HERETICS HAVE ALWAYS HAD a bad press. Their writings banned, their bodies burned at the stake and their souls consigned to the justice of God, the rebels of Christianity have usually been reported to history through the prejudiced accounts of their vigilant, orthodox suppressors. Historian Walter Nigg, a Swiss Reformed pastor and former professor at the University of Zurich, believes that heretics were not necessarily bad men, and their doctrines not necessarily perversions of God's truth. In The Heretics, a vivid survey of the church's theological underground, he argues that Christianity owes much to its rebel sons, and has freely adapted ideas that first came to light in heretical guise.
The first recorded heretic, a converted Jew named Simon Magus, tried to convince St. Peter that Christ's message could be welded to the wisdom of the Greeks.
The idea was too radical for the early church, but a century or two later it was accepted by many quite orthodox Christian theologians. A 2nd century heretic named Marcion was the first Christian to make a compilation of authentic gospels and epistles into a single testament that excluded the many apocryphal writings about Christ. Marcion's version of the scriptural canon was rejected by the church, but he nonetheless deserves to be remembered as the founder of New Testament textual criticism.
Father of the Middle Ages
Probably no heretic had a more pervasive influence on the thinking of the church than the witty, 9th century Irish scholar-monk, John Scotus Erigena. "A humanist ahead of his time," as Nigg calls him. Erigena taught at the short-lived but brilliant Palace Academy of France's King Charles the Bald, and developed a highly individual theology that often sounds like an amalgam of intellectual strains from the best current Protestant thinking. He thought of God as "overtruth" and "the overwisdom"—phrases that would not be out of place in the Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich.* footnote In the manner of a Biblical demythologist like Rudolf Bultmann, he regarded Adam as the idea of man, rather than as a historical human being, and interpreted the Last Judgment not as a physical return to earth by Christ but as each man's own inner examination of conscience.
Erigena was judged a heretic by a church synod in 855, and he was murdered, so legend has it, by a group of his outraged disciples, who stabbed him to death with knives and styluses in his church. His major works were formally condemned by Pope Honorius III in 1225. Yet as much as any man, Erigena deserves to be called the father of the Middle Ages. Erigena's own writing attempted to prove that there was an inner unity of true philosophy and true religion—the fundamental principle of medieval scholastic philosophy. "If we were to seek an image to describe this great man." writes Nigg. "we would have to call him the aurora borealis shining in the night of early medieval Christendom." Arms, Not Argument. In dealing with its heretics. Nigg argues, the church too often substituted force of arms for force of argument. Perhaps the first theologian to defend strong-arm methods was St. Augustine. In one debate with some 5th century heretics, he lost his temper, abandoned his arguments from Scripture and announced the terrible principle: Cogite intrare—compel them to enter. It was a fateful surrender to weakness that later Christians found most useful. In the 13th century battle to stamp out the Catharists of southern France, the church could call on Augustine to justify the killing of heretics.
Historian Nigg points out that Protestants have no reason to gloat over the record of Roman Catholic intolerance. The Reformation brought freedom back to Christianity—but the Reformers seldom permitted this freedom to those who disagreed with them. Martin Luther argued that it was just for civil authorities to kill and exile the Anabaptists. Calvin actively worked for the condemnation and death of Michael Servetus, a brilliant Spanish physician whose denial of belief in the Trinity made him the first modern Unitarian. Both Catholics and Protestants must share the blame for what Nigg calls "one of the most shocking periods in the history of Christianity": the craze for witch burning that swept through Europe from the 15th through the 18th centuries.
Often the church acted rightly in condemning a heretical doctrine that would have undermined the entire structure of Christianity. But many of the early synods were conducted by theologians who could not have passed a freshman scriptural exam in one of today's divinity schools. Thus, Nigg suggests, it is possible that a theological view that prevailed to become orthodoxy was not necessarily the correct one. "The history of heresy," Nigg writes, "has shown that Christianity is richer in content than its ecclesiastical embodiment; the Gospel holds potentialities which have not yet come to the surface."
These unexplored potentialities of faith. Nigg believes, represent Christianity's hope for survival in the 20th century. Modern man has fled from the church to find joy in freedom, confidence in the powers of reason. Nigg believes that this latest heresy, rationalism, leads first to nihilism and despair, but ultimately to a new human encounter with spiritual realities, and therefore with God.
* Who next fall, after seven years at Harvard, will move to the University of Chicago Divinity School to take up a chair endowed last week by the Chicago investment banking firm of John Nuveen & Co. return to text