Most of us are heretics and we don’t know it.
And generally that would make us OK with it. It’s kind of like finding out that you eat an average of eight insects a year while you sleep*. You hear it and while you may be momentarily shocked, you realize, well it hasn’t hurt me yet…
But the thing is: being a heretic is a big deal.
In addition to forever limiting yourself from enjoying a dope Eucharist with the Pope, being a heretic has serious consequences for how Christians of different fellowships interface with each other, how we perceive God and the revealed word, and even for how we live. For this reason, over the next few weeks we’re going to delve into a brief series on Christian heresies, attempting to understand what they are, how they can be corrected, and how some of them affect our lives.
From the very beginning of the church, heresies have sprung up. That’s because understanding the Bible isn’t easy—while the gospel message may be straight-forward, Scripture contains a lot of difficult concepts.
For one, there’s the dual nature of Jesus. In some way, defying all my understanding of math, Jesus of Nazareth was 100% man and 100% god. Getting this concept just right has been the struggle of many a Christian for centuries. One of the heresies that sprung up around this issue was Monophysitism†, the belief that Jesus had only one nature—usually the divine, though sometimes a blending, a tertium quid.
And that makes sense, I guess. Nothing else, including the Trinity, has multiple natures—that’s kind of the thing with natures. And if there’s only going to be one, it’s not going to be human. It’s gotta be God or a mixture of the two. But as you can probably guess, the Church wasn’t having any of that. In 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon, Christians came together and declared this idea heresy, boldly proclaiming that Christ existed in “two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” And this treatise was not merely academic fanfare but necessary that we might understand two truths: that God’s revelation is simultaneously of man and of God and, moreover, that Christians are to exist in the world, fully pious and of God yet fully involved in humanity.
Another common yet rarely discussed heresy is the spirithood of God. While God does exist in spirit, yes, he also exists in person—an aspect oft forgotten. While the church has long maintained the philosophical sophistication to conceive of an entirely-spirit god, a pantheistic god, they have chosen instead a God that is personal. The personhood of God was defended by Hegel as a logical necessity in order for God to be self-giving.
It’s not hard for us to conceive of this for Christ or even for the Father, given the frequent use of masculine pronouns to refer to him, but for the Holy Spirit, it can be difficult. But remembering that the Counselor is also a personal being is, again, necessary so that the Spirit can coexist with the Son and Father in a state of mutual love.
And then there’s Gnosticism, the big dog of heresies. There are some debates regarding the origination of Gnosticism, its place in the Bible, and whether certain individuals simply help similar beliefs or were actual Gnostics, but let’s skip the boring stuff. There are two main ways Gnosticism advances heretical ideas: It’s anti-Old-Testament and it’s anti-physical.
Gnostics, often accused of anti-Semitism, are more than just dismissive of the Old Testament (a heresy in its own right) but are actively antagonistic toward it. To them, the God of the Old Testament is not the real God at all with all his anger and need for burnt animals—he is the demiurge, a force for evil. Fortunately, most Christians today don’t hold that belief, but the dismissiveness of the Gnostics is ever-present. Too often in our churches we hide away in the New Testament, afraid to flip back to arcane passages of Leviticus, afraid to wrestle with Ecclesiastes. But the church is a continuation of Israel, and her Scriptures are more than our heritage, they are a part of us.
Still, the greatest threat of Gnosticism is its anti-physicality. The Gnostics, like many other ancient sects, detested the physical world and saw it as inferior to the spiritual. For them, the afterlife would be an escape of material reality. This specific belief has deeply infiltrated Christian thought, where it is not uncommon for Christians to conceptualize heaven as a place for translucent beings free of flesh. Yet the Jewish mindset that Christianity stood firmly in was one that celebrated the physical, created world. This attitude has far reaching effects for modern Christians, as it demands an appreciation of nature. Christians do not ravage the planet, knowing we escape its physical confines; instead, we care for it and cultivate it. We do not harness it; we love it.
These are just a few heresies. There are plenty of theological ideas that people hold simply because they do not know they’re wrong. In future weeks we’ll look at Calvinism and the Trinity, and why that odd belief matters.
But before we can get there, we have to understand the importance of orthodoxy. Right teaching is not an artificial scam set up to keep some—the uninitiated—on the outside. It has real and ethical purpose. It changes how we live. If we get the theology right, we’ll get the living right.
* This is apparently not true.
† Monophysitism was not in the first round of heresies and took a few centuries to come into its own. This makes sense since those who had spent their days with Jesus (or knew those who had) would be less likely to think of him as too much God and more likely as too much human.