Virtually as soon as the revelation brought by Christ was delivered to the Church he had established, some of those within the Church got it very wrong about what it meant and entailed. Even some of the bishops, successors of the apostles, got it wrong. The history of the first four or five centuries of Christianity, especially as reflected in the first four ecumenical councils, is largely a history of how the Church developed, formulated, and explained its Creed—beliefs based on the teachings of Christ.
In the process of developing and formulating that Creed—the same Nicene Creed that we profess today at Mass—the Church was obliged to identify and to eliminate various false and mistaken ideas about Christ’s original revelation. These false and mistaken ideas about the Church and the faith came to be called heresies. The word heresy comes from the Latin haeresis, meaning "act of choosing." Those adhering to these false and mistaken ideas, i.e., heretics, were understood to have chosen a different interpretation of the faith than the one the Church proclaimed.
Once they were identified as false doctrines, there was no question in the minds of the Fathers of the Church but that these heresies needed to be condemned. Today, of course, the idea of condemning anybody for holding any belief is not very popular. Indeed, the idea that heresy is something necessarily false and harmful is not very popular. In the modern mind heresy is often thought to be something to be proud of; "heretics" are as likely as not to be considered cultural heroes. But if all ideas are accorded equal status regardless of whether or not they are true, then very soon truth itself inevitably goes by the board.
To a great extent, this is what has happened in our world today: Toleration is valued more than truth. Pope Benedict XVI just prior to his election called it a "dictatorship of relativism." It is a situation that the Fathers of the Church, who believed in the primacy of truth, would not have understood at all.
Today’s failure to identify and affirm truth doesn’t mean that there are no harmful consequences. On the contrary, the harm to souls in need of sanctification and salvation becomes all the greater to the extent that people believe it doesn’t matter whether or not they adhere to true belief and practice. For heresy is necessarily harmful—and even fatal—to souls.
Moreover, heresies abound today every bit as much as they did in the days when the Creed was being hammered out at the first great ecumenical councils. Indeed, some of the heresies that are commonly encountered today are virtually the same as those condemned in ancient times—they just go by different names. Let us look at a few examples.
"A Great Moral Teacher"
Arianism was perhaps the most typical and persistent of the ancient heresies. Basically it involved a denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ. It was first effectively advanced by Arius (256–336), a priest of Alexandria in Egypt, who denied that there were three distinct divine Persons in the Holy Trinity. For Arius, there was only one Person in the Godhead, the Father. According to Arian theory, the Son was a created being. The Arians liked to say that "there was a time when he was not." For them, Christ was "the Son of God" only in a figurative sense, or by "adoption" (just as we are children of God by adoption), not in his essential being or nature.
Arianism was formally condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Indeed, it was the spread of Arianism and Arian ideas among the faithful, and the disputes and disorders that resulted, that prompted Emperor Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in the first place. What the Council decided—against Arius and his adherents—was that the Son was homo-ousios ("one in being" or "consubstantial") with the Father. In other words, that the Son of God was himself God, was therefore eternal, and hence that there never was a time when he was not.
The fathers of Nicaea issued their Creed precisely to insist on the three Persons in one substance in the Trinity and on the divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, then the world was not redeemed by his sacrifice on the cross. Eventually the faith itself dissolves if Christ is not understood to be divine; after all, he very plainly insisted in the Gospels that he was (cf. John 10:30, 38; 14:10, 11).
Yet today nothing is more common, even among some who consider themselves Christians, than to hold that Christ was not really divine: He was just a good man, a great moral teacher, a model to follow; perhaps he even represented the highest ideal of a man for mankind. But, as an all-too-common human skepticism asserts, he was surely not God for the simple reason that no human being could be God. Common sense revolts against it. Indeed, the Church teaches that it is only by divine grace infused in our souls that we can believe in the divinity of Christ.
Thus, there is a human temptation to believe the doctrine of Arianism. Today’s Arians, though, do not call themselves Arians; for the most part they are not aware that they are Arians. Yet a religion such as Unitarianism is nothing else but Arian in its denial of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity. Similarly, a modern American religion such as Mormonism is wholly Arian in its account of a divine being, even if it is ignorant of Arianism historically.
Because it is so easy to doubt that any human being could possibly be divine, though, Arianism was not only the most basic and persistent of all the ancient heresies; it also assumed a number of variant forms. Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus was just a man to whom special graces were given when he was "adopted" by God. Modalism held that there is only one Person in God who manifests himself in various ways or modes, including in Jesus. Semi-Arianism held that the Son was of like substance with God (homo-i-ousios), though not of identical in substance with him. All of these variants of Arianism were sometimes classified under the name Subordinationism (i.e., Christ as "subordinate" to the Father). Even today, poorly instructed Christians can be found espousing one or more of these variants when they are examined closely concerning who and what they think Jesus Christ was and is.
What Is a Person?
Growing out of the long-running Arian controversies were the two opposed heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Nestorianism was a heresy promoted by a bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius (d. c. 451), who held that there were two distinct persons in Christ, one human and one divine. Thus, the Nestorians claimed that it could not be said that God was born, was crucified, or died. Mary merely gave birth to a man whose human person was conjoined to that of God. The Nestorians saw Christ’s divinity as superimposed on his humanity.
Nestorianism was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, where the argument raged over the question of whether Mary was Theotokos ("God-bearer" or "Mother of God") or was merely the "mother of Christ," a man conjoined to God. From the words of the Hail Mary we can figure out what the Church decided at Ephesus, but even today poorly instructed Christians can be found opining that Christ was a "human person." (The same characterization is sometimes even to be encountered today in defective catechetical texts.)
But Christ was not a "human person." He was a divine person who assumed a human nature. The whole question of what a person is was a key question in the Trinitarian and christological definitions formulated by the ancient councils. The ancients were not clear in their minds about what constituted a "person"; it was not apparent to them that there was a "somebody" in each human individual. It was as a direct result of the Church’s definitions concerning the three distinct divine Persons in the Trinity that the very concept of what we understand as personhood today was achieved and that the Roman philosopher Boethius (480–524) was able to formulate his famous definition of a person as "an individual substance of a rational nature."
Once this concept of personhood became clear, the Church was able to promulgate the truth that remains valid and operative to this day, namely, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, is a divine person but possesses both a divine and a human nature.
"I’m a Very Spiritual Person"
Monophysitism, the heresy opposed to Nestorianism, arose as a corrective to the latter, but it went too far in the other direction, holding that in Christ there is only one nature (Greek: mono, "single," physis, "nature"), a divine nature. This position entailed a denial of Christ’s true human nature. Monophysitism was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This great Council taught that Christ was true God and true man, a divine person possessing both a divine and a human nature, thus rounding out the Church’s permanent understanding of Christology.
Yet even today some ill-instructed Christians will tell you that Christ, being the Son of God and hence divine, must also necessarily have a divine nature, without understanding that Christ had a fully human nature as well. Professing some form of Monophysitism is rather common among self-consciously "spiritual" people, as a matter of fact—people who, meanwhile, are not always prepared to affirm and follow Christian moral teaching as the Church defines it.
Entire churches or communities broke away from the Church as a result of the christological definitions of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Some of these breakaway communions still exist today in the ancient churches of the East, such as the Assyrian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian (Jacobite), etc. Today many of these ancient communions, in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church, are rethinking their positions and are close to agreement with the Catholic Church on doctrinal essentials, stating that their ancient disagreements stemmed at least in part from misunderstandings of exactly what Ephesus or Chalcedon had taught or affirmed—for these ancient councils also had condemned by name certain individuals (such as Nestorius) who commanded personal followings. In ancient times, some of these communities were unwilling to accept the judgments of the councils regarding their then-leaders.
Holier Than Thou
Donatism was a fourth- and fifth-century African heresy that held that the validity of the sacraments depended upon the moral character of the person administering the sacraments. Donatists also denied that serious sinners could be true members of the Church. Donatism began as a schism when rigorists claimed that a bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (c. 313), could not be a true bishop because he had been ordained by a bishop who had caved in under pressure and apostatized during the Diocletian persecutions around 303.
The Donatists ended up as a widespread sect that ordained its own bishops, one of whom was Donatus, who gave his name to the movement. Vigorously opposed by the great St. Augustine (354–430), the Donatist movement persisted in northern Africa until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.
Today the continuing temptation to a modern kind of Donatism can be seen in such phenomena as the Lefebrvist schism after Vatican II, when some people who objected to certain teachings and acts of the Council decided to found their own little church, the Society of St. Pius X. The SSPX has its own bishops, validly but illicitly ordained by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The group is thus not just a group of disgruntled traditionalists who want to retain the old Latin Mass; rather, the SSPX has serious doctrinal and pastoral disagreements with the Church. They consider the pope and the bishops who have governed the Church since the Council to be unworthy to carry on what they hold to be the true "tradition" of the Church. Basically their reasoning is that the leaders of the Church were wrong at and after Vatican II; hence their acts since then have been invalid. This kind of reasoning is similar to that by which the ancient Donatists decided that the ordination of the bishop of Carthage was invalid because of the unworthiness of his ordaining bishop.
But the truth is, of course, that sacraments correctly administered with the proper intention by a validly ordained minister are valid regardless of the moral character or condition of the minister. Thus, even if mistakes were made in the implementation of the Council, the pope and the bishops nevertheless remain the Church’s legitimate rulers, in accordance with the Church’s constant teaching going back at least to the condemnation of Donatism. The powers and authority conferred by Christ on the apostles and their successors are not dependent upon the worthiness of those on whom they are conferred—think of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ!
We also see a revival of Donatist-type thinking in those who have recently left the Church because of the much-publicized sins of priests guilty of sex abuse and bishops guilty of enabling and covering up for them. The idea that the wrongs or sins of the clergy invalidate their acts or status has frequently recurred in the history of the Church. As early as the second century, for example, a morally rigorous priest named Novatian set himself up as an anti-pope in 251 because the followers of the true pope, St. Cornelius, were allegedly too lenient toward Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions in 249–251. The Novatianists rejected the Church’s authentic belief and practice that the lapsed and other serious sinners could be readmitted to Communion after doing penance.
"If It Feels Good, Do It"
A recurring phenomenon in the history of the Church is that heresies often arose because of either moral rigorism or moral laxity. An example of the latter was the heresy of Pelagianism, championed by a monk from the British Isles named Pelagius (355–425). Pelagius denied that divine grace in the soul is necessary to do good; his doctrine included a number of heretical tenets such as that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned and that Adam’s fall injured only himself. Essentially, Pelagianism amounted to a denial of the doctrine of original sin, and it also entailed a denial of the supernatural order and of the necessity of divine grace for salvation. Augustine, who had discovered from bitter personal experience that he could not be chaste without the help of grace, strongly and persistently contested Pelagius and his teaching.
In modern times, Pelagianism has sometimes been called "the British heresy" because of its resemblance to a certain species of modern British-style liberalism (which, the suggestion is, goes all the way back to Pelagius!). But nothing is more common in modern thinking than the denial of original sin. Outside the Catholic Church, it is nearly universal, and it persists in the face of all the evidence against it.
Probably the whole range of behavior related to the contemporary sexual revolution, for example, as well as to the theological dissent that is still rife in the Church—particularly on matters of sexual morality—can be ascribed to a basic Pelagian impulse. People today, including too many Catholics, simply do not recognize or take seriously that there are or could be any harmful consequences stemming from what is erroneously thought to be sexual liberation, as evidenced, for example, by the widespread rejection by Catholics of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The harmful consequences have long since been obvious to anyone who cares to look at today’s multiple plagues of divorce, pre- and extramarital sex, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion, not to speak of the contemporary acceptance of homosexuality as a normal condition.
In an important sense, even the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church goes back to the explosion of sexual immorality that began in the 1960s and both helped cause and was in part caused by the rejection of Humanae Vitae. Modern opinion nevertheless generally goes on stoutly and obstinately maintaining that the so-called sexual liberation ushered in by the sexual revolution, along with the moral acceptance of contraception, is a good and necessary thing. All this is Pelagianism with a vengeance.
"I’m in with the In Crowd"
Gnosticism is the idea that salvation comes through knowledge—usually some special kind of knowledge claimed by an elite. Think of the New Age, for example. Think of Dan Brown’s runaway best-seller The Da Vinci Code, which, along with other falsehoods, exhibits a good deal of Gnostic-style thinking that the book’s millions of readers seem to have embraced wholly and uncritically. Most varieties of Gnosticism also hold that matter and the body are evil while only "spirit" is good. Some forms of Gnosticism even see human beings as trapped in our bodies. The theory thus denies the truth of the biblical teaching that "God saw that it was good" (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). For the true Gnostic, the Incarnation is a scandal—God would not contaminate his spirit by taking on a body.
Gnosticism existed before Christianity and attached itself to it as a convenient vehicle for its own very un-Christian ideas about reality and God’s creation. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that it ever attempted to use Christianity for its purposes. The historical fact of the matter, though, is that Gnosticism has been a persistent element in practically every major Christian heresy. Probably one of the reasons for this is that, in some ways, our bodiliness is a burden to us. As Paul remarked, "the whole creation has been groaning in travail" (Rom. 8:22) until we can realize the fullness of our salvation in Christ—thus the temptation to look for salvation in some kind of escape from our bodiliness and creatureliness as God has created us in this world.
But true salvation lies elsewhere; it comes uniquely from Jesus Christ: "There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). This revelation of salvation in Christ is essentially what Gnosticism denies. Like all heresies to which we might be tempted, any form of Gnostic thinking is therefore to be avoided as we cleave to the truths revealed by and in Jesus Christ and unerringly taught by the magisterium of the Catholic Church.