Sunday, March 7, 2010

Heresy Has Always Been An Option

Anyone who studies Church history eventually realizes that all orthodox Christians before the Reformation were Catholic (the exception of Eastern Orthodoxy notwithstanding). Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even the most beloved Francis of Assisi were all Catholic, and devout ones no less.

I've often heard Protestants who admire such figures explain away their Catholic allegiances and beliefs with the excuse: "Well of course, all Christians were Catholic at that time; there weren't any other options."

The only problem with this is that there were other options.
There have always been groups outside of the Catholic Church that called themselves Christians. It's easy to forget this since we normally refer to all non-Catholic pre-Reformation groups as heretics.

The Arian Christological controversy of the 4th century will serve well as an example of my point.
In A.D 313, a young man named Arius was ordained a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. He was known as an ascetic, an intellectual, and as a charistmatic personality. Soon after, he began his teaching which would eventually envelope the whole of the Roman Empire in controversy and violence. He taught that the Son and the Father were not of the same substance and that the Son was actually a creation of the Father. Jesus was the greatest of God's creations, but he was not God himself. This was in opposition to Trinitarianism, the belief that God is one and yet three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all co-eternally sharing the same substance.

Arius called himself a Christian and sincerely believed himself to be a faithful one at that. He believed the Holy Scriptures and based his theology on them, believing that he was faithfully interpreting them.
Large numbers of people joined him in his theology. I have heard it estimated that there was a time when a majority of professing Christians were Arian.

Large numbers of sincere, Bible-believing Christians disagreed fundamentally on who Jesus was. This caused widespread disunity, ill-will, and at times even violence throughout the empire among Christians. The Emperor Constantine, seeing that this controversy was hurting the empire, asked the Church to convene a council of all the bishops in the world to settle the issue. Bishops from throughout the whole world met in the city of Nicaea (in present-day Turkey) to make a ruling. After much debate, a majority of the bishops ruled that Arianism was heretical and that Trinitarianism represented true orthodoxy as passed down from the Apostles.

But Arianism continued on after the Council. Arius and his followers believed that the Council was wrong and had endorsed an unScriptural position. Arianism continued to exist in parts of Europe for three centuries until roughly the 7th century (though there have been some modern day revivals of it).

So who was really orthodox and who was heretical? Both Trinitarians and Arians considered themselves to be Christians, based their doctrines on Scripture, and believed they were following true Christian teaching. 
And yet no Christians today hold up good Arian theologians as examples of good Christians of history. Why is that? 
Because Arianism is heresy. And we know it's heresy because the Council of Nicaea, with the apostolic authority of the Bishops convened at it, ruled that it was heresy. Arianism is called heresy by us today because it was theology that was rejected by the Apostolic Church.

There have always been groups of self-identified Christians living in opposition to the Apostolic Church. But because they weren't with the Apostolic Church, we look back on them as heretics. All the greats of Christian history weren't Catholic by default. They would be Catholic today for the same reason they were Catholic in their own time: because they believed that the Catholic Church is God's true Church with it's authority established personally by Jesus.

Augustine himself, whom many Protestants try to claim as their own, was the Bishop of Hippo and wrote the following as to why he was a part of the Catholic Church rather than a competing "Christian" group:
"[T]here are many other things which most properly can keep me in [the Catholic Church’s] bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15–17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called ‘Catholic,’ when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house." (Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus 4:5, A.D. 397

There were other options. They just were heresy. 

*Note: The Catholic Church does not consider Protestant groups today to be heretics. Instead, Protestants are considered to be "separated brethren" who, by virtue of their baptism, are properly called Christians and are actually considered to be partially a part of the Catholic Church, although they do need to move towards full communion in the Catholic Church if they wish to be living fully in God's will for his followers. For more, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 817-822 as well as the Vatican II document Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) sections 14 and 15.


  1. Good stuff, and thanks for the footnote of explanation regarding the Church's view of Protestantism.

  2. I just discovered your blog through a comment at my site and am glad to have found it. I'm really enjoying reading your posts and look forward to reading more.

  3. "There were other options, they were just heresy."
    haha, that doesn't sound like much of an option to me.

    I almost expected this to end with "and that's why we should bring back the inquisition."

    I also like how you start by saying that the Catholics were the only orthodox Christians, except for the Orthodox ones.

    I have a better explanation. History is written by the victors. The Catholics won and so they get to say they were right all along. If the Arians won that vote in Nicea, we'd be talking today about an ancient branch of Christianity called Catholicism that was ruled heretical.

    I know you'll probably say that the Nicea Council came out the way God wanted it, he led the bishops to make that ruling. But if it came down to a vote, that tells me it was less cut and dried than you make it out to be.

    And the reason we have writings from Aquinas and Francis and the like, and not writings from unorthodox christians of the same time period is because the unorthodox writings were destroyed by the church. Except for a couple that had to be buried for thousands of years to escape this.

  4. Great food for thought. I guess I haven't run attitude too much. I loved the quote by Augustine.

  5. ThatMarriedCouple and Jennifer @ Conversion Diary,
    Thanks for the encouragment!

    Hey Evan,
    Great points.

    "I have a better explanation. History is written by the victors. The Catholics won and so they get to say they were right all along."
    This is actually sort of my point. If one is Protestant and then therefore does not believe that the Catholic Church has apostolic succession and authority, then this is all the Catholic Church is. Protestants have no reason to go along with the rulings of any council, whether the council was held 50 years ago or 1700 years ago. And yet, many Protestants do want to go along with the Catholic Church, just up until the Reformation when suddenly council didn't matter and the Church no longer had it's authority. It doesn't make sense.

    Hey CM,
    That's interesting that you haven't run into this thinking before. I feel like I've heard many times here at Wheaton College, among students and, sadly, among professors as well. It's sort of their way of being able to study Church history from A.D. 100 to A.D. 1517 and explaining away the Catholicness of all the figures they study.

  6. Hey Brantly,
    I agree it's just plain funny when a Christian sect not even 100 years old (like the one I grew up in) claims that they are following the teachings of the earliest disciples.

    I'd like to make a request for a future post, if I may. You've made a pretty good case about the Catholicism of the early church. I'd be interested in your take on the Reformation. Why it happened, whether it was good for Christianity as a whole or not. I'd be interested in your viewpoint, especially after the last paragraph of this post. Why exactly aren't protestants heretics?

  7. Thought this was applicable here:

    Heresy is from the Greek word meaning ‘choice’…. But we are not permitted to believe whatever we choose, nor to choose whatever someone else has believed. We have the Apostles of God as authorities, who did not…choose what they would believe but faithfully transmitted the teachings of Christ. So, even if an angel from heaven should preach otherwise, he shall be called anathema. - Saint Isidore


  8. I have always been dismayed by the ignorance that holds that all history is written by the victors and therefore all History prior to 1517 has been written by the Catholic Church and only they therefor hold a lease on the truth of what happened during those first 15 centuries. When John Henry Newman said that "to know History is to be a Catholic" he had been a Protestant for 44 years - and had access to the true Record of History and studied it with an intenisty few other man ever accomplished. He didn't join the Catholic Church becasue he wanted to be on the side of the "Victors". If you wish to contain all of the first 3/4ths of Christian history in a darkened room and then try to convince everyone that the lights were suddenly turned on only during the last quarter you have a daunting task indeed.

  9. I read your "faith story" and I'm curious as to what your faith is in. Is it the Catholic Church, the Pope, or God's righteousness imputed to you by his free will because of the obedience of Christ to die for your sins?
    And before you go bashing the Reformers, just remember that many of them lost their lives so you could have the awesome gift of being able to read the word everyday as you so passionately talked about. Don't ever question the Sovereignty of God.