A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies | Kenneth D. Whitehead
A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies | Kenneth D. Whitehead
Very often in the history of Christianity, "reformers", by whatever name,
have aspired to return to "the early Church". The Church of their own
day, for whatever reason, fails to live up to what they think Christianity
should be: in their view there has been a falling away from the beautiful
ideals of the early Church.
Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Early Church Was The Catholic Church,
Kenneth Whitehead shows how the early Church has, in fact, not disappeared,
but rather has survived and persisted, and is with us still. "Reformers"
are not so much the ones needed by this Church as are those who aspire
to be saintsto follow Christ seriously and always to fulfill God's
holy will by employing the means of sanctification which Christ continues
to provide in the Church.
Whitehead shows how the visible body which today bears the name "the Catholic
Church" is the same Church which Christ established to carry on and perpetuate
in the world his Words and his Worksand his own divine Lifeand
to bring salvation and sanctification to all mankind. Despite superficial
differences in certain appearances, the worldwide Catholic Church today
remains the same Church that was originally founded by Jesus Christ on
Peter and the other apostles back in the first century in the ancient
Near East. The early Church, in other words, was always!nothing
else butthe Catholic Church.
This helpful list of heresies in the early Church is excerpted from the
appendix of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
Adoptionism. Adoptionism held that Jesus was not really God but merely
a man to whom special graces had been given and who achieved a kind of
divine status at his baptism. This idea that Christ as a man was only
the "adopted" son of God proved to be a persistent heresy. It was condemned
by Pope St. Victor 1, who excommunicated Theodotus of Byzantium for Adoptionism.
The same heresy was condemned in 785 and again in 794 by Pope Adrian 1.
Revived by Peter Abelard in the twelfth century, Adoptionism was again
condemned by Pope Alexander III in 1177.
Anomeanism. A radical variant of Arianism (see below), Anomeanism
held that the Son was "unlike" (Greek: animoios) the Father.
Apollinarianism. This heretical doctrine of Apollinaris (310-390),
bishop of Laodicea in Asia Minor, held that Christ had a human body but
only a sensitive soul-and no rational human mind or human free will, these
having been replaced in Christ by the divine Logos, or Word of God. This
theory was condemned by Roman synods in 377 and 381 and by the ecumenical
Council of Constantinople in the latter year.
Arianism. A major heresy that arose in the fourth century and denied
the divinity of Jesus Christ. First effectively advanced by Arius (256-336),
a priest of Alexandria, who denied that there were three distinct divine
Persons in God. For Arius, there was only one Person, the Father. According
to Arian theory, the Son was created ("There was a time when he was not").
Christ was thus a son of God, not by nature, but only by grace and adoption.
This theory logically evacuates the doctrine of the Incarnation of God
in Christ of all meaning: if God did not become man, then the world has
not been redeemed and the faith itself eventually dissolves. Arianism
was formally condemned in 325 by the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea,
which formulated and promulgated the original version of the Nicene Creed;
but Arianism and Semi-Arianism (see below) nevertheless continued to prevail
in its original form in many areas for more than a century. Arianism was
combatted by the great St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) among others;
but the heresy nevertheless persisted, especially among the barbarians,
for several centuries.
Donatism. A fourth- and fifth-century African heresy holding that
the validity of the sacraments depends upon the moral character of the
minister of the sacraments and that sinners cannot be true members of
the Church or even tolerated by the Church if their sins are publicly
known. Donatism began as a schism when rigorists claimed that a bishop
of Carthage, Caecilian (fl. ca. 313), was not a true bishop because he
had been ordained by a bishop who had been an apostate under the Diocletian
persecution. The Donatists ordained their own bishops, one of whom was
Donatus, for whom the heresy is named. Donatism was condemned by Pope
Miltiades (311-3 14) and by the (local) Council of Arles in 314, but it
nevertheless persisted in North Africa until the Muslim conquest in the
seventh century. The great St. Augustine (354-430) wrote extensively against
Gnosticism. The heretical theory that salvation comes through some
special kind of knowledge, usually knowledge claimed by a special elite
group. Gnostic theories existed before Christianity, and the Gnostics
adapted the Gospels to their own views and for their own purposes, even
composing pseudogospels, embodying their particular ideas and doctrines.
Gnosticism held matter to be evil and hostile to the human spirit; it
also essentially denied the truths of Christian revelation. Secular historian
Jacob Burckhardt described the Gnostics as "speculative enthusiasts" who
embraced Christianity only as a platform for Platonic and Oriental ideas.
Gnosticism as an organized sect or body of beliefs has long been extinct,
but Gnostic ideas persist and surface in some form in nearly every major
heretical version of the Christian faith.
Macedonianism. A heresy named after Macedonius, an Arian bishop of
Constantinople (d. ca. 362,) whose followers denied the divinity of the
Holy Spirit: the Spirit was declared by them not to proceed from the Father
but to be a creation of the Son. Macedonianism was condemned in 381 by
the ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which added to the Nicene Creed
an affirmation of belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the consubstantiality
of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.
Marcionism. A second-century heresy of Marcion (ff. ca. 140) and his
followers, who rejected the Old Testament and much of the New Testament,
except for the Gospel of Luke and ten of the Letters of St. Paul. The
Marcionists claimed to preach a purer gospel after the manner of St. Paul;
for them Christianity was purely a gospel of love to the exclusion of
any law. Only virgins, widows, and celibates were baptized by the Marcionists;
married people could not advance beyond the catechumenate.
Modalism. A form of Trinitarian heresy of the second and third centuries,
Modalism held that there is only one Person in God, who manifests himself
in various ways, or modes. Sabellianism (see below) was a form of Modalism,
as was Priscillianism (see below).
Monophysitism. A fifth-century heresy holding that in Christ there
is only one nature (Greek: mono, single; physis, nature),
a divine nature. Thus, Monophysitism denies the true human nature of Christ;
this human nature is absorbed into Christ's divine nature, according to
Monophysitism. This heresy arose primarily in reaction to Nestorianism
(see below). Monophysitism, though condemned by Pope St. Leo the Great
in his famous Tome Of 449 and by the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in
451, persists to this day in parts of the East.
Monothelitism. A heresy that arose in the seventh century as a result
of Byzantine imperial efforts to accommodate the Monophysites (see above).
Monothelites accepted the orthodox doctrine of the two natures, divine
and human, in the Person of Jesus Christ but held that these two natures
had only "one will" (Greek: monos, single; thelein, will).
This heresy was condemned by the Sixth General Council of Constantinople
Montanism. A second-century heretical movement that professed belief
in a new "Church of the Spirit". The Montanists believed they enjoyed
the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This claim meant that their
fanatically rigorous views concerning morality superseded the authentic
revelation of Christ that had been handed down in the Church. The heresy
of Montanism, which claimed the great Tertullian (160-220) himself, was
condemned by several Eastern synods and, finally, by Pope Zephyrinus around
the year 202.
Nestorianism. A fifth-century heresy claiming that there are two distinct
Persons in the Incarnate Christ, one human and one divine. The Church
teaches that Christ was and is a divine person who took on a human nature.
According to Nestorianism, it is unthinkable that God was born, crucified,
and died; nor could Mary really have been the mother of God, but only
the mother of a human being conjoined to God. Nestorianism, which took
its name from Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople (d. ca. 451), was
condemned by the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Overemphasizing
the humanity of Christ, Nestorianism is the opposite heresy from Monophysitism
(see above), which overemphasized Christ's divinity.
Novatianism. A schism that became a heresy. It originated with Novatian,
a Roman priest who became an antipope, claiming the papacy in 251 in opposition
to the true pope, St. Cornelius. The Novatianists adopted a moral rigorism
similar to that of Donatism (see above). Those guilty of grave sin were
excluded from the Church permanently, and absolution was refused to those
guilty of the sins of murder and adultery.
Pelagianism. A heretical doctrine on divine grace taught by Pelagius
(355-425), a monk from the British Isles who first propagated his views
in Rome in the time of Pope Anastasius I. Pelagius argued that the Church's
teaching that in order to do good, divine grace in the soul was necessary.
This canceled human free will. Pelagianism included a cluster of other
beliefs and essentially entailed a denial of the Church's doctrine of
Original Sin. It was condemned by local councils in Africa in 416 and
417, and also by Pope St. Innocent I in the latter year. It was condemned
again in 418 by his successor, Pope St. Zosimus. Semi-Pelagianism, a related
heresy, was condemned by the local Council of Orange in 529 but has long
persisted among those who question Original Sin and the supremacy of divine
Priscillianism. A fourth-century heresy originating in Spain and combining
forms of both Modalism and Gnosticism (see above). It denied Christ's
divinity and real humanity, holding that human souls were united to bodies
in punishment for their sins.
Sabellianism. A third-century heresy named after a theologian, Sabellius
(fl. ca. 215). The Sabellians believed that there was only one Person
in God, with three "modes", or aspects, of manifesting himself as Creator,
Redeemer, and Sanctifier. It was thus a form of Modalism (see above).
Jesus Christ was merely a temporary manifestation in the flesh of the
eternal God. This heresy was also known by the name of Patripassianism,
since it held that it was the Father who suffered on the cross. It was
condemned by Pope St. Callistus I, but as a form of Modalism it has persisted
in history in connection with other heresies.
Semi-Arianism. A modified form of Arianism (see above) that flourished
after the Council of Nicaea had condemned Arianism in 325. The Semi-Arians
were often "moderates" who wanted to forge a "compromise" between those
who held to the Church's strict teaching concerning the divinity of Christ
and Christ's consubstantiality with the Father and those tempted by Arianism
to deny many great truths. Sometimes referred to as Arianizers, the Serni-Arians
also included those who wished to substitute homo-i-ousios ("of
like substance") or homoios ("similar") for the orthodox Nicene
homo-ousios ("one in being" or "consubstantial") with the Father.
There were a number of differing positions that fell within the general
category of Semi-Arianism; their common theme was an unwillingness to
accept that the Nicene term homo-ousios was necessary to the Church's
orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Subordinationism. A general name for all the fourth century heresies
that admitted only God the Father as God. See the entries above for Arianism,
Anomeanism, Macedonianism, Modalism, and Semi-Arianism; all of these heresies
are forms of Subordinationism.
Valentinianism. A form of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism (see above)
based on the teaching of one Valentinus, who lived in Rome between 136
and 165. The Valentinians claimed that the visible world had been created
by the God of the Old Testament but that only the invisible world was
real. According to them, Christ came to deliver mankind from its bondage
to matter and the physical world; most of mankind, however, wholly engrossed
in matter, would nevertheless end in eternal perdition. The great St.
Irenaeus (ca. 125-ca. 202) inveighed against Valentinianism in particular
in his magisterial work Against the Heresies.
Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.
He has authored or coauthored several books, as well as many articles for
leading Catholic periodicals, and is the translator of some twenty published
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