I heard all the big heresies were invented by the 5th century

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Thursday 23, July 2015 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
Questions Catholics Ask: I heard all the big heresies were invented by the 5th century

Most modern heresy has roots in the big five from that period. Just about all the ways you can deviate from Christian orthodoxy were explored as the gospel moved from culture to culture in the ancient world. Before that time—the era of Augustine and Ambrose, Jerome and John Chrysostom and more—the church's theology was argued but not much codified. The canon of Scripture itself was only loosely uniform from place to place. Once the Council of Nicaea (famous for the Nicene Creed) began to nail down what is and is not Christian teaching in 325, any novel thinkers had to pass muster or be excommunicated:officially declared not in communion with the church.

Heresy had its territorial hotbeds. In the Eastern church, most heresy involved the Trinity; in the West, the nature of sin was a wider concern. Eastern heresies gathered like moths to the flame with alternative understandings of Jesus. They included Arianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism. Arius was an Egyptian priest who believed Jesus was the son of God, but not an eternal being like God. He viewed Jesus as a creature like the rest of us, therefore denying his divinity. Arianism was answered by the orthodox teaching that Jesus is "begotten, not made, one in being (consubstantial) with the Father." A council in Constantinople fifty years later declared the Holy Spirit also one with the Father and the Son.

Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople, proposed that Jesus had two distinct persons within: one human, one divine. This idea threatened to make the humanity of Jesus a mirage over his more real, divine nature—essentially pronouncing the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection a charade. Nestorianism was condemned by the third council in Ephesus in 431.

The next heresy proceeded from the last one: Jesus had two natures before his birth and afterwards had one (monophysis). The Monophysites had a lot of support in the Near East and some sects exists today. Meanwhile in the West, Augustine began as an adherent in the Manichaean movement, which saw good and evil spirits in an equal pitched battle for control of the world. That God could have an "evil twin" in the devil was contrary to the teaching of One Supreme Being. Manichaeism was condemned, with no small help from Augustine.

Pelagius in Rome was the last big heretic of the period. He taught that human beings could save themselves by spiritual and moral perfection alone—which contradicts the need for God's grace. A lot of Catholics unconsciously harbor the spirit of Pelagianism today.

Scripture: Genesis 1:1-3; Exodus 1-6; Isaiah 45:5-7; John 1:1-18; 3:16-21; 14:15-31; Books: I Believe in God: A Reflection on the Apostles' Creed by Thomas Rausch, SJ  (Liturgical Press, 2008); Beginning to Read the Fathers by James Boniface Ramsey (Paulist Press, 2012)

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