The Hammer of Witches: Lessons from Church History

“A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar who has lived in many times is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and microphone of his own age.”
– C.S. Lewis

The Hammer of Witches or Malleus Maleficarum is an infamous book written in the 15th Century. Its purpose was to expose the sin of witchcraft, describe these witches and servants of the devil, who was to judge them, and, ultimately, how to execute those in league with the devil.

The period of the witch trials of the 15th century leading into the end of the 17th century (the Salem Witch Trials) is a dark stain on the history of the church influenced by The Hammer of Witches. Many women, and sometimes men, were unjustly accused of witchcraft, abused and tortured till they confessed, and were executed by the hundreds at the hands of leaders in churches (both Catholic and Protestant). The cries and screams and pleas of innocence exhales out of silent monuments and graves while tourists take pictures of their quietus.

Malleus Maleficarum‘s words unveil the ideology of this time period. It opens a door into a room filled with skeletons. We may not think much about this time period, but it is an event that some will see the church (or religion) as a corrupt institution that is power hungry to control the masses.

However, there are some lessons we can learn from this document that has the guilt of so much blood written in its pages. What can we learn from such an event that can benefit us for today?

The Torture of Scripture

Reading the Malleus Maleficarum can be quite daunting. Despite it being a rather small work (compared to most biblical commentaries of today), this volume does not rely primarily on Scripture.

Two verses are heavily use throughout the book: Exodus 22:18 and Galatians 3:1. Exodus speaks about the need for punishing witches and not allowing their practices to continue. Paul writes in Galatians that he is astonished that the people were being “bewitched” by someone to leave the truth of the Gospel.

The writer and endorsors of Malificarum’s two biblical texts, use these verses as their foundation to build their gallows of their argument for the existence of witches, the presence of devils in the world, and the mass execution of these servants of the devil in order to free the world from their control.

This document primarily relies on the works of saints, church tradition, and commentators of Scripture to build their prosecution. Through this work, you will note how many times the writer references other people or traditions more often than Scripture. Also, instead of saying that a point is a Scriptural point, the author will validate a reason or a principle or an action if it has defense from a saint or approval from the Catholic Church.

Therefore, we see in Malleus Maleficarum the issue of torturing Scripture to bend it to justify one’s views or actions. There are many places where the author will site Aristotle or Plato or another secular work on witchcraft, and then pull a passage from Scripture to back up that work. Using the Bible second as a backing for one’s ideas and actions is not what God called us to do. Paul tells us in II Timothy 2:15 to be faithful handlers of God’s Word and use it properly. Paul also states in Romans 12:1-2 that our living for God is based on renewing our mind with His Word. We are not supposed to let the Bible justify our actions, our actions should proceed from a renewed mind that has been changed by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures. To “cherry pick” Scripture is to make the Bible and Christian practice in our image.

Torturing Scripture in order to make it say what we want is an abuse of God’s Word. This is why we need to study it in order to identify the times others (including church leaders) are torturing Scripture.

The Torture of Individuals

Hundreds, if not thousands, lost their lives when held to the standards of the Malleus Maleficarum. Inside its pages describe those who were most likely to be in league with the devil to accomplish his dark schemes. The book describes mainly women who are single, widowed, spoke their mind, had a deformity, were barren, or had a child with a disability. Women who fit into these categories were among the first to be accused. There are many instances where men were accused as well for similar reasons.

Once a person was suspected and accused, they were assumed guilty until proven innocent. The accused went through torture if they would not confess. Many did confess, despite being innocent, only to stop their brutal suffering.

What the Maleficarum lacks is a clear understand of John 9. Many were accused of being witches or servants of the devil because of some birth defect or having a child with a defect. Deformity was seen as a result of copulation with the devil according to Maleficarum. However, Jesus corrects any view that birth defects were because of the devil. Instead, Jesus points to the fact that the man born blind was formed that way on purpose: his body and situation was to show off the glory of God. Isn’t that what we see today with many stories? We see people with disabilities using their bodies and gifts as an instrument for God’s glory. Their disability gives them a voice to speak about the grace and goodness of God in their lives. Disability is not because of the devil or of sin. It is part of God’s plan to work through a fallen world to display His glory.

However, we have to deal with the fact that many women were unjustly accused of being witches and were exterminated. This is a difficult point. It does show the Church as being sexist towards women. These terrible trials show a low view of women. Scripture, however, has a high view of women that has sadly been overlooked in the past. The first people to see Jesus alive in Luke 24 were women. The first witness and testimony to the reality of the resurrection were women. Women are seen as vital members in the church as seen in Tabitha being raised from the dead in order for her to continue serving the many people her life touched (Acts 9:36-43). Yes, there are different roles for men and women to accomplish in the church and in the home. But, these roles do not make one inferior to the other. Instead, women, like all members of the body of Christ, are to be praised, encouraged, and helped in times of need. Women are not “creatures leading men astray” like is sometimes portrayed in the Malleus Maleficarum. It is the sinfulness of the heart that lead men astray. We need to stop blaming women, or other people, for our own lusts and sin. We need to blame ourselves.

The torture of individuals resulted in the many modern misconceptions that need correction of Scripture.

The Torture of Society

Exodus 22:18 states to not let a witch live among the people. Punishment for witchcraft was death. However, that verse has a context to it. The statement in Exodus is meant for the community of Israel. Inside Israel there was not to be someone practicing witchcraft. The context does not include people outside of Israel.

However, in order to control society, the leaders in the church (both Catholic and Protestant) used this verse to find anyone who practiced witchcraft or was accused of witchcraft and execute the accused. When we take passages out of context, we can do a lot of harm to society. When we look at the New Testament church, the judging of others in only kept inside the church. There is no judging of people outside the church for their sin. In fact, we are called to have a good testimony with those outside the church. Therefore, it is unbiblical to judge and execute someone who does not claim to be a Christian based on their lack of following the Scriptures. Sinners will behave like sinners. Christ knew that. He condemned Pharisees more than those who were called sinners. We know that one day God will judge all people. We know the end of the story. Why execute them when we can give them the Gospel?

Think about our society today. What sins do you see that disgust you that you want to see gone in society? How are you handling those people in that one sin? Are you judging them and trying to do away with them? Or are you trying to give them the Gospel and the hope to escape God’s wrath that is coming?

We need to be hardest on ourselves when it comes to how we are following God’s Word. Sinners do not care about following God’s Word. God will take care of that. But, we should not torture society when it is fallen. Instead, we need to bring the hope of the Gospel to a dark world and see Jesus change lives.

Pulling Back the Rug

Many don’t talk about this time period in church history. Some don’t know about it. Others don’t have answer for why people in church leadership did this. We can no longer sweep injustices of church history under the rug and just say, “power corrupts.” No. This was sinful action. We need to have the courage of Samuel Sewall. He was the only judge of the Salem Witch Trials to repent and say the Salem Witch Trials were wrong.

Instead of justifying the past, we need to see where the church went wrong, apologize, and correct. We need to take a biblical stance on the treatment of Scriptures, the individual, and society. We do not apologize where Scripture does not apologize, but we apologize when we have publicly smeared our testimony by departing from Scripture and following man’s words.

The witch trials of the 15th through the 17th centuries is not an easy topic to discuss. But, it is a necessary topic. We see how we need to get back to Scripture through the lessons we learn in church history. Yes, the past happened. Many were unjustly accused and executed. But, today we can cling to Scripture and follow God’s Word as we personally study it out so we do not fall prey to traps that others in the past fell into.

Today God’s mercies are new. Let us use these mercies to cling to His Word and show people how the Gospel can set them free from sin’s chains and Satan’s rule.

Author: Stephen Field

Living with a disability while pursuing the truth of God's Word and proclaiming it. I have a BA in Youth Ministry (minor in French), a MA in Cross-Cultural Studies (Ministry Studies). I have worked as an interim youth pastor, substitute taught in public schools, speech instructor, book retail worker, and restaurant host. My passion is to see Christians be able to use their Bible and interact with the world around them based on the foundation of God's Truth.

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