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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary

Heresy

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This word signifies sect or choice; it was not in its earliest acceptation conceived to convey any reproach, since it was indifferently used either of a party approved, or of one disapproved by the writer.

See Acts 5:17; Acts 15:3 . Afterwards it was generally used to signify some fundamental error adhered to with obstinacy, 2 Peter 2:1 . Galatians 5:20 . According to the laws of this kingdom, heresy consists in a denial of some of the essential doctrines of Christianity, publicly and obstinately avowed. It must be acknowledged, however, that particular modes of belief or unbelief, not tending to overturn Christianity, or to sap the foundations of morality, are by no means the object of coercion by the civil magistrate. What doctrines shall therefore be adjudged heresy, was left by our old constitution to the determination of the ecclesiastical judge, who had herein a most arbitrary latitude allowed him; for the general definition of an heretic, given by Lyndewode, extends to the smallest deviations from the doctrines of the holy church: "Haereticus est qui dubitat de fide Catholica, et qui negligit servare ea quae Romana ecclesia statuit, seu servare decreverat:" or, as the statute, 2 Hen. IV. cap. 15, expresses it in English, "teachers of erroneous opinions, contrary to the faith and blessed determinations of the holy church."

Very contrary this to the usage of the first general councils, which defined all heretical doctrines with the utmost precision and exactness, and what ought to have alleviated the punishment, the uncertainty of the crime, seems to have enhanced it in those days of blind zeal and pious cruelty. The sanctimonious hypocrisy of the Canonists, indeed, went, at first, no farther than enjoining penance, excommunication, and ecclesiastical deprivation, for heresy; but afterwards they proceeded boldly to imprisonment by the ordinary, and confiscation of goods in pios usus. But in the mean time they had prevailed upon the weakness of bigoted princes to make the civil power subservient to their purposes, by making heresy not only a temporal but even a capital offence; the Romish ecclesiastics determining, without appeal, whatever they pleased to be heresy, and shifting off to the secular arm the odium and drudgery of executions, with which they pretended to be too tender and delicate to intermeddle. Nay, they affected to intercede on behalf of the convicted heretic, well knowing that at the same time they were delivering the unhappy victim to certain death.

See ACT OF FAITH.

Hence the capital punishments inflicted on the ancient Donatists and Manichaeans by the emperors Theodosius and Justinian; hence, also, the constitution of the emperor Frederic, mentioned by Lyndewode, adjudging all persons, without distinction, to be burnt with fire, who were convicted of heresy by the ecclesiastical judge. The same emperor, in another constitution, ordained, that if any temporal lord, when admonished by the church, should neglect to clear his territories of heretics within a year, it should by lawful for good Catholics to seize and occupy the lands, and utterly to exterminate the heretical possessors. And upon this foundation was built that arbitrary power, so long claimed, and so fatally exerted by the pope, of disposing even of the kingdoms of refractory princes to more dutiful sons of the church. The immediate event of this constitution serves to illustrate at once the gratitude of the holy see, and the just punishment of the royal bigot; for, upon the authority of this very constitution, the pope afterwards expelled this very emperor Frederic from his kingdom of Sicily, and gave it to Charles of Anjou.

Christianity being thus deformed by the daemon of persecution upon the continent, our own island could not escape its scourge. Accordingly we find a writ de haeretico comburendo, 1:e. of burning the heretic.

See that article. But the king might pardon the convict by issuing only by the special direction of the king in council. In the reign of Henry IV. when the eyes of the Christian world began to open, and the seeds of the Protestant religion (under the opprobrious name of Lollardy) took root in this kingdom, the clergy, taking advantage from the king's dubious title to demand an increase of their own power, obtained an act of parliament, which sharpened the edge of persecution to its utmost keenness.

See HAERETICO COMBURENDO. By statute 2 Henry V. 100: 7, Lollardy was also made a temporal offence, and indictable in the king's courts; which did not thereby gain an exclusive, but only a concurrent jurisdiction with the bishop's consistory. Afterwards, when the reformation began to advance, the power of the ecclesiastics was somewhat moderated; for though what heresy is was not then precisely defined, yet we are told in some points what it is not; the statute 25 Hen. VIII. 100: 14. declaring that offences against the see of Rome are not heresy; and the ordinary being thereby restrained from proceeding in any case upon mere suspicion; 1:e. unless the party be accused by two credible witnesses, or an indictment of heresy be first previously found in the king's courts of common law.

And yet the spirit of persecution was not abated, but only diverted into a lay channel; for in six years afterwards, by stat. 31 Hen. VIII. 100: 14. the bloody law of the six articles was made, which were "determined and resolved by the most godly study, pain, and travail of his majesty; for which his most humble and obedient subjects, the lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons in parliament assembled, did render and give unto his highness their most high and hearty thanks." The same statute established a mixed jurisdiction of clergy and laity for the trial and conviction of heretics; Henry being equally intent on destroying the supremacy of the bishops of Rome, and establishing all their other corruptions of the Christian religion. Without recapitulating the various repeals and revivals of these sanguinary laws in the two succeeding reigns, we proceed to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when the reformation was finally established with temper and decency, unsullied with party rancour or personal resentment

By stat. 1. Eliz. 100: 1. all former statutes relating to heresy are repealed; which leaves the jurisdiction of heresy as it stood at common law, viz. as to the infliction of common censures in the ecclesiastical courts; and in case of burning the heretic, in the provincial synod only. Sir Matthew Hale is, indeed, of a different opinion, and holds that such power resided in the diocesan also: though he agrees that in either case the writ de haeretico comburendo was not demandable of common right, but grantable or otherwise merely at the king's discretion. But the principal point now gained was, that by this statute a boundary was for the first time set to what should be accounted heresy; nothing for the future being to be so determined, but only such tenets which have been heretofore so declared,

1. by the words of the canonical Scriptures;

2. by the first four general councils, or such others as have only used the words of the Holy Scriptures; or,

3. which shall hereafter be so declared by the parliament, with the assent of the clergy in convocation. Thus was heresy reduced to a greater certainty than before, though it might not have been the worse to have defined it in terms still more precise and particular; as a man continued still liable to be burnt for what, perhaps, he did not understand to be heresy, till the ecclesiastical judge so interpreted the words of the canonical Scriptures. For the writ de haeretico comburendo remained still in force, till it was totally abolished, and heresy again subjected only to ecclesiastical correction, pro salute animae, by stat. 29. Car. II. 100: 9; when, in one and the same reign, our lands were delivered from the slavery of military tenures; our bodies from arbitrary imprisonment by the habeas corpus act: and our minds from the tyranny of superstitious bigotry, by demolishing this last badge of persecution in the English law.

Every thing is now less exceptionable, with respect to the spiritual cognizance and spiritual punishment of heresy; unless, perhaps, that the crime ought to be more strictly defined, and no prosecution permitted, even in the ecclesiastical courts, till the tenets in question are by proper authority previously declared to be heretical. Under these restrictions, some think it necessary, for the support of the national religion, that the officers of the church should have power to censure heretics; yet not to harass them with temporal penalties, much less to exterminate or destroy them. The legislature has, indeed, thought it proper that the civil magistrate should interpose with regard to one species of heresy, very prevalent in modern times; for by stat. 9. and 10. W. III. 100: 32. if any person, educated in the Christian religion, or professing the same, shall, by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny any one of the persons in the Holy Trinity to be God, or maintain that there are more Gods than one, he shall undergo the same penalties and incapacities which were inflicted on apostasy by the same statute. Enc. Brit. Dr. Foster and Stebbing on Heresy; Hallett's Discourses, vol. 3: No. 9. p. 358, 408; Dr. Campbell's Prel. Dis. to the Gospels.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Heresy'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/h/heresy.html. 1802.

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