“It is argued according to the insanity of certain people, that corporeal things were caused by an evil god, […] and that is the worst heresy” (In IV Sent., D.26, q.1, a.3.).
Looking back at the original text, I probably would have translated the last words as “a most awful heresy”, taking the superlative adjective as a rhetorical excess. And so I was struck by how the translator/commentator in this passage does not qualify the phrase but, in connection with the main topic, affirms that “[Saint Thomas] reserves his strongest condemnation for those who denigrate the material aspects of marital intimacy” (Mortensen 42). I recently skimmed Thomas’ work, in search of a condemnation with the same severity, and found it in connection with the same heresy, though under his consideration of idolatry:
“Even as to the genus of the sin, the Manichean heresy is more grievous than the sin of other idolaters, because it is more derogatory to the divine honor, since they set up two gods in opposition to one another, and hold many vain and fabulous fancies about God. It is different with other heretics, who confess their belief in one God and worship Him alone” (II-II, q. 94, a. 3, ad. 4).
So Saint Thomas affirms that to believe that an evil god is the author of creation is not only the worst of heresies, but is even worse than the sin of idolatry, the more obvious sin against the first commandment.
The more I thought about this particular heresy, the more clearly it appeared to me as something pernicious, especially in light of the complete thought of Saint Thomas. In the thought of St. Thomas, all knowledge begins from our senses. Anything which is eventually in the intellect, came initially from our eyes, ears, touch, etc. Even with matters of faith, (except by a very supernatural mode of knowing) it is necessary that we receive our beginning through the senses. “How shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). And yet the senses, themselves created, do not function apart from the corporeal organs. And these sensory organs in turn, such as the ears, do not perceive except by what is material, such as words carried through the air.
This may seems obvious or uninteresting, but if the Manichees are correct, then we cannot trust anything we sense. Would the wicked god truly allow salvation to be preached by means of his wicked products? Even further, wickedness opposing itself to truth, would the wicked god ever allow his corrupt fruits to be channels of any truth whatsoever? If the Manichees are right, then creatures are utterly useless for attaining any good whatsoever, and they admit of no repair.
From the denial of this single truth, that a good God is the origin of all creation whether material or spiritual, one is required to deny nearly every article of the faith, as these points concern the relation of creatures to God: the Incarnation, the resurrection of the body, the sacraments as salvific, the holiness of marriage, the use of sacred images or relics, and so on. Unlike so many other heresies, which deny only part of the truth, this heresy removes the (almost literal) common ground, by denying a truth about the entire world we live in. For these reasons, I think Thomas is most just in his declaration that it is the worst heresy of all which attributes creation to a wicked god, offering the greatest offense to both God and every single one of his creatures.
At the same time that I was considering the theoretical meanings of this assertion, I was reading and remembering things that further make sense of Saint Thomas’ denunciation of Manichaeism as the worst heresy. Saint Thomas was a Dominican friar, that is member of the Order of Preachers, which was founded only a decade before he was born. The Order received its origin when St. Dominic, a canon in Spain, accompanied his bishop on a trip through Europe. On the way, St. Dominic was astounded to find heretical beliefs rampant in the South of France. One of the reasons so many people adhered to these heresies was that the Catholic clergy were living dissolute and sinful lives, entirely neglecting the Gospel, whereas the leaders of the heretics (known variously as Cathars, Albigensians, or Manichees) lived in a manner that appeared to be chaste, rigorous, and closer to evangelical poverty. They did this because of their doctrines, similar to the ones above, that creatures are made by an evil god, marriage is sinful, and so is all pleasure.
In response to this situation, St. Dominic saw the need for true and evangelical preaching, but also that this would not be enough. Those who were to preach the Gospel credibly needed to be exemplars of that same Gospel, living out the precepts with which Christ sent out his disciples, “Take nothing for the journey, neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics” (Lk. 9:3). And so, in the year 1216, Saint Dominic established the Order of Preachers. Saint Thomas Aquinas was drawn to this order from his youth, desiring to know the truth about God above all things, and to live a life consonant with this truth. Thomas entered the Order in 1244.
It was as a member of this Order of Preachers that Saint Thomas Aquinas did all of his theological work, and he would have had a special attention to areas concerning the heresies present in his day. That the Manichee heresy was often on his mind was confirmed when I remembered the details of an anecdote I read many years ago. Saint Thomas was at table in the court of King St. Louis IX, where everything was going on as usual…
And then suddenly the goblets leapt and rattled on the board and the great table shook, for the friar had brought down his huge fist like a club of stone, with a crash that startled everyone like an explosion; and had cried out in a strong voice, but like a man in the grip of a dream, ‘And that will settle the Manichees!’
The palace of a king, even when it is the palace of a saint, has it conventions. A shock thrilled through the court, and every one felt as if the fat friar from Italy had thrown a plate at King Louis, or knocked his crown sideways. They all looked timidly at the terrible seat, that was for a thousand years the throne of the Capets: and many there were presumably prepared to pitch the big black-robed beggarman out of the window. But St. Louis, simple as he seemed, was no mere medieval fountain of honour or even fountain of mercy but also the fountain of two eternal rivers: the irony and the courtesy of France. And he turned to his secretaries, asking them in a low voice to take their tablets round to the seat of the absent-minded controversialist, and take a note of the argument that had just occurred to him; because it must be a very good one and he might forget it. (Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas)
The “worst heresy” itself is at the center of this anecdote which I read nearly 10 years ago! And if I look at the title of this chapter in Chesterton’s excellent book, it is called, “A Meditation on the Manichees”. Although I was surprised to find this one single heresy singled out as the worst, apparently it was not the first time I had heard it.
Today, on this day in which the Dominicans celebrate all the saints of their Order (Nov 7), say prayer in thanksgiving to God for all the good things of his creation, and for Saint Thomas and Saint Dominic, and for all those Dominicans who dedicated their lives to the truth of God our Creator!
Aquinas, T., Summa theologiae.
Aquinas, T., In libris Sententiarum.
Chesterton, G.K., Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.
Goergen, D.J., St. Dominic: The Story of a Preaching Friar, New York 2016.
Jones, A.W., Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, Steubenville, Ohio 2017.
Mortensen, B., The Relation of the Juridical and Sacramental in Matrimony according to Thomas Aquinas, Freiburg 2012.
Tugwell, S., Early Dominicans, New York 1982.