Heresy and Orthodoxy

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While the ancient catholic church tries to achieve universal appeal, the rival Gnostics challenge its authority. This conflict presses the church to complete its establishment of orthodoxy, which it struggles to maintain in the form of creeds, Scripture cannon, and apostolic succession. This allows the church to cement its hold on the Christian message, and denounce as heretics all challengers to its “apostolic” authority.

Show Transcript

Shalom, and welcome to our history podcast. This is a production of Kingdom Preppers.org. I’m your host, Kingdom Prepper, and you’re listening to: Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. We continue with our history.

Part 3: Heresy and Orthodoxy

Between the years 70 and 312 CE, Christianity spread throughout much of the Roman Empire and a bit beyond. This rapid expansion of the movement was already called by another name: catholic, from the Greek word that meant universal, in the sense that the religion was to reach all. It grew despite Roman persecution and pagan opposition, and the movement was steered by bishops who, holding to the same beliefs and orthodoxy, presided over churches far and wide. It was to them that the Christian masses turned for counsel and guidance; and it was they who formed the episcopal church government that is the ancient basis for the modern worldwide church system.

Ignatius, the respected second-century bishop of Antioch, coined the term “catholic church,” referring to the perceived universality of all the local churches in the realm, and beyond, whose unity the leadership fought to maintain. Many of Ignatius’s letters addressed a problem that plagued Christianity from its inception: that of variant interpretations of the faith from outsiders. He sought to sure up the core structure of the church as an institution; to give it a unified spiritual identity. And that has been the effort of its leaders ever since; an effort that has failed, given the many denominational strands that have stemmed from the main Papal branch and its various offshoots.

By the end of the second century, Ignatius’s designation for the church, catholic, was in wide use, as many embraced his view of spiritual and doctrinal unity. What began as scattered Israelite assemblies in the time of the emissaries, morphed into a Hellenized alternative that appealed to Gentiles far and wide. And, by the third century, Christianity was the favored, and later, the official religion of the Roman Empire. When Constantine became the first Christian emperor, churches could be found in every major town in his realm, and they even stretched as far as Britain, Persia, and Carthage—the great Phoenician commercial empire of the North African coast.

The spread of Christianity was occasioned partly because it appealed to interested Gentiles who responded favorably to the preaching of the Christian message, which seemed to be the antithesis of what was coming out of the stringent, Torah-centered synagogues. The regions to which Christianity expanded also highlight something interesting. During its first three centuries of existence, the Christian religion reached lands inhabited by simple, humble people, among them: slaves, women, traders, and soldiers. People from these walks of life made up the majority of the population.

The hatred many cultured pagans directed against Christians stemmed from prejudice. Those among the cultured and sophisticated saw lower class Christians as barbarians, who were wrapped up in the teachings of primitive Israelites, whose wisdom and knowledge paled in comparison to that of the Greeks and Romans. One outspoken critic of Christianity, a philosopher named Celsus, attempted to deliver a major blow to the religion by stating:

“Far from us, say the Christians, be any man possessed of any culture or wisdom or judgment; their aim is to convince only worthless and contemptible people, idiots, slaves, poor women, and children . . . . These are the only ones whom they manage to turn into believers.”

In its early stages, one could say that Celsus had a point. But toward the close of the second century, Christianity’s power and appeal would attract some who were thought to be among the keenest intellects of the era. Critics like Celsus gave rise to the apologists, who we touched on in our last podcast. They were the defenders of the Christian faith, warding off pagan attacks, rumors, and railings like those delivered by Celsus, through intellectual, Scripture-centered retorts that were aimed at the educated masses. The apologetics were written to address the flaws in pagan reasoning while correcting the perceived misconceptions surrounding the Christian movement. And it was hoped that these carefully written arguments would lead many to convert to the religion.

Justin Martyr’s most well-known disciple, Tatian, wrote an apology titled, Address to the Greeks, in which he goes on the offensive. While the Greeks considered non-Greek speaking souls to be “barbarians,” Tatian argued that even the elite Greeks could not agree on what their cultured language should sound like, since there was a different dialect of Greek spoken in each region. And what the Greeks praised, he also argued, they borrowed from other civilizations: stargazing from the Babylonians, geometry from the Egyptians, and writing from the Phoenicians. Even their philosophy he said, and their spiritual culture, was preceded by the writings of the Israelite, Moses, who wrote well before that of Plato or Homer. Thus, the similarities between Greek and Hebrew culture were a result of Greeks learning wisdom from so-called “barbarians”; Hebrew wisdom, he pointed out, that they both misunderstood and twisted.

With so many converts joining the Christian movement, drawn from such a wide variety of backgrounds at that, changes were bound to come. On the one hand, the variety spoke to the “catholic,” or universal appeal of the religion, which attracted many, but on the other hand, this vast mix of personalities and classes of people brought with it equally diversified views on the Christian message, as well as widely differing interpretations of Scripture. This resulted in two outcomes that still plague Christianity and even Hebraic movements to this day: schisms and heresies.

A schism is a division among members of a group caused by a disagreement over something, and this can result from differing views on discipline, practice, and even a disdain for the personality, character, or attitude of the leadership or fellow members. In short, schisms can occur due to any number of things within a group, which causes the group to split into two or more factions to satisfy the differing views that led to the schism. This occurred repeatedly in the Christian movement in the second and third centuries, where our current historical narrative resides.

A heresy, on the other hand, is quite another matter, being that it is the problem of what is perceived as false doctrine, or the belief in something that dissents or deviates from a dominant theory, opinion, or practice based on Scripture. Heretics were often those who, on a quest for truth, did not lean on a single system of doctrine, but took parts of various existing systems to form their amalgamated teaching. This caused many heretics to hold opinions of Scripture that drifted far from the core messages taught by the church; core messages that became orthodoxy, or traditionally held beliefs and customs that were accepted as true or correct by the majority.

In some sense, church orthodoxy was developed in response to the threat of heresy, wherein the church defined itself by formulating its beliefs, which had its roots in the Hebrew culture. It is from that culture that Christianity learned the doctrines of creation, the rule of Yah over that creation, the resurrection of the body—which the Pharisees and Yeshua could agree on—and the coming Kingdom of Yah. In packaging these and other beliefs to form its orthodoxy, the church developed a means of sustaining them, in the form of creeds, a cannon of Scripture, and what is called apostolic succession, which relates to the ordination of various bishops they believe literally inherit the spiritual authority from the twelve emissaries who walked with Yeshua. And this unsubstantiated succession has been perpetuated since the second century.

Interestingly, apostolic succession was first claimed by Gnostics, with whom the church came into conflict. In his book, Medieval Christianity, Kevin Madigan writes:

“Among the greatest challengers to the triumph of orthodoxy were the numerous sects historians today classify, cautiously and often reluctantly, under the general rubric of ‘Gnosticism.’ The word ‘Gnosticism’ is an umbrella term. It is meant to describe a wide variety of religious and philosophical movements and groups in the ancient Mediterranean world. One early church father in Rome wrote a refutation of no fewer than thirty-three groups he considered Gnostic.

“. . . The term ‘Gnosticism’ derives from the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis). Gnosticism in most of its forms was preoccupied with knowledge regarding the genesis of the world, the origin of evil, the destiny of the elect, and the knowledge or teaching needed to liberate one from the material domain, which it regarded as evil. The knowledge it imparted was to a small group of elect; the recipients of this revealed knowledge were a minority of humanity chosen to receive it and destined to return to their heavenly home once liberated from ignorance of their lofty destiny.”

This might all sound far-fetched to the modern listener, but Gnostics truly believed what they touted, and the supposed “revealed knowledge” about the spiritual world held by their leaders, posed a serious threat to the church, since its own bishops, the alleged enlightened apostolic successors, were thought to be the custodians of knowledge from Yah. These lofty delusions often led to heated encounters between orthodox Christians and Gnostics.

Gnostics were also active in Israelite communities. In attempting to understand what Gnostics believed and how they operated, we can examine Marcion of Pontus, who, though labelled a heretical teacher, is among the most accessible of the second-century Gnostics, in that his positions are far less speculative and fanciful than that of the spate of groups and movements within the Gnostic designation. He had much in common with them, but differed from them enough to fall into his own category. But examining his life gives us a window into the mind of the Gnostic. Marcion’s teachings challenged the leaders of the orthodox church and forced them to mount a counter offensive in order to protect their new Christian heritage.

We again turn to Kevin Madigan, who writes:

“Born in Sinope, a port city in the province of Pontus on the Black Sea, Marcion was the son of a bishop in that city. A wealthy shipowner and merchant, he traveled to Rome around 140 and joined the Christian community there, to which he donated a large sum of money. Having soon fallen under the influence of a Gnostic teacher named Cerdo, he began to develop his own theological ideas, which he then proceeded to explain to the leaders of the Roman church. Horrified, the leaders returned his money and then, in July 144, excommunicated him. Undaunted and bent on spreading his teachings, Marcion founded his own church. It had a ritual and organization so similar to those of the Roman church that contemporary orthodox Christians felt compelled to warn their flocks not to enter a Marcionite church by accident. One contemporary Christian, Justin Martyr, asserts that Marcion’s ideas were so rapidly and widely disseminated that they could be found everywhere in the Roman Empire by the middle of the second century.”

Unlike the orthodox, or apostolic church led by bishops, which embraced the Pre-Messianic Writings often referred to as the “Old Testament,” Marcion, an anti-Israelite, emphatically rejected them, along with all writings that flowed from the pens of the original emissaries. He only accepted Paul and a butchered version of Luke, wherein he removed all references to Israelite culture. He also believed in an extreme doctrine of grace. He saw Yah as a different being from the deity he served, who was—according to him—the “Father of Christians.”

His “creator” was all-loving, so there would be no final judgment of mankind, and no punishment, since this deity would simply forgive everyone. In order to make this all possible, Yeshua, the Son of Yah, could not have been born from Mary, so his book of Luke starts at chapter three, expunging all references to a miraculous birth, genealogies tied to ancient Israelites, and things of that sort. Marcion, in effect, posed a greater threat to the church than any other Gnostic teacher. And by founding his own bishop-led church, which grew in measure to rival the official orthodox church—at least for a few years—Marcion bested the various Gnostic movements of his day.

We’ll be back with more exciting scriptural history . . . in a moment.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

We now continue with our podcast.

Debates over the origin of all existence are central to the development of Gnostic movements of the second century. And these movements borrowed elements from Israelites, Christians, and even pagans. A vast number of Gnostic speculations arose from their attempts to discern deeper layers underlying the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. This is not to say that all Gnostic groups believed the same things. No, each Gnostic teacher had a unique way of thinking that shaped their view of reality; rather, Gnostic communities were held together by myths related to origins, and by their shared speculative language, which helped to mold a kind of group identity.

Some of the main components of their various myths are these:

The physical, created world we live in was not made by Yah, but rather by the progeny of an Eve-like entity named Sophia. And being unskilled in creation, this progeny makes a physical, rather than a spiritual world that is evil as soon as it materializes. Because the material world, and all things made of matter, were viewed as evil by Gnostics, they despised the contrary belief held by Israelites and Christians that the physical world Yah created was first seen as “good.” Therefore, they refused to attribute the creation of a world of physical matter to a Creator of goodness. They could not conceive of a Creator like Yah being able to allow evil to materialize, despite Yah stating plainly in the Hebraic Scriptures that:

[7] I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity.

—Isaiah 45:7

Other Gnostics, pushing the belief that the world was not made by Yah, taught that it was instead made by his heavenly messengers. And going farther, the Messiah, being born human, and made of fleshly material matter, could not, in their view, come from a spiritual being of perfect goodness. Therefore, Yeshua, they claim, was born of Joseph, just like all other men, but somehow, he became pure in his lifetime. Thus, we see that, the belief that Joseph, the husband of Mary, being the biological father of the Messiah, derives from second-century Gnostic thought.

To help pass these ideas onto the public, Gnostics even penned their own spiritual writings, retelling the life of Yeshua and aspects of Scripture by editing details according to their own doctrines. As a movement, the Gnostics were a formidable match for the Christian church. They claimed to have secret knowledge that was handed down directly from Yeshua, which was hidden, according to them, from the Israelites who established the Messianic culture. But Christians successively beat back the tide of Gnostic teachings and established their own set of orthodox convictions. In response to Gnosticism, and other similar efforts that attempted to distort basic Scriptural principles and concepts, the church focused on the three Cs: creed, canon, and clergy.

The creeds (from the Latin, credo, meaning “I believe”) were a written set of basic beliefs that were confessed by converted Christians, particularly during baptism. Following the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, creeds went from being mere confessions of faith to being tests that determined whether one was worthy of Christian fellowship. One creed directly refuted Gnostic assertions by referring to the Creator mentioned in the Scriptures, the Almighty, who is referred to as the “Maker of heaven and earth.” This countered the Gnostic teaching that the earth was created by an inferior being and was inherently evil. The creed also affirmed the belief in the Messiah, born of the Set Apart Spirit and of a virgin mother. It also affirmed his death and burial, signifying his complete humanity, which was contrary to what the Gnostics believed. If any converted Christian could not recite such a creed, they were deemed unworthy of fellowship.

As to the canon, this is derived from a Greek word that indicates a “measuring rod” or “ruler.” The Scripture canon, therefore, was a body of spiritual writings that acted as a measuring rod and ruler, or, in other words, a standard that believers were to live by. The church’s original canon was taken from the people who introduced them to the Messiah: the Israelites. And the canon of the Israelites was the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. In fact, what was understood as Scripture in the first few centuries, and certainly in Yeshua’s time, were the books that comprised those categories.

Yeshua said:

[35] “. . . And the Scripture cannot be broken. . . .”

—John 10:35

And he clarified what many of those books were:

[44] And he said unto them, “These are the words which I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms concerning Me.”

[45] Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.

—Luke 24:44-45

Even the book of Isaiah highlighted what the Scriptures were.

[20] To the law and to the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

—Isaiah 8:20

The law, of course, is the Torah, or first five books of Scripture, which Yeshua called “the Law of Moses.” The testimony refers to the Prophets and Writings, such as the Psalms. The word testimony is the Hebrew teudah, word H8584, which means testimony, in the sense of an attestation, or affirming to be genuine or true; and to authenticate as a witness. In other words, these are the books that testify of Yeshua, and of them he rightly said:

[39] “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me.”

—John 5:39

Thus, the Scriptures are, in essence, comprised of the books that testify of Yeshua, ranging from Genesis to Malachi, which are the very ones he often quoted from. The Pre-Messianic books, according to Isaiah 8:20, are the true standard against which all other writings are to be measured, and if those other writings stand the test and speak according to Torah and Teudah, then there is light in them. Thus, these Pre-Messianic books were accepted as canon by the Christian church; a canon of Israelite Scriptures they considered their own. And for a time, only the four traditional Good News books—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were considered canon from the Messianic era. To the early church, the Pre-Messianic Scriptures of the Israelites were believed to be the authoritative word of Yah, and they, along with the Good News books, a spattering of letters penned by Yeshua’s emissaries, and a few other associated writings, were the basis for defining their Christian message.

The third aspect of the church’s efforts to establish orthodoxy in the face of challengers was establishing a defined clergy and imbuing that clergy with authority. This was especially true following the rise of Montanism. Late in the second century, the church experienced a major change: enthusiasm was waning among its members and, while many were still entering the church, the laity felt there was a lack of spiritual prophecy. The church was becoming more secular as well, allowing for philosophical and even heathen discussions to be had. This paved the way for the entrance of Montanus in Asia Minor, somewhere between 156 and 172 CE. He called for a higher standard of worship, where the church would again be separate from the world.

What’s more, Montanus, along with his two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, went forth prophesying in the name of the Set Apart Spirit, proclaiming the impending second coming of the Messiah. What was even stranger, however, was that Montanus and his prophetesses raved in a state of ecstatic trance, as though they had no control of their being. This was quite unlike anything referenced in Scripture that related to the behavior of ancient prophets. While the method was perhaps meant to appear that they were deep in the Spirit, it looked more like demon possession. Despite this, they soon gathered others to themselves and a new movement called Montanism emerged. The church moved to intervene, but the damage had already been done and disorder resulted.

The problem wasn’t so much that Montanus had called for a spiritual renewal in worship, it was his insistence that any rejection of the new prophecies would be seen as blasphemy of the Set Apart Spirit. The debate over the relevance of these prophecies created schisms, eventually causing many churches to split. Heretically, Montanus then claimed that a new age of the Spirit had begun, displacing the previous ages, which meant that the ten commandments and all the Pre-Messianic Scriptures were now obsolete. Revelations from Yah would only come through the Spirit of prophecy, and he was its main avenue.

Of this, Kevin Madigan writes:

“It is quite clear that the Montanists were not doctrinally deviant in the way, say, that contemporary Gnostic groups were. What made them dangerous, in the eyes of many leaders in the Asian (and by 177 the Roman) churches was the very claim of experiencing new revelation outside the emerging channels of early normative Christianity. A series of synods was held in Asia Minor—the first in Christian history—and the result was that the Montanists (again according to Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.16.16) were excommunicated. Then, in 177, the Montanists were excommunicated by the bishop of Rome. [. . .] The issue was whether there could be prophecy or new revelation after the age of the apostles, and if so, could women be vehicles of it? Ultimately, bishops felt that prophets were too great a threat to their own precariously established authority; [. . .] In addition, the controversy stimulated the development of a new, important structure in the history of normative Christianity: the synod or council. This was to become the preferred way to settle disputes regarding belief and discipline for two millennia in the history of Christianity.”

During this particular period of the Christian church, many yearned for spiritual renewal. Belief in the power of the Set Apart Spirit was strong, and Christians were familiar with the passages that told of how one could obtain the Spirit’s indwelling, such as the example in Acts 2:38, where Peter admonishes his hearers to repent and be immersed in the name of Yeshua, for the forgiveness of sins, that they might receive the gift of the Set Apart Spirit. Christians were also apprehensive about committing sins against the Set Apart Spirit following their immersion. With the ecstatic ravings of Montanus, who accused the church of those very sins—even citing blasphemy—Christians were deeply troubled.

By leaning heavily on its clergy, and imbuing that clergy with authority, the church was able to position itself as a significant institution through forceful rejection of Montanism. Led by its bishops, the church was able to face heresy on a unified front, in the form of synods or councils, and give clear utterance to its orthodoxy. The final power bestowed on the bishops by the church hierarchy was the ability to forgive sins. Thus, with this act of true blasphemy, the episcopacy, or church government led by bishops, was complete. Catholic Christianity was now fully formed. And like the leavened bread it was, all it had to do was grow.

That wraps it up for this episode of Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. A production of Kingdom Preppers.org, this episode was written, produced, and hosted by yours truly, Kingdom Prepper. All praise, honor, and glory are due to my boss, Yah Elohim, and to his right hand, Yahushua HaMashiach. You can access the transcript for this episode on our website. Yah willing, our history will continue in the next podcast. Shalom.


Keywords: marcion, justin martyr, Ignatius, gnostic, Gnosticism, montanus, bishop, apostolic church, apostolic succession, celcus, carthage, churchianity, two thousand years of leaven, history of Christianity, church history, Hebrew history, kingdom preppers, kp

 

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