Docetism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Donatism, Manichaeanism, Gnostism.
These are a lot of “isms” that the average Catholic knows nothing about, at least not directly. They are a few of the many heresies named by the Catholic Church. Most of these heresies sprang up, and were squelched, in modern day Turkey.
I am reflecting on these heresies today as I fly back to Istanbul, former Constantinople. I have to be honest with you. Even with a master’s degree in a religious field, if I didn’t have notes in front of me, I would get all of these heresies confused. I’m looking for an easier way to understand them, and I think I’m nearing an answer.
I am thinking about the heresies because I’m on my way back to Turkey. The councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, and Ephesus were all in Turkey. The councils in these cities were basically assembled to correct the theologies of these heresies, and clarify Church doctrine. The results were the creeds and beliefs that many Catholics have been forced to memorize, even though they have very little knowledge of where the beliefs came from, or why they were formed. Please note, most of these beliefs do not come from the Bible, they come from the questions raised by these heresies, and the eventual conclusions that the Church Fathers discovered through prayer, discernment, and a lot of argument.
For a brief taste of what they stand for, let me give you some details of two of the major heresies. Docetism believed that Jesus was not really a human being. When you play out the implications of this belief, it is really stating that everything physical is worthless, so God, the divine, could not have become a physical being. God, in the avatar of Jesus, had to be a spiritual being. Jesus’ human form was an illusion. The Church Fathers rejected this idea.
Arianism on the other hand, held that Jesus was not divine. He was just a man, a great teacher perhaps, but nothing more. When you play out the implications of this belief, it means that humanity, of which Jesus was a part, has the innate capacity to bring about its own salvation. All you need to do is have the discipline to achieve what Jesus achieved. The Church Fathers rejected this idea.
Now, a scholar of early Church history may scream at what I am about to write, but I’ll be glad to suffer their brilliance should they choose to enlighten me. I think every heresy is a footnote of Docetism or Arianism. Sure! There are different aspects and details that a scholar could articulate better than I could, but within the resolution of these two heresies, lays the beliefs that necessitate Christ’s coming for the salvation of humanity.
The early Church Fathers were not satisfied with the conclusions of either Docetists or Arianists. The experience of the Church Fathers was somehow different than the heresies could describe, even though the Church Fathers themselves could not fully explain their own experience. The only way to describe their experience was that Jesus was both human and divine. Even if it could only be described as a “mystery,” the mystery was the only thing that made sense.
But why? Well, if Jesus were only divine, it would imply that somehow our earthly existence was worthless, unsalvageable. In a way, such a belief would imply, “I’m not that good. Humanity isn’t good.” This is a complete denial of one of the first beliefs held by Judeo-Christian people. You can find it in the book of Genesis. “God created the world GOOD.” If we don’t believe this, then everything else must be thrown away.
On the other hand, if Jesus were only human, it would imply that somehow our earthly existence is all it takes. Jesus attained his own salvation, and so can we. We have the capacity to become God, on our own. In a sense it says, “I’m not that bad. Humanity is not marked by sin, or limited in any way.” This would be a complete denial of the second belief held by Judeo-Christian people. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Because of this, humanity is forever marked by sin and is forever distanced from God. If we don’t believe this, well… then everything else must be thrown away.
So there is an essential mystery. Humanity is created good, but marked by sin. We are both good… and not so good, both at the same time. We can’t explain how, but we have stories which tell us why. So too, the resolution of the mystery is itself a mystery. Jesus was both human and divine. He had to be to resolve the anthropological problem of creation and sin. We can’t explain how Jesus is both, but we have the experience of his presence, in the Bible, which illustrate for us that he was both. (For fun compare and contrast the Gospel of John and Matthew to see what I mean.)
If either truth is compromised, the explanation does not do justice to what we have experienced. That is why the early Church Fathers condemned the teaching of the Docetists and the Arianists. It is also why countless church heresies have been named and reprimanded throughout the centuries, especially through the Church councils.
The heretic teachings rest too heavily on one or the other of the following.
One: “I’m not that bad. The work that I do, independent of God, can achieve my own salvation. If I study, if I work, I can become divine.” This, essentially, is the underlying problem of Palegianism, Donatism, Manichaeanism. It also is the basis for the disagreement between Catholics and Buddhist. The Buddhist believes that proper meditation on the teachings of Buddha can lead to enlightenment, but this enlightenment is entirely human based, it does not account for humanity’s propensity for error.
Or two, on the other side of the spectrum: “I’m not that good. Nothing I do is worthwhile or has an effect on God’s will. Salvation is a secretive mystery held by a compassionless god.” This, essentially, is the underlying problem with Docetism and Gnosticism. But it is also the basic disagreement between Catholics and Protestants today. Luther taught that it was “Faith alone” that saved people, and faith was a gift from God. Therefore, no human action could have an effect on the will of God. Humanity was irreversibly corrupt.
Luther had it partially right. Buddhism has it partially right. There are lots of philosophies and religions who get it partially right. The Catholic Church maintains that it is the vehicle for salvation, and sole administer of grace, and I believe that it is, but if you listen close enough, sometimes, even the Church will admit that it is a human institution, which only gets it partially right.
The reason that the Church maintains that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, and therefore bears the fullness of Christ’s teaching, is not so much that the Church always gives the right answer, but because the Church refuses to settle for the wrong ones. That trend started here in Turkey, at the Church councils. In the midst of philosophical and theological crisis, the Church Fathers refused to deny their experience, even though their explanation seemed contradictory. Christ was human AND divine. Nothing else really made sense. Humanity is BOTH good and… not so good. Nothing else really makes sense.
A bit of wisdom that I learned these last few days while in Rome puts a healthy perspective on all of this theological flibbity floo. At the conference meeting for the World Congress on the Divine Mercy, we watched a Russian movie in our free time in which a saintly man, who was on his death bed, gave advice to a friend. He said, “My son, we are all sinners. Just try not to sin too much.” I like it. It fits the experience of the Church very well.
Oops! The plane is landing. Time for theological inquiry is over. The flight is having quite a bit of turbulence, proof, once again, that humanity isn’t always so good. But if you receive this blog, it is probably a sign that the plane landed safely. Proof, once again, that humanity isn’t always so bad.