Notes on Persecution and Toleration in the History of Christianity
Smith explores some of the traditional biblical arguments for and against religious persecution.
In the 1770s, the Scottish jurist, historian, and philosopher Lord Kames pointed to a disturbing paradox: “The Christian religion,” he wrote, “is eminent for a spirit of meekness, toleration, and brotherly love; and yet persecution never raged so furiously in any other religion.” Kames called this conflict between Christian principle and practice “a singular phenomenon in the history of man,” and he tried to explain how it came about.
Kames was not the first historian to call attention to this problem, nor was he the last. In 1865, the liberal historian W.E.H. Lecky put it this way: “When it is remembered that the Founder of Christianity summed up human duties in the two precepts of love to God and love to man…the history of persecution in the Christian Church appears as startling as it is painful.”
To portray the founder of the Christian religion as an exemplar of love and compassion was a common tactic among proponents of religious toleration, who argued that the life and teachings of Jesus were inconsistent with the persecuting spirit that had permeated centuries of Christian history. John Locke was far from the first proponent of toleration who appealed to Jesus as a paradigm that Christians should emulate. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke maintained that Jesus and his apostles were armed not with swords and other “instruments of force” but with “the Gospel of peace.” If Jesus had wished to convert people by force, he could easily have raised “armies of heavenly legions” that were far more powerful than all the dragoons of earthly governments, but this was not his method, which was persuasion, not coercion. According to Locke, the “toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion” is so agreeable both “to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind” that it requires a peculiar type of intellectual blindness not to recognize these obvious facts.
Christian opponents of toleration were not likely to be convinced by Locke’s arguments; they had heard them many times before, and they needed only consult the armory of arguments for persecution in the writings of St. Augustine (354–430) to answer them.
When Augustine (the first Christian theologian to develop a systematic defense of persecution) was challenged by critics to name even one incident where Jesus had used coercion instead of persuasion, he pulled an ace out of his sleeve. This was the famous story (Acts 9:1–18) of Paul’s journey on the road to Damascus. While on his way to persecute Christians, Paul (then known as Saul) fell to the ground as he heard the voice of Jesus and was blinded by a bright light. This conversion of Paul, according to Augustine, clearly involved compulsion, for Christ “used his power to knock Paul down” and also “struck him with physical blindness” (a disability that lasted three days). Thus did Paul come “to the gospel under the compulsion of a physical punishment,” and thus was the tolerationist argument that Christ never used physical force decisively refuted — at least in the minds of Augustine and many later Christians who repeated his argument. For example, in the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead when he argued that “Christ at first compelled Paul and afterwards taught him.”
This brings us to a fundamental point about the historical debates over persecution versus toleration. From the early centuries of Christianity until roughly the early eighteenth century, such debates revolved, first and foremost, around the Bible. This is not to deny that philosophical and pragmatic arguments also played a role; on the contrary, they sometimes played an important role, but the defender of either side was ultimately obligated to show that his position harmonized with biblical teachings. The importance of biblical arguments may be seen in John Milton’s defense of toleration, A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes (1659), in which he noted at the outset: “What I argue shall be drawn from the scripture only; and therein from true fundamental principles of the gospel, to all knowing Christians undeniable.” Likewise, when Roger Williams published his remarkable manifesto calling for the separation of church and state (The Bloody Tenet of Persecution 1644), it was so laden with detailed analyses of biblical texts that modern readers are apt to find much of it difficult to follow.
Among the many biblical passages cited by all sides in the controversy over religious toleration, two stood out above all others. Each side had a favorite proof passage, a parable attributed to Jesus, that it cited more frequently than any other biblical text. For defenders of persecution it was the Parable of the Feast (Luke 14:15–25), whereas for defenders of toleration it was the Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13: 24–30).
In the Parable of the Feast, Jesus tells of a man who invited many guests to a great supper and sent his servants to tell them that the feast was ready. But some invitees gave excuses explaining why they could not attend; and when a servant related those excuses to the host by saying, “Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room,” the host replied: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”
“Compel them to come in”–no other statement of this brevity has had a more disastrous effect on the history of Western civilization. Whatever Jesus may have meant by this parable, it became the definitive text–one cited endlessly by the proponents of persecution–to prove that Jesus (and therefore God) had sanctioned, indeed commanded, the use of coercion against heretics and others who would not voluntarily embrace Christian orthodoxy, whether Catholic or Protestant.
The Parable of the Feast began its career as the pillar passage for persecution during the early fifth century, when it was invoked repeatedly by Augustine. So enduring was the significance of this text that when Pierre Bayle wrote his critique of persecution during the 1680s, he called it A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14: 23, “Compel Them to Come In, That my House May Be Full.” Much of this lengthy book, which runs nearly 600 pages in the English translation, is devoted to rebutting the claim that the Parable of the Feast, properly understood, is a justification for religious persecution.
On the other side of the scale stood the Parable of the Tares, which was the key passage for defenders of toleration. In this parable Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but whose enemies planted tares (i.e., weeds) among the wheat. When the crop sprouted and servants came to the owner to ask whether they should remove the tares, he replied: “No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.…”
As interpreted by defenders of toleration, the Parable of the Tares taught that it is the business of God, not man, to deal with those who reject the Christian faith, and that human authorities will do more harm than good if they use coercion to punish heretics, dissenters, and unbelievers. But the defenders of persecution were not persuaded; they had no difficulty interpreting this parable so that it conformed to their own predispositions. For example, according to the church father John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), in the Parable of the Tares Jesus merely forbids the killing of heretics; he does not forbid us “to restrain heretics, to stop their mouths, to take away their freedom of speech, to break up their assemblies and societies.”
As Augustine explained the Parable of the Tares, it simply cautions against uprooting weeds when this might result in damaging the wheat as well, but this is not a problem when the weeds can easily be identified and separated without causing damage to the wheat. Hence when heretics can easily be recognized — and Augustine had no problem spotting them — Christian authorities should not hesitate to use coercion against them. Augustine’s rather tortured interpretation of the Parable of the Tares became standard fare among later defenders of persecution, especially after Thomas Aquinas adopted it eight centuries later. Although there were some dissenting voices in the Catholic Church, the combined authority of Augustine and Aquinas proved overwhelming until after the Protestant Reformation.
Because of its religious significance the Bible seemed to provide a common framework wherein Christians could settle disputes about God’s will in matters relating to the respective roles of coercion and persuasion, but the ideal rarely conformed to practice. In the debates over toleration there was no passage cited by one side that could not be explained away or interpreted differently by the other side. We have already seen this with the Parable of the Tares, and we find another instance — again, one hatched from the fertile mind of Augustine — in John 6: 66–7, which tells how many followers left Jesus “and walked with Him no more.” In response, Jesus asked the twelve disciples who remained, “Do you also want to go away?”–and this implies that Jesus regarded acceptance of his teachings as a purely voluntary matter. Or so it seemed to the defenders of toleration.
Augustine responded to this biblical argument with a typical tactic. He argued that this and similar examples, including those instances where early Christians spurned the Roman state and refused to call upon it to aid their cause, must be understood in a broader context. The context in this case consisted of Old Testament prophecies — most notably Psalms 72:11, according to which “all nations” will one day serve God. That day had obviously not arrived while Christians were a despised and powerless minority in the Roman Empire, and this is why Jesus “recommended humility” during the time when “the church was just beginning to sprout from a recent seed.” But things changed–the prophecy began to be fulfilled — when the emperor Constantine and his successors Christianized the Roman Empire, so it was now fitting for Christians to use coercion as the Catholic Church continued on its path to convert the entire world. As Augustine put it: “Certainly the more nearly this [prophecy] is fulfilled, the greater the power at the church’s disposal. Consequently, she can not only invite others to embrace what is good, but also compel them.”
In the event this interpretation might appear strained, Augustine immediately fortified it by recalling the words of Jesus, “Compel them to come in, until my house is full.” This “indicated the point quite clearly”; even if heretics and schismatics were “walking quietly outside the banquet of the holy unity of the church” (i.e., even if these dissenters were bothering no one), the church should still “compel them to come in.” For many centuries to come, all roads to persecution would eventually lead to these few fateful words.
It was no accident that many defenders of persecution relied heavily on the Old Testament; in that collection of writings they found abundant grist for their mill, such as the injunction (Lev. 24:16), “He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death.” This passage largely explains why John Calvin and other Protestant Reformers represented heresy and other religious crimes as a type of blasphemy; this classification provided scriptural warrant for the death penalty. Other passages, such as the injunction that false prophets “shall be put to death” (Deut. 13: 5), served the same purpose, as did stories like that found in I Kings 18, where the prophet Elijah had 450 followers of Baal slaughtered without pity.
In addition, the theocratic rule of David and other kings of Israel, in which both the secular and the spiritual realms were the subject of coercive laws, later provided Christians with ample precedents to support the argument that God never intended to leave religious matters to the voluntary decisions of individuals. As the American Puritan John Cotton put it: “the eternal equity of that judicial law of Moses was of moral force and binds all Princes to express that zeal and indignation, both against blasphemy…and against seduction to idolatry.”
As crucial as these and other biblical passages were in the debates over religious toleration — their significance is nearly impossible to overestimate — it would be both pointless and impossible to discuss in any detail the arguments they engendered. Suffice it to say that Christians did not accept some of the Old Testament, especially those parts of the Mosaic law that prescribed circumcision and other rituals, as binding upon Christians; but they did agree that its fundamental moral precepts, such as the Ten Commandments, were still obligatory. Between these two extremes, however, there were gray areas, such as the capital laws against blasphemy and idolatry. Whether or not such laws applied to Christian communities was a major topic of debate.