On Orthodoxies and HeresiesMost Christians today believe that their faith is the faith of the apostles, the first followers of Jesus. They were taught in Sunday schools and catechism classes that what they believe is the orthodox belief. Implicit with this belief is that all dissenting views of the past were made by people who were aware of the orthodox position, but either did not understand or could not accept it.
Hence the development of heretical Christian sects and teachings were seen and are being seen today as attempts to subvert the apostolic and orthodox position. In this view, it is assumed that the orthodox teachings existed in its purest form, uncontaminated by heresy, during the time of the apostles. The apostolic period became, in this idea, the initial reference point from which all future disputes must appeal to.
The assumption in this definition is obvious: orthodoxy must have existed earlier than heresy. Only then could heresy "misrepresent" it. This idea, that truth is older than error [a], is a traditional Christian one. As one of the early church fathers, Tertullian (c160-225) said:
This idea had permeated the Christian psyche and forms the fundamental viewpoint with which it views its own history. Orthodoxy, according to Christians, was always present, and survived repeated diabolical attacks on it throughout history. The Christian historian Eusebius (c260-340), asserted that it was the heretics who introduced new and innovative [b] teachings which the orthodox successfully resisted. To him heretics are people who:
Eusebius, in his book on Christian history, The History of the Church (324 CE), presented the first three centuries of the church as that of a successful defence of the orthodox and apostolic faith.
It is granted, then, that the idea of a non-evolving apostolic faith withstanding all sorts of theological assaults is a deeply imbedded one. But how far is this view supported by what we know today of the historical development of Christianity? The answer can be seen in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity which is one of the central dogmas of Christianity. This dogma is accepted by almost all Christian churches, with the exception of some fringe churches such as Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses. The central tenet of Trinitarianism is that there are three distinct "persons" in the divine Godhead; namely the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; these three are of the same substance, co equal and coeternal; yet these three only make up one God.
Many Christians today believe that this dogma is found in the Bible to the exclusion of all other "false" dogmas; and that somehow, it was a doctrine taught by Jesus and the apostles themselves.
The fact of the matter, however, is very different, as we shall see in this chapter. There was no clear cut formulation of these doctrines in the apostolic writings (i.e. The New Testament) and in those of the early Christian fathers. As we shall also see, the sayings and passages from the scriptures used by all parties to support their beliefs are so vague that they can be used to support both the orthodox and the heretical position.
Furthermore, the term heretic and orthodox is one so loaded with implicit assumptions that it would be hard for the modern reader to see that these labels are essentially retroactive ones. In other words, "heretic" was the label every party in the dispute hurled at the opposing party and orthodox is a term reserved only for one's own theological position. The scriptures are vague enough for every party to use it to booster its own claim of orthodoxy and to denounce everyone else as heretics. Thus, ultimately, it was the losers of the theological battle who got the term heretics attached to them and heresies attached to their teachings. As Elaine Pagels, a scholar specializing in early Christianity wrote:
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