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Orthodoxy and heresy in Christianity

Orthodoxy and heresy in Christianity

Correct beliefs, or orthodoxy, are of extreme importance in the larger branches of Christianity, and much time and energy has been dedicated to delineating what are called heresies, or unacceptable deviations from orthodox thought. Sanctions against heresy have included rebuke, withdrawing mutual recognition as Christians, and sometimes even death for minority individuals or parties, as well as the destruction of all writings associated with those disagreeing parties.

The following article on heresy gives a comprehensive discussion and list of what have been called heresies by the largest Christian branches.

In modern times it is still common for minority Christian movements and individuals to hold beliefs that closely resemble these ancient heresies. But the majority Christian branches continue to view the ancient delineations as an important historical reference for orthodoxy. Heresy continues, though more peacefully than in the past, to be an important issue for many Christians.

Religious heresy in Christianity

The use of the term heresy the context of Christianity is less common today, except for some notable exceptions: see for example the entry Rudolf Bultmann and the character of debates over ordaining women and gay priests. Popular imagination relegates "heresy" to the Middle Ages, when the Church's power in Europe was at its height, but the case of the scholar and humanist Giordano Bruno was not the last execution for heresy. Heresy remained an officially punishable offense in Roman Catholic nations until the late 18th century. In Spain, heretics were prosecuted and punished even after the Napoleonic Era.

Early Christian heresies

Urgent concerns with the uniformity of belief and practice have characterized Christianity from the outset. The process of establishing orthodox Christianity was in full swing by middle to late first century when Paul wrote the epistles that comprise a large part of the New Testament. On many occasions, he defends his own apostleship, and urges Christians in various places to beware of false teachers, or of anything contrary to what was handed to them. The epistles of John and Jude in the New Testament also warn of false teachers. Beyond these, early attacks upon alleged heresies formed the matter of Tertullian's Prescription Against Heretics (in 44 chapters, from Rome), Irenaeus' Against Heresies (five volumes); the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna to various churches warned against false teachers; and the Epistle of Barnabas warned about mixing Judaism with Christianity; as well as other writers, leading to decisions reached in the first ecumenical council, convoked by the Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325.

During those first three centuries, Christianity was effectively outlawed by requirements to worship the Roman emperor and Roman gods. Consequently, the Church labeled its enemies as heretics without persecuting them. However, those called "heretics" were also called a number of other things (e.g. "fools," "wild dogs," "servants of Satan"), so the word "heretic" had negative associations from the beginning, and intentionally so.

Before 325 AD, the "heretical" nature of some beliefs was a matter of much public debate. After 325 AD, some opinion was formulated as dogma. Each phrase in the Nicene Creed, which was hammered out at the Council of Nicaea, addresses some aspect that had been under passionate discussion and closes the books on the argument, with the weight of the agreement of over 300 bishops gathered from around the empire. However, that did not prevent the Arians who were defeated at the council of 325 from dominating most of the church for the greater part of the fourth century, often with the aid of Roman emperors who favored them.

Irenaeus was the first to argue that the "proto-orthodox" position was the same faith that Jesus gave to the apostles, and that the identity of the apostles, their successors, and the teachings of the same were all well known public knowledge. This was therefore an earlier argument on the basis of apostolic succession. Irenaeus' opponents claimed to have received secret teachings from Jesus via other apostles which were not publicly known. (Gnosticism is predicated on the existence of hidden knowledge.)

The Hispanic ascetic Priscillian of Avila was the first person to be executed for heresy, only sixty years after the First Council of Nicaea, in 385. He was executed at the orders of Emperor Magnus Maximus, over the objections of bishops Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours.

A number of the beliefs the Catholic Church has come to regard as heretical have to do with the nature of Jesus Christ and the relationship between Christ and God the Father. The orthodox teaching is that Christ was fully divine and at the same time fully human, and that the three persons of the Trinity are equal and eternal. Note that this position was not formally established as the orthodox position until it was challenged in the fourth century by Arius (Nicene creed in 325); nor was the New Testament put into its present form until the end of the 4th century (Athanasius first lists the 27 books we have in the current New Testament in 367(?), but disputes continued; see Biblical Canon).

Over the years, numerous Christian scholars and preachers have disagreed with the Church on various issues or doctrines. When the Church has become aware of these beliefs, they have been condemned as heretical. Historically, this often happened when the belief challenged, or was seen to challenge, Church authority, or drew a movement of followers who challenged the established order socially. For entirely nonreligious reasons, some influential people have had an interest in maintaining the status quo or condemning a group they wished to be removed. The Church's internal explanations for its actions were based purely on objection to beliefs and philosophies that ran contrary to its interpretation of the holy scriptures and holy Tradition:

Adoptionism, Apollinarism, Arianism, Bogomils, Bosnian Church, Caesaro-papism, Catharism, Docetism, Donatism, Euchites, Gallicanism, Gnosticism, Henry the monk, Jansenism, Luciferians, Lollardry / Lollardy / Lollardism, Marcionism, Monarchianism, Monophysitism, Montanism, Nestorianism, Patripassianism, Pelagianism, Peter of Bruis, Priscillianism, Psilanthropism, Sabellianism, Socianism, Waldensians.

Manichaeism, a pre-Christian religion that influenced early Christians, notably Augustine, often in ways held to be heretical.

Heresy in Roman Catholicism

Heresy is defined by Thomas Aquinas as "a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas." Heresy is both the nonorthodox belief itself, and the act of holding to that belief.

While the term is often used by laymen to indicate any nonorthodox belief such as Paganism, by definition heresy can only be committed by someone who considers themselves a Christian, but rejects the teachings of what has become the orthodox Christian church. A person who completely renounces Christianity is not considered a heretic, but an apostate, and a person who renounces the authority of the Church but not its teachings is a schismatic.

The Church makes several distinctions as to the seriousness of an individual heterodoxy and its closeness to true heresy. Only a belief that directly contravenes an article of faith, or that has been explicitly rejected by the Church, is labelled as actual "heresy." A belief that the church has not directly rejected, or that is at variance with less important church teachings, is given the label, sententia haeresi proxima, meaning "opinion approaching heresy." A theological argument, belief, or theory that does not constitute heresy in itself, but which leads to conclusions which might be held to do so, is termed propositio theologice erronea, or "erroneous theological proposition." Finally, if the theological position only suggests but does not necessarily lead to a doctrinal conflict, it might be given the even milder label of sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens, meaning "opinion suspected, or savoring, of heresy."

Some significant controversies of doctrine have risen over the course of history. At times there have been many heresies over single points of doctrine, particularly in regards to the nature of the Trinity, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the immaculate conception.

Catholic Church's response to heresy

The Church has always fought in favor of orthodoxy and the Pope's authority as the successor of St. Peter to establish truth. At various times in history, it has had varying degrees of power to resist or punish heretics.

In the early church, heresies were sometimes determined by a council of bishops, or ecumenical council, such as the First Council of Nicaea. The orthodox position was established at the council, and all who failed to adhere to it would thereafter be considered heretics. The church had little power to actually punish heretics in the early years, other than by excommunication, a spiritual punishment. To those who accepted it, an excommunication was the worst form of punishment possible, as it separated the individual from the body of Christ, his Church, and prevented salvation. Excommunication, or even the threat of excommunication, was enough to convince many a heretic to renounce his views. Priscillian achieved the distinction of becoming the first Christian burned alive for heresy in 385 at Treves.

In later years, the Church instituted the Inquisition, an official body charged with the suppression of heresy. The Inquisition was active in several nations of Europe, particularly where it had fervent support from the civil authority. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was part of the Roman Catholic Church's efforts to crush the Cathars. It is linked to the movement now known as the Medieval Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was particularly brutal in its methods, which included the burning at the stake of many heretics. However, it was initiated and substantially controlled by King Ferdinand of Spain rather than the Church; King Ferdinand used political leverage to obtain the Church's tacit approval. Another example of a medieval heretic (according to some, proto-protestant) movement is the Hussite movement in the Czech lands in the early 1400s.

It is widely reported that the last person to be burned alive at the stake on orders from Rome was Giordano Bruno, executed in 1600 for a collection of heretical beliefs including Copernicanism and (probably more important) an unlimited universe with innumerable inhabited worlds. The last case of an execution at an auto de fe by the Spanish Inquisition was a schoolmaster, Cayetano Ripoll, executed in Spain July 26, 1826.

Modern Roman Catholic response to Protestantism

The Catholic Church, in the spirit of ecumenism, tends not to refer to Protestantism as a heresy nowadays, even if the teachings of Protestantism are indeed heretical from a Catholic perspective. Modern usage favors referring to Protestants as "separated brethren" rather than "heretics", although the latter is still on occasion used.

Some of the doctrines of Protestantism that the Catholic Church considers heretical are the belief that the Bible is the only source and rule of faith ("sola scriptura"), that faith alone can lead to salvation ("sola fide") and that there is a universal priesthood of believers.

Protestantism and heresy

The main meaning of 'heresy' to a Protestant is the concept of telling lies about God. It is not at its core a matter of opposing the authorities (though, like all authorities religious or otherwise, Protestant leaders often invoke the concepts of heresy and apostasy to defend themselves from attack). Protestants chose the difficult course of action, to try to steer a middle course between (1) respecting God enough to care that humans tell the truth about God, and (2) being tolerant and loving of those who honestly see things differently, giving them an open ear because there might be something to learn from them.

Protestant sects which seek to reestablish what they see as ancestral Christian principles -- i.e. Fundamentalists -- sometimes refer to Catholicism (or indeed other Protestant groups) as heretical. One aspect of Catholicism many Protestants regard as heresy against original Christianity is the veneration of the saints, and in particular the cultus of the Virgin Mary. Another is the doctrine of transubstantiation.

External Links

Article from the Catholic Encyclopedia on Religious Heresay.

Christian View on Heresay

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