March 10, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Heresy: Nothing new, even in this day and age

Members of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle recently took part in a Theology Night Out presentation on “Church History and Tradition.”

Dr. Virginia Unverzagt of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College provided a fascinating, if rapid, survey of 2,000 years of Christian Church information, even including some fun hands-on activities.

First, she discussed what she called the “basics”—Why we study history at all, why we study Church history in particular and what exactly is tradition. Her last “basic” was mystery, that final aspect of spiritual inquiry in which we make a leap of faith.

Now, 2,000 years is a long time, containing much “his-story” and commentaries upon it. That amount of time also holds many layers of traditional belief and practices, not all of them part of written doctrine and some open to change. That’s a lot to cover in one session.

However, St. Paul parishioners persevered through models of the Church as community, herald, institution, pilgrim, sacrament and servant. They observed the development of monastic communities, schisms, protests and reform. They studied what infallibility of the pope really means, and the composition of the modern Church as expressed in her many rites.

Along the way, the student theologians came to the various heresies, which occurred earlier in Church history. Perusing them, I realized once more that nothing is new under the sun. Old discredited heresies are still at work today!

Take Arianism. This is the belief that “Jesus is God’s greatest creature, but Jesus is not divine.” Does that sound like The Da Vinci Code or what? But, as Unverzagt’s information pointed out, this heresy was denied by St. Athanasius and the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Their conclusion: “Jesus is the same substance as God; Jesus is divine.”

And how about Novatianism and Donatism, espoused by Novatian and Donatus? Although I confess I’d never heard of these heresies, their content sounds familiar: “The Church cannot forgive and accept back into the community serious sinners. The grace of the sacraments depends on the holiness of the priest.”

How many of us, we who are the Church, accepted back a sinner like Timothy McVeigh? How many truly forgave him, as God forgave him? And, if we depended upon the holiness of priests who confer the sacraments, everyone ministered to by abusive clergymen in the past would be in spiritual trouble! Big time.

Then we have Pelagianism, that cheerful heresy which states that there’s “no original sin or grace and people can save themselves through their own efforts.” Shades of the New Age, secular humanism, the transcendentalists! Most of us are smart enough to know that, “We have fallen natures and need God’s saving grace to attain salvation.”

Gnosticism or Manicheism is the heresy which declares that Jesus was not really human, there was no Resurrection, and the world runs on competing principles of good and evil. This is where we come to the truths of mystery: the Trinity, the Resurrection and the goodness of material creation by a good God.

There are more heresies than these—some even new to our time. Lent is a good time to keep an eye on them.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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