Note: see also heresy in the European legal Encyclopedia.

Heresy, the English equivalent of the Greek word ??????? which is used in the Septuagint for “free choice,” in later classical literature for a philosophical school or sect as “chosen” by those who belong to it, in Philo for religion, in Josephus for a religious party (the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes).

Historical Legal Issues

Three types of heresy have appeared in the history of the Christian Church. The earliest may be called the syncretic; it is the fusion of Jewish or pagan with Christian elements. Ebionitism asserted “the continual obligation to observe the whole of the Mosaic law,” and “outran the Old Testament monotheism by a barren monarchianism that denied the divinity of Christ” (Kurtz, Church History, i. 120). (…)

There were movements, such as the Waldensian, the Wycliffite and Hussite, which are often described as “reformations anticipating the Reformation” which “set out from the Augustinian conception of the Church, but took exception to the development of the conception,” and were pronounced by the medieval church as heretical for (1) “contesting the hierarchical gradation of the priestly order; or (2) giving to the religious idea of the Church implied in the thought of predestination a place superior to the conception of the empirical Church; or (3) applying to the priests, and thereby to the authorities of the Church, the test of the law of God, before admitting their right to exercise, as holding the keys, the power of binding and loosing” (Harnack’s History of Dogma, vi. 136-137). The Reformation itself was from the standpoint of the Roman Catholic Church heresy and schism.

Persecution of heretics

Having traced the history of opinion in the Christian churches on the subject of heresy, we must now return to resume a subject already mentioned, the persecution of heretics. According to the Canon Law, which “was the ecclesiastical law of medieval Europe, and is still the law of the Roman Catholic Church,” heresy was defined as “error which is voluntarily held in contradiction to a doctrine which has been clearly stated in the creed, and has become part of the defined faith of the church,” and which is “persisted in by a member of the church.”

It was regarded not only as an error, but also as a crime to be detected and punished. As it belongs, however, to a man’s thoughts and not his deeds, it often can be proved only from suspicions. The canonists define the degrees of suspicion as “light” calling for vigilance, “vehement” demanding denunciation, and “violent” requiring punishment. The grounds of suspicion have been formulated “Pope Innocent III. declared that to lead a solitary life, to refuse to accommodate oneself to the prevailing manners of society and to frequent unauthorized religious meetings were abundant grounds of suspicion; while later canonists were accustomed to give lists of deeds which made the doers suspect: a priest who did not celebrate mass, a layman who was seen in clerical robes, those who favoured heretics, received them as guests, gave them safe conduct, tolerated them, trusted them, defended them, fought under them or read their books were all to be suspect” (T. M. Lindsay in article “Heresy,” Ency. Brit. 9th edition).

That the dangers of heresy might be avoided, laymen were forbidden to argue about matters of faith by Pope Alexander IV., an oath “to abjure every heresy and to maintain in its completeness the Catholic faith” was required by the council of Toledo (1129), the reading of the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue was not allowed to the laity by Pope Pius IV. The reading of books was restricted and certain books were prohibited. Regarding heresy as a crime, the church was not content with inflicting its spiritual penalties, 361 such as excommunication and such civil disabilities as its own organization allowed it to impose (e.g. the heretics were forbidden to give evidence in ecclesiastical courts, fathers were forbidden to allow a son or a daughter to marry a heretic, and to hold social intercourse with a heretic was an offence). It regarded itself as justified in invoking the power of the state to suppress heresy by civil pains and penalties, including even torture and death.

The story of the persecution of heretics by the state must be briefly sketched.

As long as the Christian Church was itself persecuted by the pagan empire, it advocated freedom of conscience, and insisted that religion could be promoted only by instruction and persuasion (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius); but almost immediately after Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Roman empire the persecution of men for religious opinions began. While Constantine at the beginning of his reign (313) declared complete religious liberty, and kept on the whole to this declaration, yet he confined his favours to the orthodox hierarchical church, and even by an edict of the year 326 formally asserted the exclusion from these of heretics and schismatics. Arianism, when favoured by the reigning emperor, showed itself even more intolerant than Catholic Orthodoxy.

Theodosius the Great, in 380, soon after his baptism, issued, with his co-emperors, the following edict: “We, the three emperors, will that all our subjects steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St Peter to the Romans, which has been faithfully preserved by tradition, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus of Rome, and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the institution of the Apostles, and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of equal majesty in the Holy Trinity. We order that the adherents of this faith be called Catholic Christians; we brand all the senseless followers of the other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches. Besides the condemnation of divine justice, they must expect the heavy penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict” (Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, i. 142). The fifteen penal laws which this emperor issued in as many years deprived them of all right to the exercise of their religion, “excluded them from all civil offices, and threatened them with fines, confiscation, banishment and even in some cases with death.” In 385 Maximus, his rival and colleague, caused seven heretics to be put to death at Treves (Trier).

Many bishops approved the act, but Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours condemned it. While Chrysostom disapproved of the execution of heretics, he approved “the prohibition of their assemblies and the confiscation of their churches.” Jerome by an appeal to Deut. xiii. 6-10 appears to defend even the execution of heretics. Augustine found a justification for these penal measures in the “compel them to come in” of Luke xiv. 23, although his personal leanings were towards clemency. Only the persecuted themselves insisted on toleration as a Christian duty. In the middle ages the church showed no hesitation about persecuting unto death all who dared to contradict her doctrine, or challenge her practice, or question her authority. The instruction and persuasion which St Bernard favoured found little imitation. Even the Dominicans, who began as a preaching order to convert heretics, soon became persecutors. In the Albigensian Crusade (a.d. 1209-1229) thousands were slaughtered. As the bishops were not zealous enough in enforcing penal laws against heretics, the Tribunal of the Inquisition was founded in 1232 by Gregory IX., and was entrusted to the Dominicans who “as Domini canes subjected to the most cruel tortures all on whom the suspicion of heresy fell, and all the resolute were handed over to the civil authorities, who readily undertook their execution” (Kurtz, Church History, ii. 137-138).

At the Reformation Luther laid down the principle that the civil government is concerned with the province of the external and temporal life, and has nothing to do with faith and conscience. “How could the emperor gain the right,” he asks, “to rule my faith?” With that only the Word of God is concerned. “Heresy is a spiritual thing,” he says, “which one cannot hew with any iron, burn with any fire, drown with any water. The Word of God alone is there to do it.” Nevertheless Luther assigned to the state, which he assumes to be Christian, the function of maintaining the Gospel and the Word of God in public life. He was not quite consistent in carrying out his principle (see Luthard’s Geschichte der christlichen Ethik, ii. 33). In the Religious Peace of Augsburg the principle “cujus regio ejus religio” was accepted; by it a ruler’s choice between Catholicism and Lutheranism bound his subjects, but any subject unwilling to accept the decision might emigrate without hindrance.

In Geneva under Calvin, while the Consistoire, or ecclesiastical court, could inflict only spiritual penalties, yet the medieval idea of the duty of the state to co-operate with the church to maintain the religious purity of the community in matters of belief as well as of conduct so far survived that the civil authority was sure to punish those whom the ecclesiastical had censured. Calvin consented to the death of Servetus, whose views on the Trinity he regarded as most dangerous heresy, and whose denial of the full authority of the Scriptures he dreaded as overthrowing the foundations of all religious authority.

Protestantism generally, it is to be observed, quite approved the execution of the heretic. The Synod of Dort (1619) not only condemned Arminianism, but its defenders were expelled from the Netherlands; only in 1625 did they venture to return, and not till 1630 were they allowed to erect schools and churches. In modern Protestantism there is a growing disinclination to deal even with errors of belief by ecclesiastical censure; the appeal to the civil authority to inflict any penalty is abandoned. During the course of the 19th century in Scottish Presbyterianism the affirmation of Christ’s atoning death for all men, the denial of eternal punishment, the modification of the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures by acceptance of the results of the Higher Criticism, were all censured as perilous errors.

The subject cannot be left without a brief reference to the persecution of witches. To the beginning of the 13th century the popular superstitions regarding sorcery, witchcraft and compacts with the devil were condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities as heathenish, sinful and heretical. But after the establishment of the Inquisition “heresy and sorcery were regarded as correlates, like two agencies resting on and serviceable to the demoniacal powers, and were therefore treated in the same way as offences to be punished with torture and the stake” (Kurtz, Church History, ii. 195).

While the Franciscans rejected the belief in witchcraft, the Dominicans were most zealous in persecuting witches. In the 15th century this delusion, fostered by the ecclesiastical authorities, took possession of the mind of the people, and thousands, mostly old women, but also a number of girls, were tortured and burned as witches. Protestantism took over the superstition from Catholicism. It was defended by James I. of England. As late as the 18th century death was inflicted in Germany and Switzerland on men, women and even children accused of this crime. This superstition dominated Scotland. Not till 1736 were the statutes against witchcraft repealed; an act which the Associate Presbytery at Edinburgh in 1743 declared to be “contrary to the express law of God, for which a holy God may be provoked in a way of righteous judgment.”

Non-Christian religions

The recognition and condemnation of errors in religious belief is by no means confined to the Christian Church. Only a few instances of heresy in other religions can be given. In regard to the fetishism of the Gold Coast of Africa, Jevons (Introduction to the History of Religion, pp. 165-166) maintains that “public opinion does not approve of the worship by an individual of a suhman, or private tutelary deity, and that his dealings with it are regarded in the nature of ‘black art’ as it is not a god of the community.” In China there is a “classical or canonical, primitive and therefore alone orthodox (tsching) and true 362 religion,” Confucianism and Taoism, while the “heterodox (sic),” Buddhism especially, is “partly tolerated, but generally forbidden, and even cruelly persecuted” (Chantepie de la Saussaye, Religionsgeschichte, i. 57).

In Islam “according to an unconfirmed tradition Mahomet is said to have foretold that his community would split into seventy-three sects (see Mahommedan Religion, § Sects), of which only one would escape the flames of hell.” The first split was due to uncertainty regarding the principle which should rule the succession to the Caliphate. The Arabic and orthodox party (i.e. the Sunnites, who held by the Koran and tradition) maintained that this should be determined by the choice of the community. The Persian and heterodox party (the Shiites) insisted on heredity. But this political difference was connected with theological differences. The sect of the Mu’tazilites which affirmed that the Koran had been created, and denied predestination, began to be persecuted by the government in the 9th century, and discussion of religious questions was forbidden (see Caliphate, sections B and C). The mystical tendency in Islam, Sufism, is also regarded as heretical (see Kuenen’s Hibbert Lecture, pp. 45-50). Buddhism is a wide departure in doctrine and practice from Brahmanism, and hence after a swift unfolding and quick spread it was driven out of India and had to find a home in other lands. Essenism from the standpoint of Judaism was heterodox in two respects, the abandonment of animal sacrifices and the adoration of the sun.

Although in Greece there was generally wide tolerance, yet in 399 b.c. Socrates “was indicted as an irreligious man, a corrupter of youth, and an innovator in worship.”

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

Heresy, Injunction

From the book The Clergyman’s Hand-book of Law, about Heresy, Injunction (1): Where a minister did not preach the doctrine and the entire system of Calvinistic theology received and taught by that denomination, he had no right to the pulpit of the church, and the court granted an injunction against his officiating therein.557


Notes and References

  1. Charles M. Scanlan, The Clergyman’s Hand-book of Law. The Law of Church and Grave (1909), Benziger Brothers, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago

See Also

  • Religion
  • Church


See Also

Further Reading

Besides the works quoted above, see Gottfried Arnold’s Unparteiische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie (1699-1700; ed. Schaffhausen, 1740). A very good list of writers on heresy, ancient and medieval, is given in Burton’s Bampton Lectures on Heresies of the Apostolic Age (1829). The various Trinitarian and Christological heresies may be studied in Dorner’s History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ (1845-1856; Eng. trans., 1861-1862); the Gnostic and Manichaean heresies in the works of Mansel, Matter and Beausobre; the medieval heresies in Hahn’s Geschichte der Ketzer im Mittelalter (1846-1850), and Preger’s Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (1875); Quietism in Heppe’s Geschichte der quietistischen Mystik (1875); the Pietist sects in Palmer’s Gemeinschaften und Secten Württembergs (1875); the Reformation and 17th-century heresies and sects in the Anabaptisticum et enthusiasticum Pantheon und geistliches Rüst-Haus (1702). Böhmer’s Jus ecclesiasticum Protestantium (1714-1723), and van Espen’s Jus ecclesiasticum (1702) detail at great length the relations of heresy to canon and civil law. On the question of the baptism of heretics see Smith and Cheetham’s Dict. of Eccl. Antiquities, “Baptism, Iteration of” ; and on that of the readmission of heretics into the church, compare Martene, De ritibus, and Morinus, De poenitentia.