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The Rise Of Christian Persecution

Throughout world history, local practices of toleration have been interspersed with pogroms and persecution. Sometimes practices of toleration have come before ideas about it, and sometimes ideas have come before practices. Wherever toleration is practiced as a norm, there is not much need to think or write about it. By far the most elaborate discussion of the issue took place in the Christian West in the period from 1500 to 1800, precisely because a great deal of persecution was going on. To fully understand it, we must go back to the origins of Christian persecution.

The situation in the Roman Empire changed when the emperor Constantine (r. 306–337) legalized Christianity in 313 and promoted it as the public religion. Now it was implicated in state power and had to decide whether to tolerate or persecute others. In the following millennium there were wars against Muslims and persecution of pagans and Jews, as well as contentions within Christianity. With respect to the latter, one could justify intolerance if the people one disagreed with could be labeled as heretics or blasphemers.

The word heresy originally meant "choice," as in a choice of beliefs or sects, with no negative connotations. But various passages in the New Testament used it to mean sinful divisiveness. Early church fathers such as St. Irenaeus (c. 120 to 140–c. 200 to 203), Tertullian (c. 155 or 160–after 220), and Eusebius of Caesaria (c. 260–c. 339) refuted the chief early heresies. In 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to settle church doctrine and then issued an edict banning heresies. In 385 a Spanish bishop, Priscillian (c. 340–385), became the first person to be executed for heresy.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was the most influential theorist of persecution. After belonging to the Manichaean heresy in his youth, he joined the Catholic Church in 387 and eventually became a bishop. Facing Manichaean, Pelagian, and Donatist heresies, at first he advocated peaceful methods but by about 400 he began to endorse coercion. He interpreted the parable of the tares (Matt. 13:24–30) and the parable of the feast (Luke 14:21–23) to justify coercion of heretics. The latter was a particularly long stretch, because the parable merely has a rich man prepare a banquet and send his servant out into the streets to find people and "compel them to come in." Later, both Catholics and Protestants justified forced conversions on the basis of this invitation to a feast.

Further developments in the justification of persecution include the definitions of heresy in Gratian of Bologna's (d. before 1159) Decretum (c. 1140) and many further decrees. The persecution of heretics became the object of armed warfare in the bloody Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229). In 1233 Pope Gregory IX (ruled 1227–1241) assigned the persecution of heresy to the Dominican order, establishing the Inquisition.

Medieval voices for tolerance.

However, not everyone went along with the violent treatment of religious difference. The Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian of Peter Abelard (1079–?1144) demonstrated that the pursuit of knowledge could not be detached from the inclusion of diverse standpoints. John of Salisbury (c. 1115–1180) and Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280–c. 1343) combined defenses of personal liberty with functionalist accounts of the organic unity of the political community to maintain that the health of the body politic requires freedom of thought, speech, and even action. John Wycliffe (1330–1384) developed a theory of toleration that derived from his theology of grace and his political theory of the king's responsibility to protect the welfare of both the graced and the ungraced.

Medieval times also included voices for toleration from the disempowered. Menachem Ha-Me'iri (1249–1316) developed a uniquely Jewish theory of toleration to justify cooperation with gentiles. Christine de Pisan (1364–1430) stressed the interdependence of the various parts of the body politic to justify tolerant treatment of differences of gender, class, and nationality.

In the late medieval or early Renaissance period, Nicholas of Cusa's The Peace of the Faith (1453) recognized that mankind was inherently and inescapably diverse in language, culture, and politics. If there will always be different customs and rites, toleration is justified because persecution is futile. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and others from this period also developed toleration for non-Christians from their interests in the Jewish Kabbalah and pagan philosophy.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyToleration - Conceptual Nuances, Related Concepts, Valence, Toleration In The Ancient World, The Rise Of Christian Persecution