"The Great Heresies" – Review
Hilaire Belloc –historian, poet, and apologist extraordinaire—died as one of the twentieth century’s premier writers. With his encyclopedic knowledge of European history, Belloc emerged as an expert in Christian antiquity. In “The Great Heresies” (TAN books, paperback, 151 pages), his greatest book, according to many—Belloc focuses his wisdom on the five greatest threats to the Christian Faith over the past two thousand years.
Belloc’s book begins by defining a heresy as a single distortion of a complete scheme; a heresy always involves the twisting of one legitimate doctrine while maintaining all the rest. Before diving into the individual heresies, he begins with an exploration of heresy’s general operation and effects. This introduction sets the stage for a wild romp through heretical history.
The first great heresy Belloc discusses is “Arianism”, which was a rejection of Jesus’ divinity. Belloc explores the social and political factors that launched Arianism’s popularity before introducing St. Athanasius as its ultimate conqueror. This initial controversy paved the way for all future disputes.
Belloc then moves to the “heresy of Mohammed”, what we today know as “Islam”. This chapter features one of the most interesting parts of the book, where Belloc shows Islam to be, in fact, a Christian heresy–not a unique, competing religion. The teachings of Mohammed were not originally a “new faith”, but a distortion of orthodox Christianity. Like “Arianism”, “the heresy of Mohammed” spread not through reason, but primarily through military force, political greed, and social upheaval.
Belloc introduces the “Albigensian” heresy next, which was partly a reaction to the earlier “Arian” heresy. Albigensianism was a rejection of the material—of Jesus’ humanity, of our bodies, and ultimately of the sacraments. In its dualistic worldview, the “Albigensian” heresy considered these “non-spiritual” elements to be evil. Belloc points to modern Puritanism as the older brother of Albigensianism.
After the “Albigensianism”, Belloc notes a shift in the nature of heresy. While the first three great heresies tried to supplant or rival the Catholic Church, the next great heresy, “Protestantism”, sought to completely dissolve the historical Catholic Church. Belloc spends the most pages on “Protestantism”, probing its many causes and characters. While Belloc writes prophetically in the rest of the book, the end of this chapter displays his one clear error. Belloc proposes that Protestantism will die within a small handful of years, a prediction that has not yet been fulfilled.
The last chapter covers what Belloc calls the “Modern Attack”, what we might call “modernism”. He sees this as the last of the great heresies as, according to Belloc, all future heresies will be some mix of these earlier five. The “Modern Attack”—or “Anti-Christ Attack” as Belloc sometimes describes it, is different than the others because it seeks not just to destroy the Catholic Church, but Faith in general.
This heresy compiles all anti-Faith philosophies—Communism, materialism, scientism, etc. Ultimately, Belloc sees this “Modern Attack” confronting the Catholic Church in a battle to the death. One of the two philosophies will prevail, and the victory will come sooner than later. This chapter is Belloc’s most prophetic. Writing in 1938, he predicts events occurring decades after his death: the rise and fall of communism, the prominence of atheism, and the rise of hatred for the Church. Yet still, he sees the Church prevailing in the end.
Finishing Belloc’s book yields not just an understanding of the past, but a comprehension of the present. Echoes of the great historical heresies are found in every modern challenge to the Faith. To understand the great attacks on Christianity, or to untangle the “ism”s of Church history, pick up this classic.