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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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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,