The concern to downplay the negative meaning that Christian use has given the term heresy reflects the modern agenda, which generally finds the term distasteful; it does not uncover a supposedly right or better meaning of the term. Heresy is one of several conditions labeled by the church as hazardous. Schism, apostasy, and belief in another religion or in no religion are others. Heretics, apostates, and schismatics are more closely related to the church than others, for they had at one time been insiders. Heretics still consider themselves insiders, although the church rejects them for having willfully rejected some essential element of faith.
Apostates, like heretics, were once insiders, but they have rejected the faith, willfully and in toto. They chose to be outsiders, and they are so counted by the church. Schismatics had also once been insiders. Unlike heretics and apostates, however, schismatics have not rejected essential elements of the faith either in part or in full; rather, they have rejected the recognized authoritative apparatus and discipline of the church in some way. Pagans or heathens or infidels and atheists, unlike the other three groups, are not defined in terms of a past association with the church.
The church's most difficult labeling has been whether to judge a group as schismatic or heretical; all the other categories are clear. From the early church's viewpoint, heresy and heretics were as dangerous a foe as the church would encounter, for heresy targeted the essentials by which the group's self-understanding had significance and substance.
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From the earliest Christian writers who addressed perceived dangerous deviations in beliefs, unmistakably sharp language was used routinely. Those who distorted the truth were "ravening wolves," according to the author of Acts — Ignatius of Antioch c.
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Their beliefs were "not the planting of the Father" Letter to the Philadelphians 3. The fate of heretical teachers and their followers is "unquenchable fire" Letter to the Ephesians By the latter part of the second century, numerous books attacking Christian heretics circulated. The best known of these was written by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons.
His massive treatise against Gnosticism, Detection and Overthrow of the Pretended but False Gnosis more often referred to simply as Against Heresies , became a template for other refutations of heresy. The church claimed to possess "the faith that was once delivered to the saints" Jude — the true apostolic faith. Early Christian leaders recognized the need to trace heresy to another source, one more hostile and foreign to the circle of Jesus and the apostles, for if the heretics could successfully press their claim that their traditions stemmed from Jesus or the apostles, the heretics might be the faithful bearers of truth and the church itself the heretic.
Christian heretical groups understood this principle as keenly as the orthodox did, and they made every effort to locate their traditions in Letter to the Ephesians teaching or that of Jesus' close associates. The Gnostics, for example, spoke of secret knowledge that had been handed down privately by Jesus to a few select disciples, and finally to the Gnostics.
But the church countered, tracing Gnostic heresies back to the arch-heretic Simon Magus , who according to early Christian tradition was condemned by Peter himself Acts — The church, largely through its antiheresy writers, presented a strict schema of the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy. Orthodoxy came first; heresy, a deviation from the truth, came later. As Origen, the leading theologian of the third century, declared: "All heretics at first are believers; then later they swerve from the rule of faith.
His work, which covered Christianity's first three hundred years, informed Christian understanding for centuries after that. Given that heresy was perceived to endanger the essence of Christian faith, the church quickly developed tools by which to identify and curb heresy. During the second century, four tools began to be refined: canon, creed, clergy, and councils.
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By the fourth century, these had reached a fairly stable structure. The canon scripture was the collection of approved writings judged to have authoritative status. By the end of the first century, many of Paul's letters had been collected and were in distribution.
By the end of the second century, a collection not unlike the present New Testament was in wide use. Two concerns prompted the establishment of a canon.
Some groups, such as the Marcionites, rejected documents that were treated by the church as authoritative. Other groups, such as the Gnostics, promoted new documents to support their novel theological positions, and they presented these documents as authoritative. Against such interests, the church approved a formal canon, which specified the books that had authoritative status and from which the church could distinguish orthodox from heretical beliefs.
The claim was that the church's canon had apostolic authorship or authority. The creed from the Latin credo , "I believe" was a condensed statement of essential beliefs, and in substance and structure reflected the Rule of Faith referred to in second- and third-century writings. The interrogatory form of the creed "Do you believe … " appears to have been the earlier, being used as a test of the orthodoxy of a candidate prior to baptism; from the mid-fourth century, the declaratory form "I believe … " became more familiar.
The primary creed Niceno — Constantinopolitan, or more simply Nicene was established by the councils at Nicaea ce and Constantinople ce , and confirmed at Chalcedon ce. The creed helped to consolidate the core beliefs of widely dispersed churches, and it provided a condensed test by which to distinguish the heretic from the orthodox. By the early second century, principal authority was being consolidated in the hands of the local bishops, under whom were presbyters priests and deacons.
Toward the end of the century the concept of apostolic succession was developed. This linked the bishops in a line back to the apostles; through this line of bishops the truth was passed on and guaranteed. The church argued that those outside the bishop's church could make no comparable claim or offer such certain guarantee. Bishops frequently met in councils to regulate the faith. Creeds were approved there, and individuals were frequently tried and condemned as heretics at the sessions.
Bishops were expected to enforce the council's judgment against people in their own territories who confessed the condemned belief. The effectiveness of this repression often depended on which side a bishop or the emperor supported. The Arian-Nicene conflicts of the fourth century illustrate that a decision by a council did not always bring about immediate conformity.
These early tools were so effective that they continued to be used as the principle machinery for identifying and confronting heresy well into the modern period. In the early centuries, the charge of heresy would have brought social stigma within the Christian circle, but little else. The earliest punishment for heresy was excommunication, which meant that heretics were excluded from the fundamental rite of the church, the Eucharist. Such exclusion was often, in itself, the most effective tool by which to recover erring members. In the early s, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.
The state and church became allied in common cause, and the power of the church increased considerably. Under a Christian empire, the charge of heresy brought serious legal jeopardy, as well as social stigma. In the interests of consensus, Constantine called the first Ecumenical universal Council at Nicaea in ce to deal with what came to be known as Arianism, part of the broader trinitarian controversy. This debate focused on the relationship of the Son Logos to the Father. Arianism, the loser in the debate, came to be viewed as the archetypical heresy. Many of the beliefs that were condemned as heresy following the Arian controversy were responses to questions that arose from the Arian debate; most therefore dealt with some question about the nature of Jesus Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Monothelitism, together referred to as the Christological controversies.
The Christian state treated heretics much the same as the pagan state had treated all Christians prior to Constantine's conversion. In each case, the condemned faced serious legal jeopardy, with potential loss of property, and exile or execution. Heresy was pronounced a capital crime in , and by the s burning at the stake had become the common fate of heretics. At times, the interests of the church and state clashed, and sometimes the political leaders were more sympathetic with the theologically losing side the heretics , which then placed the orthodox in jeopardy.
But, in theory, church and state saw themselves with common interests and allied in a common cause. In the modern period, few church-state alliances exist, and individuals now judged as heretics are at risk of excommunication by the church, but little more. It may seem that the church was often involved in the suppression of heretics. In theory, however, it was difficult for someone to earn the label "heretic. To distinguish between degrees of heresy, the church spoke of objective material heresy and the more serious kind, formal heresy.
After the great trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, the fight with heresy subsided, as such beliefs were largely vanquished as with Arianism or were located in lands no longer under the church's control as with Monophysitism and Nestorianism, which largely had come under the new Muslim empire in the s.
Muslims became the more serious threat to both eastern and western Christians. By the s the western church and papacy were at the height of their power. At the same time, scholastic speculation flourished as Europe became reacquainted with lost elements of classical learning, new reformist monastic orders and lay movements challenged the norm, and a sense of truth and error was sharpened from European Christendom's conflict with Islam. Crusades against the Muslim infidels in the Holy Land were easily turned to crusades against Christian heretics within Europe as a developing medieval consensus brought a reinvigorated scrutiny of ideas.
The medieval approach to heresy differed from ancient practice.
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Suspect beliefs were simply associated with some ancient error, which had already been stamped as heretical by the ancient church. Such was the case with the dualism of the Cathars in southern France, condemned as a revival of Gnostic and Manichaean ideas rejected by the church a thousand years earlier. Once a contemporary belief had been linked to an ancient heresy, the church could act to suppress the group that espoused such views without engaging in the kinds of debates by which the ancient church had worked out boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy.
The zeal against heresy and the techniques employed by orthodox authorities varied from place to place. The Spanish Inquisition and the crusades against the Cathars mark what are viewed as the most notorious aspects of the medieval church's suppression of heresy with witnesses coerced and confessions gained under torture. Other efforts included the establishment of the Dominican order in the early s; its mission was to correct heretical beliefs by focused and informed preaching.
Shortly after the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church formed the Congregation of the Holy Office now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to deal with heresy.