What is A Heresy?

Author: Hilaire Belloc


by Hilaire Belloc

Introduction: Heresy

What is a heresy, and what is the historical importance of such a thing?

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 therein.

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[1] 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. falsehood does not presuppose falsehood in a narrator." There might even come along a still 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 times.

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 word "Heresy."

Its particular meaning (the meaning in which it is used in this book) is the marring by exception of that complete scheme, the Christian religion.

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. is the historical interest of heresy. is why anyone who wants to understand how Europe came to be, 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 historian.

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 source.

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."


1. The Word is derived from the Greek verb , which first meant "I grasp" or "I seize," and then came to mean "I take away."