the Arian interregnum, proclaimed the exclusive authority of the Nicene creed, and at the same time enacted the first rigid penalties not only against the pagan idolatry, the practice of which was thenceforth a capital crime in the empire, but also against all Christian heresies and sects. The ruling principle of his public life was the unity of the empire and of the orthodox church. Soon after his baptism, in 380, he issued, in connection with his weak coëmperors, Gratian and Valentinian II., to the inhabitants of Constantinople, then the chief seat of Arianism, the following edict: “We, the three emperors, will, that all our subjects steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which has been faithfully preserved by tradition, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus, of Rome, and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the institution of the apostles and the doctrine of the gospel, let us believe in the one Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of equal majesty in the holy Trinity. We order that the adherents of this faith be called Catholic Christians; we brand all the senseless followers of other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches. Besides the condemnation of divine justice, they must expect the heavy penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict.”245245   Cod. Theod. xvi, 1, 2. Baronius (Ann.), and even Godefroy call this edict which in this case, to be sure, favored the true doctrine, but involves the absolute despotism of the emperor over faith, an “edictum aureum, pium et salutare.” In the course of fifteen years this emperor issued at least fifteen penal laws against heretics,246246   Comp. Cod. Theod. xvi. tit. v. leg. 6-33, and Godefroy’s Commentary. by which he gradually deprived them of all right to the exercise of their religion, excluded them from all civil offices, and threatened them with fines, confiscation, banishment, and in some cases, as the Manichaeans, the Audians, and even the Quartodecimanians, with death.

From Theodosius therefore dates the state-church theory of the persecution of heretics, and the embodiment of it in legislation. His primary design, it is true, was rather to terrify and convert, than to punish, the refractory subjects.247247   So Sozomen asserts, l. vii. c. 12.

From the theory, however, to the practice was a single step; and this step his rival and colleague, Maximus, took, when, at the instigation of the unworthy bishop Ithacius, he caused the Spanish bishop, Priscillian, with six respectable adherents of his Manichaean-like sect (two presbyters, two deacons, the poet Latronian, and Euchrocia, a noble matron of Bordeaux), to be tortured and beheaded with the sword at Treves in 385. This was the first shedding of the blood of heretics by a Christian prince for religious opinions. The bishops assembled at Treves, with the exception of Theognistus, approved this act.

But the better feeling of the Christian church shrank from it with horror. The bishops Ambrose of Milan,248248   Epist. xxiv. ad Valentin. (tom. ii. p. 891). He would have nothing to do with bishops, “qui aliquos, devios licet a fide, ad necem petebant.” and Martin of Tours,249249   In Sulpic. Sever., Hist. Sacra, ii. 50: “Namque tum Martinus apud Treveros constitutus, non desinebat increpare Ithacium, ut ab accusatione desisteret, Maximum orare, ut sanguine infelicium abstineret: satis superque sufficere, ut episcopali sententia haeretici judicati ecclesiis pellerentur: novum esse et inauditum nefas, ut causam ecclesiae judex saeculi judicaret.” Comp. Sulp. Sev., Dial. iii. c. 11-13, and his Vit. Mart. c. 20. raised a memorable protest against it, and broke off all communion with Ithacius and the other bishops who had approved the execution. Yet it should not be forgotten that these bishops, at least Ambrose, were committed against the death penalty in general, and in other respects had no indulgence for heathens and heretics.250250   Hence Gibbon, ch. xxvii., charges them, not quite groundlessly, with inconsistency: “It is with pleasure that we can observe the human inconsistency of the most illustrious saints and bishops, Ambroseof Milan, and Martin of Tours, who, on this occasion, asserted the cause of toleration. They pitied the unhappy men who had been executed at Treves; they refused to hold communion with their episcopal murderers; and if Martin deviated from that generous resolution, his motives were laudable, and his repentance was exemplary. The bishops of Tours and Milan pronounced, without hesitation, the eternal damnation of heretics; but they were surprised and shocked by the bloody image of their temporal death, and the honest feelings of nature resisted the artificial prejudices of theology.” The whole thing, too, was irregularly done; on the one hand the bishops appeared as accusers in a criminal cause, and on the other a temporal judge admitted an appeal from the episcopal jurisdiction, and pronounced an opinion in a matter of faith. Subsequently the functions of the temporal and spiritual courts in the trial of heretics were more accurately distinguished.

The execution of the Priscillianists is the only instance of the bloody punishment of heretics in this period, as it is the first in the history of Christianity. But the propriety of violent measures against heresy was thenceforth vindicated even by the best fathers of the church. Chrysostom recommends, indeed, Christian love toward heretics and heathens, and declares against their execution, but approved the prohibition of their assemblies and the confiscation of their churches; and he acted accordingly against the Novatians and the Quartodecimanians, so that many considered his own subsequent misfortunes as condign punishment.251251   Hom. xxix. and xlvi. in Matt. Comp. Socrat. H. E. vi. 19. Elsewhere his principle was (in Phocam mart. et c. haer. tom. ii. p. 705): Ἐμοὶ ἔθος ἐστὶ διώκεσθαι καὶ μὴ διώκειν; that is, he himself would rather suffer injury than inflict injury. Jerome, appealing to Deut. xiii. 6–10, seems to justify even the penalty of death against religious errorists.252252   Epist. xxxvii. (al. liii.) ad Riparium Adv. Vigilantium.

Augustine, who himself belonged nine years to the Manichaean sect, and was wonderfully converted by the grace of God to the Catholic church, without the slightest pressure from without, held at first the truly evangelical view, that heretics and schismatics should not be violently dealt with, but won by instruction and conviction; but after the year 400 he turned and retracted this view, in consequence of his experience with the Donatists, whom he endeavored in vain to convert by disputation and writing, while many submitted to the imperial laws.253253   Epist. 93, ad Vincent. § 17: “Mea primitus sententia non erat, nisi neminem ad unitatem Christi esse cogendum, verbo esse agendum, disputatione pugnandum, ratione vincendum, ne fictos catholicos haberemus, quos apertos haereticos noveramus. Sed—he continues § haec opinio mea non contradicentium verbis, sed demonstrantium superabatur exemplis.” Then he adduces his experience with the Donatists. Comp. Retract. ii. 5. Thenceforth he was led to advocate the persecution of heretics, partly by his doctrine of the Christian state, partly by the seditious excesses of the fanatical Circumcelliones, partly by the hope of a wholesome effect of temporal punishments, and partly by a false interpretation of the Cogite intrare, in the parable of the great supper, Luke xiv. 23.254254   The direction: ”Compel them to come in,” which has often since been abused in defence of coercive measures against heretics, must, of course, be interpreted in harmony with the whole spirit of the gospel, and is only a strong descriptive term in the parable, to signify the fervent zeal in the conversion of the heathen, such as St. Paul manifested without ever resorting to physical coercion. “It is, indeed, better,” says he, “that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment or by pain. But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefore be neglected .... Many must often be brought back to their Lord, like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain the highest grade of religious development .... The Lord himself orders that the guests be first invited, then compelled, to his great supper.”255255   Epist. 185, ad Bonifacium, § 21, § 24. This father thinks that, if the state be denied the right to punish religious error, neither should she punish any other crime, like murder or adultery, since Paul, in Gal. v. 19, attributes divisions and sects to the same source in the flesh.256256   C. Gaudent. Donat. i. § 20. C. Epist. Parmen. i. § 16. He charges his Donatist opponents with inconsistency in seeming to approve the emperors’ prohibitions of idolatry, but condemning their persecution of Christian heretics. It is to the honor of Augustine’s heart, indeed, that in actual cases he earnestly urged upon the magistrates clemency and humanity, and thus in practice remained true to his noble maxim: “Nothing conquers but truth, the victory of truth is love.”257257   “Non vincit nisi veritas, victoria veritatis est caritas.” But his theory, as Neander justly observes, “contains the germ of the whole system of spiritual despotism, intolerance, and persecution, even to the court of the Inquisition.”258258   Kirchengesch. iii. p. 427; Torrey’s ed. ii. p. 217. The great authority of his name was often afterward made to justify cruelties from which he himself would have shrunk with horror. Soon after him, Leo the Great, the first representative of consistent, exclusive, universal papacy, advocated even the penalty of death for heresy.259259   Epist. xv. ad Turribium, where Leo mentions the execution of the Priscillianists with evident approbation: “Etiam mundi principes ita hanc sacrilegam amentiam detestati sunt, ut auctorem ejus cum plerisque discipulis legum publicarum ense prosternerent.”

Henceforth none but the persecuted parties, from time to time, protested against religious persecution; being made, by their sufferings, if not from principle, at least from policy and self-interest, the advocates of toleration. Thus the Donatist bishop Petilian, in Africa, against whom Augustine wrote, rebukes his Catholic opponents, as formerly his countryman Tertullian had condemned the heathen persecutors of the Christians, for using outward force in matters of conscience; appealing to Christ and the apostles, who never persecuted, but rather suffered and died. “Think you,” says he, “to serve God by killing us with your own hand? Ye err, ye err, if ye, poor mortals, think this; God has not hangmen for priests. Christ teaches us to bear wrong, not to revenge it.” The Donatist bishop Gaudentius says: “God appointed prophets and fishermen, not princes and soldiers, to spread the faith.” Still we cannot forget, that the Donatists were the first who appealed to the imperial tribunal in an ecclesiastical matter, and did not, till after that tribunal had decided against them, turn against the state-church system.



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