Leo Tolstoy on What it Means to be a Heretic

In Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus of philosophy and religious thought, The Kingdom of God is Within You, there is a

Tolstoy picture
Tolstoy in May, 1908, four months before his 80th birthday.

section where Tolstoy discusses what it means to be a heretic.

An understanding or, at least, a varying perspective of heresy is of value to the intellectual because it speaks not only to the church but also to life in general. In other words, it provides a conceptual foundation for analyzing the current conception of the world and its relation to dissenters of today’s popular opinions. If anything, it might give you the power to recognize the importance of voicing your beliefs in a world which at times can encourage “going along to get along.”

Tolstoy on the church

In order to understand what Tolstoy means by the heretic, it’s important to first understand what he means when discussing the church. The main of his argument is that there is no one “church” and that all confessions to singular truth arise out of dissension.

He writes:

“…men who belong to one or the other of the existing churches generally use the word “church” in the singular, as though there has been but one church. But this is quite untrue. The church, as an institution which asserts of itself that it is in possession of the unquestionable truth, appeared only when it was not alone, but there were at least two of them.”

Further stating:

“Only when the believers divided into opposite parties, which denied one another, did there appear the necessity for each side to assert its authenticity, ascribing infallibility to itself. The concept of the one church arose only from this, that, when two sides disagreed and quarrelled, each of them, calling the other a heresy, recognized only its own as the infallible church.”

Tolstoy's Kingdom of God-First Editon
The first edition of The Kingdom of God is Within You

For instance, he postulates figuratively that “if we know that there was a church, which in the year 51 decided to receive the uncircumcised, this church made its appearance only because there was another church, that of the Judaizing, which had decided not to receive the uncircumcised.”

He then exemplifies his argument historically by citing the various catechisms of the actual churches themselves.

The catechisms run as followed:

  • The Catholic catechism: “Who are those who are outside of the church? Infidels, heretics, schismatics.
  • The Orthodox catechism: “By the one church of Christ is meant nothing but the Orthodox, which remains in complete agreement with the œcumenical church. But as to the Roman Church and the other confessions they cannot be referred to the one, true church, since they have themselves separated from it.”
  • Lutheran catechism: “The true Church will be known by the Word of God being studied clear and unmixed with man’s additions and by the sacraments being maintained faithfully to Christ’s teaching.”

Tolstoy adds, according to the Lutheran catechism, if anyone has added anything to the teachings of Christ and the apostles like the Catholics and the Greek Churches then they are outside the church, and that the only ones in the church are the Protestants.

With regard to the Holy Ghost, he believes that since the Catholics can say that it left the Arian and Greek Churches upon their division then so can the Protestants of every denomination “with the same right assert that during the separation of their church from the Catholic the Holy Ghost left the Catholic Church and passed over to the one which they recognize. And so they do.”

“Every twig on the tree goes uninterruptedly back to the root; but the fact that every twig comes from the same root does in no way prove that there is but one twig. The same is true of the churches. Every church offers precisely the same proofs of its succession and even of the miracles in favor of its own authenticity; thus there is but one strict and precise definition of what the church is (not as something fantastic, which we should like it to be, but as something which in reality exists), and this is: the church is an assembly of men, who assert that they, and they only, are in the full possession of the truth.”

And so there we have it. Tolstoy’s definitive argument of what a church is stated in the last line of that quotation. So what of heresy?

On the heretic

Tolstoy begins by writing that even if you read all the theological works which treat about heresies, you won’t find anything resembling a definition.

To account for this, he uses the work of historian Edmond de Pressensé whose book, Histoire du Dogme, he sums as followed:

“…every opinion which is not in agreement with a code of dogmas professed by us at a given time is a heresy; but at a given time and in a given place people profess something, and this profession of something in some place cannot be a criterion of the truth.”

Using this summation, Tolstoy gives a very similar definition of heresy that states:

The only definition of heresy is the name given by an assembly of men to every judgment which rejects part of the teaching, as professed by the assembly. A more particular meaning, which more frequently than any other is ascribed to heresy, is that of an opinion which rejects the church doctrine, as established and supported by the worldly power.

Conclusion

As we have seen, Tolstoy comes to define the church as “an assembly of men asserting that they are in possession of the indisputable truth [while] heresy is the opinion of people who do not recognize the indisputableness of the church truth.”

He believes and concludes that it is “a manifestation of motion in the church, an attempt at destroying the ossified assertion of the church, an attempt at a living comprehension of the teaching. Every step of moving forward, of comprehending and fulfilling the teaching has been accomplished by the heretics: such heretics were Tertullian, and Origen, and Augustine, and Luther, and Huss, and Savonarola, and Chelcický and others. Nor could it be otherwise.”

Finally, he ends on the strong note that:

“No matter at what stage of comprehension and perfection a disciple of Christ may be, he always feels the insufficiency of his comprehension and of his fulfilment, and always strives after a greater comprehension and fulfilment. And so the assertion about myself or about an assembly, that I, or we, possess the complete comprehension of Christ’s teaching, and completely fulfil it, is a renunciation of the spirit of Christ’s teaching.”