Inquisition, a religious court of the Roman Catholic Church for the extermination of sectarians and heretics. The old Catholic Church knew no such institution. Athanasius held it to be a sign of the true church that she forced no one, and persecution to be an invention of Satan. Chrysostom thought likewise. Augustine was the first to advocate corporal punishment of the heterodox, through his false exegesis of Luke 14:23, "Compel them to come in," though even he opposed capital punishment. The death penalty was not reached until the 11th century, when Rome was beginning to subjugate the entire religious life and thought of Western Europe.
Since the ninth century there had been episcopal courts, whose duty it was to investigate and remove all abuses in the church, including false doctrine. Since in the opinion of the popes these courts dealt too leniently with the rise of the Waldensians, Cathars, etc., Pope Gregory IV, continuing the work of Lucius III and Innocent III, organized the Inquisition (inquiry or investigation) and committed its leadership to the Dominicans, who, responsible only to the pope, proceeded without pity in carrying out its program.
An institution of this kind, unparalleled in history, can be understood only as the practical result of the doctrine developing at the time, that the pope as God's representative had absolute power of life and death in his hands. In the final analysis it was a product of the rigid Roman law of the time of the Caesars. The innovation was, to base the execution of heretics on the Bible. From the Bible's symbolic designation of heretics as thieves and wolves, Thomas Aquinas concluded that thieves are hanged and wolves clubbed to death. The verse in Titus 3:10, that one who causes divisions should be avoided, he construed thus: avoidance is best carried out through execution. There have been few times in history when Christian doctrine was so completely misunderstood as at this time of the rise of the Inquisition.
In general the Inquisition took the following course: The trial was initiated by denunciation through anyone, including corrupt persons. The confession of the accused, which was required for execution, was often forced by merciless torture; it was then repeated, thus obtaining the "free" confession. The penitent had to recant, and after satisfying the required punishment was received back into the church. The inquisitors frequently made honest attempts to win the accused to the church. But if he was recalcitrant, he was committed to the temporal authorities for execution at the stake. Tens of thousands thus fell victims to the external unity of the church. The few more familiar examples of inquisition trials make it clear that in addition to arbitrariness, rank injustice often prevailed (as in the case of Conrad of Marburg, who after two years of effective work was slain by German knights). After 1542 the Inquisition became a terrible weapon in the service of the Counter Reformation.
The Inquisition was first successfully used in Italy. The court records of Venice show 35 Anabaptist (?) trials in the 16th century, and four in the 17th century. France saw its most terrible operation in the Albigensian war 1209-1229 and following. Because of its involvement with the interests of the king the Inquisition was "successful" against the Albigenses in spite of popular revolt against its cruelties. In Spain, where it became a state institution, it operated with similar cruelty against Waldensians, Cathars, and especially Jews and the descendants of the Moors.
Whereas the Inquisition was successful in stamping out all Protestant movements in the above three countries, it failed in the northern Netherlands in its struggles against the Beguines and Beghards, the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Reformation movements. Under Charles V (1519-1556) some thousands were executed, most of them Anabaptists. He said the guilt of the Anabaptists was as great as that of other heretics, and they must therefore suffer the same penalties; however, if they showed themselves penitent before their death, one might proceed more leniently with them: if men, such penitents should be beheaded; if women, buried alive. For the introduction of the Inquisition into Germany an indisputable legal basis was laid in the imperial edicts. In spite of its defective organization and the resistance of all classes it seems to have been even bloodier than in the Romance countries. In Germany it finally terminated in a general witch hunt, which cost many more lives.
Although modern times have put an end to the Inquisition, the Catholic Church has not abandoned it. The congregation of cardinals is today still predominant, nor has a single decision been made declaring the Inquisition contrary to the spirit of Christianity.
The reformers had no such institution. Nevertheless Calvin stood entirely on the platform of the medieval Inquisition in trying the anti-Trinitarian Servetus and turning him over to the temporal authorities to be burned (1553). Luther was on the same ground, when he, after having considered banishment adequate punishment for Anabaptists until 1528, from that time on also sponsored capital punishment for them. Nor did Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin correct this error of the great reformer. In the question of the burning of heretics they exceeded Luther, when they applied to the Anabaptists the old laws of the Jewish theocracy concerning the bloody extirpation of Baal-worship (Deuteronomy 13:7-11). Thus the Lutheran estates could also sanction the terrible mandate of the Diet of Speyer of 23 April 1529, which advocated that "each and every Anabaptist and rebaptized man or woman of an age of understanding shall be judged and brought from life to death with fire and sword or the like according to the occasion, without previous investigation by the clergy." In the following important addition lies Luther's contribution to the theory of the Inquisition, which supersedes the Middle Ages: "The government punishes the heretic for the sake of public peace, and not for the sake of the church; i.e., ecclesiastical power is no longer to be higher in authority than temporal power" (Köhler, 36).
On the whole it may be said that the Reformation prepared the way for religious liberty, though it did not itself take that way. It is to the credit of the Anabaptists that they rejected the use of force in religious matters and demanded unconditional toleration as an outcome of their understanding of faith. Unfortunately they were then unable to prevail. The gradual elimination of the Inquisition came in the period of the Enlightenment.
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Wappler, Paul. Inquisition und Ketzerprozesse in Zwickau zur Reformationszeit: Dargestellt im Zusammenhang mit der Entwicklung der Ansichten Luthers und Melanchthons über Glaubens- und Gewissensfreiheit. Leipzig, 1908.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 41-42. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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