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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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Until toward the mid-eighteenth century, a kind of
unity permeated the history of Christian thought. De-
spite the polarization of Protestant and Catholic con-
fessional views, the bases from which theologians
operated, the methods which they employed, and even
many of their conclusions were not essentially dissimi-
lar. Their principles of reasoning, their concepts of
revelation and their views of authority as such they
held in common. The later eighteenth and the nine-
teenth centuries, however, mark important shifts away
from the older views. Not disjunction from the past,
but reorientation in view of various challenges

The eighteenth century experienced an increasing
exasperation with the dictum of Vincent of Lérins (ca.
A.D. 434), quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus
creditum est
(“what is believed everywhere, always,
by everyone”) with respect to the doctrinal content
of the faith. J. B. Bossuet, representing the epitome
of Gallicanism, had written in 1688 to the effect that
tradition is absolutely unchangeable, that Christian
doctrine came from Christ true and complete. But even
as he wrote, critical principles of historical study were
rendering his judgments indefensible. Both Roman
Catholics and Protestants were beginning to engage
in critical historical studies which were making them
impatient with attempts to describe and adduce in
support of a polemical position a supposed patristic
consensus. Catholic opponents of Jansenism were hav-
ing to oppose Augustine, and Catholic biblical scholars
were wondering about the historical reliability of some
details of the Gospel narratives. Protestants, in con-
testing Gallicanism, were, especially among English
Latitudinarians, more than prepared to espouse the
view that theology had changed and improved since
the early Fathers. The Enlightenment taught them that
doctrine does not remain static simply because for-
mulae remain unchanged. Words change meanings as
time passes, and our understanding of terms and ideas
changes also. Some sort of development was inherent
in the situation. And as this spirit entered the nine-
teenth century, the breach between propositional the-
ological certitude and the relativity of the results of
historical investigation became clear.

Various components of the nineteenth century only
exacerbated that problem and brought additional chal-
lenges to traditional modes of Christian thought. Ex-
tremely influential were romanticism, nationalism, and
pluralism. Critical religious studies, including biblical
criticism, historical studies involving views of doctrinal
development and historical change, and the History
of Religions School (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) of
German scholarship, were highlighting fundamental
questions about traditional views of Christianity. His-
torical relativism in the guise of so-called “historicism”
occupied the foreground. Scientific method in the
Enlightenment recovered the rationalistic emphasis of
the Renaissance which both Protestantism and
Catholicism had feared so intensely. The growth of
science passed on to the nineteenth century not only
great confidence in natural theology, but also the


Newtonian revolution, the dispute about evolutionary
geology and Genesis, the Darwinian controversy, Social
Darwinism, environmental sociology, and a positivistic
empirical approach to all reality.

The churches reacted variously. Some Protestants
took refuge in Pietism. Some embraced the rationalism
of the Enlightenment and adopted an indifferentist,
common sense attitude toward these problems and
accepted easily the notions of natural law and of
Christianity as merely an example of a universal natural
religion. Still others concentrated on feeling in religion.
Liberal Protestantism in general emphasized subjective
experience and, relatedly, a philosophical idealism
which, in some quarters, came virtually to replace
theology. The doctrine of man was revised in man's
favor and to the disadvantage of Augustinian ideas of
original sin. Men like Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89)
viewed history with great optimism about the destiny
of man. History for some virtually became the agent
of salvation, the Christ. Moreover, ethics and social
concerns were strongly emphasized and evoked re-
sponses like America's Social Gospel movement. Posi-
tivism and realism were victorious.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian
working at the beginning of the nineteenth century,
illustrates the liberal response in terms of subjectivism
and antipathy to propositional theology. John Locke,
in his The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), had
wanted to reduce the essential Christian confession to
the proposition “Jesus is the Messiah.” His position was
similar to the theological reductionism of Erasmus.
Schleiermacher's position was quite different. He
shifted the fundamental basis of the problem. In his
Der Christliche Glaube (1821, §§21-22), he brings his
view to bear on the problem of heresy. Heresy is
described as a sickness of the whole organism of the
Church. It must, for the good of the whole, be healed.
Every dogmatic system, he held, will have a principle
which serves as a criterion of judgment for that which
is acceptable and that which is unacceptable. That
principle will be the essence of Christianity. Schleier-
macher's principle was the redemption wrought in
Jesus Christ. He then proceeded to interpret that prin-
ciple subjectively. What is essential (§24) is the relation
of the individual to Christ, his savior, and this rela-
tionship determines his relationship to the Church. He
saw this view as opposite to that of Roman Catholicism
which he understood to hold that one's relation to
Christ was determined by his relationship to the
Church. The result of his position was to render uncer-
tain each delineation of heresy and to deny the absolute
validity of the formal decisions of the Church respect-
ing heresy. Not right belief, but a relationship to Christ
saves. Doctrinal heresy is thus virtually obsolete.

Disapprobation of dogma is also present in Ralph
Waldo Emerson's “Divinity School Address” at
Harvard in 1838. Contempt for propositional theology
also appears in Horace Bushnell. Bushnell's essay on
“Language” in his God in Christ (1849) denies the
validity of rationalism and dogmatism. The logical
method is rebuffed: religious language is always
ambiguous and always partly false. Bushnell would
prefer to affirm logical contradictions when speaking
of God rather than accept the dictates of logic and
rationalism as absolutes.

There were also reactions to the challenge of the
nineteenth century by tenaciously conservative
Protestants. Various confessionalist movements em-
phasized radically the differences between theology
and contemporary philosophy. John Henry Newman's
emphases on the historical Church and its creeds
exemplify such a mood in England. Lutheranism in
Germany experienced a similar confessionalist revival,
and in America, Charles Hodge at Princeton illustrates
the conservative response.

Finally, the so-called Fundamentalist movement in
America represented the height of the retreat from the
modern world, and looked at “modernism” as heretical.
These people were basically alienated from the newer
currents of intellectual life at the end of the nineteenth
century. Ordinarily they regarded acceptance of such
doctrines as the following as essential for true Christian
faith: inerrancy of the scriptures, the deity of Christ,
his virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and
Christ's physical resurrection and visible second com-
ing. Challenge to any of these points was heretical,
and most contemporary intellectual movements were
ruled out of bounds for the Christian.

Roman Catholicism's official response was one of
almost exclusively negative impulse. Three events con-
nected with Pope Pius IX illustrate this reaction: the
promulgation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Con-
ception of Mary on 8 December 1854, the publication
of the Syllabus of Errors on 8 December 1864, and
the calling of the First Vatican Council, largely to
formulate the doctrine of papal infallibility, on 8 De-
cember 1869. The Syllabus of Errors designated most
contemporary philosophical, intellectual, and social
currents heretical. Similarly, Pius X felt it necessary
to condemn the so-called “Modernist” heresy for its
willingness to accommodate new thought.

As a result of these conflicting strands of eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century history, the notion of heresy
and its place in Christian history was altered. The
dominant stress within Protestantism was away from
propositional theology and toward an emphasis on
feeling and subjectivity. Inductive sciences were gain-
ing credence at the expense of traditional views of


theology. Despite occasional conservative revivals, the
prevailing mood of the period was not in that direction.

The historiography of heresy has also made signifi-
cant contributions toward a change in attitude con-
cerning heresy. Much of the recent literature on the
topic—both historical and systematic—reflects this
important shift. Until the monumental effort of Gott-
fried Arnold in his Unparteyische Kirchen- und
Ketzer-Historie von Anfang des Neuen Testaments biss
auff das Jahr Christi 1688
(1699-1700), polemical in-
terests had never been far from each consideration of
the problem of heresy. The heretic was an enemy who
was to be held in disgrace. Arnold and, following him,
Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (Versuch einer unpar-
teiischen und gründlichen Ketzergeschichte,
1746) at-
tempted to write fair and objective histories of heresy.
Party loyalties were consciously subordinated to faith-
ful recitation of the facts.

More recently several studies have been published
which build upon the spirit of fairness, the develop-
ment of critical historical methodologies, and the de-
struction of such myths as the patristic consensus.
Walter Bauer, in his Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im
ältesten Christentum
(1934; 2nd ed., 1963), has demon-
strated the historical untenability of the view of the
early Church that orthodoxy and heresy were distin-
guishable from apostolic times and has proposed that,
until well into the second century, there were no
clear-cut ways of distinguishing the status of one posi-
tion from the other. What was later to be regarded
as orthodox Catholic Christianity was a minority view
in the Church in some parts of the early Christian
world. A more radical departure from prior views of
heresy is hard to imagine, but, though not undisputed,
Bauer's position is widely accepted.

Many current Roman Catholic scholars are also
treating the question of heresy differently from their
predecessors. Karl Rahner has suggested that adherence
to unmodified formulae from the past may involve one
in heresy in the present. Hans Küng has called for a
change in attitude toward the heretic. Not only is the
punitive power of the Inquisition rejected, but its spirit
also, and the heretic is to be treated with love and
understanding. Heresy is seen as a call to self-criticism
by the Church, for the heretic normally becomes so
by overemphasizing one aspect of Christian truth re-
specting which the Church has been lax. Thus an inter-
pretatio benigna
is required.

Moreover, contemporary Roman Catholic scholars
are engaged in critical historical studies of major
Protestant thinkers (especially Luther) and theology.
This scholarly work derives from basic research in the
Protestant sources and is making important contri-
butions to Protestant self-understanding. It has also
brought the older polemical works of men like Denifle
and Grisar (early twentieth century) into disrepute and
has created a basis for theological discussion with
Protestants as fellow Christians rather than as heretics.

Finally, the important role of pluralism in the dis-
ruption of the traditional views of heresy for the con-
temporary world must be noted. The basic principle
of pluralism removes the question of heresy from the
area of truth and places it in the area of discipline.
Each church can work out its own confessional stance,
regard it as true, and demand that its members subor-
dinate themselves to it. Each church may also choose
to regard all others who claim to be Christian as
heretical. But those so accused can either leave that
particular church or, if they are not members of it,
simply ignore the charge. Neither punitive action
against person or property nor social stigma attaches
to such a “heretic” in the larger pluralistic society. This
also means that not every “heresy” will affect every
church; e.g., the confessional Protestant churches were
little touched by the excesses of liberal theology. It
has also tended to mean, historically, that the relativiz-
ing of dogma begun, in a sense, by the humanists (e.g.,
Castellio) and given impetus by the nineteenth cen-
tury's great theologians (e.g., Schleiermacher) has
rendered many churches less sensitive about doctrinal
dissent and deviation.

Although the early part of the twentieth century
witnessed some major heresy trials among Protes-
tants—e.g., the attacks by conservatives on Charles
Briggs and by Fundamentalists on Harry Emerson
Fosdick; cf. also the Scopes trial on evolution—the last
four decades (1930-70) have not been congenial to the
heresy-hunter. There is a mood of impatience with
preoccupation in doctrinal concerns and a disinclina-
tion to regard any formulae as propositional absolutes.
Claims to absolute truth are not widely accepted.
Nevertheless, heresy is not a completely anachronistic
notion, and it remains of particular concern for those
churches which are marked by a tight confessional