1492 was a busy year for Spain. The king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, had been married for over two decades. Their marriage had brought together two different kingdoms and a diverse mix of Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the peninsula. It was now time to both extend their rule into the lands beyond and to enforce their Catholic faith among those at home in an attempt to unify the nation even more. While Columbus sailed west, fueled by royal Spanish gold, Ferdinand and Isabella issued a decree to expel all Jews who refused to convert to the Christian faith. To check up on those who said they had converted, the Spanish monarchs revived an already existing practice for rooting out heresy. It was called the Spanish Inquisition.
What Was the Inquisition?
The medieval inquisition had begun back in 1231 when then Pope Gregory IX appointed Dominican friars to get rid of people who questioned his authority. It continued existing in some form for seven centuries, mostly in Spain but also in parts of France and Italy. A tribunal was set up that would hold trial to “inquire” into the status and nature of someone’s faith. Torture was used to get people to talk. Those who didn’t pass the test were executed, often burned at the stake. Over the years, thousands were killed. While a number of groups were targeted—Jews, Muslims, Protestants, intellectuals, the superstitious—all of them fell under one label: heretic. A heretic was someone who denied some key aspect of Christian belief or the authority of the pope. The Inquisition was a mechanism designed to enforce orthodox faith by trying to identify and get rid of heretics.
As with much of the church history that we’ve covered in this series, the Spanish Inquisition is not a pretty section to look at. But as always, it’s important that we begin with sympathy and a humble recognition that we are not as poised to cast judgment as we think. On one hand, it can be hard for us to understand the medieval revulsion to heresy, especially in our time when religion is regarded as a private matter. But for them, faith was not a private affair. Instead, Christendom—the unity of religion and state that we have been tracking throughout the Middle Ages—was seen as a body. Heresy was like a cancer that needed to be rooted out. However misguided, the Inquisition was an attempt to use bureaucracy, legislation, and torture to purify and safeguard the health of the church. But, as with so much church history that we’ve covered this series, its religious language isn’t easily untangled from political interests. It’s hard to tell when the concern was for safeguarding God’s truth, or for personal power.
How Should We Act Instead?
The New Testament makes it clear that we need to safeguard and protect the truth of the gospel (1 Timothy 4:13–4). At the same time, it also makes clear that it is our job to serve as witnesses of God’s truth, not as judges (Isaiah 43:10; James 4:11–12). During the Inquisition, the church adopted worldly ways of trying to enforce God’s truth. Even though our attempts might not be as obviously unjust and gruesome as the Inquisition, are there ways the church today also uses worldly ways of trying to protect the gospel? Are there ways in which you or the church try to unjustly serve as an ultimate judge of others?
In the same breath, it is also important for us to remember that we are not the Holy Spirit. Scripture affirms that Christians are to freely speak the truth in love and grace (Ephesians 4:15, Colossians 4:6), but we cannot cause someone to believe it. Only the Holy Spirit enlightens hearts to the truth (John 14:17, 1 Corinthians 2:13–14). When we don’t have the right perspective on this, depending on our personality, we can start to become domineering, manipulative, or passive when it comes to sharing the gospel. But a proper perspective coupled with sincere faith gives us freedom to speak truth while trusting in the Spirit.
How can you lovingly speak the truth of God’s words to others without trying to be their judge or their Holy Spirit?
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