Christians have historically relied on the canonical Scripture as the source of all truth about the nature of God, man and salvation. There have been times throughout Christian history, however, when leaders emerged with competing ideas and motivations, coloring the way they read the New Testament. We’ve been examining historic misrepresentations of Biblical teaching related to the Nature of God the Father and the nature and role of Jesus. Today, we’ll look at a few classic heresies related to Salvation. Distortions of this kind are typically connected to misinterpretations about the nature of Jesus. Did He die for us? Can we save ourselves? Here are some historic heresies:
Gnosticism (1st and 2nd Century)
This pervasive early heresy is named after the Greek word “Gnosis”, meaning “Knowledge”. It seems to pre-date Christianity and many don’t even regard it as a Christian heresy, but rather, as a movement of its own. But Gnosticism did eventually lay claim to Jesus as a special teacher and it made claims about the Christian faith. The heretical movement was very diverse, but generally taught Salvation was achieved through a special, secret knowledge (usually concerning the relationship between a believer and the divine being called God). The heresy sees matter as evil, so anything material is also seen as evil. Pure spirit is of the highest value, and the Gnostics believed they could be delivered from their evil material form through special knowledge revealed to them by Gnostic teachers. The person of Jesus became important to Gnostics because he was seen as the greatest of all teachers. Many Gnostics embraced Jesus, as the redeemer, sent with special knowledge for those who wanted to escape the material prison. Gnosticism denies Jesus is the incarnation of God, because nothing material could be holy or divine in this worldview.
Leader(s) in the Heresy: A variety of leaders in a variety of regions, including Valentinus, who founded his own school of Gnosticism in both Alexandria and Rome
Corrector(s) of the Heresy: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and Origen wrote against it. Many believe that John the Apostle also wrote about Gnosticism in 1 John.
Ebionism (1st Century)
This heresy involved a Jewish sect of believers called Ebionites. The word is apparently derived from an Aramean word meaning “the poor ones”. They taught that the Jewish Law must be followed in order to be saved, denied Jesus was born of a virgin or was God Himself, and taught Paul was an apostate. They used the Gospel of Matthew alone as their Gospel text.
Leader(s) in the Heresy: Of Unknown origin, their teaching was very similar to that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates
Corrector(s) of the Heresy: Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen and Eusebius all wrote and taught against the heresy
Albigenses (13th Century)
This heresy merged many non-Christian ideas and taught there were two gods; a good god of light (Jesus as He is referenced in the New Testament) and a god of evil and darkness (Satan as he is referenced in the Old Testament). The human spirit was created by the good god, but the body was created by the evil god, and was therefore considered bad. All spirits were required to be freed from their evil bodies. For this reason, having children was a great evil, because it would cause yet another soul to be imprisoned in a body. Marriage was forbidden, and all sorts of bodily denials (like fasts and poverty) were encouraged. Salvation was dependent on good works, those who were not good enough were to be reincarnated as lower animals.
Leader(s) in the Heresy: William IX, duke of Aquitaine protected believers who arose in the Albi region of Southern France
Corrector(s) of the Heresy: Pope Innocent III (had them to be completely destroyed by 1229AD)
There are typically many driving factors behind any distortion of Biblical teaching, and these heresies related to Salvation are clearly driven by ideas and theological concepts foreign to the Biblical text. We’ll talk more about the nature of orthodoxy and heresy in a future post, but in the end, it all comes down to authority. Every worldview is grounded in the authority of texts. As an atheist, I grounded my worldview in the ever changing texts of those scientists and researchers I trusted to tell me the true nature of the world around me (after all, I was able to perform the experiments or collect the data myself). As a Christian, I now ground my worldview in what I believe to be the reliable text of the Bible. When making a decision about the nature of God, the nature of Jesus or the nature of Salvation, the Biblical text is authoritative. Any description of God the Father, Jesus, or Salvation must be argued from the evidence of Scripture. Those concepts most consistent with the text will be embraced as orthodox; those proposals inconsistent with the text must be rejected. The Christian life is a life of study and inquiry. We must hesitate before accepting the claims of others until we measure them against the evidence of Scripture.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, Forensic Faith, and Forensic Faith for Kids.