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Church History: A Biblical View
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Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 22 - The Inquisition

I. Heretical Sects

A. Cathari. The Twelfth Century witnessed the rise of two heretical sects which presented a severe challenge to the Roman Catholic Church by virtue of their extreme popularity and their radical divergence from what was regarded as orthodox doctrine. No doubt, their formation was due to, or at least aided by, the increasing worldliness and moral laxity of the Catholic Church. Both groups were characterized by emphasis upon moral purity to the point of extreme asceticism.

The first of these was the "Cathari" (from the Greek word, "katharos," meaning "pure"). They were also known as Albigenses, from Albi, one of their chief centers in southern France. The basic and distinctive feature of the Catharite doctrinal system was dualism. This is belief in the existence of two co-eternal and supreme powers, the one Evil and the other Good, who are in perpetual conflict with one another. The Cathari approximated Gnosticism in their attitude toward material things. They asserted that the physical world was the creation of the Evil Power, which dominated the body. The Good Power dominated the spirit. Thus, material things, particularly the body and anything pertaining thereto - eating, drinking, and possession of worldly goods - were deemed evil and to be renounced. Consequently, the Cathari forbade the eating of all meats (except fish) and even eggs and cheese, since these were the products of fleshly intercourse. Marriage and marital relations were especially scorned by Cathari. They believed that the physical world was the prison of those souls which had been taken from the realm of the good God. Thus, human reproduction, thought to be the original sin of Adam and Eve, merely increased the number of prison-houses. Salvation, then, was a renunciation of these things and a life of strict asceticism. (Some Cathari even underwent a rite known as the "endura," which was a voluntary starvation unto death.) Cathari also rejected baptism, the Eucharist, the killing of animals, war, capital punishment, oaths, many of the ceremonies, trappings, and doctrines of the Catholic Church, and the Old Testament as the work of the evil God.

The Cathari were divided into two classes: the "perfect" and the believers. The perfect received a rite known as consolation with the understanding that they would abstain from those things inconsistent with Catharite beliefs. The believers, who formed the majority, were allowed to partake of the forms of the world. If they died without having received consolation, they would be reincarnated until they, too, attained salvation.

B. Waldenses. The Waldenses arose about the same time as the Cathari and shared much of the same territory, though the two groups differed markedly in their beliefs. The Waldenses received their origin and name from Valdez, or Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyons, France who was so impressed by the song of a wandering minstrel and the words of Christ to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:21) that he sold all of his property and gave the proceeds to his family and the poor. Determined to follow Christ's directions to His apostles (Matt. 10), Waldo and his followers donned woolen robes and sandals, lived by what was given to them, and went about preaching two by two.

Unlike the Cathari, the Waldenses adhered to Catholic doctrine for the most part and probably would not have broken away from the Catholic Church had it not been for its opposition. When Waldo and his associates continued to preach despite a denial by the Pope to do so, they were excommunicated in 1184. Thereafter, the doctrinal gap between them and the Catholics began to widen. Their distinguishing principles were emphasis upon the Scriptures as the sole rule of faith, emphasis upon preaching, and rejection of papal authority.

II. The Mendicant Orders

A. Dominicans. This order had its origin with Dominic, a Spaniard born about 1170. During a journey through southern France in 1203 he was deeply affected by the advances made by the Cathari and the contempt in which they held Catholic missionaries. He urged that only by the Catholic missionaries becoming as devout and zealous for apostolic poverty and preaching as the Cathari themselves could they hope to make any headway in converting them. Those who followed Dominic's advice became known as the "Order of Preachers," or "Dominicans." They received papal sanction in 1216.

B. Franciscans. Francis of Assisi, from whom the order he began takes its name, is often regarded as the preeminent saint of the Middle Ages. Like others before them, Francis and his associates made poverty and preaching their primary method of imitating Christ. The Franciscans received papal sanction in 1223.

The Dominicans and Franciscans were alike in many respects, and efforts were made in their early years to combine them into one order. They both sustained themselves by mendicancy. They were alike devoted to poverty, preaching, service to their fellowman, and scholastic learning. Finally, they both supported subjection to papal authority. They vowed allegiance directly to the pope and thus became a bulwark to the papacy. As strong defenders of the papacy they found themselves being employed as inquisitors in the effort to stamp out the heretical sects.

III. The Inquisition

When the missionary efforts of the Catholic Church proved to be far too ineffective in turning back the tide of the Cathari and Waldenses, sterner measures were employed. Because these heretical sects had made much use of the Scriptures, a church council in Toulouse in 1229 forbade the laity to possess the Scriptures and denounced all translations thereof. This council also systematized the investigation of heresy, or inquisition. Those found to be guilty of heresy had their property confiscated, were sentenced to life imprisonment, or were subjected to lesser punishments. Those who were condemned but refused to recant were turned over to the secular arm to be burned at the stake. Military crusades and other forms of persecution were also brought against the Cathari and Waldenses until the former were thoroughly eradicated and the latter greatly reduced.

IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) Christians need permission from men to preach.

(2) (T or F) A Catholic Church council in the Twelfth Century forbade possession of the Scriptures by the laity and any translations thereof.

(3) (T or F) The Scriptures give church leaders the authority to inflict physical punishment upon false teachers.

(4) The two major heretical sects of the Twelfth Century were the ______________ and the _______________.

(5) The two mendicant orders of monks who had their beginning in the Twelfth Century were the _____________ and the _______________.

(6) The basis of the Catharite doctrinal system was:


How does this differ from the Biblical portrayal of God and Satan?


(7) What Scriptures would show that marriage, eating of meats, and ownership of property are not wrong?


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