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Wednesday Word: Orthodoxy & Heresy

March 17, 2021 | Dr. Jay T. Smith

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Orthodoxy & Heresy: A Rejoinder to Kathryn Green

It must seem a bit odd to post a rejoinder to one of your own staff member’s posts. This rejoinder, however, is less a critical response, and more of an explanation and expansion. The history of orthodoxy and heresy is complex; it is neither simple nor straightforward.


Almost immediately after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the issue of defining His movement began. The early messengers of the movement—Paul, Peter, John, and James—took the reins at this defining moment, and through their writings gave those who were to follow helpful—and eventually, authoritative—instruction. As early as the mid-first century, alternate stories began to circulate about the movement of Jesus—what it was, and what it meant to belong to it. Initially the dissension began with Jewish followers who insisted on strict adherence to the Jewish Law. This was followed by a direct confrontation with the power of the Roman Empire and its Graeco-Roman culture with its mythologies, polytheism, philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, and rudimentary natural sciences. From Paul’s initial encounters in Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, and eventually Rome, the good news of Jesus began to take root, while at the same time, elements of Graeco-Roman culture began to seep into the message and affect the basis of what and how we believe the message.

Broader Circulation

Early in the second century, forty to sixty years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, the manuscripts of the gospels and the letters of Paul, Peter, John, James, Hebrews, and Revelation—among other accounts—began to circulate throughout the major centers of the empire—Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, and without doubt, even further west into Europe. At this time, however, there was no official “canon,” no approved Catholic scriptures, and no mutually agreed upon authoritative writings.

Early Deviations

We know from the second century writings of Tertullian and Irenaeus that Marcion of Sinope declared the Christian God to be of a higher order than the Jewish God (a ditheistic system), and that Greek Gnosticism—the idea that “secret” wisdom or knowledge is the key to eternal life—had taken root in some congregations in Egypt, Asia, and Greece and was being syncretized with the gospel. These were some of the earliest deviations from the gospel message as we now understand it.

One must remember, however, that a “true” Christianity was still in its earliest stages of being determined. If one only heard the gospel, one would think that Christianity was simply a “Spirit-inspired morality” and a release from traditional religious obedience. Yet the Graeco-Roman understanding of religious observance began to shape the spiritually-inspired moral movement of Jesus. The question of Jesus’ divine status was investigated philosophically with mixed results. The gnostic mystery religion began to draw from and alter the message of the gospel. Tertullian and Irenaeus “called-out” these aberrations as “heresies”—from the Greek term αἱρέσεις, meaning “taking,” “choosing,” “separating from others with differing opinions or tenets,” or “dissension arising from differing opinions.” The term did not have the same “bite” as it does now simply because, again, “true” Christianity was still forming. In the third century, there was no punishment for differing opinions other than to exclude these diverging sects or thinkers from mainstream Christian practice.

Sanctions Against Heresy

This would change after Constantine became emperor. After Constantine, if a church synod or ecumenical council determined that a person or a sect was committing heresy (diverging from the “catholic” or Roman understanding), or was “heretical,” they could recant, or they were sent into exile. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was exiled several times, Deacon Arius was exiled and returned, and Bishop Nestorius was exiled. Not executed, but exiled. It would not be until the Middle Ages (roughly AD1100) and the Cathar heresy that heretics would be hunted down and put to death. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Authoritative Texts

As more and more citizens of the broader empire began to believe the gospel, though, it became obvious that if “Christianity” were to become an acknowledged and acceptable “religion of the empire,” authoritative texts, with authoritative instructions as to worship and leadership, needed to be found or manufactured. We see the earliest of these instructions in the collection of letters called the Apostolic Fathers. In this collection, the reader finds a rudimentary catechism, a manual for liturgy and administration, as well as the witness of the second generation of martyrs. However, it is not until Constantine becomes emperor in the West (303) that Christianity is legitimized by edict—not only as a religion of the empire, but as the religion of the empire. To accomplish this act, Constantine needed to do several things: issue an edict that made Christianity an accepted religion, show Christianity preference culturally and economically, find resolution between theological disputes with the preferred solution being the catholic or “universal” church version, and adopt a consistent book of sacred texts.

It was during the second and third centuries that the earliest apostles’ letters and gospels began to be collected. In The First Edition of the New Testament, David Trobisch argues that a Greek edition of what would become the New Testament was published in the early second century (2000). We don’t begin to see “lists” of New Testament writings being made until Origen of Alexandria/Caesarea provides a list late-second century/early third century, but this does not negate Trobisch’s contention of an earlier edition. Nevertheless, it is over 100 years later that Constantine asks his episcopal advisor, Eusebius of Caesarea to provide “Bibles” for the churches in Constantinople, and it is not until the Synod of Carthage in 397—about 40 years after Constantine’s death, and 16 years after the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381—that a canonical list is first approved. All of this to say that for the 137 years between the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the battle for orthodoxy and the future of the Roman, Catholic, and institutional church was waged.

Doctrinal Clarifications

During this time period, the bishops (Latin: “financial managers”) of the church debated the nature and divinity of Jesus: Was Jesus completely human? Was Jesus completely God? Was Jesus adopted by God, or was Jesus born as God? Did Jesus have two natures, or one nature? If Jesus had two natures, were those natures separated, or were they mixed together? Is the Holy Spirit divine, or part of the Godhead? Is there one God, or three Gods? If there is only one God, how can Jesus and the Holy Spirit be God? The solutions that the bishops ultimately agreed upon required aspects of Greek philosophy and terminology. Three bishops of Roman Cappadocia—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—are credited with the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan” solution: one God in three persons; three different persons (prosopon) and one divine substance (ousia). It was not until the seventh century that John of Damascus identified the fashion in which the “Three” shared the one divine substance, which he called “perichoresis.” Yet the controversies / heresies remain with us: Gnostic, Donatist, Arian, Apollinarian, Nestorian, Eutychian, Monophysite, Docetic, and Pelagian, to name a few. Interestingly, in an early 20th century Catholic volume on heresy, Protestantism is listed as a heresy!

Moving Forward

As we look back upon these issues in the 21st century, we begin to see the orthodox and heretical distinctions from a different perspective. The Bible does not address these issues directly, only tangentially. One must come to conclusions through inference and speculation. Even Paul said that we now see as “through a dark glass;” but in eternity, we will be able to see “face-to-face” clearly. Christianity is fading in western culture and growth is occurring in the third world. The American empire is in decline, while other nations in our world are on the rise. The world is changing—there is no doubt—and the church in the west will either change how it embodies the gospel or it will dissolve. Arianism, Monophysitism, Marcionism, Donatism, and other heresies are still with us. We just call them by different names. The real question that confronts the church today is not, “what can we find that divides us?” but rather, “what can we agree upon so we can work together to accomplish the mission of Jesus in our world?”

Dr. Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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