The Nature of Heresy

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine July-August 2009

In a recent episode of the 'historical' television drama The Tudors, Henry VIII asked Sir Thomas More how many heretics he had burnt. More answered, "Five". A priest from California told me that he was scandalized that a saint of the Church could seem to be proud of his efforts on behalf of orthodoxy.

We can quibble with the figures. Philip Hughes claims that only five were burnt between 1527 and 1533 (More was Chancellor from October 1529 to May 1532). He also points out that More was not necessarily involved with each one and that nobody was burnt in Middlesex.[1]But the prospect of a saint of the Church admitting to burning heretics is too good to miss for prime-time television. It is useless to point out that canonization of martyrs merely extends to the final act of their lives and not to their previous conduct. More was not squeamish about his role as Chancellor. In his prepared epitaph he admitted that during his life he had been "relentless towards thieves, murderers and heretics."

We need to examine why he and his sovereign (until 1533 at least) viewed heresy with detestation. Irenaeus had pointed out that it was "a characteristic of heresy that each heretic selected part of the whole apostolic witness and, after adapting it to his system, elevated its authority above that of the other apostles."[2]

We are not therefore dealing with some sort of private theological opinion but of a choice made (haeresis). The essence of heresy is not the opinion but the persistent and stubborn holding of such views against the common teaching of the Christian Church. Augustine makes the point "we must not accuse them of heresy when they are not stubborn in their opinions."[3] Cross says that the Catholic understanding of heresy is "a willful and persistent adherence to an error in matters of faith on the part of a baptised person."[4] In 1976 the International Theological Commission stated,

"According to the classical rules, the fact of one's professing 'heresy' can only be definitively established if the accused theologian has demonstrated 'obstinacy.' That is, if he closes himself off from all discussion meant to clarify an opinion contrary to the faith and, in effect, refuses the dialogue."[5] It was presumed even in 1976 that all heretics were male...

Its Social Implications

It was the impact of such obstinacy that occasioned the Heresy Act of 1489. The whole of the Western world at that time did not make any distinction between Christian and civic loyalty. They saw a heretic "not only as an enemy of the truth, seducing souls to their damnation, but a threat to the civil order."[6] In an early sermon, Newman makes the interesting point, "Are not the principles of unbelief certain to dissolve society?"[7]

Thomas More, as the supreme legislator was bound to uphold the law of 1489 (which Henry repealed, and Mary reinstated), "Every officer of justice through the realm for his rate, right especially bounden, not in reason only and good congruence but also by plain ordinance and statute."[8]. He saw heresy rather as Prince Charles sees much of modern architecture,

as "likened to a carbuncle". But he pursued the matter further, and fulminated against heresy as Charles does against GM crops, "Wheresoever this venomous plague reigneth most it infected not all the people at once in one day, but in process of time by little and little increasing more and more, while such personals as at the beginning can abide no heresy, afterward being content to hear of it, begin less and less to mislike it, and within a while after can endure to give hear to large lewd talk therein, and at length are quite carried away themselves therewith. This disease still creeping, as saith the apostle forth further like a canker (2 Tim 2:17) doth in conclusion overrun the whole country altogether."[9]

Wilson, who describes More as authoritarian and his treatment of suspected heretics as inquisitorial asks whether Luther himself might be considered "God's instrument for punishing the sins into which the Church had fallen."[10] Ronald Knox argues

"Heresy is the stimulus upon which the healthy organ of catholic theology reacts. And the result of that reaction is to form a sort of hard callous around certain important Christian verities, comparable to the fingernail of a human subject, Or the carapace of a tortoise. Thenceforward a kind of natural armour protects, at such points, the faith of simple Christians."[11]

But this avoids the question of the damage which heresy does. Thomas Merton whom nobody could accuse of reactionary views, maintained, "The reason heresies have to be condemned is that they contain elements which resemble the truth and therefore lead well-meaning Christians into error."[12] We need to consider their impact at the time, not the eventual positive contribution to the faith of the Church.

Dealing with Heresy

Augustine — who was confronted by heresies at his back door, tried dialogue and found that it didn't work. He maintained that there was no other remedy than exclusion to preserve the faith of the community, "When they are vomited out, then the body finds relief; likewise, when the wicked leave, then the Church finds relief."[13] This is his commentary on "they went out from us, but they were not of us" (I John 2:19) It is a point which Newman makes in Difficulties of Anglicans and returns to in On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,

"We know that it is the property of life to be impatient of any foreign substance in the body to which it belongs. It will be sovereign in its own domain, and it conflicts with what it cannot assimilate into itself, and is irritated and disordered till it has been expelled."[14]

Newman was continually experimenting with the concept of organic growth and would contrast the healthy growth of doctrine with heresy "whose formulae end in themselves without development because they are words; they are barren, because they are dead."[15] As a test, in contrast to his notes for true development, he pointed to "absence of stay or consistence, ever crumbling, every shifting, ever new forming, ever self consumed by internal strife."[16]

But, given the tendency of heresy to implode, Newman did not expect the Church to stand idly by and wait for this to happen. As early as 1835 he would write to Froude and comment on the abandonment of State prosecution for blasphemy which has a contemporary flavour — and argues that "there should be some really working court of heresy and false doctrine."[17] His emphasis on the authority of the episcopate was linked in his mind with the power of excommunication which he saw as "more solemn, and its effect much greater than that of merely separating the guilty individual from the intercourse of his brethren."[18]

When Paul passed sentence on the incestuous Corinthian, "You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh" (I Cor 5:5) he was acting in accordance with the Mosaic code of herem or expulsion from the community. The man will suffer in the flesh but his spirit will be saved. It was precisely this argument which led to the punishment being inflicted on heretics which to us seem so barbaric. Aquinas — a Dominican — writes, "About heretics there are two things to say. Their sin deserves banishment not only from the Church by excommunication but also from the world by death."[19]

Such blunt words in our society, which has outlawed the death penalty and corporal punishment, cause more than a frisson. But if we accept the premise that heresy is profoundly injurious to the person and has a devastating effect on the Church, then means should be taken to deal with it. Our ancestors felt that strong means were necessary, which would at the same time deter others from joining the heretics. We who argue about the definition of torture in rendition and combat situations when we have officially renounced the use of violence, should appreciate the irony.

The Demands of Faith

Otherwise we should be forced to admit that heresy and orthodoxy exist in harmony or, alternatively, that there was no real difference between them. It was a prospect which appalled Thomas More. Writing to Roper he said that he prayed God that some of us "live not the day that we gladly would wish to be at a league and composition with them, [heretics] to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves."[20]

Although we subscribe to religious toleration we need to ask whether our commitment to orthodoxy has suffered in consequence, and our attitude is seen by some as an unwillingness to accept the fundamental demands of our faith. More maintained that from the outset he aimed to bring

heretics back to the Church, "Our Lord give them grace truly to turn in time, so that we and they together in one Catholic Church, knit unto God in one Catholic faith."[21] If we appreciate the fact of our incorporation into the body of Christ we cannot view with unconcern any attempt to undermine its unity.

Awareness and Charity

Newman noticed in his research (resulting in Arians of the Fourth Century) how it was the determined resistance to heresy that "honourably distinguished the primitive Roman Church."[22] There must remain that awareness of heterodox teaching and the need to deal with it. But this should not prevent us from adopting the approach of one of the companions of St Ignatius, and a contemporary of More, Blessed Peter Favre, "Whoever desires to become useful to the heretics of this age must be solicitous to bear them much charity and to love them truly, excluding from his mind all thoughts which tend to cool his esteem for them. It is necessary to gain their good will, so that they may love us and keep a place for us in theirhearts."[23] Favre showed in his life, that it is possible to confront heresy and at the same time win over those who embraced heterodoxy. Newman would say that there must be a leveling up rather than a 'dumbing down',

"If England is to be converted, there must be a great move of the national mind to a better sort of religious sentiment. Weslyans, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, must be raised to one and the same (what we used to call at Oxford) 'ethos'. That is the same moral and intellectual state of mind. To bring them to this is 'levelling up"[24]

Henry VIII would go on to surpass his Chancellor in punishing heretics and all who defied him, including More himself. He exemplified in his own life the impact of heresy and we are still paying the price. ■


[1]The Reformation in England Volume I. Burns Oates 1956 p. 131
[2]Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 3.11.7 MG 7.884
[3]Letter quoted in Summa Theologica Secunda Secundae 11 a2 ad 3
[4]The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church p. 639
[5]ITC Thesis 12, June 6,1976
[6]The Field is Won by E.E. Reynolds Bums & Oates 1968 pp. 269-270
[7]Parochial <& Plain Sermons 8 p. 112, preached in 1825
[8] Works of Thomas More 1557 p.357
[9]A History of the Passion Burns & Oates 1941 o, 78
[10]In the Lion 's Court by Derek Wilson St Martin's Press New York 2001 p. 283
[11] The Incarnate Son. Longmans Green 1943 p. 211 f
[12]Breadin the Wilderness Bums & Oates 1976 p. 10. Tertullian had said much the same, "Heretics seduce the weak, they make the meaner stagger, they weary and trick the learned." In Praescriptis Chapter 15.
[13]Homilies on the First Epistle of St John 3,4. New City Press New York 2008
[14]Difficulties of Anglicans I pp 52-3; On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.Geoffrey Chapman 1961 p. 74.
[15]Oxford University Sermons p. 318
[16]Letters & Diaries of John Henry Newman Vol 8 p. 442. (to R. I Wilberforce, January 28, 1842)
[17]Letters & Diaries Vol 5 p. 10 January 18, 1835
[18]Ibid p. 77 (to the Editor of The Record October 31,1833)
[19]Summa Theologica Secunda Secundae 1 la 3c
[20]Lyfe of More p. 35 (ed. E W Hitchcock. Early English Text Society 1935)
[21] Works p. 1138
[22]Arians of the Fourth Century p. 117
[23]Fabri Monumenta Madrid 1914 p. 485
[24]Letters & Diaries vol 25 pp 3-4 (to Sr Mary Gabriel du Boulay January 2,1870)

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