Modern Heresies: 

There's Nothing New Under the Sin


Dr. Wayne Dyer and the school of self-help

The PBS fundraising drive this year featured a four-hour teach-in by Dr. Wayne Dyer.  He titled his lecture “Be Intentional.”  How many of you watched it?  Or have bought his books?  Dr. Dyer delivers captivating, mesmerizing, learned self-help; a cookbook of confidence and optimism  His message:  you can achieve greatness if you set your mind to it.  It’s all a matter of Intention.  No suffering, no compassion required.  No broken-ness.  No failure.  Just setting your course with Intention.

Now Dr. Dyer’s not talking about religion.  Is he?  His advertising describes his message.  “Dr. Wayne W. Dyer explores intention as an all-pervading force in the universe that allows the act of creation to take place.  Intention, he explains, is not something you do, but an energy you’re part of.  Not only do you originate from the field of intention, but if you align yourself to it, your desires become fulfilled and you find yourself at peace.” Hmmm.  Sure sounds like aligning yourself with some Universal Creating Spirit.  You become part of this All-pervading force.  You find peace within it.  All by self-help.  All by setting your mind to your course with intention. God is within us.  Let him loose.   

Now, where have we heard this before?  Pelagius, a British monk of the 400s rejected the idea of Original Sin.  He thought it was too pessimistic.  Why would humans need to be saved by God?  Man on his own, through good teaching and meritorious effort can achieve salvation.  The Council of Ephesus in 431 rejected Pelagius’ view as heresy.  But as we can see from Dr. Dyer, it’s still around.  Maybe even more so.

Land of the Free … Thinkers

America is historically the most free and open society on Earth. America offers mobility of economic level, social status and, above all, freedom of thought.  The freedom of thought has attracted bright, experimental people from all over the world.  And in the past century or two we have had an explosion of spiritual thinking seldom seen on the planet. But our freethinking sometimes takes some funny twists along the path.

And, we aren’t always that original.  The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  Let’s take a look at some American Originals and see where these originals originated.  We’ve had an explosion of strange ideas about God, about Jesus, a ferment of thought unrivalled since the second and third centuries A.D.  But you know, in many ways these new ideas about God are not really new.  The early Christians condemned these ideas.  They called them Heresy – and I’ll talk about the definition shortly.  Today these ideas are celebrated in alternate, but established churches, in New Age conferences, at Corporate Executive retreats, in infomercials – even on PBS.

Here’s a brief and provocative list:  Jehovah’s Winesses, Christian Science, Mormonism, The Unification Church, The Unitarian Church, The Worldwide Church of God, the Sophia Movement, Jesus-only Pentecostalism, rediscovered Gnostic Gospels, self-help to Salvation movements, Seventh Day Adventists.  There’s a few snake-oil hucksters out there, but many are God-fearing people trying to find their way. 

Let’s look at one before we discuss the definition of Heresy.  In fact, let’s look at one of the many that originated right here in Central New York.  You all know that this area has been the center of energy for many new religions.  The 1800s were a period of great religious ferment, especially around here.  I think it no coincidence that Mary  Baker Eddy slipped on her ice patch around the same time Joseph Smith had his vision and Mr. Miller had the revelation that would spawn the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Great American Awakening was a spirit-filled time.  The question is, which Spirit?

In the mid-1800s, former Baptists and Presbyterians founded the Seventh Day Adventists based on Mr. Miller’s revelations just down the Thruway.  While good, God-fearing people with strong morality, Seventh Day Adventists insist the Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday.  If it was good enough for the Old Testament, it’s good enough for today.  From the time the Apostles were alive, “Judaizer” has been the label for those who attempt to make observing the Old Testament Law of Moses a requirement for Chistianity and salvation.  A group of these heretical early Christians were called Ebionites, the “poor ones”, taken from the Beatitudes. They carried on a Judaized Christianity for several centuries, and showed up in Scriptures when Paul took off after them saying, “You stupid Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?”  These good members of the Galatian Church were focusing their attention on the Old Law rather than the new freedom in Jesus.  Luke calls them, “they of the circumcision” since they wanted to make adult circumcision required for new Christians, as it was for Jews.  Among other faults, this probably would have “cut short” the growth of Christianity!  The first Council at Jerusalem ruled against these Judaizers.  This was an early example, maybe the first, of Christian heresy being evaluated and condemned.  You can read about it in Acts 15:23-29.

Judaizing is still around.  Today’s Judaizing movements require strict observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, mandatory tithing, observance of the Jewish feasts and other regulations, all required for a Christian to earn salvation.  Nothing particularly terrible about these choices, right?  But it slides toward heresy when it’s an obsessive love for the good old ways  Tradition is important, but excessive concerns for rules, rituals for their own sake, things like scorning others for certain behaviors, requiring long-winded prayers, “magical words,” craving Latin, avoiding Latin, insisting on the King James translation only, these all suggest heresy.  (And maybe pure superstition.)  Another word for this heresy might be “over-scrupulosity.”  The error is of observing the letter or literality of Scripture while disregarding the Spirit of Jesus’ teaching:  the Spirit which brings Life and healing and freedom from the Law through Repentance and Forgiveness and Love.  Jesus himself had an opinion about this heresy when he declared, “The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath.”  Jesus also tells us, “the letter kills – the spirit brings Life.”  As they say, “Choose life.”

What is Heresy?

This is a probably good time to talk about what Heresy actually is.  How is heresy different from Sin?  Is it different from Blasphemy?  Let’s talk a quick run through the definitions.

First Blasphemy.  In brief, blasphemy is when you know, or should know, religious truth and you either lie about it or defame it.  If you truly don’t know better, it’s hard to describe it as blasphemous; ignorance is closer to the mark.  Jesus was accused of Blasphemy by the Chief Priest because Jesus was a Jew well schooled in the Law.  He knew better.  If a lunatic or a pagan made Jesus’ claims, he would have been described as crazy or stupid, but not a blasphemer.

Now Sin.  Well, the familiar seven deadly sins are sins of the Flesh.  They stem from our animal nature.  Sins of the Flesh generally have to do with survival, affection, security, peer ranking, protection, and, oh yes, plain old excess carnality.  The seven deadly sins are basically, as the song says, “doin’ what comes naturally.”  We Christians are counseled to avoid this trap.  We are supposed to acknowledge our animal nature, but overcome it.  That is one of the reasons the Christian path is difficult.  But that’s a subject for a sermon, not this talk. 

Heresy, though, has very little to do with our animal nature.  Heresy requires thought.  You can think of Heresy as a Sin of the Mind.  Oddly, Heresy generally stems from a thoughtful desire to do the right thing.  To improve the teaching to get closer to God’s truth.  No doubt there are some evildoers who do and say sacrilegious things, but that’s our friend blasphemy.  Heresy is a misguided attempt to improve on God for His own good. 

By the way, “orthodoxy” means “straight teaching.”  Literally, an un-orthodox belief, a “not-straight teaching” is “heterodox.”  Not straight.  This is the root of our English term Heresy.  So overall, Blasphemy is slandering or smearing God or the Holy Spirit when you should know better.  Sins of the Flesh are personal failures to override our animal nature.  Sins of the Mind, heresies, are off the mark attempts to understand and teach the nature of God.  In a way I feel somewhat kindly towards heresy.  It’s better than blasphemy and at least it shows you’re thinking!

Who Defines Heresy?

Ok.  If Heresy is not-straight teaching, who gets to say what’s straight and what’s not?  Who gets to say what’s heresy?  The c   atholic Church was in the business of defining and describing Heresy from the first century on.  Of course that was the only Christian church then.  The big Heresies were launched, defined, and condemned pretty early on – in the first three or four hundred years of Christianity.  Since then the pace of defining fresh Heresies diminished.  But instead of NEW heresies, there was and still is a re-circulating and re-naming of the old ones. 

A quick aside here.  To the Catholic Church, Protestantism was a Heresy; a well-intentioned, but misguided attempt to restructure how we worship God.  Clearly Martin Luther, the Jansenists, the Calvinists were well-intentioned.  The excesses and corruption they targeted were real.  This is a discussion I’m not going to tackle today.  Or maybe ever …

Gnostic Heresies

Since the beginning of Religion, there’s been a pattern of groups splintering out from the mainstream, claiming that they have found deeper Wisdom and Knowledge; they have viewed themselves as the “Initiated” or the “Intellectual Elite.”  Christianity is no exception to this pattern.  These teachings in their earlier versions were generally referred to as Gnosticism or Wisdom Teaching.

Let’s look at the Wisdom teachers of today.  L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics/Scientology, Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophy, Elaine Pagels and her readings of the Gospel of Thomas.  Not to mention the Rosicrucian Fellowship – An International Association of Christian Mystics for the Aquarian Age.  Maybe you’ve seen their ads.  Rosicrucianism, or the Order of the Rose Cross, holds that the “inner hidden meaning and wisdom of Christianity is differentiated from the outermost public interpretation.”  Only the initiated can be given the keys to understand the deep meanings.  And, yes, they would still like you to join their Order. 

Actually Madame Blavatsky launched our modern wave of Gnosticism at the end of the eighteen hundreds with Theosophy.  Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, the Society for Psychical Research, and the small occult Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were three rapid follow-ons.  Then there was a somewhat similar wave with the counter culture movement of the mid-sixties “revolution of consciousness,” not to mention our current crop of New Age Wisdom Teachers.

Well, original Gnosticism began in the first and second centuries and continues today.  The original Gnostics held three basic teachings:  (1) matter is evil, so Jesus – who cannot be evil – only appeared to be a man; (2) since the Old Testament teaches that God created matter, that God of the Old Testament Jews must be an evil deity who is distinct from the New Testament God, Jesus Christ; and (3) most important, Ultimate Truth is a mystery that is available only to those who are initiated into the secret teachings and practices of the Gnostic groups. 

Classic Gnosticism had a popular resurgence in the latter half of the 20th century spurred by the 1945 Egyptian discovery of the Nag Hammadi library with its collection of Gnostic writings.  It hit the best seller lists with Elaine Pagels'“The Gnostic Gospels," which was an analysis of the Nag Hammadi documents, and her more recent “Gospel of Thomas.” 

Mind Sciences and The New Age

In a modern manifestation of some classic Gnostic thought, there are groups today that deny that Jesus was fully human.  “It's all in your mind.”  Christian Science in particular rejects the elementary Christian notion of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus.  In “Science and Health,” Mary Baker Eddy states that Jesus’ sacrifice had no efficacious value.  God, All-in-All is known as Divine Mind, devoid of personality, pure Love.  Since God is Love, this means that sin and sickness are OUR errors in interpreting the Divine Mind.  They have no true reality.  Hmm.

But before we reread“Science and Health,” let's look back to where we've heard this before.  This heresy is called Docetism and started early in the first century running on until the 300's.   The term comes from the Greek word Dokeo which means “to seem.”  The docetics believed that the seeming humanity of Christ, particularly his suffering, were imaginary.  They taught that the divine God cannot suffer and thus, since Christ is divine, his suffering was only an apparition – he seemed to suffer – to teach humans a valuable lesson about the illusion of matter. Docetism was an important strain within Gnosticism.  This particular heresy was rejected in 451 by the Chalcedonian Definition which described that Christ is one person with two natures: human and divine.  Both. 

Many teachers of the 1960s as well as some New Agers would also have us believe that there are better alternatives to experiencing suffering.  Some of their remedies to cure the illusion of suffering are illegal and addictive.  Tune in – to the Guru, turn on and drop out of ordinary unaware, unconscious society.  Classic Gnosticism with a chemical twist.

Nazis and Communists

Now let’s look at some non-religious contemporary expressions of old heresies.  Maybe I’ll surprise you when I bring up Marxism and National Socialism.  The two seemingly opposed ideologies of Communism and Fascism have one thing very much in common.  Both believe the evils of our time are caused by deterministic historical, material, economic, or scientific causes, not by the free choice of individuals choosing well or poorly.  The writings of both Marx and Hitler have this quasi-scientific cant.  Imposition of their new system will overcome the evils of our time and bring about the greatest good for Mankind. 

This sounds a lot like a heresy described in the late 200s as Manichaeism:  a mix of Christianity and Mithraism, a Persian mystical religion.

Mani, who founded this school, taught in Persia, now Iran, in the late 200s.  The fundamental belief of the religion was that the universe is the scene of an eternal conflict of two powers, one good, the other, evil.  Man himself is a mix of good and evil.  The spiritual part of his nature consists of the good element; the physical part of the evil element.  The task, so the ancient Manicheans believed, is to free the good in the human from the evil.  This can be accomplished by prayer, but especially by abstinence from all the enjoyments of evil:  riches, lust, wine, meats, luxurious houses and the like.  We’re not talking here about abstaining in order to do some human soul-work on greed or selfishness.  This is rejecting all material things as evil.  Indeed, like some Gnostics, Manichaeism taught that the true spiritual Jesus had no material body and so did not actually die.  You can see how the Manicheans came up with an explanation that was easier to digest than the mystery of Christ as fully divine AND fully human.  The Manichean teaching was pretty persuasive.  St. Augustine was a Manichean for nine years before, as he describes it, coming to his senses. 

Where in our time does this seductive Manichean Heresy, this flavor of Gnosticism turn up?  Look at some of the recent “systems” which explain the evils of our time not primarily rising from the free choice of human beings, but in necessary or deterministic historical or scientific causes.  The writings of Hitler, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot and other reformers of Mankind continue to inflict this heresy on us. 

Pre-existence of souls, reincarnation, and Universalism

Back to some contemporary religious heresies.  The Mormon religion, or certainly its founder Joseph Smith appears to believe in the pre-existence of souls as well as the subordination of the Son to the Father. Others believe in reincarnation which is a form of the pre-existence of souls. 

Much of liberal contemporary Christianity appears to believe in Universalism, the belief that Jesus died for everyone and ultimately everyone will be saved, whether they want to be or not.  This comforting and gentle belief is, of course, somewhat at odds with scripture, since Jesus uses the words “forever” and “eternal” to describe the reward or punishment waiting for us at the end.  A form of this Universalism is also present in Mormonism which believes that baptism of the deceased will have a salutary effect.

Now why do these three ideas – pre-existent souls, subordination of Jesus to the Father, and Universalism – get lumped together?  Well, back in the 200s a very learned and beloved priest named Origen dedicated himself to defending Christianity from attack by pagan, Judaizing, and Christian heresies.  But even while Origen was defending orthodoxy, he developed several heretical doctrines of his own that were eventually condemned three hundred years later.  The most notable deviant teachings of Origenism involve the pre-existence of human souls, the subordination of the Son to the Father, and Universalism.  So even today, among scholars, these three heretical lines of thought tend to be lumped together. 

Jesus Only Pentecostals

Another one.  Some Pentecostals, spirit-filled, go over the edge in their belief that there is but one God and He is Jesus.  This heresy is the modern version of teachings that go back to the year 190 called Dynamic Monarchianism or Sabellianism.  Monarchianism denies the Trinity by teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not separate persons.  Instead, the monotheistic God progressively revealed Himself first as the creator and lawgiver through the “office” of Father, second as redeemer through the office of Son, and finally as the source of grace through the office of the Spirit.  One God, one Person, three acting roles.  The “Jesus Only” folks name him Jesus. 

Arianism – The Biggie

Leaving the Gnostics, struggles to understand the role of Jesus have given rise to many heresies.  There’s a surprising chunk of common belief among some very ­uncommon pew-fellows:  Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, and Christian Scientists to name a few.  This common belief has to do with who Jesus really was.  None of these religions deny the goodness of Jesus.  That he was a very special person, perhaps even a prophet.  Certainly a good man and a wise teacher, a wisdom teacher.  Someone whose words we should follow, who points out the path to the true God, God the Father.  I don’t doubt that many of us in this room have at one point or another thought along these line.  Yes, Jesus’ message was divine, but as to Jesus himself being divine?  God Himself?  Isn’t that a bit too much?

Well, you were in good, if not recent company.  A priest named Arius in the early 300s taught exactly that.  It’s been called The Arian Heresy ever since.  It’s been perhaps the most significant heresy faced by the Christian Church.  Arius taught that, as the Son of God, Christ was created by God the Father.  Arius thus denied the Trinity by teaching the Jesus is somehow less than fully divine.  This heresy became extremely widespread, even being promoted by many bishops.  Come the year 325, Arianism was condemned at the First Council of Nicaea which proclaimed that Christ is fully divine.  Sixty years later the First Council of Constantinople proclaimed that the Holy Spirit is divine.  Think about the formulation of the Creed that you recited this morning.  “I believe in God the Father Almighty … and in Jesus Christ his only Son, begotten NOT made, one in being with the Father …”  The creeds, the universal statement of the Church’s beliefs, were specifically rejecting the Arian heresy.  Despite this, Arianism remains one of the most common heresies to afflict the Church.  Almost all pseudo-Christian groups today still deny the full deity of Christ. 

You may ask, “What’s the harm in this heresy?  Isn’t it just squabbling over words?”  Well no.  Here is the damage.  It robs us of Jesus’ central message:  we are to be transformed into his likeness.  We are to become something new, divine, adopted sons and daughters of God himself.  Something a lot more than good, well behaved, morally correct human beings. 

Arianism’s brother Pelagianism

There’s another heresy, closely related to Arianism that you may also recognize.  Here’s how it goes:  Humanity does not inherit original sin.  Just look at the purity and innocence of a newborn baby.  How can she be sinful?  If we just bring up that child in the knowledge of the teachings of Jesus, and encourage her to ask for God’s grace, this human child will learn to overcome the temptations she meets in the course of living.  By perfecting her life, assisted by God’s grace, she will earn salvation.  Following the example of the life Jesus led and taught, well that’s sufficient for salvation. 

This heresy is called Pelagianism after a Welsh monk who lived in the 400s.  Pelagius taught that humanity does not inherit original sin, but that salvation is earned simply by following the example of Christ.  Grace isn’t necessary; instead humans overcome the sin they gradually develop by using Christ’s teaching to help them in perfecting themselves thus earning salvation on their own. 

This heresy, along with Arianism, is endemic to almost all modern pseudo-Christian groups.  And it is the underpinning of the modern “pseudo-religions” brought to us by infomercials and Self-help gurus.  Even my handy example, Dr. Dyer. 

New Age

As we wrap up, a last look at the New Age.  Many in the New Age movement believe that Jesus was a man who developed his “Christ consciousness” and thus achieved his divinity.  This solves that messy “divinity” problem of Jesus.  Is this a modern (heretical) explanation.   Heck no.  In the early centuries of the Church, everyone seemed to be working on a better way of teaching or understanding Jesus’ humanness and divinity.  Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople in the 400s, taught that Mary bore only Jesus’ human nature in her womb, thus implying that Christ was not divine while on earth.  In overreaction to Nestorius, the Monophysites taught that Christ was one person with his humanity and divinity fused into a single nature, implying that Christ was neither fully human nor fully divine.  Rounding out the heretical possibilities, the Appolonarians taught that Jesus was all divine.  Instead of a human mind, he had LOGOS, the pre-existent divine knowledge, the Word only. 


In these examples I’ve tried to show that much of our contemporary New Breakthrough Thinking is really old think dressed up in new wrappings.  But I also hope I’ve at least implied that most of these heresies are the result of soul-searching and seeking on the part of well-intentioned, God-fearing folks.  These heresies, in general, didn’t arise from anyone trying to attack God or religion.  Rather they arose when people were struggling with the mysteries of Christianity, looking for a logical explanation of the nature of Jesus easier to digest than the mystery of Christ as fully divine AND fully human. They struggled with the mysteries of good and evil, of human nature, of the path to salvation. They created, they believed, better teaching and understanding designed to bring humans to God.  These revised teachings were rejected by the Church, not just a particular council, but by the universal Christian community of believers.  The broad community of believers, on reflection, concluded that these heresies were inconsistent with the overall body of Scripture and teaching.  Or that they reduced the mysterious vastness of God to something small that better fit inside the human mind.  Often it has turned out that humans do not want to be remade in the image of God.  We prefer to use our own rational minds to remake God in the image we think best for him. 

And, as scripture says, this mystery is revealed to the simple-hearted and hidden from the wise, to make the wisdom of the wise foolishness.  And heresy, no matter how well intentioned, is the wisdom of the wise, which is foolishness.