Useful Notes: Heresies And Heretics
Below is a list of well-known heresies and heretics found within real life religions, and NOT an outline of
For fictional examples, go to Main.The Heretic
open/close all folders
Famous Heresies in the Catholic Church
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an official definition of heresy, which it juxtaposes against its definitions of incredulity, schism, and apostasy.
Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him" (CCC 2089).
- You may have noticed something important in that definition—the heresy is only a heresy when it knowingly and willfully contradicts established Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church has a habit of not granting strict definitions to doctrine until it becomes a major issue, due to issues of opportunity and urgency — the divinity of Christ, while held and intuited by a large portion of Christians to varying degrees, wasn't formally defined until after Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th century, for example.
- This definition also clarifies the position of heretics vis-a-vis Catholics and other non-Catholics:
- A Catholic is one who believes in Church doctrine and recognizes the authority of the Church hierarchy.
- Someone who never believed in what the Church considers true Christian doctrine is incredulous. Thus most people born non-Christian or born Protestants (as they have strong disagreements on issues of doctrine) are "incredulous" from the Church's point of view.
- Someone who believes in Church doctrine but does not recognize the authority of the Pope is schismatic. The clearest example of this is the Eastern Orthodox church, who agree with Rome on virtually every doctrinal point but disagree on whether Papal authority is legitimate.
- Someone who used to be a Catholic, but has now abandoned it completely is an apostate. This includes Catholics who convert to non-Christian religions (e.g. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's conversion from Catholicism to Islam), Catholics who convert to Christian sects the Church disagrees with on fundamental issues of doctrine (e.g. William Laurence Sullivan'snote conversion to Unitarianismnote ), and people who "convert" to atheism (e.g....well...half the famous "Catholics" in America, really).
- And only someone who used to be a Catholic and still claims to be a Catholic but challenges the Church on a fundamental point of Church doctrine is a heretic. These are rare.
- NOTE: Since the following points illustrate the history of the Catholic Church's view of heresies, the point-of-view of the history and reasoning is Catholic. You have been warned.
- An early, biblical example: "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’" -Acts 15:1
- This counts as a heresy, in spite of its earliness, since it was previously established that God's grace could be applied to all regardless of circumcision. "And the faithful of the circumcision, who came with Peter, were astonished, for that the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles also." -Acts 10:45 (Acts 10 is good for general context). Paul also has to deal with the Circumcisers in his Letters to the Romans and the Galations.
- Gnostic interpretations of Jesus' teachings were declared heretical (in fact, the very word "heresy" was popularized in the Christian world by Catholic theologian Irenaeus with his anti-Gnostic tracts), and Gnosticism in general also counts for:
- Its antipathy for the material universe, which contradicts God's satisfaction with his work as explicit in the first Creation story of Genesis.
- Instead of human beings being ontologically good creatures in and of themselves, they are spiritual creatures trapped in material form by the Demiurge.note
- Said antipathy for matter likewise denies the Incarnation, which denies Jesus the status of being both True God and True Man.
- We earlier mentioned the Demiurge trapping human beings in physical form (possibly with well-meaning but ill-fated help from his "mother", Sophia); the Demiurge is also claimed to be the true nature of the monotheistic deity worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who falsely claims lordship over all existence and manipulates humanity into violence and misery for shits and giggles. And food.
- Marcionism, which may or may not be a form of Gnosticism depending on what definition is used, was a dualist belief that claimed that the wrathful Old Testament God is an inferior being to the loving New Testament God. It thus placed a much greater emphasis on the New Testament than the Old. Interestingly, it was the first sect to develop an official canon, the existence of which caused mainstream Christianity to answer with its own.
- Sabellianism was a 3rd century heresy that claimed God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit were not distinct individuals who shared the same nature, but the same person doing different jobs.
- Origen, a Christian mystic, was accused of Heresy because some of his ideas were viewed as "too platonic" for various reasons. Despite popular belief, Universal Redemption was not one of said reasons.
- A very famous example was given to the world in the teachings of Arius, who effectively used orthodox language to teach that Jesus was not divine, but a creature made by God. When Constantine legalized Christianity, one of the first things done by the leaders of the Church was to define and formalize what the belief system of Christianity actually held-Arius, who famously was supported by many bishops and excommunicated by others, gave an explanation of his beliefs to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and was solemnly condemned* ; the Council of Nicaea formally proclaimed the divinity of Jesus Christ. Arianism was also an issue at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, where the divinity of the Holy Spirit was also declared. Hints of Arianism, or less specifically, non-trinitarianism, is still extant with modern day Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism, among other sects.
- Pelagianism was a 5th century heresy taught by, well, Pelagius, that declared humans morally neutral at birth, and that a human's righteousness or sinfulness was the result of the goodness or badness of the people around them, although goodness was defined as imitating the example of Christ. Pelagius denied the doctrine of Original Sinnote , which, when coupled with Pelagian teaching that Man could reach God under his own power, denied any functional role to God's grace in human nature outside of making holiness easier.
- Augustine later refuted Pelagianism, but their attempts to reconcile these contradictions led to a belief called "Semi-Pelagianism"... which ultimately landed it in the same boat as its predecessor, as it still held God's grace was not necessary for purposes of salvation (not to mention several other tenets), plus, while human effort alone could not merit the gift of God's grace, it could make some small claim on its receipt.
- Pelagianism was later revived by some small Protestant sects, and some of the mainstream ones sometimes had a hard time distinguishing themselves from it, as well. In particular, a prominent (if eccentric) Mormon theologian has argued that Mormonism is "entirely Pelagian" in its theology.
- Nestorianism, the teachings of Nestorius (there are several of these that share their author's name), and another 5th century issue, to boot, holds that the Virgin Mary was not in fact the Mother of Godnote , and only bore Christ's human nature in her wombnote A lot of people quickly recognized that this left two Jesuses running around, one man-of-woman-born and one divine, connected via some sort of loosely-defined union. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that it was indeed legitimate to refer to Mary as Theotokos, not because she predated or generated God, but because she bore God incarnate.
- There is some doubt as to whether or not Nestorius himself actually believed or understood the full ramifications of his statements; the Assyrian Church of the East, historically Nestorian, recently signed a joint document on Christology with the Catholic Church and now rejects Nestorianism.
- Monophysitism was largely concurrent with Nestorianism, mainly because it was a powerful reaction to and rejection of it. Horrified by the implications of two Christs running around, the monophysites basically leapfrogged themselves to the other end of the spectrum, claiming Jesus had only one naturenote , part divine and part human, something akin to a demigod. This was likewise rejected on the grounds that, if Jesus was not fully human, he could not fully participate in and thus represent humanity, and if he was not fully divine, he could not fully participate in and thus represent God; in short, since he was neither truly God or truly Man, he could not join the two, and thus he could not fix the problem of Original Sin (see above), and humanity was still basically screwed.note The modern day Oriental Orthodox church still affirms Miaphysitism, a moderate form of Monophysitism (or something entirely different, according to them).
- Iconoclasm ("icon smashing") first showed up in the 7th and 8th centuries, claiming it was sinful to make pictures or statues of Christ and the saints, despite God commanding the creation of religious statues (Ex. 25:18–20; 1 Chr. 28:18–19), including symbolic representations of Christ (cf. Num. 21:8–9 w/ John 3:14). It was originally inspired by the Muslim blanket ban on representational art and the Old Testament's emphasis against idolatry. This briefly reappeared in the initial stages of the Protestant Reformation mostly as a push back against the perceived decadence of the Catholics, but largely disappeared over the years, the only noticeable remnant being most Protestants' tendency to wear a bare cross instead of a Crucifix.
- Catharism's vogue occurred in the 11th century. Technically a mixture of non-Christian religions reworked with Christian terminology, there were a few joining principles that connected the various sects under the name. Very similar to Gnosticism above, the Cathars held a fierce antipathy for the material universe, which they held was created by an evil deity (hence, matter is evil), but there exists a Good Deity who should be worshiped instead (there's a resemblance to Zoroastrianism here).
- One of the largest Cathar sects was that of the Albigensians, who held that the spirit was created by the good God, but imprisoned by the evil one in a physical body. Hence, the bearing of children-the imprisoning of another human soul in a body-was one of the greatest possible evils; logically, marriage and vaginal sex was forbidden, but anal sex might be technically permissible. Since Catharism arose in Bulgaria, they were also called bougres ("Bulgars") in French, from which we get "bugger" and "buggery" for "anal sex" or someone who practices it. They weren't all about the buggery though; there were plenty of fasts that bordered on willful starvation and lots of severe mortification was practiced. Leaders went about in voluntary poverty. Some sects also seemed to believe in ritual suicide, fasting to death after they has been purified.
- Protestantism: You've probably heard something about a Reformation in the 16th century, in which thousands of Christians broke with the Catholic Church. Protestantism is not a specific doctrine or belief-set but rather an umbrella term for thousands of different theological divisions (which can generally be un-splintered into less than two dozen religious "traditions"), that share doctrines of Sola Scriptura (theology should be formed solely by consideration of scripture) and Sola Fide (human beings are justified "by faith alone")* . The great diversity of Protestantism has two primary roots: a general distrust for human authority and the "doctrine" of private judgment, the latter of which denies the Church its claim to the infallible right to interpret Scripture, and indeed pits the Church against Scripture.
- An early force in the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther, a monk who famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church for the attention of the Bishop. Unfortunately for historical purposes, this event is sometimes simplified to where Martin Luther is depicted as an ostentatious rebel for doing so; however, it was common practice to do so, as the local church was the one place people were going to go by default, so it served as a proto-bulletin. In Wittenberg in particular, with its great university, academics would put messages up on the church door to announce debates, disputations, the period equivalents of thesis defenses, and so on; Martin Luther actually put his theses there as a kind of invitation to hold an academic debate at the University. Thing was, he also sent a few copies to his friends, and at least one of them decided to have the document printed up and distributed; another one had the even brighter idea of translating the theses from Latin into German. Once the sheet was available in the common language, the ideas it contained spread like wildfire, leading to a controversy—and bloodshed—Luther hadn't intended to cause. It would be several years until he officially split off.
- A slight clarification is in order. While Protestantism is in fact considered a heresy, most Protestants are not considered heretics. Since they were never Catholic in the first place, being a Catholic heretic is rather impossible.
- Jansenism — 17th century. Jansenius, the bishop of Ypres, France, wrote a paper on Augustine that redefined the doctrine of grace. Among other things, the Jansenists taught the Christ died only for those who would ultimately be saved, and not for all men. This and other Jansenist beliefs were condemned in 1653 by Pope Innocent X.
The Galileo Affair
- "Galileo was famously tried before a court for an issue regarding the veracity of heliocentrism" is about as neutral as the pop cultural understanding of the actual sequence of events is likely to get; most people seem to think Galileo was declared a heretic. Let's start with the context:
- In Galileo's day, heliocentrism was actually gaining considerable consideration when considering the motion of the stars from an earthly perspective. A Catholic monk named Nicolaus Copernicus (for whom is named "The Copernican Revolution") famously brought heliocentrism into vogue. He wrote a long text on the subject, On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, but put it into the care of a Protestant friend to be published after his death (the book, which contains an excellent account of heliocentricity, was dedicated to Pope Paul III). The friend, a Lutheran clergyman named Andreas Osiander, anticipated the massive ramifications this theory had for Protestant scriptural interpretation (Martin Luther seemed to condemn the new theorynote ) and, the likelihood that it might be condemned; to counter this, Osiander prefaced the book with the claim that the descriptions within were theoretical only, and were only employed to simplify computations... something Copernicus never intended.
- Another proponent of heliocentrism was Johannes Kepler, a Protestant who expounded on Copernicus' work; Kepler, who did not couch his developments, faced opposition from fellow Protestants, but found a welcome reception from a number of Jesuits notable for scientific achievement.
- It is commonly assumed that Galileo proved heliocentrism — he didn't. He merely made the biggest noise about it. He started by writing a letter in response to the Duchess of Tuscany saying, in effect, "Well, I wouldn't put too fine a point on it, but yes, the evidence does suggest that, scientifically speaking, the Church and Aristotle really do have the whole structure of the Universe wrong." Notice all the hedging: Galileo was convinced, but knew he didn't have definitive, incontrovertible proof. Proponents of heliocentrism were unable to counter the strongest argument against it, which had been proposed by Aristotle himself—if heliocentrism were true, there should be observable parallax shifts in the position of the stars as the Earth moved. Now, there are observable parallax shifts, but the technology to demonstrate that hadn't been developed until after Galileo's death. note . Until that point, the evidence suggested that the stars' positions were fixed relative to the Earth, and thus, only the Sun, Moon, and other planets were moving; Copernicus' (correct) explanation that the stars were too far away to exhibit visible parallax was not accepted, even by non-geocentrists like Tycho Brahe. However, being a bullheaded and rather stubborn sort of fellow, he later doubled down on heliocentrism, and that got him in trouble.
- Mind you, Galileo had a critical role in putting a dent in geocentrism. His discovery of The Moons Of Jupiter made the Aristotelian theory that much more difficult to defend—if everything was supposed to go around the Earth, why did these four things go around Jupiter instead? And Galileo and other astronomers of his era kept making similar discoveries, particularly (although not necessarily) after they followed his lead in pointing telescopes at the heavens: if the celestial bodies were supposed to be perfectly spherical, why does the Moon seem to have mountains? Or the Sun seem to have spots? (See below for the bad blood that raised.) And perhaps most significantly of all, why did Brahe—working without a telescope—see a new star (really the supernova SN 1572), when both Aristotle and Church doctrine said that the stars were perfect and thus a new star was impossible? And eighty years later, Edmund Halley noted that even the stars were moving—Sirius, Arcturus, and Aldebaran had moved half a degree since the time of the Classical astronomers and their star charts. Finally, about a century after that—at which point everyone with an education accepted heliocentrism already—someone finally measured the parallax of a star, using a device that amounted to a telescope with extra measuring equipment attached. And that was that for geocentrism.
- Note also that the Church was in the process of figuring out how to reconcile heliocentrism with their theological teachings, just in case something (e.g. the eventually-forthcoming proof of Copernicus' theory that the stars are really far away) made it impossible to argue against heliocentrism on the facts. They'd done this kind of dancing before, and to quote James Burke, explaining away a heliocentric universe would be a "mere bagatelle"—in other words, heliocentrism wasn't a serious threat to orthodoxy. They had gotten pretty far, but weren't quite ready, and thus got annoyed when Galileo started yelling about it. When the aforementioned letter to the Duchess of Tuscany was first shown to a Churchman, the Church's message to Galileo was, in effect, "Would you quiet down a bit? This business is undermining Church authority. It's not that we think you're wrong; it's that you can't tell the people about this right away. Give us time to feed it to them slowly."
- Unfortunately for Galileo, as we said above, he doubled down on heliocentrism and argued against the literal interpretations of the Bible in the non-theological arena, as it contains passages that explicitly contradicted heliocentrism (the most quoted being the one where Joshua commands the Sun and Moon to stand still over Canaan). Taking to the debate floor, he insisted that the Bible and nature must agree as both proceeded from the same creator, and began insisting Scripture be reinterpreted to suit the theory he couldn't quite prove. Just to make it worse, as Europe was in the midst of the Catholic-Protestant Thirty Years War, everyone was a bit touchy about religious doctrine, and Galileo's abrasive personality and previous clashes with Jesuit scientists really weren't helping his cause. In 1616, he appeared before Pope Paul V; the pope, weary of controversy, turned things over to the Holy Office, which condemned the theory. Later, Galileo made a request of a friend - Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit; he was granted a certificate that allowed him not to hold or defend heliocentrism, but to conjecture it. Later, he met with another pope (and a personal friend), Urban VIII, in 1623; he was granted permission to write on the subject, but was cautioned not to advocate it, instead presenting the arguments for or against it. Not happening. What Galileo actually wrote (in the form of a dialogue) was clearly in favor of heliocentrism, and the arguments against it — including the ones offered by his friend the pope — were placed in the mouth of the character named "Simplicio" (i.e. "Simpleton"), who was a debater of obviously inferior intelligence and status than the one arguing heliocentrism.
- The Vatican assigned two Jesuits, Christoph Scheiner and Orazio Grassi, to look into Galileo's science. Both had solid credentials as astronomers. However, Galileo had managed to alienate both of them. Schiener was one of the first astronomers to observe sunspots and was, as far as he knew, the first to describe them in a scientific paper (in fact, the first paper on sunspots was published the previous year by David Fabricius, but his paper was unknown outside of Germany.) Galileo attempted to grab the glory of having first seen sunspots from Scheiner, and compounded this by plagiarizing Scheiner in his own paper. Grassi and Galileo disagreed on the nature of comets. What made things interesting was that Grassi was right and Galileo was wrong. Grassi had observed a comet over a period of time, and had noticed that the moon moved faster in the sky than the comet did; Grassi correctly assumed that the comet was further from the Earth than the moon was. Galileo believed that they were optical illusions in the atmosphere. Galileo wrote an essay, Il Saggiatore — "The Assayer" — attacking Grassi and his theory. This essay is still taught in Italian schools as a masterpiece of polemical writing. Naturally, having been held up to ridicule, Grassi was no friend to Galileo.
- Having publicly mocked the Pope, alienating the Jesuits to boot with attacks on two of their astronomers, Galileo's actions resulted in the famous trial. While he eventually recanted his teachings, he was not tortured (he was only threatened); he was actually merely placed under house arrest, at a fine mansion in the countryside belonging to a friend... and given a manservant. Galileo was not explicitly declared a heretic, though he was found to be "vehemently suspect" of it; the testimony from his trial (Galileo was tried before an ordinary tribunal) was brought before a group of ten cardinals. Three of them refused to sign his verdict, but his works were eventually condemned.
- To keep it short, the Church of Galileo’s day issued a non-infallible disciplinary ruling concerning a scientist who was advocating a new and still-unproved theory and demanding that the Church change its understanding of Scripture to fit his. At the end of the day, the entire fiasco boils down to an overgrown squabble involving a cranky old man with very powerful friends and a bunch of annoyed bigwigs who decided to cut him down to size. However, the Catholic Church acknowledges its mistake, and has for some time. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimatur to the first edition of the complete works of Galileo. In 1757, a new edition of the Index of Forbidden Books allowed works that supported the Copernican theory, as science had reached the point where the theory could be proven. Pope John Paul II famously apologized for the fiasco, but there was a second, less well-publicized apology issued about a century earlier; also, the Church has published two stamps in his honor.
Joan of Arc
- Joan of Arc, famous war hero in the conflict between the Armagnacs (a party which included Charles VII of France) and the Burgundians in alliance with the English, was also examined for any possible heretical beliefs.
- Now, this was by her English captors (with support from the University of Paris, which had English loyalties), who were absolutely desperate to be rid of her — the original round included seventy wild accusations, though they were later replaced with twelve less ludicrous tales and the declaration that the voices guiding her were demonic. When she refused to retract "her wrongs" (which primarily consisted of kicking a lot of English ass), she was threatened with torture and with having her case turned over to the secular authorities (i.e. to let them burn her). At one point, Joan of Arc asked to have her case taken to the Pope himself, and was denied.
- At one point, her courage did manage to fail her, and she recanted-the official record of the retraction is long (a half-hour read at least) and humiliating in every way possible (and likely more of the same bull; every other account of the retraction mentions she signed a document only a few lines long, including the account from the man who read it to her). Even so, her signature was conditional, only insofar as "it was God's will". Safe for the moment (though her captors were furious), Joan was now stuck in the most dangerous of situations-if she reversed herself on her "recanting", she would be doomed.
- One of the crimes of which she had already been "condemned" was that of dressing like a man, and it was on this that the English finally slew her, by laying a trap. The reasons for it vary-she may have been trying to protect her modesty from outrage, or her original women's clothes were taken from her, or possibly because she was tired of the ridiculous charade she put on the man's clothes which had been deliberately left for her. In wearing them, she was found and declared to be a "relapsed heretic", and burned the next day (May 29 and 30, 1431; she was 19 years old).
- 24 years later, her case was reopened, this time with the actual consent of the actual Holy See and the actual attention of the actual pope (as opposed to the original bunch of English bishops led by Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais); both the Church and the King of France took a few knocks at the second trial for letting the travesty go so long without addressing it, which speaks well for the second trial's sincerity. However, the common view of her in England (even through the age of Shakespeare) was that she was a witch in league with demons. She was not commonly regarded as sympathetic until the 19th century-compare France, where the opinion that she was divinely inspired was held even during her own lifetime. The case for her canonization was opened in 1869, she was beatified in 1909, and finally declared a saint in 1920.
- Islam has very strict instructions on what its followers should and shouldn't do, and practices that can't be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad himselfnote are regarded as heretical, or bid'ah-literally meaning "innovation" (since the religion is considered to have been perfect when revealed, so anything added later would make it less perfect; "bid'ah" outside of religion is OK, although usually other terms are used).
- Ahmadiyyah. Its followers believe that the aforementioned Ahmad is also a Prophet, which goes against the role of Muhammad as the final prophet bringing final scripture. Numerous conflicts, some of which were violent, have happened between Ahmadiyyah and the more mainstream Muslims. It doesn't help that it originated during the British Colonial era and the early followers had ties with the Colonial authority-the present headquarters of the Ahmadiyyah are in the UK.
- Sufism. A rather loose term for sects than put more emphasis upon the spiritual experience and, usually, are less strict on religious laws. It might have been influenced by Hindu mysticism. Sufi imams have considerably greater influence on their followers than the mainstream imams. Their departure from what mainstream Muslims consider within bounds varies, and reactions from mainstream Muslims vary between "let those eccentrics be" to "those are pseudo-Islam, exterminate them." The former attitude is common among poorer, less educated Muslims, since Sufism is similar to the folk Islam they practice (loaded with saints and shrines and so on), while the ultra-purist Wahhabis love knocking down Sufi sites whenever they get a chance.
- Sunni and Shi'a Muslims don't generally regard each other as heretics. The difference was mostly a political one rather than a theological one. Comparison can be drawn between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church, more or less. Let's leave it at that.
- And finally, all three of the Abrahamic religions "tolerate" (or not) each other to various degrees, they only thing they can agree on being their mutual distaste of polytheism.note Let's leave it at that.
- The original Nazarene sect was considered a heresy in Judaism. Once they started recruiting non-Jews without putting them through the proper conversion, Christianity became a distinct religion. Modern Messianic Judaism is considered a heresy.
- What sealed the break was the expelling of the Christians from the synagogues in AD 82. Up until this point, relations were tense, but it was still a common practice for an Israelite Christian to go to the synagogue on Sabbath morning, and then go home, rest up, and attend Mass in the evening. After the expulsion, Christians no longer regarded themselves as a sect of Judaism, even if they were born Jews.
- Karaism is a sect of Judaism that rejects the Oral Law, and accepts only the Written Law. There are still a handful around today.
- The Essenes were a sect contemporary with Jesus that believed in a spiritual war between good and evil. They are best known for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. (No, not those.)
- Pre-Christian example: the 18th-dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten radically and single-handedly overhauled the Egyptian religion from polytheism into sort of a proto-monotheism. He got away with it at the time because, well, he was the king, but the religion reverted immediately after he died and Akhenaten got the Un-Person treatment from his successors.