Written by Vladimir Moss



     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. In recent years there has been much controversy over Augustine’s views on various subjects in Orthodox circles; and his views do not always reflect “the consensus of the Fathers”. But of his essential Orthodoxy - he was called “holy” at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, - there can be no doubt.

     Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, whose rigorous attitude towards heretics and schismatics probably influenced St. Augustine. Let us briefly examine his position.

     In 388 some Christians burned down the synagogue in Callinicum on the Euphrates. The Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered its rebuilding at the Christians’ expense. However, St. Ambrose 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!”[1] “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.” [2]

     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. For the emperor “wields not the sword in vain” (Romans 13.4) and is “the bishop of those outside the Church” (St. Constantine’s phrase). 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, especially, the protection of the young and weak in mind who might lose their souls through listening to a heretic… But even St. Ambrose never advocated the execution of heretics or Jews simply because they believed wrongly. And, together with St. Martin of Tours and Pope Siricus, he opposed the execution of the Spanish bishop Priscillian for sorcery.


     Perez 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’.[3] 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’.”[4] 

     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. For, as St. Maximus the Confessor said, “the mystery of salvation is for those who desire it, not for those who are being coerced”.[5] 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."

March 6/19, 2020.


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

[2] St. Ambrose, in Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, London: Phoenix, 1987, 1995, p. 164.

[3] “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.).

[4] Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press, 2004,pp. 26-32, 33.

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

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