Heresies: Ancient and Modern

When you think of a heretic, what image comes to mind? I typically imagine Arius, largely because I enjoy the apocryphal tale of St. Nicholas slapping him for his heresy on the floor of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. It seems that theology was, at one point, a contact sport.

But heresy does not always relate to ancient theologians or to finished and sealed debates about theology. Rather, “heretical” might also describe the way many Christians today understand their beliefs.

Let me explain.

The root word for “heretic” is a Greek word meaning “to choose for oneself.” We do not use this sense of the word anymore; typically, we call someone a heretic when he deviates from orthodox Christian teaching. The original etymology, however, tells us much about how early Christians viewed incorrect teaching.

False teaching was a “choosing for oneself.” Heretics chose for themselves. Do you see where this is going? As Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger pointed out, we live in a culture where religion is seen primarily as a matter of choice — specifically, our choice. We pick our “faith tradition”; even within that faith tradition, we pick churches that match our preferences, with services that appeal to our personal sensibilities.

I am not saying that every Christian in America is a heretic. I am, however, questioning our understanding of religion as something we choose for ourselves. The heretics of old were heretics because they chose something for themselves, apart from the orthodox teaching handed down by the church. They chose their own way.

In this month’s issue, we are taking up some of the most significant heresies, past and present. Most of them are still around in some form today. Some are more prevalent than others. Gnosticism has found a home in our modern world in a way that perhaps Arianism has not. On the other hand, the prosperity gospel was not really an issue in the Early Church; they faced persecution and death too often to believe that Christianity promised an easy and financially lucrative life.

In the end, whether the influence of a particular heresy is waxing or waning, to believe in it is to choose to believe something other than what God has revealed in Scripture. This issue of The Lutheran Witness does not address all heresies. If you find it helpful (or not), let us know. We can return to the topic if needed. We are more than eager to help you learn how to avoid falling into the trap of picking your own way and making your own choice rather than receiving that which Christ has given.

Boldly Lutheran,

Roy S. Askins

Managing Editor, The Lutheran Witness

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