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Heresies in the Early Christian Church

Heresies in the Early Christian Church

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The relevance of the context in which the Christian church was born for the study and understanding of heresy is of utmost importance. We have to bear in mind the transformation the Mediterranean, Mesopotamian and Persian region went through from the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Christianity. The end of the Persian Empire replaced by the Greek brought to the region a new form of domination characterized not only by military, but also cultural power. These two powers combined transformed the region and robbed the Hebrew hegemony in terms of worship and influence. The Greek philosophy combined with a multi-pagan-worship was planted in the society. Even the Hebrew rules and statutes were suffocated by the dominant culture. At the birth of Christianity there were already many philosophies and or religions that shaped the people’s “world’s view”. It is common sense the understanding that philosophies, religious concepts and “the world’s view” shape the attitude of the individual in the society. The most intense proposal of Christianity is the transformation within the concept of “born again”. Even being converted and born again, human being habits and attitude would be recurrent, based in the doctrine of total depravation whereas we are sinners until we are received in heaven, with the difference that we are forgiven and do not enjoy sinning.
The relevance of the context in which the Christian church was born for the study and understanding of heresy is of utmost importance. We have to bear in mind the transformation the Mediterranean, Mesopotamian and Persian region went through from the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Christianity. The end of the Persian Empire replaced by the Greek brought to the region a new form of domination characterized not only by military, but also cultural power. These two powers combined transformed the region and robbed the Hebrew hegemony in terms of worship and influence. The Greek philosophy combined with a multi-pagan-worship was planted in the society. Even the Hebrew rules and statutes were suffocated by the dominant culture. At the birth of Christianity there were already many philosophies and or religions that shaped the people’s “world’s view”. It is common sense the understanding that philosophies, religious concepts and “the world’s view” shape the attitude of the individual in the society. The most intense proposal of Christianity is the transformation within the concept of “born again”. Even being converted and born again, human being habits and attitude would be recurrent, based in the doctrine of total depravation whereas we are sinners until we are received in heaven, with the difference that we are forgiven and do not enjoy sinning.

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Published by: Rev. Alcenir Oliveira, MDiv, MBA, BBA & BPA on Feb 02, 2011
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HERESIES IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Presented to Professor Whelchel, Ph.D,By Rev. Alcenir Oliveira, for Church History 1 (ICAM 866),at the Interdenominational Theological Center of Atlanta,on December 4
th
, 2006
Introduction
The relevance of the context in which the Christian church was born for the study andunderstanding of heresy is of utmost importance. We have to bear in mind the transformation theMediterranean, Mesopotamian and Persian region went through from the 3rd century BCE until the birthof Christianity. The end of the Persian Empire replaced by the Greek brought to the region a new formof domination characterized not only by military, but also cultural power. These two powers combinedtransformed the region and robbed the Hebrew hegemony in terms of worship and influence. The Greek  philosophy combined with a multi-pagan-worship was planted in the society. Even the Hebrew rules andstatutes were suffocated by the dominant culture. At the birth of Christianity there were already many philosophies and or religions that shaped the people’s
“world’s view
”. It is common sense theunderstanding that philosophies, religious concepts and “
the world’s view”
shape the attitude of theindividual in the society. The most intense proposal of Christianity is the transformation within theconcept of “
born again
”. Even being converted and born again, human being habits and attitude would be recurrent, based in the doctrine of total depravation whereas we are sinners until we are received inheaven, with the difference that we are forgiven and do not enjoy sinning.These were the psychological grounds of the society at the time of Jesus. In Palestine, where theChurch was first planted, we find a mix of culture that makes the region very particular, with the romanLatin speaking domination, the Greek as the main spoken language and way of life, and the Hebrewreligious system also divided into groups: the included, the excluded (Samaritans) and sects. Therefore,there is enough reason for the growth of different teachings in the church. As the differences in teaching1
 
came up and grew, the masters of the Church started fighting them back and these controversies theynamed heresies.This way the church spends a great deal of its time, teaching and preaching in defense of the believers against the teachings arisen from this religious, philosophical and cultural background.
1.Context and Definitions
The early church dealt with controversies related to ambiguous teachings that were big challenges toits masters and the definitions posted by the Hebrew bible and kept by Christianity, reaffirmed or rephrased by the Christian writings. There are references to disagreements in the New Testament in thevery beginning of the church, as mentioned by Apostle Paul in I Cor 11:19, when first the word fromwhich originated the word heresy is used (haireseis – factions in the RSV and differences in the NIV). Ithad not the actual meaning. It was used for “sect”, “school” (as of philosophy or medicine), as referred by Grant
 1
.At that very moment heresy was a fact, but it was not yet a challenge.For reference in this study, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of heresy as a
“theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the catholic or Orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox. By extension, heresy is an opinion or doctrine in philosophy, politics, science, art, etc., at variance with those generally accepted as authoritative”
will be taken.In a short etymological consideration, the word heresy comes from the Greek word
α
ἵ 
 ρεσις ( 
hairesis
 ,
from
α
 ρέομαι
,
haireomai
that means choose), and means choice, beliefs or a
 faction
of dissident believers (Oxford Dictionary). Irenaeus writings
“Contra Haereses”
(
 Against Heresies
) are intended tofight the opposition in the early Christian Church. For him, the contrary and right position is theorthodox (from
ortho-
“right” and
doxa
“thinking”), which is the position of the Church. Therefore, wecan understand heresy not only as a concept that developed in and for Christianity, but also as any position or philosophy that is against the most accepted as the right one (orthodox).
1
 
Robert M. Grant. Heresy and Criticism: The search for authenticity in early Christian Literature. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. p.4.
2
 
The hypothesis is that it depends on the perspective or of which side it is being considered. Theopposition is the heretic. That requires the existence of a body of knowledge or authoritative systemknown as dogma accepted as orthodox. Most of the established and consolidated religions use the termorthodox to refer to their foundations. Therefore, any teaching or doctrine that goes against their foundations is heretic.During those first three centuries, Christianity was effectively outlawed by Roman authorities thatrequired all citizens to venerate the Roman emperor and Roman gods. Consequently, when the Churchlabeled its enemies as heretics and cast them out of its congregations or severed ties with dissidentchurches, there was nothing else she could do at least until the conversion of Constantine. However,after being considered heretics the individuals were seen as fools, wild dogs, servants of Satan. The popular reaction to heresy gave the word “heretic” a very bad, negative one.According to Irenaeus, in the second century, the man called Simon mentioned in the book of Acts8: 9-24, was the first charged of Gnostic libertinism. This Simon Magus he identifies as the prototypicalsource of Gnosticism. He founded a school of moral freedom or amoralism, a concept similar to the“anti-social personality disorder”, where both refer to those people who no just do not have social moral principle, but don’t accept them. Irenaeus says that Simon Magus assured to his followers that
“thosewho put their trust in him and his consort Helen, need to trouble themselves no further with the biblical  prophets or their moral exhortations and are free to do what they wish, as men are saved by his(Simon's) grace, and not by their righteous work (adapted from Adversus Haereses, I.23.3)
2
.
2.The Development of Heresy in the body of the Early Church
Most of the heresies of the early church have roots in Gnosticism, but they are based on aspectsand perspectives that resulted from thoughts and understanding of their founders or leaders. There werethree most important heretic groups by the second century. One was the group of Marcion (marcionism);
2
Wikipedia online.
3

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Elizabeth Raver added this note
Very helpful to my research, having a concisely detailed list of the major heresies in the early church!
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