Father May I? Appeals to Patristic Authority in the Sixteenth-Century Toleration Debate -- By: J. Travis Moger

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 20:1 (Fall 2002)
Article: Father May I? Appeals to Patristic Authority in the Sixteenth-Century Toleration Debate
Author: J. Travis Moger

Father May I?
Appeals to Patristic Authority in the
Sixteenth-Century Toleration Debate1

J. Travis Moger

Chaplain, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment
Ph.D. Student in History
University of California Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93117

One should not triumph over heretics by fire but by writings, as the Fathers did of old. If it were an art to get the better of heretics by fire, the henchmen would be the most learned of doctors.

-Martin Luther (1520)


The religious fragmentation of Europe caused by the Reformation made the problem of what to do with religious dissenters (“heretics”) a widespread practical problem as well as a hotly debated philosophical issue. Advocates both for and against religious toleration made extensive appeals to Scripture in order to add weight to their arguments, but many also appealed to the authority of church fathers. Surprisingly, Reformation scholars have paid little attention to the role of church fathers in this debate. In his recent prize-winning book Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe, Brad Gregory mentioned one important church father, Augustine, in his discussion of “the willingness to kill.”2 Although Augustine was indeed the most prominent ancient theologian quoted by opponents of toleration such as John Eck and Thomas More, several questions remain to be answered regarding the use of patristics in the toleration debate.3

If those who were willing to kill heretics appealed to Augustine, did toleration advocates reject Augustine and side instead with his Donatist opponents? Did proponents of toleration rely on other, perhaps earlier, church fathers to make their case? And there is the difficult question of how well the sixteenth-century participants in this debate understood their early Christian counterparts. Did they employ the arguments of patristic scholars or merely use the reputations of the ancient authorities polemically, as a cudgel to beat up their opponents? This article seeks to answer these questions.

Persecution and Heresy in the Early Church

Despite the uniqueness of the sixteenth-century religious crisis, the trajectories of this complex problem of what to do with religious dissidents can be traced to a much earlier period of church history. The early Church dealt with challenges from without as well as from within. Externally, the church faced persecution. Although there was a constant threat of persecution, loca...

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