On the origins of heresy

Christine Caldwell Ames considers how the Bible, and especially the Apostle Paul, shaped the inquisitions.



Christine Caldwell Ames considers how the Bible, and especially the Apostle Paul, shaped the inquisitions.


Christian faith shaped inquisitions in a couple of ways. One is this notion of heresy. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to credit the germ of heresy to Paul himself, in his letters. It is Paul who says, in a somewhat remarkable way, there is one message of Christianity, and that is the message that comes from me, from Paul. If there are pseudo-apostles, don’t listen to them, if others come to you preaching a message contrary to what I have said, ignore it. And so I think with Paul, we have the real germ – even though Paul doesn’t talk about it in this way, we have the real germ of an idea that Christianity, the belief, is something to be delimited, it is something to be protected, that there is right and wrong belief.

And certainly then we see in other parts of the New Testament a community’s concern with fragmentation. This is something else, of course, we see in the letters of Paul. How do the individual Christian churches need to maintain their strength and their unity, and what are the dangers of wrong belief? And so I think that certainly what we see over the centuries after Paul is continually, again in very different circumstances, we see continually Christian thinkers, Christian ecclesiastics, ponder those texts as well as pondering their circumstances as Christians living, again, in very different contexts.

And so I think that the notion of heresy does lead in a somewhat natural way to the question of how to eradicate it. How does one do that? And this is something else that we have a model in Paul, where Paul says the erring person is to be corrected once or twice, and then after that, he is to be removed from the community. And this is something that medieval inquisitors appeal back to, that we have a scriptural paradigm, as they see it, a scriptural paradigm for dealing with the dissent within a community. That it’s generous – it begins as something generous – but if there is a sort of intractable person, that one then moves on to exclusion.

Also, I think again what is most interesting about the spiritual foundations that we have of medieval heresy inquisitions is how the New Testament and ecclesiastical writers over these centuries keep coming back again to those consequences of wrong belief. What does it mean to reject God? And certainly medieval ecclesiastics are defining heresy as a rejection of God, very, very plainly. And so they keep making scriptural appeals, again, and I want to say, scriptural appeals that wouldn’t have been made maybe 500 years before, 600 years before, and that come about because of a particular situation, say, in Europe in the high Middle Ages. But that generally Christianity has established itself from its beginning as a community that deals with both revelation and reason, a community that thinks about how it interprets the experience of the ministry of Jesus and then again the letters that come after that, the writings that come after that.