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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Problem. One of the most important aspects of
the history of heresy before the middle of the sixteenth
century was the notion that heresy was disruptive of
the structures of society and hence destructive of soci-
ety, the corpus christianum, itself. Thus the heretic was
an offender against the State as well. Both Roman
Catholics and Protestants adhered to this view. It was
the basis of the attack by a combined Catholic and
Lutheran army against Münster in 1534-35. The “New
Jerusalem” which had been set up in that city by
religious dissidents was regarded as sufficiently threat-
ening to surrounding society that confessional differ-
ences could be overlooked in suppressing it. And this
theory was the buttress of Theodore Beza's defense of
the burning of Michael Servetus in Geneva in 1553:
to allow men with views like Servetus' to go un-
hindered was not only offensive to God but disinte-
grative of the social order. The concern thus was not
exclusively for dogma. Assumed social ramifications
were almost always associated with the repression of
heretical dissent.

However, the significance of this idea began to
dwindle when the Huguenots in France managed to
introduce the principle of religious pluralism in the
midst of political monism and obtained the Edict of
Nantes in 1598. For almost a century thereafter a
religious and political stalemate between Calvinists and
Catholics was recognized, and the liberty of conscience
and territorial coexistence implicit in the Edict did not
destroy the French kingdom.

The churches' responses to heresy in the Renaissance
and Reformation were in the form of punishment and
repression. The theory underlying their attitude stems
ultimately from Saint Augustine who held that force
short of death may be used in love to recall men from
error. Its more proximate source in this period, how-


ever, was in Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologica
II-II, q. 11, §§3-4). Thomas held that the Church's
action against the heretic actually shows great mercy.
As advocated in Titus 3:10, she does not immediately
condemn the erring one, but first admonishes him
twice. The aim is to retrieve the lost soul to the fold
through penance. Forgiveness is the goal, not punish-
ment. If the heretic remains obdurate, however, or if
he relapses into his error after penance and rehabil-
itation, he must be punished. It is right, Thomas sug-
gests, for such persons to suffer, for the contagion of
their views jeopardizes the welfare of all. The goal then
becomes the salvation of the community. Thomas con-
strued heresy as the worst possible offense, and if the
counterfeiter of coin is executed, how much more
should the heretic, the counterfeiter of divine truth be
put to death. Since God is regarded as the supreme
sovereign, a feudalization of the idea has taken place:
the severity of the crime is determined by the status
of him against whom it is perpetrated. John 15:6, which
states that a withered branch is to be burned, though
not used by Thomas, seems to be the scriptural basis
for the Church's position.

The Inquisition and the Index librorum prohibitorum
were primary weapons of Roman Catholicism for
dealing with heresy in the late Middle Ages. The for-
mer was systematized by Gregory IX and the Synod
of Toulouse in 1229. Its legal and coercive powers were
independent of local ecclesiastical and political con-
trols, and it was much feared. The Index of prohibited
books comes to the fore especially with the Council
of Trent, 1545-63.

The operative legal principle in the churches' op-
pression of heresy was borrowed from criminal law.
There, in the words of Andreas of Isernia (d. 1316),
“the offense is in the will, and unless it be voluntary,
it is not a crime.” In the hands of the churchmen, this
was construed to fit all heretics by definition. Theodore
Beza, successor of Calvin in Geneva, assumed hypoc-
risy in all his opponents and regarded any activity
against the Church as based on dolus (“deceit”). Every
heretic “wills to ignore the truth.” Beza's Protestant
position was not unique, and it can be viewed as simply
the logical extension of the position of Thomas (ibid.,
I-II, q. 76, §§2-3), who, by distinguishing between
nescience (absence of knowledge) and ignorance
(privation of knowledge), was able to deny the validity
of a plea for clemency on the basis of ignorance. Not
to know what one ought to know involves the sin of
omission. Moreover, provisions of the Roman law,
formulated in the Code of Justinian, which called for
the death penalty for those who repeat baptism or deny
the Trinity were revived.

There was no great formal difference between the
confessions on this point when seen in toto. Luther in
1521 declared that heresy should be subject to no
physical penalty, but ten years later he assented to the
death penalty for blasphemy, which consisted in a
public proclamation of heresy, and for sedition, when
heresy subverted the State. Calvin openly regarded
heresy itself as punishable by death, not that error as
such was being punished, but offense against God, the
Church, and society. Zwingli, although he could find
room for certain pagans in paradise, approved Zurich's
edict of 1526 which prescribed death by drowning for
Anabaptists. Roman Catholicism had long since come
to terms with the need to execute the heretic.

The State responded to dissent by treating heresy
as a civil as well as a religious offense, for both Church
and State were seeking the same supernatural end. The
ends of salvation and the realization of God's kingdom
were regarded to be supernatural ends. The Church
was instrumental in securing this judgment. The
Church, forbidden herself to shed blood, invoked the
arm of the State to inflict the penalty. Recalcitrance
by a civil ruler was countered with threats to relieve
the ruler's subjects of their oath of allegiance, to ex-
communicate the ruler or impose the interdict upon
him, or to cause the forfeiture of his lands and goods.
Perhaps the most powerful statement on this matter
is the bull of Innocent IV, ad extirpanda, in 1252,
which caps the decision of the Fourth Lateran Council
(1215) to excommunicate any ruler who did not imple-
ment the will of the Church.

The interpretation of heresy as a civil offense
punishable by death had been given legal basis by
Emperor Frederick II (Constitutions of Melfi, 1231),
and Innocent IV, in his bull, Cum adversus haereticam
of 1245, sanctioned the Emperor's view
with papal approval. Charles V developed an imperial
heresy law for the Holy Roman Empire in 1523 which
remained valid for more than a century. The absolute
need for political and religious unity in the interest
of the whole community is clearly presupposed. The
magistrate thus serves the whole community in elimi-
nating heretics. The right to determine the doctrinal
boundaries of orthodox faith therefore became exceed-
ingly important. Catholics and Protestants were alike
in agreeing that right belief is necessary for salvation.
Renaissance thinkers, however, saw an ever increasing
disagreement on what constituted “right” belief.

There was opposition both within and without the
churches to their treatment of heresy, and the Renais-
sance produced literature advocating the toleration of
dissent. The literary debate came largely at the hands
of the humanists. Some of these men were no longer
content to seek solutions to religious and ethical ques-
tions within the elaborate dogmatic and legal structures


of the Scholastic Roman church. Inner conviction came
to the fore. Theology should be simplified and virtually
reduced to ethics, and only the very minimum of
dogma essential to salvation ought to be required of
any man. These men were anti-traditional, anti-
Scholastic, and, in some senses, anti-theological in in-
clination. In consequence, they were incensed at the
viciousness with which the churches persecuted the

In their writings of opposition, various humanists
differed from each other with respect to approaches
and goals. The burning of Servetus at Geneva on Octo-
ber 27, 1553, evoked numerous protests. Sebastian
Castellio wrote a strong complaint in his De haereticis
(1554). His argument was for religious toleration and
liberty of thought. He was quite prepared to see the
Church's truth relativized. Minus Celsus wrote a simi-
lar treatise some years later, In haereticis coercendis
... (1577). Celsus was not sympathetic with Castellio's
relativizing Christian truth and argued simply that the
death penalty for heresy ought to be abolished. If the
magistrate wishes to imitate Christ, he must show
mercy, not the iron fist. Religion is spiritual, and the
miles christianus is restricted to spiritual weapons. “We
have as little right to burn 'Arians' (anti-Trinitarians)
and Anabaptists,” he wrote, “as the Pope has to punish
us with death” (ibid., II 85; cited Fimpel, p. 55). His
argument is not for freedom for heretical activity, but
only against the death penalty. Erasmus of Rotterdam,
on the other hand, equivocated. He was a theological
reductionist with an aversion to dogma. Faith is inward
and simple and should consist in assent to minimal
propositions. Correct belief about complex theological
questions is unessential to salvation, and as little defini-
tion should be made as possible. In any case sincere
faith cannot be induced by coercion. An utterly con-
tumacious heretic may, however, be punished, not so
much because of his error as of his attitude.

Some humanists responded to church persecution by
emigrating to safer territory. The Italian humanists
often fled to Geneva, Basel, and Poland. The Protes-
tants fled England under Catholic Queen Mary as the
so-called “Marian Exiles” and went to Germany (espe-
cially Frankfurt) and Switzerland. Anabaptists also
participated in this reaction, and many fled to Eastern
Europe and, eventually, to America.

The Heresies. Late medieval thought bequeathed to
the Renaissance many emphases which, as synecdoches,
easily created problems and even heresy. Voluntarism,
emphasis upon God's will rather than his intellect,
appeared in John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham,
and others. On this view one cannot predict or demon-
strate theological principles by a priori reasoning, and
one is led into a kind of positivism and fideism wherein
one believes a dogma solely on the authority of the
Church's authentication. A stringent notion of predes-
tination found articulation in the fourteenth century
in John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. The subversive element
here was the lurking possibility that God's eternal
predestination of one to salvation eliminated the need
for Jesus Christ as Mediator and the need for the
Church's sacramental system. And mysticism which
required neither dogma nor sacrament for mystical
union with God was present in the Devotio moderna
and in the speculative mysticism in Germany, e.g.,
Meister Eckhart.

Moreover, Ockhamite nominalism combined with
other voluntaristic and atomistic elements to erode the
monolithic concept of the Church and dogma. The
Thomistic understanding of the Church as a feudal
hierarchic structure with its essence filtering down
from the papacy at the top was rejected in favor of
a view which located the essence of the Church in
its members. Nominalism flourished during the
Renaissance and furnished a direct line into its skepti-
cism about the Trinity and immortality. Ockham, for
example, treated the former as philosophically incom-
prehensible and religiously believable only on the basis
of a special mode of knowing; the great Arab thinkers
in Spain, especially the Averroists, raised doubts about
personal immortality which were not without influence
in the Christian West. Thus there was fertile ground
for intellectual heresies at the opening of the Renais-

Not all of the medieval movements which continued
as heresies in the Renaissance were intellectual, how-
ever. Many of the sects the Church labeled heretical
were originally reform movements. They advocated
reform of the Church, apostolic simplicity in de-
meanor, and renewed concentration on the Bible
with a literal understanding of its injunctions. They
generally opposed sacramentalism, clericalism, and
intellectualism. Since they were not ordinarily made
up of learned men, the Church's intellectual elite often
thought of them as anachronistic. Alienated from the
Church, some of them moved into superstition and
witchcraft, but most of the disenchanted remained
much closer to a traditional faith. The Cathars were
fairly well under control by the outset of the Renais-
sance. They had been unique in the West: having begun
outside the Christian tradition, they became heretics
by adopting and adapting that tradition. The
Waldenses continued to inhabit the high valleys of
northern Italy, secure in their faith but separated from
Roman Catholicism.

Witchcraft was another element with medieval roots
which penetrated the Renaissance. It is not clear that
those regarded as witches and warlocks were techni-


cally heretics—claiming to be Christian—but the
Church exercised itself against them on scriptural
grounds (Exodus 22:18 and Deuteronomy 18:10). The
year 1374 marks the first documented use of the Inqui-
sition against witches, but the records of the inquisitors
reveal witchcraft to have been a major concern there-
after. The bull of Innocent VIII, Summis desiderantes
(1485), is a notable example of papal concern.

Witchcraft seems clearly reflected in some notable
art of the Renaissance. Hieronymus Bosch's Temptation
of St. Anthony
portrays a black mass scene which may
have been inspired by sabbat rites alleged to have been
common among witches. A similar influence seems
present in Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim altar paint-
ings. Not until the Counter-Reformation had done its
work and Europe had entered upon the period of the
Enlightenment was art to lose interest in magic, witch-
craft, and the black arts.

Moreover, a number of other factors contributed to
the social unrest and changes which began with the
fourteenth century. The middle of that century wit-
nessed successive waves of the deadly plague decimate
Western Europe's population. Many (e.g., the Flagel-
lants) responded to that disaster by becoming preoccu-
pied with the problem of death. There were social
uprisings like the Wat Tyler rebellion in England in
1381. The nascent universities were fomenting new
ideas. The whole of Western culture seemed ripe for

There were also other highly varied streams of
thought pulsing through the Renaissance, many of
which could not help affecting religious life and
thought—often, in the eyes of official Christendom,
adversely. Classical learning and letters experienced a
rebirth, and many elements of it were both mutually
antagonistic and uncongenial to traditional theology,
especially Scholasticism. Stoicism, with its natural law
teachings, its notions of the rationality of the universe
and the cosmic community, and, in a man like Machi-
avelli, ideas of the State not unlike those of the ancient
Sophists, were present.

Neo-Platonism was clearly the most important strand
of thought retrieved from the ancients during the
Renaissance. The thought of Plato and Plotinus was
revived against the regnant Aristotelianism. Under its
aegis man was seen as in the center of a great chain
of being with freedom to rise to union with God or
to descend away from him without the mediation of
a savior. Moreover, various other oriental factors came
into view again in association with Neo-Platonism: the
Sybillines, the allegedly Christian Hermetic literature,
and the Kabbala traditions. The effect of this orienta-
tion on Christian thinkers was to heighten interest in
other religions and to foster syncretistic approaches.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola sought to demonstrate
the basic harmony among the doctrines of all religions
and philosophies. Attempts were made to uncover the
doctrine of the Trinity in other, non-Christian religions.
The most important representative of this Neo-Platonic
revival was the Platonic Academy at Florence, which,
however, remained basically Christian in tendency.

Few Renaissance humanists intended to repristinate
the thought forms of antiquity, and fewer still can be
said seriously to have adhered in any religious sense
to the pagan mythologies so ubiquitous in their works.
Rather this material served them as foils for wrestling
with Christian themes. Though generally antagonistic
to ecclesiastical and theological authority, these men
were not necessarily irreligious or even anti-Christian.
They thought Scholastic theology unimpressive and
brittle. And their thought often lent itself to relativism
in dogma, tolerance of different ideas, and syncretism.

While the Protestant Reformers did not lack concern
for traditional theology and could have agreed with
their Roman Catholic opponents on a formal definition
of heresy, both sides drew up quite different lists of
heresies. Catholics considered Lutherans, Calvinists,
Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and some of the humanists as
heretics; Protestants included the Anabaptists, the
Schwenckfelder, and some radical humanists. The gen-
eral agreement on the Anabaptists derived from the
common fear that they would destroy the Corpus
All of these groups, however, stood over
against those humanists and other dissidents who found
all churches and creeds too restrictive. Guillaume Farel
(1489-1565), for instance, could castigate Erasmus as
a “pestilent adversary of the Gospel,” for his theolog-
ical reductionism.

All of the Protestants rejected the appellation
“heretic” for themselves. They thought of themselves
as representing the truth against apostasy. Curiously,
however, the major Reformation groups did not label
Roman Catholicism per se heretical. Luther regarded
the pope as the apostate of the New Israel and spoke
of “the swarm of vermin in Rome,” but he did not
designate Catholicism as heresy. He was pessimistic
about the outcome, but he did not yield his hope for
peace with a reformed Rome. For Calvin there was
no Church of Christ at Rome because the signs of the
true church—the Word rightly preached and the
sacraments rightly celebrated—were missing (Institutes
IV. vii. 23).

In the eyes of Rome, the whole Protestant movement
was heretical. This view was especially characteristic
of the early years of the sixteenth-century Reformation.
It is true that the Council of Trent did not designate
Protestantism or even particular Protestants as heretics.
The formula is si quis... anathema sit (“If anyone


believes such and such let him be anathema”). How-
ever, such polemical writings as Johannes Cochlaeus'
Commentaria de actis et scriptis Martini Lutheri
(1549) expressly call Luther a heretic, and the
Index of prohibited books makes the judgment official.
This interpretation has been perpetuated into the
present century by works like Dominican Heinrich
Denifle's Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwick-
(1904-06), and Jesuit Hartman Grisar's Luther

Other learned men also presented crises of orthodoxy
to the Church. Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo,
Gassendi, and Newton were among them. These men
refused to regard reason as ancillary to theology and
set themselves vigorously to its use in science with
inductive methodologies. They challenged the notion
of miracle. They developed principles of critical his-
torical study. With respect to heresy, they raised the
question of what could be accepted as individualistic
adiaphora in the Christian confession. Was geocentrism
essential? Catholicism ruled that it was, although the
Protestant Osiander's preface to Copernicus' work
tried to make it optional (1543).

The Huguenots in France effectively introduced a
tolerant pluralism to Europe. Not everyone in the same
political geography had to adhere to the same religion.
Protestants and Catholics could inhabit the same land,
and the principle cuius regio, eius religio articulated
at the Peace of Augsburg (1555), was no longer widely
observed. The Edict of Nantes lasted only until Louis
XIV revoked it in 1685, but it was importantly
strengthened in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which
ended the Thirty Years War. The major thrust of that
treaty was not toward pluralism, but pluralism was to
prevail under certain conditions. The Puritan Civil War
under Oliver Cromwell introduced this idea to seven-
teenth-century England. Pluralism succeeded in these
important experiments no better than it had in the
earlier attempts to establish a pax dissidentium in
Poland (1573) among Lutherans, Calvinists, and
Hussites, and in Antwerp (1578) between Calvinists and
Catholics, but the principle presented a striking option
to religious strife. Not until the nineteenth century was
pluralism to become dominant in the Western world,