Resurgent Catharism?

rue des heretiquesIn the 2nd century, the Fathers faced one of the greatest threats ever to confront the Christian faith and church: Gnosticism. The gnostics taught a hierarchical scale of being in which salvation meant being delivered from our status as creatures. Salvation was said to be achieved through secret knowledge. It was a threat to Christianity because it infiltrated the church and some Christians attempted to synthesize the faith with gnosticism. The theological results were disastrous. They denied the true humanity of Jesus and they posited a fundamental dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments. They regarded the God of the Old Testament as a vengeful “demiurge.” The “god” of the NT is pure love.

Why is this relevant? For two reasons. The challenge posed to the church by gnosticism and other sects was one of the stimuli that caused the church to begin speaking of an unwritten apostolic tradition rather than simply relying upon the revealed Word of God. The temptation to battle fight fire with fire, i.e., secret knowledge with secret knowledge (unwritten apostolic tradition) was intensified in the high middle ages with the rise of the Cathar movement in the mid-12th century. The Cathars re-asserted the sort of ontological dualism that the Fathers had faced in the Manichaeans, docetism (denial of Christ’s true humanity), the suggestion that the god of the OT was inferior to the God of the NT and the like.

The second reason it is relevant just now is that the Anabaptist movement picked up on some of these themes in the 1520s and they continue to percolate in the background of segments of American evangelicalism, which took an Anabaptist turn beginning in the early 19th century.

We are reminded of these things by this book review by Paul Copan of book by professor in the Anabaptist tradition, which, if the review is even only half-right, has Cathar overtones.

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  1. John Owen, in his Biblical Theology, doesn’t share your received opinion (received from the Roman Catholics who slaughtered them) on the Cathars. Cathar, by the way, is a similar name to Puritan.

    • David,

      There were no “Roman Catholics” in the strict sense before Trent. That’s an anachronism. Yes, they and others were tried at convicted by the Inquisition (about 3 a year were killed at the height of the Inquisition; not counting the Spanish Inquisition, which was a different creature).

      Yes, “Cathar” is a Greek word for pure but it’s hugely misleading to compare them to the Puritans. I’ll check out Owen on the Cathars. The question I would have is how much Owen knew about them, what his sources were. We’ve had a few hundred years since to study them.

  2. Oh, my goodness. I just read the linked book review. Eric Seibert is the twin of Peter Enns. He’s a liberal theologian. He is not a Bible-believing Christian. What tradition is Enns from, by the way? How long did he teach at WTS before he was kicked out?

  3. It’s page 147 of his (John Owen’s) Biblical Theology. Quote: “I will pass over other similar monstrous lies with the simple comment that they all pale into insignificance in comparison with the slanders that the Roman pontiffs have dreamed up against the Albigenses [Cathars], the Waldenses, and other faithful servants of Christ.”

    • David,

      Thank you. From a historical pov, the Wadenses and Cathars were rather different movements. It’s one thing for Owen to lump them together rhetorically, to pose them as victims of “Roman” cruelty (anachronistically) to score points and another for us to regard that as an accurate historical judgment.

      Calvin, for example, was quite critical of the Cathars for their over-realized eschatology.

      13. Our indulgence ought to extend much farther in tolerating imperfection of conduct. Here there is great danger of falling, and Satan employs all his machinations to ensnare us. For there always have been persons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness, as if they had already become a kind of aerial spirits, spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains. Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists, who were similarly infatuated Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists, who would be thought to have made superior progress. Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists (Inst 4.1.13).

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