(Part 3 in a series)
In two previous essays, I have described two contemporary, pervasive, nameless heresies. One I called the Unisex Heresy because it asserts that gender is of no consequence. [Unisex heresy] The second, the Deceptive Mercy Heresy, asserts that Jesus is Mr. Nice Guy, that Jesus makes no demands or judgments on us. [see here]
Since the word heresy is so seldom used and the concept so seldom discussed, we should take a brief look at heresy during early Christianity. For instance, the Church Fathers wrote a number of books about heresies. Thus, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (circa 130-202) wrote Against Heresies. St. Augustine wrote Against the Academicians. (The term Academici did not refer to all teachers but to a group of people holding a particular set of beliefs.) He also wrote Against the Manichees, Against the Donatists, and his famous City of God bears the full title of Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. The Neo-Platonist Porphyry (ca 234-ca 305) wrote Against the Christians.
Here are the names, in alphabetical order, of some of the major heresies in the history of Christianity accompanied by a short description of the issue:
- Adoptionism: whether Jesus Christ is the Son of God by nature or by adoption.
· Arianism: whether Jesus Christ is divine and eternal or whether He was created.
· Docetism: whether Jesus Christ is really human or if He just appeared so.
· Donatism: whether priests need to be free of mortal sin in order for the sacraments that they administer to be effective.
· Eutychianism: whether Jesus Christ is both divine and human or a hybrid that is neither fully one nor the other.
· Gnosticism: whether people can be saved by acquiring secret knowledge.
· Jansenism: whether people are free to accept or reject God’s grace.
· Marcionism: whether Christians reject the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) as full of wrath and judgment in favor of
the compassionate, merciful God of Jesus (discussed in part II of this series, on the Deceptive Mercy Heresy).
· Monophysitism: whether Jesus Christ has one or two natures after the Incarnation.
· Nestorianism: whether Jesus is one person or whether He has a split identity, with His divine nature separate and divided from
His human nature; whether Mary was the Mother of God.
· Pelagianism: whether people can be saved by their own efforts.
· Theopaschitism: whether Jesus Christ is able, or unable, to suffer in His divine nature.
I believe that a thorough history of heresy would allow us to make the following nine observations:
First, there has never been a time when there were no heresies among Christians. A review of Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s epistles will demonstrate this. Just one example: In St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (ch. 11), he wrote: “[I]f someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it well enough.”
Second, at any one time, there have been multiple heresies circulating with varying degrees of success.
Third, heresies never really go away entirely. Some of them continue to live, vibrantly we may say, for centuries. Some of them may seem to disappear, but they rise again and again, in various places and using various terminologies.
Fourth, even ancient heresies are worthy of our study and attention. Blessed John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism after studying the fourth century controversies.
Fifth, by definition, a heresy is the obstinate denial (or obstinate doubt) of a truth of the Faith. Consider three possibilities dealing with saying and doing (or not doing): First, a person publicly pronounces heretical views but there is no act or omission that appears to be related to the heretical views. It is not necessary that a heresy result in an act or omission. Second, a person is silent about what he or she believes. In such an instance, the person may hold heretical views but there is no evidence of heresy. Third, a person acts, or omits an action, consistent with heresy but is otherwise silent. In this instance, the act or omission may constitute some evidence of heresy, but there may be non-heretical reasons to act or omit an action. If, however, the act or omission is premeditated, not halted in the face of pastoral counseling or public admonition, the objective evidence is that the person has rejected the truth in favor of a heresy.
Sixth, a heresy is not always recognized as such immediately, much less given a name. Pelagius’ views were circulating for a while before St. Augustine pointed out that his views were not compatible with the Catholic Faith. After all, heretics don’t describe themselves as heretics and they don’t say that their views are heretical. Indeed, heretics regard themselves as adhering to the true Faith; moreover, they believe that their views are the true Faith. Sincerely held heresy is still heresy.
Seventh, various views on an issue may evolve and percolate and be debated for a long period of time before a Church Council or a papal encyclical offers a definitive resolution. In the meantime, there can be much confusion and the faithful must make their own judgments as to which side to take.
Eighth, before, and even after a view has been declared heretical, the view can be promoted by bishops and priests. Frankly, bishops and priests are human beings and human beings are subject to error. This is hardly a surprise. Thus, Arius was a priest; Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople; Eutyches was a priest and archimandrite of a monastery; Cornelius Jansen was a bishop (and his views were promoted by Jean Duvergier, an abbot); Luther was an Augustinian friar.
Lastly, how might a faithful bishop deal with heresy in his diocese? Heretical views of various sorts may be held and it’s possible a bad catechesis is responsible. So, a bishop might respond with more catechesis. He will pick and choose his fights. If the heretical views are held, and promoted, by a priest, especially a priest of great influence, the bishop may suspend his priestly faculties rather than commence a long canonical proceeding on heresy.
We ought not to be surprised, then, that the Unisex and the Deceptive Mercy Heresies have not yet been formally declared heresies or given a name. And we ought not to be surprised that a bishop or priest adheres to, and promotes, one or both of these heresies. And we ought not to be surprised if they do not make a “frontal attack” on the truths of the Faith. Rather, they may give lip service to the verbiage of the Faith while undermining it. In recent weeks, we have seen bishops attempting to deny the truths of second civil marriages after divorce being adulterous and homosexual unions as immoral.
Spero columnist James Thunder is an attorney who practices in the Washington DC metropolitan area. His Master's thesis at the University of Virginia was "Aquinas on Marriage."