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Friday, August 23, 2013

David B. Hart and Aquinas

David Bentley Hart has an article at First Things - No Enduring City: The Gospel both created and destroyed Christendom. Here's the bit that discusses Thomas Aquinas' belief that heretics should be murdered ...

[T]here is no genuinely faithful proclamation of the Gospel that does not involve a very real and irreducible element of sheer contrariness towards the most respectable of human institutions. When the peasant Christ tells the aristocrat Pilate of his kingdom not of this world, or when Paul warns Christians against any commerce with the works of the god of this cosmos, or when Christ commands his followers to forgive those who wrong them in excess of all natural justice, or likens the wealthy citizen at heaven's gate to a camel attempting to slip through a needle's eye -- as well as at countless other junctures in the New Testament -- the Gospel is announced as something essentially subversive of the accustomed orders of human power, preeminence, law, social prudence, religion, and government.


Some twelve to fifteen years after the promulgation of the Liber Paradisus (the date cannot be more precisely determined than that), Thomas Aquinas put the finishing touches on that famous (or infamous) passage in the Summa Theologiae where he defends the practice of executing heretics. The argument he laid out there was quite a simple one, consisting of only two points, both of which he considered more or less incontestable. First, as regards the heretics themselves, their sin by itself warrants both excommunication and death. Second, as regards the Church, the graver evil of heresy is that it corrupts the faith, which gives life to the soul; and so, if we execute forgers for merely corrupting our currency, which can sustain only temporal life, how much more justly may we deal with convicted heretics not only by excommunicating them, but by putting them to death as well.


Now, making whatever allowances we wish for ... the good intentions of Thomas in hoping to preserve as many souls as possible out of the general ruin of this fallen world, [this] provides a perfect epitome of the spiritual contradictions inherent in Christendom ..... one of the greatest speculative minds of Western Christian tradition recommended that, when confronted by the preacher of aberrant doctrine, the Church should (albeit reluctantly) assume the role of Caiaphas, and encourage the secular arm to discharge the part of Pilate ..... Christ may indeed have stood upon the side of truth, over against the verdicts passed upon him by both Caiaphas and Pilate, but the truth to which he bore witness was among other things a very particular rule of life, a clear and concrete way of inhabiting the world, a very specific practice of the presence of God among human beings; and it was one absolutely antithetical to the violence of religious and political power.

So, granting that Thomas and his order were products of their times, still the use of coercion and murder to defend the Church cannot be anything other than a betrayal of the Gospel far graver than any mere doctrinal deviation could ever be. Thomas' argument is at once entirely consonant with the ­principles (social and moral) of Christendom, and yet entirely alien to the principles of Christianity ...


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