Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Ben Quash and Michael Ward edited Heresies, a series of sermons on many of the early heterodox opinions in the church and why certain doctrines were rejected in favor of others. It starts out as a set of pretty decent summaries, then limps downhill.

I've always had a hard time keeping them straight, all the Montanists, Donatists, docetists, Marcionists and whatever. Some of the writers thought there was an observable trend that heresies were attempts to avoid one problem so thoroughly that an opposite error emerged. Others thought that the vagueness and ambiguities of heresies, especially those propounded by mystics, made it difficult to identify if there was much wrong for quite a few years. I don't think either generalisation holds for long. What did fascinate was the perseverance of some heresies in the folk beliefs around the Mediterranean, and modern emergences of old falseness.

What they did convince me was important about all this is that people putting forth bad ideas often insist on them and force a crisis. Rank-and-file believers would often just as soon be left alone - which is why many orthodoxies did not reach final form for centuries after Christ. But heretics often have that push, that bulldog tendency, or a desire to be a somebody and have followers (not all). Secondly, they often rely on a few scripture sections to the exclusion of others to prove their points.* They force the doctrinal issue, as everyone else has to sit down and thumb through a lot of NT books and argue to decide what, precisely, do we believe the right doctrine to be?

But all in all, you might do better just reading the Wikipedia articles. This has a lot collected in one place, which is nice, but not enough. I bought it for Ben and will send it along, but don't be surprised if you see his copy in a used bookstore in Spring, TX.

*Now there's something that continues into the modern day...


james said...

Some seem to have been heresies only if you believe that objecting to the hierarchy was heresy. I'm not perfectly expert on the Donatists (I suffer from the same "they all blur together" problem), but that movement seems to have been a conglomeration of several things: A doctrinal point about the validity of ordaining those who gave in and sacrificed to the emperor, an objection to outsiders appointing bishops, an objection to the emperor having any sort of say in ecclesiastical matters, and a separatist North African ethnic/political attitude.

I think most of us agree strongly with the third point, and a lot of us protestants with the second. I don't know if there is any hard and fast rule we can come up with about recovering apostates, but probably most of us would be a little reluctant to put them in positions of authority afterwards. And we don't care one way or another about vanished empires and their tax collectors.

So, were the Donatists heretics? Hmm.

Some of the heresies seem to have been somebody taking half the truth and running with it, but you're right that some had seeds elsewhere; notably the gnostic-related ones.

I cannot recall the source, but one author claimed that it was hard to depose bishops for incompetence, but possible to do it for heresy. That could have made hair-splitting useful. And some of the divisions seem to form along suspiciously regional lines.

Sometimes the slipperiness of words caused problems--still does, IMnsHO. One source claimed that some of the Christological arguments were talking past each other thanks to quirks of translating technical language between Greek and Syraic. Knowing neither, I can't comment. But assembling a set of true statements does sometimes result in something wrong.

{I'm using a generic I in what follows, OK? No comments about my actual behavior.}

For example, as a Christian I have a new nature; I'm not like the natural man anymore. I am also enabled to do good works and grow in self-control, putting aside greed and lust and oppressing my neighbor: acting justly. I can fast and pray to grow closer to God, and give generously to God and my neighbor. I should be thankful to God for this opportunity, and therefore it is right to pray like this: "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get." Yet we have it on good authority that this is unacceptable; a boast. I may mean well when trying to say such a thing, but my hearers won't think so, and after a while I probably won't either.

Similarly, we have the simple syllogism: "Mary is the mother of Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore Mary is the Mother of God." Except that the unqualified final statement means more than the first ones. We invest the word "mother" with senses of both office and of essence--the mother is superior to the baby in some sense. So I'd say Nestorius was right.
But the waters here are muddy because allies with the "Mother of our Lord" Nestorius included groups who held that Jesus had an add-on nature. If his position won, they might have won too.

I wonder if I qualify as "rank-and-file." I have a blog, and a I comment on blogs. Maybe I'm one of the trouble-makers too...

karrde said...

I remember running into a guy who was basically a Marcionite.

He was teaching a literature class (not related to Scripture) at a University. I was in the class, and the subject was a tangent that came up somehow.

I didn't remember enough about Marcion to bring up that his wasn't a new was one of the Classical Heresies, and had been rejected.

Considering the position we were both in at the time, perhaps it is best that I didn't say anything.

And then there was the young woman who I was trying to form a closer relationship with, who had grown up in a church. She was fairly scandalized that I hung out with other believers who believed in the Fall and in the possibility of Hell. The relationship eventually foundered...

Was one of the classic heresies a denial of the doctrine of Hell?

I agree, it is good to have a reference for those heresies. I am convinced that very few new heresies have been discovered since that time.

Texan99 said...

This post and these comments are so useful to those of us who are not well versed in the heresies but who see the evils that come from doctrinal disputes.

It's just so hard sometimes to keep our eyes on the ball. We don't want to drift from the truth, but we don't want to be murdering each other over transubstantiation, either.