Summary: Many modern errors stem from the early heresies. This study looks at what the teachers of heresy believed and how the church refuted these doctrines.
Heresies and Heretics in the Early Church
Early church fathers focused much energy on refuting heretical views that infiltrated the church. The majority of the Trinity quotes were written in response to heresy being taught within the church. A heresy is simply a doctrine that strays from the established Christian belief. A heretic is someone who adheres to and teaches this unorthodox doctrine. In the case of the early church, heresies were teachings that directly conflicted with established Christian doctrine that was taught by Jesus and the apostles and passed down to the early church fathers on vital issues, such as the deity of Christ, the nature of God, salvation by grace, etc.
We have seen that many of the early church fathers were taught directly by the apostles themselves. Barnabas was taught directly by Paul and he served with Paul on some of his missionary journeys. Though his writings are not considered scripture, they are powerful testimonies to the original doctrine of Christ and the meaning of the gospel. Those closest to the source are the most credible witnesses. We have seen that those who deny the deity of Christ (Jesus was fully God and fully man), and those who identify Jesus and the Father as the same person were the teachers of heresy. This was not accepted by the early church and this heresy was not allowed into the church until after Constantine became an Arian and used his political power to establish this rejected doctrine as a part of the church. The council of Nicaea rejected this heresy almost unanimously. The church’s position did not change from the time of the apostles until the heresy took root. It was political power alone that forced this into the church as an accepted doctrine.
Just as the early church fought against those who departed from historical Christianity, the battle in the church is the same today. Many heresies that began back in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries are making their resurgence today. Many false teachers claim to be reformers and accuse the Trinitarian belief as being heresy, when in fact, it is they who have departed from historic Christianity. There is a difference between traditional Christianity and historical Christianity. Tradition is subjective to personal preference and does not necessarily have its roots in scripture. Historical Christianity finds its roots in scripture and we have a historic trail of writings that reveal the truth about what the early church believed and what the apostles taught. In the previous section, we looked at the church father’s belief in who Jesus Christ was – His deity, His personhood, His eternal existence and the fact that He is of one substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Next we will look at the heresies that historically plagued the early church. From these heresies, it will be evident where many religious groups get their doctrine today. They do not take their root in scripture or historic Christianity; we find their roots in heresy.
Docetism was introduced on a large scale by Julius Cassianus. The movement goes farther back, but he is considered the founder of this belief system. Docetism teaches that Jesus’ physical body was only an aberration or an illusion. This idea is a product of Gnostic philosophy. The Gnostics believed that matter is evil. Therefore, Jesus could not be God incarnate because a physical body could not be good. Docetism taught that a spiritual Christ entered into the human Jesus at his baptism and left when He was crucified. They believed that Jesus’ main objective was to deliver us from the dominion of matter (which is evil). He could not come in the form of matter since matter was what He came to overcome. This heresy also denies the resurrection because Jesus’ physical body would still be matter. There are some similar variations to this belief. The Gnostic ‘Gospel of Peter’ teaches Docetism. Two of the more popular teachers of this heresy were Cerinthus and Ebionites.
The church responds:
Some ignorantly deny him [Jesus], or rather have been denied by him, being the advocates of death rather than of the truth. These persons neither have the prophets persuaded, nor the law of Moses, nor the gospel even to this day, nor the sufferings we have individually endured. For they think also the same thing regarding us. For what does anyone profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that he was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied him, ... inasmuch as they are unbelievers. – Ignatius
The Gnostics claim to have ’secret knowledge’. Gnosis means knowledge. The Gnostics are similar to the New Age movement today in the way that they have many varying beliefs but all are somewhat similar. The primary belief that all Gnostics can agree on is that matter is evil. Two schools of thought follow the ’matter is evil’ philosophy. One group believed in abstaining from any physical pleasure because it was all evil. The other group believed in total indulgence because the body is evil and separate from the soul. Gnostics believe that the soul is divine, but fallen and entrapped in the physical world. The body becomes an imprisonment. Gnostics also believe that a god can emanate other gods. The child god is weaker than its parent. The god of this world, (Jehovah of the Old Testament) was evil. Some even teach that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was not the devil, but an emanation of a higher god than the creator of the world. The serpent was there to warn and save Adam and Even, not to deceive them. Charles Bigg states that there was “ ‘a long chain of divine creatures, each weaker than its parent,’ and we come at last ’to one, who, while powerful enough to create is silly enough not to see that creation is wrong.’ This was the God of this world, the God of the Jews.”