The Faithful Church Opposed the Inquisition and Perished in Its Flames

inquisition pic

The Lie:

Christians burned people at the stake during the Inquisition.

The Truth:

Bible-believing Christians were the ones who were burned at the stake! They were also the ones who were finally able to overthrow the power of the Inquisition.


One of my Facebook friends posted a meme called, “Ten Reasons Why Beer Is Better than Jesus.” Number six reads:

“Nobody’s ever been burned at the stake, hanged, or tortured over his brand of beer.”

This criticism is aimed at a period of time from the 12th to the 19th centuries, when Catholic leaders tried to stop other Christian groups (brands) from breaking away from the official church by labeling them “heretics.” Once individuals or groups were accused of heresy (a term which means to doubt or deny a core teaching of the Christian faith) they were made to appear before “The Inquisition,” a church court where they could either try to defend themselves, or admit they were wrong (“recant”). If they didn’t “recant,” the Catholic authorities would often torture them in order to pressure them into submission. If they still didn’t recant, they could be turned over to secular authorities who would often jail them, banish them, or even burn them at the stake while religious officials watched.

How could this happen? How could the followers of Jesus have become such cruel tyrants?!!

From the very beginning of the church, the apostles battled against false doctrines. For example, Paul argued, in his letter to the Galatians, against Judaizers—those who thought the church needed to remain under Old Testament law (especially concerning circumcision). We also see the apostle John warning against the Gnostics. (These were teachers who claimed Jesus was a spiritual being who never came as a flesh and blood person.)

Yet, even though false teachers were pervasive in the early church, the apostles never advocated murdering or torturing those with whom they disagreed! Instead, they battled for the hearts and minds of people through writing defenses of the faith and preaching the gospel.

Before going into a discussion on the Inquisition, I think it’s important to see the beauty of the church before it became corrupt. The closer the church remained to the teachings in the Bible, the more vibrant and compassionate it was, but as time went on, and Christians began to blend the teachings of Jesus with other sources of “truth,” such as Greek philosophy or science, the result was massive human suffering!

When the church was just beginning, it was radical. Believers shared everything they had. They had meals together. They sold their belongings in order to give money to the church. They cared for widows, orphans, and the elderly and sick people.  The church was a force for love and kindness and provision.

This was a new thing!

While the Greeks and Romans may have contributed much to philosophy, governmental structure, architecture, community planning, military strategy, art, and various other secular pursuits, they didn’t contribute to the heart of western civilization. The ancients enjoyed blood sport. This was the practice of watching gladiators fight to the death, or watching as wild animals gored innocent victims. (Christians were often victims of blood sport in the Roman Coliseum.) Over half of the population were slaves. They led aggressive wars. They worshiped many gods, and even emperor worship was demanded—upon pain of death. There was no religious freedom. They practiced infanticide, exposing unwanted babies, especially girls, to the beasts and the elements. They were brutal and used force to control their subjects. Flogging, crucifixion, burning, impaling, and torture were commonplace. The ancient world may have had a form of order, but they were NOT civilized.

Piercing through the darkness of this time was the Light of the World, Jesus of Nazareth. He was just a simple carpenter, but he has been the most civilizing influence humanity has ever known. Before Jesus came, most of the Gentile nations were living in terror and darkness. All over the world there was tribal warfare, cannibalism, human sacrifice, widow-burning, infanticide, and blood sport–and the nations remained in this condition until the gospel was preached to each area of the world. Missionaries in the twentieth century were reaching people groups who were still cannibals! The only thing that set people free from their cruel ways was the good news of Jesus.


Christians became the salt and light of their societies. The teachings of Jesus burst forth into the world and everywhere they went, society was renewed and preserved. Instead of treating the poor as outcasts who were spiritually inferior (as the Hindus did with their caste system), Christians were taught that when they fed or clothed the “least of these” they were feeding and clothing Jesus! (Matthew 25:35-40)

The Greeks thought ugliness was bad, and avoided crippled, diseased, and mutilated people. Plato argued that his “Republic” (his ideal society) should set up judges who would “care for those of your citizens who have good natures in body and soul; while as for those who haven’t, they’ll let die the ones whose bodies are such.” [1] On the other hand, Jesus taught:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. –Luke 14:12-14

As a result, in the book of Acts we see the apostles setting up food distribution sites where the poor, elderly, and sick were fed. The brother of Jesus, James, explained: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” (James 1:27) James also said favoritism based on a person’s income level was prohibited. He forbade churches from treating the rich better than the poor when they entered into the place of worship. (James 2:24)

This attitude was merely a reflection of the Old Testament law that commanded kindness toward widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22) and wouldn’t allow the poor to be oppressed (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 19:9-10, 25:36-37). The Old Testament prophets also demanded kindness toward the poor (Isaiah 1:16-17, Jeremiah 22:13-17, Ezekiel 22:29). Opening the New Testament, John the Baptist told his followers that, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11). This attitude didn’t stop with the disciples. Justin Martyr, one of the earliest defenders of the faith, described the purpose and method of giving in the early church:

Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to. What is collected . . . takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us] . . .  [2]

Tertullian, an early church leader, also described giving in the early church:

On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such too as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in prison . . .  [3]

Even the enemies of Christ recognized the love and kindness of the Christians. Lucian, the ancient Greek playwright, mocked them for their generosity. He said people who were “unscrupulous” would often “get among these simple souls and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.”[4]  There are always people who are willing to prey upon the flock, but at least the hearts of the Christians were tender, unlike the hearts of pagan ladies, says Clement (a bishop of Rome after Peter). He said the Roman women were abandoned to luxury and they “bring up parrots and curlews [a type of bird], but will not take in the orphan child.”[5]

Julian, the Apostate, (who worshiped the traditional Roman gods) was so upset about the charitable attitude of the church that he wrote in a letter to Arcasius (the high priest at pagan temple in Galatia) that he had observed how “the kindness of the Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of the dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause.”[6] In fact, he lamented, “The impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own.”[7] This inspired him to lead a campaign to get the pagan temples to care for the poor, but it failed miserably.

Lawrence, one of the deacons of Rome during the third century, was arrested by Emperor Valerian. Since he was a deacon, it was his job to distribute church money to the poor. His persecutor demanded to know where the money was. As the poor looked on during the trial, with outstretched arms Lawrence cried out:

These are the precious treasure of the church; these are the treasure indeed, in whom the faith of Christ reigneth, in whom Jesus Christ hath his mansion place. What more precious jewels can Christ have than those in whom he hath promised to dwell? For so it is written, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me to drink; I was harbourless and ye lodged me.’ And again, ‘Look what ye have done to the least of these, the same have ye done to me.’ What greater riches can Christ our Master possess, than the poor people, in whom he loveth to be seen?[8]

After Lawrence spoke these words, John Foxe, author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, said it angered the persecutor so much that “he became enraged and tortured Lawrence with beatings, fiery tongs, burning plates, chains, fire-forks, and the grated bed of iron, on which the torturers were commanded to ‘roast him, broil him, toss him, turn him.’”[9]

During a plague in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century, Dionysius (the bishop of Alexandria) wrote about the care the church gave to those who were sick and suffering:

Most of our brethren did not spare themselves, so great was their brotherly affection. They held fast to each other, visited the sick without fear, ministered to them . . . and served them for the sake of Christ. Right gladly did they perish with them . . . Quite the reverse was it with the heathen. They abandoned those who began to sicken, fled from their dearest friends, threw out the sick when half dead into the streets, and let the dead lie unburied.[10]

Cyprian (the bishop of Carthage) also contrasted the attitudes of pagans with those who believed in Jesus. Speaking to Demetrianus (who claimed the destruction of Rome was caused by Christians who had angered the Roman gods) about the plague at Carthage, he says that the pagans, “shun the deathbeds of the dying, but make for the spoils of the dead.”[11]

Eusebius (the bishop of Caesarea Maritima) spoke of the Christian attitude towards the sick during an anthrax plague that happened during the reign of Maximinius Daza:

At the same time every race was given clear proof of the zeal and piety of Christians in all things. Amid the onset of these evils they alone revealed compassion and humanity in their deeds. Every day they carried on, nursing the dying and burying the dead, for there were countless numbers with no one to look after them. Into one place in every city they gathered the multitude of those who were wasted by hunger. They issued food to everyone. And all men began to speak of their work, and they gave glory to the God of the Christians.[12]



Another change brought about by Jesus was the attitude toward slavery. In Athens, where nearly three-fourths of the population were slaves, Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, didn’t lament this state of humanity, instead he looked upon slaves as living tools. He thought men could be owned by other men because some men are merely “instruments of action” and that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”[13]

Plato, the teacher of Aristotle, also thought the need for slavery was a natural condition of humanity . . . but Jesus said that he came to set the captive free! (Luke 4:18) The Judeo-Christian faith stands alone in history as the friend of the slave.

So how did Jesus influence Christian attitudes toward slavery?

First of all, he had no slaves. Instead, he worked as a carpenter. None of his disciples were slave owners, either. They were fishermen and farmers. Jesus taught that those who were the greatest in the kingdom were those who served. The strong were commanded to care for the weak. There were rules that said a person couldn’t eat if they didn’t work. (2 Thes. 3:10)  Fathers were called “infidels” if they didn’t care for their children. (1 Tim. 5:8)  The Didache, a first century pamphlet which claimed to be a consolidation of the teachings of the apostles, even claimed that traveling prophets were false if they wouldn’t work.[14] Christians were commanded to work quietly with their hands … for the glory of God. (1 Thes. 4:11) This work ethic made labor an honorable pursuit, contributing to the development of a middle class, rather than two separate classes—the rich and the poor, or the slave and the free.

Secondly, he gave all Christians spiritual equality. The apostle Paul made it clear that in Christ all were equal before God.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — (Galatians 3:28)

This equality could be seen by all in the Roman Coliseum when Felicity (a slave woman) and Perpetua (a free woman) were both martyred together. Felicity had just given birth in the arena jail, and Perpetua was still a nursing mom, her breasts full and tender from not being able to feed her son. They were both sentenced to death for refusing to deny Christ.

At first, they were tossed about by a bull, who abused them with his horns, but they survived, so the executioner instead decided to kill them with a sword. The precious picture of a slave woman and a free woman, giving each other a last kiss as they prepared to die for Jesus, has lived on as a testimony in history of the equality and love existing in the Body of Christ.

While the church initially consisted mainly of a band of poor, weak Jews, there was no way they could overthrow the slave system through force or revolution. Rebellion had been tried before. The latest attempt was by Spartacus, whose forces consisted of trained gladiators, and yet they failed. Thousands crucified, their bodies lined the Appian Way (a Roman highway) for miles.

In an empire that could strike such a crushing blow, the disciples instead taught their fellow brothers and sisters how to live as free men within the system—to live above the tyranny with dignity, and for a higher purpose—for the glory of God. Beyond this, they taught members of the church to live as equals. Perhaps in the outer world the poor and enslaved were despised, but within the bounds of the church there was love and brotherhood. Even Jesus, our King, was willing to serve his disciples and wash their feet.

One of the earliest bishops of Rome was Linus, a slave. Callistus, another early bishop of Rome, was also a slave. The church, unlike the Roman Empire, recognized slave marriages, and while pagans were always sure to distinguish the tombs of slaves from the tombs of the free, Christianity would make no such distinction.

The apostle Paul revealed his attitude toward slavery within the church when he said he could command Philemon to release his slave, but appealed to him from brotherly love to let him go because Onesimus was dear to him, both as “a man, and a dear brother in the Lord.” (Philemon 1:16)

So apparent was the disdain for slavery in the early church that when Paul wrote to Timothy, he had to command the slaves in the church to not disrespect their masters (since they were Christians and should have known better than to keep them in slavery) and to work even harder for them since they were beloved believers. (1 Timothy 6:2) The attitude in the church toward slavery wasn’t positive, but rebellion wasn’t an option either. In essence, the slaves were to trust that the Holy Spirit would work in the hearts of their masters. In the meantime, they were to trust God and be hard workers as a testimony to Christ.

This doesn’t mean the church did nothing to overcome slavery. In fact, the early church would go overboard to fulfill these words of Jesus:

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

Clement, bishop of Rome in the second century described the work of the church in trying to redeem slaves:

“We know many of our own number who have had themselves imprisoned in order to ransom others; Many have sold themselves into slavery and given the price to feed others.”[15]

Aristides the Just, the Athenian statesman, noted:

“If they hear that anyone of their number is imprisoned or in distress for the sake of their Christ’s name, they all render aid in his necessity, and if he can be redeemed, they set him free.”[16]

One of the virtues commanded in The Shepherd of Hermas (a popular piece of Christian literature written by a slave in the second century) was simply expressed in this way:

“Therefore, instead of fields, buy ye souls that are in trouble.”[17]

The Apostolic Constitutions, another group of early Christian writings from the fourth century, revealed this commandment:

All monies accruing from honest labour do ye appoint and apportion to the redeeming of the saints, ransoming thereby slaves and captives, prisoners, people who are sore abused or condemned by tyrants.[18]

Melania, a wealthy convert to Christianity who lived in the fourth century, sold all of her belongings and gave the money to the poor. She also set eight thousand slaves free. During the Barbarian invasions of the fifth to seventh centuries, captives from conquered cities were dragged away into slavery and the church intervened, redeeming them by the thousands.

The early church may not have led a slave rebellion in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense they were revolutionaries. They couldn’t overthrow the Empire, but they could undermine it. The record of history is there for the entire world to see.

Would the church have behaved this way if they believed the teachings of Jesus affirmed slavery?


In the same way that the early church found value in the lives of the poor, elderly, sick, and enslaved, it also found value in the lives of children. This was in direct contrast to the pagan societies of the ancient world. To them, children, especially baby girls, were expendable. It wasn’t unusual for infants to be left outside where they could be ravaged by wild animals or exposed to harsh weather. They were also drowned, sacrificed to idols, eaten by cannibals, or even left at the top of tall towers to starve or be fed to predatory birds.

According to Plutarch, the first century Greek biographer, the ancient Carthaginians sacrificed children to Saturn.  Poor parents, he said would sell their babies “knowing they killed their own children . . . as if they were lambs, young calves, or kids, for the said purpose.  At which sacrifice the mother that bare them in her womb would stand by without any show at all of being moved, without weeping or sighing for pity and compassion.”[19] This was because the priest would threaten to not pay the parent if they showed any emotion. And to make sure no sympathy could be mustered as the baby was being roasted alive, Plutarch said:

The place resounded and rung again with the noise of flutes and hautboys, with the sound also of drums and timbrels, to the end that the painful cry of the poor infants should not be heard.[20]

There was no sympathy in the ancient world. Those babies who were weak, deformed, or inadequate in any way were put out.  Jesus changed this attitude when he said:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 19:14, Luke 18:16; ESV)

And yet, Plato and Aristotle accepted infanticide as part of Athenian law. The Spartans also practiced infanticide, but it was left up to public officials to determine whether or not a child could be exposed. Roman law (the Twelve Tables) condoned infanticide if a child was deformed and even gave fathers the right to expose their infant daughters. Cicero, the great Roman orator, defended infanticide merely because it was in the law and Seneca, the Roman philosopher, stated: “We drown children at birth who are weak and abnormal.”[21]  In a letter written by a certain Greek man named Hilarion to his wife, the ancient attitude toward infanticide is captured:

I’m still in Alexandria . . . I entreat you and beg you to take good care of our baby son. As soon as I receive payment I’ll send it to you. If you go into labor and childbirth before I get back home, if it’s a boy keep it, if a girl discard it. [22]

The early church, obedient to the words of Jesus, went about saving little children in the ancient world and raising them as their own. In the “Letter to Diognetus,” written in the second century by an unknown author, the writer described Christians this way: “Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose their infants.” [23]

The Didache forbade abortion and infanticide.[24] The Epistle of Barnabus said that followers of the “Way” should “never do away with an unborn child or destroy it after its birth.”[25] Under the Emperor Constantine this law would be strengthened further. The Theodosian Code, established after Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, would make it easier for poor people to keep their children by giving them money from the imperial treasury to care for them.

Christianity truly provided the Gentile world with a tenderness it hadn’t known before. Those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, rather than cruelty and selfishness, found a resting place in Christianity’s branches. If we are to know a tree by its fruit, as Jesus said, rescuing abandoned children, redeeming slaves, caring for the poor, and nursing the sick were all fruits of this tree.

Because Christians had new hearts of love and kindness, the gospel spread throughout the ancient world, but it wasn’t without opposition or danger. The church was under constant waves of persecution. Every disciple except John (who was boiled in oil, but didn’t die, and was then exiled to the barren island of Patmos) was slain in a violent way: beheaded, run through with a spear, pushed off a tall building, clubbed, crucified, and so on. Christians were also impaled, burned, or sent to the Coliseum. The church was vibrant and courageous . . . but then something began to go wrong . . . the church began to go astray.



The Logos

In the first chapter of John’s gospel, the apostle refers to Jesus as the “Word.” In the Greek language this is translated “Logos.” John said:

In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and Word [Logos] was God.  – John 1:1

The Greeks had an idea, put forth by the Stoic philosophers, that the universe wasn’t just physical, but it had an invisible source of reason and divine order behind it which they called the Logos.  John argued that Jesus was the Logos and explained that “the Word [Logos] became flesh and dwelt among us.” – John 1:14. Paul makes a similar argument in his letter to the Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together . . . –-Colossians 1:15-17

Although Paul was describing Jesus, this passage could also be a description of the Logos. It’s easy to understand why Christians would try to argue that Jesus was so wonderful that he could even accommodate the highest in philosophical and intellectual thought. Perhaps the Greeks would come to Christ if they could be convinced he was their Logos!

Paul also tried to convince the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens, Greece that the Jewish God was the “Unknown God” that they worshiped, and that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead proved it, but this was as far as Paul went. He never actually blended Greek philosophy with the Bible to develop a belief system. He merely pointed the philosophers to Christ, and warned the Colossian church to not go any further and become seduced by philosophy. He warned:

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily. –2 Corinthians 2:8-9

Trying to persuade the Greeks that Jesus was the Logos they had been searching for, and turning them to Christ as their source of truth, hope, and wisdom is one thing, but it’s another thing to look to Greek philosophy as a source of truth, hope, and wisdom. This is exactly what happened to the church as time went on.

As more and more Gentiles were being converted, the church moved further away from Jerusalem (where societal ethics and beliefs were based on the Old Testament) and it became more and more important to accommodate the Greeks. After all, the Gentiles were more familiar with their philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) than they were with Abraham, Moses, and David of the Old Testament.

Some Christians, such as Justin Martyr, realized this and (like Paul or John) appealed to the Greek Stoics by simply arguing that Jesus was the Logos, but Clement of Alexandria, of the second century, and Origen, the Egyptian theologian of the third century, went further, and argued that Christianity and Greek philosophy could be synthesized.

In the third century, Plotinus, while not a Christian, developed new teachings on Plato’s philosophy and his thoughts had a great influence on Augustine, one of the most important theologians of Western civilization. Because of Augustine’s influence on the medieval church, the synthesis between Plato’s philosophy and Christianity would remain as a stronghold in church doctrine for over a thousand years.

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. (in the “Edict of Milan”), the Romans also began to have an influence on Christianity. They influenced it in a different way, though. While the Greeks had an influence on theology through their philosophers, the Romans had an influence on the church through their pagan rituals. Many of the former temples dedicated to the Roman gods now became Christianized. The blend of Christianity with other religions can be seen in the vestments (religious clothing), the priesthood, the holidays, the burning of incense and candles, chanting, and many other religious activities that aren’t found in the New Testament. And because the Bible wasn’t accessible to the common man (or even most of the priests), the church relied on rituals to live out the faith. The Word was hidden in monasteries and universities, so instead of a lively faith, based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, a ritualistic faith developed. Foxe described the deterioration:

The world, forsaking the lively power of God’s spiritual Word, was altogether led and blinded with outward ceremonies and human traditions; in these was all the hope of obtaining salvation fully fixed; insomuch that scarcely any other thing was seen in the temples or churches, taught or spoken of in sermons, or finally intended or gone about in their whole life, but only heaping up of certain shadowy ceremonies upon ceremonies; neither was there any end of this their heaping.[26]

Instead of hearing the good news that Jesus paid the price for their sins, the medieval church taught that a person could be saved through following rituals. Rituals, without the preaching of the gospel, do not lead to a lively faith that creates newness in the hearts of people, causing them to love God and love their neighbor in obedience to the truth. And this ritualism, blended with the corrupted theology that would continue to grow in the church, would finally lead to the horrors of the Inquisition. Blended theology would reach its peak in the works of Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas

In the twelfth century, a revival of Greek philosophy would come to the church through a Muslim scholar named Averroes. His commentaries on Aristotle (who was largely forgotten in the west) were eventually burned by Islamic religious leaders because they saw them as being corrupting influences on Islam. In the Catholic Church, however, Aristotle’s teachings, especially on logic, were slowly introduced to the European universities.  As time went on more and more of Aristotle’s teachings were allowed to be studied, and Thomas Aquinas would end up using them as a foundation for his epic theological treatise, Summa Theologica.

Thomas Aquinas was the greatest of the medieval “scholastics.” The aim of scholasticism was to reveal the harmony between faith and reason. In the 13th century, Aquinas took the Aristotelian philosophy re-discovered by Averroes (which represented “reason”) and used it in conjunction with Plato, Roman law, the Bible, and the writings of earlier church theologians, such as Augustine, to create a cohesive system of thought which would represent the highest in medieval theology. Some highlights of Aquinas’ thought as found in his Summa Theologica:

  • Aquinas thought both types of knowledge, reason and faith, had their source in God. Since both were a form of truth, they couldn’t be in conflict with one another. This was why he worked so hard to create a harmonious union between the Greek philosophers and the scriptures.
  • Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s opinions on biology, psychology, astronomy, and physics as the final authority for scientific endeavors. This meant that the earth must be at the center of the universe, the world was made up of only four elements (earth, wind, fire, and water), living beings were spontaneously generated out of nothing, and all scientific pursuit of knowledge must start with philosophical truth, rather than with empirical data.
  • Aquinas based his ethics on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He also adopted the list of “seven deadly sins” as created by the desert monk Evagrius Ponticus.
  • Aquinas argued that a monarchy was the best form of government, and that the secular government should be subject to the church.
  • Aquinas also believed the Pope should be the highest authority of all, even higher than kings.
  • Aquinas believed that slavery was a righteous institution, necessary because of the fall of man, and that Christians could justifiably defend it.
  • Aquinas taught that heretics corrupt the truth, and if they are unwilling to yield to church dogma, spiritual authorities were acting properly if they were to “be not only excommunicated but even put to death.”[27]
  • Aquinas referred to the views of St. Gregory of Nysaa when developing his arguments in support of purgatory.

Fifty years after he died, Thomas Aquinas was declared a saint, and since then several popes have claimed that he was a source of authoritative doctrine. To this day the teachings of Thomas Aquinas are still honored by the Catholic Church.  In the Summa Theologica we can see how far Aquinas’ doctrine had strayed from the scriptures, but this is to be expected since the Bible was only ONE source of truth in his writings. (Before he died, Aquinas looked back on his life’s work with dismay and called it “straw.”[28])

In the writings of Aquinas we also see how the Inquisition was empowered. Church leaders were put into positions of higher authority than civic leaders. The church had the power to exterminate heretics. Aristotle’s scientific philosophy would be turned into church doctrine, causing anyone, such as Galileo (as we’ll see in a later chapter), who opposed it, to be labeled a heretic.

We also see how the concept of purgatory (which was based on Greek thought) was abused. When Pope Leo X needed money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, he sent out a Dominican monk named Tetzel to collect money through the selling of indulgences. This was based on the idea that there was an account of excess good deeds that had been performed by the saints which a person could purchase in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory, where they were painfully paying for their sins. Tetzel’s motto was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”

The Protestant Reformation

Tetzel didn’t know it, but a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther was watching, and because he knew the truth of the scriptures, Tetzel’s lie enraged him so much that he wrote up 95 Theses (95 Arguments) against the practice of indulgences and pounded it on the door of the Wittenberg Church. This courageous act of protest (“protest” is the root word for Protestant) caused an uproar—especially in a society living under the authority of the Inquisition. Because of the newly-invented printing press, Luther’s arguments spread like wildfire throughout Europe.

There were forerunners to Luther who also had conflicts with the doctrines of the Catholic Church. John Wycliffe, who is called the Morning Star of the Reformation, would be one of the first to oppose the corrupt Catholic religion of the medieval era. He was a priest and a scholar at Oxford University, therefore he was also able to read the Bible. The main argument of Wycliffe was that the Bible was the only reliable guide to truth, and that Christians should rely on the scriptures rather than on the pope. Wycliffe had friends in high places, so he was protected from the Inquisition’s flames. His followers, the Lollards, on the other hand, were not spared.

John Huss was influenced by Wycliffe’s arguments. He was a priest at the University of Hague and he also stressed the importance of scripture as the only authority of the church. He thought that popes or cardinals were wrong to create doctrine that was contrary to the Bible. He also made a statement about the condition of the Roman church by hanging pictures of the pope in all his rich clothing next to the image of the poverty-stricken Christ. As a result of his outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church he would be called before the Inquisition. Foxe described how Huss tried to answer a question that was put to him during his trial:

As he was about to open his mouth, all this mad herd began to cry out upon him, that he had not leisure to speak one only word. The noise and trouble was so great and so vehement, that a man might have called it a bruit of wild beasts, and not of men, much less was it to be judged a congregation of men gathered together to determine so grave and weighty matters.[29]

The crowd that was acting like beasts wasn’t an angry mob of commoners, but the council of cardinals and bishops! Huss refused to recant on his views, so he was arrested and burned at the stake. It was in this atmosphere that Luther courageously took his stand.

Luther was a priest; therefore he had also had access to the scriptures. It was on their authority that he stood when he was called before the Inquisition. He was commanded to denounce his writings and recant. His response would forever change the history of the world.

Unless I am convinced by scripture or by clear reason—for I do not trust the pope or church councils, since everyone knows they can make mistakes and contradict themselves—I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted. My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, because it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.[30]

With these brave words, the whole corrupt foundation of the Roman Catholic religious monopoly would begin to crumble, and its powerful stronghold on the western world would be broken.  Luther’s movement, known as the Reformation, would split the church. Its rallying cry was “Sola Scriptura!” (Scripture alone!)

Even though Protestantism had spread throughout Europe, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, still tried to impose Catholicism on the Protestant territories. This caused the Thirty Years War, one of the worst wars in European history.  It was so horrible and caused so much bloodshed that even the soil could no longer produce a harvest. Most of the 8 million who died were Catholics. The Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties, finally ended the war.

One of the results of Westphalia was the development of sovereign states that could embrace whatever religion they desired. It also guaranteed that individuals, who lived in states where the religion of a different denomination was practiced, could still practice their faith.  Because of heroic Christians who took their stand on the Word of God, the power of the Inquisition to prosecute “heretics” was crushed.

The blessings that resulted from the spread of the pure gospel are incalculable. It led to advances in education (so the Bible could be read), religious freedom and toleration (so that an Inquisition could never happen again), a newfound respect for honest work (since whatever a person did could be done for the glory of God, not just religious activities), the destruction of the power of the priesthood (since each individual believer could gain access to God on his/her own), to political freedom (so that a church/state theocracy might not rule again), and to the growth of science (since the church was now free from the stronghold of Aristotelian philosophy as its source of scientific truth).

Luther, who had a radical conversion when he discovered that the grace of God came only through faith, and not through human effort, loved the precious Word which taught him that truth. When atheists say that Christians burned people at the stake, I want to encourage Christians to argue:

Yes…people who called themselves Christians burned people at the stake, but these Christians weren’t faithful to the scriptures. They corrupted the teachings of Christ with philosophy and man-made traditions. They disobeyed the Bible. It wasn’t atheists who finally conquered the Inquisition; it was men and women of God, courageously giving their lives in faithfulness to Jesus and his wonderful Word, who were finally able to bring down the stronghold of the Inquisition.



 [1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 88, 409e-410a.

[2] Justin Martyr, “First Apology of Justin,” Early Christian Fathers: Volume I, trans. Cyril C. Richardson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952), 287.

[3] Tertullian, “Apology 39,” as quoted by Philip Schaff in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdman’s Publishing Co., 1973). Christian Classics Ethereal Library, (accessed 01/25/2009).

[4] Lucian, “Lucian of Samosata: The Passing of Peregrinus, “The Tertullian Project,” (accessed 02/09/2009).


[5] Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogous, New Advent, (accessed 01/15/2009).

[6] Julian, “Letter to Arsacius.” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinook, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901), 75-78, as quoted by D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burnstein in The Ancient World: Readings on Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 314-315. Then Again: Primary Source, html (accessed 02/07/2009.

[8] John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Pittsburgh, PA: Whitaker House, 1981), 29-30.

[9] Ibid.,30.

[10] Dionysius, “Letter to Eusebius,” as quoted by Arnold Harnack in The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, trans. and ed. James Moffatt (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1972), 171.

[11] Cyprian, “Letter to Demetrianus,” as quoted by Arnold Harnack in The Mission and Expansion of Christianity, 172.

[12] Eusebius, “The Ecclesiastical History,” The Essential Eusebius. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: The New American Library, 1966), 162-163.

[13] Aristotle, “Politics,” The Basic Works of Aristotle. ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 1131-1132.

[14] “The Didache,” Early Christian Fathers, Volume I, trans. and ed. Cyril C. Richardson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 176.

[15] Clement, “Letter to the Romans,” Early Christian Fathers, Volume I, trans. Cyril C. Richardson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 176.


[16] William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2002), 226.

[17] “The Shepherd of Hermas,” Apostolic Fathers, trans. J.B. Lightfoot and ed. J.R. Harner (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House Books, 1967), Wesley Center Online, (accessed 02/23/2008).

[18] Barclay, Letter to the Hebrews, 226-227.

[19] Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” Plutarch’s Moralia: Twenty Essays, trans. Philemon Holland (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1911), 387-388.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Seneca, “De Ira,” as quoted by Alvin J. Schmidt in How Christianity Changed the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 49.

[22][22] G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri, p. 33

[23] “The Epistle to Diognetus,” Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, trans. Andrew Louth (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 145.

[24] “The Didache,” Early Christian Writings, 191.

[25] Barnabus, “The Epistle of Barnabus,” Early Christian Writings, 180.

[26] Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 50.

[27] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica. Vol II. (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 440.

[28] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 114.

[29] Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 110.

[30] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978), 141.



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