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Rise of Heresies

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.

Genesis 1:3-4

Watch Week Three, Day Two

responding to false teachings

Imagine someone comes into your community teaching and gaining a following. Their teaching seems to be good at points, consistent with the truths that have been handed down to you; but in other very real ways you recognize that this teaching violates truths of the gospel. How would you respond? In the early years of the church, the community of faith was faced with exactly this challenge as numerous heresies came to the forefront. A heresy is false teaching that denies a core truth of the Christian faith. How would the church, still so young, respond to these false teachers? With the rise of so many heretical teachings, how would the truth of the Christian faith prevail?

The early church had a number of heresies to contend with and address. One such heresy was Gnosticism.

what is gnosticism?

The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis. Gnosis means knowledge. It should be noted that there were many different streams of Gnosticism, but generally speaking, Gnostics believed they possessed a secret knowledge concerning salvation. According to Gnosticism, the material world was not something created to be “good” (Genesis 1), but, rather, something to be escaped. Our bodies were also seen as evil. In order to experience salvation, Gnostics believed a “spiritual messenger” must give us this secret knowledge. This knowledge would then free you from the bonds of this material world. Christian Gnostics said that Jesus was the One who had come to deliver this knowledge. Seeing the physical body as evil, Christian Gnostics believed that Christ only appeared to have a human body. They also believed that Christ did not actually die.

Early church leaders vehemently opposed the Gnostic heresy. Why? Church leaders recognized that with Gnosticism, core beliefs of the Christian faith were at stake. These beliefs include the incarnation and humanity of Christ, His atoning death, and the hope of the risen Christ. In denying the goodness of the body and material creation, Gnostics also denied beliefs concerning the resurrection of the body for all in Christ, understanding God as Creator and sustainer of the world, and recognizing God’s commitment to renew all of creation. This was no small error, but one that was seen as a severe attack on the core of the Christian faith. The leaders of the church had to respond.

how did the church respond to heresies?

In combating heresies, the early church had to thoughtfully articulate the core, central beliefs of Christianity. They looked to what is called the “rule of faith” or “measuring stick” for right, true beliefs. The rule of faith is the core beliefs given from the apostles concerning the basics of the Christian faith. This consisted of the shared teachings of Jesus and about Jesus, passed on from the earliest followers of Jesus. In other words, before there was even an agreed-upon canon of Scripture, there was a core teaching passed on from the apostles articulating the faith. The church, looking to this rule of faith, was able to identify what was heretical and outside the bounds of orthodox beliefs. The word orthodox refers to the right teachings or right beliefs of the faith.

As we shall see, as challenges to the faith passed on from the apostles arose, it became necessary for the church to gather at church-wide (ecumenical) councils for the purpose of articulating the orthodox beliefs of the church. At these councils, listening to the leading of the Spirit in community, the church articulated what was right belief and what was deemed to be heretical.
At the same time, the writings of the apostles and their followers were being circulated among the churches. There is very early testimony that these gospels and epistles were being read in worship right alongside the books of the Old Testament. This was the emergence of a canon of Scripture—including the New Testament with the Old Testament. These writings articulated the rule of faith and pointed believers to the orthodox beliefs of the Christian faith.

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What would you name as the core, basic beliefs of the Christian Faith? How have these beliefs influenced your life?

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