Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church

Hardcover | November 7, 2013

byJonathan Wright

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In Heretics Jonathan Wright charts the history of dissent in the Christian Church through the stories of some of its most emblematic heretics-from Arius, a fourth-century Libyan cleric who doubted the very divinity of Christ, to more successful heretics like Martin Luther and John Calvin. As he traces the Church's attempts at enforcing orthodoxy, from the days of Constantine to the modern Catholic Church's lingering conflicts, Wright argues that heresy, by forcing the Church to continually refine and impose its beliefs, actually helped Christianity to blossom into one of the world's most formidable and successful religions.Today, all believers owe it to themselves to grapple with the questions raised by heresy. Can you be a Christian without denouncing heretics? Is it possible that new ideas challenging Church doctrine are destined to become as popular as have Luther's once outrageous suggestions of clerical marriage and a priesthood of all believers? A delightfully readable and deeply learned new history, Heretics overturns our assumptions about the role of heresy in a faith that still shapes the world.

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In Heretics Jonathan Wright charts the history of dissent in the Christian Church through the stories of some of its most emblematic heretics-from Arius, a fourth-century Libyan cleric who doubted the very divinity of Christ, to more successful heretics like Martin Luther and John Calvin. As he traces the Church's attempts at enforcin...

JONATHAN WRIGHT received his doctorate in history from Oxford University. He has been a Thouron fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the Institute for European History in Mainz, Germany. He is also the author of God's Soldiers , a history of the Jesuits that has been translated into nine languages, and The Ambassado...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:352 pages, 9 × 6 × 1.13 inPublished:November 7, 2013Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:015101387X

ISBN - 13:9780151013876

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1 The Heretics Over the past two thousand years Christian heretics havebeen likened to whores and lepers, savage beasts and demons, sexualperverts and child killers. So far as the sixteenth-century JesuitFrancis Coster was concerned, they had a great deal in commonwith “the filthy dregs that flowed through the outhouse.” Warmingto his theme, Coster added that just as phlegm was expelled fromthe body, so heretics were to be banished from “the heavenly bodyof saints . . . as if religion became sick and vomited them out.”1 Behind the unsavory rhetoric there was often an assumptionthat heresy ought to be obliterated. It was not simply pesky, it wasutterly pernicious and, as a character in Thomas More’s A DialogueConcerning Heresies opined, it was the obligation of the righteous“to sit upon the mountains treading heretics under our feet likeants.” Sometimes God was touted as the chief executioner. Storieswould be told of the fourth-century heresiarch Arius (about whomwe’ll hear much more) going to the lavatory one day only to witnesshis bowels gushing out. Into which disgusting mess, so Saint Ambrosereported, his head fell “headlong, besmirching those foul lipswith which he had denied Christ.” This, Ambrose crowed, was norandom accident, no “chance manner of death.” It was the Almightyinflicting vengeance upon “wickedness.” Sometimes, the ant treading was leftto human beings, aswhen hundreds of medieval Cathars were slaughtered by crusadingarmies at Béziers in 1209; or when (so legend tells) North AfricanDonatists were herded onto ships at Carthage in 347, weighed downwith casks of sand, and dumped far out at sea; or when poor old GiulioCesare Vanini’s tongue was cut out ahead of his being strangledat the stake in 1619 Toulouse. Many heretics made it through thevale of tears unharmed, but this did not necessarily exempt themfrom punishment. They could be condemned after death, at whichtime their bones would be dug up and destroyed or, like the sixty-sevendeceased heretics in Mexico in 1649, be burned in effigy. These were not the only sanctions available to the syndics oforthodoxy, however, and the historical landscape of heresy is notnearly as corpse-strewn as might be imagined. From the perspectiveof the ecclesiastical establishment, to kill a heretic was to fail.The murdered heretic was someone who, despite all the threateningand cajoling, had obstinately refused to recant his errors. Worseyet, he could look a lot like a righteous martyr to his followers andconfreres. It was far preferable, therefore, to win supposedly errantChristians back to the supposedly true path by means of correctivejustice. This, in terms of theological logic, was deemed to be charitable(you were only trying to save people from eternal perdition,after all). If this was caritas, however, it was often of an extravagant,sometimes brutal variety. Medieval heretics were made to go on penitential pilgrimages(often in chains), their clothes were bedecked with stigmatizing,stitched-in symbols, and they were sentenced to grueling servicein the king’s galleys. In sixteenth-century France they could bewhipped or made to endure the most public humiliations: standingin their penitential gowns in the church or the public square,bareheaded and shoeless, holding a lighted candle, abjuring theirerrors, and begging the community for forgiveness. If they were errantclerics, their heads might be shaved (removing all sign of theirtonsure), their priestly vestments ceremonially stripped off, or, ifthey were especially unlucky, their flesh cut from the thumb andindex finger: a symbolic way of removing their right to celebrate theEucharist. An obvious question springs to mind. What was this thingcalled heresy and why was it so detested? To indulge in such lavishpersecutory measures must surely have required a great deal ofcertainty on the part of those doing the persecuting.An important first step was to define this most heinous ofcrimes: it had to be identified before it could be stamped out. Anawful lot of theological ink was spilled in this pursuit but, for ourpresent purposes, a sentence from the medieval theologian RobertGrosseteste is as good a starting point as any. Heresy, he wrote, is“an opinion chosen by human perception, contrary to Holy Scripture,publicly avowed and obstinately defended.”5 At first blush, thislooks fairly straightforward but, once it is unpacked, the definitionturns out to be quite sophisticated. Religious truth, so the theorywent, was divinely inspired, objective, and fixed — soaring far abovethe fleeting speculations of human opinion. There was room forreined-in theological interpretation (at least for learned clerics),the variable nuts and bolts of worship could sometimes be tinkeredwith, and some concepts and rituals might take several centuries toemerge. When it came to basic Christian dogmas, however, thesewere all contained within the New Testament message. They hadbeen righteously pored over by the fathers of the early church andcodified in a succession of creedal statements, church councils, and,so far as the Western half of Christendom was concerned, papalpronouncements. There was no good excuse for any reasonably well informedChristian to dissent from these supposedly eternal verities. To doso was to threaten the unity of Christendom: it was to trample onthe memory and sacrifice of Christ. Heretics often advertised themselvesas holy men but, so far as the church was concerned, theywere madmen, prideful scoundrels addicted to the exercise of theiraddled imaginations, or, more than likely, the minions of Satan. Grosseteste’s talk of public avowal is also crucial. The hereticalmind in which dangerous thoughts secretly festered was beyond thereach of the church militant. There had always been vipers in thenest: hypocrites and dissemblers who harbored heretical opinions.It didn’t really matter. God could tell the difference and would dealwith such wretches accordingly. In the here and now, so long as theheretic did not spout his blasphemies in the street, the tavern, or thepew, then others were not at immediate risk of infection. Obstinacy, another of Grosseteste’s keywords, was just as important.There was no need to rush to judgment when confrontedwith a seemingly heretical deed or utterance. To be guilty of full-fledged heresy a person had to be aware that his behavior contradictedorthodoxy, and he had to persist in that behavior. Thetheological term for this is pertinacity. Often, the suspected hereticmight simply have been acting out of ignorance, confusion, orhabit. Perhaps he was brought up by heretical parents and had neverbeen exposed to what the established church regarded as pure doctrine.The obvious litmus test for distinguishing between unintentionaland willful heresy was to inform the supposed heretic of thechurch’s acceptable teachings and see how he reacted. If he agreedto conform, then that, after the exaction of suitable penances, wasusually the end of the matter. If, however, he clung to his heterodoxnotions, then the more gruesome punishments could be unleashed. Problem solved and terms neatly defined, then. To be a hereticwas to dissent publicly and repeatedly from genuine Christianity.The heretic was far worse than the pagan, Muslim, or Jew. Suchpeople had never had the chance to embrace the Christian message.The heretics, by contrast, had been shown the way towardeternal bliss, but they had traveled other roads. They had betrayedChrist and, during the many centuries when Christianity was intimatelyconnected with political power, they had also threatenedto undermine social order and cohesion: they were as treacherousas regicidal maniacs and more infectious than the most virulentpandemic.

Table of Contents

 

Contents

1. The Heretics 1

2. The Invention of Heresy 14
Ignatius 14
Marcion and Gnosticism 19
The Montanists 30
Blunting the Challenges: Christian Unity 34
Persecution 39
The Church 44

3. Constantine, Augustine, and the
Criminalization of Heresy 50
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus 50
Constantine 54
Who Was Christ? 58
Donatism 69
Augustine 74
Whence and Whither? 78

4. The Heresy Gap 83
Heresy Redivivus 85
Iconoclasm 89

5. Medieval Heresy I 95
Orléans, 1022 95
Popular Heresy 102
Valdes 106
Popular Heresy: Reality 115
Popular Heresy: Myth 126
The Cathars 130

6. Medieval Heresy II 135
Francis 137
Where to Draw the Lines? 140
The Beguines 142
All the Others 145
Hus 150
The Fabled Road to the Reformation 156

7. Reformations 160
The Revolution 160
The Reformation Muddle 169
The Other Reformation 171
Reformation Certainty 181
The New Heresies 188
Drowned Without Mercy: Anabaptists 196
Servetus 200
Plus Ça Change? 204

8. The Death of Heresy? 212
Caution 212
Pragmatism 221
The Great Leap 225

9. American Heresy 238
New England 241
Hutchinson 245
Williams 251
Quakers 255
Revolutions Great and Small 262
Jeff erson and Madison 264
The Republic 271

10. The Polite Centuries 276
Emerson and Parker 278
The Sum of All Heresies 284

11. Conclusion 291

acknowledgments 303
notes 305
suggested reading 317
index 323

Editorial Reviews

Heretics, by Jonathan Wright (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $28). In this chatty primer, Wright emphasizes the extraordinarily creative role" that heresy has played in the evolution of Christianity by helping to "define, enliven, and complicate" it in dialectical fashion. Among the world's great religions, Christianity has been uniquely rich in dissent, Wright argues-especially in its early days, when there was so little agreement among its adherents that one critic compared them to a marshfull of frogs croaking in discord. The fractiousness, he suggests, springs both from the worldly power that Christians achieved, which insured that the line between orthodoxy and heresy was sharply policed, and from enduringly confusing elements of Christian doctrine, such as the issue of Jesus' dual nature as god and man. Wright, though his prose is sometimes marred by creaky Oxbridge wit, navigates all the theological complications deftly. - The New Yorker"