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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in Christianity, religious movements that depart, or are subsequently condemned by the church as “having departed,” from official church doctrine in the area of dogmatics and ritual. When religious ideology held sway, heresies were a definite form of social protest. They attained their greatest development and social significance in the Middle Ages, when there emerged the spiritual dictatorship of a Christian church that blessed the feudal system with divine authority and combined enormous political and economic power with ideological supremacy. In the Middle Ages assaults on feudalism and the feudal church took the form of heresies.

Heresies in the Roman Empire during the formative period of Christianity. As Christianity took shape in the first and second centuries, currents arose that were later condemned by the Christian church as heresies. In the New Testament, Revelations already mentions a number of sects within first century Christianity, such as the Nicolaites and the followers of the priestess Jezebel. The adherents of the first and second century heresies were for the most part members of the masses, and the teachings of these heresies were a protest against the growing tendency in Christianity toward the formation of a “rich church”; such were the Ebionites and especially the Montanists, who preached the near advent of the kingdom of heaven on earth and opposed a monarchical episcopate. The ideological roots of the early Christian heresies were Judaism, especially Judaic sectarianism (for example, the Essenes, who influenced the Ebionites) and Neoplatonism (the teachings of Philo of Alexandria).

In the third century, as the church was consolidating its organization and was suffering persecution, theological and philosophical dissension receded into the background and organizational disputes became central, primarily over the attitude of the church toward persons who had “lapsed” during the persecution. The democratic elements of Christianity, for example, the Novatians, akin to the Montanists, insisted on the total repudiation by the church of the lapsed, whereas the circles of the well-to-do were inclined to show tolerance for persons who, fearing deprivation of wealth or social status, had for a time denied Christ. Simultaneously, there arose heresies such as those of the Monarchians and the Sabellians, which were harbingers of Christological and Trinitarian controversies (over the nature of Christ and of the Trinity).

Heresies in the Byzantine Empire. In the fourth century Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire, and from that point one may speak of the appearance of heresies in the strict meaning of the word. By its alliance with the authority of the state, the church secured the material power necessary for the persecution of heretics—banishment, deprivation of public office, confiscation of property, and execution. In 527 an edict was issued against heretics, Jews and pagans being reckoned among them, that enjoined them to adopt the official creed within three months. Several heresies of the fourth to the seventh centuries were closely connected with popular movements; Donatism, for example, was closely associated with the movement of the Circumcellions, who had risen in rebellion in Africa. In these movements passive social protest was at times intertwined with the aspiration of outlying areas of the empire for political independence, as was particularly the case with Monophysitism.

The most significant heresies of the period were Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism. The heretics opposed the official doctrines of the Christian church on the trinity of the godhead and the god-manhood of Christ. By representing Christ as a subordinate divinity (the Arians), or by viewing his nature as solely human (the Nestorians) or solely divine (the Monophysites), the heretics were in effect challenging the fundamental doctrines of Christian theology. The ideological premises of these heresies were rooted in classical rationalism, which was in conflict with the notions of the unity of a trinity or unity of divine and human nature in one individual.

With the development of feudal relationships, heresies in Byzantium assumed the form primarily of dualistic teachings that emphatically contrasted a “corrupt” terrestrial world, created not by god but by the element of evil, with spiritual union with the divinity. The social roots of this ideology lay in the protest of the masses, above all the peasantry, against exploitation. The ideological sources of the principal dualistic heresies in Byzantium, Paulicianism and Bogomilism (which was widespread in the western provinces of the Empire as well as in Bulgaria), can be traced to Manichaeism. Originally these heresies were linked with active social protest, but from the llth and 12th centuries passive contemplation and mysticism became ever more conspicuous. Bogomilism of the 14th century at times reveals a similarity to the heresy of the Hesychasts. In the llth century there began to appear in Byzantium heresies that had grown in urban soil and drew upon a rationalistic view of the world (the teachings of John Italus, Eustratius of Nicaea, and Soterichus).

Heresies in Western and Central Europe in the Middle Ages. In Western and Central Europe heresies gained wide diffusion, becoming an important factor in community life from the latter half of the 11th century, owing to the growth of cities. The development of commodity production, which demanded energy and initiative from the producer, evoked a measure of critical and independent thinking. The development of an ideological opposition to feudalism was fostered, too, by the rising level of self-consciousness and public activity among the medieval townsfolk; this was engendered by the emancipatory efforts of the urban communes. The advance of commodity-money relations in the countryside was also bringing about acute aggravation of feudal antagonisms and paving the way for involvement of the peasantry in the flood of heretical movements. The chief heresies of the Middle Ages were urban (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7, p. 361), and the regions of their greatest dissemination were areas of intensive urban development: Northern Italy, Flanders, and Southern France.

The attacks of the heretics had as their prime object the church’s wealth, to which they opposed the ideal of “apostolic poverty.” This trait was especially pronounced among the Waldensians and the Apostolics. The ideal of general equality in poverty was a reaction against egregious feudal inequality. Powerlessness to eliminate reigning evil gave rise to the dualist doctrines of heresies, traceable to Bogomilism (Cathars, Albigensians) that repudiated “the world”—property, the state, and the church—as the creation of the devil.

The 12th century marked the rebirth of chiliastic states of mind, that is, belief in the millennial “kingdom of god” on earth. Chiliasm sought, within the framework of a religious philosophy of life, to construct a positive ideal for the future; highly influential were the ideas of Joachim of Floris, which in the 13th and 14th centuries gained considerable currency in radical heretical circles.

Not until the beginning of the 14th century did Dolcino succeed in overcoming the passivity characteristic of chiliasm and in coupling the chiliastic ideal with an open peasant rebellion against the church and the feudal lords. There was thus coming into being peasant-plebeian heresy, almost always linked with rebellion. In peasant-plebeian heresy the idea of abstract equality among the sons of god was replaced by the idea of social equality and at times even of equality of property (the Lollards and John Ball in 14th-century England and the Taborites of the Hussite revolutionary movement in 15th-century Bohemia).

Burgher, unlike peasant-plebeian, heresy did not encroach on the foundations of the feudal order and confined itself to assailing the feudal church, demanding a less costly church, abolition of the exclusive estate of the clergy, secularization of church wealth, simplification of ritual, and elimination of the political power of the pope and the Catholic Church in general. Burgher heresy was strikingly embodied in the teachings of Arnold of Brescia in 12th-century Italy, Wycliffe in 14th-century England, and Hus and the Utraquists in 15th-century Bohemia. Intensification of social struggle and the political activization of the masses led to open conflict between burgher and peasant-plebeian heresies, as was vividly evidenced in the Hussite movement.

Burgher heresy was the direct precursor of the burgher 16th-century ideology of church reform, and peasant-plebeian heresy of the ideology of the revolutionary masses in the early bourgeois revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. The heresy movement as a whole was of very great importance in the history of the Western Middle Ages. Heresies undermined the bases of feudalism. As a specifically political form of struggle evolved, the heresies (in which the social relationships and the objectives of class struggle were concealed under religious arguments, hindering the clear emergence of class consciousness among the oppressed) became a brake on the movement of the masses toward liberation.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Though these "heresies" usually pit one ideology against another, they ought not be considered renunciations.
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Scholem's antipathy to both heresies is more complex, but nevertheless is presented as a plausible reading of his thought development.
The extent to which an awareness of these heresies and barely tolerated theologies percolated below the rarefied level of university disputation is a matter the book deals with in respect of the vernacular authors such as Langland and Chaucer, who betray awareness of contemporary theological debates.
He made no effort to grade his sects and heresies in order of seriousness, and implied that all of these movements belonged to a single demonic conspiracy against the kingdom of god" (111).
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The chapter "Classifying Heresies," for example, mentions several patterns of classification from patristic and medieval sources but fails to pull the individual pieces together into some kind of an overarching interpretation.
Since many of the best ideas in human history began as heresies, we do well to be careful before passing judgment on anything.