In Praise of Heretics

The word “heretic” is often thrown around today to denounce someone for espousing an idea deemed “unbiblical” or “unorthodox” or “contrary to the teachings of the church.” It carries a negative connotation, often meant to cast a poor soul out of a community to be shunned, exiled, and sometimes even tortured with words or sharp implements. And in extreme cases, killed and ultimately damned.

But as one looks at the history of heretics, one finds quite a few surprises:

For starters, let’s not forget that Jesus was deemed a heretic for claiming to be the Messiah, and for this he was executed.

The Apostle Paul was charged with heresy by his fellow Christians for believing that Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom included gentiles. Of course, he was quick to label his opponents as heretics as well, and in one imprecatory passage found in his letter to the Galatians he told them to go castrate themselves.

And then in the 4th century there was Priscillian. Not many people have heard of him, but he is typically given the unfortunate distinction of being the first Christian to be martyred by fellow Christians for heresy.   It’s a little difficult to know for sure what Priscillian actually believed since our knowledge of him is based largely on his critics. But it’s clear he was a bit eccentric. He practiced strict asceticism and became enamored with what we would call charismatic gifts today. He allowed women to participate in ways normally reserved only for men. And every now and then, he apparently liked to pray buck naked. For this he was found guilty of sorcery and handed over to the emperor to be executed.

Much later in the 12th century, a scholastic theologian named Peter Abelard was charged with heresy for pointing out that the church had contradicted itself no less than 158 times on matters of doctrine. He actually was castrated. Not for the heresy, though. He got a wealthy Parisian’s niece pregnant. It was afterward when he had a lot of time on his hands that he noticed the contradictions. He genuinely thought he was helping the church in its quest for truth, but it turns out that the institution had a thin skin. Though vindicated later in life, it wasn’t until Thomas Aquinas came around that Abelard’s genius was acknowledged. Aquinas worked through the errors and wrote the most important work of the Middle Ages called the Summa Theologica which became the basis of Catholic theology still in vogue today. And for this, the Bishop of Paris labeled him a heretic.

In the 14th century, an Oxford Scholar named John Wycliffe was convicted of heresy for teaching that the papacy was a manmade institution nowhere mentioned in the Bible. For this he was burned at the stake.  Fortunately, he had been dead for several years prior to the execution. Which, if you are going to be martyred, is really the best way to go. Unfortunately, a few years later when John Hus proclaimed the same thing he was very much alive when the Council of Constance found him guilty and turned him over to the executioner to suffer a fiery fate.

And then most people have heard of Martin Luther, who was excommunicated in the 16th century for the heresies of bible alone, faith alone, and grace alone. Fortunately, he lived to a ripe old age.

This was not the case for a group that Luther charged with heresy called the Anabaptists. Their errors included separation of church and state, believer’s baptism, and egalitarianism. For this, many of these men and women were drowned, a morbid jab at one of their heretical doctrines. By some accounts, more Anabaptists died at the hands of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics in the 16th century than all the Christians who died at the hands of the Romans in the first three centuries combined. And the Anabaptists were pacifists!

Also in the 16th century, William Tyndale was labeled a heretic for translating the Bible into English and making it available to common people. For this was tied to a stake and strangled. Very poorly, it turns out, for he woke up as the flames engulfed him.

In the new world in the 17th century, Ann Hutchinson was convicted of heresy for believing that the Holy Spirit spoke to her. At least, that’s what’s listed in the court documents. In actuality, she was exiled from her Puritan community for advocating that women were just as smart as men when it came to theology, something she aptly demonstrated when she embarrassed her prosecutor John Winthrop in a match of wits. Soon after, she and her family were slaughtered by Native Americans, angered because the Puritan fathers had stolen their land. And to make sure that no other female smarty-pants ever embarrassed a patriarch again, the Puritans took up a collection to start a school to educate manly men on the ways of God. You may have heard of it—Harvard.

In the 19th century, William Lloyd Garrison was unofficially charged with heresy for advocating that slavery was a sin and that African Americans were equal to whites (something that even Abraham Lincoln didn’t quite agree with). For this, his printing press was often vandalized and on at least one occasion he was roped and dragged through the streets of Boston. Over a century later, when Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a similar message, he was tragically shot and killed.

All of this is to point out the fact that just because someone yells, “heresy!” doesn’t necessarily make it so. Now, there are doctrines that are truly evil, especially when they lead to fear, intimidation, and burning people at the stake. But more often than not, these beliefs are held by the ones crying “heresy!” rather than the accused heretic.

In addition, hopefully my little summary of heretical Hall of Famers has illustrated the fact that, quite often, today’s heretic winds up being tomorrow’s champion of the truth.

So I like to judge an idea based upon its own merits, and not on the label attached to it.

And as a final word of edification, if you find yourself being charged with heresy for believing in something that encourages people to love more deeply and experience grace more freely, then be brave.

Be very brave.

And take comfort in the fact that you are in good company.

Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors atkellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott


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