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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Christopher Bellitto

Heretics did not always know they were heretics until Christian authorities defined doctrine in the 4th - 5th centuries C.E.In the interim, core heretical ideas arose that reappeared occasionally until the Middle Ages, beginning with the notion that only a chosen few had the special and full knowledge necessary for salvation (gnosis). Gnostics believed they were purer than others.Some held that the material world needed to be rejected, leading to the heresy of docetism, which claimed that Jesus, being pure divinity, only appeared to be human (docere, "to seem") since matter would have tainted him. This idea is closely related to dualism, held by Manichees who contended there was a good God who created spirit and a bad God who created matter, which had to be rejected for salvation. Dualism reappeared in the 12th century at the heart of the Albigensian or Cathari heretical movement, a fairly widespread medieval group and essentially a parallel church in France that was subject to official church investigation and even armed resistance.

A major theological heresy called Arianism emerged in the early 4th-century thought of Arius, a priest of Alexandria, who taught that Jesus was fully human but not fully divine. From this root, other related heresies emerged.Adoptionism held that the Father adopted the human Jesus as God's Son and raised him nearly to divinity.Modal monarchianism contended that God was always one, but never three--in turn, Father and then Son and then Holy Spirit. Others held that Jesus was created by the Father and therefore not co-eternal and co-equal to the Father, which Arius captured in his statement about Jesus, "There was a time when he was not."

These debates were settled by the first general council, convened by Constantine at Nicaea in 325, where Athanasius refuted the Arian question as to how the Father and Son are equal by replying, "Like the sight of two eyes." Nicaea's creed stated that Jesus is "begotten, not made" and "one in being (homoousios) with the Father." Despite condemnation, Arianism persisted in dwindling strength for centuries, especially in northern Europe, spawning other heresies such as monothelitism, which taught that Jesus had only one will, fusing humanity and divinity; Nestorianism, which contended that Mary was the mother of the human Jesus but not the mother of God (Theotokos); and monophysitism, which held that Jesus' divine nature overcame his human nature. The Church's first four general councils (Nicaea I in 325, Constantinople I in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451) set the creed and declared all other statements heretical.

The first major schism split the Greek east and the Latin west, largely over matters of papal authority and liturgical differences. The Latin west held that the primacy of the bishop, stemming from apostolic succession back to Peter, also meant supremacy over all other bishops, including the four other major patriarchates (Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople). The other patriarchs rejected this statement of supremacy, contending that the five held the Church's executive authority together and carried out decisions made in a collegial general council.


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