In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton describes heresies as virtues gone wild and then attempts to connect a few dots to historical examples.

When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.

Was this an original idea he had. Most people think of heresies as something incorrect or lacking, but adopting GKC's mindset that the heretical thing isn't what's lacking, it's everything else that is lacking seems to me both a good way to dialogue and a good way to understand orthodoxy in light of classical heresies.

Is this simply one of many of his original musings or does the idea have roots in Christian thought?

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    Good question. I know that C.S. Lewis also has this idea when talking about love, although about heresy in another sense: how the 3 natural loves (family/*storge*, "common interest"/*philia*, and romantic/*eros*) can go bad when agape doesn't purify them. Example: philia as friendship can turn into exclusive club, or philia as patriotism can turn into chauvinism (like Nazi), eros can turn into suicide (Romeo & Juliet). Chesterton had the knack for creating new lens to view things in a fresh way; maybe the inspiration just came to him as he saw pattern in studying church history. Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 19:32
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    I think this is old stuff. Jesus told his disciples to do what the Pharisees say (because they sit in Moses' seat) but don't do what they do. I reaches into the heart of human (sinful) nature. Good question. Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 0:43
  • I suppose the Jewish sects considered (and still consider) each other heretics because they emphasize the one thing (Sacrifice in the Temple/Sacrifice outside the Temple, Resurrection/ no resurrection, Zionism, etc...)
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 15:01

2 Answers 2


The oldest and most persistent heresies are all an extreme focus on something true. Trinitarian heresies (examples: modalism, tritheism) are usually hyper-focused on the oneness of God, or otherwise on the distinctness between the three persons. Christological heresies (examples: arianism docetism) are either hyper-focused on the divinity or hyper-focused on the humanity of Christ. The idea that these are just virtues run wild, or otherwise true beliefs run wild, seems more like something that's just plainly true to those familiar with the history of heresies.

To the particular example in the question, we in the West, post-reformation, are hyper-focused on the poor and the victimized, to the point of echoing Judas' sentiments in John 12:5, as one example. For another, older protestants often took moral virtues (rather than intellectual virtues regarding the nature of God and Christ) to an extreme, making them indeed no longer virtues. For instance, the American Puritans emphasized detachment from worldly pleasure to an unhealthy degree. Some modern day Baptist sects still take this virtue to an extreme with their prohibition against alcohol consumption.

There were/are intellectual virtues taken to an extreme by Protestants, as well. For instance, the doctrine of Sola Fide is a recognition that we cannot be saved except by Christ's sacrifice run wild. It goes so far as to dismiss any works we might do as being not efficacious. It goes further than merely recognizing that we are only saved by Christ, but that true belief, that we cannot save ourselves, is the root of the heresy.


Chesterton also wrote this in his book on St Francis of Assisi:

Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church. If the Franciscan movement had turned into a new religion, it would after all have been a narrow religion. In so far as it did turn here and there into a heresy, it was a narrow heresy. It did what heresy always does; it set the mood against the mind. The mood was indeed originally the good and glorious mood of the great St. Francis, but it was not the whole mind of God or even of man. And it is a fact that the mood itself degenerated, as the mood turned into a monomania. A sect that came to be called the Fraticelli declared themselves the true sons {180}of St. Francis and broke away from the compromises of Rome in favour of what they would have called the complete programme of Assisi. In a very little while these loose Franciscans began to look as ferocious as Flagellants. They launched new and violent vetoes; they denounced marriage; that is, they denounced mankind. In the name of the most human of saints they declared war upon humanity. They did not perish particularly through being persecuted; many of them were eventually persuaded; and the unpersuadable rump of them that remained remained without producing anything in the least calculated to remind anybody of the real St. Francis. What was the matter with these people was that they were mystics; mystics and nothing else but mystics; mystics and not Catholics; mystics and not Christians; mystics and not men. They rotted away because, in the most exact sense, they would not listen to reason. And St. Francis, however wild and romantic his gyrations might appear to many, always hung on to reason by one invisible and indestructible hair.

  • @ Gilbert Heinrich - Thank you for your response. However on C.SE it is best to give a summary in your own words first explaining your answer. Just listing a passage from a book is frowned upon---even though it does provide an adequate answer! Keep studying the Bible; it will bring you closer to Jesus!
    – ray grant
    Commented Mar 21 at 21:22
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