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Burn, Baby, Burn?

In a truly bizarre thread on Twitter yesterday–the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation–started by our own Steven Wedgeworth, a number of traditionalist Roman Catholics speculated as to whether it would be a good thing for the church to take up the cause of burning heretics at the stake again, even if the pope happened to be a bad one (and thus not so hot at determining what a heretic is). Very many of them speculated in the affirmative.

Now, of course, it’s Big Bad Modernity that allows people to have such conversations on social media at no personal cost. But imagine reading through the thread (or go and actually do it) and thinking “Ah, yes, here’s some Protestants and Roman Catholics debating and…wait, huh? No, hang on though, did he just…?” Alternatively, envision the following scenario to get a sense of the whiplash-inducing nature of the internet crusaders:

You: “Isn’t [craft beer X] great?”

He: “Yeah, though the Russian imperial stout by [craft brewer y] is even better. Hey, btw, are you into cold-brewed coffee?”

You: “Yeah, totally. Love it. Have you seen the new season of Stranger Things?”

He: “Of course, it’s amazing. Also, I wouldn’t mind seeing you burned alive should circumstances permit it. Anyway, cheers!”

The sentiments are obviously shocking now–quite simply because in the long-term, Protestant principles won in the realm of conscience, and we all take it for granted. (And yes, I know that Protestants used coercion as well, which I would be happy to discuss.) But the position of the traditionalist Twitterati is consistent with what Leo X outlined in the 1520 bull Exsurge Domine, as some of them pointed out. In that document, Leo X includes a list of putative “errors” that bring with them “pernicious poison.” The thirty-third “error” that is condemned is:

That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

This condemnation is directed against Luther, who had said explicitly that the burning of heretics is wrong. For example, in On Secular Authority (1523), Luther writes:

Heresy can never be prevented by force. That must be taken hold of in a different way, and must be opposed and dealt with otherwise than with the sword. Here God’s Word must strive; if that does not accomplish the end it will remain unaccomplished through secular power, though it fill the world with blood. Heresy is a spiritual matter, which no iron can strike, no fire burn, no water drown. God’s Word alone avails here, as Paul says, 2 Corinthians 10:4 , “Our weapons are not carnal, but mighty through God to destroy every counsel and high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and to bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”

What he says there echoes what he had already said in 1520 in the Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation:

We should overcome heretics with books, not with fire, as the old Fathers did. If there were any skill in overcoming heretics with fire, the executioner would be the most learned doctor in the world; and there would be no need to study, but he that could get another into his power could burn him.1

Luther is drawing on a very old strand of Christian thinking here–one that was employed by Lactantius against the Roman persecutors of Christians (let the analogy sink in for a moment). In Divine Institutes 5.20, Lactantius writes:

Do they then strive to effect this by conversation, or by giving some reason? By no means; but they endeavour to effect it by force and tortures. O wonderful and blind infatuation! It is thought that there is a bad mind in those who endeavour to preserve their faith, but a good one in executioners. Is there, then, a bad mind in those who, against every law of humanity, against every principle of justice, are tortured, or rather, in those who inflict on the bodies of the innocent such things, as neither the most cruel robbers, nor the most enraged enemies, nor the most savage barbarians have ever practised? Do they deceive themselves to such an extent, that they mutually transfer and change the names of good and evil? Why, therefore, do they not call day night— the sun darkness? Moreover, it is the same impudence to give to the good the name of evil, to the wise the name of foolish, to the just the name of impious. Besides this, if they have any confidence in philosophy or in eloquence, let them arm themselves, and refute these arguments of ours if they are able; let them meet us hand to hand, and examine every point. It is befitting that they should undertake the defence of their gods, lest, if our affairs should increase (as they do increase daily), theirs should be deserted, together with their shrines and their vain mockeries; and since they can effect nothing by violence(for the religion of God is increased the more it is oppressed), let them rather act by the use of reason and exhortations.


There is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Let them unsheath the weapon of their intellect; if their system is true, let it be asserted. We are prepared to hear, if they teach; while they are silent, we certainly pay no credit to them, as we do not yield to them even in their rage.

And again:

For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist. The right method therefore is, that you defend religion by patient endurance or by death; in which the preservation of the faith is both pleasing to God Himself, and adds authority to religion.

All this to say, we can be happy that Luther defiantly burned Exsurge Domine on 10 December 1520. Better that than your neighbor.

  1. Thanks to Steven for both of these references.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.