Historical examination of heresies focuses on a mixture of theological, spiritual, and political underpinnings to explain and describe their development. For example, accusations of heresy have been leveled against a group of believers when their beliefs challenged, or were seen to challenge, Church authority. Some heresies have also been doctrinally based, in which a teaching were deemed to be inconsistent with the fundamental tenets of orthodox dogma.
The study of heresy requires an understanding of the development of orthodoxy and the role of creeds in the definition of orthodox beliefs. Orthodoxy has been in the process of self-definition for centuries, defining itself in terms of its faith and changing or clarifying beliefs in opposition to people or doctrines that are perceived as incorrect. The reaction of the orthodox to heresy has also varied over the course of time; many factors, particularly the institutional, judicial, and doctrinal development of the Church, have shaped this reaction. Heresy remained an officially punishable offense in Roman Catholic nations until the late 18th century. In Spain, heretics were prosecuted and punished during the Counter-Enlightenment movement of the restoration of the monarchy there after the Napoleonic Era.
The use of the term heresy in the context of Christianity is less common today, with some notable exceptions: see for example Rudolf Bultmann and the character of debates over ordination of women and gay priests. Popular imagination relegates "heresy" to the Middle Ages, when the Church's power in Europe was at its height, but the case of the scholar and humanist Giordano Bruno was not the last execution for heresy.
In the first Christian millennium, the execution of heretics was very rare.
During those first three centuries, Christianity was effectively outlawed by requirements to venerate the Roman emperor and Roman gods. Consequently, when the Church labelled its enemies as heretics and cast them out of its congregations or severed ties with dissident churches, it remained without the power to persecute them. However, those called "heretics" were also called a number of other things (e.g. "fools," "wild dogs," "servants of Satan"), so the word "heretic" had negative associations from the beginning, and intentionally so.
Before 325 AD, the "heretical" nature of some beliefs was a matter of much debate within the churches. After 325 AD, some opinion was formulated as dogma through the canons promulgated by the councils. Each phrase in the Nicene Creed, which was hammered out at the Council of Nicaea, addresses some aspect that had been under passionate discussion and closes the books on the argument, with the weight of the agreement of the over 300 bishops in attendance. [Constantine had invited all 1800 bishops of the Christian church (about 1000 in the east and 800 in the west). The number of participating bishops cannot be accurately stated; Socrates Scholasticus and Epiphanius of Salamis counted 318; Eusebius of Caesarea, only 250.] In spite of the agreement reached at the council of 325, the Arians, who had been defeated dominated most of the church for the greater part of the fourth century, often with the aid of Roman emperors who favored them. In the East, the successful party of Cyril cast out Nestorius and his followers as heretics and collected and burned his writings .
Irenaeus (c. 130–202) was the first to argue that his "orthodox" position was the same faith that Jesus gave to the apostles, and that the identity of the apostles, their successors, and the teachings of the same were all well-known public knowledge. This was therefore an early argument supported by apostolic succession. Irenaeus first established the doctrine of four gospels and no more, with the synoptic gospels interpreted in the light of John. Irenaeus' opponents, however, claimed to have received secret teachings from Jesus via other apostles which were not publicly known. Gnosticism is predicated on the existence of such hidden knowledge, but brief references to private teachings of Jesus have also survived in the canonic Scripture as did warning by the Christ that there would be false prophets or false teachers. Irenaeus' opponents also claimed that the wellsprings of divine inspiration were not dried up, which is the doctrine of continuing revelation.
The Spanish ascetic Priscillian of Avila was the first person to be executed for heresy, only sixty years after the First Council of Nicaea, in 385. He was executed at the orders of Emperor Magnus Maximus, over the procedural objections of bishops Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours, who claimed the Churches' right to punish its own. Although Priscillian of Avila was the first person to be executed for heresy there are instances of violence between Christians in the first centuries caused by disagreements of correct doctrine.
The earliest Christian heresies were generally Christological in nature, that is, they denied either Christ's (eternal) divinity or humanity. For example, Docetism held that Jesus' humanity was merely an illusion, thus denying the incarnation; whereas Arianism held that Jesus was not eternally divine. Most of these groups were dualistic, maintaining that reality was composed into two radically opposing parts: matter, usually seen as evil, and spirit, seen as good. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, held that both the material and spiritual worlds were created by God and were therefore both good, and that this was represented in the unified divine and human natures of Christ.
The Pattern of Christian Truth, written by H. E. W. Turner, is one of many scholarly responses to the concept of early Christian origins as being ambiguous. Turner's response was in objection to Bauer's. In 2006 Scholar Darrell Bock addressed Walter Bauer's theory, stating that it does not show an equality between the established church and outsiders including Simon Magus. In The Cambridge History of Christianity Volume 1 History of Christianity Volume 1, Origins to Constantine, Walter Bauer hypothesis was addressed again this time in the introduction of the book it states each article addressed the uniqueness of each early Christian community but stated that the tenets of the mainstream or catholic church insured that each early Christian community did not remain isolated. The Russian philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov stated that the very church was the idea of submission and compromise of the individual to God through the idea of catholic or the Russian equivalent sobornost. Russian Orthodox theologian Father Georges Florovsky addressed the concept of sobornost as the concept of Orthodox Christianity after rejecting the World Church Council as being catholic or orthodox simply because it expressed unity in Christ. Florovksy stating as an apology that the very tenet of catholic or sobornost was the original church's response (through the patristic works of the early fathers) to the idea that there where multiple orthodoxies and no real heresies.
According to Stephen L. Harris, the gospel of John both includes gnostic elements and refutes gnostic beliefs. It presents a dualistic universe of light and dark, spirit and matter, good and evil, much like the gnostic(or Essene) accounts. Instead of escaping the material world, however, Jesus bridges the spiritual and physical worlds. John also equates eternal life with knowledge of God and Jesus Christ (17:3).
The gospel of Thomas has some gnostic elements but lacks the full gnostic cosmology. The scene in John with "doubting Thomas," in which he ascertains that the resurrected Jesus is physical, refutes the gnostic idea that Jesus returned to spirit form after death. The story might be an attempt to undermine the gospel of Thomas.
Christian opposition to gnostic ideas appear in early Christian writings (cf. 1 John , Book of Revelation (see the Nicolaitanes) and the Letter of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans) and many church fathers and Christian saints (see Anti-Gnosticism stub).
Some scholars believe that there were at least three distinct divisions within the Christian movement of the 1st century: the Jewish Christians (led by the Apostle James the Just, with Jesus's disciples, and their followers), Pauline Christians (followers of Paul of Tarsus) and Gnostic Christians (people who generally believed that salvation came through learned knowledge and introspection — see, for example, and ). Other scholars believe that Gnostic Christianity was a later development, sometime around the middle or late second century, around the time of Valentinus. Gnosticism was in turn made up of many smaller groups, some of which did not claim any connection to Jesus Christ. In the case of the Mandaeism gnosticism Jesus is referred to as a liar and false prophet. A modern view is argued that Marcionism is mistakenly reckoned among the Gnostics, and really represents a fourth interpretation of the significance of Jesus. Sethian Gnosticism is depicted as the core set of text that the different sects of Gnosticism based their later works and teachings upon. The earlest of these texts is the Apocalypse of Adam in which the creator God of the Old Testament (and therefore the Jewish and Christian God) is depicted as the evil to mankind.
In 144, the Church in Rome expelled Marcion of Sinope as a heretic. He thereupon set up his own separate ecclesiastical organization, later called Marcionism. Like the Gnostics, he promoted dualism. Unlike the Gnostics, however, he founded his beliefs not on secret knowledge (gnosis) but on the vast difference between what he saw as the "evil" deity of the Old Testament and the God of love of the New, on which he expounded in his Antithesis. Consequently, Marcionists were vehemently anti-Judaism in their beliefs. They rejected The Hebrew Gospel (see also Gospel of the Hebrews) and all the other Gospels with the exception of a ‘revised’ Gospel of Luke, called the Gospel of Marcion, according to most interpretations, however a minority conclusion is the reverse, that the current Gospel of Luke is based on Marcion's Gospel.
Marcion argued that Christianity should be solely based on Christian Love. He went so far as to say that Jesus’ mission was to overthrow Demiurge -- the fickle, cruel, despotic God of the Old Testament -- and replace Him with the Supreme God of Love whom Jesus came to reveal, see also Antithesis of the Law. Marcion was labeled a gnostic by Irenaeus. Irenaeus' labeled Marcion this because of Marcion expressing this core gnostic belief (see the Sethian and Ophites gnostics), that the creator God of the Jews and the Old Testament was Satan, the devil, the cause of evil to mankind. Or in essence that the Jews, Christians (and anyone who worshipped the creator of the material world the Pagans too) was worshiping the devil. This position, he said, was supported by the ten Epistles of Paul that Marcion also accepted. His writing had a profound effect upon the development of Christianity and the canon.
In the 2nd century, Montanism, named after its founder Montanus, spread across the Roman Empire . It even boasted Tertullian as a convert. The sect's ecstasy, speaking in tongues, and other details are similar to those found in Pentecostalism. Its believers followed the beliefs of chastity, including forbidding remarriage. Martyrs were emphasized in this Christian heresy, as Montanus preached that if a follower died as a martyr, he was forgiven of all his sins in his death and sacrifice.
While the term is often used by laymen to indicate any non orthodox belief such as Paganism, by definition heresy can only be committed by someone who considers himself a Christian, but rejects the teachings of the Catholic Church. A person who completely renounces Christianity is not considered a heretic, but an apostate, and a person who renounces the authority of the Church but not its teachings is a schismatic.
The Church makes several distinctions as to the seriousness of an individual heterodoxy and its closeness to true heresy. Only a belief that directly contravenes an Article of Faith, or that has been explicitly rejected by the Church, is labelled as actual "heresy."
Canon 751 of the Catholic Church's Code of Canon law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 (abbreviated "C.I.C." for Codex Iuris Canonici), the juridical systematization of ancient law currently binding the world's one billion Catholics, defines heresy as the following: "Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith." The essential elements of canonical heresy therefore technically comprise 1) obstinacy, or continuation in time; 2) denial (a proposition contrary or contradictory in formal logic to a dogma) or doubt (a posited opinion, not being a firm denial, of the contrary or contradictory proposition to a dogma); 3) after reception of valid baptism; 4) of a truth categorized as being of "Divine and Catholic Faith," meaning contained directly within either Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition per Can. 750 par. 1 C.I.C. ("de fide divina") AND proposed as 'de fide divina' by either a Pope having spoken solemnly "ex cathedra" on his own (example: dogmatic definition of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950), or defined solemnly by an Ecumenical Council in unison with a Pope (ex: the definition of the Divinity of Christ in the Council of Chalcedon) ("de fide catholica").
An important distinction is that between formal and material heresy. The difference is one of the heretic's subjective belief about his opinion. The heretic who is aware that his belief is at odds with Catholic teaching and yet continues to cling to his belief pertinaciously is a formal heretic. This sort of heresy is sinful because in this case the heretic knowingly holds an opinion that, in the words of the first edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, "is destructive of the virtue of Christian faith . . . disturbs the unity, and challenges the Divine authority, of the Church" and "strikes at the very source of faith." Material heresy, on the other hand, means that the individual is unaware that his heretical opinion denies, in the words of Canon 751, "some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith." The opinion of a material heretic is still heresy, and it produces the same objective results as formal heresy, but because of his ignorance he commits no sin by holding it.
The penalty for a baptized Catholic above the age of 18 who obstinately, publicly, and voluntarily manifests his or her adherence to an objective heresy is automatic excommunication ("latae sententiae") according to Can. 1364 par.1 C.I.C..
A belief that the church has not directly rejected, or that is at variance with less important church teachings, is given the label, sententia haeresi proxima, meaning "opinion approaching heresy." A theological argument, belief, or theory that does not constitute heresy in itself, but which leads to conclusions which might be held to do so, is termed propositio theologice erronea, or "erroneous theological proposition." Finally, if the theological position only suggests but does not necessarily lead to a doctrinal conflict, it might be given the even milder label of sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens, meaning "opinion suspected, or savoring, of heresy."
Some significant controversies of doctrine have risen over the course of history. At times there have been many heresies over single points of doctrine, particularly in regard to the nature of the Trinity, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the immaculate conception.
The first four types were all delivered over to the secular arm. The state usually immediately punished heresy with death sentence. The longest delay could be five days. The custom that the impenitent heretics (the first two types) were cast into the flames alive and the penitent (the third type) were first strangled or hanged and then burned was not always observed.
In the early church, heresies were sometimes determined by a selected council of bishops, or ecumenical council, such as the First Council of Nicaea and promulgated by the Pope and the bishops under him. The orthodox position was established at the council, and all who failed to adhere to it would thereafter be considered heretics. The church had little power to actually punish heretics in the early years, other than by excommunication. To those who accepted it, an excommunication was the worst form of punishment possible, as it separated the individual from the body of Christ, his Church, and, if the sentence accurately reflected God's judgment, meant the denial of salvation. Excommunication, or even the threat of excommunication, was enough to convince many a heretic to renounce his views. Priscillian achieved the distinction of becoming the first Christian burned alive for heresy in 385 at Treves.
In the early Middle Ages (c.450-1100,) reports of heresy became rare. How much this was the result of improved conformity, how much the inadequacy and heterogeny of episcopal supervision, is in question. From the late 11th century onward, heresy once again came to be a concern for catholic authorities, as reports became increasingly common. The reasons for this are still not fully understood, but the causes for this new period of heresy include popular response to the 11th century clerical reform movement, greater lay familiarity with the bible, exclusion of lay people from sacramental activity, and more rigorous definition and supervision of Catholic dogma. The question of how heresy should be suppressed was not resolved, and there was initially substantial clerical resistance to the use of physical force by secular authorities to correct spiritual deviance. As heresy was viewed with increasing concern by the papacy, however, the "secular arm" was used more frequently and freely during the twelfth century and afterward.
In later years, the Church instituted the Inquisition, an official body charged with the suppression of heresy. This began as an extension and more rigorous enforcement of pre-existing episcopal powers (possessed, but little used, by bishops in the early middle ages) to enquire about and suppress heresy, but later became the domain of selected Dominican monks under the direct power of the Pope. The Inquisition was active in several nations of Europe, particularly where it had fervent support from the civil authority. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was part of the Catholic Church's efforts to crush the Cathars. It is linked to the movement now known as the Medieval Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was particularly brutal in its methods, which included the burning at the stake of many heretics. However, it was initiated and substantially controlled by King Ferdinand of Spain rather than the Church; King Ferdinand used political leverage to obtain the Church's tacit approval. Another example of a medieval heretic movement is the Hussite movement in the Czech lands in the early 1400s.
It is widely reported that the last person to be burned alive at the stake on orders from Rome was Giordano Bruno, executed in 1600 for a collection of heretical beliefs including Copernicanism and (probably more important) an unlimited universe with innumerable inhabited worlds. The last case of an execution at an auto de fe by the Spanish Inquisition was the schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoll, accused of deism and executed by garroting July 26, 1826 in Valencia after a two-year trial.
The development of the printing press greatly hampered the ability of the church to suppress dissidents, with the result that Martin Luther was able to successfully fight the Papacy and forge the Protestant Reformation.
Well into the twentieth century, Catholics - even if no longer resorting to persecution - still defined Protestants as heretics. Thus, Hillaire Belloc - in his time one of the most conspicuous speakers for Catholicism in Britain - was outspoken about the "Protestant heresy". He even defined Islam as being "a Christian heresy", on the grounds that Muslims accept many of the tenets of Christianity but deny the godhood of Jesus (see Hilaire Belloc#On Islam).
However, in the second half of the century - and especially in the wake of Vatican II - the Catholic Church, in the spirit of ecumenism, tends not to refer to Protestantism as a heresy nowadays, even if the teachings of Protestantism are indeed heretical from a Catholic perspective. Modern usage favors referring to Protestants as "separated brethren" rather than "heretics", although the latter is still on occasion used vis-a-vis Catholics who abandon their Church to join a Protestant denomination. Many Catholics consider Protestantism to be material rather than formal heresy, and thus non-culpable.
Some of the doctrines of Protestantism that the Catholic Church considers heretical are the belief that the Bible is the only source and rule of faith ("sola scriptura"), that faith alone can lead to salvation ("sola fide") and that there is no sacramental, ministerial priesthood attained by ordination, but only a universal priesthood of all believers.
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