Christians burned people at the stake during the Inquisition.
Bible-believing Christians were burned at the stake! Their courage in the face of death led to the power of the Inquisition finally being overthrown.
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 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 had the power to 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 and horrendous tyrants?!!
Even in the earliest days of the church, the apostles battled against false beliefs. For example, Paul argued, in his letter to the Galatians, against Judaizers—those who thought the church needed to remain under the Old Testament law (especially concerning circumcision). We also see the apostle John warning against the Gnostics. These were people who claimed Jesus was a spiritual being who didn’t come as a flesh and blood person. And yet, even though there were false teachers 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.
After all, Jesus said the tares (weeds) should be allowed to “grow together” with the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30). The task of separating true believers from false believers is reserved for Christ alone. (This doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t supposed to discern the difference between what is true and false, but we are not the agents of God’s judgment against what we perceive to be the “tares.”)
The Beauty of the Early Church
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 of the apostles, 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 knowledge, such as Greek philosophy or science, the more they contributed to suffering and injustice!
When the church was just beginning, believers shared everything. They had meals together. They sold their belongings in order to give money to the church. They cared for widows, orphans, the elderly, and sick people. The closer the church remained to the true gospel, the more its members had transformed hearts that would become a force for love and kindness.
This was a new thing, especially in the Gentile world!
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 numerous 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 20th century were still reaching people groups who were cannibals!
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, for example), Christians were taught that when they fed or clothed the “least of these” (Matthew 25:35-40) they were feeding and clothing Jesus!
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.” On the other hand, Jesus taught:
“When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives, or rich neighbors; lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” – Luke 14:12-14, ESV
Opening the New Testament, John the Baptist told his followers: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do the likewise” (Luke 3:11, ESV). In the book of Acts we see the apostles setting up food distribution sites where the poor, elderly, and sick were fed. James, the brother of Jesus, explained: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV). 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 the place of worship (James 2:2-4).
This attitude didn’t end after the death of 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] . . . 
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 . . . 
Lucian, a Greek playwright of the 2nd century, created a character named Peregrinus who preyed upon Christians, saying that their devotion to Christ left them vulnerable to charlatans:
It was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.
Lucian thought he was mocking the Christian community, but he unintentionally left behind a description of the giving attitude of the early church that gives glory to Jesus.
Clement (a bishop of Rome after Peter) contrasted this giving attitude with Roman women who were “abandoned to luxury,” saying they “bring up parrots and curlews [a type of bird], but will not take in the orphan child.”
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 the 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” and he lamented that “the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own.” 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 3rd 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?
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.’”
During a plague in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd 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.
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.”
Eusebius (the church historian and 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.
Another change brought about by Jesus was the attitude toward slavery. In Athens, where nearly three-fourths of the population were slaves, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, 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.”
Plato, the teacher of Aristotle, also thought the need for slavery was a just and natural condition of humanity because some races were more intelligent and powerful than others:
. . . whereas nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.
Such were the attitudes of the most intelligent thinkers of the ancient world, but Jesus said he came to set the oppressed 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, Jesus taught that those who were the greatest in the kingdom were those who served. Jesus was a carpenter who was familiar with hard work. (They had no power tools!) His disciples were common workers. The apostle Paul was a tentmaker. The Scriptures made it clear that 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 1st 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. The strong were commanded to care for the weak and to work quietly with their hands … for the glory of God (1 Thes. 4:11). Jesus portrayed this attitude when He served His disciples and washed their feet. There was no concept of two classes—the servants vs. the served—in the kingdom of God. 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 people were equal before God:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28, ESV
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.
Since the church initially consisted mainly of a band of poor, oppressed Jews, there was no way they could overthrow the slave system through force or revolution. Rebellion had been tried before. One of the latest attempts 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 persons 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. For example, 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).
The church never supported slavery, but rebellion wasn’t an option either, so slaves were to trust that the Holy Spirit would work in the hearts of their masters. In the meantime, they were to rely on God and be hard workers as a testimony to Christ.
This doesn’t mean the church would do nothing to overcome slavery. In fact, the early church would go overboard to fulfill these words of Jesus:
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:36, ESV
Clement, bishop of Rome in the 2nd 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.
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.
One of the virtues commanded in The Shepherd of Hermas (a popular piece of Christian literature written by a slave in the 2nd century) was simply expressed in this way: “Therefore, instead of fields, buy ye souls that are in trouble.”
The Apostolic Constitutions, another group of early Christian writings from the 4th 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.
Melania, a wealthy convert to Christianity who lived in the 4th century, sold all her belongings and gave the money to the poor. She also set eight thousand slaves free.
During the barbarian invasions of the 5th to 7th 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, 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 4th 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.” 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.
There was little sympathy in the idol-worshiping ancient world. 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, ESV
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 legal, and Seneca, the Roman philosopher, stated: “We drown children at birth who are weak and abnormal.”
In a letter written by a Greek citizen named Hilarion to his wife, the ancient attitude toward infanticide is captured:
Know that I am still in Alexandria . . . I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out.
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 4th 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.”
The Didache forbade abortion and infanticide. The Epistle of Barnabus said that followers of the “Way” should “never do away with an unborn child or destroy it after its birth.” Under the Emperor Constantine this law would be strengthened further. The Theodosian Code, established after Christianity was legalized in the 4th century, would make it easier for poor people to keep their children by giving them money from the imperial treasury to care for them.
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 (although he was boiled in oil, but didn’t die, and was exiled to the barren island of Patmos) was murdered 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 alive and courageous . . . but then something began to go wrong . . . the church began to go astray.
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the apostle refers to Jesus as the “Word.” In the Greek language this is translated as Logos. John said:
“In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and the Word [Logos] was God.” – John 1:1, KJV
The Stoic philosophers suggested 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. The apostle John argued that Jesus was the Logos and explained that “the Word [Logos] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, ESV). Paul made a similar argument in his letter to the Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things and in him all things hold together.” – Colossians 1:15-17, ESV
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 philosophical and intellectual thought of their day. Perhaps the Greeks would come to Christ if they could be convinced that he was their Logos!
Paul also tried to persuade the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens that the Jewish God was the “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) 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 Colossians to not go any further and become seduced by philosophy:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 2:8-9, ESV
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.
The Greek/Christian Blend
As more and more Gentiles were being converted, the church spread out from Jerusalem (where societal ethics and beliefs were based on the Old Testament), making it more and more important to accommodate the Greeks. After all, the Greeks were more familiar with their philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) than they were with Abraham, Moses, and David.
Some Christians, such as Justin Martyr, realized this and (like the apostles Paul or John) appealed to the Greeks by simply arguing that Jesus was the Logos, but Clement of Alexandria, of the 2nd century, and Origen, the Egyptian theologian of the 3rd century, went further and argued that Christianity and Greek philosophy could be blended together.
In the 3rd century, Plotinus, while not a Christian, developed new thoughts on Plato’s philosophy. His teachings had a great impact on Augustine (AD 354-430), 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 a stronghold in church doctrine for over a thousand years. Philip Cary (a professor at Eastern University with a concentration on the early church father Augustine) describes this union:
The two major strands of the Western tradition come from Athens and Jerusalem: from the classical Greek and Roman world of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero and from the biblical world of Moses and Jesus. These two worlds come together in the writings of the Church Fathers, such as Augustine, and the medieval period saw the flowering of the synthesis between biblical faith and philosophical reason that they had effected [emphasis added].
The addition of classical philosophy to biblical doctrine was an attempt to make Christianity more palatable to the Gentile world, but the actual effect was the corruption of the Word by the philosophies of men. (Tertullian saw the danger of this syncretism and famously cried out, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?!”) Will Durant, author of The Story of Philosophy, describes the influence of Greek philosophy on the content of church teachings:
. . . the ideas of heaven, purgatory, and hell, in their medieval form, are traceable to the last book of The Republic; the cosmology of scholasticism comes largely from the “Timaeus;” the doctrine of realism (the objective reality of general ideas) was an interpretation of the doctrine of Ideas; even the educational “quadrivium” (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) was modeled on the curriculum outlined in Plato.
Augustine, whose testimony has been an inspiration to Christians throughout church history (he was in bondage to sexual lust and was finally set free while crying out to God in a garden) would be like Luther in that he didn’t always rightly divide the Word of truth. Just as Luther’s views on the Jews would be used by Adolph Hitler as a justification for the Holocaust, Augustine’s view on the church’s use of force would be used as one of the justifications for the Inquisition.
Augustine believed that the phrase “compel them to come in” in the Parable of the Great Banquet found in Luke 14:15-23, was proof that Jesus approved of physical force to fulfill his will. In “Letter 93 to Vincentius” Augustine used biblical examples to make the argument that force can be used for either good or evil, depending on the purpose. After all, he argued, who can dispute that force is used by a good mother to discipline her children? He also argued that God used force against Pharaoh to help Moses deliver the Hebrews from the bondage of Egypt, and just as Jezebel killed the prophets, Elijah killed the false prophets. Augustine reasoned:
Let us learn, my brother, in actions which are similar, to distinguish the intentions of the agents; and let us not, shutting our eyes, deal in groundless reproaches, and accuse those who seek men’s welfare as if they did them wrong.
In other words, Augustine argued that the use of force by religious authorities can sometimes be justified, depending on who is using it and for what reason it is being used. Unfortunately, the medieval church/state system, in what they thought was an attempt to keep order in society, would use Augustine’s reasoning to go after anyone who went against the official teaching of the church—even if those teachings were false.
The Roman/Christian Blend
After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313 (in the “Edict of Milan”), the Romans also began to have an influence on Christianity. They impacted it in a different way, though. While the Greeks influenced theology through their philosophers, the Romans had an influence on the church through their pagan rituals. Many of the former temples, which had been dedicated to the Roman gods, now merely became “Christianized.”
The blend of Christianity with Roman idolatry 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.
The medieval church taught that a person could be saved through practicing rituals. Rituals, without the preaching of the gospel, did not lead to a lively faith that created 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.
In the 12th century, a revival of Greek philosophy would come to the church through a Muslim scholar named Averroes. His commentaries on Aristotle 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 studied, and Thomas Aquinas would use them as part of his epic theological treatise, the Summa Theologica.
Thomas Aquinas was one of the medieval scholastics. The aim of scholasticism was to reveal the harmony between faith and reason. In the 13th century, Aquinas took Aristotle’s philosophy, as re-discovered by Averroes (which represented logic and “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. Here are some highlights of Aquinas’ thought as found in his Summa Theologica:
- Aquinas thought both types of knowledge, reasonand faith, had their source in God. Since both were a form of truth, they couldn’t 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 “natural philosophy” on biology, 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), life was spontaneously generated out of nothing, and all scientific pursuit of knowledge must start with philosophical truth rather than with empirical (physical) data. These views would contribute to science being hindered in the medieval era.
- Aquinas argued that a monarchy was the best form of government, but that the secular government should be subject to the church, making the popesthe highest civil authorities, even higher than kings.
- Aquinas taught that hereticscorrupt 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.”
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’ teachings strayed from the Scriptures. (Yet, before he died, Aquinas looked back on his life’s work with dismay and called it “straw.”)
For example, in his writings we see how the Inquisition was empowered, as church leaders were put into positions of higher authority than civic leaders, giving the church the power to exterminate heretics. We can also see how 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.
Because of the influence of Greek philosophy on the Catholic Church, we can also see how the concept of purgatory (which, as mentioned before, was based on Greek thought as found in Plato’s Republic) 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 practice 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 may not have known it, but a young monk named Martin Luther was watching, and because he had read the Scriptures, Tetzel’s lie enraged him so much that he wrote up Ninety-Five Theses (ninety-five 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—and because of the newly-invented printing press, Luther’s arguments could now 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, so he was able to read the Scriptures. 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 a pope, as the ultimate authority in spiritual matters. 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, a dean at the University of Hague, was influenced by Wycliffe’s arguments. He stressed the importance of Scripture as the sole authority for the church and 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.
The crowd that was acting like beasts wasn’t an angry mob of commoners—it was 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 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 [emphasis added]. 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.
With these courageous 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 Protestant Reformation, would split the church.
After many Catholics began converting to Protestantism, the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II wanted to impose Catholicism on unwilling Protestant territories. The Thirty Years War that resulted was one of the worst religious wars ever fought. Over eight million people died. It was reported that even the land was ravaged by the war and could no longer produce a harvest.
Many decades of death and destruction finally culminated in a series of treaties called the Peace of Westphalia. It allowed for each territory to determine its own religion, and for any person who believed something different from each state’s official religion to be guaranteed a level of spiritual freedom, essentially crushing the power of the Catholic Inquisition.
The rallying cry of the Reformation was “sola scriptura!” (Scripture alone!) 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 [not just religious activities] could be done for the glory of God), 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, as we’ll see in the next chapter, the church was now free from the stronghold of Catholic/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 dead religious works, loved the precious Word which taught him that truth. So, 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 didn’t rightly divide the Word of truth. They disobeyed the Bible. And it wasn’t atheists or secularists who stopped the cruel flames and torture of the Inquisitors, it was men and women of God, courageously giving their lives in faithfulness to Jesus and his wonderful Word, who finally brought down the stronghold of the Inquisition.
 Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 88, 409e-410a.
 Justin Martyr, “First Apology of Justin,” Early Christian Fathers: Volume I, trans. and ed. Cyril C. Richardson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 287.
 Tertullian, “Apology 39,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3., trans. S. Thelwall and ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Rev. and ed. by Kevin Knight for New Advent. Accessed Oct. 14, 2019. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm.
 Lucian, “Lucian of Samosata: The Passing of Peregrinus,” The Tertullian Project. Accessed July 22, 2019. http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm.
 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 Sources. Accessed July 22, 2019. http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/Julian.html.
 John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Pittsburgh, PA: Whitaker House, 1981), 29-30.
 Ibid., 30.
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.
 Cyprian, “Letter to Demetrianus,” as quoted by Arnold Harnack in The Mission and Expansion of Christianity, 172.
 Eusebius, “The Ecclesiastical History,” The Essential Eusebius. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: The New American Library, 1966), 162-163.
 Aristotle, “Politics,” The Basic Works of Aristotle. ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 1131-1132.
 Plato, Gorgias, trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oct. 5, 2008, Project Gutenberg. Accessed September 19, 2019.
 “The Didache,” Early Christian Fathers: Volume I, trans. and ed. Cyril C. Richardson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 176.
 Clement, “Letter to the Romans,” Early Christian Fathers, 176.
 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2002), 226.
 “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 July 22, 2019. http://wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/fathers/ante-nic/hermas1.htm
 Barclay, Letter to the Hebrews, 226-227.
 Plutarch, “Of Superstition,” Plutarch’s Moralia: Twenty Essays, trans. Philemon Holland (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1911), 387-388.
 Seneca, “De Ira,” as quoted in How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin J. Schmidt (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 49.
 “The Epistle to Diognetus,” Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, trans. Andrew Louth (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 145.
 “The Didache,” Early Christian Writings, 191.
 Barnabus, “The Epistle of Barnabus,” Early Christian Writings, 180.
 Phillip Cary, “Lecture Thirteen,” Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition: Parts I-VII (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2000), 68.
 Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3., trans. Peter Holmes and ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Accessed Oct. 14, 2019. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm.
 Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers of the Western World (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 35.
 Augustine, “Letter 93 to Vincentius.” Early Church Texts. Accessed June 3, 2019. https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/.augustine_letter_93_to_vincentius_cogite_intrare.htm.
 Foxe, Book of Martyrs, 50.
 Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica. Vol II. (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 440.
 Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 114.
 Foxe, Book of Martyrs, 110.
 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978), 141.