I write considering a definition of heresy, given by Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (fl. 1235), who's words are widely cited in regards to the history of the inquisition:

An opinion created by human reason. founded on the Scriptures, contrary to the teachings of Christ, publicly avowed and obstinately held.

You will find this definition often cited in both scholarly and popular works on the history of the Inquisition (which, incidentally, Grossetesse wasn't part of.)

It is an accurate definition, too.

However, almost every source that I find using that English cites either nothing, other English works, or Paris's Chronica maiora (ca. 1250), in particularly, the authoritative version of Henry Luard of 1872. All well and good. The context there is only moderately illuminating, but rather alarmingly it has Grosseteste saying something rather different, and more than a little significantly so--

Heresias est sententia humano sensu electa, Scriptura Sacrae contraria, palam edocta, pertinaciter defensa.

(This is the primary source. Roughly, "heresy is an idea arrived at by human reason [that is] contrary to Sacred Scripture, taught openly and obstinately defended." Similar in form but quite different, although not exactly contradictory, in meaning.)

I suspect that the English sources are circularly quoting one another, rather than bothering to read their Latin; why bother, I'd imagine? I probably wouldn't have if not for my current specific interest in this specific quote. But the quote is quite everywhere, particularly in sources dealing the early Inquisition. And the distinction is very much one with a difference.

A sententia...Scritupra Sacrae contrariae versus ex/derivate a/etc. Scriptura Sacrae are clearly two different things. Most significantly, the latter allows for the fact that non-Christians are not heretics, and that heresy is only a misinterpretation of Christianity, but the former would subsume all non-Christian thought into the idea of "heresy" (which is not what is generally meant or has historically meant to be the case.)

The English translation I can't source seems to provide a better definition than the Latin original than I can, cf. Matthew Paris --- but what's going on here? Is there a different quote from Grossetesse that I have missed? (Feels doubtful.) Has someone editorialized a definition on top of Grossetesse's? Probably a better one, certainly in line with the later definition of Aquinas and the eventual Catechism, see below: Jews and Muslims are not heretics, although some have called Islam a heretical offshoot of Christianity, notably the late-19th c. Reformed scholar Schaff, but he wasn't very familiar with it beyond secondary sources at best. In today's religious landscape, for instance, the Arianistic Jehovah's Witnesses would be heretics, founding their heresy, as they do, on Scripture; the Mormons are arguably not because they are an entirely different religion with their own texts and teachings even if given a Christian gloss.

Context: Grossetesse was too early and too English to be involved with the Holy Office, but he was a highly influential churchman and perhaps one of the smartest men in England in the time. One of his priorities was church reform, and one of his ideas was to establish a (small-'i') "inquisition" into the Church in England, as far as clergy education, abuses, heresies, etc.

Any thoughts would be most welcome.

  • Wouldn't this fit better on the Christianity site?
    – jamesqf
    Jun 4, 2019 at 4:08
  • 1
    Can you translate the latin sentence? Also the half sentence "founded on scriptures" in the first statement could be relevant as it excludes no-christians (among others).
    – mart
    Jun 4, 2019 at 7:53
  • 1
    What is the question? I'm not sure whether this is a history question or a question about canon law, or something else.
    – MCW
    Jun 4, 2019 at 10:42
  • I don't see any problem with the English translation of the Latin you've provided.
    – Geremia
    Jun 4, 2019 at 15:47
  • 1
    I suggest this be migrated to Christianity.SE Jun 5, 2019 at 1:41

2 Answers 2


I do not have a answer about your quote, just an issue about the definition which may help or not.

What I find strange in your quote is that it is not clear that the heretic must have been catholic before, or at least believe generally in Christ. Jews also may have beliefs or opinions based on or derived from Scripture, but they can not be heretics.

St Thomas' Summa has its own definition (from the same century), besides a more detailed explanation than your small quote.

Therefore heresy is a species of unbelief, belonging to those who profess the Christian faith, but corrupt its dogmas.


The modern definition also looks similar (from CCC). note the word post-baptismal

2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. "Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."11

Also, both St Thomas and the modern CCC make clearer that the error must be about important matters of faith. The expressions "dogmas" or the modern formula "truths that must be believed with..." look more precise than just generically stating "the teachings of Christ"

In short, I have 2 reasons to prefer St. Thomas' definition.

It is possible that your quote has an immediate context where its meaning is made clearer, just as it is with St Thomas?

And, are you sure your quoted definition was really important at its time? I would guess St Thomas was more relevant.

  • 2
    Yes, only the baptized can be heretics.
    – Geremia
    Jun 4, 2019 at 3:29
  • Thanks; your response is precisely on point; my interest is in the failings of Grossetesse's definition in relation to Thomas's (correct) definition. Grossetesse antedates Aquianas, though. Question is, how faulty-but-theologically-correct English translation ("based on sacred scripture,etc.") is found in many works mostly relating to the Inquisition. Gtesse wasn't involved in the Holy Office (too early and too English) but tried to introduce formal "inquisitions" (small 'i') to England; hence the connection, I guess, and that's the context of my interest in him particularly. Thxagain! Jun 4, 2019 at 16:40
  • (And the immediate context of the quote, all that I can find is the Chronica, and there is nothing very illuminating there.) Jun 4, 2019 at 16:56
  • Well, if someone uses a broader, less accurate definition, decades/centuries after the fact, the obvious guesses are: a) a dishonest inquisitor/lawyer wants to unlawfully condemn a personal enemy; or b) someone wants to smear the inquisition making it look darker. On England, if there were no large, dangerous, anti-social, anti-political order, organized heresies in england (cathars, valdensians) then really there were no reason for local bishops to seek to yield their judicial power to an Inquisition w/ "I". Local inquisitions w/ "i" must suffice. sorry, I don't know more about your context.
    – Luiz
    Jun 4, 2019 at 17:07

There was no one proper or good or better definition of heresy at the time, except perhaps by raising that a heresy in those days means whatever the Catholic Church or its representative on the ground deemed inadequate, with the added twists that the Pope's primacy over the Catholic Church wasn't recognized until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and in some cases a King might step in to get the finger pointed at some inconvenient group. Take for instance the Knight Templars, who got accused of heresy so the King of France could pocket their wealth. (They cleared their name recently.)

To put Grossetesse's thoughts in more context, Wikipedia has a helpful -- and very long -- list of heresies according to the Catholic Church that gives a flavor of the kind of intense theological debates that went on in the Medieval era (and later). The theological debates at the time were many and raging, and it was not unheard of to have rulers that ended up considered heretics. The Lombards, for instance, supported the Arianism heresy. Also, and in addition to the more famous crusades against the Saracens, there had been plenty of crusades against Christians -- including some in the 13th century. Sometimes heresies were purely theological in nature, but there also are examples (such as the Templars mentioned further up) where it was purely realpolitik at play.

Another point to keep in mind is that the Catholic Church at the time did not in any way resemble what it looks like today. The Papal State was a powerful country. More so even by virtue of having branches in other countries. Its thin veil of religiosity gave it a lot of clout. But don't make the mistake of thinking it was the haven of morality that it tries to pass off as today. (It miserably fails to be, I should add, in the event anyone forgot that a notorious micromanager was in charge of problems such as pedophile priests before he took the helm). One of the worst ever popes might have been John XII. He reigned in the mid 10th century, and basically turned St Peters into a brothel for European Elites. He also reportedly raped hundreds of nuns and pilgrims, and, in an effort to remain in power when he shocked Otto I, he ended up threatening to excommunicate anyone who attempted to depose him.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.