Heresy in the Early Church, by Harold O.J. Brown
There is nothing new under the sun,” the Preacher wrote (Eccl. 1:9). According to Professor Klaus Haacker of Wuppertal, Germany, one of the primary sources of error
in theology is the desire to say something new. As a teacher of theology for a score of years, I have noticed this: It is extremely hard for a theologian today to say something that is not either
borrowed from an earlier, orthodox writer or heretical. Indeed, even the newest heresies, sometimes presented as the latest discoveries in biblical scholarship, usually turn out to be plagiarized
from earlier heretics.
As a young student of theology, I determined to delve into church history and find the time when the Christian faith was pure and undistorted, the “faith which was once
for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The difficulty soon became apparent. Even in the New Testament itself, we find evidence that there
were disputes about doctrine among believers. Was there never a time when all Christians knew right Christian doctrine? Was there never actually a faith “once for all delivered to the saints”? How
could a third-, sixth-, 16th-, or 20th-century Christian know what to believe when even in the New Testament we see evidence that heresy was present alongside of solid doctrine, almost from the very
birth of the church? There is indeed a faith once delivered to the saints.
It is a curious fact about Christianity that it is the only major religion many of whose paid, full-time priests, prelates, and professors spend much time and energy
trying to show that it is false and should be totally changed or perhaps even abandoned. Buddhists do not do this; neither do Hindus. Muslims certainly do not, or if they do they do not live long.
This shows, I believe, that the religion of Scripture, historic, biblical Christianity, is obnoxious to the Prince of Darkness, so that he makes a point of tempting the professors and priests of
Christianity to undermine their own doctrines.
In my book Heresies,
I follow the practice of the early Christians in defining as heresies only those doctrines or teachings that change the nature of the faith so fundamentally that it no longer can be trusted to be
saving faith. There are three principal concepts dealt with in the New Testament that can be defined as heretical in this sense. Curiously enough—or perhaps not so curiously, if we recall the
Preacher’s words above—these three New Testament problems persist.
They are (1) legalism
(often called Judaizing in the days of the early church), which can also be called salvation by works or works righteousness; (2) the
opposite concept of antinomianism; and perhaps most significant for our own day (3) the
curious complex of fantastic ideas and doctrines that goes by the name of Gnosticism.
Paul confronted each of these in several epistles, notably Romans, Galatians, and Colossians. John also deals with Gnosticism in his first two letters. In Galatians 1,
Paul warns against deserting the One who called us for “a different Gospel, which is really no Gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6–7 niv). In the context of the epistle, it becomes evident that he is speaking of the tendency
to add works to the Gospel of justification by faith in the finished, once-for-all work of Christ. In our own day, in which there is licentiousness on all sides, some Christians drift toward
legalism, though Paul warns explicitly against it in his parody, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” (Col. 2:21). Roman Catholicism is particularly prone to this error, although it certainly is not limited
Others, however, fall into the concept of antinomianism, probably a greater danger for Christians today. We can express it thus: “Once saved, anything goes.” Paul asks
ironically, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). And of course he counters this in a number of places, including “faith working through love”
(Gal. 5:6), and “neither circumcision [keeping the Law] nor uncircumcision [ignoring the Law] avails
anything; but [what counts is] a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).
One is not saved by works, but a faith that produces nothing is no evidence that one has become a “new creation” in Christ. Modern varieties of this antinomian error are
found in some Protestant circles that believe a simple verbal profession of faith will save one, without reference to the kind of conversio
cordis (conversion of the heart) that produces evidence in a transformed life. Many individuals take refuge in this kind of antinomianism, which is so convenient for those who wish to go on
sinning without worrying about the consequences.
Undoubtedly the most dangerous error in our day, however, is that of Gnosticism, a worldview presenting a complex panoply of errors, afflicting non-Christians as well as
Christians. It represents the temptation of the natural man to cook up speculative schemes that free him from any awareness of personal sin and guilt and offer him an inexpensive salvation.
Gnosticism is hard to describe in a few words, but one can mention two common elements: secret lore and elitism. Ordinary people may make do with simple faith, but the Gnostic knows the secrets and
belongs to a spiritual elite. Paul criticizes this (in Col. 2:18, for example). It is typical of the Gnostics to honor Christ in a way, but to deny that the
historic, human Jesus is the one “name under heaven … by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). They say Jesus was but one manifestation of “the Christ”; there were others, and there will be
Although full-blown Gnosticism was not yet in evidence at the time he wrote, John argued against this incipient tendency in the first two of his New Testament letters
(for example: 1 John 1:1–2; 2:22–23; 5:1).
The Gnostics believed in an incredible variety of spiritual beings. Most Gnostics taught that the material world is unreal and the body is unreal or evil. There is a
recent parallel to Gnosticism in Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and a very contemporary parallel in the New Age movement.
Obviously, I could say more, and indeed have done so in Heresies.
But the important thing about these “heresies” is the fact that they are not just permissible variations, options, or choices, but by their very nature so undermine Christian faith that they may well
render salvation unattainable for the one who makes the mistake of embracing them.
(Source: Tabletalk Magazine of Ligonier Ministries. Harold O.J. Brown was a theologian, scholar and professor at Trinity Divinity School and Reformed Theological Seminary. He also was a
Congresational pastor and a prominent writer in the evangelical movement.)
Did you know that ...
Creed was not written by the apostles. What is called the Nicene Creed used today is not the
creed that was produced at the first Council of Nicaea in AD 325 but a later version adopted in AD 381. The Athanasian Creed has nothing to do
with Athanasius and many have argued that it is not even a creed.
In the Nicene Creed, the key word used to describe Christ’s relation to God—homoousion, meaning, “of the same
substance”—had been considered heretical a century earlier. Some early orthodox theologians argued the term was not found in the Bible.
Though the debate about Christ’s deity extended over centuries, the debate about the Holy Spirit’s divine nature lasted only about
Some early theologians were confused about Christ’s nature. Clement of Alexandria, for example, refuted the Gnostic heresy that said
Christ did not have a real human body and therefore did not eat and drink. Clement held that Jesus did indeed eat and drink but not because he needed food and drink to stay alive—Jesus, Clement
argued, only wished to keep his disciples from heretical beliefs about him.
Not all defenders of orthodoxy stayed orthodox themselves. Tertullian and Novatian, for example, two major anti-Gnostic theologians
of the 200s, each fell out of favor with the church: Tertullian, because of his conversion to the Montanist heresy; Novatian, because of his unforgiving stance against those who had denied Christ
For a time at Antioch, rival groups differed about the deity of the Holy Spirit. One group prayed, “Glory be to the
Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” and the other one, “Glory be to the Father with the Son in the Holy Spirit.”
The bishop managed to avoid offending either party by developing laryngitis at this point in the liturgy!
During his 45-year reign as bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy, was exiled five times by five
emperors, for a total of 17 years. Though his views on Christ’s deity were to become the official teaching of the church, when he died, it was still not clear his views would
Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century Greek bishop, held to the generally accepted belief that God is impassible—incapable of
suffering or emotion. He equally held to the deity of Christ, who underwent his “passion” (i.e., his suffering) for us on the cross. This commitment led him to affirm that the eternal Word “suffered
Heretics often provided a service to the church. For example, Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the gospels of Matthew, Mark,
and John, thus forcing the church to define the New Testament canon. Arius, in denying the deity of Christ, made the church articulate the doctrine that became the most crucial to
(Source: Chistian History Institute. Adapted from an article by Tony Lane of London Bible College, and originally published by
Christian History magazine in 1996.)