Heresy & Heretics

What Is Heresy?

Heresy is an emotionally loaded term that is often misused. Some times we use this term without a full knowledge of what the word actually means. In order to be a heretic, a person;

  1. must have been baptized as a Christian,
  2. must intentionally deny an article of faith, and
  3. must refuse correction.

An article of faith is a truth revealed by God that is so important and so certain that no one can deny or doubt it without rejecting God Himself.  We must be careful to distinguish articles of faith from highly valued beliefs and traditions, so that no one can be guilty of the sin of heresy without knowing it.  No heretic can be saved.  From Christianity’s beginnings, the Church has been attacked by those introducing false teachings, or heresies.  The Bible warned us this would happen. Paul told his young student, Timothy, that the time was coming when people would not endure sound teaching, but would have “itching ears”. They would only tolerate teachers who suited their own liking and would turn away from listening to the truth and believe all sorts of myths (2Timothy 4:3–4).


The Judaizers

Who were the Judaizers?

The Judaizers were Christians who previously were Jews. We know that, of those who first became Christians, some came from a Jewish background (Jewish-Christians) and others from a Gentile background (Gentile-Christians). Recall that Jesus had commanded His disciples that they preach the good news of the kingdom to the Jews first and then the Gentiles (Luke 24:47; Galatians 2:8). When the Jews embraced Christianity they continued to observe the Mosaic ceremonies. When the Gentiles became Christians, they obviously did not obey the Mosaic ceremonies not having been taught them or having grown up with them. Naturally, some of these Jewish-Christians couldn’t understand how the Gentile-Christians could be true Christians if they didn’t practice the Jewish ceremonial laws; i.e. the traditions of the fathers (Galatians 1:14; cf. Matthew 15:2ff; Mark 7:3ff; Acts 22:3; Colossians 2:8). Thus, some of these Jewish-Christians began to demand that the Gentile-Christians observe these Mosaic ceremonies and these were called Judaizers.


How did the apostles react to these people?

The major reaction to the Judaizers came from Paul who vigorously opposed the Judaizers. The early church finally resolved the issue at a council.


Why did Paul make such a big deal out of this issue? Was it that important?

Indeed it was. The issue finally came down to this; does salvation depend on faith in Christ alone or on faith in Christ and circumcision and observance of the Mosaic ceremonies? Our Heidelberg Catechism has a similar concern in Q30:

Question 30: Do such then believe in Jesus the only Savior, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
Answer They do not; for though they boast of him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior; for one of these two things must be true, that either Jesus is not a complete Savior; or that they, who by a true faith receive this Savior, must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation.


Where did this issue first originate?

In the book of Acts, we find that on Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas preached in Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe.  After Paul finished his ministry in Derbe, he then backtracked through the same cities until he was where he began; i.e. in Antioch (of Syria).  Here, certain Judaizers came from Jerusalem and told these new Gentile-Christians, that they had to be circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic law, or they could not be saved (Acts 15:1).


What were these Mosaic ceremonies?

The principal ones were circumcision, Sabbath observance, and the many dietary restrictions.


What was decided at the council of Jerusalem?

After considerable debate, the council decided to send a letter to all the churches giving the mind of the apostles on this issue.


What did this letter say?

The letter is in Acts 15:24ff.


How did the council resolve the issue?

The council was a compromise and can be divided up into two different aspects.  It was on the one hand liberating and on the other hand restrictive.


In what way was it liberating?

It was liberating in the sense that the council agreed that gentile-Christians were not required to be circumcised in order to be saved. Nor were they required to keep the Mosaic ceremonial laws. This was Paul’s major contention; and on this, the council clearly sided with Paul.  Hereafter, the Judaizing doctrine of the necessity of circumcision for salvation was a heresy, a false gospel, or a perversion of the true gospel.


In what way was the council’s decision restrictive?

In that it still required the gentile-Christians to abstain from all meat offered to idols (Exodus 34:15), from blood (Genesis 9:4; Deuteronomy 12:23), and from things strangled (as fowls and other animals caught in snares).  Greeks and Romans regarded blood as a delicacy while the Jews never bought meat at public markets for fear of eating blood; see footnote #1.  It is also noteworthy that the eating of pork is not forbidden.  Paul regarded these matters as indifferent (1 Corinthians 8:7-13; 10:23-33; Romans 14:2, 21; 1 Timothy 4:4).


What instructions were given to the Jewish-Christians?

Obviously, the Jewish-Christians were no longer allowed to demand that the gentile-Christians observe the Mosaic ceremonies; but since there really was no controversy regarding Jewish-Christian practice, they were allowed to continue in their ancestral traditions and customs as long as these did not contradict their loyalty to Christ.



What is gnosticism?

The central teaching of the Gnostics was that spirit is entirely good and matter is entirely evil. From this unbiblical dualism flowed 5 important errors:
Man’s body, which is matter, is therefore evil. It is to be contrasted with God, who is wholly spirit and therefore good.
Salvation is the escape from the body, achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge (the Greek word for “knowledge” is gnosis, hence Gnosticism).
Christ’s true humanity was denied in 2 ways:
Some said that Christ only seemed to have a body, a view called Docetism, from the Greek dokeo (“to seem”), and
others said that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left him before he died, a view called Cerinthianism, after its most prominent spokesman, Cerinthus. This view is the background of much of 1 John (see 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3).
Since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly. This ascetic form of Gnosticism is the background of part of the letter to the Colossians (2:21-23).
Paradoxically, this dualism also led to licentiousness. The reasoning was that, since matter—and not the breaking of God’s law (1Jn 3:4)—was considered evil, breaking his law was of no moral consequence.


Was Paul referring to gnosticism when he spoke about knowledge falsely so called?

Indeed he was.
1Tim. 6:20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science [or knowledge] falsely so called: 21 Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.
Here Paul instructs Timothy to stick with the doctrines that Paul had handed down to him and not to follow the claims of the teachers who often claimed to have received direct divine revelations.



What is Arianism?

Arianism is the belief that Jesus was not divine but was created by God the Father. Arius (hence Arianism) was the person who 1st began teaching this.


How did the church respond to this?

Eventually the church dealt with this issue by way of a council. Before it came to this, however, great church leaders opposed Arius and defended orthodox Christology.


Who were these men?

The bishop of Alexandria, named Alexander, was the 1st man to oppose Arius. Alexander died, however, in the midst of the battle and Athanasius succeeded him. Athanasius was the greatest champion of catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known and in his lifetime earned the characteristic title of Father of Orthodoxy. Because of his stand, Athanasius often had to take unpopular stands and thus the phrase contra mundum (against the world) was and is still applied to him.


Which council resolved this crisis?

The council of Nicea.


What did the council decide?

This council published the Nicene creed which firmly established the divinity of Jesus.
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homousion], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth…




What is Marcionism?

Marcionism is the doctrinal system of Marcion.


What did Marcion teach?

Marcion’s basic doctrine was that Christianity is entirely a gospel of love and does not include any law. He further taught:

  1. That the Old Testament was not a legitimate part of divine revelation. The apostles, however, taught that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old Testament.  Marcion denied this.
  2. Only the teachings of Paul were true.

Because of this last item, Marcion revised the Bible so that it included only ten letters of Paul and the gospel of Luke.


How did the church fathers react to Marcion?

The abhorrence of the Christian church for Marcion is captured in this anecdote. One day the church father Polycarp met Marcion in Rome. When Marcion asked Polycarp if he knew who he was, Polycarp replied, “I know the first-born of Satan.”

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