BarbWire columnist Bill Muehlenberg thinks that while the church may have gone too far in killing, expelling, torturing, and imprisoning thousands of people during the Spanish Inquisition, at least it showed that at one point in history, Christians were serious about combating heresy.
“In many respects this was a real perversion of biblical Christianity,” Muehlenberg said of the killing and torture in a column this week. “But we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Heresy is a vitally important issue, and must be dealt with.”
Muehlenberg, insistent that the Inquisition’s deadly consequences have been exaggerated, said that Christians today should remember the importance of fighting heretics: “[I]t can be said that Christendom back then took the issues of truth, orthodoxy and heresy seriously. Far too few believers today take such matters with the importance and earnestness which they deserve.
In his carefully researched volume, The Triumph of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark has a chapter on “The Shocking Truth About the Spanish Inquisition” in which the opening pages lay out a number of claims about this event. He then writes: “But the most shocking truth about the Spanish Inquisition is that everything above is either an outright lie or wild exaggeration!”
So let’s look briefly at some of these reckless and patently false claims. First, consider the numbers. A careful examination of the historical record reveals that at tops, around 2000 people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. This is 2000 too many. But this works out to an average of less than 6 people a year during the 350 years. This is a far cry less than the many millions a year killed in the name of godless communism or ruthless fascism.
So how should Christians think about all this? In many respects this was a real perversion of biblical Christianity. No Biblical commands are found anywhere in the New Testament about the torture and killing of heretics. So yes, this was a blight on the Christian record.
But we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Heresy is a vitally important issue, and must be dealt with. Of course how we deal with it is crucial. The truth is, truth matters – and it matters greatly. Therefore heresy matters as well. If heresy “ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith” as Alister McGrath puts it in his book on this subject, then we must certainly deal with it with utmost seriousness.
As mentioned, killing heretics is not the New Testament answer to this problem. But at the very least, it can be said that Christendom back then took the issues of truth, orthodoxy and heresy seriously. Far too few believers today take such matters with the importance and earnestness which they deserve.