Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation

By Edward Peters | Go to book overview

discipline, which had always been a part of Christian communal thought, came to be extended to enemies of the faith as well as to penitents. St. Augustine, with his progressively bleaker view of human nature and human institutions, illustrates this last point well:

No one is indeed to be compelled to embrace the faith against his will; but by the severity, or one might rather say, by the mercy of God, it is common for treachery to be chastised by the scourge of tribulation...for no one can do well unless he has deliberately chosen, and unless he has loved what is in free will; but the fear of punishment keeps the evil desire from escaping beyond the bounds of thought.

In other words, only through the exercise of free choice might one acquire spiritual merit, although the use of coercive force is appropriate, both to punish sinners and to make the world safer for good Christians. Augustine's words carried conviction. It is from his view of human nature and its weakness, illustrated in his doctrines against Pelagius, and not from expediency, that he enunciated the legitimation of coercive civil force against heretics. "Let the kings of the earth serve Christ," Augustine later wrote, "by making laws for him and for his cause." The view of the use of coercion within Christian communities and its extension into a new rationale for civil authority in general, has been called "political Augustinianism," and it played a conspicuous role in shaping the political theories of the Middle Ages and the early modern periods.

Once again, Augustine found scriptural justification for his approach, this time in the parable in Luke 14:21-24 which tells of the man who prepared a great feast and sent his messenger out to summon the guests when it was ready. One by one, the guests sent their regrets, and the master ordered the messenger to go out and bring in the poor, the halt, and the lame. When this was done, the messenger told the master that there still was room at his table:

And the lord said unto the servant, "Go out unto the highways and the hedges, and compel them to come in [ compelle intrare, in the Latin Vulgate ] that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my banquet."

Patristic and medieval exegetes made much of this passage. For example, the excuse of the man originally invited that he had just bought five yoke of oxen and had to see how good they were was interpreted as the human preoccupations with the five senses and material pleasures. For Augustine, the original guests were the Jews, the cripples from the city are the Gentiles converted to

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