G R Evans: A Brief History of Heresy

August 20, 2015

9780631235262I found this a very useful little book, of the kind I’ve been looking for for ages; it pulled a lot of disparate details into place in my understanding and offered a clear taxonomy of heresies. I’m interested in the way various belief systems have developed and evolved, and the way changes to a system can either be accepted and authorised, or regarded as evils to be extirpated. Such approaches are visible in other religions such as Islam, and also in the various so-called communist creeds of the last century. The Orthodox Church, for example, regards itself as unchanged since apostolic times, and the Roman Catholic Church as the one that’s changed…

Initially, unity is important: how is consensus to be achieved and maintained as an organisation or church grows in size? Is the Pope to be head of the entire church, or should there be autocephalous patriarchs of various provinces? As I read further, it became clearer how it took a long time for certain aspects of dogma to be formalised and codified, often in response to new thinking and questioning; such beliefs we nowadays imagine have always been truths. Thus it was only from the eleventh century that the popes began to claim to be the heads of all Christianity, only from the nineteenth that they claimed to be infallible in matters of doctrine. Scripture was only regarded as the prime source of everything by the precursors of the sixteenth century reformers; it took several centuries to define the nature of Christ (!) and clarify what the Trinity was, and transubstantiation… to my mind, all huge changes and developments of the original events of two millennia ago, whatever they actually may have been.

Unity was definitively lost at the Reformation: although Rome may have regarded them as heretics, the reformers created new churches, and now there are thousands of them.

Once beliefs are codified and become part of the state apparatus, then there develops repression to enforce compliance, and we are in the territory of the various inquisitions, because so-called heresies (and power can decide anything is a heresy) are social challenges and attacks on authority. And because the victors write history, many heresies – the Cathar one in particular – lack any clear account of their belief system and ritual practices.

And then, at least in the West, as we like to think, eventually there develops a spirit of toleration, the idea that anyone shall be free to believe what they like or not, although in fact such tolerance only develops because it becomes impossible to enforce conformity any longer…

And I was also glad that this book sent me back to one of my heroes, Isidore of Seville, who wrote a whole chapter on heresies in his Etymologies in the seventh century. He’s the patron saint of the internet, by the way, and author of what’s generally believed to be the first encyclopaedia…

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