ANCIENT HERESIES RECYCLED IN THE MODERN AGE

Only in Him is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved.
Acts 4:12

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."
John 14:6

The Catholic Church has always taught:

The problems for the Church came in trying to decide how to express this basic "Rule of Faith." Soon sincere men slipped into heresies when they tried to explain the nature of Jesus Christ and other aspects of divine revelation from their own understanding. For Catholic Christians, heresy is an opinion at variance with the authorized teachings of the universal Church as set forth by Jesus and His Apostles and interpreted by the Apostles successors, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Such a heresy is expressed as a seriously erroneous opinion that denies the teaching of the Church and promotes separation from the unity of the Body of Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines heresy as: ... the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same... (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2089). Four elements must be identified to constitute a formal condition of heresy:

  1. The professing Christian has received the Sacrament of Baptism (which need not have been in the Catholic Church).
  2. There must be the profession of still being a Christian (a baptized person who denies Christianity for another religion or for no religion at all is an apostate).
  3. The denial or positive doubt regarding a dogma (truth) that the Catholic Church has declared as revealed by God.
  4. The persistence of disbelief must be morally culpable where a nominal Christian stubbornly refuses to accept what he/she knows is a doctrinal imperative of Christianity (i.e., the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead).

Many of the errors in doctrine denounced in the early centuries of the Church continue as errors of Christian faith today. For example, there are those who deny that Jesus is truly God. Those who fall into this heresy believe that Jesus was a great man and a godly man but that He was not God. In this heresy those who hold this belief deny Christianity since the doctrine of the Incarnation "that the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as a human without ceasing to be divine "is the very basis of Christianity. Generally this is the belief of Deists and Adoptionists. Other heresies stressed the oneness of God by denying the other two persons of the Trinity. Belief in the Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith. Monarchians, Patripassinists, and Modalists believed that God the Father and Christ are "one person." These heresies maintain that God the Father became Jesus Christ.

There are those who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, believing that although Jesus was the Son of God that He not equal to God the Father and is not eternal. This is the heresy of the Arianists, a heresy spread by Arius, a priest of Alexandria, Egypt who began to teach this doctrine in 318 AD. It is the heresy that the First Nicene Council addressed in 325 AD. Arianism professed the belief that there are not three distinct persons in the Godhead, co-eternal and equal in all things. They believed that God the Father created God the Son, that God the Father existed before God the Son and made God the Son as he made the earth and all other parts of Creation. Arianists assigned the role of creator solely to God the Father. This anti-Trinitarian doctrine strikes at the foundations of Christianity by diminishing the Incarnation. If Jesus was created and not divine then God did not become man, nor did He have the power to redeem the world. Others who deny the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead believe in God the Creator (Father), God the Redeemer (Jesus), and God the Sanctifier (Holy Spirit), as if there were three gods. This is the heresy of Polytheism.

There are also misguided professing Christians who believe Mary was the mother only of Jesus the man and should not be called the "Mother of God." This is the heresy of Nestorianism which was originally spread by Nestorius, a monk of Antioch who became the influential patriarch of Constantinople in 428 AD. Nestorius preached that the man Jesus of Nazareth was not God. He taught that God only dwelt in Jesus as in a temple, that Jesus became God by degrees, and that Jesus was two separate persons within one body. Logically in this interpretation, Nestorius had to deny that Mary is the Mother of God since Nestor believed Jesus was not born divine. He said she should be called Christotokos (Christ bearer), but not Theotokos (God bearer). The doctrine of this heresy was addressed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. The Church pronounced that Christ is only one person. Therefore, Mary is the mother of that person and since that person is God then Mary is indeed the Theotokos and deserves to be called the "Mother of God." It was from the ruling of this council that "Holy Mary, Mother of God" was added to the "Hail Mary" prayer, affirming St. Elizabeth's greeting to the Virgin Mary when, inspired by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:41), she said "Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord?" (Lk 1:43), referring to God by the title "Lord."

Manichaeism is a heresy introduced in the third century AD by a Persian named Mani or Manes (c. 215-275 AD) who denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Manes taught his followers that he received a higher form of divine truth than taught by Christ. The Manichaean dualistic doctrine professed that there were two ultimate sources of creation: the one good and the other evil. God is the creator of all that is good and Satan is the creator of all that is evil. The Manichaeists believed that man's spirit is from God but his body is from the devil. Therefore, they denied personal responsibility for one's evil actions, reasoning that a human cannot be held responsible for evil acts he/she commits since evil acts are not due to one's free will but to the dominance of Satan's power over one's life. Others, like Manes, have taught that they received a higher order of divine truth than taught by Christ and passed on to His Apostles and His Church, including Mohammed (d. 639AD) the founder of Islam and the nineteenth century Americans Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science).

To question or deny Jesus' humanity is also heresy. It is the old heresy of Monophysitism. Monophysites distorted St. Paul's statement that Jesus was "a man like us in all things but sin" and had difficulty understanding, for example, that He was subject to fatigue, or to all the humbling bodily functions, or the desires or temptations that all men have. They denied that Christ had a true human nature, believing that instead to two natures, both human and divine, that Jesus was physically human but His nature was divine. The human nature, they maintained, was absorbed into His divinity as a drop of wine is absorbed in an ocean. Therefore, they believed there was really only one nature in Christ which was His divine nature; hence, the name for their heresy: mono = one and physite = nature.

The doctrine of the Monophysites was very close to the heresy of Docetism and the Gnostic-Docets. These heresies basically taught that Jesus was somehow not subject to all the things that make one a human. They taught that Christ merely assumed the appearance of a human body, denying the reality of the humanity of Christ. St. Ignatius, the Christian Bishop of Antioch (Syria), refuted this heresy when he wrote: For I know and believe that He was in the flesh after the Resurrection: and when He came to Peter and his company, He said, Lay hold and handle Me, and see that I am not a bloodless spirit', and straightaway they touched Him and believed, being joined to His flesh and blood. Therefore also they despised death, nay, were found superior to it; and after His Resurrection He ate and drank with them, as one in the flesh, though spiritually He was united with the Father. [....] The Docetists abstain from the Eucharist, because they allow not that It is the flesh of our Savior, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of His goodness raised up. St. Ignatius was martyred ca. 107 AD.

At the end of the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus completed his great work Against Heresies, which was written to refute the various forms of Gnosticism. The Gnostics denied the historicity of the Gospels. For the Gnostics, neither the historical Jesus whose humanity they denied, nor the events of His life meant anything for salvation. They viewed these as only "signs" of an eternal, invisible and secret reality, and they believed that physical matter and the world were inherently evil, the creation of an inferior god. For the Gnostics, the goal of humanity was in escaping from the physical body and earthly constraints and in returning to the higher spiritual world from which humans fell. The means of achieving this "spiritual reality" were contained in a "secret truth" revealed only to the Gnostics and not found in Sacred Scripture or the Tradition of the Church. These teachings were refuted by St. Irenaeus who established the principles for the interpretation of the Scriptures guided by the "Rule of Faith, handed down by the Apostles," and insisting the whole Bible portrays one continuous history from Creation to redemption and consummation. He affirmed the teaching of the Universal Church that salvation takes place in time and history and the Old and New Testaments form a single vision within this historical sweep.

In 451 AD the Council of Chalcedon, with nearly 600 Bishops assembled, settled the issue by declaring the doctrine of two natures in the one Divine Person of Jesus Christ. All present arose and exclaimed: "That is the faith of the Fathers; that is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! Peter has spoken through Leo!" referring to Pope St. Leo the Great (reigned 440-461). The definition of the Council of Chalcedon was not accepted by the whole Church. The Monophysite controversy went on for nearly a hundred years. Finally, those parts of the Church in the Eastern Empire in which Greek was not the language of the people separated themselves from the universal Church, and they have remained in schism ever since: the Copts in Egypt, the Jacobites in Syria, the Armenians, and the Abyssinians.

The Monophysite heresy led to the Monothelitism heresy (monon = one and thelema = will). In an effort to conciliate the Monophysites, Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, reasoned that by declaring that there was only one will in Christ the Syrian and Egyptian Monophysites would be satisfied and give up their schism. The Church opposed this teaching in the sixth ecumenical council of Constantinople III (681 AD). The Church council decreed that Christ was one person with two natures (human and divine) and two wills, and that Christ's two natures and two wills are in perfect accord "His human will submitting to His Divine will.

The Bogomilism heresy had its origins in Bulgaria in the tenth century AD. The adherents of this heretical sect called themselves Bogomils. After being driven out of Serbia by Eastern Orthodox Christians, they settled in Bosnia. Bogomilism was an offshoot of the Manichaean heresy which spread over large areas of Europe in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries as the Catharism/Albigensianism and Patarenism heresies. These heresies rejected such basic Christian doctrines as the Incarnation and divinity of the Christ and the dogma of the Most Holy Trinity (a term used to define the nature of God since 200 AD). Belief in the Trinity is a central doctrine of Christianity, professing that God in His infinite substance or nature is three distinct persons (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), that the three divine persons are a unique unity of One and are co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial, deserving co-equal glory and adoration.

In addition, the Bogomils (like the Cathars of the Albigensianism heresy in southern France) had a radical solution to the existence of evil in the world. They condemned all matter as evil and denied that God created the earth, believing that an evil entity (Satan) created the material world and a good entity (God) created the spiritual realm. They held that salvation could only be realized by an elite few who adopted a lifestyle of rigid asceticism "denying all things material. They declared sexual intercourse evil (even in marriage); they forbid the eating of meat and the drinking of wine. They also rejected the Sacraments, the Communion of Saints, all use of images, church buildings, a central teaching authority and an ordained priesthood. Their radical beliefs generated continual tension and warfare between the Bogomils and their Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox neighbors. When Moslem armies invaded the Balkan states in the fifteenth century, many Bogomil nobles (and their people) accepted Turkish rule, apostatizing from their distorted form of Christianity and converting to Islam, expressing the sentiment "better the Turk's turban than the papal tiara." Their descendants are the Moslem inhabitants of Bosnia-Hercegovina today.

Many of these heresies and others, in variations, are professed in the modern age. Two heresies that are popular today are revivals of a form of the heresy of Pelagianism, a heretical teaching on grace first introduced in the early fifth century AD by the lay monk Pelagius (see endnote). These modern versions of the ancient heresy include the denial of the action of Divine grace in the economy of salvation, maintaining that humans can obtain salvation solely through their own efforts, and the heresy of Universalism which professes the belief that everyone will ultimately achieve salvation.

Endnote:

Pelagianism was condemned by several Church Councils, including the Councils of Carthage and Mileve; however, some of the errors in doctrine still persist today. Errors in doctrine associated with the Pelagian heresy and condemned by the Catholic Church include:

Appendix:

Review of ancient heresies that have been recycled into the "New Age" movements and cults:

  1. Deists and Adoptionists: Deny that Jesus was fully divine. Those who fall into this heresy believe Jesus was a great teacher and a godly man but He was not God.
  2. Monarchians, Patripassinists, and Modalists: These heresies stress the oneness of God by denying the other two persons of the Trinity as "Persons" in the Godhead. They maintain that God the Father became God the Son.
  3. Arianists: They believed Jesus was the son of God but that He was a created being and therefore not equal with God.
  4. Polytheism: Believes in multiple deities and includes sects that regard the Holy Trinity as three separate gods.
  5. Nestorianism: Believed Mary was only the mother of Jesus the man and should not be addressed as the "Mother of God" as though Jesus was two separate persons instead of one person with two natures.
  6. Manichaeans: Denied the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ.
  7. Monophysitism: Denied Jesus had a true human nature and acknowledged only Jesus' divine nature.
  8. Monotheletism: Believed that Jesus is two persons but with one divine will. The sixth ecumenical council of Constantinople III opposed this teaching, decreeing the dogma (truth) that Christ is one person, with two natures (human and divine) and two wills and that both His natures and His wills are in perfect accord.
  9. Pelagianism: The belief that humans can obtain salvation apart from Christ solely through their own efforts.
  10. Gnosticism: Belief that salvation can be achieved through a "secret knowledge". Matter is believed to be hostile to spirit, and the universe is held to be a depravation of the Deity. The old Gnostic heresy has been re-presented as the New Age movement. Although extinct as an organized religion, Gnosticism is the invariable element in every major Christian heresy today by its denial of an objective revelation that was completed in the Apostolic Age and its disclaimer that Christ established in the Church a teaching authority to interpret decisively the meaning of the revealed word of God. The book The DaVinci Code is Gnostic heresy intermixed with the "sacred feminine" of paganism.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 1999, revised 2004, 2012 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references:
Christ's two natures, human and divine = true God and true man: CCC 211, 447, 464-69, 470-78, 480-82, 499.
Christ's two wills: CCC 475
The Incarnation: CCC 461-463.
Mary the Mother of God: CCC 466, 495, 509.
Trinitarian unity of God: CCC 202, 232, 234, 237, 252, 261.
Heresy defined: CCC 645, 817, 2089.

Resources:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
  2. Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J., Doubleday, 1985.
  3. Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1997.
  4. Spark from Heaven, Mary Craig, Ave Maria Press, 1991 edition.
  5. Church History, Fr. John Laux, Tan Books, 1989 editon.