Forcellini, E., Lexicon totius latinitatis

What is the importance of heresy[1] and dissent for the sociocultural evolution of Christian semantics? Put in social systems language it could be said that in the course of Christian communications evolution, heresies or non-conformist Christian communications represent variations which allow the recognition of a particular communicative selection, which in time will be expressed as an expectation structure (stabilization) or simply as ecclesiastical orthodoxy[2].

For a Christian Church history the main variation element turns out to be unorthodox theological standpoints or assertions opposed to ecclesiastical sanctioned dogmas[3]. Non-conformist Christian communications function was that of defining a particular and alternative Christian semantics, and allowing for various ecclesiastical patriarchates to consolidate. Here, the guiding distinctions are orthodoxy/ heresy (canonical/ apochriphal when referred to the testamentary tradition, and hegemonic Church/ schismatic Church when viewed from an organizational perspective).

Guiding Distinctions for a Sociological Framework

When Church history is viewed through these guiding distinctions, the protruding theoretical statement is that dogma formation is linked to ecclesiastical organization (consolidation of patriarchates together with its territorial jurisdiction) as well as to their rivalry (in general the question about the primacy of patriarchates). The more creepy and daring the beliefs asserted dogmatically, the greater the need to make religious generalizations, that is, to affirm one’s own theological opinion against the opinions held by other organized churches, in order to establish them as criterion of membership:

These reflections lead to the sociological hypothesis of a connection between the forms and degree of organization of the religion system and the magnitude of the dogmatization of religion, whereby dogmatics can be used in organizations for purposes of distinction, either for recognition of right faith and for the expulsion of heresies, or, finally, in the form of pre-formulated articles and confessions of faith in order to fix the conditions of association in religious organizations (Luhmann 2007b, 207).

Broadly and as examples of this, the first Church schism of the eastern non-Chalcedonian churches (451) —Coptic, Armenian, Syrian and Ethiopian—corresponds to the rivalry between Alexandria and Antioch (and in general all eastern episcopates). The second schism of the Greek Orthodox Church (869/879) corresponds to the rivalry between Byzantium and Rome. Finally, the last schism of the Western Latin Church in 1517 (Protestant Churches), where local Christian traditions (Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Grebel) demanded their independence from Rome. This is why

… the historical evolution [of the Church] seems to be characterized by the progressive diminishing of the councils’ ecumenicity –from universal to Western, from Western to Roman– as well as of their horizon. The priority put in service to the community’s living faith has been gradually changed in favor of a functionality that serves the ecclesiastical institution (Alberigo 1993, 13-14).

Since Constantine the Great, Roman imperial policies and the Christian Church intermixed to the point that the most important councils or synods of the Church began to be convened by the Roman Emperor and, the way round, Church councils' decisions were incorporated into the Roman legislation:

It was clearly within the emperor’s powers to revise the laws and several such revisions were made. But he could also add Novels (Novellae), new laws or constitutions. The Byzantines, living as they did in a theocratic society, found it hard to be sure where things temporal ended and things spiritual began. Thus the laws of their state frequently incorporated legal rulings of the church. Where a necessary qualification for citizenship was Orthodoxy in religious belief, it was natural that the canons of the church councils which had defined that belief should also be the law of the land. Justinian had decreed that “the canons of the first four councils of the church, at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, should have the status of law. For we accept as holy writ the dogmas of those councils and guard their canons as laws” (Nicol 1997, 65).

This opens the way to a Christendom which closely combines Church and State.

An Alternative Historical Narrative for Church History

By the ninth century, the division between Western (Roman patriarchate) and Eastern (Constantinopolitan patriarchate) Christianity became evident. At this time a conflict of jurisdiction over southern Italy and Dalmatia escalated into the filioque controversy, a dogmatic point pertaining to the use of the clause “and the Son” in the creed formula, which led to conflicting relations between both patriarchates.

The Council of Constantinople IV has the peculiarity of having taken place in a twofold version (869 and 879). The Roman version of 869 condemned Photios I, Byzantine patriarch, for eliminating the filioque clause from the creed, and decided on the order of precedence of the patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (Jedin 1960, 47ff). The Byzantine version of 879 reinstated Pothios as legitimate patriarch and rejected the decisions taken by Romans ten years before.

The Catholic Church recognizes the ecumenical character of this council; the Greeks do not. The schism did not consummate thanks to the Saracen incursions in Italy and to the weekness of the Carolingian empire, but progressively became final in the eleventh century with the re-edition of the filioque controversy and later on with the sack of Constantinople by westerners of the fourth crusade in 1204 (Mitre 2000, 35ff). Never again a general council took place in the East:

One can not ignore the most important characteristic of the Constantinopolitan [IV], looked from the series of councils that preceded it: it is the first council considered as ecumenical only by the Western Church and converted in fact as a symbol of division. Although it was not directly connected with the separation of East and West, it was nevertheless a prelude to it because it depicts characteristic symptoms and motives (Perrone 1993, 137).

The breaking points for an alternative periodization of Church history are set in accordance with the guiding distinctions established before. The first period is that of Christian Antiquity (first to fifth centuries AD). On the level of organized Christianity, it points to the hegemony and later displacement of Alexandria as the patriarchate with primacy in the East, and culminates after lengthy dogmatic disputes against Gnostics, Arians, Nestorians and Monophysites[4] with the schism of the eastern Christian churches during the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The second period goes from the sixth to the ninth centuries, until the Council of Constantinople IV (869-879). During this time the disqualification of Monophysitism is confirmed as well as all forms of compromise with eastern non-Chalcedonian churches. Properly speaking, it is the period in which Constantinople consolidates as the “new Rome”, and the immediate one following the massive invasions of “barbarian” peoples to Western Europe and North Africa.

Finally, the third and last period when the Investiture Controversy takes place, from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. This period follows the schism of Photios I, and ends with the schism of the Latin Church, which would give rise to the evangelical Protestant churches.

Quite contrary to an interpretation for the period which emphasizes the cesaropapist tendencies of secular rulers (since Constantine a feature which followed custom and accepted usage), what is really happening is an overwhelming centralization of power in the hands of the Roman patriarch. In this period Roman patriarchs reach their highest powers and also their major flaws: the launching of Crusades, the appropriation of indulgences, the creation of the Pontifical Inquisition, and the excessive protocol and opulence in Eucharist celebration.

Apart from papal councils themselves, the concentration of power on the Roman patriarch may be found in three distinctive elements: the Roman Curia (“no secular administration could come anywhere near it”), the figure of the papal legate, and the emergence of powerful religious orders (Mitterauer 2010, 150-151). The translocal power acquired thus will transform the Roman patriarchate into a proto-colonial power allied to western European powers-to-be:

At the end of the eleventh century, however, the papacy, which for at least two decades had been urging secular rulers to liberate Byzantium from the infidels, finally succeeded in organizing the First Crusade (1096-1099). A second crusade was launched in 1147 and a third crusade in 1189. These first crusades were the foreign wars of the Papal Revolution [Gregorian Reformation]. They not only increased the power and authority of the papacy but also opened a new axis eastward to the outside world and turned the Mediterranean Sea from a natural defensive barrier against invasion from without into a route for western Europe’s own military and commercial expansion (Berman 1983, 100-101).

Martin Luther and Modern Religious Differentiation

Calvin, Leo X and Luther: Allegory of The True Faith Reformation (Allegorie auf dem rechten Glauben, 1650-1700) Swiss National Museum.

Social systems theory refers to religions strictly as communication. In a flat formulation, when the theory refers to religion, the topic is “exclusively religious communication, religious meaning that is updated in communication as the meaning of communication”.[5]But this already involves a specific religious meaning different from other meanings in society:

Originally, religion was secured by society itself. Not in the sense that every action was always religiously qualified. Neither social communication nor the surrounding nature were totally and completely sacralized. But in its foundations, religion and society were not distinguishable from one another… The historical-evolutionary event which we want to analyze under the tag “differentiation process of religion”, ends with this possibility. The process of differentiation involves a renunciation to redundancy. Religion does not assure today either against inflation or against an unwanted change of government, or against the outcome of a passion, or against the scientific refutation of one’s own theories. It can not interfere with other functional systems (Luhmann 2009, 195).[6]

Theoretical Background: Differentiation Theory

The theory of differentiation in sociology has a very long history. It is present not only in Niklas Luhmann, but also in important classical and contemporary sociologists such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Talcott Parsons: “Since its establishment, sociology has been concerned with differentiation” (Luhmann 2007a, 471ff).[7] The concept is used to produce the unity of differences or, if you will, to indicate the unity through plurality or diversity.

Differentiation makes possible to refer to social reality in a more abstract way. Since the nineteenth century unities and differences began to be understood as a result of processes, that is, as evolutionary developments. In sociology, the concept of differentiation allowed to change the theories of progress with structural analyses. To a large extent, social anthropology itself would share this evolutionary and structural idea of human societies.

How have so different authors expressed differentiation through their theories? In Marx, social differentiation is conceived as a theory of social formations, each with different modes of production. Differentiation in Durkheim is understood as division of social labor, characteristic of societies with organic solidarity, opposed to simple societies whose solidarity is mechanical.[8] The idea of the division of labor was imported into sociology from economic science, along with its positive assessment.

Differentiation in Simmel is expressed as a theory of forms of association distinguishable from each other temporally and spatially. In Weber, differentiation is represented as institutional diversity or as a multiplicity of life orders (religion, economics, politics, erotica). These orders of life will tend to adjust to a rationality according to ends.

Talcott Parsons’ theory of the general system of action (AGIL schema of four functions with their different constituent ends and media) explains societal development as a growing differentiation based on role differences and this, in turn, provides the explanation of modern individualism.

What is important is to emphasize that the concept of differentiation has a very broad background in sociology, antecedents all that are taken up and reconfigured by social systems theory. Luhmann will end up proposing three societal types that, important enough to say, coexist in contemporary world society and constitute a typology of social differentiation which admits various degrees of complexity (the positive assessment of greater complexity per se is now removed).

The three primordial societal types, from lesser to greater complexity, are: a) segmentary societies (tribal in type), composed by equal segments; b) stratified societies (aristocratic, class or caste in type), composed by unequal segments; c) functionally differentiated society (modern society), composed by different social systems (religion, economics, politics, law, science). This view of modern society is regarded as external societal differentiation, while internal differentiation expresses itself through various confessions of faith (in the religious system), political parties (in the political system), or theories and research methods (in the scientific system).

Modern Religious Differentiation

It is important to note that the differentiated social systems of which the theory speaks about refer only and exclusively to communication, so that when one speaks of the system of religion, politics or sports, the theory refers only to religious, political or sports communication. We are faced with a sociological theory of communication which understands in principle that society is composed by communication only.

Once the basic background of the theory of social differentiation has been reviewed, the most important thesis of social systems theory related to the system of religion can be put forward: sixteenth-century Protestant reformations are but the expression of the internal differentiation of religion, which is concomitant with the emergence of a new societal type: the functionally differentiated society. Thus, Protestantisms have to do with the evolutionary momentum in which European societies moved from a form of stratified differentiation to a modern one:

The late middle ages and the Reformation added a critique of merit and a radical shift towards grace to the general Christian emphasis on the factors of salvation… Based on some very controversial ideas, Weber assumes that this shift created motives for rational economic and even rational scientific action. However, what is more important is that the process dismantled interferences of religion in the economy and science which had taken the form of relatively concrete evaluations of action relevant to salvation… The evolutionary success probably lay more in the strong disentanglement and differentiation of systems than in the special effectiveness of an ascetic motivation for salvation (Luhmann 1984, 79-80).

If there is a legacy of sixteenth century Protestant reformations for the modern world, it is that they paved the way to the specialization and fragmentation of religious communications.[9]Along with the Lutheran Church, Western Christianity was —and continues being— crushed into several churches: Calvinist, Zwinglian, Anabaptist, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and so on. To this extent Protestantism prompted other types of communications to do the same: to specialize and fragment themselves (to diversify). For example, from the Diet of Speyer in 1526 comes the principle cuius regio, eius religio (according to the religion of the king, so will be that of the kingdom), with which each Protestant prince claimed for himself the right to adopt religion and organize a church of his own in accordance with the dictates of his conscience, and —clearly enough— in accordance with the religious reformations in course. In this way, religious differentiation reinforced political differentiation in princely states by feeding incipient notions of sovereign power.[10]

Societal religious differentiation ran in parallel to the differentiation of other spheres of life and ended up in the eighteenth century with the constitution of a new type of society: the functional differentiated or contemporary modern world society. This society will be characterized by communicational differentiation (politics, economics, law, religion, science, art, health, sport). Or explained in another way: to move and be able to function in modern society one must distinguish communicative and situational spheres or orders of life. A person speaks and communicates depending on whether (s)he is at home, at the university, at the office, at the bank or at the church of his/her choice. Failure to do so runs the risk of being considered “bizarre”.

In favor of this interpretation of sixteenth century Protestantisms —as religious differentiation— speaks the happy confluence of an independent study close to conceptual history: before the sixteenth century the concept of religion was indistinguishable from many other communications. It is not until the arrival of Protestantisms that religion adopts the modern (differentiated) meaning of communications related exclusively to the transcendental.[11]


  1. Catholic canon law defines heresy as “the persistent denial, after receiving baptism, of a truth to be believed with divine and catholic faith, or the pertinacious doubt about it; apostasy is the total rejection of the Christian faith. Schism is the rejection to subject oneself to the Supreme Pontiff or to have communion with the members of the church submitted to him... [Nevertheless,] From a current perspective, the commentators of the Pauline texts, both Catholic and Protestant, have chosen to interpret the Greek expression hairesis (Latin haeresia) in the sense of splits, parties, factions, and not as doctrinal discrepancies that would receive later. St. Paul [1 Cor, 11:19], they say, would be thinking in the contrasts of practical, moral and personal characteristics of the Corinthian community” (Mitre 2003, 175, 33).
  2. For the sociocultural evolution mechanisms compare Luhmann (2007a, 325-469), third chapter on evolution. The book, considered his major work, was published one year before Luhmann’s death (Luhmann 1997). The Spanish version was published ten years later (Luhmann 2007a), and an early draft was first available in Italian (Luhmann & De Giorgi 1992) and a year later in Spanish (Luhmann & De Giorgi 1993). The English version was published by Stanford University Press in two volumes (Luhmann 2012, 2013a).
  3. For the detailed argumentation compare Ornelas (2018, 87-170), second chapter on heresies and Christian organization.
  4. Against Church orthodoxy, Gnostics postulated a dualist philosophy which opposes two principles (good/ bad; light/ darkness; spirit/ matter), and includes the belief in an ignorant god (demiurge) who created the material evil world (Markschies 2002, 37-38). Arians denied the divinity of Christ. Nestorians rejected Mary as mother of God. Monophysites argued, without denying the double nature of Christ, that the human nature of Jesus was absorbed in favor of his divinity.
  5. Compare Luhmann (2007b, 37). This book was posthumously published (Luhmann 2000). The English version was published by Stanford University Press (Luhmann 2013b).
  6. This book is a compilation of the two most important articles that Luhmann wrote in life about the system of religion (Luhmann 1977, 77-181; Luhmann 1989, 259-357). An English version of Religious Dogmatics could be found in Luhmann (1984).
  7. Opening phrase of chapter four on differentiation.
  8. For a revision of major sociological theorists compare Ritzer & Stepnisky (2011).
  9. For the detailed argumentation compare Ornelas (2018, 171-240), third chapter on Lutheran communications and counter-reformation.
  10. Historians now accept the Investiture Controversy of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries as the clearest antecedent of modern State inception, and consequently as a pre-condition to Church-State differentiation. For this compare Strayer (1970, 3-56), Berman (1983, 85-119) and Mitterauer (2010, 144-193).
  11. For the full argumentation compare Nongbri (2013).


Alberigo, Giuseppe. 1993. Prólogo: Los concilios ecuménicos en la historia. In Historia de los concilios ecuménicos, Giuseppe Alberigo (ed.). Salamanca: Sígueme.

Berman, Harold. 1983. Law and Revolution. The Formation of the Legal Western Tradition. Cambridge/ London: Harvard University Press.

Jedin, Hubert. 1960. Breve historia de los concilios. Barcelona: Herder.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2013a. Theory of Society, Volume II. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2013b. A Systems Theory of Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2012. Theory of Society, Volume I. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2009. Sociología de la religión. México: Herder/ Universidad Iberoamericana (UIA).

Luhmann, Niklas. 2007a. La sociedad de la sociedad. México: Herder/ UIA.

Luhmann, Niklas. 2007b. La religión de la sociedad. Madrid: Trotta.

Luhmann, Niklas 2000. Die Religion der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1997. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1989. Die Ausdifferenzierung der Religion. In Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik. Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft, Vol. 3. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1984. Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies. New York/ Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1977. Religiöse Dogmatik und Gesellschaftliche Evolution. In Funktion der Religion. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Luhmann, Niklas & Raffaele De Giorgi. 1993. Teoría de la sociedad. México: UIA/ Universidad de Guadalajara.

Luhmann, Niklas & Raffaele De Giorgi. 1992. Teoria della società. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Markschies, Christoph. 2002. La gnosis. Barcelona: Herder.

Mitre F., Emilio. 2003. Ortodoxia y herejía: entre la Antigüedad y el Medievo. Madrid: Cátedra.

Mitre F., Emilio. 2000. Las herejías medievales de Oriente y Occidente. Madrid: Arco Libros.

Mitterauer, Michael. 2010. Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path. Chicago/ London: University of Chicago Press.

Nicol, D. M. 1997. Byzantine Political Thought. In The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c. 350-c.1450, James H. Burns (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Before Religion. A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven/ London: Yale University Press.

Ornelas, Marco. 2018. Modern Religious Differentiation: The Latin Mass (1517-1570). Mexico: Independently Published.

Perrone, Lorenzo. 1993. El cuarto concilio de Constantinopla (869-870). In Historia de los concilios ecuménicos, Giuseppe Alberigo (ed.). Salamanca: Sígueme.

Ritzer, George & Jeffrey Stepnisky (eds.). 2011. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, Vols. I and II. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Strayer, Joseph R. 1970. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Article by Marco Ornelas.
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