** Christianity heresies

Christian Heresies

Figure 1.--Here we see preparations for the Waldenserfeier Festspiele (Waldensian Celebration Festival) in Maulbronn in 1949. Thousands of Wakldensians fled supression in Catholic France and Italy and found reguge in Protestnt northrrn Germsny (17th century). We are not sure about the Waldensian history in this small German town, but there is a historic monastery there. (The Germans did not destroy their monasteries like the English.) The Wadensians began in France, but were brutally suppessed but never eliminated luke the Cathars. They largely joined the Protestant movement, especially the Hugenoughts, but spread beyond France into Gemany, Italy and Switzerland and eventually the Americas. Like the Hugenoughts they were eventually eliminated in France.

Heresy is a belief that deviates from some standard, orthodox belief. Christian authorities after Christinity became the officil religion of the Roman Empire began to tighorously condemn heresies. The other Abrahamic rerligioins, esoecially Islam also viugirisly pursued heresies. There is Koranic justification fior this, but no such Biblical instruction. What became the Roman Catholic Church and the Byzantine Church was particulrly vigorous in pursuing heresy. When Christian religious authorities determuned that a belief was heretical, they took active and often brutal efforts to eradicate the belief. This usually meant the removal of the offending believers by excommunication. Today that does not sound like much. In the Medieval era it vwas a powerful weapon. But the Church od=ften wnt beyound that using civil authorities to arrest and punisgh individuals nor wage war on offending groups. Most Christian heresies centered around two findamental issues. First, the nature of the Trinity econd the realted issue of nature of Christ. The dominant nelief on these issues, despite bitter religious wars was sahared by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. God is a Trinity, three persons but one essence. Jesus Christ was one person, simultaneously human and divine. The fact these principles statements are not particularly rational was considered irrelevant. The Trinity was seen as mysterious and a matter of faith, not reason. Mmay modern Chrustian churches are increasingly rejecting basic Christian metaphyical belief withoutb admitting it. This has occurredvin Europe, but evamgelicals in the United states and katin America maintain a bekieff in standard Chriustuan theology..


The Arians have been called the 'archetypal Christian herecy. Accusations of Arianism have been leveled against Christian thinkers made in almost every century since the 4th century ewhen Arianism flourished. The name comesfrom the ideas preached by the Egyptian priest, Arius. The oprinciple idea was that Jesus, while the son of God was not coequal. He was seen as neither eternal nor as fully divine as God the father.


One of the acts of religious ntolerance was the supresson of the Cathars in France--the most important Gnostic group (13th century). Gnostic doctine gained their greatest influence among the Catharists in southern France, especially around Montaillou, where they were called Albigenses or Poblicants (a corruption of Paulicians). The Catharists held Manichaean views and adhered to an ascetic life style. Their religious ritual was simple. The Church was appalled at the growing strength of this heresy by the 13th century. The Catharists refused to pay tithes or give obedience to the Roman Church. Religious leaders were called 'perfects' or 'Good Men'. Pope Innocent III's reaction was to organize the only Crusade ever carried out in Western Europe. [Weis] This medieval image here shows the Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne (1209) (figure 1). This was the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29). Carcassonne is a French fortified city in the Occitanie region--southern France. Albigenses were essentially another name for the Cathars. The Albigensian/Cathar Crusade (Croisade des albigeois) was a 20-year military campaign to eliminate Catharism in Languedoc (southern France). The image here come from a manuscript of the 'Grandes Chroniques de France' (about 1415) ascribed to Boucicaut Master's workshop. So the image while medieval is dated two centuries after the actual crusade. It brings up the difference between expulsion and exile. Exiled people have to leave the territory, but they could bring with them some of their possessions. Expelled people were forced out of their homes without their possessions. In many cases this mean death from starvation and exposure.


Conciliarists were a medieval heresy. At the time there were two and sometimes three rivals simultaneously claimed to be pope. They believed that it was church councils not popes that held ultimate church authority with the power to depose a pope. They were formally condemned at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17). The doctrine of papal infallibility was formally established (1870).


Docetists propagated the iudeav that Jesus, the Son of God, never fully took on human flesh and that his body was an illusion, rathermlike Zeus in Greek mythology. (He took the form of a bull to seduce Europa.) Thus they believed Jesus never physically died on the cross.


The Donastics believed that baptism and other sacraments given by 'traditores' -- Christians that willingly repudiated their faith in the face of persecution from the Roman Empire were invalid.

Free Spirit

Free Spirit ideas appeared in the 14th and 15th centuries. They believe that once the faiythful reached a state of spiritual perfection, laws no longer apply to them. Unlike many other heresies, it foes not seem tio have resulted in a wide-spread movement. Some historins blieve that the heresy may have existed more in the minds of inquisitors than among the faitful. Fear of it sparked persecutions in France, Holland and Spain.


Gnostic Christinaity or Aranism was the most serious challenge to orthodox catholcism until Martin Luther and thd Protestant Reformatiuin (16h century). The most obvious expression of Gnosticm, was the rejctiomn of the Holy Trinity and the demotion of Jesus to a ldsser form of God. Historians use the term Catahrists or Cathari to described a large number of widely defused sects and were related to Gnostic Christianity. The term Gnosticism is derived from Greek meaning 'having knowledge'. It is a amalgem of diverse religious ideas which appeared in the Judeo-Christian community (late-1st century AD). We see Gnostic ideas being expressed in both Jewish and early Christian thinking. [Magris. pp. 3515-16.] The basic thrust was to emphasise personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over the orthodox teachings and traditions and the authority of established Jewish and eraly Christian leaders. Unlike orthodox Christianity, there was never an establish gnostic church to establish a unified theology. Not was there ever a state with the means enforce or protect Gnostic doctrine. Gnostics tended to view material existence and a focus on possessions and wealth as flawed, even evil. Gnostic cosmogony came to see a sharpndistinction between a supreme, hidden God and a malevolent lesser divinity, often associated with the Jewish Yahweh of the Old Testament who was depicted as creating the material universe. The core of Gnosticism was that the principal path to salvation was direct knowledge of God in the form of mystical or esoteric insight. As a result, the few surviving Gnostic texts do not emphasize sin and repentance like orthodox Christian theology, but rather deal with illusion and enlightenment. [Pagels, p. xx.] Gnosticism flourished within the early Christian Church until the early Christian Fathers denounced them as heresy (2nd century). [Layton] These ideas, however, persisted within fringe Christian groups until supressed by force during the medieval era. Standard Christian thinking denies there is actually Christian Gnosticism. Church theologians contend that Christianity and Gnosticism are mutually exclusive systems of belief. They asert that Gnosticism contradict what it means to be a Christian. While Gnostics may claim to be Christian, they are in fact non-Christian becuse the relegate Chrrist to a lesser level than God the fther. Gnosticism was the most dangerous heresy that threatened the early Christian church (1st-3rd centuries). This was before the Church acquired the force of the Roman state to enforce compliance with approved religious doctrine. Gnosticism was strongly influed by pagan philosophers, especially Plato. The Church had two main issues with the Gnostics which eventually resulted with the use of force to supress thaem. First was the dualism depicted between spirit and matter. Gnostics came to see that matter meaning possessions were inherently evil and spirit is good. This was not the view of the Church and the establishment which came to adopt Christiuanity. Second, the Church objected to Gnostic idea of possessing an elevated knowledge or 'higher truth' which was only known to a select few. They claimed to possess a greater knowledge, and not from the Bible. Their knowledge was acquired on more elevated, mystical level f existence. This of course was a direct challenge to the Church fathers and priesthood teaching orthodox theology. Interestingly, the medieval Church was not all that amxious to having the faithful actuall read the Bible which is why they opposed tranlation apprioved Latin Vulgate into the vernacular national languages so most individuals could read it. This would become a major tennent of the Reformation. Our knowledge of the Gnostics was limited by the successful destruction of most of their writings. The fairly recent discovery of Gnostic texts like the 'Gospel of Thomas' has copened up a fuller understanding of the Gnostics. [Layton]

Hussites (1415-34)

Wycliffe's writings influenced the philosophy and teaching of the Bohemian/Czech reformer Jan Hus (c1369-1415). His execution (1415) sparked a revolt leading to the Hussite Wars (1419-34). the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus was condemned by the Council of Constance (1414–18) and burned at the stake. This launched areaction which shook the medieval Church to the core. It was in many ways a precursor to the Refomation with boyh religious and natioinalist element, in this case the beginning of Czech natiomalist aspirations. The Church rather than reform set out to eradicate the Protestants as they had eradicated the Hussites. After Hus' execution, many Bohemian knights and nobles not only published a formal protest, but offered protection to those who were moved by Hus and faced religious persecution. This movement was led by Jakoubek of Stříbro ( -1429). He was Hus's successor and a preacher at the Bethlehem chapel in Prague. Another important Hussite leaders were Václav Koranda, leader of the Taborites (radical Hussites. He commanded their stronghold, located south of Prague. Jan Želivský commanded radical reform party in Prague. The Hussites took the step Hus himself never took. They broke with Rome and adopted a liturgy in the Czech language. Whuch was used in administering Holy Communion to the laity. This became known as Utraquism. More moderate Hussites seeking compromise with Rome became known as Utraquists. With the support of King Wenceslas (Václav) IV of Bohemia, the Hussite movement spread throughout Bohemia widely. Wenceslas died (1419). He was succeeded by his half brother Sigismund, king of the Romans and of Hungary. He was not a Czech nationalists and opposed the Hissites. Even so, the idea of monarch was stiil strong. The Hussites would have aaccepted Sigismund had he acknolkledged the Four Articles of Prague formulated by Jakoubek. King Sugismund did not leading to the Hussite War.


Byzantium after the break with Rome at the end of the 4th century begins to develop its own destinctive art styles and forms. Byzantine art has a significant influence on Greece, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Byzantine at is strongly influenced by the emperor as much is state supported. As Christianity was the state religion, the Church closely regulated art and much of the art focused on efforts to venerate Christ and the saints. There is much less of the personal art that was common in the Western Empire. The Christian influence is central in Byzantine art, but Greek rationalism and Islam are also important influences. The mot notable movement affecting Byzantine art was the debate over icons. Byzantine art produced beautiful religious icons and strongly influenced the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Russia, and elsewhere. An icon is normally a small work, normally oil on wood, but they were also mosaics, ivories, and other formats. They were primarily venerations of Christ and to a lesser extent saints. Icons in Byzantium, unlike Western devotional images, came to be seen as sacred in themselves. This differing view began to appear as early as the 4th centyury AD. Those opposed to icons as sacred objects or Iconoclasts came to see icons as iols and demnde that thy be destroyed or covered when destruction was impossible. The Iconoclastic controversy dominanted the Byzntine Church in the late 7th and 8th centuries. he Iconoclasts succeed in destroying vast quanties of iconic art. The issue was not resolved until 842.


The Lollards were actuive (14th-16th centuries). They were inspired by the teachings of John Wyclif. Thy rejecting transubstantiation, the powers of the pope, and many church ceremonies. They anticipated many Reformation tennents.


Marcionites was active (2nd-3rd centuries). He saw a vengeful, angry God they found in the Hebrew (Old Tesranment) bBible was an evil tyrant. He was separate from aswell as inferior to—the loving, forgiving God of the New Testament. Marcionites and his contemporaries saw the world as a firy bbattleground between the forces of good and evil.


The Cathiolic Church of course considered Martin Luther and the other Protestabts who followed him heretics. The Church tried to supress Luther and his teachings, but ultimately failed. The Protestants looked on the Catholics as heretics, and often none to kindlky on other Protestan denominstions. The Anabaptists in particular were persecuted by Protestants. And most famously, the Pilgrims fled to America because they were being persecuted by the English Church. Luther's protestation ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation, Counter Reformation, and European Religious Wars. Because Protestantism became so established, this was more of a split in the church than a heresy. We have thus not added Protestants as herecies here, but instead deal with them and related subjects in our section on the Reformation. And after emerged from the terible Relihious Wars (17th century), with the enlghtemment, the while idea of hresy became less aznd less an issue s seculsar issues increasingly dominted the Western mind. This the herecies listed here are almost entuirely movements before the Prrotestant Reformation.


Nestorians were another imprtanteraly Christian group. Yjey argued that human and divine persons of Jesus were entirely separate. They believed that Jesus and the Son of God were not quite one and the same. This was annimprtant movrmrnt in the Ner East and China. Nestorian churches existed in Persia and China (8th century). .


Pelagius was a British monk who preached in Rome (5th century). He is believedvto have declared that Christians could earn their way into Heaven by doing good deeds, without any need of divine grace.


Waldensians were a religious movement that arose in the late Middle Ages (12th century). Thet are also called Waldenses or the Vaudois. They are often seem as a precursor to the Protestant Reformation with which they eventually merged. The movement began among traveling Catholic lay preachers. Overtime they encountered persecution they broke from Catholicism and with he outbreak of Reformation embraced Calvinism (16th century). The founder of the movement is commonly seen as Peter Waldo (Valdes). He was a wealthy merchant in Lyons, France. Waldo renounced his considerable wealth (1174). He began giving his money away to the poor and be gan living a life of poverty and reflection. Waldo then decided to become a traveling preacher and to share his relgious ideas (1176). He attracted followers. They were described as the Poor Men of Lyons. At this eraly stage they continued to see themselves as committed Roman Catholic. They soon encountered with the established church. There were two issues. First, theselay preachers had no formal training as clergy and were not authoriuzed by Church authorities. Second, they had some Bibles or scripts in the vernacular. We note references that they vwere 'handing out Bibles in the vernacular'. This cannot be the case. At the time a Bible was a verty expensive, valuable item. Thy were hand writtenin beautiful caligrapoghy as well as illutrated by scribes on parliament. They could not have had very many and could not possibly have passed them out. But the mere fact that they had a Bible in the vernacular was an issue. The Church was hardset against that. Bibles could only be produced in Latin. The Church wanted the faithful to be guided by the clergy not do a lot of Bible reading whuch would get them thinking. The Church saw from an eraly point that Bible reading would lead to different intrpretations. This would become a najor issue of the Reformation. The Church was quite correct about that. In contrst to one Catholic faith, the Protestants reading the Bible for themnselves split into countless different denominations. Church authoirities told Waldo and his Pauperes not to preaching without the permission of the local clergy. They continud do so leading to counless brutal expilssions and massacetss. Europe had advanvced somewhat. Unlike the Cathars which were often wioed out en mass, the Waldensinas like the Hugenoughts during the Europoan religuious Wars (17th century) were sometimes just expelled like the Huguenots, but not before taking the children away from their parents.


John Wycliffe was an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, reformer, and priest. He was a seminary professor at the University of Oxford. He became an influential reformer dissident within the English Roman Catholic priesthood (14th century). Wycliffe criticized the privileged status of the clergy and the luxury and pomp of of church ceremonies. Wycliffe stonly advocated the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. He translated the Bible into English--the first person to do this. The Wycliffe's Bible is probably the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John which hev personally translated. His associates more likely translated the Old Testament, but this is nmot known for sure. Wycliffe's Bible was probably completed (1384). This was at the time a very dangerous thing to do. Wycliffe's Bible translated would influence subsequent tranlations, including the beautiful King James Bible (17th century).. He preached against the monks and pope. He suffered a heatbattack while preaching (1384). The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on (1415). His works were banned and his followers persecuted. This made him an important predecessor to Protestant Reformation, especially in England.


Layton, Bentley. "Prolegomena to the study of ancient Gnosticism" in The Social World of the First Christians (1995). Layton has develed into the fairly recent dicovery of Gmostic texts like the 'Gospel of Thomas'.

Magris, Aldo. "Gnosticism: Gnosticism from its origins to the Middle Ages (further considerations)" in Lindsay Jones, (ed.), MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religion (MacMillan: 2005).

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1989). .


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Created: 4:50 AM 8/28/2021
Last updated: 5:51 PM 9/29/2021