From Christianity’s beginnings, the Church has been attacked by those
introducing false teachings, or heresies.
The Bible warned us this would happen. Paul told his young protégé, Timothy,
"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 Tim. 4:3–4).
What Is Heresy?
Heresy is an emotionally loaded term that is often misused. It is not the same
thing as incredulity, schism, apostasy, or other sins against faith. The
Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Incredulity is the neglect of
revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. 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; schism is the refusal
of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the
Church subject to him" (CCC 2089).
To commit heresy, one must refuse to be corrected. A person who is ready to be
corrected or who is unaware that what he has been saying is against Church
teaching is not a heretic.
A person must be baptized to commit heresy. This means that movements that have
split off from or been influenced by Christianity, but that do not practice
baptism (or do not practice valid baptism), are not heresies, but separate
religions. Examples include Muslims, who do not practice baptism, and Jehovah’s
Witnesses, who do not practice valid baptism.
Finally, the doubt or denial involved in heresy must concern a matter that has
been revealed by God and solemnly defined by the Church (for example, the
Trinity, the Incarnation, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the
sacrifice of the Mass, the pope’s infallibility, or the Immaculate Conception
and Assumption of Mary).
It is important to distinguish heresy from schism and apostasy. In schism, one
separates from the Catholic Church without repudiating a defined doctrine. An
example of a contemporary schism is the Society of St. Pius X—the "Lefebvrists"
or followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—who separated from the
Church in the late 1980s, but who have not denied Catholic doctrines. In
apostasy, one totally repudiates the Christian faith and no longer even claims
to be a Christian.
With this in mind, let’s look at some of the major heresies of Church history
and when they began.
The Circumcisers (1st Century)
The Circumcision heresy may be summed up in the words of Acts 15:1: "But some
men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are
circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’"
Many of the early Christians were Jews, who brought to the Christian faith many
of their former practices. They recognized in Jesus the Messiah predicted by the
prophets and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Because circumcision had been
required in the Old Testament for membership in God’s covenant, many thought it
would also be required for membership in the New Covenant that Christ had come
to inaugurate. They believed one must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law to
come to Christ. In other words, one had to become a Jew to become a Christian.
But God made it clear to Peter in Acts 10 that Gentiles are acceptable to God
and may be baptized and become Christians without circumcision. The same
teaching was vigorously defended by Paul in his epistles to the Romans and the
Galatians—to areas where the Circumcision heresy had spread.
Gnosticism (1st and 2nd Centuries)
"Matter is evil!" was the cry of the Gnostics. This idea was borrowed from
certain Greek philosophers. It stood against Catholic teaching, not only because
it contradicts Genesis 1:31 ("And God saw everything that he had made, and
behold, it was very good") and other scriptures, but because it denies the
Incarnation. If matter is evil, then Jesus Christ could not be true God and true
man, for Christ is in no way evil. Thus many Gnostics denied the Incarnation,
claiming that Christ only appeared to be a man, but that his humanity was
an illusion. Some Gnostics, recognizing that the Old Testament taught that God
created matter, claimed that the God of the Jews was an evil deity who was
distinct from the New Testament God of Jesus Christ. They also proposed belief
in many divine beings, known as "aeons," who mediated between man and the
ultimate, unreachable God. The lowest of these aeons, the one who had contact
with men, was supposed to be Jesus Christ.
Montanism (Late 2nd Century)
Montanus began his career innocently enough through preaching a return to
penance and fervor. His movement also emphasized the continuance of miraculous
gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy. However, he also claimed that
his teachings were above those of the Church, and soon he began to teach
Christ’s imminent return in his home town in Phrygia. There were also statements
that Montanus himself either was, or at least specially spoke for, the Paraclete
that Jesus had promised would come (in reality, the Holy Spirit).
Sabellianism (Early 3rd Century)
The Sabellianists taught that Jesus Christ and God the Father were not distinct
persons, but two aspects or offices of one person. According to them, the three
persons of the Trinity exist only in God’s relation to man, not in objective
Arianism (4th Century)
Arius taught that Christ was a creature made by God. By disguising his heresy
using orthodox or near-orthodox terminology, he was able to sow great confusion
in the Church. He was able to muster the support of many bishops, while others
Arianism was solemnly condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, which
defined the divinity of Christ, and in 381 at the First Council of
Constantinople, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These two
councils gave us the Nicene creed, which Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday.
Pelagianism (5th Century)
Pelagius denied that we inherit original sin from Adam’s sin in the Garden and
claimed that we become sinful only through the bad example of the sinful
community into which we are born. Conversely, he denied that we inherit
righteousness as a result of Christ’s death on the cross and said that we become
personally righteous by instruction and imitation in the Christian community,
following the example of Christ. Pelagius stated that man is born morally
neutral and can achieve heaven under his own powers. According to him, God’s
grace is not truly necessary, but merely makes easier an otherwise difficult
Semi-Pelagianism (5th Century)
After Augustine refuted the teachings of Pelagius, some tried a modified version
of his system. This, too, ended in heresy by claiming that humans can reach out
to God under their own power, without God’s grace; that once a person has
entered a state of grace, one can retain it through one’s efforts, without
further grace from God; and that natural human effort alone can give one some
claim to receiving grace, though not strictly merit it.
Nestorianism (5th Century)
This heresy about the person of Christ was initiated by Nestorius, bishop of
Constantinople, who denied Mary the title of Theotokos (Greek:
"God-bearer" or, less literally, "Mother of God"). Nestorius claimed that she
only bore Christ’s human nature in her womb, and proposed the alternative title
Christotokos ("Christ-bearer" or "Mother of Christ").
Orthodox Catholic theologians recognized that Nestorius’s theory would fracture
Christ into two separate persons (one human and one divine, joined in a sort of
loose unity), only one of whom was in her womb. The Church reacted in 431 with
the Council of Ephesus, defining that Mary can be properly referred to as the
Mother of God, not in the sense that she is older than God or the source of God,
but in the sense that the person she carried in her womb was, in fact, God
incarnate ("in the flesh").
There is some doubt whether Nestorius himself held the heresy his statements
imply, and in this century, the Assyrian Church of the East, historically
regarded as a Nestorian church, has signed a fully orthodox joint declaration on
Christology with the Catholic Church and rejects Nestorianism. It is now in the
process of coming into full ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church.
Monophysitism (5th Century)
Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism. The Monophysites (led by
a man named Eutyches) were horrified by Nestorius’s implication that Christ was
two people with two different natures (human and divine). They went to the other
extreme, claiming that Christ was one person with only one nature (a fusion of
human and divine elements). They are thus known as Monophysites because of their
claim that Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono = one; physis =
Orthodox Catholic theologians recognized that Monophysitism was as bad as
Nestorianism because it denied Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. If
Christ did not have a fully human nature, then he would not be fully human, and
if he did not have a fully divine nature then he was not fully divine.
Iconoclasm (7th and 8th Centuries)
This heresy arose when a group of people known as iconoclasts (literally, "icon
smashers") appeared, who claimed that it was sinful to make pictures and statues
of Christ and the saints, despite the fact that in the Bible, God had commanded
the making of religious statues (Ex. 25:18–20; 1 Chr. 28:18–19), including
symbolic representations of Christ (cf. Num. 21:8–9 with John 3:14).
Catharism (11th Century)
Catharism was a complicated mix of non-Christian religions reworked with
Christian terminology. The Cathars had many different sects; they had in common
a teaching that the world was created by an evil deity (so matter was evil) and
we must worship the good deity instead.
The Albigensians formed one of the largest Cathar sects. They taught that the
spirit was created by God, and was good, while the body was created by an evil
god, and the spirit must be freed from the body. Having children was one of the
greatest evils, since it entailed imprisoning another "spirit" in flesh.
Logically, marriage was forbidden, though fornication was permitted. Tremendous
fasts and severe mortifications of all kinds were practiced, and their leaders
went about in voluntary poverty.
Protestantism (16th Century)
Protestant groups display a wide variety of different doctrines. However,
virtually all claim to believe in the teachings of sola scriptura ("by
Scripture alone"—the idea that we must use only the Bible when forming our
theology) and sola fide ("by faith alone"— the idea that we are justified
by faith only).
The great diversity of Protestant doctrines stems from the doctrine of private
judgment, which denies the infallible authority of the Church and claims that
each individual is to interpret Scripture for himself. This idea is rejected in
2 Peter 1:20, where we are told the first rule of Bible interpretation: "First
of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of
one’s own interpretation." A significant feature of this heresy is the attempt
to pit the Church "against" the Bible, denying that the magisterium has any
infallible authority to teach and interpret Scripture.
The doctrine of private judgment has resulted in an enormous number of different
denominations. According to The Christian Sourcebook, there are
approximately 20-30,000 denominations, with 270 new ones being formed each year.
Virtually all of these are Protestant.
Jansenism (17th Century)
Jansenius, bishop of Ypres, France, initiated this heresy with a paper he wrote
on Augustine, which redefined the doctrine of grace. Among other doctrines, his
followers denied that Christ died for all men, but claimed that he died only for
those who will be finally saved (the elect). This and other Jansenist errors
were officially condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653.
Heresies have been with us from the Church’s beginning. They even have been
started by Church leaders, who were then corrected by councils and popes.
Fortunately, we have Christ’s promise that heresies will never prevail against
the Church, for 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).
The Church is truly, in Paul’s words, "the pillar and foundation of the truth"
(1 Tim. 3:15).
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors. Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted. +Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004