Thomas Talbott

The Inescapable Love of God

The Theological Justification for Terror

So far as I know, St. Augustine was the first Christian theologian to advocate the use of terror against those whom he regarded as heretical. In De Correctione Donatistarum, Augustine asks: "Where [in Scripture] is what they [the Donatists] are accustomed to cry: `To believe or not to believe is a matter that is free'?"1 Against the contention of the Donatists that religious assent must be free, Augustine cites several examples, including the conversion of St. Paul, in which he claims that Christ himself employed physical affliction as a means of coercion. He then goes on to argue:

But we have shown that Paul was compelled by Christ; therefore the Church, in trying to compel the Donatists, is following the example of her Lord . . .. Wherefore, if the power [of the sword] which the Church has received by divine appointment in its due season, through the religious character and faith of Kings, be the instrument by which those who are found in the highways and hedges--that is, in heresies and schisms--are compelled to come in, then let them not find fault because they are compelled . . .. 2

Here Augustine makes the remarkable claim that, in coercing the Donatists through physical affliction, the Church was merely following "the example of her Lord." But that does not yet explain why he considered the use of such coercive measures justified. Why should anyone, even the Lord himself, be justified in coercing people into the Church against their will?

Augustine's answer emerges clearly in his response to those Donatists who had resisted unto death, in some cases by setting themselves afire. He asks: "What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the short-lived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell?"3

In another place he again asks: "Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction [i.e., to eternal death]?"4

In other words, the use of the sword in coercing heretics back into the State Church is justified, Augustine believed, because the alternative would be to consign many more--those under the influence of the heretics, as well as the heretics themselves--to eternal damnation. As Augustine saw it, therefore, we must distinguish between two classes of people. For the righteous "who thirsteth for God," "there is no need of the terror of hell, to say nothing of temporal punishments or imperial laws . . ."; but for those who have fallen into heresy, "many must first be recalled to their Lord by the stripes of temporal scourging, like evil slaves, and in some degree like good-for-nothing fugitives."5

Though Augustine may have been the first Christian theologian to argue against freedom of conscience in religious matters, he was by no means the last. His arguments were repeated throughout the Middle Ages and then were picked up by the Protestant Reformers. Like Augustine, Calvin too regarded heresy as a sin worse than murder: "The mockers who would suffer all false doctrines . . . are not only traitors to God but enemies of the human race. They would bring poor souls to perdition and ruin, and are worse than murderers."6

Similarly, Calvin's close friend and associate, Theodore Beza, once wrote: "The contention that heretics should not be punished is as monstrous as the contention that patricides and matricides should not be put to death; for heretics are a thousandfold worse criminals than these."7

And the Reformers were, of course, quite prepared to act upon their convictions; in 1526, for example, the Christian authorities in Zurick "ordered Anabaptists drowned, in hideous parody of their belief . . .."8

Here is how Urbanus Rhegius, an associate of Martin Luther, justified the persecution of Anabaptists (whom he also called "Donatists," using that term as a form of abuse):

When heresy breaks forth . . . then the magistrate must punish not with less but with greater vigor than is employed against other evil-doers, robbers, murderers, thieves, and the like. . . . The Donatists murder men's souls, make them go to eternal death; and then they complain when men punish them with temporal death. . . . All who know history will know what has been done in this matter by such men as Constantine, Marianus, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others.9

Indeed! All who know history do know what such men as these have done in the name of Christ! Certainly none of them championed freedom of conscience, which they regarded as a threat to their own political power. So, whether they truly believed it or not, they all welcomed the theological assumption that, given the horrors of eternal damnation, heresy is a sin worse than murder. As the above quotations illustrate, moreover, religious persecution in the Western Church typically has had its roots in an obsessive fear of eternal damnation.

It is no doubt possible to believe in eternal damnation without believing that God would be so unjust as to damn someone eternally for an honest mistake in abstract theology. But fear is often irrational, and, as a matter of historical fact, the Christian church has consistently employed the fear of eternal damnation as a weapon against "theological error." It has consistently cultivated in its constituency the fear that those who die in unbelief, or with certain mistaken beliefs, are precisely those whom God will damn eternally in hell.

Such fear, which springs ultimately from a lack of confidence (or faith) in the character of God, has had disastrous consequences in the life of the church. Having no confidence in the love of God, those in the grips of such fear have too often wielded the sword in a sincere effort to protect their loved ones from the tragic consequences, as they see it, of error in religious matters. 


1. Augustine, De Correctione Donatistarum 22, as translated in Ayer, op. cit., p. 451. All other quotations from this document are taken from the translation in Philip Schaff (ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co., 1887), pp. 633-651.

2. Ibid., 23 & 24. Those who believe that Augustine's exegesis of the Bible was more accurate than that of many of his predecessors would do well to examine carefully the fantastic exegetical arguments he offers in support of these claims.

3. Ibid., p. 14.

4. Ibid., p. 23.

5. Ibid., p. 21.

6. Quoted in Georgia Harkness, John Calvin: The Man and his Ethics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1931), p. 111. If, according to Calvin, those heretics who cause others to land in hell are worse than murderers, one wonders why he did not also regard, as worse than a murder, a "God" who would predestine some to hell.

7. Quoted in Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin (New York: The Viking Press, 1936).

8. Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p. 127.

9. Quoted by Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), p. 50.

Thomas Talbott - Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Willamette University
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