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What is Heresy? Heresy is a series of religious beliefs and practices that the established (orthodox) Church deems false, and heretics are the people who support these unorthodox beliefs and practices. Heresy is therefore a firm commitment of the will and not just belief. As these definitions suggest, defining heresy is always subjective. What is heresy to one group of believers may be orthodoxy to another, and people who are labeled heretics can establish orthodoxies of their own and call others heretics. In medieval Christendom defining a heretic was ostensibly simple because everyone—except small enclaves of

Jews or Muslims—was Christian as defined by the one Christian Church. Even within Christianity, however, there were differences between Eastern and Western Christianity and the definition of orthodox Christianity and its appropriate practices was still evolving during the Middle Ages. For this reason, what was considered heretical also changed with time. By the twelfth century—as orthodoxy was becoming more clearly defined—the strongest and most widespread heretical movements of the medieval period emerged in Europe. Many of these movements had similar characteristics: an urge to flee from worldly concerns, a stress on purity, and a revulsion for material objects, human flesh, and human desires. Many of them also condemned the medieval clergy for insufficient care of lay pastoral needs.

Early Christian Heresies and Medieval Christianity. Medieval theologians tended to write about heresies in light of standard classifications handed down from the early Christian centuries. From the first century of Christianity there had been disagreements about the nature of the Trinity, the nature of Jesus, the nature of the Christian Church, and a wide variety of collateral topics. Often medieval churchmen cited classical heresies such as Donatism, Nestorianism, and Pelagianism when condemning challenges to contemporary orthodoxy. Among the most enduring classical heresies were Arianism and Gnosticism. Arians opposed the idea of the Trinity, arguing that it was impossible for God the Son (Christ) to be at the same level as God the Father; thus, they asserted, Christ was a man just like other men. Arianism appealed to the “common sense” of many Christians, especially given the patriarchal nature of classical society and the Germanic tribes into which Christianity spread. Gnosticism was the idea that the world and all physical things in it are corrupt and that salvation, therefore, is purely internal. The Gnostics believed that the goal of a true Christian should be to reject all things of this world, which is at best a battleground between the forces of good (God) and evil (Satan). Gnosticism and Manichaeism, to which it was closely related, flourished in various forms throughout the Middle Ages, one of the most dramatic was found in southern France during the early thirteenth century.

Cathars. Although there were also heretical movements during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, in the twelfth century organized heretical movements seemed to sprout throughout Europe. One of the most influential and dramatic appeared in southern France during the late twelfth century: the Cathars, also known as the Albigen-sians. There were various Cathar strongholds in medieval Europe—northern Italy and southern France around the city of Albi in particular—and each group had some common beliefs. The Cathars believed in two universal principles (dualism): good, which was equated with God and the spirit, and evil, which was linked to Satan and this world. In this schema all natural phenomena, from germination to earthquakes, are caused by the Devil, who governs this world, which is also the only hell human souls will ever know. For orthodox Christianity evil is the absences of good, and dualists seemed to set up the Devil as nearly a second god. For Cathars the goal of man was to free his spirit from everything of this world, including the prison of human flesh, and attain communion with God. In order to achieve this goal, celibacy was considered best, but for those who found themselves unable to give up the pleasures


Carcasonnc was one of the strongholds of the Cathar heresy, and the city suffered greatly during the Albi-gensian Crusade. The following excerpt from a Dominican manual used by inquisitors there in 1248–1249 gives the methods that should be employed when questioning individuals suspected of heresy.

Thereafter, the person is diligently questioned about whether he saw a heretic or Waldcnsian, where and when, how often and with whom, about others who were present; whether he listed to their preaching or exhortation and whether he gave them lodging or arranged shelter for them; whether he conducted them from place to place or otherwise consorted with them or arranged for them to be guided or escorted; whether he ate or drank with them or ate bread blessed by them; whether he gave or sent anything to them; whether he acted as their financial agent or messenger or assistant; whether he held any deposit or anything else of theirs; whether he received the Peace from their book, mouth, shoulder, or elbow; whether he adored a heretic or bowed hit. head or genuflected and said “Bless us” before heretics or whether he was present at their baptisms or confessions; whether he was present at a Walden-sian Lord’s Supper, confessed his sins to them, accepted penance or learned anything from them; whether he was otherwise on familiar terms with or associated with heretics or Waldenscs in any way; whether he made an agreement, heeded requests, or received gifts in return for not telling the truth about himself or others; whether lie advised or persuaded anyone or cause anyone to be persuaded to do any of the foregoing; whether lie knows any other man or woman to have done any of the foregoing; whether he believed in the heretics or their errors.

Finally, after that which he has confessed about himself or testified about other persons on all of these matters—and sometimes on others about which he was questioned, but not without good reason—has been written down, in the presence of one or both of us [the inquisitors], with ;it least two other persons qualified for careful discharge of this ras.k associated with us, he verifies everything which he caused to be recorded. In this way we authenticate the records of the Inquisition as to confessions and depositions, whether they arc prepared by the notary or by another scribe.

And when a region is widely infected we make general inquisition of all persons in the manner just described, entering the names of all of them in the record, even of those who insist that they know nothing about others and have themselves committed no crime, so that if they have lied or if subsequently they commit an offense, as is often found true of a number of persons, it is on record that they have abjured and have been interrogated in detail.

Source; Edward Peters, ed,, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Peftnsylvtma Press, 1980), pp 200–201.

of the flesh, concubinage was preferable to marriage because having a mistress was impermanent. The Cathars also commended abstention from all animal food, except fish. Cathars leaders, called perfecti, traveled the countryside in groups of two or three preaching Cathar doctrines and following—with varying degrees of success—Cathar behavioral standards, including celibacy. The highest good a Cathar could obtain on this earth was the endura, a ritual fast in which a person starved him- or herself to death, thereby showing complete rejection of worldly concerns. Although Cathar doctrines were heretical, most people did not consider them truly dangerous until the Cathars were linked to movements for political independence by southern French nobles. For this reason, when Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against them in 1207-1208 he found ready allies among impoverished northern French nobles. This Albigensian Crusade, which began in 1209, was notoriously bloody. Although the well-known saying of “Slay them all; God will know his own,” which was attributed to crusaders at the siege of Beziers, is apocryphal, there were incidents of massacres involving six thousand people, including women and children. Despite the viciousness of the Albigensian Crusade and the establishment of inquisitorial Church courts in southern France to root out and punish the remaining heretics, Cathars continued to be a strong minority in this region throughout the Middle Ages.

Waldensians. Waldensianism was less a system of belief than a way of life that stressed apostolic poverty and the ministry. Early Waldensians were known for their personal simplicity and poverty, their care for the unfortunate, and their preaching (generally unauthorized). Because of their rejection of many aspects of the institutional Church, including its wealth and worldly possessions, they have often been confused with the Cathars, who were more distinctly dualist than the Waldensians. The Waldensians’ roots can be found in the life of Valdes, a rich businessman in Lyons, France, who in the mid 1170s gave up his family and—after assuring that his wife and children had places in monasteries—donated all his wealth to the poor. Admired by the general population for his exceptional sacrifices and holiness and mistrusted by the clergy because of his rejection of Church control over preaching and the sacraments, Valdes soon attracted a group of followers. Thus far, Valdes’s career sounds much like that of St. Francis, but there were some fundamental differences. Waldensian leaders argued that the vernacular scripture, rather than the Latin version used by the Church, should be the foundation text for all Christians. They also called for the elimination of key aspects of medieval piety such as religious images, pilgrimages, and the belief in purgatory. In this sense, they challenged foundations of medieval Christianity and the right of the Church to legislate for all Christians. For this reason, the Church attempted to curtail Valdes’s


Marguerite Porete exemplifies the learning and personal spirituality that was possible in some Beguine communities. Her book Mirror of Simple Souls is proof of her extensive scriptural knowledge and her familiarity with the work of thinkers such as Bernard of Clairvaux. Her fate and that of her book also reveal the tensions within medieval Christianity. Though the Church feared women who stepped beyond the bounds of traditional piety, at least some of the mysticism in her book found popular acceptance. As Malcolm Lambert has explained, around 1306–1308,

Marguerite Porete of Hainault, one of whose books had already been burnt by the bishop of Cambrai, was arrested for spreading heresy “among simple people and beghards” through another book, and was sent to Paris. There she refused to respond to interrogation, and was convicted of heresy on the strength of some extracts taken from this book, submitted for judgement to a commission of theologians. Her earlier conviction meant that she was guilty of relapse, and she was burnt in Paris in 1310.

The charge was again heretical mysticism, but in this instance we have the heretic’s own work with which to check the veracity of the accusations made against her. By chance, the treatise which caused her conviction and burning, the Mirror of Simple Souls, survived, to circulate anonymously in monasteries and nunneries, in the original and in translation, from the fourteenth century to the present. So little obvious was the heresy in it that hardly any of its readers over the centuries questioned its orthodoxy….

Marguerite was aware of the dangers … and remarked that “simple minds might misunderstand them at their peril.” She was treating of esoteric matters, and it was not a book for the many, although obviously designed for reading aloud in the vernacular. Two factors seem to have weighed in her condemnation: her pertinacy, shown in the repeated dissemination of her views and her refusal to respond to interrogation, and the alleged publicity given to the Mirror among simple people. What might have been possible in an established nunnery, without publicity, appeared not to be allowed to a beguine who wanted to propagate her work. Her views were not fairly represented.

Source: Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, second edition (Oxford, U.K. & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 184–185.

preaching, and by 1184, after Valdes’s death, Waldensian-ism had been declared heretical. Compared to Catharism, however, Waldensian doctrines were closer to the primary doctrines of Christianity. The Waldensians outlasted the thirteenth-century persecutions, mainly in remote parts of Europe and in the lower social classes.

Combating Heresy: Dominicans and Education. The Dominican Order of friars was founded in response to the Albigensian heresy and had a key role in combating the heretical movements of the thirteenth century. In 1206 Dominic Guzman (1170–1221) joined a papal mission against the Albigensians and entered into discussions with their leaders. Near the end of the Albigensian Crusade, around 1215, Dominic founded a religious community with a mission to study in order to preach and teach. In fact, preaching is so central to the Dominican Order that its proper name is the “Order of Preachers.” Dominic and his follows traveled throughout Italy, Spain, and France as well as visiting major cities in other parts of Europe. Because of their emphasis on preaching, Dominicans had to be ordained clergymen and generally had years of university education. Although they took vows of poverty, it was never as central an issue for them as it was for the other great mendicant order: the Franciscans. For the same reason Dominicans put far less emphasis on living a cloistered, or enclosed, life than most medieval son Dominicans and Dominican theology had a strong influence at European universities, and some of the greatest thinkers of medieval Europe were Dominicans, including St. Thomas Aquinas.

Combating Heresy: The Medieval Inquisition. The Dominicans’ emphasis on education, particularly in canon law, made them naturals to staff the new courts that were developed to deal with heretics, and their prevalence in these courts gave them the nickname “hounds of the Lord,” based on a Latin pun on their name: Domini (of the Lord), Canes (hound). The courts they staffed are the most misunderstood institutions in the medieval Church: the Inquisition. Even calling these courts “the” Inquisition is a misnomer because there was no single Inquisition supervised by Rome. Instead, the Inquisition of medieval Europe was a series of courts, staffed by papal delegates, and the name refers to a particular method of legal inquiry, thus the term inquisition used in secular and ecclesiastical courts. There was nothing particularly diabolical about it by medieval standards. In fact, in many cases the medieval inquisitorial courts were more lenient and fair by modern standards than many secular courts. Yet, inquisitorial courts had common procedures that might be surprising. Inquisitors were generally free from episcopal control, and they could proceed against a suspected heretic even if he or she had not been formally accused. According to James B. Given, people called before the inquisitors were forced to testify against themselves or face prosecution for contumacy (contempt of court) or perjury. All court sessions were held in secrecy, and the accused were usually denied legal representation. Moreover, they were rarely told the names of people who testified against them, and inquisitors accepted depositions from people whom canon law barred from testifying—including children, convicted criminals, accomplices, and heretics. Among the best-known medieval inquisitors is Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Palmiers, who conducted an extensive campaign against the Cathars of his region from 1318 to 1325. Some of the books recording the testimonies of witnesses and the accused have survived and are valuable sources of information about Catharism and medieval inquisitorial courts.

The Movement of the Free Spirit. Although Catharism and Waldensianism are probably the best-known medieval heresies, they are not the only ones that spread hundreds of miles. Beginning in the late thirteenth century and throughout the fourteenth, a powerful heretical movement emerged in western Germany (the Rhineland) and in the Low Countries. This movement, known as the heresy of the Free Spirit, stressed the believers’ freedom from not just the institutional Church but from all religious authorities. Basing their argument on the writings of St. Paul, members of the Free Spirit stated that all morally just people were “sons of God.” For this reason, they did not need the sacraments of the Christian Church, including baptism and the eucharist; they had truly free spirits. All who followed this movement believed that everyone in the community of the Free Spirit was morally just and everyone outside the community was not. Because they rejected the sacramental structure of the Church, but especially because they saw themselves as free to make independent moral decisions without the guidelines of the established Church, the Free Spirits were accused of heresy for denying God’s moral laws.

Women and Heresy: The Beguines. Although the medieval Church offered women outlets for their piety—they could become nuns and practice the same sacraments as most men—the Church was influenced by the patriarchal society of which it was a part. In general, female spirituality was more suspect than men’s and fewer opportunities for social and intellectual advancement were open to church-women than to churchmen. Given this situation, it is probably not surprising that many heretical movements found a disproportionate share of their support among women. One of the best-known heresies emerged within communities of Beghards (men) and Beguines (women). The Beghards and Beguines were lay people who did not want to join religious orders but who wished to live a life following basic scriptural tenets and Christian ideals, such as poverty and chastity. They found strong support in the Low Countries, and many towns in modern Belgium and Holland still have buildings that were used by this movement. The Beguines, in particular, faced strong legal obstacles. In medieval society it was rare for a woman to be legally independent; generally, she went from the legal authority of her father to that of her husband and eventually her son. If a woman wanted to be a Beguine, people asked, who would supervise her? The religious orders, such as the Benedictines, were suspicious of Beguines because they were not responsible to canon law or any Rule authorized by a bishop or Pope. Moreover, in regions such as Germany and Holland, Beghards actually preached, and Beguines ministered to the poor and sick and published religious treatises. All these activities were traditionally clerical responsibilities and sources of income for the clergy. Because of their ambiguous legal position and their challenge to the social structures and gender roles of late medieval society, by the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries prosecution of Beguines and Beghards was widespread, and they ended as an organized movement by 1400.


Malcolm Barber, The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages (Harlow, U.K. & New York: Longman, 2000).

James B. Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).

Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars (Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998).

Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, second edition (Oxford, U.K. & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998).


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The words "schism" (σχίσμα) and "heresy" (αρεσις) both appear in the NT, but neither is a technical term in the modern canonico-theological sense. While the NT term "schism" remains quite undifferentiated and undeveloped, the term "heresy" shows the remote beginnings of its later technical orientation.

In Hellenism, heresy (from Gr. αρέομαι, to choose) meant (1) a teaching and (2) a school, e.g., a philosophical school such as the Stoics. In Hellenic and rabbinic Jewry heresy designated a religious party within Judaism (e.g., the Pharisees or Sadducees). In these instances the word has a neutral, nonpejorative sense.

This neutral sense of the word appears in Acts, where St. Paul calls the Pharisees "the strictest sect [heresy] of our religion" (Acts 26.5; see 5.17; 15.5). Nevertheless, when the Jewish lawyer Tertullus referred to Christianity

as "the Nazarene sect" (Acts 24.5), making it simply another party within Judaism (cf. Acts 28.22), St. Paul disavowed this sectarian appellation, saying: "I admit that in serving the God of my forefathers I follow the Way [δóς: see W. Michaelis, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament 5:93], which they call a heresy" (Acts 24.14). For St. Paul Christianity could not be a heresy, or party, in any sense, much less a heretical enclave within Judaism.

When St. Paul uses the term "heresy" in a Christian context, the meaning is pejorative, standing for splinter groupings or movements within the Christian community that threaten Church unity (Gal 5.20; 1 Cor 11.19). Paul speaks also of the "heretical man" (Ti 3.10), or the sectarian-minded man, in a similar reproving way.

2 Pt 2.1 warns of "lying teachers who will bring in destructive sects," thus marking the start of a sharper delineation of the word "heresy" in the direction of the later technical term. Here the heresy, burdened with heterodoxy, seemingly becomes a centrifugal movement dividing the Church.

Patristic Era. From the late 2d century onward the Fathers usually discriminated between heresy and schism. Both were understood not as abstract errors or as individual attitudes but rather as organized bodies or sects outside the Catholic Church. Heresy involved doctrinal error, whereas schism meant orthodox dissent. St. Augustine wrote: "you are a schismatic by your sacrilegious separation and a heretic by your sacrilegious doctrine" (C. Gaud. 2.9.10; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 53:267). "Heretics violate the faith by thinking falsely about God, while schismatics break away from fraternal love by their wicked separations, although they believe as we do" (Fid. et symb. 8.21; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 41:27). The Fathers, however, frequently used the two terms more or less interchangeably. Thus Cyprian called the Novatians schismatics and heretics without any distinction; and the first Council of Toledo (400) spoke of a man returning to the Church "de haereticorum schismate" (cap. 12; Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 3:1000). To many Fathers it seemed otiose to make a nice distinction between heresy and schism, when, pastorally and religiously, the crucial fact was that both were impious counterfeit communions living outside the true Church (see Cyprian, Epist. 69.1; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 3.2:749750). As both issued in corporate separation from the common life of the Church, it did not much matter whether that alienation came from an obdurate persistence in false doctrine or from a crooked desire to live apart from the disciplined life and ordered worship established by the Church.

Some Fathers saw in protracted schism an inbuilt bias toward heresy; there is in schism a latent theological problem that will work its way to the surface, or else some theological ground will be elaborated to bolster up the schism. St. Jerome wrote: "There is no schism which does not invent some heresy for itself in order to justify its departure from the Church" (In Titum 3.1011; Patrologia Latina 26:598). St. Augustine also tended to look on heresy as "a long-standing schism" (C. Cresc. 2.7.9; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 52:367).

But "not all error is heresy" (St. Augustine, Haer.; Patrologia Latina 42:19); and "not every error betrays godlessness" (Pope Celestine I, Epist. 25.3; Patrologia Latina 50:550). Wherever there is simple error or misunderstanding as to the faith, there is no heresy, provided there is fundamental docility to the teaching of the Church. In order to have heresy there must be the stubborn inflexible will, once the falsity of the doctrine in question has become clear to the Church and has been made clear to the erring Christian, to persist in denying the doctrine taught and received by the Catholic Church. Such a willfully obdurate posture, which turns its face against the whole Church and which swarms to form its own conventicle, is the mark of true heresy, which the Fathers reprobated as gravely sinful. Although the presumption of bad faith, wherever heresy was present, strongly influenced the judgment of the Fathers (see J. Korbacher, Ausserhalb der Kirche kein Heil? [Munich 1963] 155164), still St. Augustine held that those who have not fathered the error but received it from others, who do not cling to it pertinaciously but seek the truth, "are by no means to be reckoned among the heretics" (Epist. 43.1; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 34.2:85).

The Fathers emphasized the religio-moral side of heresy, with its causes and consequences under this aspect; they stressed also its corporate divisive stance.

Middle Ages and After. Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory dominated the thinking of the medieval scholastics on the theme of heresy. Like the Fathers, so too the scholastics delineated only in a very generic way what is, objectively speaking, the heterodox teaching required to constitute heresy; they laid much more stress on the moral aspect of heresy, i.e., on the sin of heresy with its willful, proud isolation from the communion of the faithful, its contemptuous rejection of Church discipline, and its tragic religious consequences for the life of the believer. It was not so much abstract heresy that was cataloged, as the guilty heretic rebuked.

Notwithstanding the scholastics' efforts to systematize the concept of heresy, the term exhibits a notable elasticity in its use. From the Middle Ages until well beyond the time of Trent, the basic correlative concepts, faith and heresy, were often used, both theologically (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 11.2; 1a, 32.4; In 1 sent. 33.1.5) and in Church documents (Enchiridion symbolorum 902, 906, 1800) with a less precise content and a wider application than is customary today. Faith was often taken globally to comprise everything of vital significance for a truly Christian and ecclesial way of thinking and for a sound life of faitheverything, therefore, falling within the competence of the Church's discipline of faith. Correspondingly, a heretic was one willfully guilty of a stubborn antagonism to this docile faith-attitude, one whose conduct jeopardized the trueness and soundness of his life of faith. Intractability and pertinacity, coupled with a practical contempt for the teaching authority of the Church, played a decisive role in heresy so conceived. Such a vital and pastoral view of heresy takes in a wider range of reprehensible conduct than the denial of formally revealed truths taught by the Church. It includes every serious threat to the integrity of the life of faith and every stubborn contemptuous rejection of Church discipline.

The medieval scholastics, with their optimistic view of the powers of human reason to achieve the truth, took a correspondingly poor view, morally speaking, of any error, especially heresy. Hence the conviction, long dominant, that heresy's fellow was bad faith; and it was a long while before heresy was reckoned as falling within the ambit of inculpable error.

Since the 17th and 18th centuries, concomitantly with the fuller development of the treatise of theological criteriology, heresy became much more predominantly a doctrinal censure, designating objectively heterodox doctrine as that which contravenes a truth of divine and Catholic faith. In this orientation the religio-moral subjective aspects of heresy are not particularly attended to, although there are indications today that the factor of personal guilt is being reintegrated into the concept of heresy. See Codex iuris canonici c. 751 for the modern concept of heresy.

See Also: censure, theological; rule of faith; thinking with the church, rules for; unity of faith; unity of the church.

Bibliography: j. brosch, Das Wesen der Häresie (Bonn 1936). h. e. w. turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (London 1954). k. rahner, On Heresy (New York 1964). m. meinertz, "σχίσμα und αρεσις im N.T.," Biblische Zeitschrift 1 (1957) 114118. j. de guibert, "La Notion d'hérésie chez Saint Augustin," Bulletin de littérature ecclésiastique 11 (1920) 368382. g.w. h. lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford 1961) fasc. 1, p. 51. a. lang, "Der Bedeutungswandel der Begriffe 'fides' und 'haeresis' und die dogmatische Wertung der Konzilsentscheidungen von Vienne und Trient," Münchener theologische Zeitschrift 4 (1953) 133146.

[f. x. lawlor/eds.]


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HERESY , belief in ideas contrary to those advocated by religious authorities. Because Judaism has no one official formulation of dogma against which heresy can be defined, it has no clear-cut definition of heresy. A heretic may be distinguished from an apostate in that, although he holds beliefs which are contrary to currently accepted doctrines, he does not renounce his religion and often believes that he represents the true tradition. Since the heretic is still a Jew, various halakhic questions concerning his relationship to the Jewish community arise, such as whether he may offer a sacrifice, be counted in a minyan, or have his testimony admitted as evidence in a Jewish court (Ḥul. 13a; Git. 45b; Av. Zar. 32b; Sh. Ar., Ḥm 34:22).

The Bible, although it does not have a specific term for heretic, regards as a heretic one who "whores after strange gods." It sets forth procedures to suppress idolatry and prescribes stoning for anyone who introduces idolatry into the community (Deut. 13:7–12).

Heresy in the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature

In talmudic literature a number of terms are used to refer to heretics, *min, *apikoros, kofer, and mumar, each of which also has other meanings. Min is the most common term and the one that appeared originally in the 12th petition of the daily *Amidah. Some identify the talmudic minim with the Judeo-Christians, others with unspecified groups who denied rabbinic authority and/or the belief in the coming of the Messiah. There is an early tradition that there were 24 groups of minim as early as the destruction of the Second Temple (tj, Sanh. 10:29c). Among the errors of the minim, the Talmud lists denial of God's unity; belief in an independent divinity of evil; the portrayal of God as a cruel jester (Sanh. 38b–39a); and the denial of Israel's chosenness (Sanh. 99a), physical resurrection, and the coming of the Messiah (Sanh. 91a). *Maimonides identified minut with atheism, with the denial of God's unity and incorporeality, with the denial of creation ex nihilo, and with the belief in a power intermediary between God and man (Yad, Teshuvah 3:7).

The term apikoros seems to be derived from the *Epicureans, whose skeptical naturalism denied divine providence, and hence, divine retribution. The sages in accordance with their method of interpretation derived apikoros from an Aramaic form of the root p-k-r-, "to be free of restraint" (Sanh. 38b). The suggestion is that one who denies divine providence and retribution will feel free not to obey the laws of the Torah. In the Talmud the term apikoros refers to the *Sadducees (Kid. 66a); to those who denigrate rabbinic authority even in such seemingly insignificant ways as calling a sage by his first name; and to those who shame neighbors before the sages (Sanh. 99b). Maimonides defined the apikoros as one who denies the possibility of prophecy and divine revelation, that Moses was a prophet, or that there is divine providence (Yad, Teshuvah 3:8; cf. Guide of the Perplexed, 2:13 (end), and ibid., 3:17 (start), in which Maimonides identifies the apikoros with someone who agrees with the opinions of Epicurus).

Kofer may be best translated as "freethinker." In Sanhedrin the kofer is identified as one who asks needling questions and points out contradictions between biblical texts (Sanh. 39a–b). The term kofer ba-ikkar in rabbinic literature refers to one who denies a basic and essential ikkar ("dogma"; on the various formulations of dogmas in Judaism see S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism (1896), 147–81). Maimonides defines a kofer ba-Torah as someone who denies either the divine inspiration of the Torah or the authority of the Oral Law and the rabbis who teach it, or one who maintains that the legislation of the Torah has been superseded (Yad, Teshuvah, 3:8).

Mumar, literally, "one who changes" or "converts", refers to an apostate, i.e., to one who converts, but in the talmudic tradition it sometimes means heretic, especially when it is used to refer to one who rejects only one commandment of the Torah (Hor. 11a). While the apikoros seems to be led to his heresy by intellectual uncertainty, the mumar seems to be brought to it by his appetites or emotional unbalance (see J.J. Petuchowski, in: huca, 30 (1959), 179–90).

Talmudic treatment of the heretic is not uniform but reflects many different situations and differing responses. While some texts tell of a scholar who shared a meal and conversed agreeably with a heretic, others hold that the food, wine, and bread of a heretic are not permissible, that a Torah scroll or tefillin written by a heretic must be destroyed, and that one need not endanger his life in order to save the life of a heretic or take medicine prescribed by one (Ḥul. 13a–b; Av. Zar. 26a–b; Tosef. Ḥul 2:20–21).

Causes of Heresy

Heresy derives from many sources: general restlessness (cf. Er. 69b), impatience with authority (cf. Av. Zar. 26b), the agitations of other heretics (cf. Eccl. R. 1:8, no. 3), and predisposition (cf. Ḥag. 16b). Intellectual vanity is frequently cited as a motivation to heresy (based on Num. 15:39, "that ye go not after your own heart").

Assuming that the intellect has only a limited competence, rabbinic Judaism maintained that those who seek theological truth without being guided by revelation often fall into error and heresy (Maim. Yad, Avodah Zarah, 2:3; cf. S.R. Hirsch, Horeb, Section 1, 4:18). Rationalist apologetes emphasized the danger of unbound speculation as much as the more traditional sages. The ban issued by Solomon b. Abraham ibn *Adret and others in 1305 against the study of Greek philosophy by the untrained under the age of 50 and by students under the age of 25 referred to a passage from Maimonides' Guide in support of its restrictions (Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 281–305; Adret, She'elot u-Teshuvot (1958), 417, 154). Simeon ben Ẓemaḥ *Duran's insistence that thinkers who go beyond acceptable textual interpretations are in error but are not ipso facto heretics represented a novel and remarkable attitude; but he excluded specifically from this category anyone who misinterprets fundamental principles (Sefer Magen Avot, 14b).

Persecution of Heretics

The persecution of heretics, when it occurred, was generally justified as a barrier to prevent those who mock the teachings of the Torah and its authoritative teachers from leading others into sin. A ban issued by the community of Venice in 1618 contains typical language:

"They consider all the words of the sages as being without meaning and void, and they call all those who believe in them 'fools who believe everything'… Therefore, when we heard the sound of war against the Lord and His Torah and we saw the flame glowing, we were afraid lest it go forth and set fire to some thorn – a man whose soul is empty and who knows nothing so that he be smitten; and as a consequence, God forbid, the land would be destroyed and laid waste – for this generation is spoiled and all the people listen to whoever favors leniency" (E. Rivkin, Leon da Modena and the Sakhal (1952), 14–15).

Rabbinic leaders who opposed actions against heresy did not advocate the concept of intellectual freedom but argued pragmatically that divisiveness must be avoided and that restrictions by which a community will not abide should not be imposed (see Naḥmanides' letter to certain French rabbis concerning their ban on the Guide, Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Rambam, pt. 3 (1859), 8a–10b).

The concern with heresy reflected a concern with the inner stability of the Jewish community and its relationship to the outside world. Thus, the heretic presented not only a spiritual danger but also a political one. Rabbinic Judaism could not ignore the intellectual attitudes of the outside world, which held the power of life and death over Diaspora communities. The monks of Montpellier gladly burned the "heresies" of Maimonides along with those of Catholic Aristotelians (1230; see *Maimonidean Controversy; and also D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy 11801240 (1965) 152ff.); the Dutch Reformed Church encouraged the Amsterdam Jewish community in its measures against Baruch *Spinoza, whose non-personalist pantheism was also influencing many Christians.

The liturgical petition against minim in the Amidah of the liturgy was changed to include malshinim ("informers"), suggesting at least an intimate association in the Jewish mind between defiance and defamation. Heresy gave birth to schism, and schism was not only unsettling but politically dangerous; many squabbles ended tragically as a result of the intervention of the sovereign power. Early and vigorous action against suspicious ideas was justified by many rabbinic leaders on the grounds that Israel must not be divided. Communities were encouraged to follow the example of the schools of Hillel and Shammai (see *Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai), whose arguments remained academic and did not lead to division within the community. They were also reminded of the dire consequences of the split of the kingdom of David between Jeroboam and Rehoboam.

Ḥerem. Jews never organized a central agency to define heresy and establish procedures to judge and punish heresy. In the medieval period heresy was established by individual rabbis, a kehillah ("community"), or a group of kehillot, and was combated by means of a *ḥerem, a ban prohibiting social intercourse and marriage with a heretic and denying him burial rites. Those who taught doctrines considered heretical were threatened with this ban. Questionable books were sometimes banned, but, generally, they were prohibited only to the masses. Although censorship of texts seems not to have been practiced, it should be noted that a certain degree of censorship was imposed by the custom of requiring approbations (*haskamot) for books.

A ban was valid only within the boundaries of the promulgating community or in the area under the promulgating sage's jurisdiction. Therefore, after the ban was proclaimed by a sage or by a kehillah, details of the charge were circulated among well-known scholars with a request for corroboration. Scholars far from the scene of the struggle, being personally uninvolved, could point out the lack of substance in the listed charges and weigh the practical dangers of persecuting an action of heresy against the need to protect the integrity of the community (see Ẓevi Hirsch *Ashkenazi of Altona reacting to the charges against David Nieto of London – 1703, Responsa 11/8). Often one community placed a ban while another refused to do so (see Rivkin, Leon da Modena and the Kol Sakhal, 8–9, on the opposite action of Venice and Salonika in the matter of Abraham Farrar). When a theoretically universal ban was pronounced against a specific group, for example, the *Karaites, the absence of a universal authority made it possible for certain communities to overlook the ban, and for its members to live peaceably side by side. The decentralization of religious authority effectively enlarged the range of permissible theological ideas.

The practice of excommunication probably goes back to the disciplines of the *Pharisees, the *Essenes, and the Dead Sea Covenanters (see *Dead Sea Scrolls), who excluded from their fellowship those who violated their rules. For these people, who were bound by oath to eat only special foods and to adhere to special rules of purity, such a ban was a terrible punishment. There is no indication of formal bans for heresy being pronounced against individuals until the Middle Ages.

Individuals, sects, and books were at various times declared heretical. The list includes *Samaritans, Judeo-Christians, *Karaites, *Shabbateans, *Frankists, *Ḥasidim, and liberal branches of modern Judaism; books ranging from Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed to the *Zohar; and such men as Uriel Da *Costa, Baruch Spinoza, and *Shneur Zalman of Lyady.

When Moses *Mendelssohn wrote his Jerusalem, he maintained that the community had no legitimate authority over anyone's opinions, an original argument, far-reaching in its consequences and breaking entirely new ground. In the 19th and 20th centuries liberal thinkers have argued that all attempts at restricting ideas are self-defeating and that mistaken notions can be opposed only by gentle reason (see Rabbinische Gutachten ueber die Vertraeglichkeit der freien Forschung mit dem Rabbineramte, 1842–43). However, those who adhere to Orthodox Judaism can still find some meaning in the term heresy, though few modern religious authorities are likely to institute anti-heretical proceedings.


Guttmann, Philosophies, index; Baron, Social2, index vol. (1960), 61; D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy (1965); I. Sarachek, Faith and Reason. The Conflict Over the Rationalism of Maimonides (1935); R.T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903). add. bibliography: G.J. Blidstein, "The 'Other' in Maimonidean Law," in: Jewish History, 18 (2004): 173–95; idem., "Who Is Not a Jew? – The Medieval Discussion," in: Israel Law Review, 11 (1976): 369–90; M. Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (1986); idem, "Inadvertent Heresy in Medieval Jewish Thought: Maimonides and Abravanel vs. Duran and Crescas?" in: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 3 (1984): 393–403 (Hebrew); idem, "Heresy and the Nature of Faith in Medieval Jewish Philosophy," in: Jewish Quarterly Review, 76 (1987): 299–318; S. Nadler, Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and The Jewish Mind (2002); M. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised (2004).

[Daniel Jeremy Silver]


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205. Heresy

See also 80. CHRISTIANITY ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

1. the tenet of a 4th-century Arian sect that Gods omniscience was restricted to contemporary time.
2. the tenet of a 6th-century Monophysite sect that Christ possessed no omniscience. Agnoete, Agnoite , n.
the beliefs and principles of an 11th-century Catharist sect of southern France, exterminated in the 13th century by order of Pope Innocent III. See Catharism . Albigenses , n. pl. Albigensian , n., adj.
a late 4th-century heretical doctrine asserting that Christ had a perfect divine nature, an imperfect human nature, and a mind replaced by the Logos. Apollinarian , n., adj.
the heretical doctrine of Arius (d. 336) that Christ the Son was not the substance or nature as God the Father. Arian , n.
the beliefs of Berengar de Tours, 11th-century French churchman, especially his denial of transubstantiation. Berengarian , n., adj.
Cainism, Cainitism
the beliefs of a 4th-century Gnostic sect, especially that the Old Testament concerns a demiurge and not God and that Cain, whom they revered, had been maligned. Cf. Gnosticism . Cainite , n.
the beliefs of several sects in medieval Europe, especially the denial of infant baptism, purgatory, the communion of saints, images, and the doctrine of the Trinity; the abrogation of the institution of marriage; and the practice of rigorous asceticism. Cathar, Cathari, Catharist , n. Catharistic , adj.
the Monophysitic tenet of Cyril, 5th-century archbishop of Alex-andria, that Christ had only one nature, a composite of the human and the divine. Cyrillian , n., adj.
a very early heretical belief that held that Christs body was not material or real, but only the appearance of a body. Docetae, n. pl.
a heretical cult in N. Africa during the 4th through 7th centuries that emphasized high morality and rebaptism as necessary for church mem-bership and considered invalid a sacrament celebrated by an immoral priest. Donatist , n. Donatistic , adj.
Ebionism, Ebionitism
the beliefs of a Judaistic Christian Gnostic sect of the 2nd century, especially partial observation of Jewish law, rejection of St. Paul and gentile Christianity, acceptance of only one gospel (Matthew), and an early adoptionist Christology. Ebionite , n. Ebionitic , adj.
beliefs and practices of the Encratites, a 2nd-century Gnostic sect that renounced marriage and abstained from flesh and wine. Encratist, n.
a member of a heretical sect, followers of Bishop Eudoxius, of Constantinople, who held extreme Arian views.
the beliefs and practices of pre-Christian and early Christian sects, condemned by the church, especially the conviction that matter is evil and that knowledge is more important than faith, and the practice of esoteric mysticism. Cf. Cainism, Manichaeism, Valentinianism . Gnostic , n., adj.
1. the originator of a heresy.
2. the leader of a group of heretics.
a fighter of heresy and heretics.
a systematic exposition on heresy.
1. Theology. the study of heresies.
2. a reference work on heresies. heresiologist , n.
1. a religious opinion or doctrine at variance with accepted doctrine.
2. a willful and persistent rejection of any article of the faith by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church.
3. any belief or theory strongly at variance with established opinion. heretic , n. heretical , adj.
Rare. 1. the killing of a heretic.
2. the killer of a heretic. heretocidal , adj.
a mania for idols.
a heretical doctrine of the 17th and 18th centuries denying free-dom of the will, accepting absolute predestination for part of mankind and condemnation to hell for the others, and emphasizing puritanical moral attitudes. Jansenist , n., adj.
an adherent of Jovinian, a 4th-century monk who opposed asceti-cism and denied the virginity of Mary.
the doctrines of Macedonius, 4th-century bishop of Constan-tinople, who denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost. Macedonian , n.
Manichaeism, Manicheism, Manicheanism
1. the doctrines and practices of the dualistic religious system of Manes, a blending of Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and other elements, especially doctrines of a cosmic conflict between forces of light and darkness, the darkness and evilness of matter, and the necessity for a sexual, vegetarian asceticism.
2. any similar dualistic system, considered heretical by orthodox Christian standards. Cf. Gnosticism . Manichean , n., adj. Manicheistic , adj.
the theological doctrine that the members of the Trinity are not three separate persons but modes or forms of Gods self-expression. modalist , n. modalistic , adj.
Modalistic Monarchianism
the doctrine advanced by some Lutheran theologians that spiritual renewal is exclusively the activity of the Holy Spirit. Cf. synergism . monergist , n. monergistic , adj.
the 2nd-century doctrines of Montanus of Phrygia, who believed that the Holy Spirit, or Paraclete, dwelt within him and made him its instrument for guiding men in the Christian way. Cf. Tertullianism. Montanist , n.
1. the beliefs and practices of llth-century Bulgarian Manicheans who migrated to the Pataria section of Milan. Also called Pataria .
2. the beliefs and practices of various Cathari sects in France and Bulgaria. Patarine, Patarene , n.
a heretical doctrine denying the distinct personhood of the Trinity and asserting that God the Father became incarnate and suffered for mans redemption. Patripassian , n.
the heretical doctrines of Pelagius, 4th-century British monk, especially a denial of original sin and mans fallen spiritual nature, and an assertion that mans goodness was sufficiënt for him to work out his salva-tion without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Cf. Semi-Pelagianism . Pelagian , n., adj.
a member of an early Christian sect that denied the reality of Christs body.
the heresy of Photinus, 4th-century bishop of Sirmium, deposed because he denied the divinity of Christ.
the concepts of Priscillian, 4th-century bishop of Avila, exe-cuted for heresies influenced by Manichaeism, Docetism, and modalism. Priscillianist , n., adj.
a 17th-century Christian mystical theory, originated in Spain by Molinos and promulgated in France by Fénelon, involving passive contem-plation and surrender of the will to God and indifference to the demands of the self or the outside world, declared heretical through efforts of the Inquisition. quietist , n., adj.
Socinianism, so called because the sect was headquartered in Racow, Poland. Cf. Socinianism .
the modalistic doctrines of Sabellius, 3rd-century prelate, espe-cially that the Trinity has but one divine essence and that the persons are only varying manifestations of God. Also called Modalistic Monarchianism . Sabellian , n., adj.
a heretical doctrine, of the 5th century that accepted the doctrine of original sin but asserted that mans turning to God of his own free will, not after the provocation of the Holy Ghost, begins the process of spiritual rebirth. Cf. Pelagianism .
the heretical tenets of Faustus Socinius, a 16th-century Italian theologian, denying the divinity of Christ, the existence of Satan, original sin, the atonement, and eternal punishment, and explaining sin and salva-tion in rationalistic terms. Cf. Racovianism . Socinian , n., adj.
an ancient heretical doctrine, extant since the 3rd century, which holds that spiritual renewal is a cooperative endeavor between a person and the Holy Ghost. Cf. Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism . synergist , n. synergistic , adj.
1. the act or process of subterfuge or evasion.
2. the abandoning of a cause or belief; apostasy. tergiversator , n.
a form of Montanism, as modified by Tertullian in about 203, which opposed second marriages and absolution for penitents. Cf. Montanism . Tertullianist , n.
a 6th-century heretical doctrine maintaining that Christ had only one nature, the divine, and that this nature suffered at the Crucifixion. Theopaschite , n.
a 2nd-century blending of Egyptian Gnosticism and Christi-anity into a system of heretical doctrines, especially the denial that Christ took his human nature from the Virgin Mary. Cf. Gnosticism . Valentinian , n., adj.


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Heresy (Gk., hairesis, ‘choice’). The adoption of false views and practices. Basically, the Gk. word may mean simply the adoption of a particular opinion or school of thought (e.g. Acts 5.17), but in religious terms it is usually a choice of belief which is held to be aberrant (i.e. heretical) by the main continuing body of believers. A heresiarch is the originator of a heresy or heretical movement. In Christianity, where the term is essentially located, Roman Catholic theologians distinguish ‘formal heresy’ (the grave sin of wilful persistence in error) and ‘material heresy’ (the holding of heretical doctrines through no fault of one's own).

In other religions, the term is not formally appropriate, but similar considerations, derived from the necessity for systems to have boundaries, can be found. Thus in Judaism, neither Bible nor Talmud present creeds or dogmas to which Jews must conform. However, Deuteronomy 17. 8–13 isolates the zaqen mamre, the obstinate teacher (rebellious elder). Already in the Mishnah serious aberrancy is recognized. Heresy now is belief in ideas condemned by the Orthodox religious authorities. In Judaism, a heretic is still considered to be a Jew, and is described by a number of terms such as min, apikoros, and kofer (cf. kāfir).

The nearest equivalent in Islam is ilḥād, ‘deviation’. Heretics are called malāḥidah. Right practice (sunna) is as important as right belief, but in any case the heretic is, quintessentially, one who denies the reality of God. Thus the major offences in Islam are shirk and bidʿa. One who forsakes Islam is an apostate (murtadd), and if he turns against Islam in public attack, he should be executed.

In E. religions, it might seem, superficially, that there is little room for a concept equivalent to heresy. ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ contain diversities of an even more spectacular kind than Christianity. Hinduism as sanātana dharma is able to include conceptually even those breakaway religious movements, such as the Jains and Buddhists, which are usually described as separate religions. They are interpretations (darśana) of the revelation in the Vedas, but unorthodox ones—nāstika as opposed to āstika. In a sense which is now eroded, the orthodox is defined geographically: it is the area in which dharma can be observed. Thus Manusmṛti:

The land between the two sacred rivers Sarasvati and Drsadvati, this land created by divine powers, is the Brahmavarta. The customs prevailing in this land, passed on from one generation to another, constitute right behaviour (sadācāra). From a brahman born and bred in this land all people should learn how to live.… Beyond is the land of the mlecchas: a twice-born should remain in this land; a śūdra may, to gain his livelihood, live anywhere.

Buddhism was not even confined to territory, since it was, at least in terms of teaching, opposed to caste, sacrifice, and dharma determined by Vedas and brahmans. However, it was not on trivial issues that the early schools divided (see COUNCILS (BUDDHIST)); and the subsequent elaboration into sūtra-based Buddhism (i.e. Mahāyāna) led to an immense proliferation of schools and traditions. But although there has been considerable hostility between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna (witness the latter name itself), the different forms of Buddhism have in general flourished in different geographical areas. The definition of the heretic has therefore been extremely local, leading to expulsion from communities, especially of monks (see EXCOMMUNICATION). The nearest equivalent to heresy is ‘false views’: see DIṬṬHI.


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Heresy is the denial by a member or members of a religious group of an officially held belief of that group. Churches and other religious organizations typically provide several things for their adherents. One is a code of conduct. Another is a set of worship practices. Another is a worldview. Heresy is a member's rejection of all or part of the worldview. Religious groups routinely regard rejection of their world-view as a threat and respond to it by rejecting the heretic.

Heresy would seem to be out of place in the modern world because modern people are trained to think for themselves and to decide for themselves what to believe. Indeed, the word "heresy" is from the Greek word hairesis, "choice," and choices are precisely what modern people are expected to make. In fact, however, religious groups, like all groups that endure for long periods of time, require boundaries, and these routinely include boundaries of acceptable beliefs. Groups in the modern world require boundaries as much as groups in the past. The need of churches and other religious groups for identity and boundaries comes into conflict with the need of individuals educated in the modern way to have the freedom to explore and embrace ideas that are in conflict with the ideas of the churches and other religious groups to which they belong, so the fact of heresy continues to occur today as much as in the past, even in groups who do not use the word "heresy."

Some religions have confronted many alleged heretics; others have not. For example, there have been almost no trials for heresy among American Jews and none at all among African-American Christians. On the other hand, there have been many trials for heresy among other American Christians. A possible account of these unexpected facts is that there are religious communities in which the community's practices are emphasized so strongly that if a member follows the practices, the community will ignore any deviant beliefs the member may have.

Those who defend heresy point out the priority of practice over beliefs: Love matters more than faith. Of course, that is itself a belief. They also point out that heresy is an expression of the responsibility of individuals to think for themselves; that today's heresy often becomes tomorrow's orthodoxy ("Christianity began as a Jewish heresy"); and that the treatment of heretics frequently has been morally outrageous. Those who oppose heresy point out that churches and religious groups have rights just as individuals do, and that heresy is cruel because it prevents people from receiving the help they need from the truth offered to them by their church or religious group.

The most famous charges of heresy in American religious history are among the earliest—namely, the witch trials at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Their fame rests in part on the number of persons involved: More than one hundred people were jailed, thirteen women and six men were hanged, and one man was pressed to death for the practice of Witchcraft. New England Puritans understood Witchcraft to be a heresy and a sin. Since it involved using the devil's powers to do grave harm to others, it was also a crime and was punishable as such. Many modern people find it difficult to sympathize with the Puritans because these modern people do not believe in the possibility of Witchcraft. They find stories of modern heresy trials more understandable.

One of the most famous of these came two centuries after the trials at Salem. It was the trial of Charles A. Briggs, a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, then affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Briggs, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was a proponent of critical study of the Bible and had been led by his studies to conclusions regarding the Bible and other subjects that were thought to be at variance with those of the Presbyterian Church. In 1892 he was accused of heresy, and in 1893 he was found guilty and suspended from the office of a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Union Theological Seminary was disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church and kept Briggs as a faculty member.

Both the Salem witch trials and the trial of Briggs were formal heresy trials, but many churches and other religious bodies do not have organizational structures for the conduct of heresy trials. Baptists, for example, are organized so there is no body beyond local congregations that has the authority to try any person for heresy. Baptist associations and conventions can decide whether to accept and retain as members congregations with deviant beliefs or practices, but they have no authority to try either congregations or their members for heresy. As a result, the treatment of heresy among Baptists is informal rather than formal.

This in turn means that among Baptists and similar denominations it is almost always professors or other persons employed at denominational institutions who are tried for heresy. For example, in 1983 the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary refused to renew the annual contract of its longtime professor of theology, Dale Moody, because of Moody's beliefs about the revocability of salvation, and in 1993 the same institution dismissed theology professor Molly Marshall because of some of her views about God and the Bible. Neither Moody nor Marshall was formally tried for heresy, but each was dismissed from teaching because of allegedly deviant theological beliefs. When an accused heretic is a professor, issues related to heresy become entangled with issues of academic freedom, a freedom that is essential for the flourishing of institutions of higher education.

It seems unlikely either that heresy will disappear from American religions that embrace beliefs as part of their identity and boundaries, or that such religions will be able to maintain their identity and boundaries without from time to time exercising some form of discipline over alleged heretics.

See alsoChurch; Creeds; Cult; Denomination; Dogmatism; Freedomof Religion; Religious Persecution; Shunning.


Berger, Peter. The Heretical Imperative. 1979.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instructionon the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. 1990.

Noll, Mark A. Between Faith and Criticism. 1986.

Shriver, George H., ed. DictionaryofHeresyTrialsinAmerican Christianity. 1997.

Fisher Humphreys


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heresy is the holding of religious views regarded or defined as unacceptable by the church and, if persisted in, carried the punishment of burning. The first notable British heretics were Pelagius and Celestius, who taught in Rome in the early 5th cent., and argued, against Augustine, that man's own efforts could steer him towards salvation. Condemned by Pope Innocent I, pelagianism continued to find support in Britain and St Germanus was sent over in 429 specifically to deal with it. Accusations of heresy were rarely made against lay people, who neither preached nor published, and whose grasp of Christian doctrine was often, as their pastors complained, distressingly approximate. The assumption was that they were ignorant of the truth and seldom persisted in error when it was pointed out to them. Heresy was hardly a problem in the Anglo-Saxon church or in the immediate post-Conquest period, and only a handful of cases can be identified. Nevertheless the church remained on its guard. A group of weavers, possibly Cathars, arrived in 1165 from Flanders or Germany and settled in Worcester: they were branded and not allowed to remain. Concern over heresy dates from Wyclif's challenge to the doctrine of transubstantiation and his attacks upon the wealth of the church, which, coming in the 1370s at a time of economic unrest, gained him considerable support. Though Henry IV's act De heretico comburendo passed in 1401 it was only after Oldcastle's lollard rebellion in 1414 that systematic persecution of heresy began. In Scotland, James Resby, a follower of Wyclif, was burned at Perth in 1407, and a Hussite at St Andrews in 1432. There was a marked revival of lollardy in the late 15th and early 16th cents., which merged with the Lutheran heresy. Henry VIII repealed De heretico comburendo in 1533 but retained the right to burn heretics. Edward VI then repealed all statutes against heresy, though it remained an offence at common law. Mary at once revived the previous statutes and Elizabeth abolished them again in 1558. anabaptists continued to suffer since they were regarded as totally subversive of the social order, James ordering a burning in 1612. In Scotland the laws against heresy were repealed by the Reformation Parliament of 1560. In Charles II's reign, an Act of 1677 abolished the writ De heretico comburendo, but reiterated the right of ecclesiastical courts to punish heresy, short of death.

Though persecution of laymen for heresy ceased, the careers of clerics and academics (in holy orders) could still be jeopardized by charges of heresy, and the offence of blasphemy remained dangerous. James Nayler, a quaker, was whipped, branded, and had his tongue bored for blasphemy in 1656/7, and Thomas Aikenhead, a mere youth, was executed in Edinburgh in 1697. William Whiston, Newton's successor at Cambridge, was deprived of his chair in 1710 for arianism; John Simon, professor of divinity at Glasgow, was suspended in 1729 on the same charge; Thomas Woolston, a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, lost his fellowship in 1721, was prosecuted for blasphemy in 1729, and died in prison. Later prosecutions included the publishers of Paine's The Age of Reason (1797, 1812, 1819), the publisher of Shelley's Queen Mab (1821), and George Holyoake for a lecture (1842). In 1977 Mary Whitehouse brought a successful private action against Gay News for printing a poem portraying Christ as a homosexual. Existing legislation against blasphemy protects Christianity only and there has been pressure to extend it to cover Islam and other religions.

J. A. Cannon


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her·e·sy / ˈherəsē/ • n. (pl. -sies) belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (esp. Christian) doctrine: Huss was burned for heresy the doctrine was denounced as a heresy by the pope. ∎  opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted: cutting capital gains taxes is heresy | the politician's heresies became the conventional wisdom of the day. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French heresie, based on Latin haeresis, from Greek hairesis ‘choice’ (in ecclesiastical Greek ‘heretical sect’), from haireisthai ‘choose.’


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heresy Denial of, or deviation from, orthodox religious belief. The concept exists in most organized religions with a rigid, dogmatic system. The early Christian Church fought against heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church set up the Inquisition to fight heresy. After the Reformation, the Catholic Church described Protestants as heretics because of their denial of many papally defined dogmas, while Protestants applied the term to those who denied their interpretation of the major scriptural doctrines. Persecutions for heresy were common in most parts of Christendom until relatively recently.


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This entry consists of the following articles:

an overview
christian concepts