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Heresy Handout:

A Convenient Guide to Eternal Damnation


Christianity from its inception had difficulty maintaining its tenets in a population as diverse as Europe's. There were always strange mutations of Christianity popping up that had to be reintegrated into the mainstream church. The "official" standard of belief is orthodoxy. On the other hand, heresy (or heterodoxy) refers to "unofficial" beliefs conflicting with the doctrine of the church fathers. Heresy becomes an actual crime under the Theodosian Code (438 A.D.), and being a heretic means damnation in orthodox belief. Most heresies fall into four tendencies:

(1) Dualistic heresies argued that two equally powerful spirits--a benevolent deity and a malevolent counterpart--were in constant warfare to control the universe. In orthodox medieval Christianity, the church fathers interpreted Satan as a being vastly inferior to God. The devil--though rebellious--is merely a fallen angel who carries out God's will (he only torments or tempts humanity when God allows him to).

Dualistic heresies tended to see the two forces as equals, and they argued that the material world was entirely evil, in contrast with the orthodox position that the creation of God was "good, but fallen."

(2) Antinominism covers any heresy that suggests an individual's religious experience outweighs the authority of church hierarchy, its scripture, or canon law. The argument that the scriptures are self-contradictory is also considered antinominism (i.e., pointing to the fact that the genealogies for Christ given in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 appear inconsistent with each other).

(3) Docetism occurs in any heresy that suggests that Christ was a being of pure spirit rather than having a corporeal body. Thus he never really "died" on the cross.

(4) Subordinationism is the heretical doctrine that one or more of the spiritual entities in the trinity was subordinate to the others. For instance, privileging the Son over the Holy Ghost, or vice versa.

These four general beliefs manifested in dozens of heresies during the time between the third century A.D. and 1517, when Martin Luther wrote his theses and launched the Protestant Reformation.


Eight of the major heresies up to the end of the fifteenth century are as follows:

Gnosticism (70-200 A.D.) existed in dozens of complex varieties, many of them based upon Neo-Platonic or Zoroastrian ideas. Gnostics believed in a dualistic universe and a docetic Christ. The heresy died out by the end of the 3rd century A.D.

Montanists (150-451) were heretics that wanted reformation of the church. Their sect was emotional, sensational, and almost "charismatic." They attacked the authority of bishops and churchly institutions, required complete celibacy of all Christians (no marriage allowed), and they wanted a different date established for Easter. Many Montanists, such as Tertullian, wanted to become martyrs like the original Christians in Rome, and they tried to set up circumstances that would ensure such a death. Two of their major prophetesses, Priscella and Maximilla, constantly prophesied disasters that never happened, much to the Montanists' chagrin.

Arianism is a heresy centered around the nature of Christ. Early Arianists attacked the official doctrine that Christ existed before his birth, they argued that Christ was theoretically capable of sin, and they advocated the Caesarean creed as opposed to the Nicaean (Apostle's) Creed. Early Arianists also argued that Christ was composed of pure spirit and had no physical body. His crucifixion was thus an elaborate charade to confuse Satan and Christ's would-be executioners. Later Arianists argued that, since God is not capable of sin and Christ theoretically was, Christ could not be God.

Manichaeism is an eclectic heresy similar to Gnosticism. The Manichees viewed the world in dualistic terms, equating "light" with the benevolent, spiritual God of the New Testament, and "dark" with the evil material god Jehovah of the Old Testament. The light and dark of the universe is currently mixed together. Although man is material (i.e., of the dark), many humans do contain seeds of spiritual light within them, which can be freed after death by a practice of strict vegetarianism and celibacy. Many Manichaen beliefs included reincarnation until each individual achieved salvation and broke the cycle of rebirth. One of the worst sins was procreation, since conceiving a child "trapped" a spirit in a material body. Manichees believed the world would be destroyed eventually, and the kingdoms of light and darkness would return to a state of pure separation. Manichaeism may have survived in later heresies such as Bogomilism and Paulicianism. For a short time in his youth, St. Augustine of Hippo practiced this heresy before his famous conversion to orthodox Christianity.

Donatism argued that the sacraments are only valid when a priest in a state of grace performs them. If a corrupt priest performed communion, baptism, or marriage rites, these rites were invalid and conveyed no spiritual benefits upon the congregation. Some scholars read Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale (in which the Pardoner is a corrupt Church official selling pardons) as Chaucer's rebuttal to Donatism.

The Cathars (alias Albigensians, 1150-1244) were similar to the Manichees. They were centered in southern France and eventually wiped out in the Albigensian Crusade, a war the Fourth Lateran Council authorized in 1215. Not only did Cathars view the world in dualistic terms, they viewed Christ as docetic and rejected the sacraments. Physical objects were considered too "material" for spiritual enlightenment, so Cathars condemned the use of water during baptism and the use of wine during communion. They also despised the idea of worshipping God within a cathedral, and they considered the cross to be a symbol of torture.(These tendencies did not endear them to the papacy.) The Cathars practiced pacifism; they abstained from consuming eggs, meat, and milk, and they held all property in common. Because they believed that birth was the act of trapping free souls in the evil physical world, Cathars considered pregnancy to be anathema and performed crude abortions. They considered all sexual intercourse (even between married couples) to be the worst of sins. Many Cathars, after reaching the highest rank possible within their religious hierarchy (the rank of "Perfecti" or "Bonhommes"), would undergo the endura, a sanctified form of suicide through starvation. The mainstream church's intolerance of heresy increased through the fear of Cathar practices, which had spread rapidly at the time of the Fourth Lateran Council. There was a much bitter blood between mainstream Christians and Cathars. A notorious legate named Arnoud, the Abbot of Citeaux, led crusaders against the last Cathar stronghold. When the papal troops asked what they should do with the captured city (since many Christians resided there along with Cathars), his instructions were, "Kill them all; God will sort out his own." The brutality of the Albigensian crusade haunted Europe for the next four hundred years; the Fourth Lateran Council established the Inquisition--that most notorious of medieval institutes--as a response to their heresies.

Wycliffites were heretics following John Wycliffe (1324-84), a contemporary of Chaucer, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich. According to Wycliffe, laymen should be able to officiate over Eucharist (as opposed to priests) and the sale of papal indulgences was evil. He accepted the idea of the "Real Presence" of Christ in the eucharist, but he did not accept the idea of physical transubstantiation into blood and body. Even worse, he advocated the production of vernacular (i.e., English rather than Latin) Bibles. Wycliffe later recanted and returned to orthodoxy, but a radical fringe-group of his followers continued making trouble; this group was the Lollards. The Lollards were busy heretics in the fourteenth century. They became involved in the Peasant Revolt of 1381, they made illegal translations of the Bible, and they allowed women to be wandering preachers. If the authorities captured a Lollard who would not recant, they would burn the deviant at the stake. Margery Kempe is herself accused of being a Lollard, probably because of her gender.
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