What’s Your Favorite Heresy?

There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.

So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)

  • Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
  • Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t). 
  • Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
  • Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
  • Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not). 
  • Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
  • Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
  • Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.

I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.

What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling? 

I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.

I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.

What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 10, 2011, in Church History, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. None of those, but maybe universal reconciliationism

  2. 1) Gnosticism and 2) Pelagianism because in a lot of ways they are still alive and well. They are the two that I love to hate.

  3. Adoptionism and arianism. They make things so much easier, I think.

  4. Thinking about it some more, I’ve realized that I don’t really find universal reconciliation all that tempting. Deep down, I’m enough of a jerk that there are some people/beings I don’t want to be reconciled. So, if were going to be tempted here, it would have to be some kind of Selective Universal Reconciliation (how’s that for an oxymorom?). That way I can exclude things like Satan, whatever demon is responsible for Katy Perry, mass murderers, child molestors, people who cheat old people out of their retirement savings, cat lovers, and anyone who happens to be bothering me today. Now that’s a heresy I could get into.

  5. Well, that’s where you temper URecon with the idea that the image of God can be rejected, and thus, outside of salvation.

  6. Marc,

    I am close to you with Pelagianism, and even harder Semi-Pelagianism. Though I distain anti-Trinitarianism, especially for those who are antagonistically ignorant of the Triune God!

  7. Gnosticism. Being reared uber-exclusive in faith, the idea of a select few with a special knowledge could appeal to me.

  8. This whole discussion depends on who you think gets to label what a heresy is.

    The Catholic Church used to label what a heresy was, until the Reformation decided they were heretics.

    My favorite heresy is that dogs go to heaven and cats do not.

  9. You mean modalism is a heresy…uh oh poor Zephyrinus and Callistus 😉 And also my moral theology mentor said: “every good ethicist is a Pelagian at heart”…I don’t buy that one…so I go with the former.

  10. If I may dare to say, Protestantism.

    • But “which” Protestantism? That would be my question.

      • All. That would be my answer 🙂
        Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that the heresies you’ve mentioned in the post were all prior to the branching of the church.
        By “Protestantism”, I didn’t mean protesting against church orders, traditions …etc, I meant “Protestantism” the branch of Christianity that was started by Martin Luther.
        Why it is my favorite, because it is the easiest! 🙂

      • All?

        Or just the fundies.

        Anyone anti-‘c’atholic.

      • Well there were a few other so-called “Pre-Reformers”, or those that did not survive, like the Bohemian John Hus, and of course the English Jon Wyclif, etc. And too Martin Luther would not have survived had it not been the will and providence of God!

        Myself, I see Luther, with the later or second generation Reformers, Calvin and of course the Dutch Reformers, as squarely “Catholic”, but just not “Roman” Catholic. (Note, I was raised Irish Roman Catholic myself, and even spent a few years – in my 20’s, after my first run or tour with the RMC’s Royal Marine Commando’s – with the English Benedictines.) And I don’t feel I am anti-Catholic at all, indeed many of my dear family members were devout RC’s. And most are before the Lord now!

        Btw, here is a quote from Philip Schaff, “The Reformation is the legitimate offspring, the greatest act of the Catholic Church.” Rather profound considering his historical Mercersburg Theology! So indeed “Catholic” means different things to different people and theology. As no doubt, the so-called ‘Principle of Protestantism’, as we can see with the great historian Schaff! See too John Williamson Nevin’s, “Catholic Unity”. Nevin of course a so-called “Catholic” type Protestant, with Schaff at Mercersburg.

        So indeed ‘the Catholic Church’ has been alive for many, at least to their theology and thinking, in the Reformational Churches also, especially Lutherans and Anglicans. 🙂

  11. Mike, it’s worth keeping in mind that there were divisions in the church before Protestantism. At the very least we’d want to include the splits with the monophysites (e.g. Coptics), Nestorians, and Eastern Orthodox. Those were all just as significant (if not more so) than the Catholic/Protestant split, though that’s the one that gets the most attention here in the west.

    • Amen there Marc! The Church Catholic & Orthodox, has been splintered well before the Western Reformation.

    • Marc, I’m actually a Coptic Orthodox Christian, and I’ve noticed that many have this idea that Copts are monophysites. This is so not true, we are miaphysites. We never were mono and never will be! In our liturgy, traditionally written by St. Basil, we pray “He made it [the human body] one with His Divinity without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration” .. I truly wonder how this fallacy started!

      • My bad. I understand that there’s an important distinction between the two terms in Coptic theology, but like many western theologians, I’m not always careful to use them that way. Thanks for the correction.

        By the way, I think western theologians tend to conflate monophysis and miaphysis because they see it as a distinction without any real difference. And I’m sure that annoys Coptic theologians to no end.

      • Indeed as Cyril of Alexandria, ‘one incarnate nature of God the Logos.’ Thus miaphysite is the doctrine that Christ has one united nature out of two: divinity & humanity. “He being one Son, dual in nature, not dual in Person. Wherefore, we do confess, preaching the truth that Christ our God is perfect God and perfect Man.” But, this dual nature exists in the One God-Man, both divine & human! I hope I am expressing this correctly in the miaphysite?

      • Thanks, Fr. Robert, perfectly said!

        Marc, why it annoys coptic theologians is because that was one the reasons of the breaking of Jesus’ body (the Church) at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).

        “Mono” means that the Divinity being unlimited and supremely powerful overcame the Humanity of Christy. Monophysites explain it saying, if you put a drop of vinegar in the sea, that drop would be lost and can never be found again.
        “Dyo” means that Christ’s Humanity and Divinity were very distinct to the point that they were different persons; the Divinity wants salvation, while the Humanity asked “take this cup away from Me” (Mark 14:36)
        “Mia” means that Christ was both fully Human and fully Divine, yet ONE person.

  12. And, using my definition of heresy, Protestantism could certainly count as heresy since it has traditionally been viewed as such by the Catholic Church. (It’s worth noting though that after Vatican II most prefer to speak of us as “separated brethren,” instead of heretics.)

    • Marc,

      That cuts both ways, as there are so many Protestants, Evangelicals, etc. that see Roman Catholicism as simply heresy, and still so many see the pope as the, or a antichrist! Sad, that so many cannot get out of the 16th century! I would note even Melanchton’s more open attitude toward the pope, at the time of the Schmalkald Articles.

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