Augustine and the Death Penalty

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Phil D.

Puritan Board Senior
This thread is somewhat of an off-take from one I recently started on Calvin and Geneva, as it deals with the history of using the death penalty in a religious connection. I also hope it can serve to highlight the crucial role consulting primary sources rightly plays in verifying assertions regarding church history. It’s adapted from something I put together for some friends some years ago. And, true to my tendencies... it is a bit lengthy, but I hope some will enjoy and find it informative.
____________________​

I was raised in a cult that, along with various other fundamentalist groups, vilifies St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD) as having deviously instigated the practice of capital punishment against religious dissidents. In the ante-internet world such unsubstantiated claims were relatively easy to foist. Yet upon acquiring my first computer, and gathering the courage to circumvent our church’s leadership, I undertook to consult the actual historical record. Much to my surprise I discovered that quite the opposite was true. So too concerning many, many other things I had been indoctrinated on. I’ve been a church history buff ever since.

Given the historical circumstances that surrounded him, Augustine’s position on capital punishment is rather remarkable. It also contrasts with that held by many Medieval and Reformation era Christian leaders, showing his stance on the issue to be substantially ahead of its time. Moreover, Augustine lived in a very tumultuous age where various “Christian” groups, most notably the Donatists, had birthed extremists among them who were committing horrific crimes against orthodox Christians. Here is Augustine’s graphic account of one such incident:

With regard to the aforesaid bishop of Bagai, in consequence of his claim being allowed in the ordinary courts, after each party had been heard in turn, in a basilica of which the Donatists had taken possession, as being the property of the Catholics, they rushed upon him as he was standing at the altar, with fearful violence and cruel fury, beat him savagely with cudgels and weapons of every kind, and at last with the very boards of the broken altar.

They also wounded him with a dagger in the groin so severely, that the effusion of blood would have soon put an end to his life, had not their further cruelty proved of service for its preservation; for, as they were dragging him along the ground thus severely wounded, the dust forced into the spouting vein stanched the blood, whose effusion was rapidly on the way to cause his death.

Then, when they had at length abandoned him, some of our party tried to carry him off with psalms; but his enemies, inflamed with even greater rage, tore him from the hands of those who were carrying him, inflicting grievous punishment on the Catholics, whom they put to flight, being far superior to them in numbers, and easily inspiring terror by their violence.

Finally, they threw him into a certain elevated tower, thinking that he was by this time dead, though in fact he still breathed. Lighting then on a soft heap of earth, and being espied by the light of a lamp by some men who were passing by at night, he was recognized and picked up, and being carried to a religious house, by dint of great care, was restored in a few days from his state of almost hopeless danger. (The Correction of the Donatists, 7.27; NPNF1 4:643)​

Nonetheless, Augustine repeatedly and very passionately attempted to intervene in cases where Donatists or other dissidents who had committed even the most heinous crimes against orthodox churchmen faced either capital or extreme corporal punishment. Here is one example from a letter he wrote to a Christian magistrate who was about to pass sentence on some convicted violent offenders.

I have learned that the Circumcelliones and clergy of the Donatist faction belonging to the district of Hippo, whom the guardians of public order had brought to trial for their deeds, have been examined by your Excellency, and that the most of them have confessed their share in the violent death which the presbyter Restitutus suffered at their hands, and in the beating of Innocentius, another Catholic presbyter, as well as in digging out the eye and cutting off the finger of the said Innocentius.

This news has plunged me into the deepest anxiety, lest perchance your Excellency should judge them worthy, according to the laws, of punishment not less severe than suffering in their own persons the same injuries as they have inflicted on others.

Wherefore I write this letter to implore you by your faith in Christ, and by the mercy of Christ the Lord Himself, by no means to do this or permit it to be done. For although we might silently pass over the execution of criminals who may be regarded as brought up for trial not upon an accusation of ours [i.e. by the orthodox churches], but by an indictment presented by those to whose vigilance the preservation of the public peace is entrusted, we do not wish to have the sufferings of the servants of God avenged by the infliction of precisely similar injuries in the way of retaliation.

Not, of course, that we object to the removal from these wicked men of the liberty to perpetrate further crimes [i.e. imprisonment]; but our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part, and that, by such coercive measures as may be in accordance with the laws, they be turned from their insane frenzy to the quietness of men in their sound judgment, or compelled to give up mischievous violence and betake themselves to some useful labor. This is indeed called a penal sentence; but who does not see that when a restraint is put upon the boldness of savage violence, and the remedies fitted to produce repentance are not withdrawn, this discipline should be called a benefit rather than vindictive punishment? (Letters, 133, To Marcellinus; NPNF1, 1:470)​

In this next instance Augustine was writing to a newly appointed judge (somewhat ironically named Donatus) whom, though a Christian presiding in a court that dealt mostly with cases involving the church, was apparently still deemed to have potential for severity. In his letter Augustine implored, indeed begged Donatus to always spare the lives of those who were convicted in his court, no matter how horrendous their offense may have been. Remarkably, in addition to flattering, cajoling and asserting biblical principles, Augustine even threatened a little.

For oh, noble and deservedly honorable lord, and eminently praiseworthy son, who does not perceive that in the midst of so great calamities no small consolation has been bestowed upon us by God, in that you, such a man, and so devoted to the name of Christ, have been raised to the dignity of proconsul, so that power allied with your goodwill may restrain the enemies of the Church from their wicked and sacrilegious attempts?

In fact, there is only one thing of which we are much afraid in your administration of justice, viz., lest perchance, seeing that every injury done by impious and ungrateful men against the Christian society is a more serious and heinous crime than if it had been done against others, you should on this ground consider that it ought to be punished with a severity corresponding to the enormity of the crime, and not with the moderation which is suitable to Christian forbearance.

We beseech you, in the name of Jesus Christ, not to act in this manner. For we do not seek to revenge ourselves in this world; nor ought the things which we suffer to reduce us to such distress of mind as to leave no room in our memory for the precepts in regard to this which we have received from Him for whose truth and in whose name we suffer; we love our enemies, and we pray for them.

It is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek to accomplish by the help of the terror of judges and of laws, whereby they may be preserved from falling under the penalty of eternal judgment; we do not wish either to see the exercise of discipline towards them neglected, or, on the other hand, to see them subjected to the severer punishments which they deserve. Do you, therefore, check their sins in such a way, that the sinners may be spared to repent of their sins.

We beg you, therefore, when you are pronouncing judgment in cases affecting the Church, how wicked soever the injuries may be which you shall ascertain to have been attempted or inflicted on the Church, to forget that you have the power of capital punishment, and not to forget our request. Nor let it appear to you an unimportant matter and beneath your notice, my most beloved and honored son, that we ask you to spare the lives of the men on whose behalf we ask God to grant them repentance.

For even granting that we ought never to deviate from a fixed purpose of overcoming evil with good, let your own wisdom take this also into consideration, that no person beyond those who belong to the Church is at pains to bring before you cases pertaining to her interests.

If, therefore, your opinion be, that death must be the punishment of men convicted of these crimes, you will deter us from endeavoring to bring anything of this kind before your tribunal; and this being discovered, they will proceed with more unrestrained boldness to accomplish speedily our destruction, when upon us is imposed and enjoined the necessity of choosing rather to suffer death at their hands, than to bring them to death by accusing them at your bar.

Disdain not, I beseech you, to accept this suggestion, petition, and entreaty from me. For I do not think that you are unmindful that I might have great boldness in addressing you, even were I not a bishop, and even though your rank were much above what you now hold. (Letters, 100, To Donatus; NPNF1, 1:411f.)​

What mustn’t be missed here is Augustine’s firm avowal that he would rather die at the hands of the Donatists than to in any way be involved in a situation where they might be put to death for an offense against the clergy—indeed, that to avoid subjecting them to even the possibility of capital punishment in such cases would be his Christian duty.

In truth, Augustine intervened so frequently in capital cases that some officials complained he was overstepping his authority and interfering with public justice. In a letter to Augustine one such person, named Macedonius, even accused the bishop of thus rendering himself complicit in the crimes that had been committed. Here is part of Augustine’s placid yet staid reply.

You ask me why we say it is part of our priestly responsibility to intercede on behalf of the guilty and to be offended if we do not get what we asked for, as if we do not get what pertains to our office. On this point you say that you are deeply in doubt about whether this comes from our religion.

…And you add a more serious point and say that it is clear that in all sins not only merely the one that commits the sin but also the one that approves of it is guilty, so it is certain that we are bound together as accomplices in guilt as often as we want a person who is guilty of sin to go unpunished.

…[However, seeing that] God has such great patience and such great mercy for sinners…and since no one is more happy, no one more powerful, and no one more just than He, how should we human beings behave toward other human beings? For, no matter how much praise we have accumulated for this life of ours, we do not say that it is free from sin. After all, as Scripture says, if we say such we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not found in us [1 John 1:8].

…The judgment of God should fill [court officials] with fear so that they keep in mind that they too need God’s mercy on account of their own sins, and they should not suppose that it counts as a failure in their office if they act mercifully in any way toward those over whom they have the legitimate power of life and death. (Letters, 153, To Macedonius; J. Rottele, The Works of Saint Augustine, [Hyde Park: 2003], 394.)​

In one of his sermons Augustine even used a touch of dark whimsy in an apparent attempt to coax some attending magistrates to adopt his opposition to religious executions.

So do not condemn people to death, or while you are attacking the sin you will destroy the man. Do not condemn to death, and there will be someone there who can repent. Do not have a person put to death and you will have someone who can be reformed. As a man having this kind of love for men in your heart, be a judge of the earth. Love terrifying them if you must, but still go on loving. I don't deny that penalties must be applied. I don't forbid it. But let it be done in a spirit of love, a spirit of caring, a spirit of reforming. (Sermons, 13.8; D. Burt, An introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy, [Grand Rapids: 1999], 197.)​

On the other hand, and despite his initial opposition to physical punishment for such things, Augustine was an early and influential proponent of inflicting corporeal correction, namely beatings, to compel dissidents to return to mother church. By all indication Augustine had only relatively modest lashings in mind, as he likened what he advocated to the “mode of correction used by schoolmasters, and by parents themselves in chastising children”, specifically adding, “let not the power of executing vengeance inspire you with harshness.” He also once again made it clear that he was against capital punishment in all cases involving the church by admonishing the judge to whom he was writing, “…do not call for the executioner...” (See, Letters, 133, To Marcellinus, 2; NPNF1, 1:470)
 

jwright82

Puritan Board Graduate
This thread is somewhat of an off-take from one I recently started on Calvin and Geneva, as it deals with the history of using the death penalty in a religious connection. I also hope it can serve to highlight the crucial role consulting primary sources rightly plays in verifying assertions regarding church history. It’s adapted from something I put together for some friends some years ago. And, true to my tendencies... it is a bit lengthy, but I hope some will enjoy and find it informative.
____________________​

I was raised in a cult that, along with various other fundamentalist groups, vilifies St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD) as having deviously instigated the practice of capital punishment against religious dissidents. In the ante-internet world such unsubstantiated claims were relatively easy to foist. Yet upon acquiring my first computer, and gathering the courage to circumvent our church’s leadership, I undertook to consult the actual historical record. Much to my surprise I discovered that quite the opposite was true. So too concerning many, many other things I had been indoctrinated on. I’ve been a church history buff ever since.

Given the historical circumstances that surrounded him, Augustine’s position on capital punishment is rather remarkable. It also contrasts with that held by many Medieval and Reformation era Christian leaders, showing his stance on the issue to be substantially ahead of its time. Moreover, Augustine lived in a very tumultuous age where various “Christian” groups, most notably the Donatists, had birthed extremists among them who were committing horrific crimes against orthodox Christians. Here is Augustine’s graphic account of one such incident:

With regard to the aforesaid bishop of Bagai, in consequence of his claim being allowed in the ordinary courts, after each party had been heard in turn, in a basilica of which the Donatists had taken possession, as being the property of the Catholics, they rushed upon him as he was standing at the altar, with fearful violence and cruel fury, beat him savagely with cudgels and weapons of every kind, and at last with the very boards of the broken altar.

They also wounded him with a dagger in the groin so severely, that the effusion of blood would have soon put an end to his life, had not their further cruelty proved of service for its preservation; for, as they were dragging him along the ground thus severely wounded, the dust forced into the spouting vein stanched the blood, whose effusion was rapidly on the way to cause his death.

Then, when they had at length abandoned him, some of our party tried to carry him off with psalms; but his enemies, inflamed with even greater rage, tore him from the hands of those who were carrying him, inflicting grievous punishment on the Catholics, whom they put to flight, being far superior to them in numbers, and easily inspiring terror by their violence.

Finally, they threw him into a certain elevated tower, thinking that he was by this time dead, though in fact he still breathed. Lighting then on a soft heap of earth, and being espied by the light of a lamp by some men who were passing by at night, he was recognized and picked up, and being carried to a religious house, by dint of great care, was restored in a few days from his state of almost hopeless danger. (The Correction of the Donatists, 7.27; NPNF1 4:643)​

Nonetheless, Augustine repeatedly and very passionately attempted to intervene in cases where Donatists or other dissidents who had committed even the most heinous crimes against orthodox churchmen faced either capital or extreme corporal punishment. Here is one example from a letter he wrote to a Christian magistrate who was about to pass sentence on some convicted violent offenders.

I have learned that the Circumcelliones and clergy of the Donatist faction belonging to the district of Hippo, whom the guardians of public order had brought to trial for their deeds, have been examined by your Excellency, and that the most of them have confessed their share in the violent death which the presbyter Restitutus suffered at their hands, and in the beating of Innocentius, another Catholic presbyter, as well as in digging out the eye and cutting off the finger of the said Innocentius.

This news has plunged me into the deepest anxiety, lest perchance your Excellency should judge them worthy, according to the laws, of punishment not less severe than suffering in their own persons the same injuries as they have inflicted on others.

Wherefore I write this letter to implore you by your faith in Christ, and by the mercy of Christ the Lord Himself, by no means to do this or permit it to be done. For although we might silently pass over the execution of criminals who may be regarded as brought up for trial not upon an accusation of ours [i.e. by the orthodox churches], but by an indictment presented by those to whose vigilance the preservation of the public peace is entrusted, we do not wish to have the sufferings of the servants of God avenged by the infliction of precisely similar injuries in the way of retaliation.

Not, of course, that we object to the removal from these wicked men of the liberty to perpetrate further crimes [i.e. imprisonment]; but our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part, and that, by such coercive measures as may be in accordance with the laws, they be turned from their insane frenzy to the quietness of men in their sound judgment, or compelled to give up mischievous violence and betake themselves to some useful labor. This is indeed called a penal sentence; but who does not see that when a restraint is put upon the boldness of savage violence, and the remedies fitted to produce repentance are not withdrawn, this discipline should be called a benefit rather than vindictive punishment? (Letters, 133, To Marcellinus; NPNF1, 1:470)​

In this next instance Augustine was writing to a newly appointed judge (somewhat ironically named Donatus) whom, though a Christian presiding in a court that dealt mostly with cases involving the church, was apparently still deemed to have potential for severity. In his letter Augustine implored, indeed begged Donatus to always spare the lives of those who were convicted in his court, no matter how horrendous their offense may have been. Remarkably, in addition to flattering, cajoling and asserting biblical principles, Augustine even threatened a little.

For oh, noble and deservedly honorable lord, and eminently praiseworthy son, who does not perceive that in the midst of so great calamities no small consolation has been bestowed upon us by God, in that you, such a man, and so devoted to the name of Christ, have been raised to the dignity of proconsul, so that power allied with your goodwill may restrain the enemies of the Church from their wicked and sacrilegious attempts?

In fact, there is only one thing of which we are much afraid in your administration of justice, viz., lest perchance, seeing that every injury done by impious and ungrateful men against the Christian society is a more serious and heinous crime than if it had been done against others, you should on this ground consider that it ought to be punished with a severity corresponding to the enormity of the crime, and not with the moderation which is suitable to Christian forbearance.

We beseech you, in the name of Jesus Christ, not to act in this manner. For we do not seek to revenge ourselves in this world; nor ought the things which we suffer to reduce us to such distress of mind as to leave no room in our memory for the precepts in regard to this which we have received from Him for whose truth and in whose name we suffer; we love our enemies, and we pray for them.

It is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek to accomplish by the help of the terror of judges and of laws, whereby they may be preserved from falling under the penalty of eternal judgment; we do not wish either to see the exercise of discipline towards them neglected, or, on the other hand, to see them subjected to the severer punishments which they deserve. Do you, therefore, check their sins in such a way, that the sinners may be spared to repent of their sins.

We beg you, therefore, when you are pronouncing judgment in cases affecting the Church, how wicked soever the injuries may be which you shall ascertain to have been attempted or inflicted on the Church, to forget that you have the power of capital punishment, and not to forget our request. Nor let it appear to you an unimportant matter and beneath your notice, my most beloved and honored son, that we ask you to spare the lives of the men on whose behalf we ask God to grant them repentance.

For even granting that we ought never to deviate from a fixed purpose of overcoming evil with good, let your own wisdom take this also into consideration, that no person beyond those who belong to the Church is at pains to bring before you cases pertaining to her interests.

If, therefore, your opinion be, that death must be the punishment of men convicted of these crimes, you will deter us from endeavoring to bring anything of this kind before your tribunal; and this being discovered, they will proceed with more unrestrained boldness to accomplish speedily our destruction, when upon us is imposed and enjoined the necessity of choosing rather to suffer death at their hands, than to bring them to death by accusing them at your bar.

Disdain not, I beseech you, to accept this suggestion, petition, and entreaty from me. For I do not think that you are unmindful that I might have great boldness in addressing you, even were I not a bishop, and even though your rank were much above what you now hold. (Letters, 100, To Donatus; NPNF1, 1:411f.)​

What mustn’t be missed here is Augustine’s firm avowal that he would rather die at the hands of the Donatists than to in any way be involved in a situation where they might be put to death for an offense against the clergy—indeed, that to avoid subjecting them to even the possibility of capital punishment in such cases would be his Christian duty.

In truth, Augustine intervened so frequently in capital cases that some officials complained he was overstepping his authority and interfering with public justice. In a letter to Augustine one such person, named Macedonius, even accused the bishop of thus rendering himself complicit in the crimes that had been committed. Here is part of Augustine’s placid yet staid reply.

You ask me why we say it is part of our priestly responsibility to intercede on behalf of the guilty and to be offended if we do not get what we asked for, as if we do not get what pertains to our office. On this point you say that you are deeply in doubt about whether this comes from our religion.

…And you add a more serious point and say that it is clear that in all sins not only merely the one that commits the sin but also the one that approves of it is guilty, so it is certain that we are bound together as accomplices in guilt as often as we want a person who is guilty of sin to go unpunished.

…[However, seeing that] God has such great patience and such great mercy for sinners…and since no one is more happy, no one more powerful, and no one more just than He, how should we human beings behave toward other human beings? For, no matter how much praise we have accumulated for this life of ours, we do not say that it is free from sin. After all, as Scripture says, if we say such we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not found in us [1 John 1:8].

…The judgment of God should fill [court officials] with fear so that they keep in mind that they too need God’s mercy on account of their own sins, and they should not suppose that it counts as a failure in their office if they act mercifully in any way toward those over whom they have the legitimate power of life and death. (Letters, 153, To Macedonius; J. Rottele, The Works of Saint Augustine, [Hyde Park: 2003], 394.)​

In one of his sermons Augustine even used a touch of dark whimsy in an apparent attempt to coax some attending magistrates to adopt his opposition to religious executions.

So do not condemn people to death, or while you are attacking the sin you will destroy the man. Do not condemn to death, and there will be someone there who can repent. Do not have a person put to death and you will have someone who can be reformed. As a man having this kind of love for men in your heart, be a judge of the earth. Love terrifying them if you must, but still go on loving. I don't deny that penalties must be applied. I don't forbid it. But let it be done in a spirit of love, a spirit of caring, a spirit of reforming. (Sermons, 13.8; D. Burt, An introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy, [Grand Rapids: 1999], 197.)​

On the other hand, and despite his initial opposition to physical punishment for such things, Augustine was an early and influential proponent of inflicting corporeal correction, namely beatings, to compel dissidents to return to mother church. By all indication Augustine had only relatively modest lashings in mind, as he likened what he advocated to the “mode of correction used by schoolmasters, and by parents themselves in chastising children”, specifically adding, “let not the power of executing vengeance inspire you with harshness.” He also once again made it clear that he was against capital punishment in all cases involving the church by admonishing the judge to whom he was writing, “…do not call for the executioner...” (See, Letters, 133, To Marcellinus, 2; NPNF1, 1:470)
Well very informative. Historically speaking his view was in the particular context he found himself. In a world where the church and the state were very much mixed, you can see his reasons for what he said. I'm not sure if you had a question in there though. But the reason the western world, historically speaking, adopted a general separation of church and state I believe was a result of the "religious" wars of the reformation. We had no choice.
 
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