Theodore Beza: Why it’s Right to Punish Heretics

Here’s a fun fact from the history of the Church:

Theodore Beza, the faithful aid of Calvin, took up his pen against the anonymous sceptics of Basel [who had written a book on religious tolerance], and defended the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy. His work appeared in September, 1554; that is, five months after the book of Martinus Bellius. It was Beza’s first published theological treatise (he was then thirty-five years of age).

The book has a polemic and an apologetic part. In the former, Beza tries to refute the principle of toleration; in the latter, to defend the conduct of Geneva [in the roasting of Servetus]. He contends that the toleration of error is indifference to truth, and that it destroys all order and discipline in the Church. Even the enforced unity of the papacy is much better than anarchy. Heresy is much worse than murder, because it destroys the soul. The spiritual power has nothing to do with temporal punishments; but it is the right and duty of the civil government, which is God’s servant, to see to it that he receives his full honor in the community.

Beza appeals to the laws of Moses and the acts of kings Asa and Josiah against blasphemers and false prophets. All Christian rulers have punished obstinate heretics. The oecumenical synods (from 325 to 787) were called and confirmed by emperors who punished the offenders. Whoever denies to the civil authority the right to restrain and punish pernicious errors against public worship undermines the authority of the Bible.

He cites in confirmation passages from Luther, Melanchthon, Urbanus Rhegius, Brenz, Bucer, Capito, Bullinger, Musculus, and the Church of Geneva.

He closes the argument as follows: “The duty of the civil authority in this matter is hedged about by these three regulations: (1) It must strictly confine itself to its own sphere, and not presume to define heresy; that belongs to the Church alone. (2) It must not pass judgment with regard to persons, advantages, and circumstances, but with pure regard to the honor of God. (3) It must proceed after quiet, regular examination of the heresy and mature consideration of all the circumstances, and inflict such punishment as will best secure the honor due to the divine Majesty and the peace and unity of the Church.”*

Theologians don’t think like Beza anymore, do they…

[* Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church].

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2 thoughts on “Theodore Beza: Why it’s Right to Punish Heretics

  1. Michael Acidri 19 Sep 2011 at 10:32 am

    I should revive theodore’s thought process. ‘Theodorius Redivivus’ sounds great!


  2. Krister S 19 Sep 2011 at 3:49 pm

    God I love this country! God bless America who protects us from the Beza’s who seek to purify all that is stained.


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