For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
2 Timothy 4:3-4
HERESY... According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), "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; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith." [CCC 2089] According to Hilaire Belloc, "Heresy is the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein...Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by 'Exception'..." [The Great Heresies (TAN Books, 1991) p. 2]. A heresy is not the total rejection of the Christian faith but a distortion of it. One essential truth is denied or exaggerated at the expense of another essential truth. For example, knowledge about the teachings of Christ is important, but the Gnostic heretics claimed that such knowledge was more important than faith. They taught that salvation came through knowledge and not by faith in Jesus Christ. Even though heresies are bad, we can better appreciate the true faith by knowing what to avoid.
NESTORIANISM was a heresy that attacked Mary's title as "Mother of God" but it was also a subtle attack against the Incarnation of Christ. With a better understanding of the Incarnation - that Jesus is truly God and man, the faithful in the fifth-century became aware of other consequences. If Jesus is truly God and Mary was His mother, then Mary must be the "Theotokos", God-bearer, or in more western terms, Mother of God. St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote hymns praising Mary with langauge rivialing St. Alphonsus Liguori. Around 428-429 A.D., the newly-consecrated Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, had enough of this. From the pulpit, he attacked the title "Theotokos" and claimed that even though Mary is the Mother of Christ, she cannot be the Mother of God. Shortly afterwards, the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, wrote a letter to Nestorius in order to correct his error. After receiving his reply, Cyril wrote a letter to Pope Celestine and forwarded Nestorius' response. Cyril submitted both his writings and Nestorius' response for papal judgement. After examining the documents, Pope Celestine condemned Nestorius' teaching and ordered him to recant in ten days. The pope also authorized Cyril to receive the recantation or else condemn and depose Nestorius from his See. Nestorius refused to recant and published a clearer condemnation against the title "Theotokos." He wrote: "A mother cannot bear a Son older than herself." "If Mary is called Mother of God, she is made a Goddess." "The man Jesus... is the temple, the vesture of the Word... God did not die." and so on. Nestorius refused to submit to Cyril and requested a General Council to discuss this issue. A General Council was called and organized. It openned on 22 June 429, but Nestorius refused to personally attend. The Council condemned Nestorius and his followers. The Council's decrees and definitions were approved by Pope Sixtus III since Pope Celestine had already died. Nestorius fled to Persia and gained a large, powerful following. Only centuries later, the Muslims finally destroyed his sect. Nestorius claimed that Christ's human nature was only the temple of the Godhead, but he also differentiated between the acts of Christ's human nature (e.g. Christ dying on the Cross) and acts of Christ's Divine nature (e.g. God did not die.). The main problem with Nestorius is that free acts originate from persons and not from natures. What Nestorius called "natures" should have been called "persons." His error was to divide Christ into two persons - human and divine. Christ is only one Person and Mary is the mother of that Person. Mothers give birth to persons and not natures.
SEMI-ARIANISM was a heresy that attempted to find a compromise between the Catholic Faith and Arianism. At the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), it was declared that the Son of God is "of the same substance" (homoousion) as the Father. This was included in the Nicene Creed. Some bishops had a legitimate concern that the term "substance" could be misunderstood to imply that God is of matter instead of pure Spirit. Whereas, other bishops did not like the precision of the term. They wanted a vaguer term to describe the Father and the Son. These Semi-Arian bishops substituted the term "homoousion" in the Nicene Creed with the term "homoiousion", meaning "of like substance". They hoped that this compromise would be acceptable to both Catholics and Arians. The Semi-Arians quipped that the only difference was a diphthong. Unfortunately the true Arian believed that the Son was "unlike" the Father. Also the term "like" is too weak to describe the unique relationship between the Son and the Father. According to Genesis 5:1, "When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God." The term "like" can also be used to describe the relationship between God and man. Furthermore a photograph of myself has a likeness of me, yet it is still substantially different than me. Either the Son is "of the same substance" as the Father, or the Son is "unlike" the Father in substance. There is no compromise.
ARIANISM was the first Christological heresy to seriously threaten the Church. It denied the Divinity of Christ. Arius, while at the Catechetical School in Alexandria in the year 319 A.D., proposed a problem: If the Son of God is begotten of God the Father, then the Father existed before the Son. Since the Father existed before the Son, the Son is unlike the Father. The Son is not co-eternal with the Father. According to Arius, the Son was created by the Father and not Divine as the Father. Arius' main error was that he imposed time on the eternal (timeless) nature of God. As a father begets a son, he gives his nature to his son. For humans, the father exists before the son, since humans live in time. Begetting for humans is an act embedded in time and matter. This is part of human nature. But for God, the Father gives His spiritual, divine, timeless nature to His only-begotten Son (Heb. 1), so "before" and "after" are meaningless. Even though the Son is begotten of the Father, this does not imply that the Father existed before the Son. Also the Son of God is begotten and not created. (Even a human father only begets his children and does not create them.) Unfortunately Arius failed to understand this fundamental point and thus refused to accept the Divinity of Christ. Arius took his debate from the academic circles to the streets. He quickly gained a large following. After being excommunicated in Alexandria, he fled to Caesarea where Bishop Eusebius helped him spread his errors. In 325, the Council of Nicaea was called to deal with the Arian crisis. The Council excommunicated Arius and declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (homoousion) as the Father. This became part of the Nicene Creed. But the Arians continued to gain power and political influence. They remained a serious threat to the Church for another half century. St. Athanasius was the great defender of the Faith against this heresy.
ALOGI were second-century Christians who overly reacted against Montanism. St. Irenaeus in his book, Against Heresies, already referred to a group who both denied the exterior gifts of the Holy Spirit and refused to recognize St. John's Gospel. With its emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Paraclete), St. John's Gospel was a favorite among the Montanists. As a counter reaction, the Alogi denied the authenticity of the Gospel According to St. John and also the Book of Revelation. St. Epiphanius gave them the name, Alogi, meaning "Deniers of the Word" since they also rejected St. John's presentation of Christ as the Word or Logos. The Alogi denied Christ this title, even though they did not appear to actually deny the doctrine of the Logos itself. As St. Epiphanius wrote: "they themselves seem to believe as we do." The Alogi claimed that St. John's Gospel did not agree with the other three Gospels and was false. They also claimed that the Book of Revelation was often unintelligible and in error. As proof, they cited Rev. 2:18 and claimed that there was no Christian church in Thyatira during the late first century. Strangely enough, they further claimed that the heretic, Cerinthus, wrote both Books, even though John's Gospel was known at the time to have been written against Cerinthus. St. Epiphanius was perplexed over their lack of reason. In a play on words, he used the name "alogi" to also mean "without reason." Their historical significance rests mainly on the question of Bible criticism rather than in doctrines concerning Christ.
SABELLIANISM was an early Trinitarian heresy that exaggerated the oneness of the Father and the Son (John 10:30). It was promoted by Sabellius in Rome during the early third century. In the infant Church, the first confession of faith concerning the Divinity of Jesus Christ was based on St. Peter's words: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." [Matt. 16:16] Early Christians worshipped and died for Jesus Christ based on this simple confession without thinking about what it actually implied. If Christ is God, then how does He relate to the God of the Old Testament? Is Christ another God, another Person or just another manifestation distinct from the Father? In the early third century, a few Christians, who included Noetus, were speculating that the Father and the Son are only different aspects or modes of the one Divine Being. The Father became the Son after taking flesh of Mary. This speculation developed further under Sabellius. The Sabellians (also called Monarchians or Modalists) claimed that since there is only one God, there is only one Person in the Godhead. There are no personal relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The only distinguishing relationships were between God and man. The Trinity was not three Persons in one God, but three functional relationships with man. The Father is the mode that created man; the Son is the mode that redeemed man; the Holy Spirit is the mode that sanctified man. Pope Callistus condemned this heresy, but it continued to flourish in the East into the fifth century. Even today it makes a comeback with the formula: "In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier." But what is the big difference between three Persons vs. three modes? God is love (1 John 4:8,16). The Son loves the Father (John 14:31; 15:10); however, true love can only be between distinct persons and not manifestations (modes). If there are no distinct personal relationships within the Godhead, then there is no love within the Godhead. God could only love after man was created. This causes problems for the eternal, loving God.
MONTANISMhas nothing to do with the state of Montana. It is a heresy or, better yet, a schism caused by the prophet, Montanus, and two prophetesses, Maximilla and Prisca (Priscilla) in Phrygia during the late second century. As witnessed in the Acts of the Apostles, the exterior gifts of the Holy Spirit (e.g. praying in tongues & prophecy) were common in the infant Church. But St. Paul already in his First Epistle to the Corinthians warns Christians that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit are not as important as the interior gifts of sanctity. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,... And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries... but have not love, I am nothing". [1 Cor. 13:1-2] Such exterior gifts need to be tempered by humility and obedience to the Church, since Satan can more easily counterfeit them. Unfortunately Montanus and his followers, called Montanists, did not remain loyal to the Church but broke away. At first, their prophecies were not heretical but simply extravagant. The early prophecies called for penance and strict fasts on certain days. But unlike the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke as messengers of God: "Thus says the Lord", Montanus claimed to be possessed by God and spoke as God: "I am the Lord God omnipotent, who has descended into man." These prophecies also occurred during mad ecstasies. This concerned certain holy Churchmen, who tried to exorcise them. Later Montanus claimed that Christ's redemption was still not complete; therefore, God possessed him in order to fulfill the salvation for all men. The Montanists highly valued chastity, virginity and martyrdom. They also disapproved of second marriages. Due to their emotional and rigorous nature, they attracted Christians, who thought that the Church was too secular and lax. Due to his extreme personality, the famous Tertullian also joined them and defended their cause. The sect survived the death of Montanus for a few centuries, but eventually became small and secret before disappearing altogether.
JANSENISM is named after Cornelius Jansen, who was the Bishop of Ypres in the early 17th century. His main work, Augustinus, was published after his death. In this work, he claimed to have rediscovered the true teaching of St. Augustine concerning grace, which had been lost to the Church for centuries. Even though he was not strictly a heretic, his writings still caused great harm to the Church. At that time, the Jesuits were heavily preaching on the mercy of God. This was seen by some as moral laxity. Also the debates with the Calvinists had an influence on Jansen's thoughts. Without going into the details of the "five propositions from Jansen", this heresy essentially taught that God's saving grace is irresistible, though not given to everyone. According to Jansen, a person could neither accept or reject this grace due to his fallen nature. Although persons, who received it, were sure of salvation. Unfortunately not everyone received this saving grace. God decreed who was saved and who was lost. Jansen denied human free will and God's desire to save everyone (1 Tim. 2:4). Even though the Jansenists hoped to combat the moral laxity of their time through moral rigorism, their denial of human free will and God's mercy actually promoted moral despair or a carefree, frivolous life style, since personal actions had no effect on personal salvation. Due to the duplicity of its promoters, this heresy harmed the Church for over seventy years.
PELAGIANISM is named after the British monk, Pelagius, who was contemporary with St. Augustine and St. Jerome. In the early 5th century, he denied Original Sin as well as the need for God's saving grace. According to his heresy, the guilt of Adam's sin was not passed on to us. Adam's sin only harmed Adam and not us. It was merely an evil example. Likewise, the Redemption of Christ was merely instruction and example for us to follow in order to counter the evil example of Adam. Pelagius taught that by natural means, such as an austere lifestyle, we could over come our personal sins. We could merit heaven by a natural faith without God's supernatural help - that is grace. According to him, the Law of Moses was as effective as the Gospel for salvation. Both St. Augustine and St. Jerome opposed him. As a result of his work against Pelagius, St. Augustine became known as the "Doctor of Grace." Pelagius was finally condemned in 418 by the Council of Carthage approved by Pope Zosimus. This Council taught: 1) That Adam's death was the result of sin. 2) As a result of Original Sin, new-born babies need Baptism. 3) By God's grace, we not only know His Commandments but also have the strength to obey them. 4) Without grace, good works are impossible for us. 5) And finally, we and all the saints confess ourselves as sinners in honesty and not merely out of humility. We are justified (saved) by God's grace (Acts 15:11; 18:27; Rom. 3:24; Gal. 2:21; Eph. 1:7; 2:5; 2:8; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:7; Heb. 4:16). Faith and its associated good works are our positive responses or cooperation with that grace. "Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, and so accepts forgiveness and righteousness from on high." [CCC 2018]
SOLA FIDES... The Protestant Revolt had many causes including state politics. Also the worldly lifestyle of certain popes, bishops and priests of that time helped to fuel the fire. However, the doctrine, Justification by Faith Alone, was the spark. This heresy exaggerates the truth concerning salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Even though some members of the Church at that time, such as Tetzel and Erasmus, may not have fully understood the doctrine of salvation, this does not excuse this heresy. It claims that Christians are saved by faith alone. As biblical support, St. Paul is usually cited: "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law." [Romans 3:28] Now this verse does not contain the word "alone." Martin Luther actually added "alone" to this verse in his Bibles in order to promote this new doctrine. According to the RSV and NAB Bible translations, the phrase, "by faith alone", only occurs once in the Bible, and that verse condemns this doctrine: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." [James 2:24] The other error is interpreting the "works of law" in Romans 3:28 as all good works. From the context, it is obvious that St. Paul is referring to the Law of Moses, and the "works of law" are circumcision, eating kosher and other Jewish practices (Acts 15:1-21). St. Paul writes elsewhere in the Bible: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." [Galatians 5:6] St. Paulís understanding of faith, as expressed in the Bible, includes more than a confident trust in God, but also obedience to God (Romans 1:5). Also according to Catholic understanding, good works are not what I do but what God does through me by grace (Eph. 2:10; 1 Cor. 15:10; Rom 2:7), so there is no reason to boast (Eph. 2:9). Even though Martin Luther still understood salvation in terms of grace, some later Christians did not. With the loss of focus on grace, this heresy eventually led to a "faith-alone" version of Pelagianism. This is the reason that some (not all) Protestants reject some or all of the Sacraments, sometimes even Baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3; 1 Peter 3:21).
GNOSTICISM... The name for this heresy originated from the Greek word, gnosis, meaning "knowledge." The Greeks were the first, after the Jews, to be evangelized for Christ. With their great tradition of thinkers, like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the Greeks were very attracted to human knowledge and speculation. This infatuation led to the first major heresy to plague the Church. St. Johnís Epistles in the Bible already appear to be speaking against it. St. Irenaeus of Lyons in 190 A.D. wrote against it in his book, Against Heresies. His first volume is devoted to describing its many differing sects and their beliefs. Manicheism in the 4th century and Albigensism in the 12th century were later manifestations of this heresy. Even today the "New Age Movement" has many similarities. Basically this heresy exaggerated the importance of knowledge over faith. It also considered the body and matter to be evil; whereas, the soul and ideas were good. As a result, it denied the Incarnation of Christ, and even some sects claimed that the Creator was evil. Also marriage and sex were considered evil since their purpose was to make more "bodies." In a perverted twist in logic, the abuses of sex: contraception, adultery, fornication and sodomy, were considered good according to some sects. The Gnostics spent more time speculating on the succession of "angels" between God and man, than in meditating on Godís Commandments. Their focus was more on thinking rather than on living a good Christian life.
SECULARISM is a modern movement to minimize the sacred and holy. Unfortunately this movement has infected Christianity. One version ("Cream-Puffism") is quite popular among Christians today. This heresy exaggerates the truth that "God is Love" by undermining the truth that "God is Holy and Just." Its promoters claim that since God loves us, we can continue committing our personal sins without any fear of punishment. The Bible verse, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." [Psalm 111:10], is either ignored or wished away, along with Hell and Purgatory. Now it is absolutely true that God continues to love thieves and murderers, but He also loves those people who are robbed and killed. Our sins offend Godís love. God loves us so much that He does not force us to love Him in return. He gives us free will. God loves us so much that He allows us to mortally sin and thus freely choose Hell. But God the Father also loves us so much that He sent His only Son to die on the Cross to set us free from our personal sins (John 3:16 & 36). "He (Jesus) Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree (Cross), that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed." [1 Peter 2:24] It is our choice. That is the reason why we call Good Friday, good!
M.L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies, (Sheed & Ward, Ltd., London: 1928), still in print as a 1974 edition, sixth impression 1994.
Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition, Electronic version copyright 1996, as found at http://www.knight.org/advent
Written by: Phillip B. Liescheski
Last edited on 15 Decemeber 2001
The above summaries have not been reviewed by a person competent in the field. They may contain a few errors, hopefully only minor errors, though.
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