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On Heresy 1.2

Thomas Whitley

This is part two of a three part series on heresy. Read part one here: On Heresy 1.1.

In The Beginning . . . there was heresy (dun dun dun!)

Irenaeus wrote a famous piece in the late 100’s (usually dated c. 180) that is commonly referred to as “Against Heresies.” In this piece, Irenaeus had as his goal to refute the teachings of various gnostic groups (hence it’s longer and rarely mentioned title, “On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis”). Irenaeus described the teachings of the Catholic Church as “orthodox” (from ὀρθός, orthos "straight" + δόξα, doxa "belief"), literally “straight belief.” The obvious implication, then, is that if one group held to “straight belief,” then all groups that held different beliefs were not believing “straightly” or “rightly.” But who gave Ireneaus, and by extension the Catholic Church, the power to determine that they indeed were the ones who were believing rightly while everyone else believed wrongly? The apostles, that’s who, at least according to Ireneaus. He argued that the Catholic Church maintained orthodoxy through Apostolic Succession, a doctrine which espouses that spiritual, ecclesial, and sacramental authority was passed on from the twelve apostles to their chosen followers and has similarly been passed down through the ages to those bishops who have been rightly ordained today. Thus, the Catholic Church claimed that they had a direct line, so to speak, to the apostles of Jesus. It is this direct line that, they believed, gave them confidence in their teachings and their power.

The Power of Orthodoxy

What must be realized when examining this topic is just who makes the claims of heresy; that is, who asserts that another person or group is heretical. It is consistently those in power, those who have the means to outcast a group that holds to a view different from their own. Though many would argue this point with me, the orthodoxy/heresy debate has rarely been one about right belief, but rather one of power. In other words, the orthodox views are simply the views of the “winners” while the heretical ones are the views of the “losers.”

To be sure, in many cases the view that eventually becomes orthodoxy (we call this proto-orthodoxy) was actually held by the majority and many beliefs that later come to be called heresy were held by a minority, but to say that was the case in every situation would be to deny historical reality. Further, we must be honest about how pervasive a belief could become if the main power broker of the day worked against that specific view; it likely could not get very far. The situation is similar today. Views that differ with whatever is the ecclesial authority for a certain religion or region likely never gain much traction because they do not have the same platform that orthodoxy does and they have the machine that is orthodoxy working directly against them.

This is not to say that uncommon views do not catch on and eventually become orthodoxy. Take the divinity of Jesus, for example. To many it seems as if there was never a question about the divinity of Jesus, but the multitude of records from the earliest years of the Jesus movement seem to disagree, with the issue of Jesus’ divinity only coming to the table decades after his death (I am very aware that many scholars of early Christianity would debate this point, but many hold to just this view as well. It is by no means a “settled” issue in the academy). Another example is the jewishness of Jesus. For centuries much of orthodox Christianity overlooked this unmistakable fact about Jesus. It has only rather recently come into vogue for a Christian to speak of Jesus as a Jew and what that might have meant historically, religiously, and sociologically.

This leads many of us to two questions:

  1. Who is right?
  2. What does this mean for me?

Check back tomorrow for my answers to these questions.