Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.


Naming the "Other": The Discourse of Orthodoxy in Late-Fourth-Century Spain

A third and final factor may be figured into the interpretation of the Priscillianist controversy, and that is how the categories of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" controlled the expression and resolution of the social and cosmological conflicts at the heart of the controversy. Brief mention has been made of the function of sorcery accusations in the fourth century, a case that suggests by analogy that heresy charges, like labels of deviance more generally, would have functioned in Christian antiquity as a means of clarifying doctrines, practices, or social relationships in periods of transitional ambiguity. But more needs to be said about the precise constellation of beliefs and social practices that clustered around the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, defining the content and function of this peculiarly Christian articulation of normativeness and deviance.

The conceptual foundations of the categories of orthodoxy and heresy were laid during the second-century gnostic controversy in the polemical writings of Justin and Irenaeus.[50] Several aspects of the creative and enduring contribution of these first self-consciously orthodox Christian thinkers are here noteworthy. Of primary importance is Justin's doctrinalization of religious controversy through his borrowing of the classic concept of philosophical "succession" from the tradition of hellenistic historiography, also utilized within early rabbinic Judaism. Justin likewise contributed to the demonization of religious dissent: placing the teachers of divergent "heresies" or "schools of thought" within a mythical framework drawn from apocalyptic Judaism, he associated them with the false prophets, who in turn embodied the archetypal apostasy of Satan and the fallen angels.[51] Irenaeus refined Justin's scheme by drawing tighter parallels and contrasts between the single, unchanging, divine succession of truth and the multiple, shifting, demonic successions of error. He also nuanced the portrait of the heretic, who was no longer viewed simply as alien but now acknowledged explicitly as an internal or intimate enemy who either betrayed or dissimulated a shared faith.[52] This Irenaean refinement of the concept of heresy helps explain the ease with which the label


of heresy could be applied to control or expel even influential "insiders" like Priscillian: the claim to have uncovered secret doctrinal deviance hidden behind false appearances of conformity was practically irrefutable.

The fourth-century Arian controversy, which coincided with the advent of the imperial patronage of Christianity, did not fundamentally alter these foundations but did place the inherited concepts of orthodoxy and heresy in a context that intensified both the oppositional dynamic of the polarity and its significance for Christian identity. The alliance of Christianity with empire resulted in an innovative technology of orthodoxy, as emperors not only facilitated the convening of councils but also used their secular authority to influence and enforce the disciplinary decisions and credal formulations of those councils. It appeared for the first time possible to achieve unity and even uniformity within the church, but in reality those goals remained more elusive than ever, for the high stakes of imperial rewards and punishments intensified rivalry and bitterness: theologically articulated enmities proliferated alongside new alliances. Meanwhile, the churches became increasingly concerned with the issue of Christian self-identity, as they confronted the rapid and sometimes very incomplete conversion of former pagans, as well as inherited internal differences, which were made more visible and problematic by the new political process. This concern with Christian self-identity heightened interest in defining a single catholic orthodoxy and, correspondingly, heresy was problematized through the multiplication and elaboration of heresiological categories, which functioned as negative boundary markers for orthodoxy. Finally, the polarity of orthodoxy and heresy received a gender "charge" in the face of both the new politicization (and consequent masculinization) of the church's self-image and the need to combat the disturbing emergence of alienated movements that undermined the traditional hierarchy of genders and were therefore perceived as not only rebellious but also effeminate.[53]

Spain had a distinctive role to play in the fourth-century struggle to define a monolithic orthodoxy, and indeed it seems possible to speak of an identifiably Spanish ethos of orthodoxy emerging in the period prior to the outbreak of the Priscillianist controversy. In most of the west, the theological issues at stake in the Arian controversy were crudely grasped, at best; nevertheless, an instinctive preference for the more unitive theology of the Nicene party, combined with adamant support for the controversial Alexandrian bishop Athanasius, led to the formation of an intensely loyal pro-Nicene faction. Loyalty evolved into near fanaticism in the context of the emperor Constantius' attempt to force the westerners to repudiate the


troublesome Athanasius and accept credal compromise at the councils of Arles (353) and Milan (355).[54] The most extreme wing of the western pro-Nicene party was led by the Sardinian bishop Lucifer of Calaris, one of several westerners exiled for his refusal to cooperate with Constantius' efforts to enforce ecclesial unity. After Lucifer's death circa 370, the Spaniard Gregory of Elvira was considered the preeminent representative of the "Luciferian" faction,[55] whose purist adherents complained that "the church had become a brothel."[56] But Gregory was not the first Spanish advocate of an intensely pro-Nicene orthodoxy. When in 357 Ossius, the aged bishop of Cordoba, finally capitulated to imperial pressure and signed the so-called "Arian" Second Creed of Sirmium, not only he but also all who continued to communicate with him were excommunicated by more rigorist fellow bishops in Spain.[57] A letter sent to the emperor Theodosius by two Luciferian presbyters reports several instances of divine miracles punishing lenient or Arianizing bishops in Spain. Florentius of Merida was said to have been hurled down and seized with fits of trembling when he twice attempted to seat himself on his episcopal throne; the third time, he was struck dead. The letter notes somewhat menacingly that Florentius suffered this fate, not because he subscribed to any impiety, but merely since he had knowingly communicated with those who did.[58]

The convergence of zeal for orthodoxy with anti-imperial sentiments influenced Spanish Christian culture long after the death of Constantius and the accession first of more religiously neutral and finally of actively pro-Nicene emperors. Indeed, the idealized role of the "martyr for orthodoxy" seems to have shaped the self-understanding even of the Spanish emperors Magnus Maximus (383–88), under whom Priscillian was executed, and Theodosius (379–95), generally regarded as the architect of imperial orthodoxy.[59] Here the tradition of orthodox witness was aligned with the most public of figures, but its impact on more private expressions of Christianity is evidenced, not only in the works of Priscillian himself,[60] but also in the self-consciously orthodox writings of the late-fourth-century Spanish poet Prudentius, who composed a series of hymns in praise of martyrs, which have recently been identified as "devotional reading-matter for a cultured audience outside a church context."[61] Thus, in fourth-century Spain, the discourse of orthodoxy within which the conflicts over community and cosmology in the Priscillianist controversy were articulated was highly charged indeed. In this context, it is not altogether surprising that the tension in the portrayal of the heretic as an intimate enemy was eventually resolved in favor of a more purely alien rep-


resentation of deviance, as the labeling strategies used against Priscillian shifted their focus from heresy to Manichaeism and finally to sorcery.


Preferred Citation: Burrus, Virginia. The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy. Berkeley:  University of California,  c1995 1995.