Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church

by Jonathan Wright

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A lively examination of the heretics who helped Christianity become the world’s most powerful religion.

From Arius, a fourth-century Libyan cleric who doubted the very divinity of Christ, to more successful heretics like Martin Luther and John Calvin, this book charts the history of dissent in the Christian Church.
As the author traces the Church’s attempts at enforcing orthodoxy, from the days of Constantine to the modern Catholic Church’s lingering conflicts, he argues that heresy—by forcing the Church to continually refine and impose its beliefs—actually helped Christianity to blossom into one of the world’s most formidable religions.
Today, all believers owe it to themselves to grapple with the questions raised by heresy. Can you be a Christian without denouncing heretics? Is it possible that new ideas challenging Church doctrine are destined to become as popular as Luther’s once-outrageous suggestions of clerical marriage and a priesthood of all believers? A delightfully readable and deeply learned new history, Heretics overturns our assumptions about the role of heresy in a faith that still shapes the world.
“Wright emphasizes the ‘extraordinarily creative role’ that heresy has played in the evolution of Christianity by helping to ‘define, enliven, and complicate’ it in dialectical fashion. Among the world’s great religions, Christianity has been uniquely rich in dissent, Wright argues—especially in its early days, when there was so little agreement among its adherents that one critic compared them to a marsh full of frogs croaking in discord.” —The New Yorker

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547548890
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/27/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 359,006
File size: 570 KB

About the Author

Jonathan Wright received his doctorate in history from Oxford University. He has been a Thouron fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the Institute for European History in Mainz, Germany. Wright is also the author of God’s Soldiers, a history of the Jesuits that has been translated into nine languages, and The Ambassadors.

Read an Excerpt


The Heretics

Over the past two thousand years Christian heretics have
been likened to whores and lepers, savage beasts and demons, sexual
perverts and child killers. So far as the sixteenth-century Jesuit
Francis Coster was concerned, they had a great deal in common
with “the filthy dregs that flowed through the outhouse.” Warming
to his theme, Coster added that just as phlegm was expelled from
the body, so heretics were to be banished from “the heavenly body
of saints . . . as if religion became sick and vomited them out.”1
 Behind the unsavory rhetoric there was often an assumption
that heresy ought to be obliterated. It was not simply pesky, it was
utterly pernicious and, as a character in Thomas More’s A Dialogue
Concerning Heresies opined, it was the obligation of the righteous
“to sit upon the mountains treading heretics under our feet like
 Sometimes God was touted as the chief executioner. Stories
would be told of the fourth-century heresiarch Arius (about whom
we’ll hear much more) going to the lavatory one day only to witness
his bowels gushing out. Into which disgusting mess, so Saint Ambrose
reported, his head fell “headlong, besmirching those foul lips
with which he had denied Christ.” This, Ambrose crowed, was no
random accident, no “chance manner of death.” It was the Almighty
inflicting vengeance upon “wickedness.”
 Sometimes, the ant treading was leftto human beings, as
when hundreds of medieval Cathars were slaughtered by crusading
armies at Béziers in 1209; or when (so legend tells) North African
Donatists were herded onto ships at Carthage in 347, weighed down
with casks of sand, and dumped far out at sea; or when poor old Giulio
Cesare Vanini’s tongue was cut out ahead of his being strangled
at the stake in 1619 Toulouse. Many heretics made it through the
vale of tears unharmed, but this did not necessarily exempt them
from punishment. They could be condemned after death, at which
time their bones would be dug up and destroyed or, like the sixty-seven
deceased heretics in Mexico in 1649, be burned in effigy.
 These were not the only sanctions available to the syndics of
orthodoxy, however, and the historical landscape of heresy is not
nearly as corpse-strewn as might be imagined. From the perspective
of the ecclesiastical establishment, to kill a heretic was to fail.
The murdered heretic was someone who, despite all the threatening
and cajoling, had obstinately refused to recant his errors. Worse
yet, he could look a lot like a righteous martyr to his followers and
confreres. It was far preferable, therefore, to win supposedly errant
Christians back to the supposedly true path by means of corrective
justice. This, in terms of theological logic, was deemed to be charitable
(you were only trying to save people from eternal perdition,
after all). If this was caritas, however, it was often of an extravagant,
sometimes brutal variety.
 Medieval heretics were made to go on penitential pilgrimages
(often in chains), their clothes were bedecked with stigmatizing,
stitched-in symbols, and they were sentenced to grueling service
in the king’s galleys. In sixteenth-century France they could be
whipped or made to endure the most public humiliations: standing
in their penitential gowns in the church or the public square,
bareheaded and shoeless, holding a lighted candle, abjuring their
errors, and begging the community for forgiveness. If they were errant
clerics, their heads might be shaved (removing all sign of their
tonsure), their priestly vestments ceremonially stripped off, or, if
they were especially unlucky, their flesh cut from the thumb and
index finger: a symbolic way of removing their right to celebrate the
 An obvious question springs to mind. What was this thing
called heresy and why was it so detested? To indulge in such lavish
persecutory measures must surely have required a great deal of
certainty on the part of those doing the persecuting.
An important first step was to define this most heinous of
crimes: it had to be identified before it could be stamped out. An
awful lot of theological ink was spilled in this pursuit but, for our
present purposes, a sentence from the medieval theologian Robert
Grosseteste is as good a starting point as any. Heresy, he wrote, is
“an opinion chosen by human perception, contrary to Holy Scripture,
publicly avowed and obstinately defended.”5 At first blush, this
looks fairly straightforward but, once it is unpacked, the definition
turns out to be quite sophisticated. Religious truth, so the theory
went, was divinely inspired, objective, and fixed — soaring far above
the fleeting speculations of human opinion. There was room for
reined-in theological interpretation (at least for learned clerics),
the variable nuts and bolts of worship could sometimes be tinkered
with, and some concepts and rituals might take several centuries to
emerge. When it came to basic Christian dogmas, however, these
were all contained within the New Testament message. They had
been righteously pored over by the fathers of the early church and
codified in a succession of creedal statements, church councils, and,
so far as the Western half of Christendom was concerned, papal
 There was no good excuse for any reasonably well informed
Christian to dissent from these supposedly eternal verities. To do
so was to threaten the unity of Christendom: it was to trample on
the memory and sacrifice of Christ. Heretics often advertised themselves
as holy men but, so far as the church was concerned, they
were madmen, prideful scoundrels addicted to the exercise of their
addled imaginations, or, more than likely, the minions of Satan.
 Grosseteste’s talk of public avowal is also crucial. The heretical
mind in which dangerous thoughts secretly festered was beyond the
reach of the church militant. There had always been vipers in the
nest: hypocrites and dissemblers who harbored heretical opinions.
It didn’t really matter. God could tell the difference and would deal
with such wretches accordingly. In the here and now, so long as the
heretic did not spout his blasphemies in the street, the tavern, or the
pew, then others were not at immediate risk of infection.
 Obstinacy, another of Grosseteste’s keywords, was just as important.
There was no need to rush to judgment when confronted
with a seemingly heretical deed or utterance. To be guilty of full-fledged
 heresy a person had to be aware that his behavior contradicted
orthodoxy, and he had to persist in that behavior. The
theological term for this is pertinacity. Often, the suspected heretic
might simply have been acting out of ignorance, confusion, or
habit. Perhaps he was brought up by heretical parents and had never
been exposed to what the established church regarded as pure doctrine.
The obvious litmus test for distinguishing between unintentional
and willful heresy was to inform the supposed heretic of the
church’s acceptable teachings and see how he reacted. If he agreed
to conform, then that, after the exaction of suitable penances, was
usually the end of the matter. If, however, he clung to his heterodox
notions, then the more gruesome punishments could be unleashed.
 Problem solved and terms neatly defined, then. To be a heretic
was to dissent publicly and repeatedly from genuine Christianity.
The heretic was far worse than the pagan, Muslim, or Jew. Such
people had never had the chance to embrace the Christian message.
The heretics, by contrast, had been shown the way toward
eternal bliss, but they had traveled other roads. They had betrayed
Christ and, during the many centuries when Christianity was intimately
connected with political power, they had also threatened
to undermine social order and cohesion: they were as treacherous
as regicidal maniacs and more infectious than the most virulent

Table of Contents



1. The Heretics 1

2. The Invention of Heresy 14
Ignatius 14
Marcion and Gnosticism 19
The Montanists 30
Blunting the Challenges: Christian Unity 34
Persecution 39
The Church 44

3. Constantine, Augustine, and the
Criminalization of Heresy 50
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus 50
Constantine 54
Who Was Christ? 58
Donatism 69
Augustine 74
Whence and Whither? 78

4. The Heresy Gap 83
Heresy Redivivus 85
Iconoclasm 89

5. Medieval Heresy I 95
Orléans, 1022 95
Popular Heresy 102
Valdes 106
Popular Heresy: Reality 115
Popular Heresy: Myth 126
The Cathars 130

6. Medieval Heresy II 135
Francis 137
Where to Draw the Lines? 140
The Beguines 142
All the Others 145
Hus 150
The Fabled Road to the Reformation 156

7. Reformations 160
The Revolution 160
The Reformation Muddle 169
The Other Reformation 171
Reformation Certainty 181
The New Heresies 188
Drowned Without Mercy: Anabaptists 196
Servetus 200
Plus Ça Change? 204

8. The Death of Heresy? 212
Caution 212
Pragmatism 221
The Great Leap 225

9. American Heresy 238
New England 241
Hutchinson 245
Williams 251
Quakers 255
Revolutions Great and Small 262
Jeff erson and Madison 264
The Republic 271

10. The Polite Centuries 276
Emerson and Parker 278
The Sum of All Heresies 284

11. Conclusion 291

acknowledgments 303
notes 305
suggested reading 317
index 323

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