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Exploring the Roots of Church Traditions

Tradition – Part 2

by Bob Cornuke

Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

Matthew 5:15

With the Edict of Thessalonica in A.D. 380, Nicaean Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Heretical views had cropped up from nearly the very beginning, and Paul was already combatting some of these incorrect ideas in the first century. Church leaders did not resort to violence in those early years, even though some heretical traditions had serious unbiblical beliefs. Cathars, for instance, believed in reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul. Manichaeism and Catharism were both forms of Gnostic dualism, which taught the existence of both a good God and a bad God. They regarded the physical body as evil and the spirit alone as good, which meant their version of Jesus was evil while in His physical body. Gnostics taught that salvation was obtained by knowledge (gnosis) rather than the simple sacrifice of Christ. Other heresies were Priscillism and Donatism, which were dedicated to salvation by works. These focused on extreme asceticism or perfection — what Paul calls “will worship” in Colossians 2:23.

Certain church officials believed that the Old Testament gave permission to deal abruptly and physically with all those convicted of heretical beliefs. For instance, in the fourth century, Saint Optatus of Milevis used the golden calf incident in Exodus 32:18–28 and the Midianite incident in Numbers 25:6–9 to defend the right of the civil authorities to put such people to death. In his work Against the Donatists, he stated:

But, say you, the State cannot punish in the name of God. Yet was it not in the name of God that Moses and Phineas consigned to death the worshippers of the Golden Calf and those who despised the true religion?[1]

In the early fifth century, the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine, spoke against the death penalty by citing Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5:44 to love our enemies and pray for them. He wrote:

It is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek to accomplish by the help of the terror of judges and of laws, whereby they may be preserved from falling under the penalty of eternal judgment…”[2]

The culture of the Middle Ages was hardly gentle. From the beginning of the Medieval Church, cruel punishments were seen as just and necessary toward maintaining holiness. In A.D. 600, Saint Columban demanded six lashes to be laid on the bare back of a monk who had forgotten to say Amen after praying. In another case, six lashes were administered to a monk who sang out of tune.[3] Even children who simply expressed admiration for those accused as heretics might be taken from their families and thrust into prison.

Eventually the leadership of Europe rejected any merciful, laissez faire approach to heretics. In 1022, France’s King Robert the Pious worried that the Manichaeans who had spread throughout Europe were a danger to the kingdom and their message a danger to the salvation of its citizens. A variety of clerics were gathered up and accused of denying the Trinity, the virginity of Mary, and the Bible’s version of Creation. They were also indicted (whether justly or not) for taking part in orgies and worship of the Devil. After an eight-hour trial, they were sentenced to death by burning. It was a first for the West. December 28, 1022 at least 13 condemned as heretics were burnt alive.[4]

Still, there was an ongoing debate over whether to use the death penalty for heretics. In the 12th century, the learned Petri Cantoris (Peter Canter) argued against executing Catharists, saying:

Whether they be convicted of error, or freely confess their guilt, Catharists are not to be put to death, at least not when they refrain from armed assaults upon the Church. For although the Apostle said, ‘A man that is a heretic after the third admonition, avoid’, he certainly did not say, ‘Kill him’. Throw them into prison, if you will, but do not put them to death.[5]

The Inquisitions

After the centuries of back-and-forth arguments on the issue, the Old Testament justifications for destroying heretics won out over the New Testament’s injunctions of prayer and avoidance. The Medieval Inquisition was established in 1184 to deal with heretics in southern France and northern Italy. When we think of the Inquisition, we think of horrific tortures and executions. In a generic sense, an inquisition is a tribunal court system. The heretical Cathars were the primary targets of this first Inquisition. However, the other principal victims were Waldensians, with whom most Protestants today would identify. The Waldensians affirmed the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for salvation and rejected the idea of purgatory. The attack on these two groups lasted through the 1230s, but other persecutions followed.

In 1231, Pope Gregory IX instituted the Papal Inquisition to bring heretics to trial. His purpose was actually a good one; he wanted to keep mobs from lynching people who had been accused of heresy and to increase order in the trial process. Gregory did not authorize the use of torture, but the inquisitors often took things into their own hands. Gregory gave a chilling name to his inquisitors; he called them inquisitor hereticae pravitatis (inquisitor of heretical depravity). The goal of his Inquisition was to make an inquiry into the nature of the defendant’s beliefs and, if necessary, to instruct the accused in the way of correct doctrine.

By 1252, it became clear that the inquisitors were using brutal methods to illicit confessions from accused persons. Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull Ad Extirpanda of 1252, which laid out the circumstances in which torture might be used by the Inquisition. This was as much an effort to establish limits on torture as it was a justification of its use. Jews, Muslims, and Christian minorities were the focus of different waves of persecution, along with any nonbelievers or those suspected of witchcraft.

The Inquisition never reached as far as England, but the British religious authorities did their own part to force fidelity to the Roman Church. When King Henry IV rose to the throne, he cracked down on Christian minorities, particularly the Lollards who had followed John Wycliffe. In 1401, Henry IV legalized the burning of heretics, something his predecessor Richard II had been unwilling to do. A few days before Henry IV’s 1401 law De heretico comburendo was pronounced, the first Lollard martyr, William Sawtrey, was burned at the stake for heresy. In 1408 Archbishop Thomas Arundel issued his Constitutions against the Lollards, making it clear that nobody was permitted to preach or teach from the Bible or produce new Bible translations without going through the official Catholic Church authorities.

Lollards were brave souls who sneaked into villages at night to avoid the attentive eyes of church officials, a vernacular Bible concealed under their cloaks. They read from the Bible in hushed words to those who dared listen. I am sure many hearts soared with hope as they heard and understood the words of Jesus spoken for the first time in a language they understood. Yet, Lollards had to do their work secretly, lest they be caught and face the most brutal punishments.

It wasn’t until 1478 that Pope Sixtus IV authorized the infamous Spanish Inquisition, when he gave Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain the authority to name inquisitors. The purpose at that time was to investigate Marranos, Jews forced to convert to Christianity who continued to practice Judaism in secret. The Spanish monarchs used the Inquisition to establish complete dominance over Spain. Severe tactics were used and Pope Sixtus IV tried without success to put a damper on the cruelty. While heretics were investigated under various authorities across Europe, the official Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal were particularly vicious.

The Middle Ages took the teachings of an itinerant preacher named Jesus and manipulated it into a religion of power and wealth. Jesus claimed to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and He proved His identity as God’s Son by healing multitudes of people, calming storms, and ultimately rising again from the dead. Yet, Jesus never beat or killed anybody who refused to follow Him. When people wanted to leave, He let them leave. Somehow, Christ’s love toward human beings was cast aside in the Middle Ages, as those in charge justified the most horrific tortures and executions in His name.

A former Spanish secretary to the Inquisition named Juan Antonio Llorente (1756–1823) gives us one of our earliest histories of those times. Llorente numbered those burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition at nearly 32,000, while 300,000 were tried and required to perform various penances.[6] Modern scholars doubt these numbers and offer more conservative figures. However, even if just a few thousand were formally executed by the Spanish Inquisition like historian Henry Kamen suggests,[7] well over 100,000 are believed to have died by torture or languishing in filthy Spanish prisons. And that was just Spain. When the executions and persecutions across Europe are considered, those affected can easily number over a million.


This excerpt is from Bob Cornuke’s new book Tradition, available mid August from K-House.


  1. St. Optatus of Mileve, De Schismate Donatistarum, III, cc. 6–7 (A.D. 375).  ↩

  2. Augustine of Hippo, Epistle 100, n. 1 (A.D. 409).  ↩

  3. Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (1965; reprint, New York: First Mariner Books, 2001), 12.  ↩

  4. Jim Bradbury, The Capetians: Kings of France 987–1328 (Cornwall: MPG Books, 2007), 88.  ↩

  5. Petri Cantoris, Verbum Abbreviatum c. lxxviii, in Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina (1845), CCV, 231.  ↩

  6. Cecil Roth, The Spanish Inquisition (1937; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 123.  ↩

  7. Henry Kamen. The Spanish Inquisition, (1965; reprint, Yale University Press, 2014), 253.  ↩

This article was originally published in the
August 2018 Personal Update NewsJournal.

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