Notes on the origin of the Inquisition
by Oliver Seely

From the beginning of Christianity, the Church was zealous in removing the dissidents from the body of the faithful, "but in doing this they went no further than to certify to the existence of a fact, or, at most, they reported what they had done to the secular authorities. Some deemed even this to display a lack of charity, and for that reason, they never divulged to the public officials the sentences of excommunication which they passed upon heretics."1

There are numerous references to the expulsion and forced conversion of Jews, with an emphasis on the Jewish experience in predominantly Catholic countries during the period of 1100-1600.

In looking over histories of the growth of the Inquisition, it is apparent that a great number of cases against "heretics" arose not from their exposition or debate over small contradictions in Scriptural passages, but

(1) disputes over grand church doctrine

a. The argument that heretics and others who are outside the true church are incompetent to interpret Scripture since they repudiate the key that unlocks its meaning.

b. Discontent over the tithe.

c. Violations of celibacy among the clergy.

d. Doubting papal power.

(2) attacks on theological premises promulgated by the Church, but perhaps not well founded in Scripture.

a. The teachings of Aristotle

b. Experimental observations which contradicted Church teachings.

(3) the Church, power and money

a. The personal inviolability and the immunity from secular jurisdiction of the clergy.

b. The question of whether the Church ought to own property.

c. The extraction of wealth on a person's deathbed to construct a monastery or some other religious edifice, ostensibly to allow the dying person the opportunity to atone for a lifetime of excesses.

(4) the threat of charismatic preachers against the structure of the Church. Martin Luther was one of many who were charged with preaching false doctrine.

(5) Power struggles between Popes and emperors.

(6) Attacks on moral corruption of the clergy.3

On the other hand, disputes did arise from time to time over Scriptural interpretation. A case in which a sect known as the Cathari was charged with heresy by Church prelates is instructive. The charge, which comes to us from a tract against the Cathari dating from the end of the 13th century, concerned certain teachings: "first, contradictions between the Old and the New Testaments; second, the changefulness of God, himself, manifest in Scripture; third, the cruel attributes of God in Scripture; fourth, the falsehood ascribed to God. In advancing their position, the Cathari quoted Genesis iii, 'Behold, Adam has become as one of us' But God says this of Adam after he had sinned, and he must have spoken truth or falsehood. If truth, then Adam had become like him who spoke and those to whom he spoke; but Adam after the fall had become a sinner, and therefore evil. If falsehood, then he is a liar; he sinned in so saying and thus was evil."2

This is a particularly interesting example to give because to this logic the orthodox polemic contents himself with the answer that God spoke ironically and the modern lay reader not absolutely disposed toward a literal interpretation may wonder what all the fuss is about. Both might offer that if the Cathari could argue over this point as an example of Scriptural contradiction thereby raising the wrath of the Church, then one might wonder if any literate person could find possible contradictions with little more than a cursory reading of many of the texts of the Old and New Testaments. In any case, the possibility of multiple interpretation of Scripture by a growing literate populace helps to explain the prohibition of the Bible to the laity by the Church.4

In his books Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke makes the point that once the knowledge of ancient Greece was rediscovered in Europe and Greek logic and the technique of debate to settle disputes were used, the Church felt threatened by sects springing up and making their own Scriptural interpretations. This problem within the Church was but one that led to the establishment of the Inquisition.

1Herculano, Alexandre, 1810-1877.

History of the origin and establishment of the inquisition in Portugal, by Alexandre Herculano, trans. by John C. Branner. Stanford University, Calif., The University, 1926, p. 203.

2Lea, Henry Charles, 1825-1909.

A history of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York, Russell & Russell [1958], p. 92. The quotation is reproduced verbatim. It is unclear why it appears in this reference without comment, particularly as regards the ambiguity of the pronoun "he."

3Ibid, pp. 1-34

4There is an interesting short summary of the beliefs and teachings of the Cathari (or Cathars) on pp. 21-22 of The Medieval Inquisition, by Bernard Hamilton.


New Testament interpretation : essays on principles and methods / edited by I. Howard Marshall. Exeter : Paternoster Press, 1977.