Canto 9: Heretics

Rev. Dr. Gordon S. Mikoski, Princeton Theological Seminary

In the sixth circle of hell, Dante inquires about the flaming sepulchers he encounters. His guide informs him that those making “sounds of woe so great” as a result of “horrible pain” are the heretics and their followers. They are not named by Dante, but we know their names: Simon Magus, Marcion,  Valentinus, Arius, Donatus, Montanus, Eunomius, Mani, Nestorius, Pelagius, Sabellus,  Eutyches, Photinius, Novatus, Apollinaris, Macedonius, the Bogomils, and the Cathars. And these are only some of the most famous of the heresiarchs from the periods of the early church and the middle ages.  These heretical teachers undermined orthodox biblical teaching about the doctrine of God, christology, salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the character of the Christian life.

I find it interesting that Dante places these figures much lower in the order of hell than great Greco-Roman pagan philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. The pagan philosophers get off relatively easily in Dante’s vision: they only lack (evangelical) hope. By contrast, the heretics are found much deeper in the bowls of hell. Perhaps the reason for the differences in location have to do with Dante’s Christian humanism. While we find a basically positive view of the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, those who distorted or corrupted the core teachings of the Church are treated with severity and disdain. Perhaps this difference in Dante’s appraisal arose from the dual conviction that the best of the ancient pagans obliquely pointed toward and, in some cases, actually paved the way for belief in the holy Trinity, while the heretics ultimately turned people away from or even contributed to the destruction of authentic Christian faith. Presumably, the heretics had known the truth of the Gospel and  yet willfully distorted it to serve their own selfish interests – and brought untold thousands with them on the way to fiery destruction.

Heresy still matters today – despite the liberal mainline emphasis on toleration and inclusivism. Corrupt teaching in the name of Christ can still lead people to disaster. Think of the wingnuts in the media who preach the  “prosperity Gospel,”  solicit funds for faith healings, or who explain unbelievable human suffering through natural disasters as the wrath of God. I also think of those who make arguments for the use of torture in the name of God and country. Or how about the creeping Islamicization of Christianity among the liberal Protestants (i.e. Jesus was merely a prophet who pointed us to the transcendent One)? Of course, this is not to mention the countless unconscious adherents in every pew of every church that I have known or served: Macionites (those who hold the view that the God of the Old Testament is angry and evil and that the Father of Jesus Christ in parts of the New Testament is loving and forgiving), Adoptionists (those who hold the view that Jesus the human being was so good that he received a metaphysical promotion), Arians (those who hold the view of “trickle down divinity” in which the Father is really God, the Son is the first thing that “God” created, and the Holy Spirit who comes in a distant third place), and Pelagians (those who hold the view that we can choose God by “making a decision for Christ” or that we can somehow earn God’s favor).  Make no mistake, the heresies from the early church and medieval periods of church history are much more than historical oddities; they are alive and well today.

Why do heresies matter today, though? Aren’t these just so many theological head games akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I would argue that corrupt or erroneous beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the way to salvation, the status of the Bible, or the character of the Christian life matter existentially and spiritually. Wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage. Puts most starkly: bad theology can kill. It can also lead to the killing of others.

Conversely, I believe that right beliefs (rooted in Scripture and defined by the church through the ages) contributes significantly to Christian health and growth. It matters, for instance, whether we believe that the one who died on the cross for us was both fully God as well as fully human. It matters whether we believe that we are saved from our sins by God’s gracious choice and not by our own tragi-comic efforts or actions. Like an expert doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death.

About gmikoski

Associate Professor of Christian Education, Princeton Theological Seminary View all posts by gmikoski

3 responses to “Canto 9: Heretics

  • jeffvamos

    Thanks for your insights, Gordon. No coincidence that you got the topic of heresy, eh?

    Reminds me of the conundrum we face in Canto 4, with the virtuous pagans. The tragic question on display there is: is being good…good enough? Is life only about that virtue that one can muster through human will, and discern with human reason? Or, on the other hand, is the proper structure of the universe only revealed when we know Grace (what’s signified and bestowed in some ontological way in baptism), the restoring love that can only be gifted to us…. Knowing such a gift then shows our attempts at virtue on our own terms to be vain, and to miss the mark of ultimate human meaning, which could be described not as being good, but knowing oneself loved – and which leaves one with the decision as to how one aligns oneself with that stuff. Virtue is the the fruit and not the means.

    The above…a digression – but, perhaps it does relate to this Canto – the end of it having to do with heresy – because, as you point out – any old theology won’t do. Even if it aims at the good. Even if it aims at (as the heretics on display in the next Canto) living a good life in THIS life. That’s the hallmark of the Epicurian way: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And, does that not describe our current culture (even among Christians?) That mindset is the cause of our human tendency to treat the earth as disposable. “Apres moi le deluge”.

    I remember a convocation I attended at my Alma Mater, Union Theological Seminary, at which Matthew Fox spoke (he and his creation theology was the theology du jour at that time). I was enamored of him…really taken with his ideas. And he spoke, followed by a traditional “sin and redemption” theologian. And his response was petulant. “Didn’t you hear what I said?” was basically his response. And I’ll never forget my friend, my progressive, cool, with-it classmate, who was practically shouting: “What about sin!? What about Sin!?”

    That made such an impression on me. Because I have come to believe that she is RIGHT. Our ideas can be such effective tools toward constructing an elaborate idol of self delusion. Heidegger? He was a Nazi. Bad theology (and philosophy) kills indeed (even when it seems to be good, fascinating, and true).

    I wonder how others feel about all this – if one is coming from the point of view that the post-modern notion that all can be deconstructed, that there’s no Archimedian point from which one can ground any truth – what does one think of this? What does it do to one’s view of the universe if one DOES believe there is such an “Archimedian point”, which is Christ, and a proper understanding of that is so important toward knowing the real meaning of this universe? Is it possible that such a perspective – to believe that there is indeed Truth with a capital “T” – is highly respectful of those other traditions – Islam, Judaism, Hinduism – seeking along side us to align themselves to that ultimate meaning?

    Ah – and to shift gears…what of the stuff that comes before this? I find it so interesting that Virgil is stumped here. In the face of anger, irrational and volatile, Reason seems to have no force. It can’t get past the barrier that allows one to experience the REAL irrationality in the nether regions of hell. Virgil hints in line 31 that the only way to get through this gate is to get sucked into anger – “we cannot enter now except with wrath”. They know that to do so is beyond their power. It would be to look at the Medusa, to become frozen in a state of anger; it would be to sacrifice their reason to the irrational passion of anger, to become frozen in it.

    I guess I’ve known such people; folk who’ve “seen the Medusa,” and can’t come alive unless they plug themselves in with some high voltage ressentiment. Their mind is frozen by their anger. Think Captain Ahab chasing the White Whale. It’s only by grace – the angel who with one little WAND opens the gate that is barring their entry into the city of Dis. And Grace itself is confounded by the tragedy it confronts in hell: an essential element of which is the dissatisfaction of those shades who kick against the goad of their just (and desired) contrapasso.



  • Bob Sinner

    I feel unworthy to join this august community [who are able to tackle a canto per day!), in discussion, but find myself compelled to address the issue of heresy as raised in Canto IX and discussed so thoughtfully by both Dr Mikoski and Rev Vamos. A bit tardy, but here are my thoughts on Dante, heretics, heresy and relevance to the present day. Bob Sinner, Member of PCOL Congregation
    A Message For All Times (of, and in, this world):

    With many thanks to Dr Mikoski and Rev Vamos for their insights into the chapter

    I am going to take a more literal approach to The Inferno than most folk probably do these days. As a trained historian, rather than a theologian or philosopher, I have approached this Canto (and the entire work, in fact) from a historical perspective. It would seem to me that the most ‘dangerous person(s)’ to any system of belief (be it religious, ideological, political) is always the ‘True Believer’ who has turned ‘heretical’. The ‘insider,’ the 5th columnist’, as it were, presents many more perils than any other enemy. The fact that Dante wrote in a time when heresy was virtually rampant in Europe, provides a backdrop for the placement of heretics so far down into hell, at the city of Dis itself.

    Most historians consider the Fourth Lateran Council as a major “watershed in the religious life of the middle ages.” In 1215, Pope Innocent III painted “an alarming picture of a Church dissolving in a sea of heresy.” He did do successfully because of the terrifying successes of the popular heretical and evangelical movements known as the Waldensians and Albigensians. Heresy seemed rampant, and the response was one without mercy. Dante was writing in the midst of this war of beliefs, as well as during the ceaseless papal/imperial wars and the fratricidal factional wars in Italy. It is not surprising that Dante, a child of his age and a participant in their political and religious struggles, would see heresy as a great danger, one more perilous than that of the recently rediscovered pagan humanities.

    It seems important to me, at this point, to do some further investigation of the meaning of the concept and word ‘heresy.’ Heresy (from the Latin, secte) means and meant “treason to God,” the worst possible offense against any Christian society. Heresy meant contamination – it was an infection, from which “true believers” had to protect themselves. As found in the Columbia Encyclopedia, “Heresy, in religion, especially in Christianity” consists of the “beliefs or views held by a member of a church that contradict its orthodoxy, or core doctrines. It is distinguished from apostasy, which is a complete abandonment of faith that makes the apostate a deserter … Heresy is also distinguished from schism, which is a splitting of or from the church brought about by disputes over hierarchy or discipline, rather than over matters of doctrine. The heretic considers himself or herself not only a church member but, in a doctrinal controversy, the true believer.”

    Saint Thomas Aquinas, defined heresy as “the denial of faith as defined by the Church,” and a 12th century theologian wrote “he is a heretic who, while keeping the outward appearance of Christian religion, devises or follows false opinions for a desire for human approval, earthly reward, or worldly pleasures.“

    It is very interesting, indeed, to learn that the term heresy itself comes from the Greek word for “a choosing.” Concerning the dangers of heresies, Milton wrote: “A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.” (Areopagitica, 1644).

    The dangers therefore go beyond simple (simple?) “True Belief” to the fact that people must make informed, personal choices, and then live (and die) with the consequences. Somewhat more recently (19th century) Charles Williams noted, “It is necessary to remember what Dante meant by heresy. He meant an obduracy of the mind; a spiritual state which defied, consciously, ‘any power to which trust and obedience are due’; an intellectual obstinacy. A heretic, strictly, was a man who knew what he was doing; he accepted the Church, but at the same time he preferred his own judgment to that of the Church.” (Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, p125)

    But the issue is not just one of historical interest. I agree with Dr. Mikoski that the dangers of heresy are very much alive and with us today. In fact, I would assume in this less than perfect world of ours, they have always been with us (and… ??).

    In his analysis of the canto, Dr. Mikoski wrote:
    “I would argue that corrupt or erroneous beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, … matter existentially and spiritually. Wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage. Puts most starkly: bad theology can kill … Like an expert doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death.“

    Thus, Dante both presents us with a problem of his times, when heresies were taken very, very seriously, but also presents us with a universal warning for all ages. Avoid conceit and false prophets.
    Yet, one must choose. To make no choice, is to make a choice.
    All the while knowing, it is God’s Grace, not our action that makes the difference.

    Respectfully, Bob Sinner

    • jeffvamos


      I love the insight that you bring – and please note that ALL are welcome! And your sage historical perspective is most helpful.

      I find particularly useful the insight that heresy was indeed a very different beast in Dante’s time than for ours. The statement “bad theology kills” might be debated in our own time; but it could not be in Dante’s. But the troubling aspect about it (as you point out) has to do with the danger of “true believers” often doing the killing.

      Perhaps a question for us might be: it was clear what was “at stake” (and I choose the word carefully) for Dante. In our pursuit of truth, what’s at stake for us? And what does it matter?

      LOVE that you are joining us, Bob! Please keep adding your insights!

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