“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself,” (Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” 1.2)
[Note: For this post, we will need to define a few terms, so that we are all on the same page. Each definition presented comes courtesy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the dictionary I tend to use most often, so if any wish to take issue with the definitions I have presented, take it up with the people who compile the dictionary, and not this guy.]
Heresy: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma
Dogma: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church
In Christian terms, a heresy is a false teaching that contradicts what is found in the Bible. A person who teaches or believes such teachings is known as a heretic. Any Church doctrine, policy, practice, or teaching is heretical if it does not find justification in Scripture. Examples of heresy found within the Christian realm would be Arianism, Modelism (Sebellianism), Gnosticism, Decisionism, and the Prosperity Gospel. These are doctrines and teachings for which there is little to no Scriptural basis, as they either deny the Triune nature of God, the deity of Jesus, other essential Christian Doctrines and/or Jesus’ teachings in whole, or in part. In this post, we will take a look at what constitutes heresy, and maybe dispel a few myths that might be associated.
Where to Begin?
This post will be the beginning of a series on the various heretical teachings that can be found out there. Admittedly, I have already covered one such heresy, Mormonism, but that is just one of a whole host of heresies that the Church as whole has been unable to shake. As such, I will not be going into tremendous detail relating to the specific heretical teachings in this post, just giving a basic overview. While the names of some of these teachings might not be very familiar to some of you, their modern equivalents will ring more than a few bells, and my hope is that you will come away with more information with which you can use to disarm any arguments. Jesus did warn us about false prophets, false doctrines, and false teachers (Matt. 7:15-20), and these constitute some of the most dangerous of them.
To begin, we will discuss what the word Heresy means. It originates from the Greek word αἵρεσις (airesis), which means “choice, opinion” (Strong’s Greek Concordance #139). While the word did not originally carry the negative connotation it has been given today, the Church was beset early on by a variety of disparate and patently false ideas and teachings that ran counter to Orthodoxy. Though it was never their original intent to do so, these various teachings forced the early Church to deal with these heresies by answering the questions that arose from their teachings. One example of this is the Council of Nicea.
The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.)
This famous ecumenical council is the go-to for many anti-Christian critics when they want to attack the Doctrine of the Trinity, as well as the age and authorship of the Gospel accounts. They also erroneously insist that the Council named Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, at the direction of Emperor Constantine. (This actually took place roughly 55 years later, in 380 A.D., under Emperor Theodosius I with the Edict of Thessalonica.) I have lost count of the number of times a Unitarian or an Atheist has gleefully said to me, “You do know that the New Testament was written in the Third Century, right?” Sadly, this historically unsupported lie is really difficult to uproot, and I blame popular media and intellectual laziness for it.
No thanks to the efforts of people like Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code“, people have formed the opinion that Jesus was married, that He fathered a child, that He was only a man, and that the New Testament canon did not exist prior to this council. In “The Da Vinci Code”, for example, the character Sir Leigh Teabing insists that Jesus had been just a man prior to the Council of Nicea, and that one of the issues decided by the council was His divinity; basically stating that Jesus was an extraordinary man one day, and God the next,
“until that moment in history Jesus was viewed by many of his followers as a mighty prophet, as a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless. A mortal man.” -Sir Leigh Teabing, “The Da Vinci Code”
Of course, this could not be farther from the truth, but the issue with popular opinion is that it is popular; blasphemy or no. Most people simply want to accept these ideas without ever trying to find out if they are true, and seem utterly confused when I point out that Dan Brown is not in fact a historian.
Once you take all of that into consideration, there is a question that does come to mind. If New Covenant canon and Jesus’ divinity were not in fact decided at the Council, what was the purpose to it, then? Why did they call the council, and summon every Bishop from the Christian world to what is now Turkey? Well, the primary purpose to the council was to address the heretical teachings of an Egyptian Presbyter named Arius of Alexandria. The main thrust of his teachings, known as Arianism, is that Jesus, though divine, was nothing more than a created being. He was not God incarnate, and there is no Trinity.
A modern day example of Arianism is Islam. Though not a part of Christianity, this is exactly what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus and God. Occurring a few centuries before the birth of Muhammad, the Council of Nicea excommunicated Arius and his followers, many of whom migrated to the Arabian peninsula and formed their own communities in places like Mecca, the hometown of Muhammad ibn Abdullah. Islam was heavily influenced by the Arian heresy, which shows in the Quranic approach to the Trinity. Take Qur’an 4:171 for example,
“Those who say, “God is the Messiah, son of Mary,” have defied God. The Messiah himself said; “Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him from the Garden, and Hell will be his home. No one will help such evildoers. Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist. Why do they not turn to God and ask his forgiveness, when God is most forgiving, most merciful? The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are.” (emphasis added)
What the council resulted in was less than ideal for Emperor Constantine, who had just legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire. He had presided over the council hoping to bring about unity within the Church. The result was the excommunication of Arius of Alexandria, the expulsion of his followers from the Church, and the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which is as follows:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
This creed had been meant to be as much a repudiation of Arianism as it was a declaration of an official Church position on the topic of the Trinity. It is worth noting that this creed is just as valid for Protestant Christians, Orthodox Christians, and any other type of true Christians, as it is for the Catholic Church. The reason why resides in the meaning of “catholic”. According to Merriam-Webster, catholic means, “of, relating to, or forming the church universal”. This creed is a basic overview of what true Christianity teaches. (In case any are wondering, yes, I will eventually address the Catholic/Protestant schism, and will weigh in on whether or not I believe Catholics are Christian. All in due time.)
How Did They Decide?
How did the ecumenical council at Nicea arrive at the conclusion they did? This moment in history did not show up out of nowhere. Considering that these men had spent their entire lives being persecuted for their faith, it is clear that compromise was not anywhere on their minds. Yet, two of the three groups attending were able to hammer out a consensus statement that has withstood the test of time. They had to have had some basis for this decision.
The groundwork was laid centuries before, when the Apostles and Disciples began their writings. Modern biblical scholars agree that the books and letters we now know as the New Testament, or New Covenant, had all been written before the early part of the Second Century. Over the course of the next few centuries, the early Church fathers wrote sermons, homilies, and letters, all of which account for such a huge volume of text that one could reconstruct virtually the entire New Covenant Scripture from them. These collected volumes of work are commonly referred to as “Patristic writings”. Through this, modern scholars have not only been able to determine what it is that was considered Scripture in those days, but also see how they interpreted what that Scripture said. Through this, they are able to determine whether or not something is sound doctrine.
One of the things they have been able to determine is that the entire New Covenant canon was unofficially laid out by the middle of the Second Century, and that the Council of Nicea simply made official what had already been put into place by the Christians themselves. This means that several key doctrines were already established by the time of the council, including the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Doctrine of Regeneration, and the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith.
History also shows that Arianism was not the first heresy to be addressed by the early Church. Contained within Paul’s writings are hints of heresy beginning to appear in the congregations at Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Galicia. It would appear that a Greek philosophical belief known as Gnosticism was very quickly introduced into the Church, forcing Paul to address it just as quickly.
The Standard in the Text
If you were to go back through the Nicene creed what you would find is a direct reference to one of the ways the council arrived at their conclusions. One line states, “according to the Scriptures;”. Not only did they have access to the Patristic writings, but they also had Scripture itself to help them make a determination about whether or not Arius was correct in his teachings. As I have previously pointed out, the texts that point to Jesus as the Divine Messiah are extensive, so they would not have had to look far.
In addition to Scripture, and the Patristic writings, the men at the council also had access to the scholarly tradition of the Jews, along with that of early Christian scholars who had been in operation since the earliest times. Between these sources, we know that three is a definite standard. We begin with Deuteronomy, Chapters 13 & 18, which of course outlines how a person would be able to judge for themselves who would be a true prophet of God and who is not. These two chapters also provide an outline, an absolute standard that teachers must follow when teaching the Word of God.
The standard is:
- The teachings must not go against the Commandments, rules, or the expressed wishes of God, given through His Word.
- It must be consistent with the rest of the Bible, i.e. history, philosophy, and science must match up with what is known about the world around us.
- The interpretations of Scripture must be consistent with the original languages, culture, and history.
- They must be consistent with the teachings of the early Church, as found in the Patristic writings.
Their Reasons Were Not Self-seeking
There are some people out there who maintain that the theologians at Nicea came to their conclusions in order to consolidate their own power. What they fail to realize is that these men had survived to see the end of three centuries of outright persecution, having spent much of their lives facing the real threat of imprisonment, starvation, torture, and horrific execution. They had been abused, discriminated against, and outright persecuted for their faith, all without refusing to waver or recant. These were not the type of people who would have been concerned with their own comfort, or their own fortunes, and that is why they would not have been seeking to consolidate their own power. These were men of faith and substance who knew what they were about. In short, compromise was not in their vocabulary, which was unfortunate for Emperor Constantine because compromise was exactly what he had wanted.
As you can see, there are definite challenges that one must face in order for one’s teachings to be considered biblically sound. Decisions one way or another must not ever be made lightly, as this deals directly with matters relating to Salvation. The men of the council were clearly not motivated by greed or avarice, but rather Truth. While it might be possible that some members of the council might have had such motivations, it would be illogical and irrational to suggest that the majority or even the entirety of the council was.
What this means for the topic of heresy is that we get a clear standard of proof that cannot be disputed. The Council of Nicea is just one example of the Church dealing with heresy, and shows how that is to be done. When faced with a teaching we think might be heretical, our first stop is found within the pages of that wondrous volume of books made up of the Word of God. Delve into Scripture and determine for yourself the validity of a given teaching. Do be mindful, though, and check your understanding of Scripture with the Source. Never forget to go the Lord prayer and ask for understanding.
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” -1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV