A Brief History of Heresy

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HERESY, by Gillian Rosemary Evans. Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion, Blackwell Publishers US & Oxford, 2002 pp.216 11.99 ISBN 0631235264. Reviewed by David Hart, theologian, author and member of the SoF UK steering committee.

No one is better qualified to help us understand the concept and history of heresy than this well-known Cambridge mediaeval historian who was also for ten years a member of the Church and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England.

My supervisor at Oxford, Professor John Macquarrie, used to remind his graduate students that the original meaning of the term 'haeresis' was 'choice', and that believers in various traditions had to choose concepts and understandings from within their tradition and which made sense in contemporary idioms. Inevitably, such a process is developing, and has about it a feel of 'trial and error'. The difficulty that underlies the current Sea of Faith study (on doctrine and diversity) is that another agenda lies behind the history of Orthodox Doctrine: the history of 'trial and banishment' through fear of the unknown, the tendency to reject utterly and cringe away from that which is not a majority opinion. The devices used have been many and frightening from the fire and the sword, the guillotine and the Index, to, more recently, the burning of books and a visit to the Job Centre for clergy! Many of those with imaginations are afraid of the power of the majority within churches because it includes the power of anathema and the capacity to condemn and outlaw.

In her opening chapter, Evans provides us with the reason for the suspicion of heresy within the church, 'the importance of being united'. She argues how, in forming a consensus of how the Christian community is to interpret the person and work of Jesus in relation to God, heresies followed a pattern over the generations, with the same basic choices being repeated in different versions and images. So, the relation between the OT and the NT is complex, and the condemnation of the Passagians by the Pope in 1184 rejected any attempt to regard the OT as morally binding for those of the new dispensation. In the same way it could be argued that the row between Athanasius and Arius is recapitulated in every generation as different stresses are placed upon the divinity and the humanity of Jesus' earthly nature.

Evans shows how it was the Council of Constantinople in 381CE that first prohibited any teaching of 'another creed' (than the agreed Nicene formula), and she takes us through the story of the establishment by Paul IV of an Index of Prohibited Books (during the Counter-Reformation) that led to the establishment of the terrifying office of the Grand Inquisitor and the Congregation of the Index, and reminds us that its last edition appeared as late as 1948, within our lifetimes.

One of the criticisms of orthodoxy is the question of its consistency: Evans points out that whereas the Council of Trent had outlawed vernacular versions of the Bible in insisting on the Latin Vulgate, the Second Vatican Council, in similar terms, condemned those who used Latin: volte-face!

With the development of an historical sense in the twentieth-century, we have scholars speaking of 'inculturation' as a complex process by which Christian doctrines became embedded in particular cultural forms. Sometimes this really ought to be morally neutral, Evans argues: 'Some things do not matter; they may be questions on which Christians remain free to take different views' (p.20)—not a very popular opinion, this, with that Grand Inquisitor or indeed with Cardinal Ratzinger today! Or many at Holy Trinity Brompton...

The problem in the twenty-first century about maintaining any ban on 'heresy' is that today Christians, like others, have realised that 'diversity' and 'tolerance' have an attraction not recognised by our predecessors in the faith. Some heretics act as 'whistle-blowers' reminding us of a lack of continuity between present practice and pristine religious vision. In that sense are they not 'true to tradition' rather than betraying it?

The context of the Christian mission is now the modern ecumenical movement, which is inherently inclusive rather than exclusive: 'the unity of the Church has become an objective which does not assume that it can be possible or is right to try to return to uniformity' (p.115).

We can now at last be free to choose, not only in our supermarkets and in our schools, but also in our churches and in the spiritual books we read. Diversity no longer needs the measure of discipline from without...when we see a rubbishy book on the 'Mind, Body' shelves today, we flick it through and leave it there, giving it not a moment's further thought.

If you see this volume in your bookshop pick it up and give it some further thought: I shall certainly be commending it to the Doctrine and Diversity Study Group later this year.