Wait A Minute, That Can’t Be Right: A Brief History of Heresy in the Christian Church

Heresy is a word that carries a lot of baggage around with it. To some it will mean only the unorthodox, while others may think the word implies evil. Although we tend to think of heresy as a historical concept, there are plenty of heretical ideas floating around out there right now. Most of them are simple reiterations or updates of the earliest Christian heresies and very few are more than old ideas in a modern context – which is why it’s important to recognise them when we see them.

The truth is that most of the heresies that the Christian Church fought against in its early days were ideas that came about because Christians needed to come to grips with the new relationship with God after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Things changed: but how? Not everyone agreed with the consensus of opinion in the early Church and some attempted to create a fusion between the message of Jesus and pre-existing philosophies of life.

This will be a series of short discussions about some of the most notable of those ideas and why they were rejected. Don’t expect a lot of gruesome descriptions of executions or burnings at the stake – in most cases of early heresies this didn’t happen and at worst individual heretics or heretical groups lost their jobs or went into exile. As we continue our lockdown in response to the coronavirus, it might be interesting to take a look at some of those old heresies and try to identify the ideas that the Church discarded while it was in the process of defining itself and its relationship with God and Creation. We’ll start with one of the oldest and most persistent of heresies, Adoptionism.

Adoptionism – You Don’t Choose Your Family – Or Do You????

In the 1936 film, ‘Green Pastures,’ the character of God comes to a point where he is utterly fed up with his creation again. He looks down from heaven and sees a young man carrying a cross in Jerusalem and says to his angels, ‘look down there, that young man is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.’ The sight of Jesus ready to sacrifice himself on the cross changes God’s mind about giving up on creation and he remembers how much he loves us.  This, in a nutshell, is adoptionism: the idea that Jesus is not co-eternal with the Father but was raised to divine status at some point because of his virtue. In other words, God adopted the man Jesus because of his perfect life.

The Gospels are ambiguous on the subject. Mark suggests that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism in Jordan and the story of the dove descending and the voice from heaven all echo early adoptionist ideas. Matthew and Luke identify the moment of the divine conception as the crucial time. John, least ambiguous of all, is clear that the Son was with the Father from the very beginning. Understanding who Jesus was became a point of crucial importance: was he God or was he Man, human or divine? Did God choose him for elevation to divine status because of the Godliness of his message and the willingness of his sacrifice, or was this all part of the plan from the beginning?

Adoptionism made sense to a lot of early Christians because it got around some troubling questions. For many the idea that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father was difficult and seemed to fly in the face of observable reality. What is more, the idea of the Trinity was problematical for some (as it remains today!) as it appeared to argue for three gods rather than one. Therefore, Adoptionists believed that there was one indivisible God who granted Jesus divine status either at his baptism or at the Ascension because of his perfect life.

Just for fun, the technical term for adoptionism is dynamic monarchianism – dynamic because God actively chose Jesus; monarchianist because it held that God was absolutely one God in opposition to the idea of the Trinity which they understood to suggest three Gods. In order to understand the reason that the Church rejected adoptionism, we need to go back to the most theological of Gospels, the Gospel of John. Adoptionism denied that the Word was in the beginning with God and that the Word became flesh and lived among us. The concept that God really became human and shared our structural constitution as a human being is fundamental to the Christian faith. In other words, in Jesus, God becomes one of us in an intensely personal way sharing everything it is to be a human being. In this light, adoptionism appears to be rather more of a pre-Christian way of looking at God – remote, unlike us, removed.

Adoptionism was one of several early heresies that tried to define the person of Jesus. It’s still around today: Unitarianism is a type of adoptionism, even some of the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints appear to share adoptionist ideas.   But as an idea that emerged in the early days of Christianity, it was one of the main reasons that the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. met and spent so much time carefully setting out the formula of Christian faith that we say each Sunday at the Eucharist – the Nicene Creed.

Next week: the most important heresy in the early Church – Arianism, or Credo in unam Deum?

Arianism or, Credo in unam Deum?

Adoptionism was not the only school of thought that had trouble with the concept of the Trinity. Some thinkers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries attempted to reconcile the idea of one God with the experience of God in three different modes or manifestations. In other words, God revealed as creator is known as the Father; God revealed as saviour is known as the Son; and God revealed as the sanctifier is known as the Spirit. This idea reached its zenith in the 3rd century in the writing of the Roman theologian Sabellius who proposed a Godhead that was one essential being but operated in different modes or aspects. The concept challenged the doctrine of the Trinity that the Church officially accepted and was not fully resolved until 325 AD when a far more dangerous set of ideas emerged in the thinking of the Libyan priest and theologian, Arius.


We know little about what Arius really thought or wrote because nothing of his original writings survived most being destroyed during the reign of Constantine the Great and the rest tracked down and burned by his opponents later. What we know about him and his ideas comes to us through his opponents and has always been seen as unreliable. What we do know is that Arius did not accept the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. He believed that the Son was neither co-eternal nor co-substantial with the Father and was, in fact, subordinate to the Father. Unlike the adoptionists, Arius did not point to a specific moment when the Father created the Son but was clear that the Son was created by the Father at some point in time, a creature distinct from the Father, and, while still God, subordinate to the Father.

Now to Constantine the Great, soldier and emperor that he was, the debate that raged among the bishops, priests and theologians of his empire was little more than claptrap or useless noise. That having been said, it was having a significant and disruptive influence on the Pax Romana and needed to be settled. He called a council to be held in the city of Nicaea in 325 AD. This was the first oecumenical council of the Church – oecumenical because it called together representatives from all over the Christian world. The first order of business was to settle the debate on the nature of God the Father and God the Son, and clearly to define Christian doctrine for the first time for the universal Church.

The debate between Arius and his main opposition, Athanasius of Alexandria, lasted for 30 days in May and June 325. Arius argued that the Father was supreme and that the Son was created as an act of the Father’s will. Athanasius replied that the Son was the Logos and was eternally begotten of the Father – therefore with no beginning – coeternal and equal in all respects. The council was persuaded by Athanasius and Arius’ ideas were denounced, his books burned and he went into exile along with any others who could not agree with the Council’s decision. That, however, was not the end of the story.

Constantine, apparently sympathetic to Arius, allowed him to return to his home. Despite the apparent finality of the Council of Nicaea, the emperor showed favour to Arius whose subsequent murder appears to have been by poisoning. As for the emperor, he was baptised finally on his deathbed…by an Arian bishop.

As a result of the Arian controversy, we now have the Nicene Creed recited in Churches across the world as a statement of our faith. The statements in the Creed that Jesus is ‘Light from Light, true God from true God’; ‘begotten not made’; and ‘of one substance with the Father’ are all reflections of the council’s rejection of Arianism. Thus, thanks to the challenges laid down by a little-known priest from Libya, Christian doctrine was defined for the first time. The impact was to be significant not only in terms of theology but also in terms of the organisation of the Church. Oecumenical councils became the primary method by which matters of Church doctrine were resolved at least until the Reformation. But more than that, the position of secular authority – in this case the Roman Emperor – as convener and as enforcer of the Council’s decisions was established. This was a matter that some 1200 years later an English king would remember when he challenged the bishop of Rome’s decision in the small matter of an annulment. Today, the most notable Arian sects are the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses both of which break with the Nicene Creed’s doctrine.

Not all early Christian heresies were specifically about the nature of the Godhead, some were about other ideas entirely. The great patristics scholar and professor of theology, Richard A Norris, once told a class that in the Mediterranean world during the first few centuries AD there were many new sects springing up all over the place. Many saw Christianity as just another odd sect. The general response, however, was not immediately dismissive but a rather more curious, ‘how interesting!’ This leads us to next week’s heresy: Gnosticism or ‘It Ain’t What You Know, It’s the Way that You Know It.’

Gnosticism or ‘It Ain’t What You Know, It’s the Way that You Know It.’

Derived from the Greek word gnosis (γνῶσις), meaning ‘knowledge’, Gnosticism was an extraordinarily complex religious movement which predated Christianity. Its origins are unknown and may have antecedents in Buddhism. Certainly, by the time it entered Christianity, it had already become prominent in the mystery religions that were popular throughout the ancient world such as the secret cults and mysteries of Isis and Mithras which had emerged during the Hellenistic period following the death of Alexander the Great. By the first century AD, Gnostic ideas had already begun to infiltrate both Jewish and Christian sects and became established as schools of thought within the broader religion until at least the third century when it was generally considered heretical by notable early theologians such as Tertullian and Irenaeus. The ideas that Gnostic teachers promulgated were seen as a threat to early Christianity to such an extent that by the end of the second century most gnostic sects had split from the early Church and efforts were made destroy any and all gnostic texts in existence. Until 1945, all that we knew about early Christian Gnosticism came from excerpts found in the diatribes directed against them by opponents. However, the discovery of an ancient collection of some 40 Coptic texts near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt shed new light on the origins and beliefs of Gnostic teachings.

So, what was ‘wrong’ with Gnosticism? For one thing, the god postulated by the Gnostics was remote and unknowable. This is the Supreme Consciousness (‘the One’) that descends through a series of stages or ‘emanations’ becoming more and more material until the process is reversed and returns to ‘the One.’ The Gnostics made a clear distinction between this remote god and the creator being or ‘Demiurge’ (‘the skilled worker’) who was seen as the final, most material, stage. Born of Sophia (‘wisdom’), the Demiurge creates an imperfect physical universe either by mistake or through some fall from grace. Yet, despite their imperfection, within some human beings a spark of the Divine has entered. Trapped in the flesh, it longed to return to ‘the One’ – a feat that was only possible through ‘knowledge’ and the various rituals designed to rescue it. Sometimes referred to as ‘the gold in the mud,’ this spark was not present in all people but only the select few. For Christian Gnostics, the Christ was an emissary sent from ‘the One’ to bring gnosis.

For the early Church, this extremely complicated mythology was enough to raise serious questions about its suitability especially when seen in light of the emerging Gospel traditions. But it also created a strange antagonism between humankind and creation itself – the physical and material was seen as evil, while the spiritual was separate and preferred. What is more, the Gnostics believed that the knowledge that they sought and that some had already achieved was secret and not open to all. Despite some disturbing echoes in the epistles of St Paul, all of these points seemed to be counter to the good news of the Gospels which seemed to claim that the Saviour came to save all. Of course, there was no formal procedure until the fourth century for such beliefs to be branded heretical and much diversity of belief continued to exist in the early Church – indeed, some scholars think that the debates between more orthodox Christians and the Gnostics helped to more clearly define and stabilise Christian doctrine.

A multitude of Gnostic groups soon split off from the Church and continued to exist well into the Middle Ages, the most well-known of these groups were the Albigensians (or Cathars) in southern France, whose beliefs appear to have embraced some of the Gnostic cosmology. In modern times, a number of fringe groups have adopted Gnostic ideas and even Carl Jung wrote took an interest in Gnostic ideas. The longest surviving Gnostic sect is known as Mandaeism and is still too be found in Iran and numbers around 70,000 people, though a small number of the sect may be found in Australia and Massachusetts, USA.

Next Week: Docetism, or I Can’t Believe It’s Really Jesus.

Docetism, or I Can’t Believe It’s Really Jesus

This week we continue our look at early Christian heresies with a look at the Docetism and, as a special bonus, perhaps the most influential heresy of them all, Pelagianism.

As we have seen most of the early heresies were Christological in nature and concerned with understanding the nature and person of Jesus Christ and his relationship with the Father and, to some extent, the Holy Spirit. This relationship was at the heart of any meaningful definition of the Trinity – at the best of times a difficult concept to describe – and was addressed in the early fourth century at the Council of Nicaea with its rejection of the Arian heresy. Docetism was denied by that General Council for similar reasons.

From the Greek verb meaning ‘to seem’, Docetism is described by some as a ‘tendency’ rather than a well-formulated or organised doctrine. Religious mythology had often postulated that the gods might take other forms and walk among us on earth – notably Zeus/Jupiter took the form of a swan and a bull in order to seduce Leda and Europa in Greek mythology – but, for the most part, these stories attempted to establish the semi-divine origins of various heroes or royal families. The gods lost none of their divinity by posing as mortal creatures of any description. The person of Jesus, especially given his apparent suffering and death on the cross challenged the traditional understanding of the way gods operated. For some the only way to explain the contradiction between an immortal god and a mortal human being was to suggest that Jesus’ body was ‘apparent’ rather than real.

This led to some rather curious theories. For some, the death on the cross was so ignominious that it was impossible to see the Son of God suffering in such a way and it was proposed that somehow Jesus swapped places with either Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene. Others held that Jesus of Nazareth was a human person whose body was taken over by a Christ entity at his baptism (the dove descending) which empowered him but left him when he died on the cross. Finally, it was held that God had no material body and could in no way suffer any physical harm. Thus, Jesus only seemed to be human and the body that many witnessed was an apparition or a phantasm.

The Church found these beliefs unacceptable because they denied the bodily passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Docetic ideas emerged in other heretical forms as well – some Gnostics denied the humanity of Christ as did some Arians.  By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, docetic beliefs had largely died out and the declaration of Docetism as a heresy was largely taking care old business just in case these ideas should crop up again.

Bonus Heresy! Pelagianism, or ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’

The questions above were asked by John Lewis, the African American civil rights leader and representative to the United States Congress from Georgia. Although it was said in another context altogether, in some ways it summarises some of the basic ideas behind the greatest and most persistent of Christian heresies, Pelagianism.

In the latter half of the fourth century and into the fifth, the British monk Pelagius and his disciples taught a doctrine that seemed to emphasise human responsibility and require the rigorous living of a blameless life. In his view, human beings are capable of taking the fundamental steps toward salvation on their own without the intervention of Divine Grace.

Believing that Christians in the fourth century had become slack in their observance of the faith, Pelagius preached for a higher moral standard. Central to his doctrine was the notion of free will – the idea that human beings had the freedom to choose to live good lives by virtue of their God-given nature. Pelagius and his followers rejected the idea that God could create anything that was evil by nature and all people were by their nature capable of differentiating between good and evil, between right and wrong and were able to choose the correct option in any given situation. This free choice was absolute. Sin, therefore, was not inevitable and not part of the human condition but rather occurred as a result of our ability to make a free choice. Forgiveness could be granted but only to those whose repentance was sincere and who merited it. There was no predestination to salvation but, rather, all humans would be judged by the choices they made during their lifetime.

The Church, and in particular Augustine of Hippo, had enormous problems with this; not the least of which was that Pelagius and his disciples attracted a great deal of interest in aristocratic circles at Rome, in Sicily and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean. Theologically there were many problems but two stood out above all: Pelagianism seemed to deny the importance of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins (technically known as substitutionary atonement), and it also seemed to deny the value of God’s grace.

It is undeniable that there is much in Pelagius’ view of humanity that is appealing: the belief that human beings are basically good and capable of making good decisions seems rather more positive than being doomed by original sin to a be fundamentally corrupt and in need of divine intervention. His view also made the whole mind-bending discussion of predestination moot. Yet the defence mounted by Augustine sometimes seems a bit thin: the notion that salvation is achievable only by the grace of God might seem a bit arbitrary and the response that God’s ways are incomprehensible to us mere mortals sounds a bit too convenient.

By the sixteenth century, many among the reformers accused the Church of Rome of Pelagianism for its perceived insistence on good works as a way to salvation. In fact, the Reformers themselves could be subject to the same criticism as some of their demands (e.g., Church attendance, various social behaviours) seem equally if not more Pelagian. The issues raised by Pelagius and answered by Augustine some 1700 years ago continue today.

Pelagius himself had little inclination to carry on the debate – he had always been more interested in an ascetic life than in the controversy. He and Augustine remained on respectful and friendly terms until his condemnation for heresy in 416. By 418, he disappeared from history although some of his followers continued. Pelagianism, as it came to be called, continued on especially in Britain into the 6th century and the issues have reappeared consistently since.

We’ll take a break from the heretical and have a look at Liturgical Stuff. Next Week: Vestments: The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly!