Heresy and Apostasy

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Heresy is derived from a Greek word literally meaning "a choice." St. Irenaeus (c. 120 to 140c. 200 to 203) defined heresy as deviation from the standard of sound doctrine. This definition provided a model for subsequent conceptions of heresy. Referring to the Greek word, St. Jerome (c. 347419 or 420) wrote that each one chooses the rule that one judges to be the best. So, he continued, "anyone who understands Scripture in a way other than the Holy Spirit, which dictated how Scripture should be written, demands would be called heretic, even if he is not excluded from the Church, and derives from the work of the flesh because he chooses the worst." The voluntary choice of a carnal meaning leads a reader of Scripture to shape a doctrine that contradicts the teaching of the church, thereby falling into heresy. Heresy, then, was a departure from the unity of the faith, while believing to subscribe to the Christian faith. The reverse side of it is the church's assertion of doctrinal authority. Heresy, denial or doubt of any defined doctrine, is sharply distinguished from apostasy, which denotes deliberate abandonment of the Christian faith itself. Hence, in a Christian context, heretics do not include the people of other faiths like the Jews and the Muslims, although they were not immune from religious persecution along with Christian heretics. The distinction between schism and heresy, on the other hand, is not as clear, since both concepts denote the separation from unity; indeed, the schism between the Western and Eastern Churches generated the accusation by both churches of the other being heretical rather than schismatic.

Early Christianity

The earliest form of Christian heresy originates in Jewish sectarianism. The teachings of the Gnostic master Simon of Samaria, which combined Jewish teaching with some Christian doctrines, appear in the early catalogue of heretics, and Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260c. 339) recorded him as the prime author of every kind of heresy. Perhaps the most prominent of heresies is Arianism, which claimed that Christ was mere creation, thereby rejecting the eternity of the Son of God. The Arian view, despite official condemnation by Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria (St. Alexander; c. 250328), continued to spread until the emperor Constantine's (ruled 306337) call for unity at the Council of Nicaea (325). Among other early Christian heresies were Manichaeism and Donatism. Manichaeism was a Gnostic dualistic doctrine influenced by St. Paul's teaching, whilst Donatism was a schismatic group in the African church dissenting from the appointment of Caecillian as bishop of Carthage. Faced by the Donatist controversy, St. Augustine of Hippo (354430), a Manichaean before his spiritual conversion, was a powerful proponent of the use of state punishment for the leaders of heresy. For Augustine, it is not only right for the public authority to use compulsive measures to punish wrongdoers, since in so doing they are acting on behalf of God. It is also an act of charity that is intended to correct and reform those who are punished.

In the twelfth century, speculative theologians like Peter Abelard and St. Bernard of Clairvaux viewed heretics as the product of pride and the aspiration for fame. But heresy was not only the concern of doctrinal theology but also of canon law. Once Gratian of Bologna produced the Decretum (c. 1140), the juristic concept of heresy was established: the essential feature of heresy was considered pertinacity or obstinacy. Heresy was reduced to repeated refusals to submit to doctrinal correction by ecclesiastical authority. Heresy, therefore, required the church's authority to declare it; typically, it was maintained that the authority to declare heresy rested with the pope. This juristic idea of heresy pervaded the practice of inquisition and censure, which was triggered by the rise of popular heretical movements such as Cathars and Waldensians. The Cathars are a loosely identified group of heretics who embraced dualism: a belief that there are two powers in the universe, good and omnipotent God and its opponent Devil. Catharism, which increased its influence rapidly in Western Europe in the twelfth century, did not constitute a theologically coherent unity. The Albigensians, a rigorous branch of the Cathars who were mainly based in Southern France, were condemned by successive councils including the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

Faced by the rapid and widespread proliferation of popular heresy, Pope Innocent III (ruled 11981216) recognized the urgent need for the efficient prosecution of heretics; therefore, he replaced the hitherto widely practiced accusatorial procedure with inquisitorial practice, thereby curtailing the presumption of innocence. This "persecuting" culture penetrated the academic community from the late thirteenth century onward; the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier's condemnation of 219 propositions (1277) restricted academic freedom and opened the way to the condemnation of the idiosyncratic teachings of thinkers like Peter John Olivi, Jean de Pouilly, and Thomas Waleys. Peter Olivi's teaching of usus pauper the rigorous practice of poverty that rejects ownership and restricts use of the goodsattracted a number of followers constituting the Spiritual Franciscans, a significant heretical group of the "nonconformist" friars.

Heresy, however, was not a problem that could be observed among theologians and lay believers alone. Heretical ecclesiastics, including the pope, were an ecclesiological dilemma that troubled theologians and canonists alike, and the classical solution to this problem was that a heretical pope would be ipso facto deposed. However, this argument is, in practical terms, insignificant because no one is supposed to be superior to the pope in the ecclesiastical order. In his involvement with the dispute between the Avignon papacy and the Friars Minor, the Franciscan William of Ockham (c. 1285c. 1347) propounded an extensive discourse on heresy with special reference to papal heresy. In it he redefined heresy as deliberate rejection of the truth of Christian doctrine manifested in the Bible and other doctrinal sources. Thus, Ockham reduced heresy to an interpretative category of theological enquiry into doctrinal texts, thereby rejecting the juristic idea of heresy as repeated disobedience to ecclesiastical authority. This implied that the discovery of heresy requires no ecclesiastical authority. This cognitive perspective on heresy was also evident in the polemical writings of the Italian political philosopher Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280c. 1343), who proposed that the detection of heresy should be entrusted to the experts of Scripture rather than the holders of the ecclesiastical office.

The Oxford philosopher John Wycliffe's (c. 13301384) rejection of the scriptural foundations of religious lifepapal authority and the mendicant orders in particularand his attack on the doctrine of transubstantiation inspired the popular heretical movement of Lollardy. The Lollards were the loyal heir of Wycliffe's teaching of sola scriptura ; the doctrinal appeal to the Bible alone was an antithesis to the contemporary practice of Roman Catholic Christianity. The influence of Wycliffe's teaching reached beyond England; in Bohemia, Jan Hus (1372 or 13731415) assimilated the Wycliffite reformative ecclesiology, which resulted in his official condemnation and execution at the Council of Constance (14141418)

Non-Christian Heresy

Heresy is not an idea known to Christian civilization alone. The Islamic concept equivalent to heresy may be bid'a, meaning literally "deviation": the counterconcept of sunna, meaning the tradition established by Muhammad. Unlike heresy, bid'a does not always have negative denotation; departure from the tradition may be tolerated as innovation, and the extreme deviation alone may be subject to condemnation. Zandaqa the idea that rejects the existence or omnipotence of God, as in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeismexemplifies Islamic heresy. The Islamic concept equivalent to apostasy is called irtidat or ridda, which is according to the Koran subject to death penalty or life imprisonment.

Heresy seems to be an idea whose application is overwhelmingly confined to monotheistic religions. While occasional attempts have been made to regularize the teachings of Confucianism, and thus to create a division between orthodoxy and heresy, these have not succeeded for long. The revealed word of a single god implies heterodoxy in a way that the assumptions about supernatural belief in other religions do not.

See also Christianity ; Ecumenism ; Islam ; Manichaeism ; Orthodoxy ; Religion ; Toleration .


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Lambert, Malcolm. Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Laursen, John Christian, ed. Histories of Heresy in Early Modern Europe: For, against, and beyond Persecution and Toleration. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

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Moore, R. I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 9501250. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19711989.

Takashi Shogimen