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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
haeresis, αιρεσις , from αιρεω , I choose, signifies an error in some essential point of Christian faith, publicly avowed, and obstinately maintained; or, according to the legal definition, "Sententia rerum divinarum humano sensu excogitata, palam docta, et pertinaciter defensa." [An opinion of divine things invented by human reason, openly taught, and obstinately defended.] Among the ancients, the word heresy appears to have had nothing of that odious signification which has been attached to it by ecclesiastical writers in later times. It only signified a peculiar opinion, dogma, or sect, without conveying any reproach; being indifferently used, either of a party approved, or of one disapproved, by the writer. In this. sense they spoke of the heresy of the Stoics, of the Peripatetics, Epicureans, &c, meaning the sect or peculiar system of these philosophers. In the historical part of the New Testament, the word seems to bear very nearly the same signification, being employed indiscriminately to denote a sect or party, whether good or bad. Thus we read of the sect or heresy of the Sadducees, of the Pharisees, of the Nazarenes, &c. See Acts 5:17; Acts 15:5; Acts 24:5; Acts 26:5; Acts 28:22 . In the two former of these passages, the term heresy seems to be adopted by the sacred historian merely for the sake of distinction, without the least appearance, of any intention to convey either praise or blame. In Acts 26:4-5 , St. Paul, in defending himself before King Agrippa, uses the same term, when it was manifestly his design to exalt the party to which he had belonged, and to give their system the preference over every other system of Judaism, both with regard to soundness of doctrine and purity of morals.
2. It has been suggested that the acceptation of the word αιρεσις in the epistles is different from what it has been observed to be in the historical books of the New Testament. In order to account for this difference, it may be observed that the word sect has always something relative in it; and therefore, although the general import of the term be the same, it will convey a favourable or an unfavourable idea, according to the particular relation which it bears in the application. When it is used along with the proper name, by way of distinguishing one party from another, it conveys neither praise nor reproach. If any thing reprehensible or commendable be meant, it is suggested, not by the word αιρεσις itself, but by the words with which it stands connected in construction. Thus we may speak of a strict sect, or a lax sect; or of a good sect, or a bad sect. Again: the term may be applied to a party formed in a community, when considered in reference to the whole. If the community be of such a nature as not to admit of such a subdivision, without impairing or corrupting its constitution, a charge of splitting into sects, or forming parties, is equivalent to a charge of corruption in that which is most essential to the existence and welfare of the society. Hence arises the whole difference in the word, as it is used in the historical part of the New Testament, and in the epistles of St. Peter and St. Paul; for these are the only Apostles who employ it. In the history, the reference is always of the first kind; in the epistles, it is always of the second. In these last, the Apostles address themselves only to Christians, and either reprehend them for, or warn them against, forming sects among themselves, to the prejudice of charity, to the production of much mischief within their community, and of great scandal to the unconverted world without. In both applications, however, the radical import of the word is the same; and even in the latter it has no necessary reference to doctrine, true or false. During the early ages of Christianity, the term heresy gradually lost the innocence of its original meaning, and came to be applied, in a reproachful sense, to any corruption of what was considered as the orthodox creed, or even to any departure from the established rites and ceremonies of the church.
3. The heresies chiefly alluded to in the apostolical epistles are, first, those of the Judaizers, or rigid adherents to the Mosaic rites, especially that of circumcision; second, those of converted Hellenists, or Grecian Jews, who held the Greek eloquence and philosophy in too high an estimation, and corrupted, by the speculations of the latter, the simplicity of the Gospel; and third, those who endeavoured to blend Christianity with a mixed philosophy of magic, demonology, and Platonism, which was then highly popular in the world. With respect to the latter, the remarks of Hug will tend to illustrate some passages in the writings of St. Paul;—Without being acquainted with the notions of those teachers who caused the Apostle so much anxiety and so much vexation, a considerable part of these treatises must necessarily remain dark and unintelligible. From the criteria by which the Apostle points them out, at one time some deemed that they recognized the Gnostics; others perceived none but the Essenes; and every one found arguments for his assertions from the similarity of the doctrines, opinions, and morals. It would, however, be as difficult to prove that the Gnostic school had at that time indeed perfectly developed itself, as it is unjust to charge the Essenes with that extreme of immorality of which St. Paul accused these seducers, since the contemporaries and acquaintances of this Jewish sect mention them with honour and respect, and extol its members as the most virtuous men of their age. The similarity of the principles and opinions, which will have been observed in both parties compared with St. Paul's declarations, flows from a common source, from the philosophy of that age, whence both the one and the other have derived their share. We shall therefore go less astray, if we recede a step, and consider the philosophy itself, as the general modeller of these derivative theories. It found its followers among Judaism as well as among the Heathens; it both introduced its speculative preparations into Christianity, and endeavoured to unite them or to adjust them to it, as well as they were able, by which means Christianity would have become deformed and unlike to itself, and would have been merged in the ocean of philosophical reveries, unless the Apostles had on this occasion defended it against the follies of men. An oriental, or, as it is commonly called, a Babylonian or Chaldean, doctrinal system had already long become known to the Greeks, and even to the Romans, before Augustus, and still more so in the Augustan age, and was in the full progress of its extension over Asia and Europe. It set up different deities and intermediate spirits in explanation of certain phenomena of nature, for the office of governing the world, and for the solution of other metaphysical questions, which from time immemorial were reckoned among the difficult propositions of philosophy. The practical part of this system was occupied with the precepts by means of which a person might enter into communication with these spirits or demons. But the result which they promised to themselves from this union with the divine natures, was that of acquiring, by their assistance, superhuman knowledge, that of predicting future events, and of performing supernatural works. These philosophers were celebrated under the name of magi and Chaldeans; who, for the sake of better accommodating themselves to the western nations, modified their system after the Greek forms, and then, as it appears, knew how to unite it with the doctrine of Plato, from whence afterward arose the Neo-Platonic and in Christendom the Gnostical school. These men forced their way even to the throne. Tiberius had received instruction in their philosophy, and was very confident that by means of an intelligence with the demons, it was possible to learn and perform extraordinary things. Nero caused a great number of them to be brought over from Asia, not unfrequently at the expense of the provinces. The supernatural spirits would not always appear, yet he did not discard his belief of them. The magi and Chaldeans were the persons who were consulted on great undertakings, who, when conspiracies arose, predicted the issue; who invoked spirits, prepared offerings, and in love affairs were obliged to afford aid from their art. Even the force of the laws, to which recourse was frequently necessary to be had at Rome, tended to nothing but the augmentation of their authority. As they found access and favour with people of all classes in the capital, so did they also in the provinces. Paul found a magus at the court of the proconsul at Paphos, Acts 13:6 . Such was that Simon in Samaria, Acts 8:10 , who was there considered as a higher being of the spiritual class. The expression is remarkable, as it is a part of the technical language of the Theurgists; they called him Δυναμι του Θεου μεγαλη , "The great power of God." So also Pliny calls some of the demons and intermediate spirits, by whose cooperation particular results were effected, potestates. [Powers.] Justin Martyr, the fellow countryman of Simon, has preserved to us some technical expressions of his followers. He says that they ascribed to him the high title υπερανω κ ασης αρχης , και εξουσιας , και δυναμεως . [Far above all principality, and power, and might.] Of these classes of spirits, which appear under such different appellations, the superior were those who ruled; but the inferior, who had more of a material substance, and who, on that account, were able to connect themselves immediately with matter, were those who executed the commands of the superior. By an intelligence with the superior spirits a person might have the subaltern at his service and assistance; for the more powerful demons thus commanded the inferior to execute certain commissions in the material world: ‘Σν τω αρχοντι των δαιμονιων , "By the prince of the devils," Matthew 12:24 .
4. The Syrian philosopher, Jamblichus, of Chalcis, has furnished us with a circumstantial representation of this system and its several varieties, in his book on the mysteries of the Chaldeans and Egyptians:—The nature of the gods is a pure, spiritual, and perfect unity. With this highest and perfect immateriality no influence on matter is conceivable, consequently, no creation and dominion of the world. Certain subordinate deities must therefore be admitted, which are more compounded in their nature, and can act upon gross matter. These are the "creators of the world," δημιουργοι , and the "rulers of the world," κοσμοκρατορες . The superior deities are, however, the real cause of all that exists; and from their fulness, from their πληρωμα , it derives its existence. The succession from the highest deities down to the lowest is not by a sudden descent, but by a continually graduating decrease from the highest, pure, and spiritual natures, down to those which are more substantial and material, which are the nearest related to the gross matter of the creation, and which consequently possess the property of acting upon it. In proportion to their purer quality, or coarser composition, they occupy different places as their residence, either in a denser atmosphere, or in higher regions. The highest among these classes of spirits are called αρχαι , or, αρχικον αιτιον . Others among the "divine natures," θειαι ουσιαι , are "intermediate beings," μεσαι . Those which occupy themselves with the laws of the world are also called αρχοντες , and "the ministering spirits" are δυναμεις and αγγελοι . The archangels are not generally recognized in this theory; this class is said to have been of a later origin, and to have been first introduced by Porphyry. ( See . ) If we take here also into consideration the εξουσιαι , of which Justin has before spoken, we shall have enumerated the greater part of the technical appellations of this demonology. But to arrive at a union with the higher orders of the spiritual world, in which alone the highest bliss of man consists, it is necessary, before all things, to become disengaged from the servitude of the body, which detains the soul from soaring up to the purely spiritual. Matrimony, therefore, and every inclination to sexual concupiscence, must be renounced before the attainment of this perfection. Hence, the offerings and initiations of the magi cannot, without great injury, be even communicated to those who have not as yet emancipated themselves from the libido procreandi, and the propensities to corporeal attachments. To eat meat, or to partake in general of any slain animal, nay, to even touch it, contaminates. Bodily exercises and purifications, though not productive of the gifts of prophecy, are nevertheless conducive to them. Though the gods only attend to the pure, they nevertheless sometimes mislead men to impure actions. This may perhaps proceed from the totally different ideas of that which is good and righteous, which subsist between them and mankind.
5. This philosophy of which the elements had already existed a long time in the east, formed itself, in its progress to the west, into a doctrinal system, which found there far more approbation and celebrity than it ever had deserved. It was principally welcome in those countries, to which the epistles of the Apostle are directed. When St. Paul had preached at Ephesus, a quantity of magical and theurgical books were brought forward by their possessors and burned before his eyes, Acts 19:19 . This city had long since been celebrated for them, and the ‘Εφεσια
αλεξιφαρμακα and ‘Εφεσια γραμματα , were spells highly extolled by the ancients for the purpose of procuring an authority over the demons. As late even as the fourth century, the synod at Laodicea was obliged to institute severe laws against the worship of angels against magic, and against incantations. These opinions had taken such a deep root in the mind, that some centuries did not suffice for the extinction of the recollection of them. Now, there are passages in the Apostle which strikingly characterize this theory. He calls the doctrinal system of his opponents φιλοσοφια ου κατα Χριστον , "a philosophy incompatible with Christianity," Colossians 2:8; θρησκεια των αγγελων , "a worship of angels," Colossians 2:18; διδασκαλιαι δαιμονιων , "a demonology," 1 Timothy 4:1 . He calls it still farther γοητεια , 2 Timothy 3:13 . This is the peculiar expression by which the ancients denoted magical arts and necromantic experiments; γοης is, according to Hesychius, μαγος , κολαξ , περιεργος , and γοητευει , απατα μαγευει , φαρμακμευει , εξαιδει . 50. St. Paul compares these teachers to Jannes and Jambres, 2 Timothy 3:8 . These two persons are, according to the ancient tradition, the magicians who withstood Moses by their arts. They were from time immemorial names so notorious in the magical science, that they did not remain unknown even to the Neo-Platonics. When the Apostle enjoins the Ephesians to array themselves in the arms of faith, and courageously to endure the combat, Ephesians 6:12 , he says that it is the more necessary, because their combat is not against human force, ου προς [not against] αιμα και σαρκα , "flesh and blood," but against superhuman natures. Where he mentions these, he enumerates in order the names of this magico-spiritual world, αρχας , εξουσιας , particularly the κοσμοκρατορας , "principalities," "powers," "rulers;" and likewise fixes their abode in the upper aerial regions, εις τον αερα εν τοις επουρανιοις . In like manner, in the Epistle to the Colossians, for the sake of representing to them Christianity in an exalted and important light, and of praising the divine nature of Jesus, he says, that all that exists is his creation, and is subjected to him, not even the spiritual world excepted. He then selects the philosophic appellations to demonstrate that this supposititious demonocracy is wholly subservient to him; whether they be θρονοι , or κυριοτητες , αρχαι εξουσιαι , [thrones, dominions, principalities, powers,] Colossians 1:16 . Finally, to destroy completely and decisively the whole doctrinal system, he demonstrates, that Christ, through the work of redemption, has obtained the victory over the entire spiritual creation, that he drags in triumph the αρχας [principalities] and εξουσιας [powers] as vanquished, and that henceforth their dominion and exercise of power have ceased, Colossians 2:15 . But what he says respecting the seared consciences of these heretics, respecting their deceptions, their avarice, &c, is certainly more applicable to this class of men, than to any other. None throughout all antiquity are more accused of these immoralities, than those pretended confidants of the occult powers. If he speaks warmly against any distinction of meats, against abstinence from matrimony, this also applies to them; and if he rejects bodily exercises, it was because they recommended them, because they imposed baths, lustrations, continence, and long preparations, as the conditions by which alone the connection with the spirits became possible. These, then, are the persons who passed before the Apostle's mind, and who, when they adopted Christianity, established that sect among the professors of Jesus, which gave to it the name of Gnostics, and which, together with the different varieties of this system, is accused by history of magical arts.
Other adherents of this system among the Heathens, to which the Syrian philosophers, as well as some Egyptian, such as Plotinus and his scholars, belonged, formed the sect of Neo-Platonism.
6. But in the above remarks of this learned German, some considerations are wanting, necessary to the right understanding of several of the above passages quoted from St. Paul. The philosophic system above mentioned was built on the Scripture doctrine of good and evil angels, and so had a basis of truth, although abused to a gross superstition, and even idolatry. It was grounded, too, upon the notion of different orders among both good and evil spirits, with subordination and government; which also is a truth of which some intimation is given in Scripture. The Apostle then could use all these terms without giving any sanction to the errors of the day. He knew that the spiritual powers they had converted into subordinate deities, were either good or evil angels in their various ranks, and he uproots the whole superstition, by showing that the "thrones and dominions" of heaven are submissive created servants of Christ; and that the evil spirits, the rulers of "the darkness of this world," are put under his feet.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Heresy'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/h/heresy.html. 1831-2.