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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The roman Catholic Church defines a heretic as “any
baptized person who, retaining the name Christian,
pertinaciously denies or doubts one or another truth
believed by divine and catholic faith” (corpus iuris
c. 1325, §2). Historically most Protestants
have not demurred from that fundamental delineation,
and, as the sixteenth century often noted, Protestant
churches holding mutually contradictory doctrines
exemplified attitudes toward heresy which were iden-
tical to the Catholic's. In practice, however, the formal
conditions have not always obtained, and those views
have been regarded as heretical which the Church or
its leaders, Catholic or Protestant, have judged to be
so. This has meant that orthodoxy and heresy have not
been uniformly specified from age to age and from
group to group.

The implications of such a definition of heresy are
several. First, norms for judgment must be specifiable.
Second, not every sect or each instance of dissent can
be regarded as heretical. Theoretically, neither Jew nor
Turk is a heretic since neither claims the Christian
faith, although the distinction between the heretic and
the infidel was not always honored. It has thus always
been possible to differ, within certain bounds. Third,
the alleged heretic must hold to his deviant view and
to his claim to the name Christian obstinately. Fourth,
the label “heresy” has acquired an exclusively pejora-
tive meaning.

The term “heretic” is applicable to individuals or
groups, to laymen or clergymen. There are several
distinctions within the general category: objective
heresy indicates an overt statement contradicting a
dogma. Subjective heresy is the acceptance of such a
statement. Formal heresy denotes the actual articula-
tion of a heretical statement and requires fitting pun-
ishment. Material heresy circumscribes an inarticulate
error in belief held in ignorance.


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,


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


On heresy in the Renaissance, see Roland H. Bainton,
Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus
(Boston, 1953); idem, “The Parable of the Tares as the
Prooftext for Religious Liberty,” Church History, 1 (1932),
67-89; idem, Sebastian Castellio: Concerning Heretics (New
York, 1935); Delio Cantimori, Italienische Haeretiker der
(Basel, 1949); Ludwig Fimpel, mino Celsis
Traktat gegen die Ketzertötung. Ein Beitrag zum Toleranz-
problem des 16. Jahrhunderts
(Basel and Stuttgart, 1967);
Joseph Lecler, Histoire de la tolérance au siècle de la
2 vols. (Paris, 1955), trans. as Toleration and the


Reformation, 2 vols. (New York, 1960); Ulrich Mauser, Der
junge Luther und die Häresie
(Gütersloh, 1968). On the
bequest of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, see Heiko
A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology. Gabriel Biel
and Late Medieval Nominalism
(Cambridge, Mass., 1963).
On the eighteenth-century developments, see Owen
Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman. The Idea of Doctrinal
(Cambridge, 1957); Aimé Georges Martimort,
le gallicanisme de Bossuet (Paris, 1953). On Schleiermacher,
see Klaus-Martin Beckmann, Der Begriff der Häresie bei
(Munich, 1959). On later nineteenth-century
developments, see Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History
(New York, 1949). On Fundamentalism, see Ernest R.
Sandeen, “Towards a Historical Interpretation of the Origins
of Fundamentalism,” Church History, 36 (1967), 66-83. On
the modern Roman Catholic developments, see, e.g., Karl
Rahner, On Heresy (New York, 1964); Hans Küng, Die
(Freiburg, Basel, and Vienna, 1967), pp. 288-310.


[See also Christianity in History; Enlightenment; Heresy
in the Middle Ages;
Hierarchy; Historicism; Neo-Platonism;
Reformation; Religious Toleration; Renaissance Humanism;
Sin and Salvation; Witchcraft.]