Scriptural Interpretations, Heresies, and the Seeds of Orthodoxy

The Heretics

Once tolerant of new ideas, the Church thereafter became intolerant of those that deviated from official Church doctrine as set by Church Council.  The first such Council was led by Constantine – so much for separation of Church and State . . .

Durant notes that oftentimes a Church heresy was associated with political rebellion.  The principal heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries were as follows:  Arianism was strongly associated with the barbarian invasion; it taught that Jesus was not literally the Son of God but of similar being with God.  Manicheism was associated with Persian dualism of God and Satan, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness.  The Donatists in Africa asserted that the sacraments would have no benefit when administered by a clergyman in a state of sin.  Pelagius argued against the doctrine of original sin. We will discuss his ideas more in our discussion of St. Augustine. Nestorius argued against the notion of the “Mother of God.  When he refused to recant at the Council at Rome in 430 A.D., he was deposed and excommunicated. Mopsuestia developed principles textual analysis of scripture, predating the principles of Higher Criticism. When he examined scripture with these principles, Mopsuestia concluded that the Book of Job was of pagan origin.  But, perhaps the claim that got him into the greatest trouble was that Mary was not the mother of God but the mother of the human Jesus.

Nestorius retired to Antioch, but because he insisted that Mary was not the mother of God, Emperor Theodosius II banished him to the Libyan desert.  Here is where church matters become entangled with political power and favor: the Byzantine court granted him an Imperial pardon. His followers settled in eastern Syria translating the Bible and classics. Will Durant tells us that they “played a vital part in acquainting the Muslims with Greek science, medicine, and philosophy.” Further persecution caused this sect and its ideas  to disburse into Persia, two areas of India, China and throughout Asia. Their communities survive to this day and still reject Mariolatery.

Eutyches taught that Jesus was not both human and divine, but only divine. The patriarch of Constantinople called a local synod and condemned his “Monophysite” doctrine as heretical. Eutyches appealed to Rome, and the church authorities there convinced Emperor Theodosius to call the Council at Ephesus in 449 A.D.. Essentially, appealing to the Roman political authority to take its fight with Constantinople with some clout, it held that religion was subordinated to politics. Eutyches was exonerated and Flavian, the patriarch of Constantinople, was assailed with such vitriol that he died. Upon Flavian’s last VS death there was no further need to support Eutyches.  The Roman church called to the Council at Chalcedon in 451 A.D., which compliantly condemned Eutyches, reaffirming the nature of Christ as both human and divine. The Church authorities in Syria continued to teach Eutyches’ Monophysistic doctrine, which thereafter became adopted by the Christian church-states of Egypt and Abyssinia.

Durant at p.50 writes ”The bishops of Rome, in the fourth century, did not show the Church at her best. . . . The conversion of the Western barbarians immensely extended the authority and influence of the Roman see. As rich and aristocratic families abandoned paganism for Christianity, the Roman church participated more and more in the wealth that came to the Western capital.” With political infusion of wealth into the Church, by 400 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church was able to build opulent churches.

The Saints

Approximately contemporaneous with heresy, were several persons who would be approved by the Church as Saints. The first of these is St. Jerome.  He was a passionate Christian. He founded a monastic brotherhood at Acquileia, choosing to leave it to its unrelenting wickedness to move in 374 A.D., to a monastic settlement in the desert near Antioch.  He found the atmosphere unhealthy fear and retreated to live as an anchorite in the desert.  He had been trained in the Latin classics, and while in the desert he studied those in addition to other subjects at least he did so until he had a dream that he had died and, as Durant quotes him, he was “dragged before the Judge’s judgment seat. I was asked to state my condition, and replied that I was a Christian. But He who presided said, ‘Thou liest; thou art a Ciceronian, not a Christian. For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’”  Then, as so many other persons of enlightenment have felt guilty for their thinking independent of the perceived authority, he felt the perceived scourge of that authority and succumbed to it.  In 379 A.D. he returned to Antioch, and was ordained a priest. He became a secretary to Pope Dasmasus, who commissioned him to make a new Latin translation of the New Testament. The extravagant atmosphere of the papal court seem to conflict with his aesthetic vows.  A Christian aristocrat couple admitted him to their home as their spiritual advisor. However, others believed that his enjoyment of the company of women contradicted his claimed commitment to celibacy.  He satirically castigated the pagan Roman society that criticized him. As Durant describe it at page 52, “He scolds a Roman lady in terms that suggest an appreciative eye.”  Again, as Durant describes it at page 53, “He is shocked to find, concubinage even among Christians, and more shocked to find it covered by the pretense of practicing chastity.”  Durant concludes at page 54, “Jerome was a saint only in the sense that he lived an ascetic life devoted to the church; he was hardly a saint in character or speech. It is sad to find in so great a man so many violent outbursts of hatred, misrepresentations and controversial ferocity. “

The next great saint of this era is St. Augustine ( 354 to 430 A.D.). Whereas St. Jerome was a passionate Christian from early years, St. Augustine’s mother was a devout Christian, but Augustine preferred the company of the most vile youth of his day. Durant quotes him at page 65 to say, despite his mother’s anxious pleas that he reject their life style and company,“ I ran headlong with such blindness that I was ashamed among my equals to be guilty of less impudency and . . . I heard [them] brag mightily of their naughtiness; . . . And I took pleasure to do it, not for the pleasure of the act only, but for the praise of it also; . . . And when I lacked opportunity to commit a wickedness that should make me as bad as the lost, I would feign myself to have done what I never did.”   It has been said that Augustine at some point in his early life, prayed, “Lord, give me celibacy . . . but not yet.”

For nine years, Augustine accepted Manichaean dualism as a proper explanation of the existence in the world of evil and good. His study of Plato and Plotinus influenced him toward  Neoplatonism, which was later to dominate Church theology and doctrine.

Like St. Jerome, St. Augustine had a visionary experience that led him to orthodoxy. One day, as Augustine sat contemplating, he heard a voice that kept ringing in his ears; “Take up and read; take up and read.” He picked up a Bible and read Paul: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in clamouring and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

He was moved by the sermons of St. Ambrose.  On Easter Sunday, 387 A.D., St. Ambrose baptized Augustine. Thereafter, Augustine and several of his friends who were baptized with him went to Africa where St. Augustine established in 388 A.D. the Augustinian order. That is the oldest monastic group in the Western church. He helped in administering a diocese, where he also preached eloquently, with renown. Four years later, the Bishop of that diocese died and, over his protests, Augustine was unanimously elected to fill that position.

With that ecclesiastical power, he undertook a long battle against the Donatists. Ultimately, the Donatists were ordered to hold no further meetings and turn all of their church property over to the Catholic Church. Previously, Augustine had held to the position that no person should be coerced into the Christian faith. But now that he was Bishop, he urged the Church to chasten the Donatists as a father might chastise an unruly son.

Augustine did have some concerns about the doctrines of the Church. He labored for many years to reconcile its doctrines with classical philosophic principles,  The Trinity, the problem of free will of man with the foreknowledge of God, and the problem of damnation for those predestined to do what they did, were really tough, but he managed to do so to his satisfaction.

Perhaps, considering his own youthful, morally rudderless  indulgences, Augustine concluded that humankind is born inclined to evil. That he attributed to Original Sin as inherited from Adam.  Being naturally inclined to evil, only the grace of God can turn man to good. “Through a woman we were sent to destruction; through a woman’s salvation was it restored to us.” Durant at page 69.  St. Augustine was prone to extreme statements, even for his taste.  At page 69, Durant notes that, “At times he propounded the Calvinistic doctrine that God arbitrarily chose, from all eternity, the “elect” to whom he would give his saving grace.”  As to creation, Augustine held that it was not necessary to believe that it occurred in six days.

The contemporary of Augustine, Pelagius, argued that mankind has freedom to choose evil or good, and that, as Jesus taught in Matthew 25, good works could save. God leaves our fate to our choosing. The theory of innate human depravity, he said, was a cowardly shifting to God of the blame for man’s sins. Man feels, and therefore is, responsible: “if I ought, I can.”  Durant  at 69. Pelagius moved to Rome about 400 A.D. to live with Christian families there, where he built a reputation of being virtuous. Augustine attacked him as heretical.  One must wonder if he had to attack Pelagius to cover his own gilt for placing the blame for his youthful sinfulness on God by the Doctrine of Original Sin, which Pelagius had attacked.  Through a series of political machinations, Pelogius was finally declared a heretic.

Two of Augustine’s literary works are among the world’s classic literature: the Confessions, written about 400 A.D., is his autobiography, and City of God, is, in Durant’s words, a philosophy in history. When Rome fell to the barbarians, it shook the faith of many Christians, including that of Augustine. City of God was Augustine’s effort to provide a logical basis for why God would allow such a disaster.  Although the Church was an ally to the Roman State, Augustine attempted to distance the church from this political debacle, arguing that it was not reasonable to conclude that the defeat of Rome impugned Christianity. As Durant puts it, “Augustine’s initial answer was Rome had been punished not for her new religion but for her continued sins.” Perhaps influenced by that position, the barbarians ransacked the pagan shrines, but they left the Christian churches untouched and available as a refuge for all that fled there. As a result of the pagan option for Christianity, former pagan festivals were replaced by Christian celebrations. “… The feast of the purification of Isis became the feast of the Nativity; the Saturnalia were replaced by Christmas; the Floralia by Pentecost; the ancient festival of the dead by All Souls Day; and the resurrection of Attis by the resurrection of Christ. See Durant page 75.

Whether incidentally or by influence, Augustine accepts the Persian notion of a world divided between good and evil, lightness and darkness.  That duality had its natural roots in Neoplatonism, contrasting the actual on earth as a poor reflection upon the ideal, above the earth, which it imitated.  Augustine adapted that dualism to his own purposes: there are two cities: the earthly city which worldly men, devoted to earthly affairs, enjoy; and the divine City of the one true God, preserved for the elect. Not surprisingly, the Church has throughout its history identified itself with the City of God.

The church, spared by the barbarians for whatever reasons, survived the fall of Rome to become a repository of classical learning through the Dark Ages until  the Renaissance was to rediscover them. With the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the Church filled the political vacuum and validated those feudal powers that played to its power.

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5 thoughts on “Scriptural Interpretations, Heresies, and the Seeds of Orthodoxy

  1. It was Augustine that was the heretic. Augustine was putting for a wholly new idea and Pelagius was defending the orthodoxy of the last few centuries. Its simply one of those cases of earlier orthodoxy being declared heretical by a new emerging heresy that redefined the meaning of the term orthodoxy to turn a heresy into orthodoxy and orthodoxy into heresy. This a quite common phenomenon after all. Christianity was originally a heresy within Judaism, but eventually displaced Judaism and declared Judaism a heresy. Its no wonder that when this original, nascent, Nazarene Christianity became orthodoxy, it was to be displaced also by a heresy which would replace it as the new orthodoxy, namely Gentile Pauline Christianity. And its no wonder that Gentile Pauline Christianity in its original form would later be replaced by an even newer heresy, the Hyper Pauline Christianity of Augustine which prevailed in making itself the new orthodoxy. This cycle just keeps on going. Heresy after heresy prevails against the prevailing orthodoxy and makes itself the new orthodoxy. Every orthodoxy begins as heresy, has its day as orthodoxy, then fades back to heresy as it is superseded by a new heresy ascending to the throne of orthodoxy.

    • Rey, I am returning to parts of this blog and reading your comment again. You seem quite learned and are definitely astute. You mention the cycle of heresy to orthodoxy and fading back to heresy. In my original blog is a Theology section in which I address Inclusive Christianity. I address Christianity’s pagan roots, most specifically in the Dionysian (even Egyptian) Rites – enough so that in one of the letters of Paul he felt the need to warn Christian converts against making the Common Meal a drunken brawl. I have copied that theological section, am revising it, and am adding to it a section concerning human pollution:” Spirituality and Sustainable Earth. If you are interested in any of that, I welcome your thoughts – perhaps collaboration? Just for your general information, I am a former lawyer, almost 70, with MS and Post Polio Syndrome, and have volunteered at the local elementary school in reading activities since 2006, 4 hrs a day. That and these blogs are part of what I do to keep my mind and interests active and my mood positive. I rely on a power chair for general mobility. I find few people interested in theological development, let alone theology or philosophy, you being an exception. If you wish to contact me personaly, my e mail address is . Best wishes.

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