Historical Heretics Help Point Us to Jesus

By Jenny Koch

Connecting Faith and Life

Recently, I had a very profound conversation with my seven-year-old daughter. We were headed to the grocery store and the sun was shining. She piped up from the back seat, “Mom, did you know that Jesus is the Son?” My reply, “Yes, honey. He is the Son of God.” My reply did not satisfy her. “No, Mom. Jesus IS the SUN. He is alive. He’s in the sun.” It was clear to me that she was pondering a truth of our faith: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it” (John 1:4). In her pondering, though, she had got it all wrong! It was really cute, though. 

This year I have been reading texts from the early Church – some of them not so cute scenarios - and I’ve learned a lot from Mike Aquilina’s book, “Villains of the Early Church.” He takes time to pick apart the motives and mistakes behind the first Christians who didn’t get it right, but in doing so also led others astray. He describes the atmosphere of the early Church as “a broad rainbow of ideas. Orthodoxy was always a major decision and the Great Church was always in the majority.” The Church had to defend against various heretical ideas, and in doing so teaches us along the way.

Simon the magician, mentioned in Acts 8, was one of the first to really mess it up. Aquilina calls him the “Arch Heretic.” Actually, the word simony – the attempt to purchase the gifts of the church with money – is named after him. Early Church tradition tells the story of Simon Peter visiting Simon the Magician, only to find that he has lost all sense of charity. Instead of welcoming the stranger and feeding the poor, Simon the Magician was trying to steal jewels and tricking people into giving him money. Aquilina reminds us that for the Early Church Fathers, a lack of charity was one of the early signs of heresy. He comments, “As soon as you move too far away from Orthodox Christianity, all your charity evaporates.”

Marcion is another early heretic. He continued in Simon’s footsteps – moving away from the Orthodoxy of the Church. Marcion represents the tendency to edit/ignore scripture to fit our needs. He began to make assumptions about the Old Testament God, eventually only trusting Luke’s Gospel and editing several others. He didn’t think the Old Testament was even necessary! Eventually, this led to an entirely different type of Christianity preached in Marcionite churches.  St. Irenaeus, a defender of the faith in this time of crisis, commented that “he alone has openly dared to mutilate Scriptures.” We must remember that the New Testament is indeed the story of the fulfillment of God’s plan. This plan is detailed in the Old Testament. Marcion wanted to throw all of that out. He couldn’t understand God, so he made his own edits and ultimately caused a rift in Christianity.

Why should we study these early Christian heretics? First, it illuminates the Nicene Creed. In 325, bishops attended this first great council to defend the truth, to refute the heretics. Many of them had visible scars and missing limbs, marred by the recent persecutions. Every Sunday we are privileged to stand and repeat these words. So, if you are wondering about the repetition, be thankful for the refutation! This ancient creed helps us when we are wondering about God, it helps keep us united in truth. 

Second, I think we should learn to look at those who disagree with us in a new light. Mike Aquilina says it best in his conclusion, “Our enemies should sharpen us. And we should sharpen them, too, as we bring them closer to the truth of Jesus Christ.” I wish you the best with the “heretics” in your life, whether they be a friend or foe, cute conversations, or serious disagreements. I’ll be praying for you.