What is heresy?

From the beginning of our faith, the Christian Church was been plagued by false teachings or teachings that deviated from the orthodox (or conventional) beliefs. These false teachings are known as heresies.

The Apostle Paul encountered these problems in the early Church as he learned of people leading the churches, that he started, astray with false teachings.

He tells the Corinthians: "By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Cor 3:10-11).

In his second letter to the Corinthians, he states: "For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough." (2 Cor 11:4).

Later, one of Paul’s disciples reports that Paul tells Timothy in the 2nd letter to Timothy: "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths" (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "Heresy is 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…" (2089). This is differentiated from similar ways of sinning against faith such as:

So to be a heretic, one must be willful in teaching falsely concerning Christian truths, and someone who believes in these false teachings innocently is not a heretic. Also, a heretic must first be a baptized Christian or Catholic. Therefore, a person born to the Mormon or Moslem faiths cannot be considered as heretics since they did not start off as baptized Catholics or Christians.

There have been many heresies over the Centuries. Listed below is a sampling:

  1. Gnosticism (1st and 2nd Century)
  2. Curiously for us in the 21st Century, the first heresies did not deny Jesus’ divinity, but instead denied his humanity. The Gnostics believed that the world was evil and some Gnostics even believed that the God of the Old Testament was evil since he created the world. They differentiated Him from the God of Jesus. There was also a belief that some taught concerning "aeons" (divine beings) that mediated between humans and the unreachable God, and that Jesus was one of these "aeons". Gnosticism exists today in some of the "New Age" religions.

  3. Montanism (2nd Century)
  4. You may recognize the teachings of the priest Montanus. He preached the imminent return of Jesus. He preached that there was no repentance and placed great emphasis on gifts of the Spirit as speaking in tongues and prophecy, and he claimed to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. To some extent each of these teachings has resurfaced in Christian Churches over the Centuries. Montanus also claimed that his teachings were above those of the Church.

  5. Arianism (4th Century)
  6. Arius was a priest whose heresy became the biggest threat to Christianity as we know it. He preached that Jesus was not God, but a creature who was a man-God, much like Hercules, and therefore he was not equal to God. This teaching became so popular that many bishops defected to the Arian heresy. It was officially condemned at the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD and supported later in the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. From these councils came our Nicene Creed which we profess in Church each Sunday. Some of Arius’ teachings can be found in some "New Age" beliefs.

  7. Pelagianism (5th Century)
  8. Pelagius was a British monk who preached that original sin did not exist, and therefore Christ’s death on the Cross was not redemptive and unnecessary for salvation. We can obtain heaven through our own methods. This teaching was refuted by St. Augustine. It is interesting to note that that like other ancient heresies, this has seen a resurgence in the 20th and 21st Century as part of the radical feminist Christian movement which denies the redemption of the Cross and original sin.

  9. Nestorianism (5th Century)
  10. Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople, who started teaching that Mary should be denied the title of Theotokos (Greek: "God-bearer" or, less literally, "Mother of God"). Nestorius claimed that Mary only bore the Christ in her womb. The Council of Ephesus in 431 AD condemned this teaching, and in response, the Ephesians took to the streets shouting "Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us Sinners!". Nestorianism is in some way still practiced by some Protestant Sects that downgrade the honor accorded to Mary by Catholics.

  11. Iconoclasm (7th and 8th Centuries)
  12. Iconoclasts (literally, "icon smashers") were people who condemned the practice of making images and statues of Jesus, God and the Saints. Along with this came a condemnation of honoring angels and saints. As with other heresies, there are Christians today who condemn the practice of making images of saints and even Jesus, and condemn the practice of asking for the saints to intercede for us in prayer.

  13. Catharism (11th Century)
  14. The "Cathari" which means pure ones believed in a world that was created by an evil God and so all matter was evil (just like the Gnostics). The God of the New Testament (Jesus’ God was the good God). There were different sub-groups of Cathari, but the largest one was the Albigensians. The Albigensians taught that the spirit was good, but the body was evil. They believed that having children was evil (since spirits became imprisoned in flesh), but that having sex was alright since it was something that the sinful body did. Only one sacrament was permitted and that was baptism and both men and women could be priests. Some people look at the Albigensians as the first Protestants since they had their own bible in the common vernacular (French). However, their Bible was highly edited and any good Protestant would blanche at the practices of these heretics.

  15. Jansenism (16th Century)
  16. Jansenius, a bishop from France proposed a complex doctrine of grace, which implied that only those predestined for salvation would be saved. Jansenism, though officially condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653, survived into the 20th Century in some form, especially in the belief that we are not worthy of salvation and that only a limited number of us will obtain heaven, while the rest will suffer the pangs of hell no matter how hard we try to be good Christians. This is a curious reversal of the Protestant belief that one can saved by faith alone.

  17. Modernism (20th Century)

Modernism could be called a form a Humanism. It is a an attempt to change the orthodox teachings of the Church (which have been held from the time of the Apostles) to conform to the times. The Modernist heresy is not easy to define, and therefore it can be easily overlooked or misapplied. However, a perfect example of a modernist teaching is that Jesus did not really rise from the dead, but the Apostles came to realize what he stood for, and, therefore, he symbolically rose from the dead. This is against orthodox Catholic and Christian teaching. As Paul said: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." (1 Cor 15:14).

Some people look to the Protestant churches as "heretical", but while some sects may have heretical beliefs (and therefore be "heretical"), the majority of Protestant Churches are seen as schismatic (that is to say, Christian Churches which do not recognize the authority of the Pope.

In the end, we see that heresies have come and gone for centuries, but we have the promise of Christ that the Church will not be led astray because: "…when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." (John 16:13) and as he told Peter: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).

- Deacon George Kozak (6/02)

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