In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
In the Error’s Echo series, we have been introduced to several ancient heresies which many of you may never have heard of, because they were long ago attacked and refuted, though their echoes do still reverberate. We would take a moment to reflect how this came to be.
Christians of all times have prized the truth and rejected all error, separating from it and also refuting and seeking to overcome it, lest its poison destroy many souls. In this the church has found prominent leaders who led in this struggle. We would like to introduce you to a few of these heresy hunters.
While Irenaeus was on a business trip to Rome in A.D. 177, Lugdunum (now called Lyon, in France) was the scene of murderous riots directed against the Christian congregation there. Upon returning, Irenaeus was chosen bishop of Lugdunum after his predecessor had died in prison. He had the huge task of regathering, consoling, and strengthening the flock ravaged by these heartless wolves.
At this time, he wrote Concerning Heresies, a long and detailed exposé of the false knowledge of the various Gnostic sects threatening to overwhelm the Gospel. He was successful because he used God’s Word against their speculative ideas, quoting from the Old Testament 629 times and from the New Testament 1065 times. He cites every book of the New Testament except for four of the shortest ones. One benefit of this to us is to demonstrate that these scriptures were already at this early time considered authoritative.
Although he was dealing with mind-numbing and convoluted speculative ideas, he wrote passionately about the glory and beauties of the true Christ of the Gospels. He reaffirmed enthusiastically that Christianity was set in the real world of flesh and blood and was not just theoretical notions.
Tertullian was a prolific and courageous writer willing to confront both the pagan Roman authorities and heresies within the church. He was born in A.D. 155 in Carthage, but lived for many years in Rome, where he studied and practiced law. There he witnessed firsthand the brutal persecution of Christians. He became a Christian, returned to Carthage, and became a leading teacher there. He openly criticized the Romans for persecuting the church. He wrote on Baptism, the resurrection, prayer, repentance, marriage and remarriage, the soul, modesty in dress, idolatry, the arts, martyrdom, and other things.
He also opposed Marcion in his errors and furthered the better understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity (coining the very word) and the two natures in Christ.
But—irony alert—this staunch defender of the faith later became dissatisfied with what he saw as laxity in the church, and joined the Montanists, a separatist movement described as “ascetic Pentecostal.”
Augustine, another convert from paganism, lived in North Africa. Born in A.D. 354, he grew into a very gifted but dissolute youth who dabbled in various philosophies and religions. But he had a Christian mother whose ceaseless prayers for his conversion were finally answered. He became the greatest teacher in the church of his time.
Among the many books he wrote were several books refuting error. He argued against the non-Christian ideas of Manichaeism, a faith he once held. He fought against Donatism, promulgated by a separatist church strong in his area. Most importantly, he waged spiritual war against the Pelagianists, who denied original sin and taught that the human will has the power to turn from sin and to God. This makes God’s grace simply unnecessary and leaves us with no need of a Savior. What a dangerous delusion!
We should thank God fervently for those He has given to the church who are able to spot the dangerous errors enticing us, are willing to confront these errors head on, and are able to show us convincingly how dangerous they are. Dare we say it? Thank God for heresy hunters!
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.