According to the Apostolic Fathers (from the early to mid 2nd century) Simon Magus (or Simon of Samaria) was the first heretic (Acts 8:18–24).
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
When I first read this narrative carefully, in the summer of 1979 (in Phillip’s NT) I was struck with Peter’s bluntness. There are other things, however, with which to be impressed, namely, the grounds of Peter’s condemnation of Simon. Surely Simon was guilty of gross theological error. He was a heretic. He completely misunderstood the nature of grace, the way the Spirit works in the world. Simon thought like a pagan, that gods are just powers to be possessed for our use. He ignorantly and wickedly thought that the power of the Holy Spirit can be bought and sold (hence our term, “simony”). That much is evident from the text.
Peter, however, articulates another ground for condemning Simon the heretic: his heart: “For your heart is not right with God.” Simon, Peter said, “was in the “gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” He called Simon not, first of all, to change his theology but to acknowledge his sin, to repent of it by turning to God for forgiveness. Simon’s primary problem was not bad theology but a bad heart. His problem was as much a spiritual problem as it was an intellectual problem.
We may speak of a priority of of one faculty over another but of course these faculties are intertwined. This narrative reminds us that, when we face heresy we are also facing spiritual matters. Judging from Peter’s analysis the first thing to address is the heart or the spiritual darkness of which the heresy may be only the symptom. The heart belongs to God. We are not the Holy Spirit. We only speak God’s Word but it is the Spirit who convicts and who brings the dead to life.
This is not to say that we should be intellectually lazy when dealing with heretics but it is to say that we should avoid the temptation to reduce every theological heresy to an intellectual matter. Peter did not do so nor did the early Fathers. They also recognized the spiritual component in heresy. This means that prayer is not just an after thought in confronting heresy but perhaps the first tool of orthodoxy.
Paul says in Ephesians 6:12:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places
In v. 18, after walking through our battle dress, which includes sound doctrine, he turns to prayer. The response to heresy is both/and, prayer and doctrine but perhaps prayer should receive first attention. Peter’s approach to Simon might even be described as downright dismissive. It’s interesting, in an age of “dialogue” and “opening avenues of communication” that Peter did none of that. He saw what the root problem was, he diagnosed it, and wrote a prescription on the spot: repentance. It’s true that we’re not the Apostle Peter but it’s also true that heresy is heresy. None of them are really much different from Simon the Magician are they?