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Constructing Boundaries between Orthodoxy and Heresy

As a reminder of the basic point made in the first post of this series, the language of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” is boundary-making discourse. None of the individuals that have been under consideration woke up one day and determined that they wanted to be a “heretic.” Instead, they may have seen themselves as reformers recovering what they perceived to be the original message, or passing along what they had been taught, or promoting new revelations that they thought they had received, or bringing Christian faith into dialogue with new intellectual or cultural currents in their own social contexts. Nevertheless, centrist (or proto-Orthodox) Christians responded by constructing more sharply formulated boundaries and placing other self-confessing Christians outside these boundaries:

  • They reiterated their points about the distinction of the eternal Creator God (including the Word and the Spirit) from the rest of creation that came into being, the goodness of the physical creation that fell into sin, the roots of the Christian revelation in the antiquity of the story of Israel, the dual nature of Jesus (fully divine and human), the salvation effected through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the guidelines for scriptural interpretation.
  • They made decisions about what Christian writings were authoritative alongside the Jewish Scriptures and, eventually, the Christian canon was closed. Note Irenaeus of Lyon’s assumption that each of the four Gospels were privileged by some faction – Matthew by the Ebionites, Mark by those who had a possessionist Christology (e.g. Carpocrates), Luke by Marcion, and John by the Valentinians – whereas the practice of the universal (Catholic) church is to read all four in harmony (Against Heresies 3.11.7-8). Moreover, Paul’s letters are read alongside the letters of other apostolic figureheads (Peter, John, James, Jude) and preceded by the narrative of Acts that stresses the unity of the church from Jerusalem to Rome.
  • They established a more organized, hierarchical ecclesiastical structure to protect the Christian laity from external threats (e.g. persecution) and internal threats (e.g. false teachers). In an monepiscopal system, the chief overseer or bishop governs a region and is assisted by local presbyters. The overseer was seen to be part of a chain of “apostolic succession” inasmuch as an apostle supposedly installed a bishop who installed the next successor in line.
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