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A Summary of various Heresies

In this fifth post about 'Heresy, a history of defending the truth' by Alister McGrath we continue to explore heresy. 
  • In the first post we saw that heresy is a form of belief that is ultimately found to be inadequate. 
  • In the second post we looked heresy's relationship to faith and belief. 
  • In the third post we saw that the term 'heresy' developed from the idea of a school of thought to later include the idea of a negative judgement about that thought.  We also saw that these schools of thought arose from within the church in response to their cultural settings and that it was often only over time that the weaknesses to those positions became evident.
  • In the fourth post we saw that Heresies could be grouped into Classic or Patristic heresies that emerged in the first five centuries of the Christian faith; and Medieval heresies.
In this post there are brief summaries of these heresies.  Reading about some of these heresies can seem a bit dry, however, it is vital that we have some understanding of them as new heresies that we may come across are often either replays or variations on these historic ones.  History tends to repeat, but if we are aware, we can avoid repeating some of those errors ourselves.

Classic Heresies:

Early heresies emerged in the first three centuries when Christian churches existed on the margins of Roman society/imperial culture and before trans-local leadership structures and mechanisms developed.

Ebionitism: The ebionites were a group that interpreted Jesus as a prophet in after the pattern of Old Testament prophets.  They either underplayed or ignored the divinity of Jesus.

Docetism:  This teaches that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human -Jesus Christ could not really be properly human as there was no way in which the divine and the human could coexist in a single being.  It underplays or denies the humanity of Jesus.

Valentinism: Valentinus is considered to be the originator of a form of Gnostic Christianity.   Gnosticism holds that matter was created by an inferior creator God, the Demiurge, and is thus fundamentally evil.  Salvation is the process of receiving knowledge (gnosis) to enable them to be freed from the physical world (including the body) and return to the realm of light.  For Valentism, Christ is the redeemer figure who awakens the divine spark within humanity, enabling it to find its way back to its true home.  Against this the incarnation explicitly denies any notion of intrinsically evil matter.

Later Heresies developed in the fourth and fifth centuries when Christianity moved from the fringes to become the official faith of the empire.  'Orthodoxy and heresy were now more than matters of theological debate; they had significant consequences for social cohesion and unity.' (page 135)

Arianism:  Arius emphasized the utter transcendence and inaccessibility of God meaning that  God cannot be known by any other creature including the Son of God (however highly exalted he may be considered).  However since it is only God who saves that means Jesus can't save.  

Donatism: Prior to Christianity becoming a legal religion, there were various periods of intense persecution.  During these times numbers of people including bishops surrendered sacred texts and became regarded as traitors.  Once Christianity was legal, those who supported people who had become martyrs thought these people had lapsed could no longer be bishops etc. because it would taint the purity of the church and undermine the validity of sacraments administered by tainted ministers.  Donatism was rejected because it made the sacraments, and thus the power of the Gospel indirectly dependent on the purity of the church rather than on the grace of Christ.  True believers would never crack under persecution.

Pelagianism: Pelagianism insisted that human beings are completely free in all their actions - if we are told to stop sinning, we can stop sinning, and there is no human disposition towards sin that prevents us.  It understood Grace only as God's external gifts of the commandments, forgiveness through the cross, and the example and teaching of Jesus Christ, rather than also including God's internal gifts of healing, enlightening, strengthening, and continual aid helping us to obey.  Like Donatism it had an idealised view of humanity - that we can be perfect on our own.

David Wanstall, 16/11/2011