January 25, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Old heresies never seem to die

John F. FinkHere in the 21st century, 2,000 years after Jesus lived on the Earth, Christians are still trying to figure out just who he was. In the process, many of them—Catholics and Protestants—could be considered heretics.

Back in the fourth and fifth centuries, after Christians were able to come out of the catacombs, Christian doctrine was being defined. Errors, considered heresies, were being combated.

Church councils, which defined what Christians are supposed to believe, taught that Jesus was both God and man. The problems came in trying to decide how that could be. Some very sincere people slipped into heresies when they tried to explain who Jesus was. And some of the ideas they came up with seem to continue today.

There still are those who believe that Jesus was a great man, but deny that he was God. That is an obvious heresy since the doctrine of the Incarnation—that the Second Person of the Trinity came to Earth as a human without ceasing to be divine—is the very basis of Christianity.

Others believe that Jesus was God’s first and greatest creation and very much like God, but not really God. Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular hold to a belief about Christ like this. It is the old heresy of Arianism.

Others don’t think of God the Son as Creator, assigning that attribute solely to God the Father, again despite what the Creed says, “Through him all things were made,” or what John’s Gospel says, “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:3). Some people, in fact, think of God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier as if there were three gods instead of one.

There are still Christians who believe that Mary was the mother only of Jesus the man and should not be called mother of God. That was the heresy of Nestorianism.

But Christianity taught that Christ was only one person, not two. If Mary was the mother of that person and if that person was God, then Mary was the mother of God.

Today, too, it seems to me that many Christians question whether or not Jesus was truly human—the old heresy of Monophysitism.

They give lip service to the statement in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was “a man like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), but they have trouble thinking, for example, that he really was subject to illness or fatigue, all the humbling human bodily functions, or the sexual desires and temptations that all men have.

Those who think that Jesus was somehow not subject to all the things that make one a human might be guilty of Docetism, the heresy that taught that Christ merely assumed the appearance of a human body.

There are many other old heresies still around, but the ones that I have mentioned concern Christ. Another popular heresy, especially among Americans, is Pelagianism, the belief that humans can obtain salvation solely through their own efforts.

It seems that old heresies never die. Nor, like old generals, do they fade away. †

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