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Know Your Heresies

Ancient insights into modern Christianity

See also: the word of God | who speaks for Christianity?

Introduction

Sometimes I get emails from Fundamentalist Protestants, accusing me of not understanding the gospel. They are probably right. That is why I try to listen to the prophet. But it is interesting to look at Fundamentalist Protestant versions of the gospel. I have just been reading the "Encyclopedia of Heresies" by C. S. Clifton (California, ABC-CLIO, 1992). Some of these old heresies look very familiar.

A heresy is a false doctrine (as defined by the dominant church of the time). The medieval church in particular was very concerned about heresies. The most famous heresies are perhaps Arianism and Dualism, but there are many others. Some so-called heresies are actually truths that the dominant church did not like. But many are genuinely false, and were rightly condemned by Christians down the centuries.

Modern Christians, however, are generally ignorant of these famous heresies. And so it is interesting to see people fall into the same traps. On this page I will look at some of the best known heresies, and see how they are being revived by traditional Christianity. Of course, heretics were generally not stupid. They had reasons for believing their heresies. We cannot just dismiss them with crude stereotypes. To help understand why these issues are important, I will start each section with a question.

Disclaimer
This is just my current understanding, and may be inaccurate, or offensive, or both. I welcome correction.

Also, please note that heresies adapt with time, and what I describe are often modern adaptations of ancient heresies. For example, Docetism is alive and well, but it no longer focuses on Christ on the cross. Now it focuses on God in heaven as the one who is too perfect to be physical.

Judge for yourself
David Haley wrote:
"Ran across these researching the important Creeds of Christianity.  Thought you folks might find these of interest: "
http://www.elca.org/creeds/creeds.html
This lists the 3 most fundamental of the creeds, i.e. the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed
http://www.bible.ca/indexchurches.htm
A list of churches and the creeds to which they subscribe.  Click on your church or religion and find your creed!
http://www.gty.org/phi/creeds.htm
The Church Hall of History - Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms - Excellent source
http://www.biblestudytools.net/History/CreedsandConfessions
A Bible study tool
http://home.earthlink.net/ronrhodes/Creeds.html
The Important Creeds of Christendom
http://www.creeds.net
The Creeds of Christendom - An excellent resource. If you don't know the creed or creeds to which your church or religion subscribes, then how much do you really know about your faith?  How can you do hermeneutics (interpretation) of your scriptures without knowing the creeds to which you subscribe?"

Adoptionism

Question: What does the Bible mean when it says that the Holy Ghost came upon Mary and therefore Jesus was God's son? Isn't this like when the Bible says that a believer is baptized and receives the Holy Ghost?

Many liberal Christians would point out that, in Bible times, the name "virgin" (as in "virgin birth") just meant "young woman." Also, they would point out, all believers are "sons of God." Therefore, from a Bible perspective, it could be believed that Jesus was an extraordinary man who was raised to the level of divine by God. All the other statements - e.g. "the word was with God" and created the world - can be interpreted symbolically.

Fundamentalists reject this view, but it is popular among nominal Christians, liberal Christians, and Christian sympathizers. In other words, this is the most popular view of Christianity. Crucially, it can be defended from the Bible. This illustrates the dangers in having a purely Bible based faith.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear. Jesus was literally the son of God, and the creator of the world. End of argument.

Antinomianism

Question: if we are saved by faith, what good are good works? Can you be saved without them?

If faith is all we need, then works are a sham. It becomes heretical to place any value on them. This was popular with the Gnostics, and is the direction of modern Fundamentalist Protestants, although they would vigorously deny it. Yet the logic is undeniable.

Fundamentalist Protestants would argue that the saved Christian naturally wants to do good works anyway, or that God does good works through him. But this misses the point. If we can be saved without good works, good works are pointless and a Christian can do what he wishes as long as he believes. If we can not be saved without good works, then good works are essential to salvation. There is no middle ground.

Perhaps we could argue that a Christian does good works without effort in that direction? If so, he has no free will.

Antinomianism is particularly popular since the publication of the Scofield Bible, the basis of the Fundamentalist Protestant views on prophecy. This makes a clear distinction between a dispensation based on works and a dispensation based on grace.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: a combination of faith and works. "It is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do." (2 Nephi 25:23) This is just as taught by the apostle Paul.

Arianism (a form of Monarchianism)

Question: if Christ is the only begotten son of the Father, and the first born, surely the Father must have existed before the Son?

Or if both existed together for eternity, isn't this a form of polytheism? (As the Moslems point out.)

Or if the Son is really the Father, how could he die on the cross? Why did he always refer to the Father as someone elsewhere and separate?

Arius (a fourth century bishop) taught that the Son came after the Father, and was not as eternal as the Father. This touches on the great confusion of the trinity doctrine. It is a mass of contradictions. Arius caused problems because he had the audacity to ask such questions! Every explanation of the trinity comes up against one of these problems. See also: modalism..

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: pure intelligence is eternal. Our spirit forms were begotten by our Heavenly father, and Christ was the first and greatest.

Docetism

Question: how could God, the ruler of the universe, be killed by Roman soldiers?

One answer is Docetism - the doctrine that Christ did not have a physical body, but only appeared to have. After all, my Fundamentalist Protestant friends often remind me that Christ is God and God is a spirit.

Fundamentalist Protestants are not strictly Docetists, but they are pretty close. They use the same arguments (How could God, being perfect and almighty, be contained in flesh and bones?) and come to similar conclusions - although Christ was physical, this was only temporary, and now he is a spirit again. They use the same arguments for when God appeared to Old Testament prophets - he just appeared to have that form for convenience.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: Christ was a mortal as you and I (although sinless). But after his resurrection, he was in every way like God: physical.

Donatism

Question: can a sinful priest perform church duties?

Donatists reject sacraments that are performed by a sinful priest. But this begs an important question for Protestants. If we believe in "the priesthood of all believers," why are a minister's acts any better than the acts of an ordinary believer? Why should an ordinary believer go to church to take the Lord's supper? Why should he be married in church? By this logic, all common-law marriages (e.g. "living in sin") are just as valid as all church marriages, as long as one of the people to be married (or even a bystander who approved of the relationship) was a believer at the time.

This doctrine seems appealing, but it destroys the meaning of marriage (for just one example).

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: Authority matters. But there is no paid ministry, so a sinful priest can be quickly removed. In the meantime, his authority must be respected. After all, we are all sinners.

Dualism

Question: did God create Satan? If so, God is the author of evil.

Dualists believe that God and Satan are independent, warring beings. They are both as old as each other. Traditional Christians believe that God did create Satan, yet since God knew what would happen, we can only conclude that this means evil is a good thing!

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: pure intelligence is eternal. So is freedom of choice. God did not create freedom, he simply organized it and allowed it to increase. He gave Satan a spirit form, but it was Satan, independent of God, who chose to rebel and fall from heaven.

Gnosticism

Question: are you saved because of what you do, or what you know?

The term "gnosticism" covers a wide range of beliefs. But the central idea was "knowledge" that was hidden from others (hence the word "gnosis"). The gnostic taught that what really got them to heaven was a correct understanding. Some gnostics went so far as to teach that good works were simply a sham and entirely unnecessary (see antinomianism). As a Mormon, I am sometimes told that my understanding of God is not the correct one, because it is not based on the right kind of relationship (e.g. one that is not based on what we do). It seems that a form of gnosticism is alive and well in modern protestantism.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: our relationshp with Christ depends, more than anything else, on how we live

Joachim of Flores

Question, if you come up with a new, more complicated model of scriptural history that seems appealing, why not use it?

Joachim was a highly influential theologian who taught that the Old Testament was the time of the Father, the New Testament was the time of the Son, and we are soon to enter the time of the Holy Spirit. (Shades of "Age of Aquarius," don't you think?) This three-dispensation theory has now been developed into a multi-dispensation theory by the Scofield Bible. This is the Fundamentalist Protestants theory of dispensationalism, with its emphasis on a pre-tribulation rapture and a personal Antichrist. The Antichrist was originally supposed to appear in the year 1260, but he appears to be delayed. (Hardly surprising, as "The Antichrist" is a non-Biblical invention.)

This idea is that dispensations have different rules for salvation. For example, before Christ you could be saved by works, and after Christ you can be saved by grace.

Some of Joachim's ideas have been revised (such as the idea that paradise will come about through natural processes - the Marxists took this over). Others have become very mainstream in Protestantism (such as marginalizing the role of an organized church).

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: God does not change. The rules for salvation do not change. Jesus simply restored a deeper understanding that had been lost before the time of Moses. Also, the gospel is simple. There is no need for complicated theories of progressive dispensations, pre-trib raptures and an imaginary Antichrist.

Modalism

Question, can the nature of the Trinity be compared with the nature of water - as ice, liquid, and steam?

If you answered "yes" to the above question, you are probably guilty of "modalism," a heresy condemned by Tertulian and others. The idea is that The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three aspects of the same being. Modalism seems to be very popular among traditional Christians today.

This was condemned at such an early date because it is simply false. Why? Because while the Son was on earth, the Father was still in heaven. The usual defense is that the son is not a different mode of the Father, but rather a part, or aspect of Him. When pressed to define what "aspect" means, the apologist generally says it is a mystery. No wonder it is a mystery! One being is not the same as the other, but is not different. The one is not separate from the other, but is not joined. No possible explanation can make sense!

Another way around the problem is to simply change the subject, or ignore it. For example, C.S. Lewis is most people's favorite theologian (mine included). He explains Christianity is a simple and appealing way. He was a great thinker and normally a very clear writer, but his work gets very muddled when he discusses the trinity. (See "Beyond Personality," Book IV of "Mere Christianity" Especially the chapter entitled "The Three Personal God.") He describes the trinity in terms of different behaviors of the same being. But this simply does not address the issue of how this could give rise to a physical being - unless Lewis actually believes in adoptionism, which I doubt. He states that God begat Christ before he world began, but this still seems to make Christ subordinate to God (see Arianism). Or perhaps Christ and the Father were always together? Then it would be equally true to say that the Son begat the Father. Or perhaps we are back at Modalism again.

I honestly think that, if they think about it at all, Christian theologians must visualize the relationship between the Father and Son as some kind of vast amorphous mass with a small solid appendage. Apart from being probably blasphemous, this does not solve any of the problems identified by the great heretics. Frankly, nothing about the trinity theory makes sense.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: The Father and the Son are distinct beings but are one in purpose, power, etc.

Monophysitism

Question, if Christ was both God (who could not be killed) and man (who could), did he have two natures?

If you answered "no, Christ had only one nature," you are a monophysite. This heresy was condemned not long after Arianism, but like Arianism, it took a long time to go away (if it ever did). According to a monophysite, Jesus had special powers that others do not have - e.g. to perform miracles.

Although most traditional Christians would not call themselves monophysites (most people have trouble even pronouncing it!) in practice they rely on a form of this heresy. How? By declaring that mortal man cannot follow Jesus all the way. This implies that Jesus was fundamentally different from you and me.

Mormons teach that, apart from the ability to rise from the dead, Jesus' nature was just like our own. If we accept the divine gift (resurrection and his teachings) we can also gain a divine nature, just as he did. The only difference is in our relative strength - Jesus earned his way to heaven, and the rest of us need his help. But that difference is just a matter of free choice.

In contrast, traditional Christians teach that Jesus was fundamentally (e.g. by nature) different, and so he can go to a place where the rest of us can never be. Hence their belief in original sin, an their denial that man can be one with God in the exact same ay that Jesus is one with God (see John chapter 17). By denying a purely human nature to the Son, traditional Christians are monophysites.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: The Son had two natures - human, from his mother (just like us, which allowed him to experience everything we do, and be killed) and divine, from his father (which simply allowed him to rise from the dead).

Montanism

Question, does your church have prophets as in New Testament times?

Some churches claim they do. They claim to have all the gifts of the spirit. Strangely, the prophecies are not widely publicized. Why? Because no two prophets will say exactly the same thing, and many will do and say things that bring bad publicity to their church. Modern Catholic and Protestant prophets have to keep a low profile. Otherwise, we have anarchy and chaos. Just look at the different people who claim to have revelations on the Internet. This was the case with the montanists - they gave the church such a bad reputation in the second century A.D. that it took hundreds of years before anyone took charismatic prophets seriously again. See a history of Christianity for more details.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: for prophets to have any authority over the church, they must be within the structure of the church. The true church has true prophets. Other churches have either no prophets, or prophets who find it wise to keep relatively quiet.

Neoplatonism

Question, is God the Father essentially unknowable?

If you answered "yes," you are in good company. This has formed the basis for much of Christian theology since the third century A.D. It is called neoplatonism, and can be largely traced to the philosopher Plotinus. Unfortunately, it stands in direct contradiction to the Bible, which states: "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3)

Neoplatonism is the main way that Greek philosophy corrupted revealed Christianity. It is a religion that is derived from abstract concepts, not from physical angels. But once the angels had stopped coming, it provided useful tools for defending the church to intellectuals.

Neoplatonism is what caused Origen to once be branded a heretic (though he and it are now accepted as highly orthodox). It is the source of the idea that the creation did not happen in any chronological order, but in terms of concepts. (This appears to be the way that C.S. Lewis and others side-step the question of whether the Son is subordinate to the Father.)

Neoplatonism was the means whereby Christianity became intellectually acceptable to the Roman empire. It made the church respectable. It is the source of the philosophical obfuscation that says things like "the soul emanates from God and seeks to be reunited with it in one-ness." It cannot be more precise. The Biblical word "mystery," once defined as an idea that took time to learn, became defined as an idea that is fundamentally unknowable.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: a correct knowledge of who we worship is essential to salvation.

Pantheism

Question, if God is in and through everything - every atom - is he not (in practice) identical with the universe?

This logic seems unavoidable:

  1. If God is everywhere, then whenever we look on the universe, we look on God. God is as big as the universe.
  2. Remember that God is invisible, disembodied, and not in any particular place.
  3. This kind of God has more in common with "the force" in Star Wars than with anything else.
  4. Since we live in a physical world, we can only know him first-hand through his creations. We may as well say that God is the sum of his creations, at least from our point of view.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: God is not everywhere, but his influence is everywhere.
(For more on this subject, see the page on the nature of God)

Pelagianism

See the page about Pelagius. Pelagius' "heresy," in my opinion, was the last gasp of genuine Christianity. It was stamped down by Augustine.

Scholasticism

Question, can every major question be answered from the Bible alone?

This is not a heresy in the traditional sense - it is the foundation of traditional Christianity! The idea was that you can understand the Bible without any need for revelation. In practice, this meant relying on philosophy, and led to such famous debates as "how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" For more about this, see the page on bibliolotry.

Modern revelation makes the truth clear: a testimony of Christ can only come by revelation, and in no other way.

 

The bottom line

Traditional Christians seldom talk about heresies any more. Perhaps that is because the heretics have won?

 

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