The Inquisition

How Christians Dealt with Heresy

Heresy has been with mankind for millennia as have courts dealing with it. Early in the second century, the philosopher Celsus wrote that Christians persecuted dissidents with death, burning, and torture based on the Old Testament. The Christian apologetic Origen answered Celsus by explaining that one must distinguish between the law received from Moses binding on all Jews, and that given by Jesus Christ, which was binding on all Christians.

Origen, the most influential Christian in the third century, claimed that Christians were no longer bound by the Mosaic Law, and therefore no longer required to kill, burn, or stone violators of the Mosaic Law. The law they followed was a Christian law established by Jesus Christ to love even our enemies. Saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Leo agreed with Origen.

However, beginning in the twelfth century France there is no question that Christians ignored this commandment of Christ and were in fact burning and killing. The Church had ordered the inquisition to find whether the accused is guilty or innocent of heresy and nothing more. To their shame, the inquisitors sometimes exceeded this duty. Yet, the secular authorities were more than willing to take up the slack on their part and that reflected back on the Church. That they were a creature of their time is no excuse.

Remember Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and their adherents all believed in punishing heresy with death. Even Heinrich Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli as head of the Zurich Protestant church, announced the principle that heresy could be punished like murder or treason. It is not to the credit of the Catholic Inquisition that other religions held this principle, only that it reflected society in the sixteenth century.

Most of the time the penalty for those found guilty of heretical actions, but who repented, seems to have consisted of penances like wearing a cross on one’s clothes, going on a pilgrimage, ect. When unrepentant, the heretic was usually turned over to the secular authorities for final sentencing, which depending on local prescriptions, resulted in such findings as banishment, imprisonment for life, or burning at the stake. The inquisitors knew what to expect from the local civil authorities and so did the heretics.

For more on the life and times of the mid-sixteenth century, read The Hidden Saint: The Sixteenth Century Church in Crisis. For Amazon pricing go to To join my facebook page go to