|Select Early Church Heresies
The major issue at the base of most theological conflicts in the early church was, “Who and/or what was Jesus of Nazareth and what kind of being was he?”
This question was at the root of almost all the great heresies. Attempts to answer this question inevitably lead to more questions ad infinitum. Sects of practicing Jewish-Christians were a separate body within the Christian community from the beginning of the Christian era. These people believed Jesus was the greatest of all the prophets and was the expected Messiah but was a man among men. From this group a sect called the Ebionites emerged which lasted until the fourth century AD. The name “Ebionites” meant “the poor ones” because of their exaltation of ascetic poverty. The Ebionites did not believe in the divine nature of Jesus. Some felt the Spirit of Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism by John and left him at the crucifixion. Some theologians believe that Christ was not thought of as God until the second century.
There were those who thought that Jesus Christ had only the appearance of a man on earth and was in fact a phantom, a spirit and not a man. This is known as Docetism. Actually, this was not the name of a sect but an idea that appeared among many theologians and heresies in the following centuries. Thus two ideas of Christ existed – the first that he was a greatly inspired man and the second that he was the pure spirit of God.
Among Christian teachers in the early church were people called “Gnostics”by the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries. The Fathers considered Gnoticism to be be one of the greatest threats they had to face. It is hard to find out what the original Gnostic teachings were since such writings were destroyed by the Church fathers. Another problem is that Gnostic ideas were deliberately made obscure and kept secret which is like the Pythagorean system. Gnostics made use of myth and allegory and it is hard to tell the literal from the allegorical. Additionally, there were many different sects of Gnostics in the early centuries of the church which included a mix of “Christianity” with the ideas of Eastern religions. The bottom line is that Gnoticism means a belief in salvation by knowledge of reality – the understanding of the origin of the soul, the soul’s predicament in this world, and the way out of such predicament. Gnoticism is knowledge of the “self’s nature and destiny”. The path of the Gnostic was “upward”.
Gnosticism has been described as ‘an unstable religious syncretism’, a religion in which the determining forces were a fantastic oriental imagination and a sacramentalism which degenerated into the wildest superstition, a weak discipline fluctuating between ascetism and libertine-ism.
Gnosticism was a fusion of varied and independent beliefs that maintained itself alongside Christianity as the latter was developing into the ancient Catholic Church. Gnosticism came into prominence early in the second century and by the latter third century began to be replaced by the Manichaean movement. In one form or another it continued into the 4th and 5th centuries and many of its ideas survived among later mystics.
Gnosticism comes from the word ‘gnosis’ or knowledge. Nonetheless it would be a mistake to think of ‘gnostics’ as the intellectual among Christians or of ‘gnosticism’ as philosophical speculation reconciling religion with philosophy and theology. Although the movement included many ‘intellectuals’, the word ‘gnosis’ was not understood to mean ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding’ but ‘revelation’. The Gnostic sects lived in the conviction they possessed a secret and mysterious knowledge not accessible to those on the ‘out’, not based on reflection or scientific inquiry, but on revelation. This revelation was professedly derived from Jesus and his inner circle and they claimed to be connected with them by a secret tradition or by the later prophets of the sect. Their ‘knowledge’ was laid down in mystic writings which various gnostic circles possessed.
Gnosticism had the characteristics of all mystic religions of ancient times. The ultimate object of gnosticism was salvation - a future destiny of the soul after death. The central object of the faith was a ‘redeemer-deity’ who had trodden the difficult way the faithful must follow.
The Gnostic religion was full of holy rites, formulas, acts of initiation and consecration, secret formulas, names and symbols. One common concept was that the soul on leaving the body finds its path to the highest heaven opposed by deities and demons of the lower realms of heaven and can only find its goal by the possession of their names and the recitation of holy formulas, or having the right symbol, or being anointed with holy oil. The exposition of the system of the Ophites by Celsus and Origen is informative on these matters.
Oriental dualism has a place in the religion and philosophy of Gnosticism. The worlds of good and evil, of the divine and the material, of light and darkness are in contrast. The material world is full of evil and hostile powers. Attempts at reconciliation are presented in a ‘system of emanations’ in which is taught that the supreme divinity emanated a lesser world, from this world a second, and so on, until the divine element of life became so weak and attenuated that the genesis of a partly or wholly evil world appears likely and understandable. Such a system was set forth by Basilides and handed down by Iranaeus.
Another feature of the Gnostic conception of the universe is the part played by the seven world-creating powers. In the system of the Valentinian school of Gnosticism there is one Demiurge instead of seven. But the idea of the seven powers was strong and widespread. They are half-evil, half-hostile powers frequently called ‘angels’ and seen as the lowest emanations of the Godhead. Below them and often derived from them comes the world of devilish powers. The origin of these seven powers is undoubtedly the sun, moon and five planets - a fusion of Babylonian and Persian ideas into half angelic, half-demonic beings that are infinitely remote from the Supreme God of Light.
Gnosticism was largely dominated by the idea that it is of highest importance for the soul to find its way back through lower worlds and spheres to the kingdom of light and the supreme deity. This was a primary subject of discussion among Gnostics. But further, the Gnostic had to lead a life apart from the lower world of these spirits. By his knowledge he must rise above them to God. Gnosticism was filled with the idea of the Greek Platonists about the heavenly home of the soul and the homeward journey.
An important part is played in the Gnostic System by the Great Mother. The prototype of this figure, was worshiped throughout Asia under the names Astarte, Beltis, Atargatis, Cybele, and Aphrodite. To the Gnostics she is Sophia, goddess of heaven and mother of the stars. Interestingly, ‘Sophia’ figures prominently in the expression of Jacob Boehm.
Another figure of Gnosticism is Primal Man. He existed before man, he is the prophet who goes through the world in varied form, and finally reveals himself in Christ. He is the divine power who descends into the darkness of the material world. From him come those portions of light existent and prisoner in this world. He has raised himself again out of this world, set free by higher powers, and so shall be set free the portions of light still imprisoned.
Salvation to the Gnostics was not an historical event but a myth, an allegory, a history of bygone events. The person of Jesus gave the Gnostics trouble. Nonetheless, the fundamental ideas of Gnosticism and Christianity had an attraction for each other. Ideas and sects sprang up like mushrooms. But the Gnostics represented and developed the anti-Jewish tendency in Christianity.
The Gnostics revered Paul and he had a spiritual influence on them. The Gnostic Marcion has been called a direct disciple of Paul. Paul’s battle against the law and a narrow national conception of Christianity attracted a movement directed toward a universal religion. The Gnostics developed Paul’s ideas far from his intentions and thus the god of the Jews and the old testament becomes the highest of the Seven, the Demiurge of the Valentinians.
The dualism of Gnosticism made a body after death by resurrection impossible for most Gnostics. Marriage and sexual propagation were seen as evil or worthless. Ascetism was the ideal and Gnosticism influenced church attitudes. Instead of rejecting Gnostic ascetism as a blasphemy against the Creator, it became a dominant theme throughout Christendom. Gnosticism also introduced into the church a mass of sacramental, mystical ideas, and the strong emphasis laid on salvation in religion.
Gnostic religiosity aroused in the church a strong move toward unity in the face of isolation and small circles. Opposition to Gnosticism produced a drive to ward an inelastic organization, authority and tradition. An organized hierarchy, a canon of scripture, a confession of faith, and doctrinal discipline were the tools employed.
Among all the Gnostic teachers, Marcion stands apart. He reduced all Gnostic speculations to one problem - the contrast of justice and love, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the Christians. Marcion saw between the two an irreconcilable opposition. Marcion succeeded in founding a religious ‘community’ which gave the church trouble longer than any other Gnostic movement.
Gnosticism still lives in the minds of many Christians. I have met several ‘believers’ who do not accept the God of the Old Testament or the idea that God could punish anybody. But if there is one thing that has come through, as I have watched their lives, it is that they themselves can wreck and destroy. It must, as Shakespeare said, ‘give us pause’.
There was a sect in Phrygia a sect called the Ophites which took their name from the “serpent” which represented the rational aspect of life. The Ophites incorporated Christian terminology into their system and were regarded by the Fathers as heretics.
Theodicy or the problem of good and evil was seen by one and all as the great mystery and would equate to Paul’s “mystery of iniquity”. Knowledge of this problem, or the “gnosis” gave mystics their name.
The Naasesenes were a branch of the Ophites and also revered the serpent as a symbol of wisdom whom some of them identified with Christ. Like the Gnostics they believed in three classes of men.
Dualism denotes the state of two parts. The term 'dualism' was originally coined to denote co-eternal binary opposition.
Moral dualism is the belief of the great complement or conflict between the benevolent and the malevolent. It simply implies that there are two moral opposites at work, independent of any interpretation of what might be "moral" and independent of how these may be represented. The moral opposites might, for example, exist in a world view which has one god, more than one god, or none. By contrast, ditheism or bitheism implies (at least) two gods. While bitheism implies harmony, ditheism implies rivalry and opposition, such as between good and evil, or bright and dark, or summer and winter. For example, a ditheistic system would be one in which one god is creative, the other is destructive. In theology, dualism can refer to the relationship between God and creation. Hostility between Matter and Spirit is a form of dualism.
To Gnostics, Jesus had two persons – the psychic Christ appearing as a man and the in-dwelling Jesus. Church leaders saw this teaching as dangerous because of its conception of the being of Jesus. Further, if Matter was impure then God becoming man was impossible. Matter and the material world being evil is not a Christian doctrine. It is the ancient concept of Dualism that caused the Christian church to look at sex negatively. Finally, Gnostics has a complicated theory of how evil entered the world which the Church rejected for the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
The greatest of second-century Gnostic thinkers was Valentinus who considered himself a Christian and was likely trying to put together a Christian philosophy that would be acceptable to Roman and Greek intelligentsia.
Valentinian Gnostics held that people did not enter the world alike but there were three classes of human beings – the earthly ones concerned only about the material, the psychics who lived by faith and good works, and the pneumatics who had the divine spark within them. To the author this is essentially a form of extreme predestination. John Douglas said there were only two elections, “The whosoever would, and the whosesoever wouldn’t.” William Cathcart said, “Some men (like Paul) must be saved; all men can be saved.”
Antinomism means, “The incompatability between two laws.” This was more of a concept than a heretical system. This was based on a misinterpretation of Paul and came to mean that those who lived by grace were beyond the Law and it does not matter what sins the perfect commit since these are in the natural body and have no connection with the spiritual body
Marcion (circa 130 AD to 180 AD). Marcion believed in Dualism and that Matter was hostile to Good. Thus the Creator was evil and his material creation was evil. Marcion’s Christ was a Docetic Christ. Renunciation of Matter led to strict ascetism and the elimination of the sensual. The followers of Marcion regarded themselves as the only true Christians – not unlike some sects today – and practiced a simple, ascetic life and rejected speculation and the mystical. Marcionism drew many because they rejected the idea of a wrathful God and taught only faith in God was needed for salvation. Marcionism died out by the end of the third century AD.
Montanus appeared in Phrygia about 150 AD and claimed to be in the line of the prophets. The mission of Montanus was to return to the simplicity of Christianity, announce the fulfillment of Pentecost, and the dispensation of the Holy Spirit replacing that of Christ. To Montanus the Christian “rule of life” was not given by bishops and the church as an institution but by God speaking through the prophets. Montanism was a reform rather than a heretical movement. Monmtanists reacted against the Church formulating its doctrines and developing its administration. At the bottom of it all was the question whether the church should be a body of separated religious persons or should its members be free to follow worldly occupations – eventually the latter position carried the day and the Montanists were seen to be heretical; essentially because they opposed the “organizes” church and its formulated teachings.
Tradition is that Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, was born c. 215 AD in Persian and believed he could blend Christian teaching with the Persian Magi and he could start the new and perfect religion which he moved to the eastern portion of Empire to teach. Mani’s had a dualistic and Zoroastrian idea of the universe. There were two different cosmic systems, one of light and one of darkness. There are two rulers in the universe which are eternally opposed – the good God and Satan. The Manichees were against the Old Testament, the Old Testament God, and had a Docetic Christ. The Manichees believed in several grades of believers, saw Matter as the prison of light, and were extreme ascetics – eating fleshy, marriage and procreation were condemned. The Manichees wanted to find a connection between all religions and adopted the religious language of the prevailing church wherever they lived and became a sort of secret society within the established church.
Doubtless because of this “cross-teaching”, Manichaesim spread in the intellectual part of the Graeco-Roman world but the invasion of North Africa by the Vandals in the fifth century ended it in Africa. The Byzantine emperors condemned Manichaeism and it went underground by the end of the fifth century AD but its concepts reappeared in the eleventh century in France and Spain as Cathars and Albigensians. The reaction of the Catholic Church was severe and initiated a Crusade against them per the Third Lateran Council. Northern France seized this as an opportunity to subdue and control the South of France. This suppression ended Manichaeism but not its doctrines.
Refer to Post 57 – Council of Arles on the web at www.wme.org
Refer to Post 57 and the Council of Nicaea on the web at www.wme.org
Refer to Post 57 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD on the web at www.wme.org
Refer to Post 57 and the Council of Ephesus on the web at www.wme.org
Monophysitism or the Eutychian Controversy
Refer to Post 57 and the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople (2) on the web at www.wme.org
To start at the end, Pelagianism is a bloodless gospel of self-control garbed in the vocabulary of humanitarian intellectualism. Now to the beginning.
The final early heresy before the doctrines of Christianity took a somewhat stable form was Pelagianism. It was a heresy of the Western Empire and different form the heresies that preceded it. It did not threaten a separate school or sect nor was there the danger of a separated church being formed. Pelagius was concerned with how a Christian should live his life on earth. He was concerned with striving against sin toward perfection. Unfortunately, his ideas called into question some fundamental Christian doctrines. Had Pelagius lived in the East instead of the West he might have struggled for a hearing.
A difference has to be recognized between theologians and bishops in the West and those in the East. West and East concentrated on different aspects of Christianity. Eastern theologians struggled with questions concerning the nature of Christ and the meaning of the Trinity. The Latins were less speculative and more practical in their religion. Latin churchmen disputed over difficulties concerning the nature of man and the Christian life. The East stressed the supernatural character of Christianity and developed doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity. The West developed doctrines of sin and grace; whether there was such a thing as free will in man and how much of his choice was predetermined.
Pelagius came to Rome from Britain. Not much is known about his early life. He lived an ascetic life but never joined a monastery. He rejected the title of monk and held that the office of teacher was open to all. He saw no moral difference between a clerical and a lay vocation. He emphasized this because since Constantine’s recognition of Christianity, many clerics had come to see themselves as a superior and exclusive part of the community. He wanted to encourage laymen to instruct one another in the faith. He argued that moral responsibility belonged to all Christians.
When Pelagius arrived in Rome, he was horrified at the laxity and low morals which was tolerated and justified on the basis that weakness was part of being a human. He wanted to revitalize the struggle against sin and show humans were not powerless. Pelagius motto was - ‘If I ought, then I can’. He believed in freedom of will to choose; grace was there to help but man must make himself worthy by striving. Pelagius insisted we are able to do all God commands. He took the position that where the will is not absolutely free, there is no sin. His conception of man’s will was based on the theory that at the moment of choice the will is in equipoise and able to choose good or evil. Actually, Pelagius was a moralist and not a theologian. He was an exhorter, not an expounder. Pelagius wanted to stress practical Christian ethics.
When Alaric the Goth sacked Rome in 410 AD, Pelagius took refuge in Africa. One of his supporters, a lawyer named Coelestius, preached and elaborated his views. In Coelestius teaching, human nature was not inherently sinful and Adam’s sin had injured himself but not the human race. There was no taint from Adam’s sin to be inherited by all. Every child was born with power to choose the right. Man could live without sin and even so before the advent of Christ. To the orthodox, Coelestius had denied the doctrine of ‘original sin’., the need for infant baptism, and the efficacy of the Incarnation and Death of Christ. He was refused ordination and Pelagius name was associated with his in this heresy.
Pelagius left for Palestine where his teaching was attacked by Jerome amongst others. A synod at Jerusalem referred the matter to the Pope. Another synod at Lydda fully exonerated him. Next year in 416 AD he was condemned by the Council at Carthage. Pope Innocent I confirmed the condemnation but the next Pope, Zosimus, declared him blameless. Orthodox churchmen appealed to the Emperor Honorius on the basis of disorder in Rome and Palestine. The power of the state had been invoked and the emperor declared Pelagius and Coelestius heretics. In 418 AD, a plenary council of all Africa reasserted the verdict of the previous Pope and Pope Zosimus sent a letter of excommunication to Pelagius who throughout all these events desired to remain orthodox. He left Palestine and died ignored and forgotten. However, his followers continued to spread his ideas. In 431 AD at the Council of Ephesus, Pelagianism and Nestorianism were condemned as heresy.
Pelagius would not have developed his views into an intellectual system if he had not been attacked. His greatest antagonist was St. Augustine of Hippo, a man who had the highest personal regard for Pelagius and called him an example to be followed. But Augustine could see better than any other the ultimate implications of Pelagius’ teaching in relation to central doctrine concerned with original sin and the fall of man. The story of the fall of man in Genesis, which explained how sin entered a world created by a good God, was an essential part of Christian teaching on salvation. Other than Paul, Augustine was the first to give precise definition to this doctrine. The importance of the doctrine did not lie in whether the account was factual or allegorical but in the belief of an inherited human corruption and that by nature we tend towards evil rather than good.
Pelagius illustrates the problem of the man who is ethical and moderate. Unlike Augustine, he did not struggle with his passions or experienced the intense realization of his own weakness. His idea that at the moment of choice the will is in equipoise is what I personally refer to as ‘God on the reef’. Credit for this phrase goes to a brother in law who loved to fish and spoke of how at one he was with nature and ‘God’ when floating alone in his boat on the bay in the morning mist. That can indeed be a tranquil moment but as a pastor in Los Angeles said to his congregation - ‘I get on with God just fine: it’s people like you that bring out the devil in me.’ Cain had an artsy-craftsy approach to God and came with his flowers and fruits but when God probed him a little, the sin nature manifested in the murder of Abel. It is not at the moment of peace and munificence that the sin nature is evidenced, it is at the moment of sudden explosiveness. As the professor said in ‘My Fair Lady’ - ‘you made me lose my temper’. If our sin nature hasn’t been exposed in bold and brutal relief, it is because we haven’t been pushed enough.
Augustine’s views were rooted in his spiritual and emotional experiences. They grew from his inner life like Jacob Boehme’s who said he had heaven and hell within him. Pelagius views were rooted in his reasonable humanitarian position. Pelagius strove toward moral perfection: Augustine abandoned himself to God. Therein lies a big difference
Pelagius held that the sin of Adam did not condemn the human race to sinfulness, that un-baptized infants were not automatically damned, and the human race does not die in Adam nor rise because of Christ. Augustine held that those who believe a man can live righteously from his own nature alone, make the cross of Christ of no effect. Augustine maintained that Pelagius had put salvation outside Christ and his church and made Christ an example that men could follow through their own volition and power. Augustine held that a man could do nothing without prior grace which he termed ‘prevenient grace’, the grace that enables men to turn to God. This was developed by his followers after his death into a doctrine of predestination which produced opposition because it seemed to nullify personal striving. This Anti-Augustinian position became known as semi-Pelagianism.
Pelagius’ concept of Original Sin excluded mankind’s common need for redemption and therefore excluded cosmic atonement. He claimed there was no universality of sin and therefore no universality of salvation. Augustine had a God-centered and not a man-centered universe. He emphasized a redeeming Christ rather than a Christ of example.
Battles continued to rage over infant baptism and Semi-Pelagianism until a Synod at Orange in 529 AD condemned both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Thus it came about that the official doctrine of orthodox Christianity stated that man inherits a nature so corrupt he has no power to turn to God unless Divine grace comes to him first.
But the issue is not resolved. It is amazing how many people who are church members will absolutely affirm that men are basically good.
By 430 AD, Rome had fallen to the invading barbarians, the empire was crumbling and the church was stepping into power to preserve the culture of the West and extend church control over the rising nations. As Hippo was under siege by the Vandals Augustine died on August 28, 430 AD. In 432 AD, Hippo was burned and never regained its former prominence. Augustine was the last bishop of Hippo. But more significantly, Augustine was the last great theologian before the start of the Middle Ages about 590 AD. A dark period of about 1000 years followed in which spiritual and intellectual life fought for survival. When it emerged, Augustine’s works would play a role in the resurgence of spiritual life.