Defining Heresy in Early Christianity: The Theology
That Established the One True Faith
The earliest history of Christianity was oral, rather than written, passed first from apostle to disciple, from person to person, from generation to generation and, in some cases, from one language to another. There were no churches or formal meeting places and the Word could travel only by letters and itinerant believers. There was no one church. There was no church hierarchy. Small groups, in out of the way places, believed to varying degrees in numerous variations of the message delivered by the apostles and disciples of Jesus—or in one of the hundreds of variations of the admixture of paganism, ancient belief systems, and the new teachings.
The lack of consistent doctrine to which all believers could adhere suited many, but not all. Soon the minority got organized. They formed groups, instituted hierarchies, and actively passed the Word along to “nonbelievers” through apostles. By the late part of the first century c.e., there were already those proclaiming that they knew what was right and that everything else was not only wrong, but dangerous and in urgent need of extinction. The Crusades and Inquisition were presaged by these early efforts to rid the church of heresies.
Heresies, loosely speaking, are those views that disagree with the official doctrinal version. One man’s fervent belief is another man’s heresy, and so it was for Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Eusebius, three of the early ecclesiasts who helped to define what was Christian and to eliminate what was not. Which made it a short leap of faith, through a millennium, to the abyss of the Malleus Maleficarum—the book, as Dan Brown puts it, that “indoctrinated the world to ‘the dangers of free-thinking women’ and instructed the clergy how to locate, torture, and destroy them.”
In pursuit of piety, the early writers, as well as those of the Malleus, agreed to incremental degrees that it was women who posed the greatest threat to the church. While some women, such as Jesus’ mother and later the martyred St. Perpetua, may have been placed on pedestals, many more were seen as harboring inherently dangerous traits, beliefs, and inclinations to consort with evil. While much of paganism and a great deal of Gnosticism revolved around the balance of forces, male and female, in early Christianity, the role of women was very different, more ambivalent, as will be shown in the excerpts below.
The us-versus-them mentality may have gotten its first formal religious underpinnings in the writings of Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a second-century theologian and polemicist who campaigned vociferously against “false knowledge” and, in his Against Heresies, written in 187, he helped to produce the first systematic exposition of Catholic Christianity’s belief system—creed, canon, and apostolic succession.
Tertullian, an early church father whose life overlapped with Irenaeus’s, took the sacredness of the Gospels one step further, declaring that the Gospels were divinely inspired, contained all truth and provided that from which the church “drinks her faith.” He was even more vociferous against the Gnostics than Irenaeus.
Eusebius (d. 357[?]) systemized this and other knowledge into a great compendium known as the History of the Church. He later became so famous and respected that he was called upon to become a leading participant in the Council of Nicea (325). The “confession” he proposed became the basis for the Nicene Creed.
Despite these early attempts at unification and elimination, heresies continued to arise, particularly in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance when, in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was first published—the summa of us-versus-them. While lumping these three ecclesiasts together greatly oversimplifies the history of a church attempting to achieve unrivaled power and influence through both theological and political means, the selections from their writings that follow demonstrate how the level of discipline and vigilance escalated as the threats to the True Faith seemed to grow ever greater. The prose in the excerpts may seem a difficult hurdle for the modern reader, but they represent the highest learning of the time and a way to truly get “in the heads” of some of the earliest Christians. *
Irenaeus’s magnum opus, Against Heresies, achieved such wide circulation and influence that some scholars hold him single-handedly responsible—for good or for ill, depending upon one’s belief system—for removing Gnosticism as a serious theological threat to the primacy of Catholic Christianity.
In his book he first warns his readers about the evils that lurk in the hearts of mankind:
In as much as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations. These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge ... By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions. (Against Heresies, Preface)
He then takes on those who, by their “craftily constructed plausibilities,” lead them to believe in the word and not the written documents, thereby willfully committing blaspheme.
When ... they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but by the word. And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.... Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal ... endeavoring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. (Against Heresies, 3:2)
The solution, unsurprisingly, was for Christians to unify under one faith, one God, and one set of apostles:
The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one.” ... (Against Heresies, 1:10)
Tertullian, like Irenaeus, was one of the early church fathers who attacked the Gnostics and is singled out by some (see the excerpts from Freke and Gandy that start this chapter) as one of the chief perpetrators of the church’s attempt to cover up the existence of a robust counter-tradition. The Gnostics were in many ways the most troubling, for Gnosticism incorporated some distinctly pre-Christian (not to mention pagan) ideas and its very name referred to the concept of secret knowledge.
Women carried an even greater burden of sin. “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in the age,” Tertullian insisted. “The guilt must of necessity live too. Your are the devil’s gateway.” But he still isn’t through. “And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”
Tertullian was born in Africa (circa a.d. 150–60), the son of a Roman soldier. He wrote three books in Greek and practiced jurisprudence. He was considered a pagan until middle life, “sharing pagan prejudices” and “indulging like others in shameful pleasures,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Tertullian converted to Christianity in 197, and, to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia again, “embraced the Faith with all the ardor of his impetuous nature.” A decade later, however, he broke with the Catholic Church and became a leader and passionate advocate of Montanism, which claimed that new revelations were coming via Montius and two women prophets. Nevertheless, Tertullian continued fighting heresy, as he saw it.
As a Christian, he believed that we would know God only through practicing strict discipline and austerity. The force threatening to subvert that impulse in man was woman, who, Tertullian wrote, brought sin into the world. “Do you not know,” Tertullian asks rhetorically, “that you are each an Eve?”
The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.... You are the un-sealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?... (On the Apparel of Women, Book 1)
Heretics, he believed, were put on earth to test man’s Faith. These heresies came about for two reasons. The first was the temptation offered by philosophers, like Plato, who simply want to engage in endless questions rather than simply accept the Word:
These are “the doctrines” of men and “of demons” produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called “foolishness,” and “chose the foolish things of the world” to confound even philosophy itself. For [philosophy] it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy ... The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? And in what way does he come?... Whence comes God?... [They have a] human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects.
Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides. (The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 7)
Therefore rein in your curiosity, lest you end up like the heretics who are “perverters of Christ’s teaching.” And, especially, rein in your curiosities about their behavior because it is sinful indeed—especially those women:
I must not omit an account of the conduct also of the heretics—how frivolous it is, how worldly, how merely human, without seriousness, without authority, without discipline, as suits their creed.... The very women of these heretics, how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures—it may be even to baptize. Their ordinations, are carelessly. administered, capricious, changeable. At one time they put novices in office; at another time, men who are bound to some secular employment; at another, persons who have apostatized from us, to bind them by vainglory, since they cannot by the truth. (The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 41)
Eusebius was a bishop of Caesarea in Palestine (where he met Constantine while rewriting the Bible) and is often referred to as the father of church history because of his meticulous recording of the evolution of the Gospels, the role of the apostles, and the heresies to be faced in the early Christian church. He is also supposed to have found in the records of Edessa the letters purporting to be written back and forth by its king Abgar and Jesus Christ.
For Eusebius, doctrine should be inseparable from daily life; the key to faith, therefore, was in knowing which scriptures should be adopted.
To be able to do that required knowing which of the “divine scriptures” were acceptable and which were not. Eusebius set out the many Gospels and other books, which he felt, were valid scripture; this list, with slight variations, was later canonized and became the Bible.
Eusebius also set about to catalogue the heresies of the Gnostics more thoroughly than had been done before and, at the same time, cheered on the growth in power and magnitude of the Catholic Church:
[There was] another heresy, called the heresy of the Gnostics, who did not wish to transmit any longer the magic arts of Simon in secret, but openly. For they boasted—as of something great—of love potions that were carefully prepared by them, and of certain demons that sent them dreams and lent them their protection, and of other similar agencies; and in accordance with ... their abominations, to practice all the worst kinds of wickedness, on the ground that they could escape the cosmic powers, as they called them, in no other way than by discharging their obligations to them all by infamous-conduct.... One new heresy arose after another, and the former ones always passed away, and now at one time, now at another, now in one way, now in other ways, were lost in ideas of various kinds and various forms. But the splendor of the catholic and only true Church, which is always the same, grew in magnitude and power, and reflected its piety and simplicity and freedom, and the modesty and purity of its inspired life and philosophy to every nation both of Greeks and of Barbarians. (The History of the Church, 3:25)
In years and in location, there is a great separation between the writings of Eusebius and those found in the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer), written by Heinrich Kramer and James Spenger, two monks, in Germany in 1486. Yet theologically, scholars make a case; they have a connection. The argument is that it does not require a great leap to go from intolerance, condemnation, and forced exile to systematic elimination.
Heresies were always springing up, especially in medieval and early Renaissance eras, and as their expression grew ever more powerful, so did the response. Still, even if modern sensibilities might be surprised, even shocked, at the writ- ings of the early church fathers, they are likely to be horrified at the meticulous cataloguing of crimes and punishments of witches to be found in the Malleus Maleficarum.
The Witch’s Hammer was perhaps even more known in its time than The Da Vinci Code is in ours (at least proportionately speaking), and on the “bestseller” list far longer. And it was not nearly so benign. The book quickly proliferated into many editions, spreading throughout Europe and England. The impact of the work—used over time by both Catholics and Protestants—was felt in witch trials on the Continent for almost two hundred years. In colonial America it was used as a foundation for the Salem witch trials.
The work is divided into three sections. The first sets out to prove that witchcraft or sorcery existed (and that women were more prone to this lure of Satan than men). The second describes the forms of witchcraft (from the destruction of crops to whether demons could father children from a witch), while the third provides a detailed “how to” of detection, trial, and punishment.
That women were more prone to be witches was certain and, according to the Malleus Maleficarum, the reason was clear: “As to why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men; it is indeed a fact that it were idle to contradict, since it is accredited by actual experience, apart from the verbal testimony of credibly witnesses.”
This view of women as inherently flawed permeates the Malleus. Further on it says,
Others again have propounded other reasons why there are more superstitious women found than men. And the first is, that they are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them.... The second reason is that women are naturally more impressionable, and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit; and that when they use this quality well they are very good, but when they use it ill they are very evil.... The third reason is that they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from the fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know; and, since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft.... (Part 1, Question 6)
There are good women, of course. The Malleus instructs, that “for good women there is so much praise, that we read that they have brought beatitude to men, and have saved nations, lands, and cities; as is clear in the case of Judith, Debbora, and Esther.” Christian theology, it seems clear, is filled with the good-bad, good-evil, virgin-whore dichotomy.
Like Tertullian long before, the Malleus advocates the notion that it all started to go awry with Eve: “Therefore a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft.”
The final section of the Malleus Malleficarum deals with the way a case can come to trial, the procedure by which the trial is to be carried out (public rumor is enough to bring someone to trial and a vigorous defense means guilt; hot pokes and other tortures can be used to elicit confessions), and, in sixteen chapters, the differing levels of guilt and requisite punishment.
Accusation was easy:
The first question, then, is what is the suitable method of instituting a process on behalf of the faith against witches. In answer to this it must be said that there are three methods allowed by Canon Law. The first is when someone accuses a person before a judge of the crime of heresy, or of protecting heretics, offering to prove it, and to submit himself to the penalty of talion if he fails to prove it. The second method is when someone denounces a person, but does not offer to prove it and is not willing to embroil himself in the matter; but says that he lays information out of zeal for the faith, or because of a sentence of excommunication inflicted by the Ordinary or his Vicar; or because of the temporal punishment exacted by the secular Judge upon those who fail to lay information.
The third method involves an inquisition, that is, when there is no accuser or informer, but a general report that there are witches in some town or place; and then the Judge must proceed, not at the instance of any party, but simply by the virtue of his office.... (Part 3, Question 1)
Which is not to say there weren’t some standards. The rules were that a witch could only be executed if she confessed, “for common justice demands that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she is convicted by her own confession.”
Of course, they didn’t always confess readily.
And here, because of the great trouble caused by the stubborn silence of witches, there are several points which the Judge must notice.... The first is that he must not be too quick to subject a witch to examination, but must pay attention to certain signs which will follow. And he must not be too quick for this reason: unless God, through a holy Angel, compels the devil to withhold his help from the witch, she will be so insensible to the pains of torture that she will sooner be torn limb from limb than confess any of the truth.
But the torture is not to be neglected for this reason, for they are not all equally endowed with this power, and also the devil sometimes of his own will permits them to confess their crimes without being compelled by a holy Angel.”
And in the end, it may all come down to tears, for if the Judge, wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch’s power of preserving silence, let him take note whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence, or when being tortured. For we are taught both by the words of worthy men of old and by our own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been found that even if she be urged and exhorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she be a witch she will not be able to weep: although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping; wherefore she must be closely watched by the attendants.
In passing sentence the Judge or priest may use some such method as the following in conjuring her to true tears if she be innocent, or in restraining false tears. Let him place his hand on the head of the accused and say: I conjure you by the bitter tears shed on the Cross by our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, and by the burning tears poured in the evening hour over His wounds by the most glorious Virgin Mary, His Mother, and by all the tears which have been shed here in this world by the Saints and Elect of God, from whose eyes He has now wiped away all tears, that if you be innocent you do now shed tears, but if you be guilty that you shall by no means do so. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. (Part 3, Question 13)
Witches were dangerous, and judges “must not allow themselves to be touched physically by the witch, especially in any contact of their bare arms or hands.” Judges, the Malleus Maleficarum advises,
. . . must always carry about them some salt consecrated on Palm Sunday and some Blessed Herbs. For these can be enclosed together in Blessed Wax and worn round the neck, as we showed in the Second Part when we discussed the remedies against illnesses and diseases caused by witchcraft; and that these have a wonderful protective virtue is known not only from the testimony of witches, but from the use and practice of the Church, which exorcizes and blesses such objects for this very purpose, as is shown in the ceremony of exorcism when it is said, For the banishing of all the power of the devil, etc.
But let it not be thought that physical contact of the joints or limbs is the only thing to be guarded against; for sometimes, with God’s permission, they are able with the help of the devil to bewitch the Judge by the mere sound of the words which they utter, especially at the time when they are exposed to torture. (Part 3, Question 15)
Finally, the Malleus Maleficarum cautions that accused witches must be handled with care when brought before the judge.
And if it can conveniently be done, the witch should be led backward into the presence of the Judge and his assessors.... the hair should be shaved from every part of her body. The reason for this is the same as that for stripping her of her clothes, which we have already mentioned; for in order to preserve their power of silence they are in the habit of hiding some superstitious object in their clothes or in their hair, or even in the most secret parts of their bodies which must not be named. (Part 3, Question 15)
In The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon recalls the Malleus Maleficarum while standing in the Salles des Etats of the Louvre and staring at the Mona Lisa. He thinks of the Malleus as “arguably ... the most blood-soaked publication in human history.” Dan Brown places the number of victims at five million; others have placed the death toll from the Inquisition worldwide at between six hundred thousand and nine million. Nearly all, scholars tell us, were women, old, young, midwives, Jews, poets, and gypsies—anyone who didn’t fit the contemporary view of what it took to be a pious Christian.
*A number of these texts are widely available via the Internet. (back)
Arne J. de Keijzer is managing editor of Secrets of the Code and co-creator of the “Secrets” series.
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