Written by Vladimir Moss



     In 380 the Emperor St. Theodosius the Great banned overt paganism, declaring: “It is our pleasure that all nations that are governed by our clemency should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which faithful tradition has preserved and which is not professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Bishop Peter of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the discipline of the Apostles, and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the sole Deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, under an equal majesty and a pious Trinity. We authorize the followers of this doctrine to assume the title of Catholic Christians; and as we judge that all others are extravagant madmen, we brand them with the infamous name of heretics, and declare that their conventicles shall no longer usurp the respectable appellation of churches. Besides the condemnation of Divine justice, they must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them.”

     “In practice,” writes Protopresbyter James Thornton, “the religious edicts of Theodosios were never implemented in a comprehensive fashion, since, as historian A.H.M. Jones remarks, ‘there were too many pagans or sympathizers with paganism for that’, and pagans continued to hold to their religious beliefs, albeit with some measure of discretion to avoid unpleasantness.

     “Pagan belief, by itself, was not proscribed or persecuted, nor was the open profession of that belief. Paganism, in the cities especially, thenceforth became more a private philosophical outlook, without a public cult…. [It] remained a significant force for some time, continuing ‘overtly in some places for several generations, and secretly for some centuries.’ Yet, it clearly was a dying movement.”[1]

     In 392, however, there was a pagan reaction under the usurpers Eugenius and the general Arbogast in the West while Theodosius was reigning in the East. “The sudden appearance of Eugenius and Arbogast in Italy sparked hopes for a pagan revival. Indeed, this is what was attempted. Eugenius permitted the pagan altar of Victory to be returned to the Senate chamber and ‘temples were rapidly restored and rededicated, festivals punctually celebrated, sacrifices correctly performed and the mystery cults revived… At Ostia the temple of Hercules was rebuilt. Furthermore, Arbogast boasted that he would soon stable his horses in the cathedral of the Christians.

     “Saint Theodosios, at first reluctant to go to war over the elevation of Eugenius, could not ignore the implications of this direct challenge to his authority and to Christianity. Both sides prepared for war. Saint Theodosios accompanied his army on the march north-west, through Illyricum, to seize the Alpine passes. Then, at a river the Romans called ‘Frigidum’, now the Vipava in Slovenia, the two armies met. Prior to leaving, Saint Theodosios had consulted an Egyptian Monk, Saint John of Lycopolis, who prophesied that the Christian army would win a great victory after much bloodshed, but that Saint Theodosios would die in Italy.

     “The battle commenced on September 5, 394, with a frenzied assault by the Christians. Huge numbers perished and, by the close of the day, the Christians were thrown back. Eugenius was delighted, assuming that he had won, while there was deep gloom in the Christian camp. Saint Theodosios spent the night in prayer, and had a vision of Saints John and Philip, ‘who bade him take courage’. The following day, the assault was renewed. However, this time Almighty God intervened. Accompanying the Christian army was a wind of cyclone strength, blowing towards the enemy. The forces of Eugenius and Arbogast were blinded by great clouds of dust and their arrows and spears were deflected back towards themselves. It became nearly impossible for the infantry to hold on to its shields in the fierce wind, which pushed them back, while the same wind, catching the backs of the shields of the Christians, pulled them forward into the fray. The enemy line broke and Eugenius was captured, and later executed for treason and apostasy. Arbogast fled into the mountains and, after a few days, overwhelmed with despair, committed suicide. Saint Theodosiu entered Italy in triumph.

     “Since the contest had been seen on both sides as a battle between the God of the Christians against the old gods of Rome, the effect on pagan opinion was devastating. Clearly the God of the Christians had decided the victor by direct intervention and many pagans, as a result, were immediately converted to the banner of Christ.”[2] 

     The decrees and actions of St. Theodosius the Great raise the question of religious freedom in the Roman Empire. 

     Contrary to what is often thought, the pagan Roman emperors had been in general tolerant of religion. This was for reasons of political expediency – a multi-ethnic and multi-faith population is more easily controlled if all its faiths are respected and legalized. Another motive was superstition. After all, calculated the ruler, the god of this people is more likely to help me if I do not persecute his people… And so in Imperial Rome before Constantine periods of persecution were intermittent and generally short-lived, and directed exclusively at Christians. As Perez Zagorin writes, Rome “was tolerant in practice in permitting the existence of many diverse religious cults, provided their votaries also complied with the worship of the divine emperor as part of the state religion. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Roman religion had no sacred scriptures and did not depend on any creed, dogmas, or ethical principles. It consisted very largely of participation in cult acts connected with the worship of various deities and spirits that protected the Roman state and were associated with public, family, and domestic life. At nearly all stages of their history the Romans were willing to accept foreign cults and practices; this de facto religious pluralism is entirely attributable to the polytheistic character of Roman religion and had nothing to do with principles of values sanctioning religious toleration, a concept unknown to Roman society or law and never debated by Roman philosophers or political writers.”[3]

     Christianity introduced a new depth and a new complexity to the question of religious toleration. On the one hand, the Christians, like the Jews, rejected the idea of a multiplicity of gods, and insisted that there was only one name by which men could be saved – that of the One True God, Jesus Christ. This position did not logically imply that Christians wanted to persecute people of other faiths. But the “exclusivism” of Christianity, then as now, was perceived by the pagan-ecumenist majority, whether sincerely or insincerely, as a threat to themselves. On the other hand, the Christians set no value on the forcible conversion of people to the Faith: man, being in the image of God, was free, and could come to God only by his own free will. As the Christian lawyer Tertullian put it: “It does not belong to religion to force people to religion, since it must be accepted voluntarily.”[4] In his Barring of Heretics (ca. 200) Tertullian insisted on the truth of Christianity and declared that heretics could not be called Christians. Nevertheless, he was “opposed to compulsion in religion and stated in other works that ‘to do away with freedom of religion [libertas religionis]’ was wrong. While Christians, he said, worship the one God and pagans worship demons, both ‘human and natural law’ ordain that ‘each person may worship whatever he wishes’.”[5]

     However, Tertullian was writing at a time when the Church, as a persecuted minority, clearly benefited from religious toleration. What if the Church herself were to gain political power? After all, the Old Testament Kings were required by God to defend the faith of the people as their first duty, and the prophets constantly reminded them that they would be judged by God in accordance with their fulfilment or non-fulfilment of this duty. This same duty was taken very seriously by the Byzantine emperors Constantine I, Theodosius I and Justinian I. Constantine is often accused of introducing religious intolerance into the State. However, in accordance with the Edict of Milan and the teaching of his tutor Lactantius, he professed and practiced a policy of religious toleration. For, as he declared: “It is one thing to undertake the contest for immortality voluntarily, another to compel others to do it likewise through fear of punishment.”[6] While not hiding his Christianity, and characterizing paganism as “superstition”, he allowed the pagans to practise their faith. Thus in 324, just after defeating Licinius and taking control of the Eastern provinces, he wrote: “I wish, for the common good of the empire and of all men, that Thy people should be in peace and remain exempt from troubles. May those who are in error joyfully receive the enjoyment of the same peace and tranquillity as the believers, for the sweetness of concord will have the power to correct them also and lead them on the right path.” In addition to allowing the pagans to practise their religion, Constantine never excluded them “from the administration of the State: one finds them among the praetorian prefects, the prefects of Rome, the ministers and even the entourage of the Emperor.”[7]

     Timothy Barnes writes: “Constantine allowed pagans to retain their beliefs, even to build new sacred edifices. But he allowed them to worship their traditional gods only in the Christian sense of that word, not according to the traditional forms hallowed by antiquity. The emperor made the distinction underlying his policy explicit when he answered a petition from the Umbrian town of Hispellum requesting permission to build a temple of the Gens Flavia. Constantine granted the request but specified that the shrine dedicated to the imperial family must never be ‘polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition’. From 324 onwards Constantine constantly evinced official disapproval of the sacrifices and other cultic acts which constituted the essence of Greco-Roman paganism: Christianity was now the established religion of the Roman Empire and its ruler, and paganism should now conform to Christian patterns of religious observance.”[8] 

     Constantine steadily went about his goal of Christianizing the empire, preaching and legislating against the enemies of the faith: by 324 pagan sacrifices had been banned, heresy was illegal, homosexuals were to be burned at the stake, and the official religion of the Empire was Orthodoxy. Constantine also defended the Christians against the Jews. He released all slaves whom the Jews had dared to circumcise, and those Jews who killed their co-religionists for converting to Christianity were executed.[9]

     Nevertheless, the bark of the earliest Christian emperors was worse than their bite, and many of their decrees were not executed by local governors. But they had a long-term effect. By the 350s pagan sacrifices were rare. “Heretics were exiled, and Arius’s books were burned, just as the anti-Christian treatise of Porphyry was destroyed by imperial order. Constantine’s religious policy created an ‘atmosphere’ of hostility to heresy as much as to paganism.”[10] 

     This raises the question, as Leithart writes: “If religion was a matter of free will, why did Constantine so vigorously oppose paganism in his decrees, letters and speeches, and how could he justify any restrictions on religion at all? If Constantine thought that religion should be free, what was he doing forbidding sacrifice?

     “Elizabeth Digeser offers terminology and categories that help make sense of Constantine’s policies. She distinguishes forbearance from toleration, and tolerance from ‘concord’. Forbearance is a pragmatic policy, not guided by moral or political principle. Forbearance might change to persecution if political conditions change. The periods of Roman acceptance of Christianity were periods of forbearance. Toleration is ‘disapproval or disagreement coupled with an unwillingness to take action against those viewed with disfavor in the interest of some moral or political principle.’ This principle could arise, as for Lactantius, from a theory concerning the nature of religion, or, alternatively, from a theory about human nature or about the limits of state power. By this definition, toleration does not involve an idea of the equality of all viewpoints but the opposite. Toleration assumes disapproval of certain religious expressions but refrains for principled reasons from using state power to suppress the disapproved religion. Beyond toleration, Digeser introduces the category of ‘concord’: ‘(1) its attitude of forbearance is dictated by some moral, political, or even religious principle and (2) it expects that by treating its dissenters with forbearance it is creating conditions under which they will ultimately change their behavior to conform to what the state accepts.’ These three strategies of religious policy build on one another: toleration assumes forbearance on principle, it expects that the forbearance will have the ultimate outcome of unity if not complete uniformity.”[11]

     After Constantine, his successor Constantius redirected his hostility towards paganism and heresy against Orthodoxy. In 361 Julian the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine, tried forcibly to turn the clock back to paganism. However, Orthodoxy returned under the Emperor Jovian in 363, and by the end of the fourth century, all paganism and heresy had been outlawed.  “Already with the enthronement of Theodosius I (379),” writes Meyendorff, “the measures directed earlier by Constantius II and Valens against the orthodox Nicaeans were turned against the various categories of Arians. Arian meetings were forbidden and their churches were transferred to the catholic bishops. Similar decrees – frequently repeated, denoting obvious difficulties in systematic enforcement – were directed against Apollinarists (who accepted Nicaea, but were at ods with the orthodox Christology of the Cappadocian Fathers, supported by Theodosius), and the older African group of the Donatists. Heretics were also excluded from all State jobs and in general deprived of civil rights. Some categories of dissenters – mainly sectarians, whose groups went back to early Christianity – were treated even more severely: Quattrodecimans, who celebrated Easter at a date different from the one adopted by the Church were punished with exile, whereas the adepts of Gnostic sects were sometimes subjected to the death penalty. It is clear, however, that practical considerations often dictated tolerance towards large and influential groups of heretics. This was the case of the Gothic troops, predominantly Arian, on which the emperor had frequently to relay for his security, and of the various Gothic rulers, who conquered the Western regions of the empire and were not only invested with imperial court title but also remained diplomatic partners until the reconquest of the West by Justinian. The empire was also forced to exercise moderation and use diplomacy with the opponents of the council of Chalcedon (451), who constituted at least half of the population of the East. The numerically small, but intellectually influential group of Nestorians was not as fortunate. After its condemnation by the council of 451, it began a long history of survival, and also missionary expansion throughout Asia.”[12] 

     Judaism was given some toleration. As Meyendorff writes, “If Roman imperial law eventually [under Theodosius I] prohibited paganism, it continued to offer limited protection to the Jews. Not only was their cultic freedom guaranteed, but the disaffectation of synagogues was forbidden and their personnel – like the Christian clergy – were exempt of civil and personal charges. Arbitrary violence against Jews was punishable by law. However, since the very beginning of the Christian empire, drastic measures had been taken against Jewish proselytizing among Christians, and baptism of Jews was encouraged. Conversion of Christians to Judaism was prohibited, and Jews molesting a convert to Christianity were to be burnt at the stake…. They were not to own Christian slaves, and were deprived of legal protection if they showed disrespect to Christianity. They were also excluded from the army, the civil services and the legal profession. It does not seem, howeve, that – before the reign of Heraclius (610-641) – forcible baptisms of Jews were practiced within the Empir, as they began to occur in the barbarian Christian states of the West after the fifth century. The sect of the Samaritans enjoyed a status similar to that of orthodox Jews until the big Samaritan rebellons in Palestine under Justinian, which led to their forcible suppression.”[13] 

     Thus the early Christian emperors of the fourth century used the death penalty against some, if not all, categories of heretics. For example, in the late 340s the Donatist Marculus was executed, and in 384 Bishop Priscillian of Avila was executed on a charge of sorcery.[14] Following St. Paul’s assertion that the emperor, as God’s minister, does not wield the sword in vain (Romans 13.4), the Church never condemned the death penalthy in all circumstances. However, from the early fifth century, and sometimes even earlier, Church writers rejected the idea of killing people for their faith. Thus the Church historian Socrates said: ”It is not the custom of the Orthodox Church to persecute”.[15]  And St. Athanasius the Great said: “It is a characteristic of [true] religion not to force but to persuade.”[16] As S.V. Troitsky writes: “Christians are called to freedom (Galatians 5.13), and every religious act of conscious Christians must bear on itself the mark of freedom. The ancient Christian writer Lactantius demonstrated that religion exists only where there is freedom, and disappears where freedom has disappeared, and that it is necessary to defend the truth with words and not with blows (verbis, non verberibus).[17] ‘The mystery of salvation,’ writes St. Gregory the Theologian, ‘is for those who desire it, not for those who are compelled’. The 108th canon of the Council of Carthage cites the law of Honorius that ‘everyone accepts the exploit of Christianity by his free choice’, and Zonaras in his interpretation of this canon writes: ‘Virtue must be chosen, and not forced, not involuntary, but voluntary… for that which exists by necessity and violence is not firm and constant’.”[18]

     In practice, however, degrees of coercion were applied. Thus shortly after the Second Ecumenical Council, in 383, St. Amphilochius of Iconium, a close friend of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, “begged the Emperor Theodosius to send impenitent Arians into exile. The Emperor refused – such an edict would be too severe. Shortly after this Theodosius raised his small son Arcadius to the imperial throne, and sat by his side to receive his court. Amphilochius was among those waiting on the Emperor. He approached the throne and saluted Theodosius, but ignored Arcadius. ‘The Emperor, thinking this neglect was due to forgetfulness, commanded Arcadius to approach and salute his son. “Sir,” said he, “the honour I have paid to you is enough.” Theodosius was indignant at this discourtesy, and said, “Dishonour done to my son is a rudeness done to me.” “You see, sir, “ returned Amphilochius, “that you do not allow your son to be dishonoured, and are bitterly angry with those who are rude to him. God too abominates those who blaspheme the Only begotten Son, and hates them as ungrateful to their Saviour and Benefactor.” Theodosius immediately saw the point of the analogy, and issued the Edict of Banishment forthwith.’”[19]

     St. John Chrysostom (+407) preached non-violence to heretics: “Christians above all men are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force… It is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice.”[20]

      St. John interpreted the parable of the wheat and the tares to mean that the heretics (the tares) should not be killed. But they were to be resisted in other ways. “As we can see from the many occurrences of the phrase ‘stop the mouths of the heretics’ in his writings, St. John showed not the slightest indulgence towards false teachings; indeed, much of his life as a preacher was devoted to combating such heretics as the Eunomians, the Judaizers, and the Manichaeans. However, he was resolutely opposed to the use of violence by the authorities to subdue heretics. And it is this reservation of his that must be carefully understood, if one is to grasp what may seem to be a contradictory view of heretics. He knew from pastoral experience that heretics were far more likely to be turned aside from their errors by prayer: ‘And if you pray for the Heathens, you ought of course to pray for Heretics also, for we are to pray for all men, and not to persecute. And this is good also for another reason, as we are partakers of the same nature, and God commands and accepts benevolence towards one another’ (Homilies on the First Epistle to St. Timothy, 7). Near the end of this homily on the dangers of anathematizing others, he says that ‘we must anathematize heretical doctrines and refute impious teachings, from whomsoever we have received them, but show mercy to the men who advocate them and pray for their salvation.’ In other words, we must love the heretic, but hate the heresy.”[21]

     However, it may be wondered whether St. John’s words should be interpreted as an absolute ban on any kind of coercion in any circumstances. For there were other prominent and holy Christians contemporary with him who did approve of some measure of coercion in some circumstances. In particular, there was the question of the rights of the Christian emperor. If the Church as an institution or individual Christians could only persuade, not coerce, was it not the task of the emperor to coerce, or at any rate limit the activity of those who refused to be persuaded?

     It is significant that no prominent churchman denounced the undoubtedly coercive laws passed against pagans and heretics by the Emperor Theodosius I in 395. Theodosius decreed, writes John Julius Norwich, “that only those who professed the consubstantiality of the Trinity (in other words the Nicene Creed) could be considered Catholic Christians – a designation that appears here for the first time. ‘All others,’ the edict continues, ‘we pronounce to be mad and foolish, and we order that they shall bear the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to bestow on their conventicles the title of churches: these are to be visited first by divine vengeance, and secondly by the stroke of our own authority, which we have received in accordance with the will of heaven.’”[22]

     As Perez Zagorin writes, Theodosius “proscribed various heresies by name, ordered the confiscation of churches and private houses where heretics met for worship, and deprived them of the right to make wills or receive inheritances. In the case of certain heretical sects [the Manichaeans] he commanded that their members be hunted down and executed. In his attempt to enforce uniformity of belief he also instituted legislation against paganism, including a comprehensive enactment in 395 forbidding anyone of whatever rank of dignity to sacrifice to or worship ‘senseless images’ constructed ‘by human hands’, on pain of heavy fines and other penalties.He was likewise the first emperor to impose penalties on Christians who profaned their baptism by reverting to paganism. 

     “… All subjects were expected to be worshippers in this [the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic] Church; and in addition to the spiritual and political authority its bishops wielded, it had the power of the state at its disposal to enforce its faith against heretics. The practical toleration and religious pluralism that had formerly been the Roman custom no longer existed. The change that took place is epitomised in an appeal made in 384 by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus – a Roman senator, orator, and prefect of Rome, and a defender of paganism – to the emperors Theodosius I and Valentinian II to restore the altar of the goddess victory to the Senate House (it had been removed by imperial decree after standing there for over 350 years, since the reign of the emperor Augustus at the beginning of the first century). Speaking in the name of the proscribed ancient religion of Rome, Symmachus declared that ‘each nation has its own gods and peculiar rites. The Great Mystery cannot be approached by one avenue alone… Leave us the symbol on which our oaths of allegiance have been sworn for so many generations. Leave us the system which has given prosperity to the State.’ His plea was of no avail, however, for the cross of Christ had conquered the Roman Empire, and the altar of Victory remained banished and abandoned.”[23]

     Zeal against heretics was, of course, not the exclusive preserve of the emperors and bishops. The lay Christians of Alexandria and the monks of Egypt were famous (or, in some cases, notorious) for their zeal. And when in 388 some Christians burned down the synagogue in Callinicum on the Euphrates, the Emperor Theodosius ordered its rebuilding at the Christians’ expense. 

     However, St. Ambrose, the famous Bishop of Milan, wrote to him: “When a report was made by the military Count of the East that a synagogue had been burnt down, and that this was done at the instigation of the bishop, you gave command that the others should be punished, and the synagogue be rebuilt by the bishop himself… The bishop’s account ought to have been waited for, for priests are the calmers of disturbances, and anxious for peace, except when even they are moved by some offence against God, or insult to the Church. Let us suppose that the bishop burned down the synagogue… It will evidently be necessary for him to take back his act or become a martyr. Both the one and the other are foreign to your rule: if he turns out to be a hero, then fear lest he end his life in martyrdom; but if he turns out to be unworthy, then fear lest you become the cause of his fall, for the seducer bears the greater responsibility. And what if others are cowardly and agree to construct the synagogue? Then… you can write on the front of the building: ‘This temple of impiety was built on contributions taken from Christians’. You are motivated by considerations of public order. But what is the order from on high? Religion was always bound to have the main significance in the State, which is why the severity of the laws must be modified here. Remember Julian, who wanted to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem: the builders were then burned by the fire of God. Do you not take fright at what happened then?… And how many temples did the Jews not burn down under Julian at Gaza, Askalon, Beirut and other places? You did not take revenge for the churches, but now you take revenge for the synagogue!”[24] “What is more important,” he asked, “the parade of discipline or the cause of religion? The maintenance of civil law is secondary to religious interest.” [25] Ambrose refused to celebrate the Liturgy until the imperial decree had been revoked.Theodosius backed down…

     The “Ambrosean” position may be tentatively formulated as follows. On the one hand, in relation to those outside her the Church can herself adopt no coercive measures; she can do no more than reason, plead and threaten with God’s justice at the Last Judgement.  Her only means of “coercion”, if it can be called that, is the excommunication of unrepentant Christians from her fold.  On the other hand, the Church blesses the Christian State to use other, more physical means of coercion against those over whom she has no more influence. The purpose of this is not to convert; for only persuasion can convert, and as St. Basil the Great says, “by violence you can frighten me, but cannot persuade me”. But there are other legitimate and Christian purposes for coercion: justice against evildoers, the restriction of their influence, and the protection of the young and weak in mind… But even St. Ambrose never advocated the execution of heretics or Jews simply because they believed wrongly.

     In general, as we have seen, the Church was against the execution of heretics. And when such rare executions did take place, there was a reaction. Thus when St. Martin of Tours (+397) signed the decision of a Synod condemning the Spanish heretic Priscillian and handing him over to the Emperor for execution, he felt the reproaches of his conscience, and never again attended a Synod of Bishops. St. Ambrose of Milan and Pope Siricus of Rome also protested the execution.[26]

     However, we cannot say that the execution of heretics is absolutely forbidden by Orthodoxy… In the Lives of the Saints we find a few instances of saints blessing the execution of heretics, even of saints who were not secular rulers executing evildoers themselves. Thus in The Acts of the Apostles we read how the Apostle Peter in effect executed Ananias and Sapphira. Again, the Apostles Peter and Paul by their prayers brought about the death of Simon Magus. Again, St. Basil the Great prayed for, and obtained, the death of Julian the Apostate (by the sword of St. Mercurius the Great Martyr). And the holy hierarchs Patrick of Ireland and Leo of Catania in effect executed particularly stubborn perverters of the people.


     Probably none of the early Fathers exercised himself more over the question of religious freedom than St. Augustine, the famous bishop of Hippo, whose influence on western theology was deep and long-lasting. Zagorin writes: “Augustine carried on a long theological combat with three formidable heresies, Manichaeanism, Pelagianism, and Donatism. Among his writings against the last of these and its followers, the Donatists, he left an invaluable record of his reflections on the justification of coercion against heretics to enforce religious truth. At the time he became bishop of Hippo, Donatism, which took its name from one of its first leaders, Donatus, bishop of Carthage, had already existed in North Africa for more than eighty years and had undergone considerable persecution. Originating in the early fourth century in an ecclesiastical controversy over a bishop who had [allegedly] compromised with paganism during the persecution by the emperor Diocletian and was therefore considered a betrayer of the faith, the Donatists formed a schismatic and rival church with its own clergy. Rigorists who believed in a church composed exclusively of the holy, they maintained that an unworthy priest could not perform a valid sacrament. By insisting on the rebaptism of converts, the Donatist church declared its rejection of the sacramental character of Catholic baptism. To some extent Donatism represented an expression of social protest against the profane world as a domain ruled by Satan. Its more extreme advocates, a fanatical fringe of zealots and ascetics known as Circumcellions, sought a martyr’s death by any means, including suicide; they gathered as bands of marauding peasants who attacked estates and committed other acts of violence. As a self-described church of martyrs, the Donatists condemned the alliance between Catholicism and the Roman authorities as a renunciation of Christ in favour of Caesar, and their bishop Donatus was reported to have said, ‘What has the Emperor to do with the Church?’ In the course of its history Donatism became a considerable movement, although it remained largely confined to North Africa. 

     “In his numerous writings against this heresy, one of Augustine’s constant aims was to persuade its followers by means of reason and arguments to abandon their errors and return to the Catholic Church. He did his best to refute its doctrines in a number of treatises and at first opposed any use of coercion against these heretics. A lost work of 397 repudiated coercion, and in an undated letter to a Donatist churchman he wrote: “I do not intend that anyone should be forced into the Catholic communion against his will. On the contrary, it is my aim that the truth may be revealed to all who are in error and that… with the help of God, it may be made manifest so as to induce all to follow and embrace it of their own accord.’ To several Donatists he wrote in around 398 that those who maintain a false and perverted opinion but without ‘obstinate ill will’ – and especially those ‘who have not originated their error by bold presumption’ but received it from their parents or others, and who see truth with a readiness to be corrected when they have found it – are not to be included among heretics. The heretic himself, however, ‘swollen with hateful pride and with the assertion of evil contradiction, is to be avoided like a mad man’.

     “Nevertheless, Augustine eventually reversed his position and decided to endorse coercion. Looking back at this development some years later, he said that at first he had believed that no one should be forced into the unity of Christ, and that the Church should rely only on speaking, reasoning, and persuasion ‘for fear of making pretended Catholics out of those whom we knew as open heretics’. But then proven facts caused him to give up this opinion when he saw Donatists in his own city ‘converted to Catholic unity by the fear of imperial laws’ and those in other cities recalled by the same means. Reclaimed Donatists, he contended, were now grateful that ‘fear of the laws promulgated by temporal rulers who serve the Lord in fear has been so beneficial’ to them.

     “We first learn of Augustine’s change of mind in the treatise he wrote (ca. 400) as a reply to a letter by the Donatist bishop Parmenian, a leading spokesman of the movement. In this work he justified the intervention of the imperial government against the Donatists by making Saint Paul’s theology of the state, as the apostle outlined it in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans (Romans 13.1-7). There Paul instructed Christians to be obedient to the higher powers as the minister ordained by God and armed with the sword for the repression of evildoers. In the light of this apostolic teaching, Augustine insisted that the emperors and the political authorities had the God-given right and duty to crush the sacrilege and schism of the Donatists, since they were as obligated to repress a false and evil religion as to prevent the crime of pagan idolatry. He further pointed out that the Donatists were guilty of many cruelties and had themselves appealed to the emperors in the past against the dissidents in their own church. Denying that those of them condemned to death were martyrs, he described them instead as killers of souls and, because of their violence, often killers of bodies.

     “One of the arguments he put forward in defense of force in this work was his interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the tares in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 13.24-30). This famous text was destined to be cited often during subsequent centuries in discussions of toleration and persecution, and to occupy a prominent place in the tolerationist controversies of the era of the Protestant Reformation. The parable first likens the kingdom of heaven to a good see and then relates how a man sowed good seed in the ground, whereupon his enemy came in the night and planted tares, or weeds, there as well. When the wheat appeared, so did the tares. The man’s servants asked their master if they should pull up the tares, but he forbade them lest they also uproot the wheat. He ordered that both should be left to grow until the harvest, and then the reapers would remove and burn the tares and gather the wheat into the barn. The parable’s point would seem to be that good people and sinners alike should be allowed to await the Last Judgement to receive their due, when God would reward the good with the kingdom of heaven and punish the bad with the flames of hell. Augustine, however, drew from it a very different lesson: if the bad seed is known, it should be uprooted. According to his explanation, the only reason the master left the tares to grow until the harvest was the fear that uprooting them sooner would harm the grain. When this fear does not exist because it is evident which is the good seed, and when someone’s crime is notorious and so execrable that it is indefensible, then it is right to use severe discipline against it, for the more perversity is corrected, the more carefully charity is safeguarded. With the help of this interpretation, which reversed the parable’s meaning, Augustine was able not only to justify the Roman government’s repression of the Donatists but to provide a wider reason for religious persecution by the civil authorities.

     “Augustine elaborated his position in favour of coercion in religion in a number of letters. In a lengthy epistle to the Donatist Vincent, he argued for the utility of coercion in inducing fear that can bring those who are subject to it to the right way of thinking. Maintaining that people could be changed for the better through the influence of fear, he concluded that ‘when the saving doctrine is added to useful fear’, then ‘the light of truth’ can drive out ‘the darkness of error’. To reinforce this view, he quoted the parable of the feast in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 14. 21-23), another of the texts that was to figure prominently in future tolerationist controversy. In this parable, a man prepared a great feast to which he invited many guests who failed to appear. After summoning from the city the poor, blind, and lame to come and eat, he found that room still remained, so he ordered his servants to ‘go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in [compelle intrare in the Latin Vulgate], that My house may be filled’. ‘Do you think,’ Augustine asked in a comment on this passage, ‘that no one should be forced to do right, when you read that the master of the house said to his servants, “Whomever you find, compel them to come in”’. He referred also to the example of the conversion of the apostle Paul, who ‘was forced by the great violence of Christ’s compulsion to acknowledge and hold the truth’ (Acts 9.3-18). The main point, he claimed, was not whether anyone was forced to do something, but whether the purpose of doing so was right or wrong. While no one could be made good against his will, the fear of punishment could persuade a person to repudiate a false doctrine and embrace the truth he had previously denied, as had happened to many Donatists who had thankfully become Catholics and now detested their diabolical separation.

     “In dealing with heresy, Augustine thus laid great stress on what might be called the pedagogy of fear to effect a change of heart. He did not see coercion and free will as opposites in religious choice but claimed that fear plays a part in spontaneous acts of the will and may serve a good end. In one of his most important statements on the subject, contained in a letter of 417 to Boniface, the Roman governor of Africa, he propounded a distinction between two kinds of persecution. ‘[T]here is an unjust persecution,’ he said, ‘which the wicked inflict on the Church of Christ, and … a just persecution which the Church of Christ inflicts on the wicked.’ The Church persecutes from love, the Donatists from hatred; the Church in order to correct error, the Donatists to hurl men into error. While the Church strives to save the Donatists from perdition, the latter in their fury kill Catholics to feed their passion for cruelty. Augustine was convinced that the coercion of heretics was therefore a great mercy because it rescued them from lying demons so that they could be healed in the Catholic fold. He rejected the objection of those who said that the apostles had never called upon the kings of the earth to enforce religion, since in the apostles’ time there had been no Christian emperor to whom they could appeal. It was necessary and right, however, for kings to forbid and restrain with religious severity actions contrary to God’s commandments, and to serve God by sanctioning laws that commanded goodness and prohibited its opposite.

     “While admitting that it was better to lead people to the worship of God by teaching than to force them through fear of suffering, Augustine nevertheless averred that the latter way could not be neglected. Experience proved, he claimed, that for many heretics it had been a blessing to be driven out by fear of bodily pain to undergo instruction in the truth and then follow up with actions what they had learned in words. Schismatics, he noted, protested that men have freedom to believe or not to believe, and that Christ never used force on anyone. To this objection he countered with his previous argument that Christ had first compelled Paul to cease his persecution of the Christian Church by striking him blind at his conversion and only then taught him. ‘It is a wonderful thing,’ he said, ‘how he [Paul] who came to the gospel under the compulsion of bodily suffering labored more in the gospel than all the others who were called by words alone.’ Once again he drew on the injunction compelle intrare in the Gospel of Luke to affirm that the Catholic Church was in accord with God when it compelled heretics and schismatics to come in. In other letters he denied that the ‘evil will’ should be left to its freedom, and cited not only this same parable and the example of Christ’s compulsion of Paul, but also God’s restraint of the Israelites from doing evil and compelling them to enter the land of promise (Exodus 15.22-27), as proof of the Church’s justice in using coercion.

     “Although after his change of mind Augustine consistently approved the policy of subjecting heretics to coercion, he never desired that they should be killed. In writing to Donatists, he often stated that he and his brethren loved them and acted for their good, and that if they hated the Catholic Church, it was because ‘we do not allow you to go astray and be lost’. Donatists had been subject to previous imperial legislation against heresy, but between 405 and 410 the emperor Honorius decreed a number of heavy penalties against them that put them outside the protection of the law for their seditious actions; he ordered their heresy to be put down in ‘blood and proscription’.[27] Augustine frequently interceded with the Roman authorities to spare their lives. In 408 he wrote to the proconsul of Africa urging Christian clemency and praying that though heretics [should] be made to feel the effect of the laws against them, they should not be put to death, despite deserving the extreme punishment, in the hope that they might be converted. To another high official he pleaded in behalf of some Donatists tried for murder and other violent acts that they should be deprived of their freedom but not executed that they might have the chance to repent.

     “Although repression weakened Donatism, it failed to eliminate this deeply rooted heresy, which survived until the later seventh century when the Islamic conquest of North Africa destroyed every form of Christianity in this region. In the course of his career, Augustine, who was not only an outstanding thinker but a man of keen and sensitive conscience, wrestled strenuously with the problem of heresy and the achievement of Catholic unity by the use of coercion… ‘Pride’, he once wrote, ‘is the mother of all heretics,’ and fear could break down this pride and thus act as an auxiliary in the process of conversion. Whether the heretic was really sincere in professing a change of mind under the threat of bodily pain was a question that could best be left to God. Augustine certainly did not recommend the death penalty for heretics but strove tirelessly to save their souls from eternal perdition. He supported their repression by the Roman imperial government in the hope of restoring them to the Catholic Church, and because, as he said in a letter to some Donatists, ‘nothing can cause more complete death to the soul than freedom to disseminate error’.”[28]

     But if freedom to disseminate error should be restricted, this did not mean that the truth could be known in any other mode than in freedom. As we have seen, several bishops were shocked by the execution of the heretic Priscillian in the late fourth century. For, as St. Maximus the Confessor said, “the mystery of salvation is for those who desire it, not for those who are being coerced”.[29] And again he said: "I do not want heretics to be tortured, and I do not rejoice in their misfortunes, God forbid! I counsel you to do good attentively and fervently to all men and that all believers should be everything for those in need. But at the same time I say: one must not help heretics and confirm them in their mad beliefs. Here it is necessary to be sharp and irreconcilable. For I do not call it love, but hatred, and a falling away from Divine love, when someone confirms heretics in their error to the inescapable destruction of these people."


November 14/27, 2019.


[1] Thornton, Pious Kings and Right-Believing Queens, Belmont, 2013, pp. 398-399.

[2] Thornton, op. cit., pp. 400-401. St. Theodosius died shortly afterwards in Italy, as had been prophesied.

[3] Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 4.

[4] Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, 2.

[5] Zagorin, op. cit., p. 21.

[6] Lactantius, in Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, London: Penguin Books, 1988, p. 637.

[7] Pierre Maraval, “La Louve et la Croix” (The She-Wolf and the Cross), Histoire (Le Figaro), 8, June-July, 2013, p. 63.

[8] Barnes, op. cit, pp. 212-213.

[9] L.A. Tikhomirov, Religiozno-Filosofskie Osnovy Istorii (The Religious-Philosophical Foundations of History), Moscow, 1997, p. 340.

[10] Leithart, op. cit., p. 130.

[11] Liethart, op. cit., pp. 139-140.

[12]Meyendorff, op. cit., pp. 16-17.

[13] Meyendorff, op. cit., pp. 15-16.

[14] Jonathan Hill, Christianity: The First 400 Years, Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2013, pp. 233, 294.

[15] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, VII, 3.

[16] St. Athanasius, Against the Arians, 67; P.G. 25, p. 773.

[17] Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 19.

[18] Troitsky, Khristianskaia Philosophia Braka (The Christian Philosophy of Marriage), Paris: YMCA Press, p. 207.

[19] Margaret Strachey, Saints and Sinners of the Fourth Century, London: William Kimber, 1958, pp. 151=152.

[20] St. John Chrysostom, quoted by Fr. Antonious Henein,, 8 August, 2000.

[21] Hieromonk Patapios, “On Caution regarding Anathematization”, Orthodox Tradition, January, 2000, p. 22.

[22] Norwich, op. cit., pp. 117-118.

[23] Zagorin, op. cit., pp. 23, 24. However, Hill argues that it was not Theodosius’ measures but Justinian’s persecution in the sixth century that was “the first really thorough attempt on the part of the Roman authorities to stamp out paganism, and the first time that the various laws against paganism were seriously enforced” (op. cit., p. 301).

[24] St. Ambrose, Letter 40, in Fomin and Fomina, op. cit., vol. I, p. 69.

[25] Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, London: Phoenix, 1987, 1995, p. 164.

[26]Hill, op. cit., pp. 294-295.

[27] “In January 412 Emperor Honorius officially banned Donatism. The members of the sect had to pay fines, whose amount was determined by their social and property status, and the clergy were exiled, while their church property was confiscated. The Berber Donatists organized a series of final bloody attacks on Catholic churches, and Augustine recognized that the problem of insincere conversions was not as serious as he previously thought” (Dvorkin, Ocherki po Istorii Vselenskoj Pravoslanoj Tserkvi, p. 262) (V.M.).

[28] Zagorin, op. cit., pp. 26-32, 33.

[29] St. Maximus, P.G. 90.880.

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