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The Double Edged Sword Of Heresy

2840 words - 12 pages

It takes two to create a heresy: the heretic to practice his dissident beliefs, and the Church to condemn his views and define orthodox doctrine. This inevitable tension between dissent and order was the motor which drove the development of Christian thought. Heresy forced the Church to progressively define its doctrines and to anathematize opposing theological opinions. It is my intent in this paper to explore the role of the Church in stimulating the same heresies which they later fought bitterly against. I will argue that the motives of the heretic adjusted to the changes in the economic and social standing of the Church, and that heterodoxy grew in strength as the Church became less ...view middle of the document...

Prior to 451, the struggles between orthodoxy and heresy created moral and philosophical dilemmas. The early structure of the Western Church was one which permitted, and was bound to permit, a great variety of beliefs. Certain heresies were actually helpful to the Church as they helped it to define its doctrine. Many of these beliefs were not consistent with what appeared later (Moore, 69). Montanism, Donatism, and Pelagianism were three typical heresies of the time. Montanism was a widely held belief preaching strict moral rigor and asceticism. Asceticism, the practice of an austere life, was much more harsh than the doctrines of the young Roman Catholic Church advocated. It pushed the Church to change its stand on issues such as fasting and abstinance. Donatism, a belief that denied the validity of sacraments administered by an immoral priest, was one of the first heresies to directly challenge the validity of the Church. They argued not only against the decoration of churches and the veneration of the Cross, but also against the use of church buildings. Donatists strived for simple lives dedicated to manual labor and helping one another (Russell, 28). Their beliefs existed contrary to those of Pelagianism. Pelagianists claimed that an individual did not need divine grace to attain salvation. They emphasized the freedom of the human will amongst the chaos of the world (Russell, 13). Influenced by a variety of similar heresies, the Church decided to re-evaluate its doctrine in 451.The Church at the time of these heresies had not yet developed the means or the inclination to demand uniformity of worship and practice. Each bishop typically ruled his diocese as the heir and successor of the patron saint who was usually said to be its founder. Philosophical questions brought up by heresies like Montanism, Donatism, and Pelagrianism could not be answered under these conditions, and persisted even after the Council of Chalcedon addressed them in 451. Such questions involved the associations between the Persons of the Trinity and the identity of Jesus Christ (Russell, 6).From the year 451 onward, a qualitative difference was seen between ancient and medieval heresy. Heresies only existed in so far as authority chose to declare its existence. After Chalcedon, the Church recognized few heresies, and a marked decline of dissent began. Powerful groups such as the Cathars seemed to disappear. However, as I will explore later, these heresies remained active in the neglected shadow of the Chruch. Cathars and other heretics could not fight against a Chuch which had little or no uniformity in its beliefs (Christie-Murray, 1). It was not until much later that the two powerful forces of dissent and order clashed.The Church slowly progressed between the fifth and eleventh centuries as people began to question humanity's relationship with God. They looked to the Church for answers. They asked, 'How are we supposed to worship God?', 'What is morally required of...

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