NOTE: for the purposes of this post, Christian and Church refer to the origin of Christianity: the Catholic Church.
DEFINITION: Heresies as they relate to Christian thought are deviations from thinking and doctrine as defined via authentic teachings and Holy Traditions within the Church. Forms of Christianity which strayed were considered ‘heterodox’, hence the term ‘heretical.’ Before looking at some of the early heresies, it is important to note that there has been a group of believers who do not find heresies to be problematic…particularly since a publication written in the 1930’s.
At the heart of this thought is a debate that the earliest forms of Christianity were diverse, including ‘heretical’ groups who claimed apostolic tradition. This line of thinking became prominent when Walter Bauer published “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity” in 1934, where he outlined his new model of the early Church. In his writings, he considered the current form of orthodoxy as one of many original views, and that there was a jockeying for position among views. According to Bauer, the current model of orthodoxy won that battle. However, Bauer’s new model contradicted the view from over 1600 years of Church father writings and tradition, which stated that what is our current orthodox view of Christianity was primary, where heresies were a deviation from genuine Christianity.
A great number of historians and apologists believe that the Bauer Model fails to give enough credence to this: not all points of view are equally valid with regard to the truth of Christianity. Some of the reasons Bauer’s work is rejected are:
*He did not regard data from the New Testament
*A large part of his argument is speculation (perhaps, could be, might not)
*Inaccuracies in Bauer’s arguments give rise to doubt of their validity
Here, we will take the view which has been supported within the Church since the beginning through Holy Scripture, as well as the writings of the early Church fathers: the Church and Christianity was and is what we find today in the Catholic Church.
The Church has needed to address heresies through proclamations of popes, in ecumenical councils and through the writings of the early Church fathers. Although there were a great number of heresies that threatened Christianity over the centuries, we will discuss just a few examples of how the Church in its wisdom and authority has been able to thwart some of the threats to the Church and her teachings.
First Century: CIRCUMCISION HERESY
The first heresy is not always thought of as such, yet it was cause for the First Council at Jerusalem to convene. The issue was circumcision. This threat to the furthering of Christianity is recorded in Acts 15:1. In this verse, we see that there were some who insisted that the Mosaic practice of circumcision be enforced, even when new converts were from cultures that objected to such a practice. The apostle Paul stood firm in his understanding that Gentiles should be accepted without such a regulation. Setting the stage for councils to come, the First Council at Jerusalem convened, bringing leaders together to address an issue of faith by allowing the Holy Spirit to direct them toward resolution. As we know, the Council came to the conclusion that circumcision would not be required of the new Gentile converts. The authority of the Church under St. Peter (the first pope) and the Apostles (the first Magisterium) made its first doctrinal statement against the first heresy. One thing to note is that unlike with some subsequent heresies, after this issue (circumcision) was discussed, those who initially promoted circumcision rightly recognized the authority of the Council decision and agreed.
1st and 2nd Century: GNOSTICISM
Not long after the circumcision issue came dealings with the Gnostics. Although there may have been some Gnostic thought prior to the birth of Christ, it is most evident as it relates to Jesus. Gnosticism claims that all matter in the created world is evil. The natural logic of the Gnostics was that since everything is evil (false premise), Jesus could not possibly be God incarnate. Instead, their claim was that Jesus only seemed to be a man, and his humanity was an illusion. In other words, Jesus did not have a human nature.
There are some who believe that Simon the Magician (Acts 8) was the founder of the New Testament version of Gnosticism. He did not appear to have a true interest in Jesus, but instead in the miraculous powers the apostles displayed. Simon even offered to pay for the privilege (Acts 8:18-20). Long story short, when Simon did not receive what he desired, and was in fact chastised by St. Peter, Simon subsequently claimed that Jesus had not redeemed the world…and that somehow, in his failure, Christ bestowed power on Simon. St. Justin Martyr even records a statue erected to Simon as a god. This heretical belief was addressed by the early Church fathers, including seven letters written by St. Ignatius in A.D. 110. The belief system hung on for several centuries, but was summarily dismissed at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. At that Council, Emperor Constantine sought to sort through some divisions that had evolved in the Church. The Gnostics were invited, but did not take the Council seriously; thus, the system of Gnosticism was proclaimed a heresy. But like a bad penny that keeps coming back, Gnosticism did not ever totally die out; it re-emerged in the 9th-10th Centuries, 13th Century, and even in modern times. Many times, heresies simply get recycled.
4th Century: ARIANISM
In both the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and the First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381), the heretical view known as Arianism was addressed. Arius was a priest of Libya. In his system, he denied the divinity of Christ; his claim was that Jesus was not the Son, nor was he eternal. Even though his bishop denounced the belief and excommunicated Arius and his followers, the heresy spread throughout the world rapidly. In A.D. 325, the Emperor called a general council under direction of Pope Sylvester. This council, the Council of Nicaea, drew up a total of 20 canons and is credited as giving us the Nicene Creed. Opposition to this particular heresy, as with several others, has been adopted even post-Reformation. So even in Protestantism, there has been an unwitting acceptance of Church authority in some cases.
5th Century: PELAGIANISM & SEMI-PELAGIANISM, NESTORIANISM, MONOPHYSTISM
The 5th Century brought on an assortment of heretical thought. The first was Pelagianism, and her ugly sister, Semi-Pelagianism. Pelagius was an ascetic monk from Ireland. He promoted the thought that man is born morally neutral; he denied both original sin and Christian grace (i.e., no need for children to be baptized). According to Pelagius, God’s grace was not needed. This heresy was addressed by St. Augustine. The Council of Carthage (A.D. 418) corrected these errors in eight points:
- Death did not come to Adam due to physical necessity, but from sin
- New-born children must be baptized because of original sin
- Justifying grace avails forgiveness of past sin, and also assists to avoid future sin
- Christ’s grace imparts knowledge of His commandments, and imparts strength to execute them
- Without God’s grace it is more difficult, and impossible to perform good works
- We must confess ourselves to be sinners
- Saints refer to the Our Father (Forgive us our trespasses), to others and to themselves
- Saints pronounce that supplication from both humility and truthfulness
Next up, Nestorianism was the heresy that became a focal point of the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. Nestorius was a bishop of Constantinople. He stated that Mary only bore Christ’s human nature in the womb, and denied her the title of Theotokos (God bearer, of Mother of God.) His philosophy divided Christ into two separate beings, one human and one divine. At the Council of Ephesus, the dogma of Mary as Mother of God was defined. The Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian church) recently signed a document of orthodoxy rejecting Nestorianism.
Following Nestorianism was Monophysitism, or the Eutychian Heresy. This was led by Eutyches, and was in polar opposition of Nestorianism: instead of Christ being two people with two natures as in Nestorianism, the Monophysites claimed “…Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono=one; physis=nature). But by denying Christ was one person with two complete natures (both human and divine), Monophysitism was as bad as Nestorianism. This heresy was addressed at the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). It was there that Christ’s hypostatic nature of being fully God and fully Man was defined, and Eutyches excommunicated. Again, the authority of the Church prevailed in protecting a doctrine upon which even most of Protestantism can agree.
7th and 8th Centuries: ICONOCLASM (image breakers)
Those who subscribed to this heresy believed that it was a sin to make pictures and statues of Christ and the Saints. This heresy was in complete contradiction to God’s instruction of the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in the Old Testament:
*Ex. 25: 18-20 (decorated with golden cherubim)
*1 Chr 28:18-19 (decorated with golden cherubim)
* Numb 21:8-9 (decorated with bronze serpents)
…and opposed a symbolic representation of Christ in the New Testament (biblical typology):
*John 3:14 (Moses lifting the serpent in the desert, as Christ would be lifted up)
Clarification of the veneration of holy images, while giving honor only to what those images represent, came out of the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 757).
11th-131h Century: ALBIGENSIANISM
Albigensianism was modified from the Manichaean heresy (Southern France). Manichaenism incorporated Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements. In it, everything is black or white, and focuses on salvation by knowledge. Albigensianism specifically opposed marriage and having children as evil, and promoted liberation from the body, including the promotion of suicide. This heresy was addressed at the Fourth Council of the Lateran. NOTE: the Manichaen heresy appeared again in the Reformation’s view of good vs. evil. Again, where authority is lacking, any and all belief systems are misguidedly given a place at the table.
16th Century: PROTESTANTISM (See previous post Part 2 of 5 for more detail)
This heresy, known as the Protestant Reformation, promoted the Five Solas, most notably including sola scriptura (Scripture alone for all theological answers) and sola fide (faith alone as the method for justification). This heresy created a diversity of private judgment, denying infallible Church authority, with each individual interpreting Scripture for himself. This is contrary to 2 Peter 1:20: no prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation. The heresy resulted in tens of thousands of denominations, each of which is considered Protestant because of the protesting nature of each new denomination or sect that has continued to break off. In this heresy, the so-called Reformers openly defied the authority of the Church and its teachings. In the case of Luther, he was given ample time to appear and recant. Instead, he chose not only to refuse to meet, but in his writings he further condemned the Catholic Church with calls for the murder of the Pope and bishops. Heresies of Luther, Calvin and other ’reformers’ were condemned at the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545-1549). One point to note is that true Catholic Reform was enacted via the Council of Trent, again under the authentic authority of the Catholic Church.
17th Century: JANSENISM
Bishop Jansenius of France promoted this heresy, where he attempted to redefine grace. He stated that Christ did not die for all men, but only those who would be eventually saved (the elect). Though not through an ecumenical council, Pope Innocent X in his role of authority corrected this and condemned it in 1653.
This is only a short list of the many heresies experienced in Church history. By observing those since the First Council at Jerusalem, it is evident that the priests and bishops who promoted these heresies were in defiance to the established authority of the Church. It was not that these men were never allowed to present their thoughts and ideas. Instead, it was their refusal to abandon the exposed heresy of their new ideas that brought them under great scrutiny, resulting much of the time in excommunication. From the beginning, Christ established the authoritative body of the Catholic Church via the Pope and Magesterium for this very purpose: to keep the faith pure and free from false teachings. Without such an authority, the Church would have fallen into serious error, thus flinging the Gates of Hell wide open; the demise of authentic Christianity would have followed.
A question might be: how is heresy handled outside the Catholic Church? Due to the tens of thousands of denominations today, that question cannot be easily answered. Without a centralized authority that states infallible doctrine over all, many competing doctrines stand side-by-side, each claiming authority over the other. It is only under the One system Christ established that Truth may be unequivocally stated, cherished, and protected. That system of authority began in A.D. 33. The Catholic Church has taken its mandate from Christ very seriously, and will continue to protect the Truth of the faith until it no longer is required to do so…that glorious time when we will gather at the Banquet Table to celebrate the final victory in Christ.
 www.CatholicBridge.com/catholic/list_of_heresies.php (Accessed 10/10/17)
 “The Great Heresies.” Catholic Answers Tracts (Accessed 10/12/17)
 “Arius and the Council of Nicaea.” https://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/ARIANISM.TXT (Accessed 10/17/17).
 “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” New Advent Encyclopedia.
 “The Great Heresies.”