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Heresies & Heretics

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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Heresy, from the Greek αίρέσίς, hairesis, denoting "choice" or "thing chosen," in general refers to a doctrinal belief held in opposition to the recognized standards of an established system of thought. Theologically it means an opinion at variance with the authorized teachings of any church, especially when this promotes separation from the main body of faithful believers.

The New Testament and the early Fathers used the term occasionally to describe adherence to a particular sect; as Saint Paul said of himself, he lived "according to the most sure sect of our religion, a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5). But soon the disparaging sense prevailed, and after St. Ignatius' letters to the Trallians and Ephesians (c. A.D. 108), it came more exclusively to mean religious dissent. By the time of St. Jerome (342-420), the word became fixed to designate a group cut off from the Church by reason of heterodox doctrine, as distinguished from schism which separated through disobedience to hierarchical authority.

From apostolic times the Church claimed authority to safeguard the deposit of faith handed down from Christ and consequently condemned what were considered substantial deviations from Christian orthodoxy. In the subapostolic age and before the year 200, no fewer than 40 distinct sects, usually named after their founder or leading exponent, are branded heretical by Christian writers. St. Irenaeus, writing Against the Heresies about 180, names at least 15, mostly of Gnostic origin, that were current in his day.

"If anyone," Paul wrote to the Galatians, "preach to you a gospel besides what you have received, let him be anathema” (Galatians l:9). Reflecting the Church's concern to preserve the integrity of faith, the Fathers were never genteel in dealing with heretics. Polycarp called Marcion the first-born of the devil. Ignatius saw in heretics poisonous plants or animals in human form. Justin and Tertullian called their teachings an inspiration of the Evil One. Theophilus compared them to barren and rocky islands on which ships are wrecked, and Origen said they were pirates placing lights on cliffs to lure and destroy vessels in search of refuge. These primitive views were later tempered in language, but the implicit attitudes remained and were crystallized in solemn conciliar decrees. The familiar anathema sit (let him be anathema or excommunicated) appears to have been first applied to heretics at the Council of Elvira (Spain) in 300-306 and became the standard formula in all the general councils of the Church, such as that against Arius at the First Council of Nicaea (325), Nestorius at Ephesus (351), Eutyches at Chalcedon (451), and the Iconoclasts at the Second Council of Nicaea (787).

In the Roman Catholic Church, heresy has a very specific meaning, defined by canon law, which states that "Anyone who, after receiving Baptism, while remaining nominally a Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts any of the truths which must be believed with Divine and Catholic faith, is a heretic" (Canon 1325, parag. 2). Accordingly, four elements must be verified to constitute formal heresy: previous valid Baptism, which need not have been in the Catholic Church; external profession of still being a Christian, otherwise a person becomes an apostate; outright denial or positive doubt regarding a truth which the Catholic Church has actually proposed as revealed by God; and the disbelief must be morally culpable, where a nominal Christian refuses to accept what he knows is a doctrinal imperative.

Objectively, therefore, to become a heretic in the strict canonical sense and be excommunicated from the faithful one must deny or question a truth which is taught not merely on the authority of the Church but on the word of God revealed in the Scriptures or sacred tradition. Subjectively a person must recognize his obligation to believe. If he acts in good faith, as is the case with most persons brought up in non-Catholic surroundings, the heresy is only material and implies neither guilt nor sin against faith, though it precludes actual membership in the Catholic Church.

Heresy in other communions has a variety of meanings, which are more descriptive than juridical since the churches do not recognize an ecclesiastical authority with the right to pass ultimate judgment on opposing doctrinal questions. Eastern Orthodox writers use the term broadly for all dogmatic positions which are said to contradict the first seven ecumenical councils, i.e., up to the Second Council of Nicaea. In the earlier stages of Protestantism, in Europe and America, the concept of heresy played a major role in shaping the various churches. Doctrines like absolute predestination and practices like infant baptism were orthodox or heretical depending on theological orientation, and the conflicting attitudes often gave rise to different denominations. Moreover civil rulers were authorized to protect their subjects from erroneous doctrines. The duty of civil magistrates, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, was "to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed. Presbyterians and others still provide that heresy is sufficient ground for deposition from the ministry.

With some exceptions, heresy in modern Protestant churches must be extreme and "industriously spread" before action is taken against a member of the clergy. The rule of faith in these cases is the Bible, and the norm of orthodoxy, in the spirit of John Wesley, is an inclusive Christianity. "We believe," he said, "Christ to be the eternal, the supreme Good. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think." More commonly the heresy must "strike at the vitals of religion," as in agnosticism or atheism, to be officially proscribed.

A few denominations in the Lutheran and Evangelical tradition excommunicate even the laity, if "convicted of denying a fundamental truth necessary to salvation—the deity of Christ, vicarious atonement, or the resurrection of the dead." This may be done only after due admonition has been given and the person “shows himself to be an incorrigible sinner and unbeliever." In practice, however, the churches seldom resort to these measures.

Collier’s Encyclopedia
Vol. 12, pp. 79-80

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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