Heretical Perversions of the Apostolic Teaching.
(Comp. my Hist. of the Ap. Ch., pp.649-674.)

The three types of doctrine which we have briefly unfolded, exhibit Christianity in the whole fulness of its life; and they form the theme for the variations of the succeeding ages of the church. Christ is the key-note, harmonizing all the discords and resolving all the mysteries of the history of his kingdom.

But this heavenly body of apostolic truth is confronted with the ghost of heresy; as were the divine miracles of Moses with the satanic juggleries of the Egyptians, and as Christ was with demoniacal possessions. The more mightily the spirit of truth rises, the more active becomes the spirit of falsehood. "Where God builds a church the devil builds, a chapel close by." But in the hands of Providence all errors must redound to the unfolding and the final victory of the truth. They stimulate inquiry and compel defence. Satan himself is that "power which constantly wills the bad, and works the good." Heresies in a disordered world are relatively necessary and negatively justifiable; though the teachers of them are, of course, not the less guilty. "It must needs be, that scandals come; but woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh." [863]

The heresies of the apostolic age are, respectively, the caricatures of the several types of the true doctrine. Accordingly we distinguish three fundamental forms of heresy, which reappear, with various modifications, in almost every subsequent period. In this respect, as in others, the apostolic period stands as the type of the whole future; and the exhortations and warnings of the New Testament against false doctrine have force for every age.

1. The Judaizing tendency is the heretical counterpart of Jewish Christianity. It so insists on the unity of Christianity with Judaism, as to sink the former to the level of the latter, and to make the gospel no more than an improvement or a perfected law. It regards Christ as a mere prophet, a second Moses; and denies, or at least wholly overlooks, his divine nature and his priestly and kingly offices. The Judaizers were Jews in fact, and Christians only in appearance and in name. They held circumcision and the whole moral and ceremonial law of Moses to be still binding, and the observance of them necessary to salvation. Of Christianity as a new, free, and universal religion, they had no conception. Hence they hated Paul, the liberal apostle of the Gentiles, as a dangerous apostate and revolutionist, impugned his motives, and everywhere, especially in Galatia and Corinth, labored to undermine his authority in the churches. The epistles of Paul, especially that to the Galatians, can never be properly understood, unless their opposition to this false Judaizing Christianity be continually kept in view.

The same heresy, more fully developed, appears in the second century under the name of Ebionism.

2. The opposite extreme is a false Gentile Christianity, which may be called the Paganizing or Gnostic heresy. It is as radical and revolutionary as the other is contracted and reactionary. It violently breaks away from the past, while the Judaizing heresies tenaciously and stubbornly cling to it as permanently binding. It exaggerates the Pauline view of the distinction of Christianity from Judaism, sunders Christianity from its historical basis, resolves the real humanity of the Saviour into a Doketistic illusion, and perverts the freedom of the gospel into antinomian licentiousness. The author, or first representative of this baptized heathenism, according to the uniform testimony of Christian antiquity, is Simon Magus, who unquestionably adulterated Christianity with pagan ideas and practices, and gave himself out, in pantheistic style, for an emanation of God. [864] Plain traces of this error appear in the later epistles of Paul (to the Colossians, to Timothy, and to Titus), the second epistle of Peter, the first two epistles of John, the epistle of Jude, and the messages of the Apocalypse to the seven churches.

This heresy, in the second century, spread over the whole church, east and west, in the various schools of Gnosticism.

3. As attempts had already been made, before Christ, by Philo, by the Therapeutae and the Essenes, etc., to blend the Jewish religion with heathen philosophy, especially that of Pythagoras and Plato, so now, under the Christian name, there appeared confused combinations of these opposite systems, forming either a Paganizing Judaism, i.e., Gnostic Ebionism, or a Judaizing Paganism i.e., Ebionistic Gnosticism, according as the Jewish or the heathen element prevailed. This Syncretistic heresy was the caricature of John's theology, which truly reconciled Jewish and Gentile Christianity in the highest conception of the person and work of Christ. The errors combated in the later books of the New Testament are almost all more or less of this mixed sort, and it is often doubtful whether they come from Judaism or from heathenism. They were usually shrouded in a shadowy mysticism and surrounded by the halo of a self-made ascetic holiness, but sometimes degenerated into the opposite extreme of antinomian licentiousness.

Whatever their differences, however, all these three fundamental heresies amount at last to a more or less distinct denial of the central truth of the gospel -- the incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. They make Christ either a mere man, or a mere superhuman phantom; they allow, at all events, no real and abiding union of the divine and human in the person of the Redeemer. This is just what John gives as the mark of antichrist, which existed even in his day in various forms. [865] It plainly undermines the foundation of the church. For if Christ be not God-man, neither is he mediator between God and men; Christianity sinks back into heathenism or Judaism. All turns at last on the answer to that fundamental question: "What think ye of Christ?" The true solution of this question is the radical refutation of every error.


"It has often been remarked that truths and error keep pace with each other. Error is the shadow cast by truth, truth the bright side brought out by error. Such is the relation between the heresies and the apostolical teaching of the first century. The Gospels indeed, as in other respects, so in this, rise almost entirely above the circumstances of the time, but the Epistles are, humanly speaking, the result of the very conflict between the good and the evil elements which existed together in the bosom of the early Christian society. As they exhibit the principles afterward to be unfolded into all truth and goodness, so the heresies which they attack exhibit the principles which were afterward to grow up into all the various forms of error, falsehood and wickedness. The energy, the freshness, nay, even the preternatural power which belonged to the one belonged also to the other. Neither the truths in the writings of the Apostles, nor the errors in the opinions of their opponents, can be said to exhibit the dogmatical form of any subsequent age. It is a higher and more universal good which is aimed at in the former; it is a deeper and more universal principle of evil which is attacked in the latter. Christ Himself, and no subordinate truths or speculations concerning Him, is reflected in the one; Antichrist, and not any of the particular outward manifestations of error which have since appeared, was justly regarded by the Apostles as foreshadowed in the other." -- Dean Stanley (Apostolic Age, p.182).

Literature. -- The heresies of the Apostolic Age have been thoroughly investigated by Neander and Baur in connection with the history of Ebionism and Gnosticism (see next vol.), and separately in the introductions to critical commentaries on the Colossians and Pastoral Epistles; also by Thiersch, Lipsius, Hilgenfeld. Among English writers we mention Burton: Inquiry into the Heresies of the Apostolic Age, in eight Sermons (Bampton Lectures). Oxford, 1829. Dean Stanley: Sermons and Essays on the Apostolic Age, pp.182-233, 3d ed. Oxford, 1874. Bishop Lightfoot: Com. on St. Paul's Ep. to the Colossians and to Philemon, pp.73-113 (on the Colossian heresy and its connection with Essenism). London, 1875. Comp. also Hilgenfeld: Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristenthums. Leipzig, 1884 (642 pages).


[863] Matt. 18:7; 1:Cor. 11:19: "There must be also heresies (factions) among you, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you." Comp. Acts 20:30; 1:Tim. 4:1; 2:Pet. 2:1-3.

[864] Acts 8:10: he Dunamis tou theou he kaloumene Megale.

[865] 1 John 2:23; 4:1-3.

section72 john and the gospel
Top of Page
Top of Page