What Is Heresy?

The basic tenet of heresy is rooted in teaching that changes or distorts the truth about Christ or the Bible. Very often we see that heresies exist in the form of statements of belief in doctrines that are not found in the word of God. The church or any other human institution does not have the authority to change any premise of the Bible to suit its traditions or current social needs. God’s word never changes just as God does not change. What was once laid down as scripture from the beginning does not need to be reinterpreted, changed, or amended.

In the heretical doctrine of Polytheism, Jesus resurrection from the dead as described by the New Testament, is denied. Those who assert this teaching hold that a person can obtain favor with God and go to heaven by their good works. The Bible is clear that we are saved by God’s Grace, through our faith in Jesus Christ and not by our works. This is so that no one can boast that they participated in salvation and take any credit for their redemption. God alone, through Jesus’ death and resurrection are responsible for human salvation. He will not share His glory with men and all that has been done through Jesus sacrifice for our sins is all that God requires.

In order to be able to rightly defend the Gospel of Christ and stand up against those who seek to distort Jesus and the work of salvation that He accomplished, we must learn these false heresies and understand what they are rooted in. It is also important know and understand the basic principles of the Bible and what God has taught the world concerning sin, salvation, and eternal life.

Many people are not aware that there are churches today in the world which claim to be “Christian,” while denying the Christ who is described by the Bible. Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two very large church organizations with millions of members, who deny the Jesus who is portrayed in the pages of the New Testament. In both of these churches, they diminish Jesus. Mormon’s make Jesus one of many God’s, of whom any obedient male Mormon may also become if he adheres to the teachings of the Mormon church. Jehovah’s witnesses deny that Jesus is Jehovah-God, though this is the clear intent of the Greek language of the New Testament which describes Jesus as Jehovah-God.

Jude, the brother of Jesus, wrote specifically to those who believe in Jesus for their salvation that they should defend the Gospel fervently:

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.  ~Jude 1:3-4

Early Christian Church Leader, Irenaeus wrote that heresies against Jesus and His Gospel are “deformaties” that must be exposed.

“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in on attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself,”  ~Irenaeus in “Against Heresies” v. 1.2

When the Christian church was determining which documents in existence at that time were true and reliable representations of Jesus’ Gospel, they sought the counsel of those who either had direct eye witness contact with Jesus and saw Him alive after His resurrection, like the Apostle John, or were disciples of John and were well aware of the truth concerning Jesus’ Gospel like Polycarp.

The facts are: we do not have a single, credible, impeachable document, from the first century which describes the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as erroneous or unreliable.⁠[1] As a matter of history, the early church fathers themselves wrote extensively, quoting many of the texts from these first copies, authoring several commentaries and instructions to the church—from these early texts. Polycarp and Papias were both disciples of the Apostle John, and had firsthand knowledge of John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Clement attributes the authenticity of both the Old and New Testaments equally, giving as much credence to the spiritual authority of the gospel accounts of Jesus as he did to the entire Old Testament. Clement quotes from all four gospels, the book of Acts, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Titus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and James.⁠[2]

Polycarp, who is described by Irenaeus as a disciple of John, had firsthand knowledge of John’s testimony of Jesus’ death and resurrection which are recorded in his gospel as well as the book of Revelation. Additionally, Polycarp quoted from Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter, Matthew, 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, and 1 John, Luke, Acts, and 2 Thessalonians.⁠[3]

Papias, who was a contemporary of Polycarp, also a disciple of John—authored five books entitled “Expositions of the Lord’s Sayings.” Papias endorsed Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Revelation.[⁠4]

The testimony of first century Christian church leaders bears witness to the authenticity and reliability of all the New Testament documents we have today. These men possessed great knowledge of the events of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, living themselves in close proximity to the time when the disciples of Jesus had written in describing His resurrection from the dead. These men were in a position to either confirm or refute the gospel accounts. They affirmed these records and continued themselves to write commentary in support of the resurrection and the testimony of the Apostles who saw Jesus alive after He was crucified.

In Clement’s first letter to the church of Rome and Corinth, he wrote:

“And so the apostles, after receiving their orders and being fully convinced by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and assured by God’s word, went out in the confidence of the Holy Spirit to preach the good news that God’s Kingdom was about to come.”[⁠5]

Without The Resurrection, There Would Be No Christian Church

What few people considered at the time Jesus was arrested, accused, and crucified was that all these events were a part of God’s prophetic plan for the salvation of man. Many of those who witnessed Jesus being crucified, or who had heard of His death—largely viewed Him as a failure. After news of Jesus’ resurrection spread throughout the world, thousands of people turned to Him for the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of eternal life. Had the resurrection not occurred, it is impossible that the Christian church would have grown so rapidly shortly after the first century.

The important detail which set the Christian church apart from all other religions of the world is—their leader has risen from the dead. This was in fulfillment of at least eleven Hebrew prophecies that were written as far as one thousand years before the Resurrection took place—describing the Messiah rising from the dead on the third day. See The Resurrection.

The Crucifixion Firmly Established By Secular History

We have confirmed testimony from one of the greatest Roman historians, Tacitus, that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, during the time that the Bible describes Jesus’ death.⁠[6] The record of Tacitus concerning Jesus’ crucifixion has never been impeached. This firmly establishes that Jesus is a real person from history, and that He was present in Israel during the time that the gospels describe Him as living in Jerusalem when He was crucified. The testimony given to us from the disciples that Jesus was crucified is confirmed by the extra-biblical source of Tacitus. Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd write:

“Tacitus provides us with independent, non-Christian confirmation of Jesus’s crucifixion, that it occurred during the reign of Tiberius (14– 37 CE) and under Pilate’s governorship (26– 36 CE). He also shows us that within three decades of Jesus’s death there was a strong Christian presence in some quarters of the Roman Empire—enough so that Nero could use them as a plausible scapegoat for political purposes. And he tells us that many of these Christians were willing to suffer and die for their faith.”[⁠7]

The Resurrection Established By The Massive Growth of the Christian Church

We have in evidence today, the historical account of a massive explosion of the Christian church after the first century, due largely to the facts of the resurrection. If Jesus did not raise from the dead, it is unlikely that many would have followed Him or called Him the Messiah. The church of Jesus Christ became the largest teleological living organism in the history of the world because its leader accomplished something that has never been equalled—He rose from the dead.

If the crucifixion was the final event which took place and Jesus simply died without being resurrected, the Christian church would never have become the greatest living testimony to the facts of His resurrection.

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book “The Rise of Christianity,” describes the Christian church as growing by 40% in just the first century alone.[⁠8] This exponential expansion is largely attributable to the facts of Jesus’ resurrection being viewed as authentic—due to the testimony of eyewitnesses who documented these facts immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead.

According to Peter Rogers, in 1 A.D., the population of the earth was about 200 million people.⁠[9] By 300 A.D., the population had grown to over 250 million. Rodney Clark wrote that the explosive growth of the Christian church, by 350 A.D., places the number of followers of Jesus Christ at over 33 million—or 56.5 percent of the total population of the world.⁠[10]

  • In 250 A.D., the number of Christians was 1,171,356, which was just 1.9% of the population of the world.⁠[11]
  • In 300 A.D., the number of Christians was 6,299,832, or 10.5 percent of the world’s population.⁠[12]
  • By 350 A.D., the number of Christians had grown exponentially to 33,882,208, or 56.5 percent of the population of the world.[⁠13]

If the resurrection did not take place as the four gospels describe, then how do we explain the explosive growth of the Christian church to over 33 million believers and 56 percent of the world’s population, just 300 years after the resurrection was first reported?

The testimony of the four gospels is established by history as unimpeachable, though efforts have vigorously been made to impugn this evidence.

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a historical fact.⁠[14] P. L. Maier said this:

“Accordingly, if all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea, in which Jesus was buried, was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no thread of evidence has yet been discovered in literary sources, epigraphy, or archaeology that would disprove this statement.”[⁠15]

Men who are of such great diligence, honesty, and posses the historical integrity to report the true and accurate names of cities, people and governmental actions of that period of history—must also be men who have told us the truth about Jesus resurrection. All of the cities, people, and actions of the government of Rome during the period described by Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts, have been verified by the world’s greatest and most proficient archeologists. Luke told the truth about every item he placed into his gospel of Jesus Christ—including the certainty that He rose from the dead.


NOTES:
[1]All refutations of the Resurrection came much later in the second and third centuries.
[2] 1. M. W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 141: “This appears to be the earliest instance of a NT passage being quoted as scripture” (emphasis original). Holmes suggested that the passage quoted is either Matt 9: 13 or Mark 2 :17.
2.Kellum, L. Scott; Köstenberger, Andreas J.; Quarles, Charles L (2009-08-01). The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Kindle Locations 1698-1700). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[3] 1.Metzger (Canon, 61) stated, “Polycarp almost certainly knows the Epistle to the Hebrews; he calls Christ ‘the eternal high priest’ (xii. 2; see Heb. vi. 20; vii. 3) and seems to echo Heb. xii. 8 (‘ let us serve him with fear and all reverence,’ vi. 3).”
2.Kellum, L. Scott; Köstenberger, Andreas J.; Quarles, Charles L (2009-08-01). The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Kindle Locations 1702-1704). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[4] Ibid, Locations 512-530
[5] The Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, Commonly Called Clement’s First Letter. Richardson, Cyril C. (2009-06-11). Early Christian Fathers – Enhanced Version (Kindle Locations 1029-1031). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.
[6] 1. Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence Eerdmans Publishing ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 pages 39-42
2. “Backgrounds of early Christianity” by Everett Ferguson 2003 ISBN 0-8028-2221-5 page 116
[7 ]Eddy, Paul Rhodes; Boyd, Gregory A. (2007-08-01). Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Kindle Locations 3424-3428). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[8] Stark, Rodney (9 May 1997). The Rise of Christianity. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-067701-5.
[9] Peter P. Rogers, Kazi F. Jalal and John A. Boyd (2008). An Introduction To Sustainable Development. Earthscan. p.53.
[10] Stark, Rodney (9 May 1997). The Rise of Christianity. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-067701-5. page 6.
[11] The Rise of Christianity. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-067701-5. page 7 chart by Rodney Stark.
[12] Ibid, chart by Rodney Stark
[13] Ibid, chart by Rodney Stark
[14] 1.Grant, M., Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels New York: Scribner’s, 1977, Page 176
2.Van Daalen, D. H., The Real Resurrection, London: Collins, 1972, Page 41
3.Kremer, Jakob, Die Osterevangelien — Geschichten um Geschichte, Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977, Pages 49-50
[15] Maier, P. L., “The Empty Tomb as History” in Christianity Today, March 1975, Page 5

 

 

 

 

 

The word “heresy” comes from the Greek ‘hairesis’ which means “choosing” or “faction.” At first, the term heresy did not carry the negative meaning it does now. But, as the early church grew in its scope and influence throughout the Mediterranean area, various teachers proposed controversial ideas about Christ, God, salvation, and other biblical themes. It became necessary for the church to determine what was and was not true according to the Bible. For example, Arius of Alexandar (A.D. 320 ) taught that Jesus was a creation. Was this true? Was this important? Other errors arose. The Docetists taught that Jesus wasn’t human. The Modalists denied the Trinity. The Gnostics denied the incarnation of Christ. Out of necessity, the church was forced to deal with these heresies by proclaiming orthodoxy; and in so doing, condemnation upon these heresies and the heretics became a reality.

Unfortunately, some of those who attempted to defend and establish the truth did so by killing those who disagreed with them. What would prompt such hostile actions against those who merely had “differences of opinion” on biblical subjects? The answer may not ever be fully known, but I offer this explanation.

Culturally, when Christianity arose, it arose in the midst of a hostile environment. Judaism and the Roman Empire both warred against its people and its teaching. Persecutions arose and Christians were killed for their faith. In the Diaspora (dispersion) of the late first century, Christians were scattered throughout the Mediterranean area due to the persecutions in Israel. The Roman Empire with its theology of many gods was not friendly to Christianity’s monotheism. Therefore, Christians were further persecuted.

Theologically, the Bible teaches condemnation upon false doctrines and false teachers. Gal. 1:8-9 says, “But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” (See also 1 Cor. 16:222 Cor. 11:13-151 Tim. 1:18-20Titus 3:10) Why is this taught in the Bible? The reason is simple. Christians are saved by faith in the work of Jesus on the cross, but faith in itself is not enough. Faith is not a substance you can put in a jar. It is belief in something. Faith is only as good as who it is placed in. If you put your faith in a false God, you are lost because a false god cannot save anyone. This is why God says in Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Faith is not what saves, but faith in the true God is what saves.

I suspect that it is a combination of the cultural and theological contexts that resulted in Christians seeking to “do away with” the heretics. Heresy has the ability to damn because they have the ability to confuse the gospel sufficiently to make it powerless. For this reason, I suspect that to many ancient Christians, heresy became one of the most serious of offenses.

Essential verses nonessential doctrines

It becomes necessary to define those doctrines which separate Christian from non-Christian. It would make no sense to persecute anyone over a doctrine that is not essential to the faith. Such nonessentials, in my opinion, would include baptism of infants, pre- or post-trib rapture, worship on Saturday or Sunday, musical instruments in the church, the charismatic gifts, worship styles, dress codes, etc. These kinds of subjects do not affect one’s salvation. Unfortunately, the disagreements that arise around these subjects result in denominational fragmentation.

Essentials of the faith would include who God is, who Jesus is, salvation by grace, and Jesus’ resurrection. From these subjects we have derived doctrines known as the Trinity and the hypostatic union (Jesus’ two natures: God and man). The Bible tells us that these doctrines concerning God, Christ, salvation, and resurrection are essential to the faith. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that Christians know their faith and know how to defend it against the doctrines that compromise the essentials.

The list of heresies in this section represents serious assaults upon the character of God, of Christ, and of salvation itself. The church through the centuries as defined, let me correct myself, has recognized what the truth is concerning the essentials of the faith.