Oftentimes, what appears to be a newfangled spiritual movement within Christianity is often simply a regurgitated (and usually very watered-down) heresy from many centuries ago.
In the spirit of that statement, I thought it might be a good idea to list who I think are some of the heretics whose ideas are still active today; the next time someone attacks the Church with a particular statement or doctrinal assertion, you will be able to say, "Well, actually that was so-and-so who said that first, and he was condemned by the Council of ______". It's always surprising to see where heretical ideas actually originated from.
Henceforth, I present to you my personal take on five famous and not-so-famous heretics...and why they matter to Catholics today.
"The Word is absolutely alien to the essence and property of the Father. He is one of the order of works and creatures; he is one of them."1
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Arius was the bane of orthodox Christianity, and his heretical doctrines spread all over the place like weeds, so much so that they still survive today. Much of Christendom succumbed to his heresy, and if not for the great figures of 4th-century orthodoxy such as St. Athanasius, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and many others, Christianity would be a much different faith than it is today.
But what exactly is the heresy of Arius? Simply put, Arianism declared that Christ was subordinate to the Father, and was a created being (i.e. not God). The Nicene creed that you recite on Sundays is a direct response to the heresy of Arius.
Like many heretics, Arius was not a fool - fools would never be able to wreak as much damage to the Body of Christ as he did. Citing Scripture and twisting certain passages in the thought of Origen to his own use, Arius managed to nearly destroy the Church.
Why he matters today: His teachings live on in various modern movements such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Arian Catholic Church (yes, apparently this really exists), along with any other group that denies the divinity of Christ. If any group claiming to be Christian denies that Christ is God, then you know what kind of "ism" you are really dealing with. If a supposedly Christian group is speaking of Jesus as merely being a prophet or anything but God, then the shadow of Arius is undoubtedly behind it.
If you're Catholic or Orthodox, you've probably (I hope anyways) always known that the Eucharist is the Real Body and Blood of Christ - we do not consume a symbol. Though others would argue against it, the Church has always held to the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. What is interesting is that it wasn't something first denied in the Protestant Reformation, but was actually a man by the name of Berengarius. Though rumblings had occurred in other writers before, most notably in John Scotus Eriugena, Berengarius seems to be the first to explicitly attack the Real Presence in the Eucharist. He instead opted for the view that Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament but not really present - later declarations on "transubtantiation" were made in direct response to this (though I do not think the Orthodox have ever laid out what is going on during the Consecration in as systematic a way as Catholic theologians have).
Why he matters today: Even though there were a couple theologians that had gone against the Real Presence in the Eucharist before him, Berengarius was really the first to take his doctrines so far that even an entire movement called the Berengarians survived after him. He opposed and attacked the Church on the issue of the Eucharist, denying that any change took place resulting in its being the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, instead opting for a spiritual understanding (something, I would argue, is much closer to orthodox Calvinism).
When someone attacks the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, modern Catholics can know where the idea came from, and why the Church's theologians formally defined the change as "transubstantiation". The ideas of Berengarius, I would argue, live on today in the doctrines of the Reformation, especially in the teachings of Calvin.
3. Montanus (2nd - 3rd century A.D.)
Montanus is one of my most disliked of all heretics, as he was the wolf that snatched that great apologist, Tertullian, from the bosom of the Church - though really, when one reads Tertullian, one can see the seeds of a great fall in his writings. He needed something more extreme than what the growing Church could provide. Thus he joined the Montanists, a charismatic sect that had grown up around the prophecies of Montanus and two women named Prisca and Maximilla. Claiming the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, they became known as "fanatic rigorists"1, with Montanus espousing himself as a prophet through whom the Holy Spirit spoke through to the world.
Why he matters today: I think it's a fairly easy parallel to draw between charismatic movements and Montanism. But what I want to point out is that Montanism, in my opinion, has made itself felt in any movement where Holy Spirit is erroneously placed in opposition to the Church. The "spirit of Vatican II" movement, in my humble opinion, draws its strength from the same poisoned well as Montanus and his companions.
Miguel de Molinos is a little less-known than others, by my reckoning, and yet his influence I think is felt all over the world of unorthodox prayer forms infiltrating the world of modern Catholicism.
Molinos was the central figure in a heresy known as "Quietism", and "taught interior annihilation, asserting that this is the means of attaining purity of soul, perfect contemplation, and the rich treasure of interior peace: hence follows the licitness of impure carnal acts, inasmuch as only the lower, sensual man, instigated by the demon, is concerned in them."3
E. Allison Peers, that distinguished scholar of Spanish mysticism, intriguingly refers to his teachings as warping the mysticism of such figures as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Why he matters today: When studying at Newman Theological College, I was shocked to see that
what is known as "centering prayer" was being pushed on students as a
good and wholly orthodox form of prayer. Upon doing a little research, I
began to notice some very disturbing similarities between it and a
heresy known as Quietism, which did most of its damage in the 17th
In my opinion, centering prayer as it is known today is merely a watered-down form of core Quietist principles. Though certainly modern centering prayer does not advocate excuses for sinful acts as does the doctrines taught by Molinos, it is undoubtedly similar in its teachings on interior annihilation.
According to Catholic Answers, "Quietism bears similarity to certain elements of
Eastern mysticism and the New Age movement, and it is mirrored in
one of the chief principles of Protestantism.
Like Quietism, many Eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism, for
instance) aim at a state of detachment or indifference, whether it
be Nirvana for the Buddhists, tranquil oneness with the pantheistic 'all-god,' or the Tao.
Elements of Quietism can be seen in the quasi-mysticism of the New
Age movement. In emphasizing subjective mystical experience or 'feeling,'
downplaying personal moral responsibility, and eliminating sacrament
and ritual, many moderns are unaware of the debt they owe to a seventeenth-century
writer for their 'modern' religion.
The Reformation doctrine of sola fides is a cousin to Quietism
in that it rejects mankind's reciprocal role (through obedience and
good works) in the process of salvation."4
The chief heresy propounded by Nestorius was that Christ's two natures were entirely separate and distinct, thus resulting in a kind of two persons in one body. This was fought chiefly by St. Cyril of Alexandria.
But this is not the aspect of Nestorius' thought that I had most interesting, nor why I mention him here - modern scholarship seems to take a more sympathetic view to Nestorius' Christological errors. The reason why I mention him here is that he was the first to deny the title of Theotokos (God-bearer) to the Virgin Mary - in other words, he attacked the idea that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the Mother of God, preferring instead the term Christotokos (Christ-bearer).
Why he matters: Many evangelicals and fundamentalists these days are very much against calling Mary the Mother of God - now you can tell them where that idea first came from, and that it was condemned in the early Church. As a side note, if anyone brings up the idea that the Virgin Mary did not remain a virgin for the rest of her life (the doctrine of her perpetual virginity), then one would do well to bring up the fact that the first to say such a thing was a heretic known as Helvidius. St. Jerome's reply to Helvidius on the subject is crucial reading.
1 - Arius, Thalia
2 - Rev. John Laux, Church History, pg. 64
3 - A. Perez Goyena, The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Miguel de Molinos"
4 - Todd M. Aglialoro, found HERE.