At every Divine Liturgy the celebrant prays for the Church hierarchs in words such as these: “Graciously bestow them to Your holy Churches in peace, honor, safety health, long life, rightly dispensing the word of Your truth.” This last phrase is actually taken from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
When the verse is translated as “dispensing” or “imparting” the word of Your truth, it suggest the act of passing on the Gospel from the bishop to His Church. When the translation “rightly dividing the word of truth” is used, something more is suggested. The bishop’s role is to separate the ideas circulating as “Gospel” into true and false, dividing one from the other. Anyone can say that their interpretation is faithful to the Tradition. It is the bishop’s role, St Paul tells Timothy, to make a judgment and separate true from false teaching.
St Paul spent his life proclaiming Christ despite all kinds of hardships. He was indignant that others were proclaiming false teachings and attributing them to Christ and His Church. He wrote to the Galatians, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel – which is not another – but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8). These “other gospels,” which were no authentic gospel at all, were generally doctrines or practices from other traditions which some teachers were intermingling with the Gospel of Christ. The one St Paul found himself opposing most vigorously was that believers in Christ were required to be circumcised. People had to physically become Jews, its practitioners, taught, in order to unite to Christ.
St Paul had cleared his teaching with the chief apostles (cf., Galatians 1:18-19) but his opponents continued in their views until the Jerusalem Church, led by St. James, the “brother of God” as he is called, confirmed that circumcision was not necessary, only faith in Christ (Acts 15:6-21). The Apostolic Church had rightly divided the word of truth, determining what was essential and what was not.
What Was Paul’s Gospel?
The Gospel which Christ had preached was simple, according to the evangelists. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Paul’s summary of the Gospel which he preached in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 tells us how he understood the kingdom of God to be at hand. “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures: and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” It was in the death and resurrection of Christ that the kingdom of God was to be found.
Perversions of the Gospel
St. Paul did not hesitate to say that the promoters of circumcision in the Church were perverting the Gospel. Over the centuries a number of alternatives to the Gospel emerged: teachings which St Paul would surely have called “another gospel.” Some of the following first millennium teachings about Christ were quickly discarded; others have been revived over the years by different sects.
Some early alternative gospels taught that:
- Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and Panthera, a Roman soldier (Palestinian Talmud)
- Jesus was born as man and later adopted as a “son of God”
- Jesus was not fully man: he had a human body and a divine mind
- Jesus was created by God the Father and not equal to Him (Arianism)
- Jesus’ physical body was only an illusion, therefore He did not die on the cross
- Jesus’ human nature was overwhelmed by His divine nature (Eutychianism)
- Jesus had two natures but only one will, the divine, therefore His humanity was incomplete (monothelitism)
- Jesus only seemed to die on the cross; instead God took Him to Himself (Islam)
The first centuries also saw the rise of teachings that denied:
- The value of the Old Testament (Marcionism)
- The value of marriage (Montanism)
- The true brokenness of our human nature (Pelagianism)
- The value of icons (iconoclasm)
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of groups with their own alternative gospels which teach that:
- God is the physical father of Jesus. They are “one God” only in that they are united in spirit, mind and purpose (Mormons)
- Jesus is the incarnation of God’s first creature, Michael the Archangel, who became Messiah at His baptism (Jehovah’s Witnesses)
- Jesus was one of the many good spiritual teachers like Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius and others who attained divinity (New Age groups)
All of these tendencies we call heresies, from the Greek word heteran (other), as in “another gospel.” These heresies spoke about God and Christ but not in ways deemed consistent with the Scriptures. They came from another source than divine revelation and ultimately were rejected by the Church. Bishops, gathered in councils, divided what they saw as true from false teachings and rejected the early heresies. Their summary of the true Gospel, the Nicene Creed, remains the unique statement of our common faith.
Our Dogmatic Hymns
For centuries the Eastern Churches have also used liturgical hymns to assert their teaching in the face of heresies. The following sticheron from the vespers of the Nativity proclaims the Gospel faith of the Church with clarity and thereby refutes many of the heresies mentioned above. St. Paul would have approved.
Come, let us rejoice in the Lord! Let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld: now shall the Cherubim let us all come to the Tree of Life. As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise whence I had been driven by the original disobedience. Behold, the Image of the Father and His immutable Eternity has taken the form of a servant! He has come down to us from a Mother all-pure, and yet He has remained unchanged: He has remained true God as He was before, and has taken on Himself what He had not been, becoming Man out of His love for man. Wherefore, let us raise our voices in hymns and sing: “O God who was born of the Virgin, O our God, have mercy on us!”