Book Review: The Great Heresies – By Hilaire Belloc

belloc great heresies.pngLetter TThe Great Heresies is Hilaire Belloc’s concise survey of what he deems to be the five chief heresies (and models of heresy) in the history of the [Catholic] Church. ‘Heresy’ in this sense for Belloc is defined as “the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein… Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by ‘Exception’: by Picking out’ one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation.” The heresies tackled by Belloc include Arianism, Islam, Albigensian/Manichean, Protestantism, and what he simply calls ‘The Modern Attack’, which we today would simply refer to as ‘modernism’ or ‘classic liberalism’.

While these are theological issues which Belloc is confronting the book is not a refutation of heresy on those grounds. Belloc takes a stand against heresy but rather through historical, sociological and political routes. One of his main goals is to demonstrate the effect which heresy has had and continues to have on society; his point here is that “[Heresy] is a subject of permanent and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of religion, without some form of which no human society ever has endured, or ever can endure. Those who think that the subject of heresy may be neglected because the term sounds to them old-fashioned and because it is connected with a number of disputes long abandoned, are making the common error of thinking in words instead of ideas… The whole story of Europe, her various realms and states and general bodies during the last sixteen centuries has mainly turned upon the successive heresies arising in the Christian world.”

For this reason the book should as a historical treatise rather than a theological one (though it does certainly contain theological elements), thus Belloc spends roughly half of each chapter discussing the historical impact of each heresy, their rise and their fall. Such instances play out in discussing wars between Rome and barbarians amidst Arianism, the economics of Islam, and the intricacies of Communism in relation to ‘the modern attack’.

In this aspect the text is a more unique look at heresies, historically rather than theologically. Belloc is also interesting in his defining of ‘heresy’, offering a definition broad enough to encompass everything from Islam to to Nestorianism to Anglicanism; the benefits and inconsistencies of this I won’t try and discuss here.

Overall the text is a short (~150pgs), yet dense, read. One not interested in history will not likely care for the book, and even one interested in history may find Belloc’s style a tad on the dry side, though I believe he makes up for it in the precision of his words.

Regardless it is a decent survey of various heresies. For the Protestant it will offer in an interesting perspective (given that Belloc labels Protestantism a [dead] heresy), and it will also offer a rather interesting analysis of Islam. It at least deserves a light skim from anybody interested in the subject matter covered.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain.‘”

“The modern attack will not tolerate us. It will attempt to destroy us. Nor can we tolerate it. We must attempt to destroy it as being the fully equipped and ardent enemy of the Truth by which men live. The duel is to the death.

-“Such an attitude would seem again to be a contradiction in terms; for if you deny the value of human reason, if you say that we cannot through our reason arrive at any truth, then not even the affirmation so made can be true. Nothing can be true, and nothing is worth saying. But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction.”

-“Terms are used so loosely nowadays; there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted.”

Specific Criticisms

My biggest complaint with Belloc (despite being a Protestant) is not that he labels Protestantism as a heresy. He’s a Catholic and this is to be expected; I can understand and even sympathize with this Catholic hostility (especially when I have essentially the same feeling towards modernism & postmodernism). In general Belloc attributes to Protestantism a break-up of unity and a worship of the text of the Bible.

My criticism isn’t necessarily of this, instead it is in his strange confidence in the death/defeat of Protestantism. As he says in the final chapter “[The modern attack] may die as Protestantism has died before our very own eyes.” He goes on to state that “But there is not one man of a hundred in Geneva today who accepts Calvin’s highly defined theology. The doctrine is dead; its effects on society survive…” As a Calvinist the assertion that my doctrine died near the beginning of the last century naturally strikes me as odd; the date of this final death he points as coinciding with World War I.

It’s quite possible that for the most part Belloc is referring to Protestant culture (which is what he references towards the end of the chapter on Protestantism). This would be an understandable analysis; Protestantism as a culture met with a great decline following the wars, though Protestantism as a theology met no such fate.

So, while ‘Protestantism dying before our very eyes’ may be an understandable sentiment if seen in reference to a distinctly Protestant culture being replaced by the culture of liberalism, skepticism and eventually postmodernism, one still can find no excuse for Belloc’s pessimism towards the state of Protestant doctrine and theology. As a theology Protestantism was alive then, though also sharing the attack of modernism, and it remains animatedly alive today. To declare Protestantism as a theology dead is simply a falsity, as the test of time has shown (though really, it was just as alive in his day).


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