This article looks at the main heresies in the first five centuries (Gnosticism, Docetism, Marcionism, Montanism, Monarchianism/Sabellianism, Arianism, Pelagianism etc) in a short and easily understandable way.It also discusses what is heresy, dualism and separatism.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1994. 4 pages.

Ancient Heresy and the Church Today

In the area of East Yorkshire where we now live the land is being eroded by the sea at the rate of an inch and a half a week; in one village, in 150 years, the sea has moved 400 yards towards the church. Gardens and houses are falling into the sea at an alarming rate. You may remember seeing pictures of a hotel in Scarborough in North Yorkshire tumbling down the cliff. Even the experts confess themselves baffled as to how to prevent coastal erosion.

On the other hand, chemicals from a major industrial site on the edge of Hull are probably responsible for the wearing away of the stonework of the Norman churches. You can put your hand through the mullions of one window in the church in our village. As though this were not enough, the inhabitants of the area have been waging a bitter battle against a firm that wants to build a toxic waste incinerator on the banks of the Humber.

But there is a form of erosion and pollution that is much worse than these; at times working conspicuously, at other times insidiously, it eats its way into the very vitals of its victim. You think you have stemmed it, when, lo and behold, it makes its appearance at some other point. Sometimes the pollu­tion is from within, at others it is externally induced; in either case, if not attended to, it can lead to the death of its poor unfortunate prey. We are referring to heresy in Christ's church.

What is Heresy🔗

'Heresy' is one of those words that start out being neutral in meaning but end up having a bad sense. From simply signifying 'choice', then 'choice of opinion', it becomes applied to people who make a choice, that is, a sect, for example those mentioned in Acts 5:17 and 15:5; especially those holding what are considered unorthodox opinions. Thus Paul was accused of being a ringleader of the 'sect' or 'heresy' of the Nazarenes, that is, of being a Christian (Acts 24:5).

The term ends up being applied to the opinions themselves. So, the false doctrines of those that were troubling the infant church are called 'heresies', listed among the 'works of the flesh' in Galatians 5:20 and described in 2 Peter 2:1 as 'destructive' because, like acid, they eat into the faith of those that are troubled by them. Like an incoming tide, they lead to the demoli­tion of the professing church.

'Heresy' has, on the other hand, been laid at the door of those who have, in fact, held to the truth of the gospel. The Roman church condemned many of God's true children to death as heretics in medieval and Reformation times. A Romanist publication, A Handbook of Heresies, useful factually for the early church period, includes chapters on Protestantism and Anglicanism! You may remember that the present Archbishop of Canterbury stigmatised opponents of women's ordination as 'heretics'.

In a typical liberal ploy to claim the authority of Christ for the vapid theo­logical opinions of the Bishop of Durham, the moderator of the Church of Scotland is reported to have said: 'May it not be the case that at least some of today's so-called heretics are really following the example of Jesus himself, by questioning conventional orthodoxies which have grown up round his truth and have hardened like old wineskins round the new wine of the gospel?' This should warn us to be careful how we bandy the word about.

As is usual in these cases, what is needed is a precise definition of terms. A nineteenth-century writer defined heresy thus: 'An opinion antagonistic to a fundamental article of the Christian faith ... a perversion of Christianity, an amalgamation with it of ideas discordant with its nature ... a manmade opinion...' This should serve as a working definition.

Early Heresies🔗

The main heresies of the first five centuries of the Christian era may be tabu­lated briefly like this:

  1. Gnosticism This was a movement mainly outside the church of the first two centuries which taught that God is too far above man to have contact directly because of the evil inherent in all matter. What is needed is interme­diaries, of which Christ was the highest. But they denied that Christ is the unique, incarnate Son of God. Rather, they taught that 'salvation' comes through enlightenment (gnosis, knowledge).

  2. Docetism This opinion taught that Christ was not really human but only seemed to be (Greek dokein — 'to seem'). He was a man on whom the Spirit came at baptism and left him at the cross.

  3. Marcionism This movement, called after the rich businessman who taught it, was widespread in Asia Minor and North Africa, where it was opposed by Tertullian. It drew a distinction between 'the God of the Old Testament' and the 'God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ'. Jesus was not really the incarnate Son, but borrowed a human body to reveal the unknown God. 'Salvation' was a matter of right belief, rather than personal relationship with God.

  4. Montanism Opinions differ as to whether this should be classed as a heresy, chiefly because it had the support of Tertullian in its milder North African form. Nevertheless, it should be counted as such in that Montanus claimed special revelations apart from Scripture. His supporters gathered on a mountain in Asia Minor to wait for the second coming of Christ and, when they were disappointed in their hope, the movement degenerated into disorder and excess, in spite of their rigorist opposition to second marriages and all forms of amusement.

  5. Monarchianism or Sabellianism This movement taught, against the orthodox trinitarian doctrine, that God changes into different forms or modes (hence it is also called Modalism) at different times. Though they spoke of Father, Son and Spirit, there is no essential Trinity, for Christ and the Holy Spirit are not eternal. They taught that the Father suffered on the cross, so it is sometimes referred to as Patripassianism.

  6. Arianism Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, in accusing his bishop of Sabellianism, denied the eternal Sonship of Christ, whom he viewed as merely 'the first of God's creatures'. He had much support, so much that 'the world wondered to find itself Arian'. Athanasius opposed him almost single-handedly ('Athanasius against the world'). His teaching was condemned at the Council of Nicaea, which fixed the orthodox trinitarian teaching.

  7. Apollinarianism denied Jesus' true humanity.

  8. Eutyches controverted the two natures in Christ with

  9. Nestorius, who taught that the Lord possessed a 'split personality'. The Council of Chalcedon defined the true relationship between the human and the divine in Christ.

  10. Pelagianism This teaching denied original sin and asserted man's abil­ity to keep the Law perfectly, albeit with God's help. Augustine of Hippo, opposing Pelagius and his followers, taught, with Paul, that all men have sinned in Adam, and are therefore helpless to do any good until God, work­ing effectually in the elect, saves them by his grace. A modified form of Pelagianism appeared much later in Arminianism.

A Three-Fold Error🔗

When we analyse the above heresies we find that they are guilty of a three­fold error:

  1. The doctrine of God The Trinity is not real and essential, but simply different modes of revelation; God is not sovereign but dependent on the will of man; Christ is not eternal but a phantom or, at best, a creature; the Spirit is not all-powerful but can be manipulated by the fervency of 'prophets'.

  2. Dualism God and the principle of evil fight as equal forces; the 'higher' spirituality divides the church into elite and ordinary Christians on the basis of greater knowledge, alleged experiences of the Spirit, or stricter life-style.

  3. Separatism This is closely connected with dualism. It follows that the elite must separate from the ordinary church member. The heretics were notorious for drawing followers away into cliques.

No one of these heresies is replicated in full today; rather, trends in their teachings re-emerge. We here leave aside anti-trinitarian sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons (though inconsistently so) and Unitarians (the so-called 'Free Christian Churches'); pantheistic 'Christian' Scientists and the theosophical Spiritualists, whether 'Christian' or otherwise. Can we discern the old errors in the mainline Christian church today?

First, we ought to point out that it is not easy to make strict comparisons. For one thing, ancient heretics generally accepted the authority of the Scrip­tures which were known to them, except that Marcion picked and chose between books and between passages in books to support his theories. Mod­ern heretics, who are sometimes dignified by the title 'Liberals', accept the authority of the Bible when it suits them but usually prefer an 'undogmatic faith' which will not be tied down to revelation. Yet they are similar to some ancient heretics in that they accept the validity of contemporary secular theory, to which they wish to assimilate their theology.

Almost to a man they accept the presuppositions of evolutionism and existentialist philosophy: the universe and man came about by chance; there are no absolutes and no infallible divine revelation. Not all who hold similar views to heretics of the early church are Liberals, but they share in their ancient counterparts' ability to combine their own views with partial adher­ence to orthodoxy. Their theology is of the a la carte variety. They turn their noses up at the full menu of Scripture.

1. The Doctrine of God🔗

Like the Monarchians of old, it is not only the sects mentioned above that reject the trinitarian formulas, but also Liberals, who deride the dependence on Greek philosophical terms in the ecumenical creeds. For instance, an Anglican report, heavily weighted towards Liberalism, says: 'So far as language is concerned, phrases such as "of one substance with the Father", would never be used today to express any of our beliefs about the person of Jesus, however suitable they may have been in the context of fourth-century philosophy'. A form of Docetism appears in those Liberals who can say, like the modern theologian, John Knox: 'We can have the humanity (of Christ) without the pre-existence and we can have the pre-existence without the humanity. There is absolutely no way of having both'.

Like the Montanists, some charismatics make a dichotomy between the Spirit's work in inspiring Scripture and his guidance of the church today. They tend to exalt the word spoken by their 'prophets' over the written word of the Bible. Like them, they exalt the recounting of 'visions' over the careful exposition of the Word. Some, like the Marcionites undervalue the Old Testament and concentrate on the narrative portions of the Acts of the Apostles.

2. Dualism🔗

Gnosticism and Montanism re-appear in a dualism of flesh and spirit, manifesting itself in excessively pietistic views of sanctification, with their listing of approved activities and rigorist denunciations of inno­cent pleasures.

In Arminian circles, evangelism is too often seen either as a tussle between Christ and the devil with the outcome depending solely on the response of the human will, often described as a swinging pendulum, or as 'easy believism' in which faith is presented as a matter of assent to particular doctrines, which the subject is asked to tick off, rather than as trust in a sovereign Redeemer. Both charismatics and Liberals tend to copy the Gnostics in making a church of two-tier Christians, the former distinguish­ing between the 'ordinary' and those 'baptized with the Spirit', and the latter treating Christianity as an activity chiefly for the intellectual elite as opposed to the 'simple believers' who are prepared to 'swallow anything' that orthodoxy throws at them.

In connection with the former, the writer can only speak with pain of the increasing marginalisation of mature Christians by a minister who had 'gone charismatic'. And, in the latter connection, he can quote from the brochure of a liberally-minded college which claims it can provide 'skills on how to think theologically' yet, in the course of six years' parttime study includes only four statedly biblically-based units.

3. Separatism🔗

'Heresy' could either mean 'unorthodoxy' or a 'sect', from the practice of heretics of gathering a clique around them and of separating from all others who did not agree with them. Often this was a so-called 'pure' church. This is not the same as biblical separation from false doctrine or practice.

The sort of thing I have in mind in speaking of Separatism is the tendency among some sections of the church to gather around chosen leaders, in defiance of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 1:10f. Such people separate from other believers, often over trivial points. There is a thin line between schism and heresy.

How, then, can we guard against heresy, as individuals and as churches? How — a more contentious question — should we deal with heresy and with heretics?

In answer to the first question, Scripture tells us that we are to meditate on the truth (Philippians 4:8); we are to let the Word of God abide in us (1 John 2:14) and seek the Spirit's anointing (1 John 2:27). We are to remind our­selves constantly of the prophecies concerning false Christs (1 Timothy 4:6), keep the faith (1 Timothy 6:20; cf. 2 Timothy 1:13; 3:14, 15), be strong in the grace of Christ (2 Timothy 2:1) and, especially for preachers, rightly divide the word of truth and avoid foolish and unlearned questions (2 Timothy 2:15, 16; cf. Titus 3:9). Ministers are to preach the Word and, watching in all things (2 Timothy 4:2, 5), speak sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). It follows then that we must not go to hear men known to hold heretical views nor invite into our pulpits men of unsound opinions on the fundamentals of the faith.

We are to deal with heresy by rebuking it sharply (Titus 1:13), convince the gainsayers by sound doctrine (Titus 1:9) and reject the heretic after warnings (Titus 3:10). It may mean that we have to leave a church or secede from a denomination in which heresy is rife and goes unrebuked and the perpetrators undisciplined (1 Timothy 6:5), however personally painful and inconvenient this may be.

Only by taking these measures shall we be able, by God's grace, to stem the tide and stop the rot which threatens to destroy the church's witness. All who are church leaders ought to ponder our Lord's words: 'Woe to the world because of offences (literally, scandals!) for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!' (Matthew 18:7).

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