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Was It Wrong to Kill 'Heretics'?
Although I'm using the past-tense, "was" here, it is possible that a case could be made that heretics should still be killed but I'm not the one making that case. I guess we first must ask; What makes a person a heretic? Typically you will hear that heresy is simply going against the predominant view, in this case against whatever expression of Christianity is dominant. This is where a person may claim that everyone is a heretic to someone else over some issue or another; thus making relativistic the entire idea. This is especially true of how the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants have interacted. To this day, there are many Roman Catholics and many Protestants that do not consider the other group to even be Christians. But, I'm not trying to be ecumenical here.
So, let us try to define heresy a little tighter. Romans 16:17-18 is perhaps the clearest biblical expression of what it means to be a heretic.
Note the attributes of heretics are:
Let's analyze this. First, we often hear people that Christians should talk nicely to each other so as not to cause divisions. But Romans 16:17 isn't talking about being nice or not. It is talking about someone who causes a person to be divided from the general Christian Faith. Heresy and cults always start out by trying to get a person to "divide" or break with traditional Christianity. This is the type of division they are causing; whether they are nice or not. As a matter of fact, Romans 16:18 indicates that heretics typically do present their heresy with smooth and flattering speech (e.g. niceness).
Further, the heretic causes offenses or a more simple word; opposition. They do all this by advocating or teaching doctrines that are contrary or against doctrine which has been learned. Now, this is fairly broad if we suppose as some people that there aren't fundamental, basic Christian doctrines. If a person believes that Christianity has been a hodge-podge of erroneous doctrine mixed with some good doctrine; then this entire discussion is pointless as well as perhaps is their faith.
But if a person agrees there are some basic doctrines that have been believed and taught by all expressions of Christianity, then that is where we should begin and where we can define what a heretic is.
KILLING HERETICS IN THE BIBLE
Now, supposing there are basic doctrines that all of Christianity holds; let's return to our original question. Was or is it wrong to kill heretics? Let us leave the idea that God is some sort of wishy-washy hippie-like Being that "lovvvvvvves" and accepts all and everything just as they are -- for this is contrary to the very essence of the Gospel call to REPENT. If God accepted us just as we are with no change, then repentance is pointless and we have universalismi (everyone is saved).
Perhaps one of the most pointed examples of killing heretics is found in Deut 13:1-18. If someone here claims that these are the actions and desires of the "Old Testament God", be careful or else you make it out that there are two God's of the Bible (ref). Deut 13 is so bold as to tell the reader that even if the heretic is your own family member (father, mother, brother, son, daughter) that "you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death".
That is a difficult passage, whether it is Old Testament or New. Now we must ask WHY...why would God call people to go to these extremes to purge heresy from their community? Well, not only is heresy an insult to God, but it is a great danger to the community; especially at that time. Entire cities and towns could quickly become corrupted by false doctrine. In fact Deut 13:12-16 specifically addresses this and even has the action to possibly burning down the entire city depending how much the heresy has corrupted the city.
JOHN CALVIN AND MICHAEL SERVETUS
Perhaps one of the most infamous more modern examples of this issue is found by studying the issue between the Protestant pastor, John Calvin and the heretic, Michael Servetus. The time frame is the mid 1500s. Servetus had been going around advocating against Trinitarianism. (ref1, ref2) The Roman Catholic Church in 1532 issued a summons for Servetus to come answer for his published anti-Trinitarian teachings. Here I ask the reader to consider whether the doctrine of the Trinityi is or is not a basic Christian doctrine.
Now, depending on who you read and if they actually cite sources or not; the story of Calvin and Servetus is depicted as Calvin entrapping Servetus and then having him burnt at the stake. Historically, the events unfolded much differently. I will cite the historic record.
First, as ref1, ref2 shows from a pro-Servetus website quoting the actual writings of Servetus; Servetus was going around teaching contrary and divisive doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church had issued a summons for Servetus 21 years before he was finally put to death. So, there is no record or evidence of Calvin hunting down Servetus. As a matter of fact, the historic record shows it was Servetus that initiated correspondence with Calvin starting in 1546, sending Calvin a copy of his heretical book; Restitutio Christianismi. In response to Servetus' constant harassment of Calvin, Calvin wrote to Servetus and said:
But indeed, later Calvin wrote to his friend William Farel;
Note that by this time Servetus already had an arrest order against him by the Roman Catholic Church and had been harassing Calvin for over 2 years even though Calvin attempted to cut off all interaction with Servetus. Also note that Calvin did not say he was planning to "entrap" Servetus by tricking him to come to Geneva Switzerland; where Calvin was. Calvin said, IF he consented and that Calvin would not "give his word" or consent. Calvin didn't want to be put in the position to have to deal with Servetus' heresy.
In fact, in April 1553 Servetus was arrested by Roman Catholic authorities but escaped 3 days later. Servetus originally intending to flee to Italy stopped in Geneva in August 1553; boldly attending a church service where Calvin was preaching. After the service, Servetus was arrested and imprisoned.
Now, here is the major point. It was not Calvin personally that presided over the trial of Servetus; indeed by this time Calvin was too ill to take such a ordeal. It was the city council of Geneva; the secular powers as much as such authorities of that time could be secular. When Servetus was eventually condemned to death by burning as a heretic, it was Calvin that urged he be killed by decapitation as a traitor; which would have been more humane at the time. (ref)
This brings us back to Deut 13 and the reason heresy was dealt with so harshly. Unchecked heresy would spread like wildfire, corrupting entire communities. So, while some people attempt to paint Calvin as a heartless, evil heretic hunter intent on killing Servetus; the historic facts show Calvin did all he could to avoid the ordeal. It was obvious he had trouble with the issue since afterward; no less than Martin Luther's best friend, Philip Melancthon who often tempered Luther's extremes wrote to Calvin and said:
Others such as Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Theodore Beza, supported the execution of Servetus. The point is, if someone is to attempt to blame Calvin as if he did something evil; they should be prepared to condemn almost all of Protestantism. Thus, Servetus is the arch-heretic in that he was indeed teaching divisive and contrary doctrine; so contrary that it was an offense both in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. (ref).
NEW TESTAMENT HERESY
As we look at the New Testament, are we still supposed to exact death on heretics as Deut 13:1-18 says? Well, we do know that Ananias and Sapphira were killed by the Holy Spirit for less an offense it would seem (Acts 5:1-11). What purpose did their death's serve? To cause "great fear [to come] upon all the church and upon all who heard these things". Simply, to keep their actions from spreading; to maintain order in the Church.
Granted, their death's appear to have come as a sort of miracle and not by the hand of a man; but perhaps Jesus' own words in Mt 10:34-37 and Mt 12:51-53 shows that Christianity isn't about "niceness" and "peace" at any cost; even allowing heresy to fester.
However, and ultimately it was not the Church or Calvin that was exacting judgment on Servetus; it was the secular authorities and by the laws at that time in order to maintain society. Today, in the Internet Age and the completely secularized society; the applicable laws are different but in some ways no less odd if examined. For example; if as we are told men and women are completely equal, why then is it against U.S. law for women to go topless in public but not a crime for men. Or further, if per our present societal tone that a woman has "rights" over her own body then why is abortion legal and personal while adult prostitution is a crime?
So, while heresies had a very detrimental effect on cities and general society and had to be dealt with swiftly and harshly before it spread; our present secular society also maintains and punishes people for what might be considered arbitrary if not contradictory laws. Imagine a father who might brutally kill the rapist and murderer of his child but by such actions is himself punished even possibly put to death. This hardly seems right in a "civilized" society. Even presently we release known child molesters back into our communities rather than removing them completely from our midst. We have a odd idea of civilization sometimes.
To conclude; while I personally do not believe it necessary to have "heretics" killed; I do understand the destructive force of unchecked heresy. But again, with our more open, Information/Internet Age it would seem people are more able to discern and research aberrant ideas; at least I'd like to think so. Thus, the effects of "heresy" is probably less damaging. It is interesting that heresy within Christianity must to this day start by getting a person divided away from traditional Christianity; as the heresy proponent first tells his or her potential converts that traditional Christianity had somewhere been corrupted and that they are here to help the potential convert; often via the very smooth and flattering speech warned about in Romans 16:17-18. That is; heresy today doesn't seem to be able grip entire cities in one fell swoop but must instead pick people off individually.
Another interesting link:
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