The End of Heresy

Summary: Among both Catholics and Protestants, it is universally accepted that the Bible is our sole source of knowledge about God. For this reason it is their contention that modern-day prophets and apostles are no long needed because they cannot tell us anything new that isn’t already contained in the Bible. However, history itself shows the fallacy of this argument. This article looks at the history of how man has used the Bible to guide him in his quest for God’s salvation.


Nephi, the son the prophet Lehi, had a vision wherein he was shown the ministry of Jesus Christ. He saw Jesus choose twelve men whom he called apostles and after his death and resurrection he saw Christ command his apostles to go forth into all the world preaching the gospel. He saw these apostles writing down the message of salvation and how their words went forth into the world. Looking further into the future he saw Gentiles coming to the land of America, carrying with them a book that contained the writings of the apostles which they called the Bible. But then Nephi beheld that these Gentiles would say, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible” (2 Nephi 29:3).

Among both Catholics and Protestants, it is universally accepted that the Bible is our sole source of knowledge about God. In times past, God spoke his word to us through the mouth of prophets and then through the mouth of apostles, but since the beginning of the second century there have been no more prophets or apostles divinely sent by God therefore it is argued that this shows that God no longer speaks to man in this manner but rather he now speaks to us solely and exclusively through the writings of the prophets and apostles which are contained in a book we call the Bible.

 On the other hand, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declares that God does still speak to man today through living prophets and apostles. As such they do not believe that the Bible contains everything God wants man to know but instead teaches that God continues to give the world more of his word than what is contained in the Bible just as he did in the past.

 However, since this belief is contrary to what almost all other Christian denominations teach, this claim has been dismissed, denounced, and derided by nearly all other Christian faiths. It is their contention that the Bible was written for the sole purpose of teaching us how to become saved and that modern-day prophets and apostles cannot tell us anything new that isn’t already contained in the Bible. For this reason they say that such men are no longer necessary in the church and that all we need now are pastors and evangelists to proclaim the message of salvation as already contained in the Bible.

 Although this may seem like a logical and even a rational explanation, history itself shows the fallacy of this argument. To understand why, all we need to do is look at the history of man has used the Bible to guide him in his quest for God’s salvation.

 When the apostles first started preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ the only scriptures they or their converts had available to them were those of the Old testament, and even these were not commonly had among the population. If someone wanted to read the Old Testament scriptures they had to go to their local synagogue because that’s where the scriptures were kept, under the care of the rabbis. And it was in the synagogues where they were taught by the rabbis how to properly understand the scriptures.

 In the beginning of Christianity, the gospel was taught exclusively by word of mouth and people had to rely on their memory of what they had heard. But, in time, people wanted to have a more permanent record about the life of Christ and so the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written down, followed later by the Acts of the Apostles. However, these accounts didn’t come forth until decades after the resurrection of Christ which meant that the gospel was spread and grew, not by a study of any New Testament scriptures but through the preaching of the word by men inspired by God.

 This is how the apostle Paul spread the message of salvation and in every place where he taught he organized a church of believers before moving on to another city. On the other hand, the apostle Peter went to the city of Rome and stayed there, increasing the number of converts through the preaching of the gospel by word of mouth. In both cases, these two apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ from the Old Testament scriptures with the knowledge and understanding they had received through divine revelation concerning Jesus Christ.

 Yet, it didn’t take long before false teachings began to arise among the newly converted Christians. Some adamantly believed that circumcision was essential to salvation. Others believed that it was acceptable to partake in the worship of idols or eat the meant offered to idols as long as they still believed in Christ. Others taught there was nothing wrong with committing adultery or engaging in sexual sins. Still others taught that once saved there was nothing a Christian could do that would cause him to lose their salvation, and there were others who rebelled against church authority.

 As reports of these false beliefs reached Paul, instead of him leaving his missionary journeys, he wrote letters to individual churches, seeking to address a particular problem that affected the people to whom he was writing. Nearly every one of Paul’s letters was written to correct some form of apostacy or heresy that was taking hold in the church. The letters of Peter, James, and Jude were likewise written for the same reason. Without the guidance of the apostles the early Christian church would have quickly disintegrated into a myriad of conflicting beliefs about Christ.

 These letters, written by the apostles and other church leaders, were highly prized by the Christians, and those who lived in other cities desired to have a copy of these letters for themselves. Since there was no printing press at the time, each letter had to be copied by hand and not only were many copies made of the original but copies of copies of copies were ultimately made.

 In the past the Old Testament scriptures were kept and preserved by the rabbis and when a new copy was to be made they were done with almost ceremonious precision. However, this was not the case with the early Christians when they made copies of Paul’s letters. With missionary zeal, many of them hurriedly copied these letters, often handing them out to non-Christians like we do today with missionary tracts. They weren’t so much concerned with the accuracy of their work as much as they were excited about sharing the gospel and as a result mistakes were often made in the transcribing process.

 By the beginning of the second century all the apostles had passed away and in their place were men who had once been close, personal associates of the apostles. Many of these men had been ordained as bishops and after the death of the apostles the responsibility for guiding the church and keeping the doctrines of Christ pure fell upon their shoulders. Yet, they had not been ordained as an apostle, as had Peter, James, John, Matthias, Paul, and others. As such, they did not have a divine mandate to speak for God as did the apostles. Nevertheless, they did the best they could.

 By this time there were many false doctrines being taught in the church and, worse yet, there were many manuscripts being used as scripture that claimed to have been written by one of the apostles, such as the Acts of Peter, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Judas. To combat the various heretical teachings that were springing up, the bishops wrote their own letters, as Paul had done, seeking to correct these false ideas. These included letters written by Clement, the bishop of Rome, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, and Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, among others, all of whom had been close associates of the apostles.

 By the mid second century a belief called Gnosticism began to be widely accepted throughout the Christian church. In 180 A.D. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (which is now Lyons, France) wrote a three-volume book entitled “Against Heresies” refuting the claims of this false teaching.

 But, besides heresy, there were two other major problems that the church faced.  The first was that questions were now arising about the gospel that the apostles had never addressed and as a result the church struggled to provide answers to them. This gave rise to a new kind of Christian called a theologian. Some of the earliest of these were Origen and Tertullian who wrote extensively as they sought to provide answers to questions that even the church leaders were at a loss to explain. Calling on their ability to reason by use of their great intellect these theologians interpreted the scriptures by deductive reasoning to give scriptural support to their opinions yet so effective were their writings that they became almost as revered as the letters of the apostles.

 The second problem that confronted the church was that as more and more Greek speaking people began to convert to Christianity, they interpreted the writings of the apostles in accordance with Greek philosophy. For example, Greeks already believed that God was a spirit but to them a spirit was some kind of intangible, ether-like essence that had no shape or form. Therefore, when they read in the gospel where Jesus said “God is a spirit,” this is how they understood what Jesus meant. Since the Greeks didn’t believe that a spirit had a head, arms, legs, or torso, when confronted with scriptures that talked about the face of God or God standing on his feet, or of Jesus sitting on the right hand of God, the Greeks dismissed such statements as being mere allegorical or symbolic in nature.

 In fact the Greeks began to view all of the scriptures as being more symbolic rather than taking them literally. For example, to them there was no real Adam and Eve and there was no forbidden fruit that they actually ate. Instead, to them this story was to be understood as an allegory, symbolizing something of a deeper meaning. As such, Greek Christians spent their time debating (a favorite pastime of theirs) what the meaning was of these various allegories.

 By this time the church was more than 200 years old and there were no longer any bishops who had personally known an apostle or who had known someone who once knew an apostle. Yet these bishops were tasked with the same daunting task of guiding the church and protecting the purity of the gospel message. Even though they possessed the writings of the apostles, they still didn’t have all the answers necessary to guide the church through these changing times. Nevertheless they did they best they could with what limited knowledge they had at their disposal.

 Part of their solution to combating the profuse number of manuscripts that Christians were using as scripture, from time to time a bishop would announce which books he thought were inspired and which ones weren’t, but these lists were not always the same from one bishop to another. In 367 A.D., Bishop Anthanasius in his Easter message announced a list of books he felt were divinely inspired and it was this list that later became the books that currently make up our New Testament. 

 From the beginning, Christians had been persecuted for their religious beliefs but all of that changed in 313 A.D. when Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Milan which recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion. Later, under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity was made the official state religion and in 391 A.D. all other religions were banned by imperial edict.

 However, this didn’t stop the squabbling within the Christian church over doctrine. Despite having the Bible, intense debates continued over what constituted true doctrine and what was to be considered heresy, but instead of the Bible being the final source of authority on any given subject, doctrine was now being determined by the political power of the contesting bishops. These men didn’t need to appeal to the emperor to settle their disputes now because the state had granted the church the authority to govern itself and so bishops fought for power within the church and those who were able to wield the greatest power were able to ensure that their interpretation of the scriptures became the official position of the church.

 Now doctrine was not settled by the word of God but by the word of men. Those who disagreed with the position of these men who controlled the church were either exiled or put to death and so it was through the use of forced compliance that the official doctrine of the church was maintained throughout the following centuries. In this way the church was able to shut down all opposing ideas and ensured that everyone remained in strict obedience to their teachings.

 When the Bible was available to be read by the common man it was the source heretics used to argue for doctrines that differed from what the church sanctioned, therefore, to help blunt the spread of heresy the priests of the Catholic Church, like the rabbis of old, kept, preserved and protected all copies of the Bible so that no one but them had access to the word of God.

 In 400 A.D. the New Testament was copied from its original language of Greek into the commonly used language of Latin but over time Latin fell out of use as people began speaking in other languages. This proved to be a blessing to the church leaders because instead of translating the Bible into the newer common tongues, they left it written in Latin. In this way, even if someone were able to get a copy of the Bible they wouldn’t be able to read it because it was now written in a language that no one but the Catholic priests knew and understood.

   Eventually the church made it a mortal sin for anyone but a priest to read the Bible and their argument for doing this was that the common man didn’t possess the ability to understand God’s word. It was said that only a priest who had been properly trained and taught in the ways of God was capable of interpreting all the symbolism and deeper meanings hidden within the scriptures. 

 They further argued that under the Law of Moses the people were to take their sacrifices to the priests of the temple and it was the priests only who could go before God. Thus, it was said that the priests were the mediators between God and man. It was therefore said that the priests of the Catholic Church were like the ancient temple priests in that they acted as the mediator between us and Christ, who was the mediator between us and God. Therefore, it was taught that no one could approach God or Christ directly but that everyone had to go through an authorized earthly priest for their understanding of that the Bible taught.

 With such control over the word of God the church felt it could effectively prevent people from teaching doctrines that were contrary to what the church taught, but even so, heretical beliefs still continued to plague the church. By now Christianity had spread throughout all of Europe and in certain parts there were different sects who continued to disagree with the teachings of the Catholic Church therefore the desire to stamp out heresy became more intense as time went on and the list of what constituted heresy grew to mean much more than someone disagreeing with the doctrines of the church. 

 In the beginning of this crusade against heresy it was the individual bishops who were responsible for making sure that the people under their supervision were properly following the rules of the church and whenever they discovered someone in violation they would inquire about their beliefs in a trial like setting. From this practice comes the term inquisition. But starting with Pope Innocent III and successive Popes, the church itself began issuing rules for investigative interrogation in determining if someone had committed heresy and it was the church who prescribed the punishment for those guilty of such a crime. And all of these actions were based on the church’s interpretation of God’s word as found in the Bible.

 However, in 1517 a Catholic priest and professor of Catholic theology at the University of Wittenburg, by the name of Martin Luther, openly disputed the teaching of his own church, especially against the practice of indulgences. As a priest he was permitted to read and understood what was written in the Latin Bible but his interpretation of God’s word was not the same as that of his own church. When he first presented his views he was told to recant or renounce them and when he refused to do so he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1521. To avoid even worse punishment Luther went into hiding where he began translating the Bible into his native tongue of German.

 But he was not the only one who was translating the Bible from Latin into the language of the common man and the Catholic Church saw this development as a threat to its ability to help prevent the spread of heretical ideas and so they made every effort possible to stop the Bible from being read by the masses. Their fear was that if everyone could read the Bible for themselves they would be free to interpret the Bible according to their own understanding instead of relying on the learning of the church’s appointed priests. This then would open the floodgates for people to proclaim thousands of different doctrines, and if that were to happen the church would be unable to contain the damage this would cause to its ability to protect the purity of Christ’s message.

 Luther’s work did indeed open up a floodgate as more and more people endeavored to make the Bible available to people in their own native language, but even among these early reformers who labored diligently to accurately translate the word of God, they nevertheless disagreed with one another over its interpretation. Before long there were many different religious sects that arose with each one following their own understanding of what they thought the Bible taught.

 By 1830 in upstate New York there was a great religious excitement among the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians as they sought to gain converts to their own understanding of the Bible’s message of salvation. A young fourteen-year old boy by the name of Joseph Smith later wrote of those days, “when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued – priest contending against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and contest about opinions…

 “The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their error, or at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenants and disprove all others…How to act, I did not know… for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (History of Joseph Smith 1:6,9,12).

 Today the floodgates have been opened even wider to where there are now tens of thousands of different Christian sects, each one claiming to base their beliefs solely on what the Bible says yet each one preaching something different than all the others. Of all these various denominations only one claims to have living prophets and apostles who can speak with divine authority as did their ancient counterparts.

 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boldly declares that God does speak to man again as he did anciently and that he has restored his church with living prophets and apostles to guide it. Despite having the Bible, what history clearly shows is that, without these divinely commissioned spokesmen we will never see the end of heresy.


Related articles can be found at The Nature of Scriptures and Biblical History