Heresy & Schism in Christianity

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Throughout its history, Christian doctrine has evolved significantly from the teachings of Jesus (a.s.) and later, the writings of the Church Fathers.  As new doctrines, creeds and the theology advanced, they came to challenge the status quo of the Church.  Some of them were accepted.  But many of them became heresies.  Prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church was already experienced in addressing these ‘heresies’.  We have to understand that one man’s heresy is another’s Divine Revelation.  Christianity itself began as a Jewish heresy.

What exactly is a heresy?  Heresy is any provocative theology or creed that is strongly at variance with the established beliefs and customs.  A heretic is a proponent of such beliefs.  Heresy is distinct from apostasy, which is the explicit renunciation of the religion, and blasphemy, which is blatant irreverence towards the doctrines of the faith.  Although the term is usually used to refer to violations of important credal teachings, but is used also in reference to views strongly opposed to the orthodox.

The word ‘heresy’ comes from ‘haeresis’, a Latin transliteration of the Greek word originally meaning ‘choice’, or ‘chosen’.  Eventually, it came to mean the ‘party or school of a man’s choice’, and was also extended to refer to that process whereby a young Greek would examine various philosophies to determine how to live.  The word appears in the New Testament, having appropriated by the early Church to mean a sect or division that threatened the unity of the Christians.  Heresy eventually became regarded as a departure from orthodoxy.  The founder or leader of a heretical movement is called a heresiarch, while individuals who espouse heresy or commit heresy are known as heretics.  Heresiology is the study of heresy.

Heresy in Christianity denotes the formal denial or doubt of a core doctrine of the Christian faith as defined by one or more of the Christian churches.  Heresy may lead to apostasy.  It definitely results in schism, a formal and deliberate breach of Christian unity without being based essentially on doctrine.

Some of the most famous schisms of the early Church include the Marcionist schism; the Gnostic schism; the Montanist schism; the schism of Monarchianism; the various episodes with the Antipopes; the Donatist schism, beginning in 311 CE; the schism with Arianism and Quartodecimanism at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE; the Nestorian schism, after the First Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, between Western Christianity and Nestorianism; the Oriental Orthodox schism and rejection of the Council of Chalcedon, around 451 CE; the Acacian schism from 484 to 519 CE; the schism of the Armenian Orthodox in 491 CE; and the Great Schism of 1054 CE.

The second era of if schism began with the Lollardy movement in the 1350s.  Then came the period of the Three Popes from 1378 to 1417 CE: Roman Pope Gregory XII, Avignon Pope Benedict XIII, and Pisan Pope John XXIII.  These political shenanigans were resolved at Council of Constance  The Swiss Reformation began in 1516.  The Protestant Reformation proper began in 1517.  And then there were the Anabaptist, circa. 1525; the English Reformation beginning in 1529; the founder of Unitarianism, Michael Servetus being burned at the stake in 1553 which accelerated the schism; the Scottish Reformation in 1560; the Dutch Reformation in 1571; Socinianism in 1605; the Jansenist schism of 1643; and the Old Believers and Raskol for schism within the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666.

The history of American mainly-Protestant Christianity is nothing but schism.  None of these movements have a credible theological base, being revivalist movements by people who have a poor understanding of Christian theology, leading to doctrines that were rejected by the mainstream Church as having no Biblical basis whatsoever to take root, such as the Rapture, and the rise of Mormonism.  The Anglican movement in the United States have in effect left the Catholic core of Anglican beliefs and been diluted to such an extent that there is a great variance with the Old World Anglican communions.

In Western Christianity, heresy most commonly refers to those beliefs which were declared to be anathema by any of the ecumenical councils recognised by the Catholic Church.  In Eastern Christianity, the term may refer to anything at variance with Church tradition.  Since the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, various Christian churches have used the charge of heresy against individuals and groups deemed heretical by those churches.

The Catholic Church distinguishes between formal heresy and material heresy.  The former involves willful and persistent adherence to an error in matters of faith and is a grave sin.  Non-repudiation of the heresy results in excommunication.  Material heresy is the holding of erroneous opinions through no fault of one's own and is not sinful.  The Catholic Church considers Protestants to fall in this second group.  The Eastern Orthodox are considered to be schismatic but are recognised as churches.  Conversely, the Eastern Orthodox considered both the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations to be heretical.  Whilst they have relented and both sides have repudiated the anathema with regards the Catholic Church; there is no repudiation with the Protestant movement.

Heresiology requires an understanding of the development of orthodoxy and the role of creeds in the definition of orthodox beliefs.  Christian Orthodoxy has been in the process of self-definition for centuries in terms of clarifying beliefs in opposition to people or doctrines that are perceived as incorrect.  The reaction to heresy has varied over the history of the Church.  The institutional, judicial, and doctrinal development of the Church, have shaped this reaction.  The historical examination of heresies focuses on the theological, spiritual, and socio-political underpinnings to explain their development.  Not all heresies are credal in nature.  Some movements were deemed heretical because they challenged the primacy of various authorities within the Church, or they recognised authorities the Church did not.  Accusations of heresy have been leveled against a group of believers when their beliefs challenged, or were seen to challenge, Church authority.  True heresies have always been doctrinally based, where a principle was deemed to be inconsistent with the fundamental tenets of orthodox dogma.

Until the last few hundred years, when the Church finally lost major political power, heresy and schism was punishable, often by death.  And that death was often preceded by torture to force a confession or recantment.  There are two forms of excommunication, major and minor.  Minor excommunication is the formal removal of the heretic from the rites of the Eucharist and a ban on attendance to any church. from the body of the Church.  Anathema refers to a form of extreme religious sanction beyond excommunication, known as major excommunication.  It is the total removal from the body of the Church.  The earliest recorded instance of this form of excommunication in the Synod of Elvira, and thereafter it became the common method of cutting off of heretics.  It was only from the fifth century, that a formal distinction between anathema and excommunication evolved.  On an interesting note, one of the canons of the Synod was the proscription on the use of images in the church.  This later became a major bone of contention the Catholics and the Protestants during the Reformation.

The vast majority of Christians are under the impression that early Christianity was for the most part, a cohesive whole, and that the heretics were anomalous minorities.  The development of doctrine, the position of orthodoxy, and the relationship between the various opinions is a matter of continuing theological debate.  Most Christians today subscribe to the doctrines established by the Nicene Creed.  Therefore, modern Christian theologians tend to regard the early debates as a unified orthodox position against a minority of heretics.  Other scholars argue that early Christianity was fragmented, with contemporaneous competing orthodoxies.  Western Pauline Christianity prevailed, in large part, due to the support of the Roman political elite.

Prior to 313 CE, the alleged heretical nature of some beliefs was a matter of debate within the churches since there was no formal, organised mechanism in place to resolve the various differences of beliefs.  Eusebius said that heresy was to be approached by the leader of the church.  It was only after the legalisation of Christianity, beginning under Emperor Constantine I in 313 CE that the various beliefs of the Church began to be made uniform and formulated as dogma through the canons promulgated by the General Councils.  Every phrase in the Nicene Creed hammered out at the Council of Nicaea, addresses some aspect that had been under passionate discussion prior to Constantine I, and closed the books on the argument, with the weight of the agreement of the over 300 bishops, as well as Emperor Constantine I in attendance.  Emperor Constantine I had invited all the 1,800 bishops of the Christian church, about 1,000 in the east and the remaining 800 in the west.  The number of participating bishops cannot be accurately verified;  Socrates Scholasticus and Epiphanius of Salamis accounted 318 of them; Eusebius of Caesarea, only 250.  In spite of the agreement reached at the council of 325 CE, Arianism, which had supposedly been defeated, dominated most of the church for the greater part of the 4th century.  The sect was often aided by Roman emperors and their family who favoured them.

Irenaeus was the first to argue that his ‘orthodox’ position was the same faith that Jesus (a.s.) gave to the apostles, and further to that, the identity of the apostles, their successors, and the teachings of the same were all well-known public knowledge.  This was an early argument supported by apostolic succession.  Irenaeus was also the first to establish the doctrine of the four Pauline gospels and no more, with the synoptic gospels interpreted in the light of the Gospel according to John.  Irenaeus’ opponents, on the other hand, claimed to have received secret teachings from Jesus (a.s.) via other apostles which were not publicly known.  Gnosticism is founded on the existence of such hidden knowledge.  Brief references to private teachings of Jesus (a.s.) have also survived in the canonical Scripture.  But so did warning by Jesus (a.s.) that there would be false prophets.  Irenaeus’ opponents also claimed that the wellsprings of divine inspiration were not dried up, which is the doctrine of continuing revelation, a problematic doctrine in and of itself, and the cause of further heresy until the present age.

The first known usage of the term ‘heresy’ in the legal context was in 380 CE by the Edict of Thessalonica of Emperor Theodosius I.  Prior to the issuance of this edict, the Church had no state-sponsored support for any legal mechanism to counter heresy.  With this edict, the line between the Catholic Church’s spiritual authority and the Roman State’s jurisdiction was blurred.  The state began enforcing what it determined to be orthodox teaching.  The purpose, on the part of the state, was twofold.  The first was to maintain religious harmony in Christianity, and the support of the primacy the orthodox, which would then support the state.  The second was to curb the rise of alternative movements, and even the pagan temples, which might be hostile to the state.

Within five years of the official ‘criminalisation’ of heresy by the emperor, the first Christian heretic, Priscillian, was executed in 385 CE by Roman officials.   Pricillianism was an austere, monastic interpretation of Christianity with a marked disregard for Church authority.  It is difficult to argue that there were major doctrinal differences, although they were charged with being Gnostics.  For some years after the Protestant Reformation, Protestant denominations were also known to execute those whom they considered as heretics, mainly Catholics.

Most of the earliest controversies pertained to Christology.  The orthodox teaching that developed, is that Christ (a.s.) was fully divine and at the same time fully human, and that the three persons of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal.  This position was challenged in the 4th century by Arius.  Arianism held that Jesus (a.s.), while not merely mortal, was not eternally divine and was, therefore, of lesser status than God the Father.  And they based this on the Gospel according to John:

John 14:28
28 “You have heard me say that I am going away and coming back to you.  If you really loved me, you would be glad to hear that I am on my way to my Father; my Father has greater power than I.”

Trinitarianism, however, held that God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one being with three hypostases.  Many groups held dualistic beliefs, maintaining that reality was composed into two radically opposing parts: matter, usually seen as evil, and spirit, seen as good.  Docetism held that Jesus’ (a.s.) humanity was an illusion, thus denying the incarnation.  Other competing doctrines held that both the material and spiritual worlds were Created by God and were therefore both good, and that this was represented in the unified divine and human natures of Christ (a.s.).

In the three centuries between the crucifixion and the First Council of Nicaea, the religion went from a deviant Jewish sect to an illegal, underground movement spreading within the urban centres of the Roman Empire to the state religion of an empire.  This was a process bolstered through merchants and travel through the empire.  The process of establishing orthodox Christianity was set in motion by a succession of different interpretations of the teachings of Christ (a.s.) being taught after the crucifixion.  Due to this, churches began to make a statement of faith in line with mainstream Christian doctrine a prerequisite for baptism.  The reason for this demand was to insure that new converts would not be followers of teachings that conflicted with widely accepted views of Christianity such as Gnosticism and other movements that later were considered heretical by church leaders.  These statements of faith became the framework for ecumenical creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  It was against these creeds that teachings were judged in order to determine orthodoxy and to establish teachings as heretical.

Several ecumenical councils were convened to address these Christological disputes.  The councils of Nicaea in 325 CE and Constantinople in 382 CE condemned Arian teachings as heresy and produced the Nicene Creed.  The First Council of Ephesus in 431 CE condemned Nestorianism and affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary (a.s.) to be Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God’.  The most significant council was the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE since it affirmed that Christ (a.s.) had two natures, fully God and fully man, distinct yet always in perfect union.  This was based on Pope Leo the Great’s Tome. It condemned Monophysitism and would be influential in refuting Monothelitism.

In summary, the First Ecumenical Council was convoked by the Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325 CE and presided over by the Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria, with over 300 bishops condemning the view of Arius that the Jesus (a.s.) is a Created being, inferior to the Father.  This is actually very much closer to the Muslim view.  The Second Ecumenical Council was held at Constantinople in 381 CE, presided over by the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, with 150 bishops.  It defined the nature of the Holy Spirit against those asserting His inequality with the other persons of the Trinity.  The Third Ecumenical Council was held at Ephesus in 431 CE, was presided over by the Patriarch of Alexandria, with 250 bishops affirming that Mary (a.s.) is truly ‘Mother’ of God, Theotokos, contrary to the teachings of Nestorius.  The Christians of Arabia, including Waraqah (r.a.), were Nestorians.  The Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 CE, with the Patriarch of Constantinople presiding, was where 500 bishops affirmed that Jesus (a.s.) is truly God and truly man, without mixture of the two natures, contrary to Monophysite teaching.  The Fifth Ecumenical Council was the second to be held at Constantinople in 553 CE, interpreting the decrees of Chalcedon and further explaining the relationship of the two natures of Jesus (a.s.).  It also condemned the teachings of Origen on the pre-existence of the soul, and it separate existence from the Divine in pre-eternity.  The Sixth Ecumenical Council was the third at Constantinople in 681 CE.  It declared that Christ (a.s.) has two wills of his two natures, human and divine, contrary to the teachings of the Monothelites.  The Seventh Ecumenical Council was called under the Empress Regent Irene of Athens in 787 CE, and was known as the second of Nicaea.  It supported the veneration of icons while forbidding their worship.  It is often referred to as ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy.’  The Fourth Council of Constantinople was called in 879 CE.  It restored Photius to his See in Constantinople and condemned any alteration of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Not all of these Councils have been universally recognised as ecumenical.  Additionally, the Catholic Church had also convened numerous other councils which it deemed as having the same authority, making a total of twenty-one Ecumenical Councils recognised by the Catholic Church.  The Assyrian Church of the East accepts only the first two, and Oriental Orthodoxy only three.  Pope Sergius I rejected the Quinisext Council of 692 CE.  The Fourth Council of Constantinople of 869 to 870 CE and 879 to 880 CE is disputed by Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Present-day non-Trinitarians, such as the Unitarians, and the pseudo-Christian Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reject all seven Councils.

In later years, the Church instituted the Inquisition, an official body charged with the suppression of heresy.  This was, by extension, a more rigorous enforcement of pre-existing episcopal powers possessed, but little used, by bishops in the early Middle Ages, to inquire about and suppress heresy.  It later became the domain of selected Dominican monks, forever tainting that order, under the direct authority of the Pope.  The Inquisition was active in several nations of Europe, particularly where it had fervent support from ruling class.  The Albigensian Crusade from 1209 to 1229, was part of the Catholic Church’s efforts to crush the Cathars.  It was part of the Medieval Inquisition.  The Spanish Inquisition is infamous.  It was particularly brutal in its methods, including the burning at the stake of many supposed heretics.  It was initiated and substantially controlled by King Ferdinand of Spain after the Reconquistadore, and was used to root out those who still had Muslim beliefs.  King Ferdinand used political leverage to force the tacit approval of the Catholic Church.  It was less about defense of dogma, and more about securing political power.  The Hussite movement, in the modern Czech Republic in the early 15th century, was also branded heretics.

The last person to be burned alive at the stake on orders from Rome was Giordano Bruno.  He was executed in 1600 for a collection of heretical beliefs including Copernicanism, the belief of an unlimited universe with innumerable inhabited worlds, and that the earth revolved around the sun.  These were opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, and the Incarnation.  This is the great crime of the Roman Catholic Church against humanity, when they allowed their man-made Scripture to dictate science, and they invented their ideas of God, claiming it to be from a fallible work, the Bible.

The last execution by the Catholic Church was that of the schoolmaster, Cayetano Ripoll, accused of deism in the waning days of the Spanish Inquisition and hanged to death the 26th July 1826 in Valencia.  Eight years later in 1834, Spain, the last remaining government to still provide the Catholic Church with the right to pronounce and effect capital punishment, formally withdrew that right from the Church.  The era of such absolute Church authority had lasted 1,449 years, from 385 CE through to 1834.  The number of people executed as heretics as sentenced by various church authorities or killed my military and punitive action by the Church and her allies is in the hundreds of thousands.  Not all of them had credal variance.  Some of them had the misfortune of making an enemy of powerful men in the Church.  Interestingly, the first heretic executed had been a Spaniard, Priscillian; the most notorious instrument of Church persecution of heretics was based in Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, and the last heretic executed had been a Spaniard, Cayetano Ripoll.  It began in Spain and it ended there.

Until the last third of the 20th Century, Catholics defined Protestants as heretics.  Some went as far as to define Islam as a Christian heresy, on the grounds that Muslims accept many of the tenets of Christianity but deny the divinity of Christ (a.s.).  However, in the wake of Vatican II, the Catholic Church, in the spirit of ecumenism, ruled to diminish the effects of Protestantism as a formal heresy and reduced most Protestants to material heretics, “through no fault of their own do not know Christ and his Church.”  This is despite the fact that from a credal perspective the teachings of Protestantism are, without a doubt, formally heretical from a Catholic perspective.  This proved that the pronouncement of heresy could be politically expedient.

Two of the major doctrines of Protestantism that the Catholic Church considers heretical are the belief in Sola Scriptura, that the Bible alone is the source and rule of faith and theology; and sola fide, that faith alone can lead to Salvation.  Additionally, they hold that the Pope does not have universal jurisdiction over the whole Church, that the Catholic Church is not ‘the sole Church of Christ’, and that there is no sacramental and ministerial priesthood received by ordination, but only a universal ‘priesthood of all believers’, a allowance for any person to be a pastor, even without proper training and knowledge, as long as such a person could be ‘moved by the spirit’.

Aside from the ecumenical councils mentioned above, the Eastern Orthodox consider the additional councils to be ecumenical, although this is not universally agreed upon.  They include the Fifth Council of Constantinople, which was actually a series of councils held between 1341 and 1351.  It affirmed the hesychastic theology of Gregory Palamas and condemned the philosopher, Barlaam of Calabria.  Additionally, there have been a number of significant councils meant to further define the Eastern Orthodox position.  They are the Synods of Constantinople in 1484, 1583, 1755, 1819, and 1872, the Synod of Jassy, 1642, and the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem, 1672.

Although, the role of the ecumenical councils was to define the Orthodox canon of faith, the Eastern Orthodox Church was not known to have authorised the use of violence in the persecution of heretics with the frequency of their Western counterparts.  Whilst individual examples of the execution of Orthodox heretics do exist, such as the execution of Avvakum in 1682; the typically Eastern Orthodox response to a heresy was excommunication only.


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