What Is The Deal With The Inquisition?

I happened across a PBS documentary on the secret files of the Inquisition.

In 2004 Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for the wounds cased by the Inquisition. In the unlikely event you don’t know what the Inquisition is, the Inquisition refers to a function of the Roman Catholic Church where people who didn’t embrace the authority of church doctrine as stated by the church were imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake, boiled in oil, and other atrocities.

Most people think that the inquisition was limited to a short period of history, but in fact the Roman Catholic Church began dealing harshly with what it considered “heresy” a few centuries after Christ.

One reason that this issue is so important is that Christian critics point to the treatment of heretics and others as reason to reject the faith. In LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, Sam Harris says “the problem, however, is that the teachings of the bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries.1 Harris points out Augustine advocated torturing heretics and Aquinas advocated killing them. Luther and Calvin advocated “wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches.”1

This criticism, unfortunately, bears too much truth not to be taken seriously. While we believers can point to the numerous great things that believers including those in the Roman Catholic Church have done, and, most importantly, to the incredible life giving relationship that we have as believers with the Lord Jesus Christ, the biggest representative of Christ to many people is the Roman Catholic Church with its tainted past and present. In reality, the inquisition is not limited to the Catholic Church. Calvin and Luther embraced most of the history of the Catholic Church including this abominable treatment of heretics, amazingly, while they themselves were considered heretics. Still, the vast majority of atrocities in the Inquisition were done by Roman Catholics.

In my opinion, the problem lies in organized Christianity’s acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrine back as long as this problem of killing heretics has been promoted. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, while disputed somewhat as to which details are original, is still lauded throughout the Christian world as an example of Christ’s response to sinner’s. His response is to respond with mercy and grace. This is our example to follow with those that sin, and must be our model for dealing with those that disagree on doctrinal issues.

Furthermore, there is something suspicious in accepting a church doctrine that has had to be enforced by killing the people that spoke against it. It is easy to think of heretics as just witches and sorcerors, or promoters of pagan gods within the church. But that is not the case. They were people who said that infant baptism was not taught in the bible. They were people who taught that the Bible did not support the authority of the pope of Rome, with all of the papal world power and corruption. They were men and women who believed deeply in Christ as the messiah, but said the bible did not claim Jesus was God, but a perfect man who God empowered to save us. They killed this people, these Christian believers who disagreed with traditional church doctrine.

Forgiveness is what Christ taught us to do, and I forgive. But trust is another matter. As far as we know anything about anything we are taught to be wise as serpents while harmless as doves. Forgiving the Roman Church does not mean trusting them. It does not mean that since they have repented of this sin, we should embrace their authority and submit to them again.

The lesson of the Inquisition shows how far astray a church organization can go. Since this Inquisition practice goes back to as early as Augustine and the birth of “Orthodox Christianity” then we need to be doubly vigilant to ascertain if a lot of what we have been taught is true. Some of what Orthodox Christianity teaches is a body of tenets submitted to by those who submitted because they did not choose ostracism or even the death penalty to speak what they really believed.

Some of the amazing facts of the documentary were:

In Spain 12000 of 85000 accused of heresy were burned at the stake. At Pope Paul IV’s death mobs overran the Vatican, freeing prisoners, destroying Inquisition documents, and throwing a statue’s head of the former Pontiff into the river in their outrage. The Inquisition did not totally end centuries ago as most believe. The index of prohibited books was not abolished until 1966. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Finally in 2004 Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for the wounds cased by the Inquisition

This admission and request for forgiveness for the sins of the Inquisition is a step in the right direction. But the Roman Catholic Church is still wounding. First of all it’s insistence that it is the center of the church and that all should submit to the pope is harmful.

An example of erroneous thinking that has pervaded the Catholic Church for many centuries is the doctrine of priestly celibacy. Its doctrine that priests should remain celibate is really so that it can hold onto its worldly property without any challenges by potential heirs of priests. That is what started the doctrine a millennium ago. The current claim that celibacy is “gift” that priests should honor is a manipulation of the truth so that it can argue that it doesn’t command men not to marry which is clearly stated in scripture as a heresy or false doctrine. The doctrine of celibacy has caused innumerable wounds, both in numbers of molested youths, and loss of ministerial maturity that comes with having men marry and raise families.

The deal with the Inquisition is that for most of the Roman Catholic Church’s history it has been severely wrong on major issues, but controlled people to believe wrong doctrine by ostracism, imprisonment, torture, and even death. The lesson of the inquistion is that we should reexamine every doctrine that was forced on people under penalty of death. The sad news is that in its execution the inquisitors not only banned or even killed the so-called heretics, but destroyed their writings as well. We are left with the Roman Catholic’s spin on many of these “false” doctrines. Who knows what Arius or Montanus really taught?

Many argue that God would not allow the church to be so deceived and that God has preserved true doctrine throughout the ages. I think this gives false hope. Which doctrines are the true ones? Believers disagree on so many important aspects of Christianity from baptism to church government to the gifts and manifestations of the spirit to believing and faith. How can this be? If Christ’s words that the truth will set you free are true, and that there is a devil who seeks to subvert the truth, then we must accept the fact that the devil works to promote false doctrines to make us believe lies so that we will not be set free.

There is a verse that says: “So Jesus made answer and said, Truly I say to you, The Son is not able to do anything himself; he is able to do only what he sees the Father doing; whatever the Father does the Son does it in the same way. “2 You know what I see, I see the mainline denominations, the biggest proponents of “Orthodoxy,” always in decline. I see the spread of Christianity in one movement after another that challenges some element of what has been accepted up to that point as “Orthodox.” Systematically, these movements have encouraged more and more to reject doctrines from the authority of the papacy to sacerdotalism (that we still need priests as mediators) , to sacramentalism (that there are nine grace giving rituals), to apostolic succession (that the ministering power of God can only be transferred in a chain of men that leads back to the apostles). More recently, the doctrine of cessation (that the gifts and miracles that marked the time of the apostles died with the apostles) was shown to be false to the many believers that embrace modern day manifestations of speaking in tongues, prophecy, and miracles. The baptism of the spirit is again accepted by many. What do we need to unlearn next?

What is similar about the “Orthodox” doctrines that have been shown to be untrue is that they have all been theologically constructed as opposed to being simple biblical declarations. A simple biblical declaration is that God so loved the world that whosoever believes on Jesus Christ shall not perish, but have everlasting life. The message of salvation is a simple declaration. But, for example, Roman Catholics “construct “thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” to build the doctrine of the papacy despite the facts that Peter and rock are separate, distinctly different words. The doctrine of sacraments is “constructed” from the Latin word sacramentum, which is a translation of the word we read as “mystery”. Nine sacraments, rituals that are grace giving devine commandments, according to the Roman Catholics, are taught with utmost authority while being based on a very feeble biblical construction. What is disconcerting is that other things, such as elements of baptismal doctrine, and even such bulwarks as the trinity and the canon of scripture as the inerrant word of God are based on constructions. So what do you do with people that dispute these constructions? The Roman Catholic response, the “Orthodox” response is to hate, to ostracize, to torture, to kill those that challenge the frailty of the feebly constructed doctrines of Orthodox Christianity. That alone makes the genuineness of the Orthodox position look suspect and raises the possibility that the truth has been subverted.

The deal with the Inquisition is that it is a prime example of how the biggest proponent of Orthodox Christianity has been wrong. Forgive the Roman Catholic Church, but trust only Christ. Never stop searching for the truth. And, once you find it, be courageous to stand on the truth. The lesson we see when we look at what God is doing, is that the simple message of the availability of salvation in Christ will grow no matter what the most “orthodox” teachers with the longest tradition will try to force people to believe.

© copyright 2007 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.
1LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, Sam Harris, Alfred A Knopf, Toronto, 2006, p11ff
2John 5:19ASV

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