Heresy and Those Who Fought It

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To murder the soul is worse than murdering the body, so the teaching of heresy should be punishable by death.” I have never forgotten this statement made to me 40 years ago by a monk in the Trappist monastery of Mount Melleray in the south of Ireland. Though I could not agree with the penalty, he had joltingly reminded me of the seriousness of heresy in a century which tends to take it very lightly.

It has been said that the history of the church is the history of heresies. To forget or neglect them is to lay oneself open to repeating them.

One of the earliest church fathers, Ignatius, who was martyred perhaps as early as the end of the first century, gave us a modern-sounding warning when he compared heresy with the working of lethal drugs: “Where God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel close by.” But there is a bright side to this dolorous topic. Many of our greatest theological works have been written as responses to heresies. Indeed, the New Testament Scriptures themselves are in large part the result of firm resistance to the distortions Christianity faced from the first. But as Philip Schaff reminds us, “In the hands of Providence all errors must redound to the unfolding and the final victory of the truth.”

So with that cheering thought, let us look at some of the major heresies which have plagued the church in its long history. We must be very selective, for even by the fifth century Augustine could list 88 different heresies.

The deity of Christ was at issue at the Council of Nicaea (325) which condemned Arianism. Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, rose above the aforementioned heresies in maintaining the preexistence of the Son but fell far short of orthodoxy in teaching that the Son was the first creation of God. The young deacon Athanasius was the leader of the orthodox party, and he would later be exiled five times for his stand as the threat of Arianism waxed and waned with the succession of emperors.

Succeeding church councils would condemn other heresies regarding the person of Christ, including the Nestorians for dividing Christ into two persons (one divine and one human) and the opposing Monophysites, or Eutychians, for mingling Christ’s two natures into one. The Council of Chalcedon (451) affirmed that Christ is one person with a fully divine nature and a fully human nature. This has remained the normative view of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches. The Coptic Church of Egypt, among others, remained Monophysite.

The fifth century also saw the conflict between Augustine of Hippo and the British monk Pelagius in the anthropological and soteriological areas of sin and grace. This was mainly a Latin, not a Greek, controversy. Pelagius denied original sin and man’s need of redemption. The heresy was condemned at two North African synods in 416 and at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Before Christianity’s triumph over paganism, its major tool in punishing heretics was excommunication. But from the end of the fourth century the emperors generally felt bound to use their power to preserve orthodox doctrine. Penalties for heretics included confiscation of property, banishment, and death. Another dimension was added in the Middle Ages with the rapidly growing power of the papacy. Heresy became defined as disobedience to the pope in the area of doctrine.

The church finally came to deny to the state the authority to tolerate a heresy which the church had condemned. The state carried out the death penalty so often that the medieval church shed more blood than did pagan Rome with the early martyrs. One need only mention the Albigensians (or Cathari), who were apparently dualistic and extremely ascetic, and the Waldensians, who were evangelical and would later join forces with Reformed groups. Thousands of these and others would perish at the hands of the Inquisition led by the Dominicans. This medieval “engine of iniquity” would continue into Reformation times with Protestants as targets, for they were regarded as heretics (the Eastern Orthodox were considered only schismatics). The Reformers themselves inherited the doctrine of persecution from their mother church and practiced it in varying and lesser degrees with the goal of preserving the Reformation.

Reaction to persecution has often happily led to greater toleration. The downside is sometimes indifference which can lead to intolerance of the faith, as in the French Revolution.

The coming of liberal Protestant theology in the last century represented a most radical intellectual schism in the church. Heresy seems an inadequate term for liberalism, in that it denied the basic doctrines of Christianity to the degree that J. Gresham Machen called it a new religion (Christianity and Liberalism). The ancient denials of Christ’s deity hardly entitled liberalism to be called modernism. The partly Arian Christology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses belongs on a higher rung than does the unreconstructed liberal Christology. Study of the old heresies can still help us. Some of the second-century arguments of Irenaeus against the Gnostics can be used today against New Age thought.

The dreary and lamentable trail of real heresy through the ages has generally involved a satanic snatch at the crown of the King of kings and Lord of lords, who is the way, the truth, and the life. It is comforting to remember Augustine’s words: “Nothing conquers but truth, the victory of truth is love.”

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