Introduction: What is a Heresy?
What is a heresy, and what is the historical importance of such a
Like most modern words, “Heresy” is used both vaguely and
diversely. It is used vaguely because the modern mind is as averse to
precision in ideas as it is enamored of precision in measurement. It is
used diversely because, according to the man who uses it, it may represent
any one of fifty things.
Today, with most people (of those who use the English language),
the word “Heresy” connotes bygone and forgotten quarrels, an old prejudice
against rational examination. Heresy is therefore thought to be of
no contemporary interest. Interest in it is dead, because it deals with
matter no one now takes seriously. It is understood that a man may
interest himself in a heresy from archaeological curiosity, but if he
affirm that it has been of great effect on history and still is, today,
of living contemporary moment, he will be hardly understood.
Yet the subject of heresy in general is of the highest importance
to the individual and to society, and heresy in its particular meaning
(which is that of heresy in Christian doctrine) is of special interest for
anyone who would understand Europe: the character of Europe and the story
of Europe. For the whole of that story, since the appearance of the
Christian religion, has been the story of struggle and change, mainly
preceded by, often, if not always, caused by, and certainly accompanying,
diversities of religious doctrine. In other words, “the Christian heresy”
is a special subject of the very first importance to the comprehension of
European history, because, in company with Christian orthodoxy, it is the
constant accompaniment and agent of European life.
We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a
mental effort and therefore repels.
Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting
scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part
We mean by “a complete and self-supporting scheme” any system of
affirmation in physics or mathematics or philosophy or what-not, the
various parts of which are coherent and sustain each other.
For instance, the old scheme of physics, often called in England
“Newtonian” as having been best defined by Newton, is a scheme of this
kind. The various things asserted therein about the behaviour of matter,
notably the law of gravity, are not isolated statements any one of which
could be withdrawn at will without disarranging the rest; they are all the
parts of one conception, or unity, such that if you but modify a part the
whole scheme is put out of gear.
Another example of a similar system is our plane geometry,
inherited through the Greeks and called by those who think (or hope) they
have got hold of a new geometry “Euclidean.” Every proposition in our
plane geometry_that the internal angles of a plane triangle equal two
right angles, that the angle contained in a semi-circle is a right angle,
and so forth_is not only sustained by every other proposition in the
scheme, but in its turn supports each other individual part of the whole.
Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by “Exception”: by
“Picking out” one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is
marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either
leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation. For
instance, the nineteenth century completed a scheme of textual criticism
for establishing the date of an ancient document. One of the principles in
this scheme is this_that any statement of the marvellous is necessarily
false. “When you find in any document a marvel, youched for by the
supposed author of that document, you have a right to conclude” (say the
textual critics of the nineteenth century, all talking like one man) “that
the document was not contemporary_was not of the date which it is claimed
to be.” There comes along a new and original critic who says, “I don’t
agree. I think that marvels happen and I also think that people tell
lies.” A man thus butting in is a heretic in relation to that particular
orthodox system. Once you grant this exception a number of secure
negatives become insecure.
You were certain, for instance, that the life of St. Martin of
Tours, which professed to be by a contemporary witness, was not by a
contemporary witness because of the marvels it recited. But if the new
principle be admitted, it might be contemporary after all, and therefore
something to which it bore witness, in no way marvellous but not found in
any other document, may be accepted as historical.
You read in the life of a Thaumaturge that he raised a man from
the dead in the basilica of Vienna in A.D. 500. The orthodox school of
criticism would say that the whole story being obviously false, because
marvellous, it is no evidence for the existence of a basilica in Vienna at
that date. But your heretic, who disputes the orthodox canon of criticism,
says, “It seems to me that the biographer of the Thaumaturge may have been
telling lies, but that he would not have mentioned the basilica and the
date unless contemporaries knew, as well as he did, that there was a
basilica in Vienna at that date.
bolder heretic who should say, “Not only is this passage perfectly good
evidence for the existence of a basilica at Vienna in A.D. 500, but I
think it possible that the man was raised from the dead.” If you follow
either of these critics you are upsetting a whole scheme of tests, whereby
true history was sifted from false in the textual criticism of recent
The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the
creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves
standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can
appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting
them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies
that “they survive by the truths they retain.”
We must note that whether the complete scheme thus attacked be
true or false is indifferent to the value of heresy as a department of
historical study. What we are concerned with is the highly interesting
truth that heresy originates a new life of its own and vitally affects the
society it attacks. The reason that men combat heresy is not only, or
principally, conservatism_a devotion to routine, a dislike of disturbance
in their habits of thought_it is much more a perception that the heresy,
in so far as it gains ground, will produce a way of living and a social
character at issue with, irritating, and perhaps mortal to, the way of
living and the social character produced by the old orthodox scheme.
So much for the general meaning and interest of that most pregnant
Its particular meaning (the meaning in which it is used in this
book) is the marring by exception of that complete scheme, the Christian
For instance, that religion has for one essential part (though it
is only a part) the statement that the individual soul is immortal_that
personal conscience survives physical death. Now if people believe that,
they look at the world and themselves in a certain way and go on in a
certain way and are people of a certain sort. If they except, that is cut
out, this one doctrine, they may continue to hold all the others, but the
scheme is changed, the type of life and character and the rest become
quite other. The man who is certain that he is going to die for good and
for all may believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Very God of Very God, that
God is Triune, that the Incarnation was accompanied by a Virgin Birth,
that bread and wine are transformed by a particular formula; he may recite
a great number of Christian prayers and admire and copy chosen Christian
exemplars, but he will be quite a different man from the man who takes
immortality for granted.
Because heresy, in this particular sense (the denial of an
accepted Christian doctrine) thus affects the individual, it affects all
society, and when you are examining a society formed by a particular
religion you necessarily concern yourself to the utmost with the warping
or diminishing of that religion.
and how its changes have been caused, cannot afford to treat heresy as
unimportant. The ecclesiastics who fought so furiously over the details of
definition in the Eastern councils had far more historical sense and were
far more in touch with reality than the French sceptics, familiar to
English readers through their disciple Gibbon.
A man who thinks, for instance, that Arianism is a mere discussion
of words, does not see that an Arian world would have been much more like
a Mohammedan world than what the European world actually became. He is
much less in touch with reality than was Athanasius when he affirmed the
point of doctrine to be all important. That local council in Paris, which
tipped the scale in favour of the Trinitarian tradition, was of as much
effect as a decisive battle, and not to understand that is to be a poor
It is no answer to such a thesis to say that both the orthodox and
the heretic were suffering from illusion, that they were discussing
matters which had no real existence and were not worth the trouble of
debate. The point is that the doctrine (and its denial) were formative of
the nature of men, and the nature so formed determined the future of the
society made up of those men.
There is another consideration in this connection which is too
often omitted in our time. It is this: That the sceptical attitude upon
transcendental things cannot, for masses of men, endure. It has been the
despair of many that this should be so. They deplore the despicable
weakness of mankind which compels the acceptation of some philosophy or
some religion in order to carry on life at all. But we have here a matter
of positive and universal experience.
Indeed there is no denying it. It is mere fact. Human society
cannot carry on without some creed, because a code and a character are the
product of a creed. In point of fact though individuals,
especially those who have led sheltered lives, can often carry on with a
minimum of certitude or habit upon transcendental things, an organic human
mass cannot so carry on. Thus a whole religion sustains modern England,
the religion of patriotism. Destroy that in men by some heretical
development, by “excepting” the doctrine that a man’s prime duty is
towards the political society to which he belongs, and England, as we know
it, would gradually cease and become something other.
Heresy, then is not a fossil subject. It is a subject of permanent
and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of
religion, without some form of which no human society ever has endured, or
ever can endure. Those who think that the subject of heresy may be
neglected because the term sounds to them old-fashioned and because it is
connected with a number of disputes long abandoned, are making the common
error of thinking in words instead of ideas. It is the same sort of error
which contrasts America as a “republic” with England as “monarchy,”
whereas, of course, the Government of the United States is essentially
monarchic and the Government of England is essentially republican and
aristocratic. There is no end to the misunderstandings which arise from
the uncertain use of words. But if we keep in mind the plain fact that a
state, a human policy, or a general culture, must be inspired by some body
of morals, and that there can be no body of morals without doctrine, and
if we agree to call any consistent body of morals and doctrine a religion,
then the importance of heresy as a subject will become clear, because
heresy means nothing else than “the proposal of novelties in religion by
picking out from what has been the accepted religion some point or other,
denying the same or replacing it by another doctrine hitherto unfamiliar.”
The study of successive Christian heresies, their characters and
fates, has a special interest for all of us who belong to the European or
Christian culture, and that is a reason that ought to be self-evident_our
culture was made by a religion. Changes in, or deflections from, that
religion necessarily affect our civilization as a whole.
The whole story of Europe, her various realms and states and
general bodies during the last sixteen centuries has mainly turned upon
the successive heresies arising in the Christian world.
We are what we are today mainly because no one of those heresies
finally overset our ancestral religion, but we are also what we are
because each of them profoundly affected our fathers for generations, each
heresy left behind its traces, and one of them, the great Mohammedan
movement, remains to this day in dogmatic force and preponderant over a
great fraction of territory which was once wholly ours.
If one were to catalogue heresies marking the whole long story of
Christendom the list would seem almost endless. They divide and subdivide,
they are on every scale, they vary from the local to the general. Their
lives extend from less than a generation to centuries. The best way of
understanding the subject is to select a few prominent examples, and by
the study of these to understand of what vast import heresy may be.
Such a study is the easier from the fact that our fathers
recognized heresy for what it was, gave it in each case a particular name,
subjected it to a definition and therefore to limits, and made its
analysis the easier by such definition.
Unfortunately, in the modern world the habit of such a definition
has been lost; the word “heresy” having come to connote something odd and
old-fashioned, is no longer applied to cases which are clearly cases of
heresy and ought to be treated as such.
For instance, there is abroad today a denial of what theologians
call “dominion”_that is the right to own property. It is widely affirmed
that laws permitting the private ownership of land and capital are
immoral; that the soil of all goods which are productive should be
communal and that any system leaving their control to individuals or
families is wrong and therefore to be attacked and destroyed.
That doctrine, already very strong among us and increasing in
strength and the number of its adherents, we do not call a heresy. We
think of it only as a political or economic system, and when we speak of
Communism our vocabulary does not suggest anything theological. But this
is only because we have forgotten what the word theological means.
Communism is as much a heresy as Manichaeism. It is the taking away from
the moral scheme by which we have lived of a particular part, the denial
of that part and the attempt to replace it by an innovation. The Communist
retains much of the Christian scheme_ human equality, the right to live,
and so forth_he denies a part of it only.
The same is true of the attack on the indissolubility of marriage.
No one calls the mass of modern practice and affirmation upon divorce a
heresy, but a heresy it clearly is because its determining characteristic
is the denial of the Christian doctrine of marriage and the substitution
therefore of another doctrine, to wit, that marriage is but a contract and
a terminable contract.
Equally, is it a heresy, a “change by exception,” to affirm that
nothing can be known upon divine things, that all is mere opinion and that
therefore things made certain by the evidence of the senses and by
experiment should be our only guides in arranging human affairs. Those who
think thus may and commonly do retain much of Christian morals, but
because they deny certitude from Authority, which doctrine is a part of
Christian epistemology, they are heretical. It is not heresy to say that
reality can be reached by experiment, by sensual perception and by
deduction. It is heresy to say that reality can be attained from no other
We are living today under a regime of heresy with only this to
distinguish it from the older periods of heresy, that the heretical spirit
has become generalized and appears in various forms.
It will be seen that I have, in the following pages, talked of
“the modern attack” because some name must be given to a thing before one
can discuss it at all, but the tide which threatens to overwhelm us is so
diffuse that each must give it his own name; it has no common name as yet.
Perhaps that will come, but not until the conflict between that
modern anti-Christian spirit and the permanent tradition of the Faith
becomes acute through persecution and the triumph or defeat thereof. It
will then perhaps be called anti-Christ. The word is derived from the
Greek verb Haireo, which first meant “I grasp” or “I seize,” and then
came to mean “I take away.”