How Religious Persecution Was Justified by the Church

Continuing on through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, I came to the section on the 17th-century philosopher Pierre Bayle. He was a Huguenot (a French Protestant) who lived the last 25 years of his life in Holland as a refugee from religious persecution.

One of Bayle’s books, published in 1686, was written in response to a single passage in the Bible: A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14.23, ‘Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full’. Here’s how Bayle explains his decision to write it:

French Gentleman … having fled for Refuge into England … told me, as we often discoursed on the Subject, That among all the Cavils with which the Missionaries [monks, priests, etc.] had pestered him, none appeared to him more senseless, and yet at the same time more thorny and perplexing, than that drawn from these words of Jesus Christ, “Compel them to come in”, in favor of Persecution, or, as they termed it, the charitable and salutary Violence exercised on Heretics, to recover them from the Error of their Ways. He let me know how passionately he desired to see this Chimera of Persecutors confounded: And fancying he observed in me not only an extreme Aversion to persecuting Methods, but something too of a Vein for entering into the true Reasons of things; he was pleased to say, he looked on me as a proper Person for such an Undertaking, and urged that, succeeding in it as he expected, I should do great Service to the Cause of Truth, and indeed to the whole World. 

Luke 14:23 was interpreted by the authorities (most famously, by St. Augustine) as one of the strongest (and possibly the strongest) biblical justification for religious persecution. It’s part of the Parable of the Great Banquet or Great Supper:

Then [Jesus] said unto him:

A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:
And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready. And they all … began to make excuses.
The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused.
And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused.
And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.
So that servant came, and showed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.
And the servant said … it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.
And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.

For I [Jesus] say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.
And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Being forced to toe the religious line, by whatever means possible, was supposed to be for a sinner’s own good, but a story about “a certain man” who makes his invited guests show up for a banquet, without any mention of violence, is an amazingly weak justification for imprisoning, torturing or executing anybody. 

Bayle responds from an ethical point of view. He argues that “persecution cannot bring about the sort of inner religious devotion that would alone be pleasing to God”: 

He announces … that his mode of interpreting the [Biblical] text is entirely new. Leaving textual criticism, philology, history and mysteries entirely aside, he bases his reading on just one principle: “any literal interpretation which carries an obligation to commit iniquity is false” [281-282]

Since religious persecution was “iniquitous, unjust and destructive of any moral order in society”, Bayle concluded that Luke 14:23 couldn’t possibly justify such behavior. The Catholic officials who were persecuting the Huguenots must have misinterpreted the Bible.

I don’t know if Bayle ever responded to another passage that was used to justify religious persecution. That’s Leviticus 24:16:

And he that blasphemeth the Name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the Congregation shall certainly stone him: As well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death.

It’s not a parable and doesn’t seem to demand much in the way of interpretation, except for what it means to “blaspheme” or what constitutes a “congregation”. In cases like that, maybe Bayle would have responded this way: the religious authorities should have assumed God was talking to someone else, namely, the ancient Israelites.

That’s a point Spinoza made in his Theological-Political Treatise, first made public in 1677: 

But with regard to the ceremonial observances which were ordained in the Old Testament for the Hebrews only, … it is evident that they formed no part of the Divine law, and had nothing to do with blessedness and virtue, but had reference only to the election of the Hebrews, that is, … to their temporal bodily happiness and the tranquility of their kingdom, and that therefore they were only valid while that kingdom lasted. 

When others are speaking, it’s presumptuous to assume that you’re part of the conversation! A generalization like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” may apply to all rich men (and even rich women), but when God said unto Moses: “Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and Israel”, it doesn’t seem he was talking to the rest of us. Assuming that you’re going to give any credence at all to the words attributed to God or Jesus in the Bible, why further assume that when God commanded Moses or when Jesus said “compel them to come in”, they were giving instructions to you?

Here’s a bit more about Pierre Bayle (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

His life was devoted entirely to scholarship, and his erudition was second to none in his, or perhaps any, period. Although much of what he wrote was embedded in technical religious issues, for a century he was one of the most widely read philosophers. In particular, his Dictionnaire historique et critique was the single most popular work of the eighteenth century. The content of this huge and strange, yet fascinating work is difficult to describe: history, literary criticism, theology, obscenity, in addition to philosophical treatments of toleration, the problem of evil, epistemological questions, and much more… Said Voltaire: “the greatest master of the art of reasoning that ever wrote, Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows.”