Sunday, October 28, 2012

Five Heretics That Every Catholic Should Know and Why They Matter Today

Oftentimes, what appears to be a newfangled spiritual movement within Christianity is often simply a regurgitated (and usually very watered-down) heresy from many centuries ago.

In the spirit of that statement, I thought it might be a good idea to list who I think are some of the heretics whose ideas are still active today; the next time someone attacks the Church with a particular statement or doctrinal assertion, you will be able to say, "Well, actually that was so-and-so who said that first, and he was condemned by the Council of ______".  It's always surprising to see where heretical ideas actually originated from.

Henceforth, I present to you my personal take on five famous and not-so-famous heretics...and why they matter to Catholics today.

1.  Arius (256 - 336 A.D.)

"The Word is absolutely alien to the essence and property of the Father.  He is one of the order of works and creatures; he is one of them."1

Let's get the obvious out of the way first.  Arius was the bane of orthodox Christianity, and his heretical doctrines spread all over the place like weeds, so much so that they still survive today.  Much of Christendom succumbed to his heresy, and if not for the great figures of 4th-century orthodoxy such as St. Athanasius, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and many others, Christianity would be a much different faith than it is today.

But what exactly is the heresy of Arius?  Simply put, Arianism declared that Christ was subordinate to the Father, and was a created being (i.e. not God).  The Nicene creed that you recite on Sundays is a direct response to the heresy of Arius.

Like many heretics, Arius was not a fool - fools would never be able to wreak as much damage to the Body of Christ as he did.  Citing Scripture and twisting certain passages in the thought of Origen to his own use, Arius managed to nearly destroy the Church.

Why he matters today:  His teachings live on in various modern movements such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Arian Catholic Church (yes, apparently this really exists), along with any other group that denies the divinity of Christ. If any group claiming to be Christian denies that Christ is God, then you know what kind of "ism" you are really dealing with.  If a supposedly Christian group is speaking of Jesus as merely being a prophet or anything but God, then the shadow of Arius is undoubtedly behind it.

2.  Berengarius of Tours (999 - 1088 A.D.)

If you're Catholic or Orthodox, you've probably (I hope anyways) always known that the Eucharist is the Real Body and Blood of Christ - we do not consume a symbol.  Though others would argue against it, the Church has always held to the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  What is interesting is that it wasn't something first denied in the Protestant Reformation, but was actually a man by the name of Berengarius.  Though rumblings had occurred in other writers before, most notably in John Scotus Eriugena, Berengarius seems to be the first to explicitly attack the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  He instead opted for the view that Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament but not really present - later declarations on "transubtantiation" were made in direct response to this (though I do not think the Orthodox have ever laid out what is going on during the Consecration in as systematic a way as Catholic theologians have). 

Why he matters today:  Even though there were a couple theologians that had gone against the Real Presence in the Eucharist before him, Berengarius was really the first to take his doctrines so far that even an entire movement called the Berengarians survived after him.  He opposed and attacked the Church on the issue of the Eucharist, denying that any change took place resulting in its being the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, instead opting for a spiritual understanding (something, I would argue, is much closer to orthodox Calvinism).

When someone attacks the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, modern Catholics can know where the idea came from, and why the Church's theologians formally defined the change as "transubstantiation".  The ideas of Berengarius, I would argue, live on today in the doctrines of the Reformation, especially in the teachings of Calvin.

3.  Montanus (2nd - 3rd century A.D.)

Montanus is one of my most disliked of all heretics, as he was the wolf that snatched that great apologist, Tertullian, from the bosom of the Church - though really, when one reads Tertullian, one can see the seeds of a great fall in his writings.  He needed something more extreme than what the growing Church could provide.  Thus he joined the Montanists, a charismatic sect that had grown up around the prophecies of Montanus and two women named Prisca and Maximilla.  Claiming the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, they became known as "fanatic rigorists"1, with Montanus espousing himself as a prophet through whom the Holy Spirit spoke through to the world. 

Why he matters today:  I think it's a fairly easy parallel to draw between charismatic movements and Montanism.  But what I want to point out is that Montanism, in my opinion, has made itself felt in any movement where Holy Spirit is erroneously placed in opposition to the Church.  The "spirit of Vatican II" movement, in my humble opinion, draws its strength from the same poisoned well as Montanus and his companions. 

4. Miguel de Molinos (1640 - 1696 A.D.)

Miguel de Molinos is a little less-known than others, by my reckoning, and yet his influence I think is felt all over the world of unorthodox prayer forms infiltrating the world of modern Catholicism.

Molinos was the central figure in a heresy known as "Quietism", and "taught interior annihilation, asserting that this is the means of attaining purity of soul, perfect contemplation, and the rich treasure of interior peace: hence follows the licitness of impure carnal acts, inasmuch as only the lower, sensual man, instigated by the demon, is concerned in them."3

E. Allison Peers, that distinguished scholar of Spanish mysticism, intriguingly refers to his teachings as warping the mysticism of such figures as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. 

Why he matters today: When studying at Newman Theological College, I was shocked to see that what is known as "centering prayer" was being pushed on students as a good and wholly orthodox form of prayer.  Upon doing a little research, I began to notice some very disturbing similarities between it and a heresy known as Quietism, which did most of its damage in the 17th century.

In my opinion, centering prayer as it is known today is merely a watered-down form of core Quietist principles.  Though certainly modern centering prayer does not advocate excuses for sinful acts as does the doctrines taught by Molinos, it is undoubtedly similar in its teachings on interior annihilation.

According to Catholic Answers, "Quietism bears similarity to certain elements of Eastern mysticism and the New Age movement, and it is mirrored in one of the chief principles of Protestantism.

Like Quietism, many Eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance) aim at a state of detachment or indifference, whether it be Nirvana for the Buddhists, tranquil oneness with the pantheistic 'all-god,' or the Tao.

Elements of Quietism can be seen in the quasi-mysticism of the New Age movement. In emphasizing subjective mystical experience or 'feeling,' downplaying personal moral responsibility, and eliminating sacrament and ritual, many moderns are unaware of the debt they owe to a seventeenth-century writer for their 'modern' religion.

The Reformation doctrine of sola fides is a cousin to Quietism in that it rejects mankind's reciprocal role (through obedience and good works) in the process of salvation."4   

5.  Nestorius (d. 451 A.D.)

The chief heresy propounded by Nestorius was that Christ's two natures were entirely separate and distinct, thus resulting in a kind of two persons in one body.  This was fought chiefly by St. Cyril of Alexandria.

But this is not the aspect of Nestorius' thought that I had most interesting, nor why I mention him here - modern scholarship seems to take a more sympathetic view to Nestorius' Christological errors.  The reason why I mention him here is that he was the first to deny the title of Theotokos (God-bearer) to the Virgin Mary - in other words, he attacked the idea that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the Mother of God, preferring instead the term Christotokos (Christ-bearer).

Why he matters: Many evangelicals and fundamentalists these days are very much against calling Mary the Mother of God - now you can tell them where that idea first came from, and that it was condemned in the early Church.  As a side note, if anyone brings up the idea that the Virgin Mary did not remain a virgin for the rest of her life (the doctrine of her perpetual virginity), then one would do well to bring up the fact that the first to say such a thing was a heretic known as Helvidius.  St. Jerome's reply to Helvidius on the subject is crucial reading.

1 - Arius, Thalia
2 - Rev. John Laux, Church History, pg. 64
3 - A. Perez Goyena, The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Miguel de Molinos"
4 - Todd M. Aglialoro, found HERE.


  1. I’ve tagged you for the blogathon award. If you’d like to accept, click on here:

  2. I think drawing the parallel between Monatanists and the Charismatic Movement is a wee bit off the mark.

    Yes, you're absolutely right so say any movement that Claims to be acting on the inspiration or action of the Holy Spirit while contradicts Church Teaching & Scripture, is not from the Holy Spirit.

    It's basic stuff, "Test everything, hold fast to what is good" and "you'll know them by thier fruits". If the fruit of any group is dissention and dis-obedience, then it's clear that group is not operating in the Holy Spirit, but it in no way means that the Charismatic movement as a whole is not of the Holy Spirit.

    Lumping the Charismatic Moevement with Monatists is simply throwing the baby out with the Bath water. Not only that, you risk following the exact same line of thought of the Jewish religious leaders of the day when they accused Jesus of healing by the power of the devil. Jesus' own response is very explicit with regards to that accusation.

    For a start, the Charismatic Gifts are demonstrated as being part of the norm for the Church both in Acts, & later in Corinthians. The only time there is a problem with them is when they are MISUSED, and Paul rightly corrects the Corinthian Church for this abuse.

    That's a huge difference between it being not authentic action of the Holy Spirit, or simply an abuse of The Action of the Holy Spirit.

    I've also heard that in the confirmation Rite, it also instructs the Bishop to expect candidates to 'speak in tongues'.

    Yes, there are abuses within the Charismatic Movement, just as there are within Christianity as a whole, but that doesnt void it all. Rather, it requires us to discern carefully what is and isnt of the spirit, and to cling to the Church and her teaching.

    Any Charismatic group (mainly protestant perhaps) that dissents from the church is bound to get muddled up, and the fruits are easy to see, (wacky prophecies, arrogance and lack of humility, etc etc).

    As a Catholic Charismatic myself, one who was raised in it since a child, I can testify that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at least, is only helping the church to grow, it draws in the youth, who in turn appreciate the liturgy (both ordinary & extra-ordinary). It also is bearing fruit in vocations in both the young and old.

    And thats my tuppence worth lol. Sorry if im all over the place, im in work at the time of writing!

  3. This is so very interesting. Nice blog layout too.

  4. 1. Why is Arius depicted with a mitre in your illustration? He wasn't even a priest, but merely a deacon.

    2. Nestorius's big problem was being adoptionist in his Christology. He taught that Jesus did not become XPICTOC until the Holy Spirit came upon Him at His Baptism. Oddly enough, Seventh Day Adventists teach the same heresy.

    No less a church historian than Philip Schaff said that Protestant Christology tended towards Nestorianism PRECISELY because they avoid--or reject--Theotokos.

    1. Hey Jack,
      I'm not sure actually - it's obviously one of those later depictions, so who knows. There is an interesting depiction of Arius on the cover of Rowan Williams' book on him - kind of a creepy one too.

      The Philip Schaff note is most interesting, and as a former SDA, I had no idea about their Nestorian similarities!


  5. I must admit that when I heard about centering prayer, it felt weird. Indeed, physical and mental discipline are famous for being an integral part of eastern meditation practices. Certain forms of these are very similar to Quietism. However, don't you think that centering prayer, being "watered down Quietism" as you put it, is devoid of "exaggerated mysticism"? (CAVEAT:) I still do not advocate all practices of centering prayer, some bear too close a resemblance to eastern meditation (eg. picking a word~mantra). However, some parts of it, like "quieting oneself" may be useful as a contemplative technique, which itself may not be regarded a spiritual thing, but rather serves as a worldly aid to prayer and meditation (much as things like shutting the door, or thinking logically about theology do). What do you think?

    1. Hi "someone",

      I would make the distinction between orthodox and heretical forms of quieting oneself here. As E. Allison Peers pointed out, Quietism was a distortion of orthodox prayer forms taught by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.


  6. The Williamson wing of the SSPX and sedevacantists remind me more of Montanus as the Spirit of VII crowd is hardly rigorist.

    1. Arny,
      You're totally right - my point was to draw a parallel between the placing of the Spirit in opposition to the Church, which is guided by the Spirit. The rigorism thing, that would be more SSPX I suppose, although I have always thought of the SSPX as having more in common with Jansenism than anything.


    2. "I have always thought of the SSPX as having more in common with Jansenism than anything"
      I always understood Jansenism as a form of Quietism and SSPX doesn't seem to be very Quietist - would you care to elaborate? To me, SSPX is a schism, not a heresy.

  7. Just wanted to say I enjoy your blog posts. I am an Anglican bishop who is converting to the Catholic Church and appreciate the things you have to say. May the Lord bless you.


    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks very much! And so glad you are coming over to the Church!

      If you're interested, there's some posts on here about the Anglican Ordinariate for further reading if you like. Just check the index on the left.

      God bless!

  8. If you expanded the list to seven I would add Luther and Calvin since the heresies of these two men continue to affect many Christians who remain separated from the Church.

    1. They do - but as I pointed out to other commenters, I wanted to show the roots of the more well-known heresies. Berengarius came about 400 years before Calvin, and yet held an opinion about the Eucharist very much similar to what Calvin would later propound.

  9. Martin Luther should rank first!

    1. Many came before Luther. Again, I wanted to point out the roots of the more well-known heresies and heretical positions out there.
      For example:
      Berengarius of Tours was the first to actively deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
      Nestorius was the first to deny the title of Mother of God to Mary.

      Luther is too obvious.

  10. A rising heresy that is far more important is Malthusism. I wish the Church would finally condemn the idea that population, rather than standard of living, causes environmental damage. An entire genocide has been committed by the Malthusians, killing 54 million people in the United States alone since 1973.

  11. Don't forget to add Vincent Nichols and Donald Wuerl to your list of heretics everyone should know about.

    And, no, I am not being unserious.

  12. I'm surprised that you didn't name any of the Protestant Reformers such as Luther or Calvin.

    1. Those were two obvious and two easy - what I wanted to do was point out their predecessors, the ones who held doctrines they did long before they were born. I thought, anyone Catholic can write a post on the errors of Calvin and Luther - I wanted to go a little deeper.

  13. @Theodore: Thomas Malthus proposed that food supply dictated population growth, that when a population outstripped the food supply, there would be mass starvation. Neo-Malthusians have proposed that population growth is responsible for environmental degradation. Neither idea considers the fact of human ingenuity: Malthus didn't foresee the technological advances of agriculture, and New-Malthusians can't admit that there are environmentally responsible means of maintaining our standard of living.

  14. Nice blog. I've heard at least two or three of these preached from the pulpit at our town church. Some of the church ladies get together, write letters to the priest in question and copy the bishop and then...nothing happens. He preaches some other heresy. Its actually become exhasting to do the research each week on which heresy he's choosing to preach.

  15. When someone questions Mary as Ever Virgin I always bring up Ezekiel 44:1-2. Ezekiel 43 and 44 are acknowledged by all as prophecy of Christ's coming. He is referred to as the Prince.
    "Then He brought me back by the way of the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces the east; and it was shut. 2 The Lord said to me, “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut."

  16. In my experience, the Evangelical heresy regarding the Theotokos seems to be, technically, a new heresy: they insist, when pressed, that Jesus lost His human nature at the Resurrection and returned to being purely Divine.