Reply To Gavin Ortlund: Catholic Inquisitions; Hus

Reply To Gavin Ortlund: Catholic Inquisitions; Hus February 7, 2024

Dr. Gavin Ortlund is a Reformed Baptist author, speaker, pastor, scholar, and apologist for the Christian faith. He has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology, and an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. Gavin is the author of seven books as well as numerous academic and popular articles. For a list of publications, see his CV. He runs the very popular YouTube channel Truth Unites, which seeks to provide an “irenic” voice on theology, apologetics, and the Christian life. See also his website, Truth Unites and his blog.

In my opinion, he is currently the best and most influential popular-level Protestant apologist, who (especially) interacts with and offers thoughtful critiques of Catholic positions, from a refreshing ecumenical (not anti-Catholic) but nevertheless solidly Protestant perspective. That’s what I want to interact with, so I have done many replies to Gavin and will continue to do so. His words will be in blue.


This is a response to portions of Gavin’s video, “Why Reformation Was Needed” (10-30-23) and a direct follow-up to my previous reply to other parts of the same video, “Reply To Gavin Ortlund: Albigensian Crusade” (2-6-24).

19:33 Here’s the most important difference between [how] later Protestants engaged in violence: medieval persecution resulted from theology promulgated by the highest levels of authority within the Roman Catholic Church, including within allegedly infallible teaching, and there’s just nothing like that on the Protestant side.

First of all, by the very definition of sola Scriptura (as Gavin has discussed in other videos), in Protestantism, nothing is infallible besides Holy Scripture, so they can’t, due to this, possibly have infallible decrees regarding capital punishment for heresy. But of course they advocated it — and did it —  in any event, as I documented in my previous reply to this video, with statements from Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and a note about Zwingli’s agreement. And they appealed to the Bible when they did so, just as Catholics did, and there is a sense in which this was correct and well-intentioned (legitimate concern for souls being harmed by false teaching, up to and including possible damnation as a result of accepting said teaching).

Secondly, if we go to the infallible revelation agreed upon and revered by both sides, the Bible, we see that it taught capital punishment for all sorts of offenses, as part of Mosaic law, given by God to Moses (“his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law”: Dt 30:10 [RSV]; “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, . . . be careful to do according to all that is written in it”: Josh 1:8). The law was given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It was obviously His will. And part of that will were commands to execute those who rejected commandments, including for false beliefs and immoral practices (i.e., “heresies”).

In other words, it’s not possible, biblically, to say that capital punishment is intrinsically or inherently wrong, because if it were, God could have never commanded it, since He can never sin or command immoral actions. It follows, then, that Christians on earth can permit the same thing. Whether it is always best or good to do so, and on the large scale that has been done, and excesses and dangers of it and negative fallout from it, etc., is another huge discussion (I never favor any of this, just for the record), but we can’t make it impermissible in all times and places, because God didn’t do so.

Wikipedia has a page, “List of capital crimes in the Torah,” which lists over thirty such offenses, with the Bible passages establishing each punishment. Several of them could be classified under “heretical / false beliefs”; for example, sacrificing children to Moloch (Lev 20:1-2), worshiping Baal (Num 25:1-9), necromancy; consulting mediums and wizards (Lev 20:6, 27), and following / worshiping “gods” other than Yahweh (idolatry and/or polytheism; Dt 17:2-7). There was even a penalty of burning, such as if a man had intercourse with both his wife and his wife’s mother (Lev 20:14), or if the daughter of a priest played the harlot (Lev 21:9).

Both Catholics and Protestants also appealed to the many passages concerning God’s judgment and His commands to annihilate a certain portion of the population who were perceived to have — like Sodom and Gomorrah — sinned beyond redemption. I would say that that was a special case in the Bible, involving  God’s direct revelation for His purpose of divine judgment, which doesn’t apply in later times. But I’m simply reporting what the reasoning was; how they tried to (wrongly) justify it from the Bible. In his Dialogues of 1535, early Protestant leader Martin Bucer called on governments to exterminate by fire and sword all professing a false religion, and even their wives, children and cattle. In so doing he was clearly directly following one particular biblical passage, where God states:

Deuteronomy 13:12-15  “If you hear in one of your cities, which the LORD your God gives you to dwell there, [13] that certain base fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of the city, saying, `Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, [14] then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently; and behold, if it be true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done among you, [15] you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, destroying it utterly, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.

This is the same sort of thing that Catholics, in killing Albigensians, would have appealed to. Note that God provided the explanation within the command: people had been “drawn away” by the prohibited and wicked polytheism and idolatry of certain people. In order to root out that sin, they had to be killed (at least at that early stage). Earlier in the chapter, God says that if a proclaimed prophet (even if his prediction comes true) says, “Let us go after other gods and let us serve them” (Dt 13:1-2), he “shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, . . . to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you” (Dt 13:5).

God then commanded that the same death penalty be applied even to “brother, . . . son, . . . daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend” (Dt 13:6-9). And the reason is again provided: “because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God” (Dt 13:10). This was the rationale — among both Catholics and Protestants — for all coercion and death penalties concerning false religious practices and beliefs.

Hence we find Scottish Protestant leader John Knox recommending that every heretic was to be put to death, and that inhabitants of cities overrun with heresy were to be utterly annihilated. He wrote (see Edwin Muir, John Knox, London: 1920, 142): “To the carnal man this may appear a . . . severe judgment . . . Yet we find no exception, but all are appointed to the cruel death. But in such cases God wills that all . . . desist from reasoning when commandment is given to execute his judgments.”

Queen Elizabeth burned two Dutch Anabaptists in 1575 and an Arian in 1589 (Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1957, 143, 274). The Town Council of Zurich in Zwingli’s time called for the “drowning, burning, or beheading” of Anabaptists. Melanchthon thought that God had destined all Anabaptists to hell. During Calvin’s reign in Geneva, between 1542 and 1546, 58 persons were put to death for heresy. Etc. etc. ad infinitum . . .

There is no difference here. Both Catholics and Protestants in the past widely believed in and practiced capital punishment for heresy. I have sought to educate as to the reasons for why this happened, and the biblical basis upon which it was rationalized. Again, I reiterate that it shouldn’t be a topic in discussions of the comparative merit of Protestantism and Catholicism. But Gavin tried to argue above that Catholics were worse in this regard, which is why I have replied with my previous related article and this one. With all due respect, in effect he’s trying to do what Jesus prohibited and mocked, in saying,

Luke 6:41-42 “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? [42] Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: [10] “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ [13] But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

19:54 so this represents a falsification for claims of infallibility.

Well, no, it doesn’t at all, for reasons already explained. The Catholic Church simply at times permitted capital punishment for heresy, which can’t be argued against in any absolute way, since God Himself did so in the inspired revelation of the Bible. If the Catholic Church was essentially wrong and wicked in so doing, then God was wrong and wicked. Since all agree that God is not and cannot be wrong and wicked (or the Bible, false), then likewise, the Catholic Church wasn’t in this instance; and if it wasn’t wrong, then its infallibility is not disproven in this fashion.

I’ve seen it argued elsewhere that Pope Leo X, in his papal bull condemning Martin Luther’s errors in 1520 (Exsurge Domine) condemned the following proposition: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit” (33). Since this is considered to be obviously wrong, so this person contended, then it constitutes a disproof of papal infallibility. At first it does indeed seem outrageous that he would condone such a thing. But as I have shown, so did God, Who commanded the death penalty for many offenses, including false belief-systems, and even burning for certain extreme sexual offenses (Lev 20:14; 21:9).

Therefore, Pope Leo’s condemnation can be defended. It’s not always, obviously, undeniably wrong. If someone disagrees, then God is wrong and that can’t be, etc. And it’s historical fact that Protestants advocated the exact same things within ten years of this document and within thirteen years of Luther tacking his 95 theses to the door in the Wittenberg church. Later, in 1553, John Calvin notoriously consented to the burning of the heretic Michael Servetus (Calvinists acknowledge this as a big stain on his record), and even mocked how he behaved when he received his death sentence:

At first he was stunned and then sighed so as to be heard throughout the whole room; then he moaned like a madman and had no more composure than a demoniac. At length his cries so increased that he continually beat his breast and bellowed in Spanish, “Mercy! Mercy!” (in Bruce Gordon, Calvin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 223; cited from Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic; the Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Boston: Beacon Press, 1960, p. 209)

Thus, both claims are false: 1) Catholics were not incomparably worse than Protestants in this regard, and 2) this past history does not disprove papal infallibility.

Gavin then brings up the example of Jan Hus — one of his “heroes” — being burned at the stake, by the authority of the ecumenical council of Constance.

21:25 Hus’s execution was not a violation of medieval Roman Catholic theology. It was its expression. And as shocking as that sounds, . . . it’s just true.

Sure, but as shown above, this has a biblical basis. Both sides did it. How is Servetus’ execution — also by burning — any different in essence? Protestants had clearly not learned to act any differently between the time of the Council of Constance and Hus’ execution in 1415 and Servetus’ burning in 1553. So why is Gavin still only talking about Hus and not also Servetus not to mention also men like St. Thomas More: killed for opposing King Henry VIII’s divorce, and St. John Fisher, the one English bishop who defied Henry VIII’s outrages against the papacy and Catholicism. Both were beheaded, with their bodies displayed all around London)?

There is no difference whatsoever. Luther and his even more ruthless successor Philipp Melanchthon were killing Anabaptists for simply believing in adult believer’s baptism, as Gavin does, and as I used to, as a Protestant. How is the Catholic treatment of Hus different from Queen Elizabeth burning two Anabaptists and an Arian in 1575 and 1589? I see none. Perhaps Gavin will explain if he ever replies. I hope he does, because then, maybe some real, tangible ecumenical progress can be made, and these disputes about past persecution can be put to rest once and for all. John Calvin expressed the same principle (heretics can be executed) 142 years after Hus’s death, in 1557:

I am called an incendiary for having taught that heretics are justly punished. . . . I teach that rulers are armed with the sword not less to punish impiety than other crimes. (Last Admonition of John Calvin to Joachim Westphal, Who, if He Heeds it Not, Must Henceforth be Treated in the Way Which Paul Prescribes for Obstinate Heretics [1557]; in the source, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, Volume 2; Jean Calvin, Théodore de Bèze, Henry Beveridge [Calvin Translation Society, 1849], pp. 357-358)

Calvin even claimed that protracted torture was the will of God:

One of the two men, Comparet, who had been arrested, was condemned on 27 June [1555] to have his head cut off, his body quartered, and the sections exposed in different places according to custom. His head with one quarter of his body was fastened to the gibbet referred to. . . . the younger Comparet was simply beheaded. The executioner did his work so clumsily that he added needless pangs to the victim’s agony, and the Council punished him by dismissing him from his office for a year and a day. Calvin, on the other hand, wrote to Farel on 24 July, “I am persuaded that it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner.” [Opera, xv. 693] . . .

It was determined to get the truth out of him [Francois Daniel], and Calvin wrote to Farel on 24 July [Opera, xv. 693], “We shall see in a couple of days, I hope, what the torture will wring from him.” . . .

Although he was neither consulted as to the torture, nor was present when it was applied, Calvin certainly approved of it. . . . (Hugh Young Reyburn, John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914 [a non-Catholic work], pp. 202-205)

How often has anyone ever learned about this? Instead, we hear endless bone-chilling stories about the ruthless Catholic inquisitors; never about the same exact spirit (getting a charge out of people being tortured, and rampant calls for execution) among even the highest levels of Protestant leadership. One tires of the constant double standard. I really don’t think that Gavin — an ecumenical sort — even intends to do this, but it’s just so ingrained in the Protestant “psyche” that it’ll come out every time these unsavory issues are brought up.

This is what Martin Luther thought about fellow Protestant “reformer” Zwingli’s death in battle (at the hand of Catholics, by the way):

And recently God has notably punished the poor people of Switzerland, Zwingli and his followers, for they were hardened and perverted, condemned of themselves, as St. Paul says. They will all experience the same.

Although neither Munzerites nor Zwinglians will admit that they are punished by God, but give out that they are martyrs, nevertheless we, who know that they have gravely erred in the sacrament and other articles, recognize God’s punishment and beware of it ourselves. . . .

Wherefore I warn your Grace, and beg that you will avoid such people and not suffer them in your land. . . . for if you allow any to teach against the long and unanimously held doctrine of the Church when you can prevent it, it may well be called an unbearable burden to conscience. . . . For we must not trifle with the articles of faith so long and unanimously held by Christendom . . . (Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Luther, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911, 291-292; letter from Wittenberg, “February or beginning of March, 1532)

This was completely unsurprising since Luther had previously called Zwingli a non-Christian (Unchrist), and ten times worse than a Catholic (March, 1528, in his Great Confession on the Lord’s Supper). Later, in his Short Confession on the Lord’s Supper (1544, in Walch’s edition, Vol. XX. p. 2195), he abused Zwingli and another Protestant leader, Oecolampadius, as heretics, liars, and murderers of souls. And how is this any different from the Catholic Church’s view of Hus? And Luther wanted to execute far more than heretics; also adulterers:

God commanded in the law [Deut. 22:22-24] that adulterers be stoned . . . The temporal sword and government should therefore still put adulterers to death . . . The blame rests with the government. Why do they not put adulterers to death? (The Estate of Marriage, 1522, from Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, pp. 32-34)

In the same treatise, Luther goes after frigid wives: “When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty . . .” In these instances, so Luther says, “the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another.” Luther doesn’t say whether an impotent man should likewise be put away by the wife or put to death by authorities. No, only women who aren’t fulfilling their sexual duties (men always do, no doubt) are subjected to such drastic measures. Can you imagine if a pope had ever declared such a thing? We would have never heard the end of it. This is the founder of Protestantism. Early Protestant leader Martin Bucer also advocated capital punishment for adulterers.

Gavin then goes into a critique of the power of the medieval Catholic Church, citing (what else?) Unam Sanctam from 1302 and talking about how the temporal powers were wrapped up with the Catholic Church. But again, there was no difference in principle here in early Protestantism. Luther infamously gave power to German princes over against the previous bishops (a thing which even Melanchthon later bitterly regretted and lamented, as I have documented with many citations from him). For example, he wrote to his friend, Joachim Camerarius, in a letter dated August 31, 1530:

Oh, would that I could, not indeed fortify the domination, but restore the administration of the bishops. For I see what manner of church we shall have when the ecclesiastical body has been disorganized. I see that afterwards there will arise a much more intolerable tyranny [of the princes] than there ever was before. (in Book of Concord“Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions,” by F. Bente: VII. Smalcald Articles and Tract concerning Power and Primacy of the Pope: section 70)

Luther’s state-church was simply the old error of caesaropapism (rampant in Eastern Orthodoxy) introduced into the new “superior” Protestantism.

24:10 it was a Roman Catholic archbishop who’s preaching the sermon right there at the trial [of Hus] from Romans 6, that the body of sin must be put to death. This is the reigning theology of the day: the extermination of heretics.

Obviously, initial, “classic” Protestantism held to precisely the same views, 120 years after Hus. So again, I ask Gavin: why is it that he only talks about Catholic excesses and sins in this regard, while ignoring the same excesses and sins among Protestants, who were supposedly reforming Catholicism and allegedly far superior spiritually to Catholics (which they were not, even according to Luther)? Why doesn’t he examine the beam that is in Protestantism’s own eye, and engage in fair play about things that both sides did in the past and no longer do?

It seems to me that I am the one who is — in the end — exercising the ecumenical spirit, since I freely acknowledge our past sins while also daring to point out — for the sake of historical honesty —  the demonstrable, undeniable fact that we were not alone in them. This is something that all Christians can and should join together in decrying and condemning, rather than using it as an opportunity to bash the other side and pretend that our side was any different.

I get a kick about how Gavin noted how they called Hus “Judas” at the Council of Constance. He should read what Protestants said about each other for the first hundred years or so after they entered the scene. I won’t even bother to document all that (this article being long enough). And what would Gavin think of the following “reigning theology” from John Calvin?:

Four months after the execution of Servetus, at the end of January 1554, he [Calvin] published the Declaratio orthodoxae fidei  [footnote: “The Latin text appears in Calvini Opera, t. VIII, pp. 453-644 . . .”] . . . It is one of the most frightening treatises ever written to justify the persecution of heretics.. . . In obedience to the Old Testament it may sometimes be necessary to raze whole towns to the ground and to exterminate their inhabitants:

. . . God does not even allow whole towns and populations to be spared, but will have the walls razed and the memory of the inhabitants destroyed and all things frustrated as a sign of his utter detestation, lest the contagion spread. . . . it is here a question of rejecting God and sane doctrine, which perverts and violates every human and divine right. . . .

I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed? (Toleration and the Reformation, by Joseph Lecler, S.J. [New York: Associated Press / London: Longmans, originally 1955; translated by T. L. Westow in 1960]; from Volume 1, 333-334)

After giving examples of “unbounded” Catholic cruelty, Gavin says:

27:15 People just don’t know thus stuff today, but we need to know the history of what happened, and this happened to a lot of different people.

I couldn’t agree more. But for some reason, Gavin can only recount all of these things when Catholics did them, while ignoring the fact that Protestants had the same exact view. They just happened to come along later in history and were only around 130-150 years before the time when both sides rapidly started deciding that all of this should stop. So we don’t have the many hundreds of years of Protestant horror stories.

But — as I have shown — while these things still took place in history, Protestants were every bit as much in favor of them as Catholics. And I have examined not only the fact that all sides did this when it was the prevailing view of religious dissenters, but have also examined why they did, and with what biblical rationale.; and I have shown that God’s identical commands make it impossible to take an absolute stand against it. In other words, my analysis is, I humbly submit, far more fair and much more detailed and in depth; getting to the roots of it.

31:39 what can we do but protest things like financial and physical and spiritual abuse? What can we do but stand against that?

Protestants for some 150 years after they began obviously didn’t stand against physical persecution, as I have repeatedly shown. So that’s simply a myth. They stood against indulgences, as they understood them to be. But of course indulgences were and are widely misunderstood. The notion of indulgences has an explicitly scriptural basis. There were abuses of indulgences, but these were rectified by the Church in the 16th century. For more, see:

Myths and Facts Regarding Tetzel and Indulgences [11-25-16; published in Catholic Herald]
The Biblical Roots and History of Indulgences [National Catholic Register, 5-25-18]

If Gavin insists on making financial sins a major reason for the Protestant Revolt, he ought to also shine his moral flashlight on Protestant sins in this respect. including the widespread immoral stealing of Catholic properties, in countries that adopted Protestantism: especially in England, where tens of thousands of Catholic properties were simply stolen. See:

So Protestant “hands” aren’t clean in this area, either, and they have no business forever lecturing Catholics about indulgences (which most critics cannot even properly define in the first place); when we reformed the practice long ago. These sorts of Protestant critiques always concentrate on excesses and corruptions of the thing, rather than the thing itself. This is an old rhetorical tactic when one is opposing another group, and it’s neither fair nor historically honest and objective to analyze in such a fashion.
Meanwhile, to my knowledge, we haven’t seen the Anglicans in England — or Lutherans in Germany and other Protestant or partially Protestant countries — give back all the Catholic properties that they stole, or the capital that they stole from the Catholic Church and gave to (in the case of England) newly-enriched landowners: the origins of the gentry and wealthy aristocrats: the Downton Abbey-types. Financial mischief and sins are by no means confined to Catholics.
32:02 what happened to Hus was just sin; it’s just bad; it’s just wrong; it’s offensive; it stinks to God.
Then why did God sanction the same sort of thing? And why does Gavin (a man with a doctorate in historical theology) ignore that, and ignore all the instances when Protestants did the same thing? How is Servetus different than Hus? Why is he not righteously indignant at the equivalent Protestant sins and excesses? In Catholic eyes, Hus believed in several erroneous heresies, and by using the biblical rationale that I have analyzed, and the exact same thinking that Protestants utilized, they thought it was justified to burn him alive. Calvin did the same with regard to Servetus 138 years later. The same view held in both Catholic and Protestant circles and would continue to for about a hundred more years before it subsided.
In the rest of the tape he talks about how Protestants supposedly brought back the biblical gospel. That’s a completely different topic again, and one literally filled with misunderstanding and misrepresentation and incipient anti-Catholicism. So I will end here.



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Photo credit: engraving of Michael Servetus, whom Calvin and Calvinists burned alive for heresy in 1553; by Christian Fritzsch (1695-1769) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: Gavin Ortlund argued in a video that one of two big reasons for the Protestant Reformation was Catholic persecution. But the latter was no better among Protestants.

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