There are many conspiratorial beliefs that dog the Christian faith, but one of the most pervasive is the suppression of the truth. This is usually
couched in claims that the Bible has been rewritten, that texts which point to views on the nature of God and Christ were intentionally scrubbed from
the Bible, and that the Roman government, in the person of Emperor Constantine, is responsible for our current understanding of Christianity.
As usual, parts true, parts not so true, but mostly, a bit of misunderstanding. We'll try to sort it out, by looking at the notions and purposes of
heresy, orthodoxy, and two of the earliest "Alternative Christianities", the Ebionites and the Marcionites, offshoots that emerged in the early
Second Century. I will deal with a third heresy, that of Christian Gnosticism, in a separate piece at a later date.
(At this point, I need to point out that what follows is a defense of orthodoxy, not the Catholic church. Though I am Orthodox and I agree with many
of their theological positions, I am not a Catholic, and hold a rather dim view of past and current church failings.)
So, to begin, we need to define our terms. In a very broad sense, you may consider "orthodoxy" to be "that which is in harmony with the teaching
of the Church" and "heresy" to be "that which is not in harmony". Orthodox teaching is that which is authorized and/or conventional -- from the
Greek words orthos
, which equates to "right" and doxa
, which means "thinking", it literally means "right thinking." Heresy, on
the other hand, is defined as being "wrong teaching."
While the terms heresy and heretic have taken on a highly negative connotation, because of the barbaric treatment of heretics in the Middle Ages, in
the early Church, it was a common and reasonable practice. Both Jesus and Paul describe how to deal with heretics in the New Testament, which was to
try and convince them that they were incorrect, to reason with them, and if they wouldn't listen, you kicked them out of the Church. That was it --
no torture, no burning at the stake -- you just told them to leave. Today, it is seen in the practice of excommunication, and in the social rejection
of shunning, as practiced by some Amish and Mennonite churches.
To understand the need to deal with heretics, consider a high school mathematics teacher who persists in "wrong teaching". They teach that pi is
4.2, or that 2+2=5 or some other obvious error. How do you deal with that? Well, you would probably go and talk to them, to persuade them that they
are wrong and that they are leading their students astray, and if they refuse to listen, you fire them. It's the same thing with heresy.
Getting kicked out of the church was likely a bit traumatic, but it didn't have a big impact on some heresies. As we will see, the person espousing
this unorthodox opinion, along with their followers, often went off and started their own church, wrote and collected scripture which supported them,
and made a go of it. The general failure of the early heresies likely cannot be laid at the feet of oppression by the orthodox church -- it was still
being persecuted itself at that point, and wasn't large or powerful enough to crush the competition. More likely is that the orthodox arguments
(which we will see in a moment) were more persuasive than the unorthodox claims were.
So, if we've a state where the church says something, and that is considered to be correct, and anything which is contrary to it is considered to be
wrong, what makes the church right in the first place? To a certain degree, they weren't -- though I've been using the term orthodox to describe
the teachings in the Second Century, it is more accurate to call the teachings at the time "proto-orthodox", because the church was still in a
theological infancy. People were still trying to figure out some very "big picture" issues, so it's not surprising that some seemingly odd notions
Proto-orthodoxy was based on a number of criteria, but the most important was the reliance on being in harmony with scripture. Something did not
necessarily have to exist in scripture to be considered orthodox, but it could not be in conflict with it. For example, there is no explicit mention
of the Trinity is the Bible. However, early theologians needed to come to grips with the fact that the Synoptic Gospels hinted at Christ's divinity,
the Gospel of John outright declared it, and other parts of the New Testament, as well as historical evidence, indicated that the earliest Christians,
including those who knew Christ, worshipped him as God. That seemed in conflict with the Jewish faith, so the Doctrine of the Trinity was developed
to try and explain it. It is not necessarily correct, but it is reasonable, it answers the question in a way that does not conflict with scripture or
tradition, so it is an orthodox belief, and anything which teaches contrary thought is likely to be viewed as heresy.
As an example, we can look to the Ebionites, probably one of the first major heretical Christian sects. To understand their perspective, one has to
remember that Jesus was Jewish, all of his followers were Jewish, and, at the time, the very notion of a non-Jew following the Jewish Messiah probably
seemed as nonsensical as we would view a Conservative Jew following Christ today. Paul, of course, opened the door to the controversy by preaching
the Gospel to Gentiles, and the early church struggled with whether you needed to be Jewish to be a Christian -- did a Gentile need to convert to
Judaism (including circumcision) and then follow the Judaic Law in order to follow Christ? Paul argued no, in a very logical and eloquent fashion,
and his opinion eventually carried the day.
The Ebionites, however, disagreed, rejected Pauline Christianity, and insisted on strict adherence to Torah, including circumcision, dietary and
social law, and exclusion from those who did not do so. In addition, they did not view Christ as anything but a person, specially chosen by God for
his righteousness, to be prophet and Messiah. The church rejected these claims, declared the Ebionites to be heretics, and kicked them out of the
church. However, the sect lived on for quite some time, one of the major Jewish only Christian sects, with their own churches and literature.
A second example from around the same period was the polar opposite -- Marcionism, which was based on the teaching of Marcion of Sinope, a Bishop in
the early church. Marcion was a dualist, which put him at odds with the Jewish aspects of Christianity, which through its Judaic heritage, is not a
dualistic faith. The Marcionites rejected the whole of the Old Testament, taught that the God of the Jews was a lesser being, and embraced a view of
Christ that had already been rejected by the New Testament writers, Docetism, which held that Christ was not a human being at all, but was a purely
spiritual being. Marcionism is similar to Gnostic Christianity, except that Marcion did not believe in the secret knowledge of gnosis, he felt that
the writings of Paul and the words of Christ held all that you needed to know. To that end, Marcion created his own canon of scripture, which
included an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. All other texts were rejected as being too Jewish.
Both the Ebionites and the Marcionites represented views which were radical departures from orthodox Christianity, were rejected as being heretical,
and those who held those beliefs were given the boot. Pushed outside of the general church, they failed to find sufficient followers who agreed with
them, and they are mostly relegated to history texts now.
Probably one of the biggest early names in heretical refutation was Tertullion, who seemed to have a particular beef against Marcion, but spread it
around in his writings on heresy. His Prescription against Heretics
is a good read for
understanding the methodology and rational of the proto-orthodox in defending Christianity from heresy. I'm not a fan of his textural criticism,
but Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never
is a good recent source, though it is heavier on Gnosticism than anything else.
Another good resource that collects many early Christianity variants, but most particularly Marcionism, is Charles Waite's History of the
Christian Religion to the Year Two Hundred
, which may be found online
. It should be noted, however, that Waite comes to some unlikely conclusions about the relationship between Marcion's version of Luke and
the Gospel which appears in the New Testament, though he backtracks a bit in the preface from the claim that Luke was written after Marcion.
A final question that arises is this: if orthodoxy is a result of being in harmony with scripture, then what makes something scripture? What makes it
canonical, and thus a valid reference for determining validity? If, for example, Marcion's eleven books were considered canon (ironically, Marcion
was the first one to suggest that there should be an official canon,) then Marcionism would be orthodox. For the early church, the criteria were
three: to be considered canonical, a text had to be in harmony with the rest of scripture, it had to be in widespread use, and, most importantly, it
had to have an Apostolic connection -- it needed to be written by, about or for someone who actually knew Jesus.
For that reason, the early church selected the four Gospels, with two of them being written by the Apostles Matthew and John, one written by a
follower of Paul, and Mark, whose Gospel is considered to be a compilation of the sermons and stories of Peter. Similarly, Paul's epistles and the
other apostolic letters, as well as the Revelation of the Apostle John, were considered to meet these criteria. Modern scholars question the
authorship of Matthew and John, as well as the letters of Peter, the "pastoral" letters of Paul, and who the John of the Revelation of John was, but
the church fathers in the Second and Third Century, for whatever reason, did not have these doubts, and, thus, the canon that we have.
With all of this in mind, we can see that, contrary to popular belief that the tenets of Christianity were imposed by an arbitrary Roman fiat hundreds
of years after Christ's death, orthodox Christian belief began developing shortly following the end of the Apostolic Age, and served to define, shape
and direct theology, by being able to point back to beliefs that were in harmony with both tradition and scripture. Similarly, teachings which were
clearly in opposition to orthodoxy were easily refuted by referring back to the orthodox belief and its foundations.