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

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

In Heretics Jonathan Wright charts the history of dissent in the Christian Church through the stories of some of its most emblematic heretics—from Arius, a fourth-century Libyan cleric who doubted the very divinity of Christ, to more successful heretics like Martin Luther and John Calvin. As he traces the Church’s attempts at enforcing orthodoxy, from the days of Constantine to the modern Catholic Church’s lingering conflicts, Wright 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 and successful 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 have 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.

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547548890

  • ISBN-10: 0547548893

  • Pages: 352

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 04/27/2011

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Jonathan Wright

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. He is also the author of God's Soldiers, a history of the Jesuits that has been translated into nine languages, and The Ambassadors.
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  • reviews

    Heretics, by Jonathan Wright (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $28). In this chatty primer, 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 fractiousness, he suggests, springs both from the worldly power that Christians achieved, which insured that the line between orthodoxy and heresy was sharply policed, and from enduringly confusing elements of Christian doctrine, such as the issue of Jesus’ dual nature as god and man. Wright, though his prose is sometimes marred by creaky Oxbridge wit, navigates all the theological complications deftly.--The New Yorker
  • excerpts


    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 nev...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547548890

  • ISBN-10: 0547548893

  • Pages: 352

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 04/27/2011

  • Carton Quantity: 1

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