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A Brief History of Heresy

ISBN: 978-0-631-23526-2
216 pages
December 2002, Wiley-Blackwell
A Brief History of Heresy (0631235264) cover image
This short and accessible book introduces readers to the problems of heresy, schism and dissidence over the last two millennia. The heresies under discussion range from Gnosticism, influential in the early Christian period, right through to modern sects.

The idea of a heretic conjures up many images, from the martyrs prepared to die for their beliefs, through to sects with bizarre practices. This book provides a remarkable insight into the fraught history of heresy, showing how the Church came to insist on orthodoxy when threatened by alternative ideals, exploring the social and political conditions under which heretics were created, and how those involved were 'tested' and punished, often by imprisonment and burning. Engaging written, A Brief History of Heresy is enlivened throughout with fascinating examples of individuals and movements.


  • A short, accessible history of heresy.
  • Spans the last two millennia, from the Gnostics through to modern sects.
  • Considers heresy in relation to ecclesial separatism, doctrinal disagreement, church order, and basic metaphysics.
  • Enlivened with intriguing examples of individuals and movements.
  • Written by a leading academic in the field of Religious History.
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List of Illustrations viii

Preface x

1 The Importance of Being United 1

Forming Consensus 5

The Papacy 10

The Bible in the Hands of Heretics 13

Areas Where Disagreement May be Allowed 20

2 The Boundaries of Orthodoxy: Faith 23

The Apostles’ Creed 24

The Nicene Creed 29

Catechesis 34

Misdirected Worship and Taking the Name of God in Vain 38

Does the Faith ‘Develop’ Through History? 41

The Content of the Creeds and the Question of Orthodoxy 45

3 The Boundaries of Orthodoxy: Order 47

‘Disorder’ at the Wild Fringes 47

Orderliness 53

Ministry and Order 55

The Rigorist Dispute 57

Schismatics 59

Diaspora 61

Orthopraxis 62

4 Classifying Heresies 65

What Could be Imported from Ancient Philosophy? 66

Incarnation and Christology 67

The Augustinian Trio 70

The Easter Controversy 71

The Doctrine of Transubstantiation 72

1054 and the Schism of East and West 73

From Sect to ‘Confessional Identity’ 76

The Power of a Name 80

Categories of Unbelief 83

Pinning Accusations to Suspected Heretics 86

The Creation of a Critical Literature 88

5 Heresy and Social Challenge 90

Popular Heresy: The Anti-establishment Dissidents Speak up for Themselves 93

The Road to Dissent 98

The Waldensians 99

John Wyclif and the Lollard Movement 106

Jan Hus 110

The Hussite ‘Movement’ 117

Social Consequences After the Middle Ages 119

6 Good and Evil 123

The Mediaeval Dualists 126

7 Dealing with Heresy 134

University Sermons 136

The Preaching of the Heretics Themselves 138

Crusade 141

Inquisition 142

The Change in the Balance of Power 149

Living with Difference 151

Conclusion 157

Notes 166

Further reading 180

Index 186

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G. R. Evans is Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge. Her previous publications include Law and Theology in the Middle Ages (2002), The Church and the Churches (1994), Philosophy and Theology in the Middle Ages (1993), and Problems of Authority in the Reformation Debates (1992). She is also the editor of The Medieval Theologians (Blackwell Publishing, 2000). She was for ten years a prominent member of the Church and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England, and is a former diarist for The Church Times.
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  • A short, accessible history of heresy.

  • Spans the last two millennia, from the Gnostics through to modern sects.

  • Considers heresy in relation to ecclesial separatism, doctrinal disagreement, church order, and basic metaphysics.

  • Enlivened with intriguing examples of individuals and movements.

  • Written by a leading academic in the field of Religious History.
See More
"A clear and elegant book." The Guardian

"What Gill Evans's lively and accessible study shows is that if the Church today is to proceed towards a unity truly based upon Christ, we need to distinguish between desirably dissident ‘whistle-blowers’ where the official Church has gotten out of step with its founder, and those voices of dissidence which, on examination, prove clearly contrary to the teaching of Christ. This is accordingly a timely as well as entertaining book, a distillation of wide learning designed for the intelligent common reader." David Lyle Jeffrey, Baylor University

"It is an excellent survey of heresy throughout the church's history. Those who read for information and insight will be abundantly rewarded." Ashland Theological Journal

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