We have already seen, in our tour of the early Church, how Greek philosophical ideas wormed their way into Christian doctrine and Bible interpretation. But what we need to see now is less dry theory and dreary theology and more practical application. In other words, what was the outcome of these Greek influences? How does it affect us? Was it really that bad?
Our starting point is to return to the consequence of Plato’s “Big Idea”, probably the most influential pagan idea to infiltrate the Church.
Plato’s Big Consequence: Soul = Good, Body = Bad
It may have been just one tiny idea, but it produced some major effects. Let’s just think for a moment. The idea that spiritual things are good and physical things are bad first came to our attention when early Christian Bible teachers, like Origen and Augustine, started to look mainly for spiritual meanings all over the Bible, even when there weren’t any. Any time they saw a passage and couldn’t deal with the plain truth of the words, they would discard the literal meaning and seek for deeper meanings, through allegory.
For some, the Old Testament was just too down and dirty for their sensibilities. They reasoned that the God of the Old Testament, who created the evil physical world, was Plato’s Demiurge and the nice spiritual God of the Christians was just the God of the New Testament. This was the view of an early heresy called Marcionism.
Then there was Jesus himself. Another heresy called Docetism declared that God was a spiritual being and couldn’t take a physical form. So Jesus couldn’t possibly have had a real body, he just seemed to have one. He was therefore an illusion, as was the crucifixion! You can see how this dualist approach would have confused them. We know Jesus as fully God and fully man, but to these people, educated to believe that only “spiritual” is good, how can Jesus be expressed also in the “physical”? They just couldn’t get their heads around it!
In fact heresies abounded in the first few centuries of the Christian era. Here are a few more. Apollinarianism stated that Jesus had a human body, a lower soul and a divine mind. Eutychianism suggested that Jesus’ human nature was overcome by the divine nature. Montanism exercised a sort of extreme Pentecostalism. Monarchianism insisted that God was a single person. Nestorianism argued that Christ existed as two persons. Sabellianism declared that everything was how the believer perceived it to be, whatever that was meant to mean! They were either named after the person who thought them up or after the Greek word for the principal idea.
It is surely plain to see that this was the natural outcome of viewing Christianity as a philosophy rather than a pure faith. While Christian philosophers were debating Platonic principles applied to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, their followers were killing each other in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (and Plato).
Next week we are going to move away from such fringe interpretations and look to see how the mainstream Church took on these ideas from Greek philosophy and what the outcome was for Christians from those days to our days.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again )
Where do heresies come from?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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