Moderns experience difficulty in understanding this institution, because they have, to no small extent, lost sight of two facts.
Historically it is a phase in the growth of ecclesiastical legislation, whose distinctive traits can be fully understood only by a careful study of the conditions amid which it grew up.
Our subject may, therefore, be conveniently treated as follows: I.
State intervention not answering to their wishes, and the violent excesses of the Circumcellions being condignly punished, the Donatists complained bitterly of administrative cruelty. Optatus of Mileve defended the civil authority (De Schismate Donatistarum, III, cc. Finally, however, he changed his views, whether moved thereto by the incredible excesses of the Circumcellions or by the good results achieved by the use of force, or favoring force through the persuasions of other bishops.
Apropos of his apparent inconsistency it is well to note carefully whom he is addressing.
A law of 407, aimed at the traitorous Donatists, asserts for the first time that these heretics ought to be put on the same plane as transgressors against the sacred majesty of the emperor, a concept to which was reserved in later times a very momentous role.
The death penalty however, was only imposed for certain kinds of heresy ; in their persecution of heretics the Christian emperors fell far short of the severity of Diocletian, who in 287 sentenced to the stake the leaders of the Manichæans, and inflicted on their followers partly the death penalty by beheading, and partly forced labor in the government mines.On the other hand, in his writings against the Donatists he upholds the rights of the State: sometimes, he says, a salutary severity would be to the interest of the erring ones themselves and likewise protective of true believers and the community at large (Vacandard, 1. It seems certain, however, that Priscillian, Bishop of Avila in Spain, was accused of heresy and sorcery, and found guilty by several councils. At length he appealed to Emperor Maximus at Trier, but to his detriment, for he was there condemned to death. i): "To consign a heretic to death is to commit an offence beyond atonement "; and in the next chapter he says that God forbids their execution, even as He forbids us to uproot cockle, but He does not forbid us to repel them, to deprive them of free speech, or to prohibit their assemblies.Priscillian himself, no doubt in full consciousness of his own innocence, had formerly called for repression of the Manichæans by the sword. In 447 Leo the Great had to reproach the Priscillianists with loosening the holy bonds of marriage, treading all decency under foot, and deriding all law, human and Divine. The help of the "secular arm" was therefore not entirely rejected; on the contrary, as often as the Christian welfare, general or domestic, required it, Christian rulers sought to stem the evil by appropriate measures. Isidore of Seville expresses similar sentiments (Sententiarum, III, iv, nn. How little we are to trust the vaunted impartiality of Henry Charles Lee, the American historian of the Inquisition, we may here illustrate by an example. By this term is usually meant a special ecclesiastical institution for combating or suppressing heresy.Its characteristic mark seems to be the bestowal on special judges of judicial powers in matters of faith, and this by supreme ecclesiastical authority, not temporal or for individual cases, but as a universal and permanent office.Before the religious revolution of the sixteenth century these views were still common to all Christians ; that orthodoxy should be maintained at any cost seemed self-evident.