The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy

Neo-Confucian, Islamic, Jewish, and Early Christian Patterns

By John B. Henderson

Subjects: Comparative Religion
Paperback : 9780791437605, 265 pages, April 1998
Hardcover : 9780791437599, 265 pages, April 1998

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Table of contents



1. Preliminary Overview of Heresy and Heresiography

2. The Making of Orthodoxies

3. The Construction of Orthodoxy

4. The Construction of Heresy

Epilogue: The Providentiality of Heresy


Glossary of Chinese Terms in the Text

Selected Bibliography


Presents the first systematic and cross-cultural examination of ideas of orthodoxy and heresy in a group of major religious traditions.


This book presents the first systematic and cross-cultural exploration of ideas of heresy, as well as orthodoxy, in a group of major religious traditions, including Neo-Confucianism, Sunni Islam, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity. It shows how authorities in all four of these traditions used common strategies to distinguish orthodox truth from heretical error. These same strategies often appear in modern ideological polemics and studies of deviance as well as in traditional religious controversies. The party that most effectively uses these strategies often gains a decisive advantage in the struggle among competing claimants to orthodoxy.

The author also shows how orthodoxy depends on heresy. Without heresy, or at least ideas of heresy, orthodoxy could not establish or perpetuate itself. In fact, in all four traditions orthodoxy constructed itself by creating an inversion of the heretical other.

By highlighting the common patterns in constructions of orthodoxy and heresy in four major religious traditions, this book also sets in relief subtler variations that give each tradition a special character. In this way this study strikes a balance between the universal and the particular: it illuminates a general pattern in world intellectual history, but also shows how the traditions that illustrate this pattern are distinctive.

John B. Henderson is Professor, Department of History, Louisiana State University. He has previously published The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology and Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis.


"I like the work's theoretical framework. It shows sensitivity to different cultural definitions of heresy rather than giving a definition and making all traditions conform to it. Henderson provides a good conceptual basis for comparison because no one tradition sets the rules of comparison—a common problem in cross-cultural work." — Matthew Levey, Birmingham Southern College