Christianity at the Crossroads: Heresy

In his book “Christianity at the Crossroads” Michael Kruger discusses the development of the church in the second century. During this time there were many alternative Christianities, or heresies that arose. This really should not surprise us. In the New Testament there are a number of warnings about false doctrine and especially in some of the last written books in the New Testament, like first, second and third John.

One scholarly debate that has arisen at least since Walter Bauer’s influential Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Earliest Christianity, how do we know which teaching was original? It is a complex argument that may boil down the aphorism “history is written by the victors”. If the New Testament survived, how do we know it didn’t survive because of the sinister motives of those who wanted to eliminate other “forms of Christianity.” On a popular level, this type of argument was the basis for the plot of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Those interested in learning more about Bauer’s thesis and why it is wrong should read The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger.

Nevertheless, it is correct to speak of the divergent views that arose in the second century as “heresies.” Several of them, especially Gnosticism and Marcionism, have features that are clearly additions to Christianity and do not spring from the milieu of early Jewish Christianity where the Old Testament was cherished and understood to be fulfilled by Jesus. So what are some of these early heresies?

(1) The Ebionites. The Ebionites appear to be an early Jewish sect that arose. According to the accounts that we have, they seemed to deny salvation by faith alone and relied on Torah observance. Kruger points out that they may have been similar to the “circumcision party” that Paul encountered in Galatian (Crossroads, 113). One other grave error we find in them is a denial that Jesus is God. From what we can tell, they had an ‘adoptionist’ Christology. They believed Jesus was only human and then exalted to be God’s son but that he was not the eternal Son of God.

(2) The Marcionites. Marcionites are named for their founder Marcion. He is most noted for his rejection of the Old Testament. He believed that the Old Testament had a different God, who was essentially evil and bad but in the New Testament Jesus was loving and gracious. The God of the Old Testament did not send Jesus. Marcion may have been one of the first people to promote a canon list of acceptable books. He liked Paul and Luke (perhaps a truncated version) but did not like Matthew. He believed that anything that connecting the New Testament to the Old Testament was of no value. While true Marcionism is long gone, on a popular level you will sometimes hear someone say “That’s Marcionism” when they are rebuking someone who wants to throw out or minimize the importance of the Old Testament for Christians.

(3) The Gnostics. Scholars used to think Gnosticism was early and could be traced to the first century or perhaps even had pre-Christian forms. However, most scholarship now agrees it arose as a “branch” from Christianity in the second century. Gnosticism believes that matter and the created world is bad. It practices a radical dualism between the material and the spiritual. It also believes in various gods or demi-urges. So the ‘god’ who created, because he “worked” with matter, is inferior to higher spiritual beings up the chain or levels of ‘godness’. So since the true and highest God is pure spirit, only a lesser divine being could make the physical. For the Gnostic, salvation is found through higher levels of knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge) which could only obtained by seeking those who understood that knowledge.  This would lead the learner to a high spiritual experience/awareness. Thus, most Gnostics probably took a Docetic approach to Christology meaning the incarnation was not really God in the flesh, he only looked that way. Since matter (and flesh) was considered inherently bad, you do not want Jesus to be corrupted by actually taking on flesh and existing in it.

(4) The Montanists. The Montanists were essentially a prophecy movement. They believed that prophesy and charismatic gifts had returned to them and they had intense interest in practicing them. They even produced texts that they believed were oracles of revelation from the Holy Spirit (Crossroads, 131). Kruger points out that what was most problematic about their movement was the way they practiced ecstatic experiences in trance-like states (Crossroads, 131). One other element was an intense expectation of the Lord’s return.

Sometimes, when we look at ancient heresies it helps us see with clarity errors in our own day. As we said, these specific heresies have long since faded into the dust of history. However, sometimes in our modern age you can find similar points of overlap. So when a modern day preacher states we should unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament, he formally may not be a Marcionite, but there is something Marcion-like in his comment. The church rejected this kind of thinking in the second century and we should reject it today. Similarly, like the Gnostic error, we should be wary of dualism that radically separates the physical from the spiritual, after all our ultimate hope as Christians is the resurrection of the body.

The church will always encounter false teaching and heresy. Being aware of our history can help us combat the errors we see today. It can give us a sense of perspective as we pursue faithfulness to the Word of God.

Michael Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017).

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


Tim Bertolet