THEOSOPHY, Vol. 53, No. 4, February, 1965
(Pages 100-106; Size: 21K)


[The implication of the title of The Secret Doctrine is twofold. First, no teaching or belief, however exalted, can convey truth directly to the inner consciousness of man; the essence of a true "doctrine" is discovered only when it serves as a catalytic agent within the egoic processes of the individual -- a "secret," until then, to be inwardly revealed.

The relationship of theosophical concepts to history, whether they are doctrinal or philosophical, can therefore be seen to parallel the primary psychological facts of "soul learning." In any age, when a doctrine is taken to be a truth, and when fanaticism compels lip service to exclusive group beliefs, the ideas of Theosophy seem buried and forgotten. We discover, however, that this is never entirely the case. The insistences of dogma and prejudice are like the snows which hide the promise of spring. But seeds survive beneath the snow and, even during the darkest centuries of Western history, there was heat and warmth enough under the surface to allow some of these seeds to germinate. In a sense, then, the history of the relationship between "heretics" and the "renaissance" is the history of every age.

Of the ten articles comprising the series, "Heretics and the Renaissance," the first seven are derived entirely from recognized historical sources; the remaining three consist solely of quotations from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, making, in effect, a review in the light of Theosophy of the main ideas dealt with earlier. The theosophical student who has assembled this material has done what H.P.B. spoke of doing in her Introduction to The Secret Doctrine --put together "a nosegay of culled flowers," adding only "the string that ties them." While the scholars whose works are drawn upon may not have had before them the full perspective of the Theosophical Movement, its "story" is nonetheless implicit, and by skillful collation is made to appear between the lines. Editors, THEOSOPHY]


[Part 1 of a 10-part series]

THERE cannot be heresy where there is no orthodoxy and, therefore, in the definition it is assumed that the church has declared what is the truth or error in any matter. ("Heresy": Britannica, 11th Ed.) Orthodoxy is the doctrine maintained by the infallible Roman Church and assented to by all its faithful members; heresy is dissent from the articles of faith established by the Roman pontiffs and by the councils of the Roman Church. (Ibid., 9.) According to the Canon Law, which was the ecclesiastical law of medieval Europe, and is still the law of the Roman Catholic Church, heresy was defined as error which is voluntarily held in contradiction to the doctrine which has been clearly stated in the creed, and has become part of the defined faith of the church, and which is persisted in by a member of the church. It was regarded not only as an error, but also as a crime to be detected and punished. (Ibid., 11.)

The first employment of the word in the New Testament is to denote a sect or a school of opinion among the Jews. We read of the heresy of the Sadducees (Acts v. 17), the heresy of the Pharisees (Acts xv. 5). Christianity itself was in the beginning looked upon as one of those sects or schools of Jewish opinion, and the "heresy" of the Nazarenes (Acts xxiv. 5) is spoken of.

Three types of heresy have appeared in the history of the Christian Church. The earliest may be called syncretic; it is the fusion of Jewish or pagan with Christian elements. During its early years it was primarily Paganism and Judaism which attempted to interpenetrate Christianity. (Ibid., 9.) The Church first started to grow on Jewish and pagan soil, being composed originally of followers of either Judaism or Paganism. Many of these converts conceived the idea of strengthening the new creed, and of enriching its simple doctrine with Jewish and pagan wisdom; thus strengthened it would be able to wage the fight with greater glory and success. These efforts gave birth successively to the Jewish and gnostic heresies, and while the Church was weakened on the inside through heresies which were the result of some harmoniously blended elements being emphasized either too much or too little, those heresies on the outside now entwined its trunk like parasites, trying to suffocate it. The Kabalah was held in high esteem particularly by the Essenes, and even more so by the mystic Therapeutae among the Hellenizing Jews in Egypt, and its influence is clearly discernible in the writings of their close friend Philo. The Jewish Christians, who had joined Christianity from that side, were above all anxious to claim for it a not too unfavorable position with regard to Judaism. The pagan Christians in their turn showed an even greater eagerness to use their rich store for coming to the aid of the harassed Church. (Görres, pp. 26-32.)

Among the Jewish converts the main element was opposition to the Christian doctrine of the real divinity of Christ, God who has become man. They preferred to regard the Saviour as the last of the prophets, one who bore the same relation to God and to man as the prophets did. On the other hand, the idea that runs through all Greek philosophy, that matter is the source of evil, induced many of the early gentile converts to Christianity to think of the incarnation as a metaphor rather than as a fact. Christ, they thought, did not take, but only seemed to take a human body. These Docetists, as they were called, had a wide series of successors in the early church. (Brit., 9.)

The Gnostics in all their various sects distinguished between God and the Creator. The good God, they held, could not defile Himself by contact with Matter, and therefore could not be the God of creation and providence. The judaizing and the paganizing tendency were combined in Gnostic Ebionitism which was prepared for in Jewish Essenism. In the later heresy of Manichaeism there were affinities to Gnosticism, but it was a mixture of many elements, Babylonian-Chaldaic theosophy, Persian dualism and even Buddhist ethics. (Brit., 11.)

The dualistic system appeared very clearly among the Sethites and Cainites. According to the Ophites the Sophia descending to Hyle had given birth to Ilda-Baoth, the evil son of Chaos, who with six stellar spirits created by him had called forth the world and finally also man, and ensouling him by his breath with the higher light of which he was possessed, forbade him to eat of the fruit of the tree, in order to withhold from him his higher knowledge. Thus the serpent spirit, also created by him, who seduced man to commit the transgression, became his benefactor. As all these heresies, almost without exception, had thus adopted the doctrine of the duality of the principles, they finally all became absorbed in Manichaeism. (Görres, pp. 26-32.)

The next type of heresy may be called evolutionary or formatory. When the Christian faith is being formulated, undue emphasis may be put on one aspect, and thus so partial a statement of truth may result in error. It is not necessary in illustration of the second type of heresy -- that which arises when the contents of the Christian faith are being defined -- to refer to the doctrinal controversies of the middle ages. (Brit., 11.)

The third type of heresy is the revolutionary or reformatory, often referred to as anti-ecclesiastical or anti-sacerdotal heresy. This is not directed against the doctrine as such, but against the church, its theory and its practice, against the errors and abuses of ecclesiastical authority. On the one hand there were during the middle ages sects, like the Cathari and Albigenses, whose opposition as a rule developed itself from dualistic or pantheistic premises (surviving effects of old Gnostic or Manichaen views) and who stood outside of ordinary Christendom, and while no doubt affecting many individual members within it, had apparently no influence on church doctrine. On the other hand there were movements, such as the Waldensian, the Wycliffite and Hussite, which are often described as "reformations anticipating the Reformation" which set out from the Augustinian conception of the Church, but took exception to the development of the conception and were pronounced by the medieval church as heretical. The Reformation itself was from the standpoint of the Roman Catholic Church heresy and schism. (Ibid.)

As long as the Christian Church was itself persecuted by the pagan empire, it advocated freedom of conscience, and insisted that religion could be promoted only by instruction and persuasion (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius); but almost immediately after Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Roman empire the persecution of men for religious opinions began. While Constantine at the beginning of his reign declared complete religious liberty, and kept on the whole to this declaration, yet he confined his favors to the orthodox hierarchical church, and even by an edict of the year 326 formally asserted the exclusion from these of heretics and schismatics. Theodosius the Great, in 380, soon after his baptism, issued, with his co-emperors, the following edict (Ibid.):

We, the three emperors, will that our subjects steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans, which has been faithfully preserved by tradition, and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus of Rome, and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the institution of the Apostles, and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of equal majesty in the Holy Trinity. We order that the adherents of this faith be called Catholic Christians; we brand all the senseless followers of the other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches. Beside the condemnation of divine justice, they must expect the heavy penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict. (Schaff's Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. I, 142.)
Civil punishment followed religious offences as early as the time of Constantine, who enacted severe penalties against the Donaits, and ordained that all possessing Arian books should burn them on the pain of death (Arianism, from Arius, Christian priest at Alexandria, died A.D. 336, who held that Christ the Son was not consubstantial with God the Father). Arcadius made the reading of books written by the Eunomians a capital crime. Theodosius and Valentinian proscribed Nestorian books, and Valentinian and Marcian the books of Eutyches and Nestorius. The custom became so common that the condemnation of any heresy by the church was followed by the proscription of the writings of members of the sect. The Codex Theodosianus, bk. xvi. tit. 5, "De haereticis," enumerates a great variety of laws against heresy with penalties more or less severe, including the death penalty. (Brit., 9.)

During the Middle Ages, especially from the time of Innocent III onward, civil interference in case of heresy was much increased. In the early church the power of discipline belonged to the presbytery, and was afterwards usurped by the bishops, who continued to exercise it in matters of heresy until Innocent III appointed the Inquisition to deal with heretics. So long as the empire was not Christian, the civil law had nothing to do with the punishment of erroneous opinions, but as soon as Christianity became the authorized religion of the state, the old pagan idea that the state has the power to punish religiones novas et illicitas was reviewed. The state, either instructed by the church or, as in Theodosian code, without instruction, visited with civil pains and penalties all such opinions. This came to a height when the Inquisition was established, and civil courts and national assemblies one after another decreed that whatever penalties were imposed by the Inquisition should be imposed by the state, or else handed over all cases of heresy to the Inquisition to be dealt with deserving the infliction of civil penalties, fines, imprisonment, torture and death. There is no sadder page in the history of the church than her alliance with the state for the purpose of torturing men out of opinions different from her own. (Ibid.)

The triumph of intolerance was inevitable when Christianity became the religion of the state, yet the slowness of its progress shows the difficulty of overcoming the incongruity between persecution and the gospel. Hardly had orthodoxy been defined by the Council of Nicea, which was held in the year 325, when Constantine brought the power of the State to bear to enforce uniformity. All heretic and schismatic priests were deprived of the privileges and immunities bestowed on the clergy and were subjected to the burdens of the State; their meeting places were confiscated for the benefit of the church, and their assemblies, whether public or private, were prohibited. (Lea I, 212.)

Step by step the inevitable progress was made, and men easily found specious arguments to justify the indulgence of their passions. The fiery Jerome, when his wrath was excited by Vigilantius forbidding the adoration of relics, expressed his wonder that the bishop of the hardy heretic had not destroyed him in the flesh for the benefit of his soul, and argued that piety and zeal for God could not be cruelty; rigor, in fact, he argues in another place, is the most genuine mercy, since temporal punishment may avert eternal perdition. It was only sixty-two years after the slaughter of Priscillian and his followers had excited so much horror, that Leo I, when the heresy seemed reviving, in 447, not only justified the act, but declared that if the followers of heresy so damnable were allowed to live, there would be an end of human and divine law. The final step had been taken, and the church was definitely pledged to the suppression of heresy at whatever cost. It is impossible not to attribute to ecclesiastical influence the successive edicts by which, from the time of Theodosius the Great, persistence in heresy was punished with death. (Lea I, 214-15.)

A powerful impulse to this development is to be found in the responsibility which grew upon the church from its connection with the State. When it could influence the monarch and procure from him edicts condemning heretics to exile, deportation, to the mines, and even to death, it felt that God had put into his hands powers to be exercised and not to be neglected. At the same time, with natural human inconsistency, it could argue that it was not responsible for the execution of the laws, and that its own hands were unstained with blood. It became the general doctrine that princes are bound not only to be orthodox themselves, but preserve the purity of the faith by the fullest exercise of their power against heretics. To prevent or to punish evil was not persecution, but love. How abundantly these assiduous teachings bore their bitter fruit is shown in the deplorable history of the church during those centuries, consisting as it does of heresy after heresy relentlessly exterminated, until the Council of Constantinople, under the Patriarch Michael Oxista, introduced the penalty of burning alive as the punishment of the Bogomili. (Lea I, 216.)

* * *

Sources used in this installment: Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth and Eleventh editions under "Heresy"; J. v. Görres, Die Christliche Mystik Regensburg (Verlag von G. Joseph Manz, 1840) Vol. III, pp. 26-32; Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (Harper, N.Y., 1888), Vol. I, pp. 212, 214-6.

(To be continued)

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


Language, theosophically considered, is clearly both individual and potentially universal. Among American Indians, the differences between the languages of the Caddo and the Kiowa are greater than the differences between Chinese and English; one is amazed at the diversity and intricate development of speech and language found among primitive peoples; we learn of the yearnings of separated groups for their mother tongue, while other ethnic classes fear for the loss and purity of their original tongue.

It is not alone the "mystic language of the secret books" that may first intrigue the student, but the realization that in remote antiquity, "the whole human race was at that time of one language and of one lip." This fact H.P.B. discourses upon frequently, noting that the "cyclic evolution" of language involves "fall into matter" and "admixture with other languages," thereby experiencing "maturity, decay and finally death." This alone can explain the mystifying and fragmentary puzzles that confront linguistic researchers.

Language -- as a fascinating field of exploration -- is at once a revealing picture of the spiritual growth of man philosophically and a science of manifold ramifications. And this latter fact is as well known to students of the ancient Wisdom Religion as it is to those concerned with investigations of anthropology and related subjects.

H. P. Blavatsky, foremost in extolling the virtues of "the Hindu Aryan -- the most metaphysical and spiritual people on earth" -- often speaks of the glories of the ancients, as when, in her Secret Doctrine, she upholds "the primitive, purely spiritual language of the Vedas." For, as she declares, "with the ancient Aryans the hidden meaning was grandiose, sublime, and poetical, however much the external appearance of their symbol may now militate against the claim." 


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(1) NOTE.--Heretic: from the Greek hairetikós -- able to choose. (Webster's New International.)
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