Heresy through the Ages

By Ina Belderis 

We usually think of heresy as something opposed to orthodoxy. Heresy, however, comes from the Greek hairesis, which means choice. Originally it was not used in a derogatory sense, but as a technical term for a philosophical school or the doctrines of a religion. In current usage heresy is a belief or opinion contrary to what is generally accepted, especially in religion, and more particularly in opposition to the orthodoxy of the Christian Church. Orthodoxy is derived from two Greek words: orthos (right or true) and doxa (opinion), so that orthodoxy means right opinion, usually in a religious sense.

Who decides what is the right opinion and what is not? For many centuries the Church in the West decided what was right in human affairs. Its claims for having the right opinion were based on its interpretation of the Bible and the Church's own traditions. These interpretations have promoted the view that Church history, Church doctrine, and the Church hierarchy are all based on an uninterrupted tradition stemming from Jesus Christ. The existence of numerous heresies, however, indicates that there are many alternative views.

The problem with tracing traditions back to Jesus is that the accounts of his life and teachings were written many years after his death. The earliest writings in the New Testament are letters by Paul, dated between 50 and 60 A.D., and Paul never met Jesus. The earliest Gospel is dated around 70 A.D. In fact, there were many other accounts of the life of Jesus than the few that were finally retained in the New Testament, for example the so-called apocryphal writings, including other gospels and epistles, which were accepted in the first four centuries but were later rejected. Discoveries such as those from Nag Hammadi have given us a wealth of material which throws a different light on the life and teachings of Jesus.

The decisions about which writings to include in the New Testament and which to exclude were made by the council of bishops. Certain aspects of Church doctrines and traditions were introduced by these early Church Fathers:

-- Cyprian developed the idea that the Church is the mediator of salvation;
-- Ignatius of Antioch declared the office of bishop a divine institution;
-- Eusebius wrote the history of the Church;
-- Origen tried to reconcile classical philosophy with the Christian religion, and
-- Augustine helped to define certain doctrines about the trinity, the nature of Christ, and predestination.

The decisions of these and other bishops on history, hierarchy, and textual authenticity were made centuries after the death of Jesus and his disciples, and are the result of heated debates and often long-standing disputes. It is important to realize that those who decided were human beings, well-intentioned perhaps, but not infallible or entirely free from the corruption of power. Disputes took place between bishops, religious leaders, and others with opposing opinions -- within and outside the Church. Most of its history has come to us through the eyes of the winning party -- the losers were called heretics, the winners calling themselves orthodox. It is definitely in the interest of the winner to represent these conflicts as insignificant and to maintain that there has always been one main line of undisputed orthodoxy from the beginning. Eusebius did this in his History of the Church, even though there was very little proof to support his views.

Before the first half of the 3rd century it is inaccurate to speak of a dominant strain of Christianity. Only in the 4th century did concepts about the trinity and certain other dogmas develop, while disputes over acceptable biblical texts lasted until the 5th century. It was not until 451 at the Council of Chalcedon that the apostolic creed was adopted. There was no written history of the Church until Eusebius wrote his in the 4th century. But even then many other matters of doctrine, points of faith, and Christian philosophy were still not decided. Christianity in the first few centuries was more heterogeneous than it is now, with many flagrantly different viewpoints competing with each other -- in those days there was neither orthodoxy nor heresy.

These conflicts revolved around essential questions, and the solutions of the Church did not satisfy everyone. Often these controversies took place between two bishops who passionately refuted each other's point of view -- each of them with his ardent supporters. There were many factions of disagreeing bishops using their own interpretations of certain scriptures. Only when one group gained the support of worldly powers did the phenomenon of anathematizing have any consequence, because worldly powers encouraged and helped enforce it. The winning faction, calling itself orthodox, branded people with other opinions heretics, and many a sincere bishop found himself cast out of the Church. After support of worldly power came in the 4th century with the Emperor Constantine, emperors often called Church Councils to decide on matters of faith because they were pressured by one or both contending factions. The losing party, usually led by a charismatic person, often founded his own church or sect.

The controversies were manifold, but tracing certain major trends can be very enlightening. One of the most important concerns the nature of Christ. Should the focus be on Christ as a physical being who was born, lived, and was crucified, and who rose in the flesh, all for the purpose of redeeming the sins of man? Or should the Christ story be seen as an allegory of the spiritual awakening of every man, as many of the Gnostic groups claimed? According to this line of thought everyone is able -- through knowledge (gnosis) and conscious effort -- to develop his higher self or Christ nature. Jesus was considered a teacher, who set the example and led the way to this goal. In any case, his actual physical existence was much less important and was even denied by some groups. Others held the view that Christ's body was a phantom, that he only seemed to be human and that the crucifixion and suffering were only an outward appearance. This is called Docetism from the Greek dokein -- to seem or to appear. One result of this view of Christ is that the idea of Mary as the mother of God loses its validity. If Christ is not really physical, Mary was not his mother and was an ordinary woman, so followers of this view rejected the worship of Mary.

Another aspect of gnostic thought is that man should be his own redeemer, that he has a spark of divinity within him that gives him the power of his own redemption. This results in the idea of equality of the sexes: anyone who has gained gnosis and has become more or less enlightened may be a teacher, man or woman. A high ethical and moral attitude was emphasized and determined membership of these groups. In the orthodox church one could be saved only through the mediation of its ordained clergy, who were always men, and the requirements for membership were baptism and confession of creed.

The Church Council of Chalcedon decided that Christ had two natures, human and divine. While this was the Church's solution to whether Christ was God, man, or both, there was an opposing opinion that Christ could have only one nature: a divine nature. Followers of this idea were called Monophysites and after the Council of Chalcedon they were declared heretics. A famous example of a Monophysite is Bishop Nestorius, who in the 5th century had a large following in the Near East. As a matter of fact, Nestorians still exist in that area.

One dispute in the 4th century, also dealing with the nature of Christ, held the early Church in its grip for decades: the Arian controversy. Arius taught that the Son could not possibly be the same as the Father. He should follow after him, because the Son was begotten and therefore had a beginning. God, however, was indivisible. So Christ was like (Gk, homoi-ousios) the Father, but not the same. Bishop Athanasius attacked Arius with the view that Christ is the Logos, fully God and of the same substance as the Father, expressed in the term homo-ousios. For years they and their supporters argued over one iota (the i in homoi). Finally Athanasius won when the Council of Nicea in 325 decided in favor of homo-ousios -- the Son being of the same substance as the Father. Nevertheless, Arianism was widespread in the Eastern empire in the 4th century, and lingered on in some areas up to the 7th century. The Emperor Constantine was in fact converted to Christianity by an Arian heretic. At that time the issue was not very clear to most Christians and was considered little more than Greek hair-splitting.

The question of good and evil was also a common source of disagreement. If God is good, where does the evil in the world come from? If God is not responsible for evil, then there must be another power who is, which results in a power struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The Church's view about the Fall of man and the Garden of Eden is well known. In many gnostic-dualist circles, however, it was believed that there is an unknown God, that the world was created by a lower god, called the demiurge, creator, or builder, and often even the Devil or Satan. The souls of men belong to the unknown God, but they are imprisoned in bodies of matter by the demiurge. Many different myths have variations on this theme. Escaping from the power of the demiurge and returning to the unknown God was essential. This dualism in its moderate form believed that the unknown God would eventually win over the dark powers; in its radical form there was an external struggle between good and evil. This view led to the rejection of the Old Testament as the book of the creator or demiurge.

These dualistic ideas are very old -- certainly as old as Christianity itself, and in their root forms much older. Some well-known adherents to this way of thinking were Marcion, Valentinus, and Basilides in the 2nd century, and Mani in the 3rd. Dualism can be traced as it came from Persia to Asia Minor and to Thrace in Greece where the Paulicians were active in the 7th century and later. After that it spread over the Balkans, became very strong, and manifested among the so-called Bogomils in the 10th century. The Balkans were dualist for many centuries and had their own churches and bishops. For some time it was the main religion in Bosnia (now part of Yugoslavia). It affected mainly the common people, as the nobility and rulers usually followed the orthodox Christian approach. From the Balkans it advanced to Northern Italy and Southern France, where it flourished in Languedoc and Provence in the 12th and 13th centuries; there the dualists were called Cathars and Albigenses. The total culture in this area was influenced by dualism, the whole population being involved, from the nobility to ordinary people -- until it became so overwhelming and powerful that it began to replace the orthodox Christian faith. This formed a severe threat to the Church, which called in the help of worldly powers -- in this case the King of France -- to crush it. The result was the Albigensian Crusade. With the help of the Inquisition, dualism was systematically attacked, destroyed and practically wiped out in Southern France. From France these ideas had spread to Spain, Flanders, Germany, and even England. Its presence continued in many different places throughout Europe and some of its ideas were adopted by the Reformation.

One other major issue resulted in the denunciation of still more heretics: the doctrine of original sin and predestination. In the 4th century Pelagius refuted Augustine's doctrine of predestination and rejected any idea of the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Pelagius, the mistakes of man do not come from inherent, bad inclination, but from the ability to choose. When one does not use this ability correctly, one is guilty: sin is a matter of will. Pelagius rejected the view of Augustine that man was doomed because of Adam; he considered death as something natural, not a punishment. Pelagianism was anathematized in the 6th century.

By now it should be evident that what we call orthodox Christianity is in fact a collection of choices, made by human beings in positions of power. The Gnostics and followers of other heretical movements simply made other choices. It is remarkable that these alternative ideas have existed from the time of Christ and even through the Middle Ages, and still have not really disappeared. Why? Because they have to do with the irrepressible search for truth, the spiritual quest of man and woman, our search for the answers to the ultimate questions: who are we, where did we come from, and what is our destiny?

From time immemorial there has been a wisdom tradition that has helped humanity find these answers. In this tradition, ultimate reality or ultimate truth is beyond man, but fragments of it can be found everywhere, sometimes pointing to the whole but often distorted and misunderstood. This wisdom can be found in practically every religion and philosophical system on earth. It exists in orthodox Christianity, but much of it has been obscured by dogma. Interestingly enough, there is a great deal of ancient wisdom to be found in the various heresies.

Seeing Christ as a spiritual being and teacher, one who points the way to a self-directed spiritual evolution, echoes the teachings of the esoteric philosophy that man himself is responsible for his own spiritual development. From time to time world teachers appear on earth to remind us of this, and Jesus was one of them. The perennial philosophy also speaks of the coming into being and development of this earth by so-called builders or creative forces, directed by higher beings or architects. There is no absolute good or evil, only beings that are more or less in harmony with the whole. Bodies or forms are brought forth by the less perfected creators, whereas the mental and spiritual aspects are quickened by more evolved beings. The teachings of numerous gnostic-dualist groups show definite parallels with these ideas, some of which have been preserved in purer forms than others.

In ancient times this wisdom was taught in Mystery schools only after people had been initiated, and after they had pledged to keep it secret. Many of the early teachers and even some of the early bishops were initiates in these schools and knowledge of the esoteric philosophy often comes through in their writings. When the Church became an institutionalized power structure with certain worldly goals, the emphasis of the teachings became more exoteric than esoteric. The real meaning was gradually lost, and fewer and fewer people were really initiated and instructed. Teachings that were originally esoteric became crystallized, because the uninstructed tried to explain them. At this point the teachings were distorted and exoteric power structures claimed authority in matters of the spirit.

The question for us today is: which choice holds the right opinion? Supported by the esoteric philosophy, many heresies claim that all of us have the right and duty to find the truth within ourselves, that we should trust our own intuition to make these choices, and that we need no mediator to bring us in touch with the Divine because we are rays or sparks of it ourselves. As sparks of the Divine we are all part of the greater whole and all connected in countless ways. This should make us realize that there is a place for everyone and for everyone's opinion about the path to our inner being. Differences of opinion do not make anyone heretical or orthodox. The ancient tradition approaches heresy in a completely different way: it holds that there is really only one heresy in life, and that is thinking that one is separate from the universe and everything in it. Considering that each of us has only a part of the truth and that one person's truth is no more authoritative than another's, we should try to avoid seeing our own view as the only correct one. This cannot help but make us more tolerant of our fellow human beings, who value their choices and opinions as much as we value ours The epitome of this kind of tolerance is expressed by the poet Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that left me out -- heretic, rebel -- a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win -- we drew a circle that took him in.


(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1990; copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press)

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