What is the difference between orthodoxy and heresy in Christianity, and how did orthodoxy and heresy emerge as Christian theology and Christology developed and evolved? The history and origins of Christian heresy, just as the history and origins of Christianity itself, is actually a lot more nuanced and complex than it originally appears to be.
Introduction: Defining and Reflecting On the Term Heresy
The very word heresy arouses fear and censure in the minds of most Christians, and most certainly, heretics, or those who espouse heresies or heretical views, have been strongly condemned by the Christian mainstream. Basically, a heresy is any belief that is outside of that which has been officially sanctioned or tolerated by the Christian Church. The term “heresy” definitely carries a strong emotional charge among Christians today, and it’s a natural human tendency to demonize the other – the foreigner, the rebel, the outcast who doesn’t think or believe in the same way you do. But if one examines the etymological derivation and origins of the word “heresy” in an objective and dispassionate manner, a lot of that negative emotional charge is defused and laid to rest. So – how exactly did the term “heresy” originate?
The origins of the term “heresy” lie with the ancient Greek word Hairesis, which simply meant one’s choice, or thing chosen. – 1. The term then came to mean the school or party of one’s choice, often in reference to a young person choosing the particular school of philosophy that he or she would follow, and its precepts and instructions on how to live. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Every young person needs philosophical principles and guidelines to follow in life. This phenomenon of differing schools of thought is so common that it is virtually universal; the ancient Greeks had their various schools of philosophy, and within traditional Japanese art forms, such as flute playing or flower arranging, there are various schools of thought and practice. Along with this principle of choice comes the principle of definition as well – what is our way of thinking and doing things, versus what is foreign or different from it. And focus and definition can be a good thing.
But it is particularly within the realm of religion that this natural process of choice and definition has a dark shadow side, and that lies in the censure or demonization of the other as a heretic. And not surprisingly, it is mainly within the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that heresy carries such a toxic stigma, with Christianity probably being foremost of the three in its vigorous and vociferous denunciation of heresy and heretics. All three of the Abrahamic religions place a great emphasis on correctness of doctrine and belief, but nowhere is this emphasis stronger than in Christianity, in which correctness of belief – i.e. the belief of the orthodox mainstream – is believed to determine the very difference between salvation and damnation. But if one were to stand outside of this orthodox mainstream in order to arrive at a more objective and impartial view of orthodoxy versus heresy, the mainstream would be labeled orthodox, whereas the heretical would be labeled heterodox.
Because the branding of someone as being a heretic, or the identification of a certain doctrine or school of thought as being heretical most always involves the condemnation or demonization of the heretic as the other, there is, of necessity, a social or political dimension to this whole phenomenon of heresy. Under the leadership of a priesthood or church hierarchy, who determined what the orthodox or acceptable beliefs and doctrines were, the simple and relatively innocuous act of choosing one’s own moral code or guiding philosophy in life became demonized as the choosing of something wayward or deviant in nature, as opposed to the orthodox mainstream, the basic default option, which was seen as being the only natural or righteous choice. In fact, one can view orthodoxy as not so much a choice, but simply a blind following of the herd instinct by those who are not so much people as “sheeple”.
Another way to view things is like this: As the Christian religious tradition grew and evolved, there naturally came various choices or forks in the road, with each bifurcation, with each choice presenting Christianity with a unique opportunity to further define itself. One fork in the road was taken and the other was not, with the untaken fork or option becoming defined as heretical. At each fork in the road, there were dissenting opinions that competed with the one that eventually prevailed, and many of them had strong and reasonable arguments in their favor. But for various reasons, theological, political or a complex mixture of both according to the case at hand, one was chosen as the orthodox way going forward, and the other one was ultimately rejected as being heretical. A few analogies or metaphors might come in handy here – a main mighty river as the orthodox mainstream, with heretical rivulets or deviant streams flowing away from it; or like the sculpting of a block of marble, or the pruning of a tree, with each cut or chip serving to further define or refine the form and shape of the finished product, while cutting off wayward branches or parts that become defined as heretical refuse or waste.
A Study of Christian Origins – and of Christian Heresy
The most common view of Christian origins held by the Christian mainstream and its apologists is that of the monolithic origins of Christianity from a single point of origin – i. e. Jesus Christ – or from Jesus and his tiny band of disciples who set out to take on the world and convert it to the Christian faith. This simplistic “party line” narrative falls apart upon closer historical scrutiny, however, with some of the key evidence being found right within the pages of the New Testament itself. The historical reality that has emerged from biblical and religious scholarship in recent years is more of a diverse one, with multiple religious and philosophical movements coalescing around the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant and charismatic Jewish rabbi from the Galilee. Some have posited that in the earliest centuries of Christianity’s existence, there were three main forms of Christianity, or three main ways of being Christian: Jewish Christianity, Christian Gnosticism and the proto-orthodox or Pauline branch of Christianity. Whereas the first two branches have long since died out, all existing sects or denominations of Christianity can trace their origins back to the proto-orthodox or Pauline branch.
If truth be told, the one original branch of Christianity, against which all the others could be viewed as being deviant or heretical, was Jewish Christianity, or the Jerusalem Church of James the Just, who was the brother of Jesus Christ. This “church” existed not as a separate religion in its own right, but merely as a sect within Judaism, dedicated to the teachings and spiritual legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, its founder. They did not take Jesus as being divine, but merely regarded him as being an exalted spiritual teacher and rabbi, dedicated to the spiritual deliverance of Israel and the renewal of the Jewish faith under the brutal and oppressive Roman occupation of Judea. Perhaps a kind of parallel can be found within certain sects of Hasidic Judaism today, which are also dedicated to the spiritual teachings and legacy of their founder, of blessed memory. The Jerusalem Church was thoroughly Jewish and Torah observant, and probably differed from mainstream Judaism only in that they considered Jesus to be their Messiah, or spiritual deliverer of Israel, which, in mainstream Judaism, was not a divine office, but primarily a political one. The Jerusalem Church may also have been quite militant, being a movement of Jewish national resistance to Roman rule.
Although the books of the New Testament were selected primarily to conform to the teachings and message of the proto-orthodox or Pauline branch of emerging Christianity, considerable evidence can be found within its pages testifying to the existence of the Jerusalem Church, as well as to the general nature and content of its teachings. The fact that Paul’s own teachings were considerably at odds with those of James, the patriarch of the Jerusalem Church, is attested to in chapter fifteen of the Book of Acts. James later takes Paul to task for rumors he has heard that Paul has been encouraging Jews of the diaspora to abandon the Law of Moses, and to not have their sons circumcised, etc…, and makes Paul go through a seven day ritual of penance and purification to prove his loyalty to the Church and to the Law. After that, Paul’s mere presence in the Jerusalem Temple provokes a riot, as well as attempts on his life by Jews who are outraged at rumors of Paul’s deviant teachings. Paul then defends himself in a religious tribunal, and finally resorts to using his Roman citizenship to escape the tumult, being escorted by armed guards to the Roman port city of Caesarea. Any thoughtful person who reads these passages must come to the conclusion that what Paul was teaching was radically different from, and not approved by, the original Jerusalem Church and its patriarch, James the Just.
Two passages from the New Testament tell us that the original Jewish Jesus movement did not see Jesus as being divine, or, at most had a very low Adoptionist Christology. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, opens with the scene of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan; the sky opens up, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and God adopts Jesus as His son in whom He is well pleased. In the Second Chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter gives a speech to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, telling them what has happened. He describes Jesus as a man who God has favored by lifting him up in his resurrection, but he calls Jesus a man nonetheless. In his epistle in the back of the New Testament, James declares that faith without works is dead; this was obviously meant to counter the Pauline teaching that we are saved by faith alone, and not by works. And by works, James is, in all probability, referring to works done in accordance with the Law of Moses.
From this evidence, we can clearly see that the teachings of Pauline Christianity, which became the proto-orthodox branch of Christianity some twenty to thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, was quite different from the original Jewish Christian teachings of Jesus’ original disciples. Both James and his brother Jude, in their epistles, warn of empty boasters who were taking over the church, and admonish their flock to be faithful to the original teachings. Many modern exegetes of the Christian scriptures assume that James and Jude were referring to the Gnostics, but, in all probability, they were referring to the Pauline faction that was then taking over the original Jesus movement and hijacking it to their own ends. This radical takeover of the Jesus movement by Paul and his followers happened so early on in the history of Christianity that it falls totally under the radar of most Christian believers. Paul and his followers, in preaching Christianity to the gentiles, remade Jesus in the image of a dying and rising savior deity, after the fashion of the old Greco-Roman mystery religions; it was a powerful message that really caught on with their predominantly gentile audiences.
We would only be half right if we characterized the Pauline takeover of the original Jesus movement as being something akin to a hostile corporate takeover; it was also aided and abetted by the larger forces of history – namely, the Roman holocaust of Judea and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. After that, the Jerusalem Church was decimated, and was only a shadow of its former self. A few Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites (literally, ‘the poor ones’) hung on for a few centuries longer, but as things developed, they were ultimately slated for extinction. In the fifth century, Saint Jerome, a great church scholar and the author of the Latin Vulgate Bible, lamented that the Jewish Christians found themselves in a kind of pitiable no man’s land, unable to be either fully Jewish or fully Christian. The Jewish Christians also had their own holy scriptures, with the Gospel of the Hebrews being chief among them; the pseudo-Clementine literature, consisting of the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, also presents things in a Jewish Christian light, which is radically at odds with the Pauline or proto-orthodox branch. Above all, the original Jewish Christian followers of Jesus should not be confused with modern day “Jews for Jesus”, many of whom could more accurately be described as Christian evangelical wolves in Jewish sheep’s clothing.
For those studying Christian origins, nothing is more vague and perplexing than the origins of Christian Gnosticism. The Gnostics were the target of numerous polemic attacks by early heresiologists of the proto-orthodox branch of Christianity, such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome in the second century AD. – 2. These proto-orthodox heresiologists branded the Gnostics as wayward deviants from the “true faith” – in other words, their faith. Within a hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Gnosticism was already fully developed, with its own elaborate mythology and cosmology that differed so radically from the proto-orthodox school that one wonders how on earth this spiritual worldview, so radically different from the Christian mainstream, could have developed so fully in such a short period of time. And not only that, but Christian Gnosticism was far from a monolithic spiritual movement, but had many different schools, such as Valentinian, Sethian and Thomasine Gnosticism, and so on. A number of theories and speculations have been put forth as to the origins of Gnosticism, but none of them have gained widespread acceptance.
Of all the distinguishing characteristics of Gnosticism, none is so distinctive as what they call Gnostic dualism, which is basically the idea that there are two gods – an inferior Demiurge, who was the creator of this lower illusory world, who trapped souls in bodies, and the superior God of All, who desires spiritual liberation for mankind. The Gnostics saw Jesus Christ as a spiritual emissary from the higher world and its superior God of All who was sent to liberate mankind from bondage to the Demiurge through the bestowal of spiritual knowledge or insight that the Greeks called gnosis. Whereas the proto-orthodox branch of Christianity focused on sin and repentance, the Gnostics saw the core problem as being spiritual ignorance and illusion versus gnosis, or liberating spiritual knowledge. Some who were spiritually aligned with the Gnostics equated the Old Testament God of Israel with the inferior Demiurge, among them being Marcion, a wealthy shipping merchant who started his own sect of Christianity. In Marcion’s Bible, the Old Testament was completely missing; all it contained were the genuine epistles of Paul, the gentile Gospel of Luke, and a few other books.
One wonders how Christian Gnosticism, with its elaborate and involved mythology and cosmology, could have developed to the extent that it did within such a short span of time. But one must remember that Christianity, back in its first few centuries of existence, was a small, fledgling and persecuted minority religion with a relative lack of hierarchical power structures to hold it back; in other words, the world of early Christianity was kind of like the wild, wild West, where anything goes. Some have even postulated that other religious and spiritual movements, such as Hellenistic Judaism, Zoroastrianism, or even Buddhism, could have exerted a powerful formative influence on Christian Gnosticism. – 2. What particularly infuriated the proto-orthodox heresiologists was the way in which the Gnostics would come up with a new myth or cosmological theory just about every time you turned around, and considered it a strength, and not a weakness. The proto-orthodox branch of Christianity placed great emphasis on hierarchical authority and structure, whereas the Gnostics were the free thinkers of their day.
When viewed from a broader historical perspective, you might say that the proto-orthodox branch of Christianity was so vigorous and vociferous in condemning what they saw to be heresy because not too long ago, just about a hundred years or so previously, they themselves had staged a grand coup or takeover of the then fledgling Jesus movement, hijacking it to their own ends. So, this vigorous and vociferous condemnation of heresy could also be seen as a concerted attempt to consolidate and hold onto their newfound political and ecclesiastical power. That, I fear, is the true story of Christianity and its origins – the true faith of Jesus’ original band of disciples quickly died out, and was then taken over by the Pauline or proto-orthodox branch that set itself up as the true faith, against which they judged all those who deviated from their own doctrine as being heretical. But this was definitely a case of projection, I feel, or the pot calling the kettle black.
The Council of Nicaea and the Era of the Great Ecumenical Councils: Standardizing Christianity
During the first two and a half centuries or so of Christianity’s history, Christianity was still a minority, underground religion that suffered periodic persecution depending on the current mood and disposition of the emperor, and the government. With no governmental backing and no ability to enforce its decrees, the heresiologists of the second and third centuries AD could just write books and theses denouncing heresy, and groups they saw as being heretical, like the Gnostics. But at the beginning of the fourth century, all that changed; Emperor Constantine ascended to the throne, and credited Christianity with helping him defeat his rival. He issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, proclaiming religious freedom and tolerance for Christianity. Before long, Constantine made Christianity the favored or establishment religion of the Roman Empire; his vision was one empire, with one Christian faith, and he was hoping that the vibrant new religion of Christianity would help hold the slowly disintegrating Roman Empire together. But first, he needed the Christian bishops to stop all their factionalism and bickering because, above all, Constantine needed unity.
To try to bring all the Christian bishops into agreement, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, at a seaside resort town not far from Constantinople called Nicaea. In addition to having some issues with the Gnostics, the main item on the council’s agenda was that of defeating Arianism, which was also called the Arian heresy, or the Arian controversy. Arianism was the doctrine espoused by Bishop Arius and his followers, which had gained a considerable following as the fourth century dawned. Arianism said that Jesus was divine, but he was of a lower order of divinity than God the Father; and furthermore, bishop Arius said that Jesus, or God the Son, was not coeternal with God the Father, but was actually a created being – in other words, there was a time when he was not. Arius also said that Jesus was not created divine, but rather, earned his divinity by virtue of passing through all the difficult tests that God put before him and remaining faithful, even unto death. And because Jesus did this and remained faithful, God gave him the name that is above all names, according to the Jesus hymn in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, which is congruent with Arianism.
The Arian controversy was the single most divisive issue within Christianity at the time that the Council of Nicaea convened, and for Constantine, it had to be defeated at all costs. Constantine was no theologian, but he was a very shrewd politician. He locked all the bishops into the Council, and forced them to come to an agreement in defeating Ariansim. The main product of the Council of Nicaea was the Nicene Creed, which has also become known as the Apostles’ Creed, with minor modifications. If one studies the language and wording of the Nicene Creed, one sees that it is very intricate and precise regarding the divinity of Jesus Christ, but gives his humanity only a passing mention. And so, the following Great Ecumenical Councils were principally involved with hashing out the details regarding Christ’s human nature, and how exactly his divine and human natures coexisted and intermingled.
The Council of Nicaea was a good example of the pitfalls that can happen when religion gets into bed with politics. Given enough time, the Arian controversy would have probably resolved itself, and a consensus arrived at, in a more free and natural manner, but as it was, Constantine pressured the bishops in attendance to come to an immediate agreement. A lot of bishops resented Constantine’s hard bargaining tactics, and felt that their hand had been forced. Even after the Council of Nicaea, the Arian controversy raged on, for another century at least, with Arianism’s political fortunes waxing and waning according to the whims and inclinations of the reigning ruler. But Arianism was finally defeated. Arianism had a lot of reasonable arguments on its side; its greatest virtue, according to bishop Arius, was that it allowed Jesus Christ, in his faithfulness unto death, to set a shining moral example for the rest of mankind to follow. Arianism also had scriptural passages to back it up, such as the Jesus hymn from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. What was established at the Council of Nicaea is that Scripture cannot be the sole authority on doctrinal matters; also weighing in were ecclesiastical authority and precedent, or the learned opinions of church bishops and elders, who were experts in the interpretation of Scripture. After all, Scripture does not always interpret itself.
The original or First Council of Nicaea was the first of the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils. It would soon be followed by the others, because, in paying scrupulous attention to Christ’s total divinity in order to defeat Arianism, it gave the human nature of Jesus Christ only token or passing mention. A key purpose of the subsequent Ecumenical Councils would be to further define the human nature of Jesus Christ, and how it coexisted with his divine nature.
The Second Ecumenical Council was the First Council of Constantinople, convened by Emperor Theodosius I in 381 AD. The council was directed mainly against the followers of Macedonius, who impugned the divinity of the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost. The Council made some minor changes to the Nicene Creed that strengthened the position of the Holy Ghost in the Christian Trinity.
The Council of Ephesus, convened in 431 AD, was directed towards the repudiation of Nestorianism. Nestorius had been Bishop of Constantinople, and believed that the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were only loosely connected to each other. He objected to calling the Virgin Mary the Mother of God, or Thotokos, but insisted that she be called the Christokos, or “Christ Bearer” only. The Council of Ephesus affirmed that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, whose human and divine natures were inextricably fused together in one person. The Council of Ephesus also seconded the repudiation of Pelagianism, which had also been condemned in a church council convened by Augustine of Hippo a few years earlier. Pelagius opposed Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin.
The Council of Chalcedon was convened in 451 AD, and repudiated the Monophysites, who were under the leadership of Eutyches, who was excommunicated. The Monophysites believed that Jesus Christ had only one (mono) nature (physis), and greatly emphasized Christ’s divine nature at the expense of his human nature. Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane shows that he clearly had two natures – one human, and one divine.
The Second Council of Constantinople was convened in 553 AD by Emperor Justinian. Most church histories only mention that this council condemned the writings of the Three Chapters, and reaffirmed and strengthened Christological and Trinitarian doctrines against Nestorianism. A few discussions of this council will simply mention that Origenism, or the errors of the early church father Origen, were also condemned. What they don’t tell you, and what they hope to erase totally from church history, was that Origen was a key proponent of the doctrine of reincarnation, and the pre-existence of souls. What they don’t want you to know is that, for the first five hundred years of the Christian era, Christians were free to believe in reincarnation if they so chose, and that many early church fathers, including Augustine and Jerome, mention it. In fact, Jesus himself teaches reincarnation right front and center in the canonical gospels. There are other allusions to reincarnation in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. That Most mainstream Christians today won’t believe something that is explicitly taught in the pages of their own Bible is probably the clearest proof that those who claim that Scripture is their sole guide and authority in doctrinal matters are guilty of monumental hypocrisy. It also affirms that all Christians today follow the rulings of ecclesiastical authority and precedent, with the foremost rulings being those of the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils.
The Third Council of Constantinople was convened in 680, and affirmed that Jesus Christ also had two wills – a human will and a divine will – to go along with his two natures. In doing this, the council repudiated Monothelitism, or the doctrine that Jesus Christ had only one will.
The Second Council of Nicaea was convened in 787 AD, and reaffirmed and sanctioned the use of icons and religious art in churches as being valid theological teaching tools. This ended a movement that had advocated for the abolition of icons and religious art.
So there you have it – it took almost five hundred years for the Christian Church to hash out all the basic controversies and disputes over how exactly Jesus Christ’s human and divine natures coexisted and intermingled. It was definitely a long and laborious process, and didn’t happen overnight. The most important thing you should take away from all this is that Christian theology and doctrine isn’t something that was handed down directly from God on high, but was very much a product of human deliberation and consensus. If you accept the notion that Jesus Christ was divine, and also accept that the ways of God are mysterious and inscrutable, then you must accept the conclusion that ultimately, the ways and nature of Jesus Christ are also a mystery. Rather than declaring what the actual reality was from the divine perspective of Christ, these Ecumenical Councils simply decreed what Christians should believe about it all.
The two main web pages that I used as my basic references in putting together this section on the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils are as follows:
The “Holy” Inquisition: A Seven Hundred Year Experiment in Religious Thought Control
Whereas the borders between the Christian and non-Christian world were much more loose and porous in the Christian East, in Western Europe, the Catholic Church held virtually total control over the spiritual lives of the masses; it was, for all practical purposes, a trans-national theocracy, with Popes having the power to crown kings and emperors and keep them under their control. This absolute control lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West until the Protestant Reformation. They say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the corrupt decadence of the Popes of Rome ultimately led to their downfall in the Protestant Reformation. Along with this absolute ecclesiastical power and authority came the desire to control the very hearts and minds of their entire flock, and for many centuries it seemed that the Popes and the Church could do exactly that. But finally with the dawning of the modern era, the Church gradually lost its grip over the masses, and one thing became clear: that no external religious authority or institution can exert total control over the internal world of an individual’s mind and spirit.
But, for a period of about seven hundred years, the Church certainly tried; this was a religious thought control experiment called the “Holy” Inquisition. The Inquisition started in the High Middle Ages, at the beginning of the thirteenth century AD, with what is called the Albigensian Crusade. When one thinks of the Crusades, one usually thinks of medieval knights marching off to war in the Holy Land to fight the Muslim infidel, but this crusade was fought within the realm of Christendom itself. More precisely, the Albigensian Crusade was a ruthless campaign of genocide aimed at exterminating the Cathars, a Gnostic-like sect that was getting all too popular and respected within the region of southern France known as the Languedoc. The Languedoc was also home to many Jews and others who also did not submit to the spiritual authority of Rome. The Church of Rome sent out father Dominic Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order, to try to reason with the Cathars and force their conversion by diplomatic means, but this mission failed. Then finally, in 1208 AD, Papal troops descended on the Languedoc, slaughtering every Cathar they could find, as well as burning many at the stake. “Kill them all – God will recognize His own,” was their battle cry.
Secret Files of the Inquisition, Part One: The Albigensian Crusade. Courtesy of YouTube.
The “Holy” Inquisition also played an instrumental role in driving the Muslim Moors out of Spain under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Back around 700 AD, the Muslim Moors invaded southern Spain, the region called Al Andalus, or Andalusia. Moorish Spain was a realm of great science, scholarship and learning, and was an intellectual beacon to all European scientists and scholars of the day; the Moors also practiced religious openness and tolerance, letting Christians and Jews practice their religion freely. Spain was also home to many Sephardic Jews, and many of them were “closet Jews”, celebrating the Jewish Sabbath in their basement on Saturday, and donning their Christian persona and going to mass on Sunday. Ferdinand and Isabella instituted the Spanish Inquisition, and forced many Jews and Muslims to convert, under pain of torture and death; as a result, many Spanish Jews and Muslims fled eastward into Arab and Ottoman lands. Many Sephardic Jews, it seems, hopped onto ships with conquistadors like Christopher Columbus or Hernan Cortez to escape the persecution; today, many Hispanic people of Sephardic origin are living in Mexico and the American Southwest.
Secret Files of the Inquisition, Part Two: The Spanish Inquisition. Courtesy of YouTube.
The Middle Ages, which many have called the Age of Faith, was soon superseded by the Renaissance, that great rebirth of humanism, along with classical science and learning. The Renaissance then gave way to the Enlightenment, which was an era of great progress in science and technology, and a further blossoming of humanistic and democratic ideals, which in turn led to the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. But the most traumatic moment for the Church of Rome in the West came with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation; thereafter, the Catholic Church could not continue to be the single undisputed authority in religious and spiritual matters. From the humanistic rebirth of the Renaissance onwards, there was a widening gulf between the secular and the sacred, with the church’s authority being increasingly challenged in secular matters. The Catholic Church still held onto claims of total power and control over the worldview of its flock, with the most famous confrontation being its trial of the famous astronomer Galileo for heresy due to his espousal of the heliocentric model of the solar system. In the traditional Catholic worldview, the Sun, and all the planets, went around God’s green Earth, which was the center of the universe.
Secret Files of the Inquisition, Part Three: The War on Ideas. Courtesy of YouTube.
But seriously – what does it really matter to the ultimate welfare and destiny of one’s eternal soul if one believes that the Earth goes around the Sun, or the Sun goes around the Earth? Shouldn’t religion be concerned with matters of ethics and morality, of faith and spirituality, and not with external or worldly matters? This was another perspective that drove the increasing separation of the sacred and the secular as the modern age dawned. Let science and technology govern man’s dominion over the external world, and let religion have its domain in the inner universe of heart, mind and spirit. Even the increasing secular orientation of the modern world can be construed as having biblical sanction in the Book of Genesis, when God gives man dominion over the earth and all its creatures. But still, the Catholic Church was actively involved in the suppression of new scientific ideas and theories as they emerged, all of which could be traced back to the Inquisition. The French emperor Napoleon, being the great champion of progress and modernity that he was, was a bitter foe of the Church of Rome, that still seemed to be stuck back in the Middle Ages.
The final skirmish or outbreak of that ongoing war against the modern world that the Inquisition finally became was a rather strange and curious one. It essentially involved the kidnapping of a young Jewish boy by the Pope in Rome; it seems as if the boy’s Catholic nanny had secretly baptized the boy when he was an infant, which had been discovered by the Grand Inquisitor. And so, papal troops raided the house of this Jewish boy to kidnap him to be raised as a Catholic y the Pope. The boy converted and became a Catholic priest, but this did not prevent his original Jewish identity and ethnicity from catching up with him as he was an old man, when the Nazis came to take him away during World War II. As the twentieth century dawned, traditionalist factions within the Catholic Church still held sway, with Pope Pius XII being a staunch traditionalist, but finally, the Church of Rome met the modern world with the Council of Vatican II, convened by Pope John XXIII.
Secret Files of the Inquisition, Part Four: The End of the Inquisition. Courtesy of YouTube.
Lest one think that these religious struggles for control over the forces of secularism and modernity were exclusive to the Catholic Church, they also engulfed Protestant Christianity as well. In the 1920s, a group of conservative Protestants put out a series of booklets collectively entitled The Fundamentals, which sought to take Christianity back to what they saw as the bedrock basics of their faith, including a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. It is from these booklets that conservative Christians began to be called Fundamentalists; since then, these conservative Christians now view the term “fundamentalist” in a negative light, and prefer to be called Evangelicals, or those who delight in spreading the Christian Gospel. One of their big bones of contention with the modernists, and with liberal Christianity in general, has been the whole creation versus evolution debate, which was sensationalized in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. To many conservative Christians, it matters deeply whether or not God created the heavens and the earth, as written in the creation account in Genesis, and for them, only creationism allows that God is in control and has a plan for one’s life. But for other Christians of a more liberal and open minded bent, the whole question of exactly how the earth and all its creatures and inhabitants came to be is more of a secular matter to be decided by the scientists, and essentially outside inner, faith oriented matters pertaining to the human heart, mind and spirit. Also, liberal Christians are more likely to believe in the figurative and allegorical interpretation of the creation account in Genesis, and not take it so literally.
Religion and Politics in the Modern World
Perhaps the real difference between fundamentalists who are always trying to ferret out and condemn what they see as heresy and those who exercise more tolerance and compassion is psychological. They say that everyone is either more liberal or more conservative, and in this sense, there is usually a close correlation between one’s religious and political views, with political conservatives tending to be more religiously conservative, and vice versa for the liberals. Like politics, religion is a strongly social phenomenon, with most of the flock of believers taking their views from those judged to be leaders or experts in religious and spiritual matters; those who arrive at their religious and spiritual views entirely or primarily on their own are few and far between. Churches, as religious institutions, are also vulnerable and subject to political pressures regarding their doctrinal views. Psychologically, those of a conservative bent are more inclined to submit to external authorities and power structures, whether in religion or politics, whereas those of a more liberal bent are more likely to question authority and make up their own minds. Religious conservatives are also prone to a lot of rigid, dogmatic either / or thinking; instead of either / or, how about both / and?
The Protestant Reformation brought a lot of religious wars and strife in its wake as Protestants and Catholics, as well as those who were spiritually aligned with one or the other of these two camps, fought bitterly back and forth for the heart and soul of Europe. When the United States was founded in the waning years of the eighteenth century, Europe was just then emerging from centuries of religious warfare; a lot of immigrants had come to American shores seeking escape from religious persecution as well. After duly assessing this situation in depth, the founding fathers of the United States set about to enshrine the separation of church and state in the United States constitution; it was one of the wisest things that they ever did. Today, most modern democracies follow the same principle of the separation of church and state in their constitutions, or do not grant the religious establishment legal power to persecute / prosecute its rivals. Religious and spiritual matters should be left to the individual and their own conscience to decide, and the government should not get involved.
A Brief Lexicon of Christian Heresies
The sheer number and variety of Christian heresies is legion; the whole story of Christian heresies and heretical groups and movements is also a lot more nuanced and complex than it seems. Most scholars of Christianity now agree that the size and scope of diversity within early Christianity was a lot greater than it is among various Christian sects and denominations today, with the whole “eye of the needle” or waist of the hourglass being the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils, which did a lot to standardize the basics of Christian theology and Christology. There is a commonly accepted differentiation between acceptable differences of doctrine and belief versus those that are clearly outside the pale on the part of most mainstream sects and denominations of Christianity today, with certain groups, like the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, being considered to be clearly outside the orthodox mainstream. If you are uncomfortable with the term “heresy”, you can substitute the word “heterodox” for it; the very labeling of these groups, doctrines and beliefs as being heretical is from the viewpoint of the modern Christian mainstream, of course. And so, here is a basic lexicon of common Christian heresies:
Adoptionism – The belief that Jesus Christ was not originally divine, or born divine, but was adopted as God’s Son by God, with the most common life events associated with this adoption being Jesus’ baptism and his resurrection. This seems to be the Christological position of Mark’s gospel, and was probably that of the earliest Christians as well.
Antinomianism – A belief that Christians are freed by grace from the need to obey any law or moral code. Saint Paul had to refute charges that he was an Antinomianist in Romans 3: 8. The parts of the Torah dealing with the stipulations of the Mosaic Law are part of the Christian Bible; how far do Christians go in following them – if at all?
Apollinarism – The belief that Jesus Christ had a lower soul, which was the seat of his emotions, but also a higher divine mind. The Apollinarists also believed that human souls were propagated from other human souls, just as human bodies are propagated from other human bodies.
Arianism – The belief that Jesus Christ was divine, but of a lower order of divinity than God the Father, and was a created being. Arianism taught that Jesus Christ earned his full divinity by passing through all the difficult tests given him by God and remaining faithful, even unto death.
Biblical Inerrancy – The belief that the Bible is the revealed and divine Word of God, and therefore every word of it is perfect and inerrant. But what about all the flat-out contradictions in the Bible? Both contradicting statements can’t be correct and inerrant.
Bogomils – A medieval Gnostic dualistic sect of Bulgarian origin that was both Adoptionist as well as Manichean in its beliefs.
Cathars – A Gnostic dualistic sect that flourished in the Languedoc in the High Middle Ages, which was ruthlessly vanquished by the Albigensian Crusade.
Collyridianism – The belief that the Holy Trinity consists of God the Father, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ, or God the Son, and that God the Son was the result of the conjugal union of Mary and God the Father. Heck – if you’re going to have a Christian Trinity, then why not have one that is gender balanced and sexually functional?
Docetism – The belief, espoused particularly by certain sects of the Gnostics, that Jesus Christ only appeared to be human and have a human body, but this was really just an illusion. The Docetists also believed that Jesus Christ did not really suffer and die on the cross, but this was just an appearance, an illusion. Although Docetism may seem like real “Twilight Zone” stuff to many Christians, whole religions, most notably Hinduism, base their teachings on the core idea that the physical universe as we know it is a cosmic illusion, and is not what it appears to be.
Ebionites – An early Jewish Christian group that was a holdout from the original Jerusalem Church of James the Just, which was retroactively declared to be heretical by the Pauline or proto-orthodox branch of Christianity. Although Jewish Christianity was the original form of Christianity believed in and practiced by Jesus’ original followers it did not last long.
Filioque – The belief that the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost, proceeds from both the Father and the Son – which is the meaning of “Filioque” – instead of only from God the Father. The Filioque was a modification inserted into the Nicene Creed by the Catholic Church; it was one of the core doctrinal issues that led to the Great Schism of 1054 AD, in which the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church mutually excommunicated each other.
Gnosticism – The esoteric branch of early Christianity, so called for their belief in gnosis, or direct, experiential knowledge of God, Christ and Spirit, and its central importance in human salvation. The Gnostics were also dualists, believing in a Supreme God and an inferior Demiurge, who was the craftsman of the physical world, and entrapped souls in bodies. Jesus Christ was sent by the Supreme God to liberate souls from the clutches of the Demiurge.
Iconoclasm – The belief that icons and religious church art were idolatrous and should be destroyed. At the Second Council of Nicaea, the church ruled that religious art can be inspiring as well as educational, and should therefore be permitted.
Jansenism – A branch of Catholic thought that arose in the aftermath of the Counter Reformation that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity for divine grace, and predestination. A branch of Catholicism with definite Calvinist tendencies, Jansenism was condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653. The fact that Jansenism was condemned as heresy within Catholicism while similar doctrines thrived in Protestant Calvinism elucidates the fact that what is or isn’t considered to be heresy is often defined by denominational context.
Limited Atonement – The belief that Jesus Christ, in his atonement on the cross, didn’t have the ability or capacity to die for everyone’s sins, but only for the sins of those who were predestined to be saved – in other words, the elect. If you have a strictly legalistic or transactional view of atonement and salvation, this is a very probable consequence of such a view.
Manichaeism – A radically dualistic Gnostic-like religion that was founded by Mani in the third century AD, which claimed that good and evil were equally powerful, and that the Spirit was good, but the flesh was evil. In his youth, Augustine of Hippo had been a Manichaean; this background may well have influenced him to formulate his doctrine of Original Sin.
Marcionism – Marcion was a wealthy shipping merchant in the second century who started his own sect of Christianity; he was also the first to put together a canon of Christian scripture. Marcion considered the God of Israel to be an inferior god, much like the Gnostic Demiurge, and saw Jesus Christ as being a spiritual emissary of a higher God. Accordingly, Marcion’s canon of Scripture completely omitted the Old Testament; it only contained the genuine epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke, and not much else.
Monism – The belief that all lesser, manifest forms of deity derive their essential divinity from a single, transcendent God the Absolute, and are but specialized manifestations of One Supreme Being. Trinitarianism, or the triune conception of the Godhead in mainstream Christianity could be seen as a limited or abbreviated version of Monism, with God in just three persons.
Monophysitism – The belief that Jesus Christ had only one nature, and not two. Monophysites, in believing that Christ had only one nature, emphasized his divine nature at the expense of his human nature.
Monothelitism – The belief that Jesus Christ had two natures – human and divine – but only one will. Mainstream Christian doctrine teaches that Christ had two wills – human and divine – to go along with his two natures.
Nestorianism – The belief that Jesus Christ was a natural union between the Flesh and the Word, or Logos, and was therefore not identical to the divine Son of God. Bishop Nestorius objected to the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mary, but preferred the term Christokos instead. After being condemned at the Council of Chalcedon, the Nestorian Christians went eastward and became part of the Church of the East, with their missionaries going as far as China.
Ophites – The belief that the Serpent was the true hero and liberator of man in the Garden of Eden, and the God who forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit was the villain, and an inferior form of deity. This was a favorite theme of the Gnostics.
Origenism – The doctrines and teachings of Origen, who was one of the most illustrious of early Christian philosophers and theologians. Origen was the greatest proponent of reincarnation and the pre-existence of souls in early Christianity, and his teachings were condemned by Emperor Justinian at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 AD. See my discussion of this important ecumenical council above.
Original Sin – The belief that Adam and Eve’s original disobedience to God in eating of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the original sin of mankind, and that this Original Sin of theirs was passed on from one generation to the next via procreation and the concupiscent desire that accompanied the sexual act. There are indeed many ways to understand and interpret the myth, or spiritual allegory, or Adam and Eve, and Original Sin is but one of them. Also, Eastern Orthodoxy has a different understanding of the nature of Original Sin, and does not take the same hard line approach that Augustine did. Judaism has the same Adam and Eve story in their Bible, but does not draw the same lesson of Original Sin from it. Christianity sees Christ’s atonement on the cross as the sovereign remedy for Original Sin, but Jews don’t believe that they have the disease to begin with.
Paulicianism – A dualistic Gnostic-like sect of early Christianity that originated in Armenia and then migrated to Bulgaria and the Balkans, where it flourished for a while; their descendants are still alive today. The Paulicians rejected the Old Testament, and claimed to have the original teachings of the apostle Paul.
Pelagianism – The teachings and doctrines of the fifth century Christian cleric and moralist Pelagius, who rejected Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. Pelagius believed that original sin did not taint human nature, and that human beings were capable of choosing freely between good and evil without divine aid or intervention. This runs directly contrary to the famous saying of Augustine: “I cannot not sin!” Augustine was in the political ascendancy over Pelagius and convened a church council in Carthage in 418 AD at which Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy; the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD seconded and confirmed that judgment.
Penal Substitution – The belief that Jesus died in our place and paid the penalty in our place for the death from sin that should have been ours, and that believing in and accepting his penal substitution for our sins is the key to atonement and salvation.
Predestination and the Elect – The belief that not everyone will be saved, but only those who are predestined to be saved, who are called the Elect. In other words, God chooses who will be saved, as well as those who will not be saved. A corollary doctrine to Limited Atonement.
Reincarnationism – The belief that certain people can be reincarnations of biblical figures like Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. Mainstream Christianity teaches that certain Old Testament figures were types that presaged the advent of later figures; a common example of Christian typology is that Joseph was an Old Testament type for Jesus Christ. Reincarnationism might postulate that the Old Testament Joseph actually reincarnated as Jesus Christ. Reincarnationsim is not to be confused with Origenism, or the teachings of Origen, who taught reincarnation.
Religious Syncretism – Religious syncretism is the adoption or incorporation of the features, beliefs or doctrines of one religion by another, and has been a common phenomenon in the history of world religions. When one studies Christian origins on a deeper level, one finds that the teachings of Paul of Tarsus, or the “apostle” Paul, upon which mainstream Christianity is based, is actually a form of religious syncretism that combined the teachings of the Judaism of Jesus, as handed down by the Jerusalem Church of James the Just, with various philosophies, doctrines and concepts of Hellenistic religion and spirituality, as exemplified by the old Mystery Religions. The Christian church practiced religious syncretism in a wide variety of ways later on by absorbing practices, customs and rituals from older religious traditions and European paganism into Christian thought and practice. And so, if one is an absolute purist who wants to avoid religious syncretism of any kind and go back to the original teachings of Jesus, one must go back to the original Jewish Christianity of the Jerusalem Church. Unfortunately, these teachings have not been preserved in their entirety, and any attempt at reconstructing them must be inferential and speculative to a large degree.
Sabellianism – The belief that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are modes, in other words manifestations or characterizations of the same One God rather than three distinct persons of the same triune Godhead. This may seem like minute Trinitarian hair splitting to many, but Sabellianism was condemned as heresy.
Satisfactionism – The belief or theory of atonement and salvation first put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, which places the primary emphasis on the need to satisfy God’s perfect and eternal sense of justice in the salvation process. Only the sacrifice of His perfectly sinless and divine Son could satisfy God and save man from his sins, said Anselm. Satisfactionism engenders a very legalistic and transactional view of atonement and salvation.
Semipelagianism – A more moderate form of Pelagianism that taught that grace aided free will in the choosing of good over evil rather than replacing it.
Total Depravity – The belief that man in his fallen state is totally depraved, and is therefore totally unable to do anything to bring about his salvation of his own free will. This is the basic foundational doctrine of Calvinist forms of Protestant Christianity.
Transubstantiation – The belief, which is a core belief of the Catholic Church, that the bread and the wine of the Eucharist actually do become the body and blood of Christ. Most of the newer Protestant sects are inclined to view the Eucharist as more of a symbolic ritual done in the remembrance of Jesus. Scriptural support for both views is found in the New Testament, often side by side. The power of the medieval Catholic Church over their flock was so great that those who publicly denied the doctrine of Transubstantiation could be burned at the stake as heretics. And so, it was better to keep one’s mouth shut on such matters in the Middle Ages rather than voicing dissenting views. This may actually be a matter of one’s personal spiritual gifts: If your spiritual visualization powers are great enough, the bread and the wine may actually become the body and blood of Christ for you, but if not, you may have to just settle for the symbolic remembrance interpretation of the Eucharist. And if the latter was the case for you, it was better to keep your mouth shut than to incriminate yourself during the Middle Ages.
Trinitariansim – The belief in a Holy Trinity, or a triune conception of the Godhead; this is actually the doctrinal position of mainstream Christianity. Trinitarianism is not identical to Absolute Monotheism, in which God is One and indivisible, or One only, but most Christians today have been so thoroughly programmed in Trinitarian thinking that for them, there is essentially no difference between One and three-in-one. For those who are strict monotheists, such as Jews and Muslims, Trinitarianism can be seen as only quasi- or pseudo-monotheism.
Tritheism – The belief that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are three independent divine beings rather than three separate persons of the same substance or essence.
Unitariansim – The belief that God is an absolute Unity, rather than a Trinity. This was the original position of the Jerusalem Church, as well as that of Judaism. It was the divinization of Jesus Christ that was initiated by Paul and his followers that led eventually to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. In addition to the modern denomination of liberal Christianity that bears this name, Sir Isaac Newton was also a Unitarian, and considered the doctrine of the Trinity to be foreign to the original teachings of Christianity.
The main web page that I used as my source and reference for this brief lexicon of Christian heresies was the following Wikipedia article:
But in offering you a broader perspective on Christian heresy, I have decided to go beyond what the Catholic Church has branded as heresy to include various doctrines of mainstream Christianity today, whether Catholic or Protestant, that I find questionable or that I take issue with. Many of these other doctrines I have included are those that I feel Jesus’ original followers would also take issue with as well. If there’s anything that I hope that I have communicated to you in this article, it is that the Christian Church has strayed a long way from its roots, and that its path has been quite checkered, and anything but straightforward. In giving you this broad and expanded list of what could be considered as Christian heresy, I have also striven to give you a brief introduction to the complexities of Christian doctrine and theology as well.
Conclusion: The Shapeshifting Struggle between Orthodoxy and Heresy in Christianity
If one thing is clear, it should be the fact that Christianity has been through many dramatic shifts and changes over the course of its long and tumultuous history. And these changes have been due not only to the internal development of Christian thought and doctrine, but also to the challenges that Christianity has had to face in keeping abreast of a world of constant change – changes not only in science and technology, but also in geopolitics and intellectual trends as well. Defenders of the Christian faith, when confronted and challenged regarding matters of doctrinal orthodoxy versus heresy, often take refuge in the “Alpha and Omega” clause, invoking the eternal truth of Christ and, by extension and association, accepted church theology and doctrine as well. But let’s get real here: These various doctrines, no matter how central and essential they are to the Christian faith today, could scarcely have even been envisioned by Jesus’ original followers, let alone the apostle Paul and his followers. Times change, as well as religious doctrines and what is considered to be heretical to them.
Down through the ages, there has been an overall trend in Christianity towards increasing structure and complexity when it comes to the definition and elaboration of theology and doctrine. Those who are generally of a more conservative bent have welcomed this trend as bringing much needed clarity and structure in defining what Christians should believe, and in warning against errors of thought and doctrine. Those who are of a more liberal and free thinking bent have often looked askance at this trend, seeing it as petty hair splitting; get back to the basics, they say. Psychologically speaking, one could say that it is a general trend of the discursive analytical mind to constantly introduce new questions and scruples, and make something that was originally quite simple and direct increasingly convoluted and complex with the passage of time. Paul thought that he had pretty much laid it all out in his day, and his followers were quite satisfied with his teachings and doctrine; how much of the theologizing that occurred in the centuries that followed was actually necessary and called for? When it comes to matters of theology and doctrine, often less is better.
Another thing that I hope that I have communicated through this article is that theological and doctrinal disputes occurring within the ecclesiastical world of the Christian Church have not remained solely within its walls, but have spilled over into society in general. Actually, the door swings both ways: the church influences society in general, and the outside world influences the church as well as it tries to remain relevant to the times. One important reason for this spillover effect was that the Church, and here I am referring especially to the Catholic Church, was not content to remain merely a spiritual power, but also got very heavily involved in worldly affairs as well. While religious liberals welcomed change and progress as the world entered the modern age, religious conservatives found that same change and progress threatening to their grip on power, and over the minds of the people. Although there has been an increasing separation between the sacred and the secular in modern times, there is, in reality, quite a bit of discourse, mutual influence and overlap between the two worlds.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
– 1 Corinthians 13: 12
In the above scriptural passage, the apostle Paul is telling us that human knowledge and perception is only limited, partial and flawed as long as we are in the flesh, and that we will only gain perfect knowledge and perception after we have passed on to the other side. If human knowledge and perception are so limited, partial and flawed while we live on earth, then why would a merciful, loving God want to damn us for all eternity if, due only to our flawed and imperfect faculties of knowledge and perception, we got things wrong while we were living in the flesh? Wouldn’t those errors of belief be due to something that was entirely beyond our power to control? Why not just keep an open mind on matters of doctrine and belief, trusting, in the spirit of the above scriptural passage, that we will all come to know the truth in “the sweet by and by”? “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” may be more than just the spiritual equivalent of procrastination or a cop-out; it may actually be sage advice.